Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A rest to stretch

Something that is significant for the Alexander Technique is that there are virtually no drills. If you want to do somethingfor yourself with an Alexander technique approach I warmly recommend this procedure, laying in semi-supine or the Alexander rest.

The purpose is to give you the opportunity to observe what is happening in your body and give your muscles a chance to ease. An important prerequisite of this work with yourself is that you are observing without evaluating.

This is a short note on semi-supine.

This position is certainly familiar to many already. My dad told me that during the harvest when he was a child, grandfather rolled up his shirt into a hard roll and had a lay down on the meadow (like the picture) with the roll under his head, waiting for Grandma to come with the coffee basket.

This position offers the body a posibility to good rest, it gives the disks in the spine a chance to rehydrate and thus swell up again and it can - if you rest consciously - teach you where you accumulate unnecessary muscular tension and also contribute to an active ease (not to mix with relaxation which is something completely different!).

What you need is a warm rug or mat to lie on and a couple of paperback books to put under your head.

The way you choose to get to the floor may be different but once you are laying on the floor there are some things to pay attention to.

1, allow yourself to settle, take a few breaths - do not adjust anything
2, note how you perceive the weight through the back of the head on the books, how the contact between the floor and scapula, sacrum and feet feel.
3, be aware that your knees have a direction towards the ceiling. (If your legs feel unstable or trembling, it is better that you let your knees fall against one another than to try to hold them in place).
4, the hands can rest of the stomach, chest or iliac crest.
5, keep you eyes open - keep looking.

What happens without you having to "do anything" is that the muscles on the front of the body such as chest muscles, abdominal muscles, hip flexor muscles will become more supple and therefor make it possible for the back to come into a closer contact with the surface.

A strained hip flexor muscle pulls the lower back against the femur and contributes to an increased lordosis and a restricted movement of the hip joint. It affects your ability to smooth sitting trot or gallop. Shortened chest muscles pulls on the shoulders (rounded shoulders), and this in turn limits the movement of the shoulder joint and affect the quality of your hands.

If you give yourself 15-20 minutes of semi-supine five days a week your muscles will have got a regular dose of mild "gravity based" stretching and the bending muscles at the front of the body have let go of the back muscles and you end up being straigther.

Once you have been laing for some days in a row, you will be able to evoke the feeling of how your back rests on the floor while sitting on a chair at the desk. The kinesthetic memory is precious, you'll be able discover how the the shoulders are brought forwards to the keyboard when you're working for example, and you will be able to "release them back" again just by knowing which direction the releas has to go.

What you learn about yourself when you refine your body image will affect your everyday life on many levels. Start your journey today, visit yourself through the Alexander rest.

”Clear thinkers try to find the causes, while the average look for escapes from effects.” ~~~ Barbara Anna Brennan

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Notes from lessons with Craig Stevens

The person who first showed me there was another way of riding which was not based on push and pull was Craig Stevens. I met him for the first time in 1999 when he held a clinic near where I live in Sweden. That my horse liked what he taught me was apparent when my horse, a thoroughbred I've been riding for 13 years, started to offer both piaffe and flying changes. Not bad for a horse that, according to my previous trainers, lacked any trace of talent and positive work ethic.

Here are some notes from my clinics with Craig in 1999-2000.

Riding according to the old French model:
Direct rein - video with Craig explaning direct rein
Indirect rein - video with Craig explaning indirect rein
Half halt

The legs = forward impulsion
The hand = slowing down
Opposing each other, can cause the horse to become docile, therefore hand without legs, legs without hand. This will also make mistakes done by either hand or legs visible.

Hand without legs, legs without hand unless there is a reason to do something else, such as the combined effect.

I create everything that is riding, even in the horse's head.

Two types of resistance in horse and rider:
1) weight – the horse leans on the rider's hand because the horse doesn’t have his four legs underneath him. Is fixed with the half halt (demi arret). The rider doesn't sit aligned on the horse.
2) force – resistance of force, is caused by the way the muscles are used. Is eliminated through vibration from the rider's wrist.

One of the largest muscles for resisting is the underside of the neck. By elevating the horse's head this muscle is stretched, when the horse then lowers its head the muscle will be relaxed.

Horses are faster, stronger and weigh more than humans. Therefore we can't control horses with physical strength, only psychological effects.

The riders seat = relaxed
Hip – knee – ankle : these are the joints, plus the loin, that control the horse, not my muscles! The first job for the seat is to follow the horse. Give aids with the skeleton. “Learn to do nothing on horse back”. Most people have difficulties doing four, five things at the same time. Strength causes imbalance and the control of the horse is gone.

Calm, forward, straight/directed

Touch – non touch. Minute difference. Avoid denting! Don't cause the muscles to change shape, don't grab the skeleton.

Touch – non touch, this applies to both the hand and the legs.

Never pull backwards! The horse is 5-6 times faster, every time I pull/take the hand backwards the horse will perceive it as an attack.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are all my own.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

To stand tall

Take a look at the picture below, notice the directions of the arrows

and then pay attention to yourself, right at this very moment.

What direction does the arrows have in you?

Our spine is made up of 33 vertebrae, at the top of the spine we carry our head, like a ball on a weight-lifters bar, and at the bottom the sacrum and pelvis represents the next ball.

The spine is not straight and stiff as a weight-lifters bar, it curves its way smoothly between the head and pelvis. Some vertebrae have a greater mobility between each other than others. The biggest movement we have in the neck and lower back - that's why it is a common location for slipped discs. Vertebrae in the thoracic part of the spine is more fixed by the ribs and sternum. The sacral vertebrae are completely fused.

The Alexander Technique aims to help you reach your full height, as in the left body. Not by forcing you to stand upright with strained muscles (the military way with the sucked in belly and pulled up, extended chest) but in such a way that the head is allowed to be carried on top of the spine and the pelvis may act as a counterweight at the other end of the spine. Between these "spheres" (the head and pelvis) muscles are stretched. Just as a lead-line works when you hang a weight at the lower end of it, but a lead-line without anchor at the top is collapsing on the floor, just as the right body does in the picture.

Alexander Technique helps you find the way to let the head and the pelvis be each others counterweights. When the lift of the head allows the pelvis to hang freely they provide the muscle that keeps your back upright with proper muscular tonus/tension. You are thereby able to stand tall without having to hold and stretch the muscles to acchieve it.

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” - FM Alexander

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Training to be a good leader: Six keys to harmony

In last week's blog Maria discussed the difference between leader and trainer.

For me it has in a way been a relief to see myself as a trainer of my horse, rather than the leader. When the horse did not respond to my request as I wanted him to, rather than think my leadership had been faulty, I could think “oops, this we need to train some more on”.

The problem for me was that I used to think leadership was an inherent quality that some people have and some don't. The logic would then be that I could not change or influence my faulty leadership, which would cause negative emotions like frustration, sadness, anger etc. But now I believe that leadership, or the ability to present my request to the horse in such a way that he can understand it, is a skill that can be thought, learned and perfected with training just like any other skill.

I do however have one objection to Andrew's reasoning as Maria presents it: “One of the reasons that Andrew would prefer to call us trainers instead of leaders has to do with the horse. Everything the horse does for us it does after it has undergone training. A horse that shies away from a flowerpot does not reveal a bad leadership from the rider's side, only lack of training.

I agree that the horse who shies away from the flowerpot does it because I have not taught the horse that it need not be afraid of the flowerpot. What I react to is"everything the horse does for us it does after it has undergone training". The horse's reaction depends not only on the training, but also on its inherent instincts (for instance the flight instinct). Individual horses also have their personality, for instance different thresholds to trigger that instinct. One horse looks a little at the flowerpot and dose not react any more to it, while another has a major reaction and a near-death experience. These reactions are, as I see it, not the result of training but a result of the horse's instincts and personality.

The individual horse's behaviour on a certain day is the sum of the horse's general nature (its inherent instincts), the individual's personality and mood on the day, as well as the training it has perceived.

As I see it, it is my job as the trainer (or leader) of my horse to be consistent (the same signal always means the same thing), to be clear (just to give one signal at a time), to lead myself so I'm emotionally stable (calm, present, focused), to avoid hidden agendas (not hide the halter behind my back and then surprise the horse with it once I'm close t to him).That way I do everything I can to help my horse understand what I ask of him.

On the subject of the horse being my equal partner or not, my mind is made up: I am the one who leads the dance and the horse follows. I take all initiative regarding speed and direction. If I want to make those decisions and have the horse pay attention to me when it really matters, there are no exceptions. The horse is not my equal partner. If I ask the horse to back up, I make sure the horse backs up and the horse has not responded to my request until his feet have moved back. In my role as trainer of, or leader of, my horse, it is my responsibility to do everything I can in order for the horse to understand what I'm asking for (see the paragraph above), to confirm when he gets it right (stopping the request and giving praise), not asking for something that the horse cannot do and to give the horse all the freedom it needs to carry out what I ask for (when riding, this means that I for example do not pull on the reins nor keep a heavy pressure on the reins and in the horse's mouth).

Both Maria and I study with Ed Dabney, a soft-spoken cowboy from the USA who has put his unique stamp on Natural Horsemanship. The exercises included in Ed's Six Keys To Harmony are the same as in most other NH systems. The difference is the accuracy of how the horse is asked to place his feet, and the focus on the horse's ability to read the intent behind our body language. This system is a very user friendly tool to train the horse, and yourself, to an amazingly subtle and light communication between human and horse.

I've trained myself and my horse using this system, which has made the day to day handling of my horse easy and safe for both of us. The exercises in themselves are also a good basic gymnastic for the horse. The video shows me as I handle my horse in some day to day situations, and also some of the exercises in the Six Keys To Harmony. The video is produced for my Swedish students so it will be an opportunity for you English viewers to brush up on your Swedish. However, the pictures speak for themselves in showing what it is possible to ask for from any and all horses.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! All remaining errors are all my own.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Leader - Trainer, Teacher - Therapist

The readings of this summer has brought me to think about the words leader, trainer, teacher and therapist.

Teacher - Therapist in relation to people
My job title is Teacher of the Alexander Technique. When I work I teach people a different, and sometimes new, approach towards themselves. Therapists provide treatments, sometimes these are targeted on a specific problem.

A session with me is a lesson in which I strive to impart knowledge that can be used by the students on their own. Nevertheless, it happens both during lessons and afterwards that physical concerns experienced by the student has been alleviated.

A doctor, and also an AT teacher, describes AT as a "learning process with therapeutic effects." Alexander Technique can provide an opportunity for relief but it's a bonus that comes from the knowledge that the student accuires about himself.

Leader - Trainer in relation to horses
Andrew McLean, President of ISES, spoke at last year's conference of the importance that we as horse owners/riders should make an effort to learn more about learning theory. We would, according to him, leave the concept of leader/leadership behind us and instead call ourselves trainers.

He feels that we have every opportunity to abandon the myths, the old truths, the wrong training methods and start working horses on a more scientific basis.

According to Andrew McLean, there is a believe in many riders that domestic horses have "innate buttons" corresponding to the rein and leg aids we give. This in turn means that a horse who does not obey the aids is considered to be disobedient or defiant instead of seeing the reactionss as sign of a training system that has failed.

Horses learn through trial and error and a system in which each signal is easy for the horse to distinguish, the animal will easier decipher, and this in turn makes it possible for the horse to give the right response.

One of the reasons that Andrew would prefer to call us trainers instead of leaders has to do with the horse. Everything the horse does for us it does after it has undergone training. A horse that shyes away from a flower pot does not reveal a bad leadership from the rider's side, only lack of training.

The concepts of 'partnership' and 'cooperation' that is often used today suggests, according to Andrew, that the horse in any way is responsible for its behavior during training and that it willingly participate in the process, when in fact the horse is the one who is completely blameless in the relationship between horse and human.

The horse will become what we make of it. The horse is a herd animal that can coexist with us and it can learn a lot when given clear and unambiguous signals.

According to Andrew horse needs no other leader than another horse. What it do need in order to succeed in its relationship with human is a trainer that follows a trainings system in which the horse is given the chance to do "the right thing" many times - by those means learning right is light.

"Behaviour practised is behaviour repeted."
Andrew McLean