Alexander Technique

Congruency: A discerning tool for movement education clients

Choosing ways to help ourselves from the myriad of techniques, treatments and methods out there can be a real challenge. It is definitely a buyer-beware world. Once you think a technique may be useful then you need to determine if the practitioner is the right one for you.

One approach I have given a lot of thought to lately is the idea of congruency.

congruency movement education

Before we get further let’s define congruent. The non-mathematical definition of congruent, according to Cambridge Dictionary of English language is:

…similar to or in agreement with something, so that the two things can both exist or can be combined without problems.

It is the last part, “both exist or can be combined without problems”, which leads me to think the underlying idea of almost all therapeutic interventions is to increase some type of congruency in an individual.  Whether it is of mind and body, nerves and muscles, thoughts and feelings, congruency is at the heart of what is being sought.

If this is the case, it follows that we can assess any intervention by asking what is to be made congruent and why and if the techniques employed actually do that.

 

For example, I have developed a technique called ReTensioning™ that aims to give clients the ability to have minimal muscle activity at a specific joint when they are resting that joint.  (Often people are actively putting unnecessary forces across the joint when they think it is at rest.) 

The technique seeks to make the perception of a joint-at-rest congruent with the mechanical minimum of activity across that joint.

Its methodology involves ascertaining the relationships of the bones at perceived rest and at minimal mechanical activity, and then actively giving the client the experience of resting with the joint at minimal activity in order to retrain the nervous system to use minimal activity when resting the joint.

ReTensioning™ has a clear congruence it seeks between the tension across a joint and the minimizing of this tension at rest, and the techniques have been shown to create this congruence in many clients. So as a consumer, I can consider this technique as a possible means to help me if I want to change the mechanical stress in my body, and I can tell in a session or two if the techniques being used are able to get this congruence for me. 

 

The Alexander Technique is another example of a methodology that we can apply such an analysis to. It aims to help people change how they use themselves in daily activity by using their rational mind to determine how they move instead of relying on instinctive or unconscious habitual responses to stimuli.

A component of that is teaching people the mechanisms we have in our design that allows humans to easily control movements so we can use ourselves with minimal strain without having to think about every little muscle contraction and timing.

In short, it seeks to have our ideas of how we use ourselves congruent with how we actually use ourselves.

In its methodology there is a great deal of variance by practitioners: some will say nothing to a client and only have them do simple movements repeatedly with manual guidance, while others will talk with clients and have them do various experiments in changing their thinking to see the effect it has on their movement. And there are many combinations in between.    It makes sense that there should be variation in teaching people as there is great variation in how people learn, but the criteria of whether the actual methodology is working to address the congruency sought is a valuable means for the consumer to assess if an Alexander Technique practitioner’s approach is right for them. If, after a few sessions the client is unable to see the desired congruency being brought about then it may be time to seek a different practitioner or methodology.

 

Nothing fits for everyone and nothing works for everything - even things that on their surface seem to be the same problem someone else has may respond differently to the same intervention – but using this criterion of congruency may help sort out what you need. The idea of identifying the desired congruence and then assessing if the practitioner is able to guide you towards it is a clear way to understand and assess the value of any technique or method you use to improve yourself and your life. 

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Stability and Mobility in Movement and Life

When I was in training to teach Pilates I was struck by how different the activities were from standard exercises I had been taught in sports or physical therapy.

The difference was that the Pilates activities required me to often change what part of me was moving and what stayed stable with a strong emphasis on being able to truly maintain the stability as the main focus of the activity.

If there was a choice between moving through space with some muscles while losing the stabilizing contraction or staying stable and not moving any further, the latter was always the correct answer.  No real surprise given that Josef Pilates called his work Contrology, learning to control your body and mind. What I realized, however, is that the function of stability and the interplay with mobility is often overlooked in movement training

I have found in my practice with clients that understanding this idea can greatly increase a person’s exercise or movement ability.

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First, let’s define a few terms in the context of human movement. 

Stability is the ability to maintain the relationship of body parts to each other. There is static stability as when you do a plank and hold the whole body still, and there is dynamic stability where you keep some parts in the same relationship while other parts are moving, such as when you keep your torso stable and aimed forward and upright when you walk across a side hill.

 

Mobility is the ability to change the relationships of body parts, such as when you lift your arm above your head when reach up to get a mug off the top shelf.

Notice that you can, and often are, doing some of both when you move; some parts stay stable while others are moving.

All skeletal muscles can hold things together or move things relative to each other (stabilize or mobilize) depending on the position you are in and how you want to move but because of their position and connections most muscles PRIMARILY stabilize or PRIMARILY mobilize. The ones that mainly stabilize are generally closer into the midline or center of the body or deep around the large joints to add control to how the joint contact surfaces mate.  The ones that mainly mobilize are closer to the surface of the body and out in the limbs.

Generally speaking (some would argue too generally but I like to think big), the muscles whose PRIMARY  function is to stabilize in daily movement can be considered the core. There is debate on exactly who every member of the core group is but to my thinking that means all the way from the inside of your big toe (adductor hallicus) up medial leg to the pelvic floor and on up the abdominals and paraspinal muscles to the deep muscles of the neck at the cranial base along with the deep muscle of the hip and shoulders.

 

So how does this interplay of mobility and stability play out in real life?

Think about walking for a minute. You swing the right leg forward and set your foot on the ground. Now the foot needs to stay there and not slide around because you are about to put all your weight on it to swing the other leg past. So once your foot lands you have to keep it in place on the ground (using ankle muscles), the knee stays straight and the hip has to come forward and stack the femur on the knee because the muscles have to make the leg a stable post (no change in bone relationships at the joints) so you can put your weight onto it.  Now you swing the left leg by and place it on the ground in front and it’s time for the right leg to pick up and move. This means you have to pick up the foot, bend the knee and swing the hip, mobilizing (changing the bone relationships at the joints) of the various parts of the leg. But it’s not the same muscles in the leg that stabilized it that will now move the leg.  Within the leg the various muscles have different jobs, some mainly stabilizing, some mainly mobilizing and some do a bit of both.

This variety of muscle functions is true not just in the leg but throughout the entire body. It is the constant shift of stabilizing and mobilizing that enables us to move in a controlled fashion. It follows that if we improve our control of that shifting and our ability to use our muscles for the job they are best suited (stabilizing or mobilizing) for we can improve performance.

Many of the injuries and problems I see in people related to exercise and training stem from problems in assigning the right jobs to their muscles. Going back to the walking example- think of what happens when it is time to get the weight off the back leg and onto the front one. You can use the large gluteals (buttocks) with their connections from the pelvis to the hip to push the weight forward as the lower leg pushes off the ground while you keep the vertebrae and pelvic floor stable. Alternatively, you can thrust the stomach forward, arch the back and compress the discs as you throw the pelvis to fall forward off the rear leg which you just use like a pole vaulter’s pole.  Both will get your weight forward.

However, the first one is using mobilizers as mobilizers and stabilizers as stabilizers while the other has reversed the roles. If your reason for walking is to strengthen your legs for dynamic activity like lifting and squatting then which pattern is going to achieve that goal? Clearly using the gluteals and leg muscles to move your weight forward puts you on track for that goal. But if you want to compress your discs and strain the pelvic floor muscles and overstretch the hip ligaments the latter is a much more effective choice. You get to decide!

The concepts of stability and mobility and the interchange and control of them is what I consider one of the primary concepts in understanding how to learn and enhance movement in ourselves and our clients.

Next time you exercise try experimenting with:

·         what has to move and what doesn’t

·         how stable you can be

·         what are the fewest muscles you can use to do a motion

·         can you remain stable in an area while something else moves

This type of self-discovery and analysis, where you ask what really needs to move and should or could remain stable in any activity, is a means to really tune in on how to adapt and change your movements and exercise patterns and keep things interesting.  It lets you train the body and the brain at the same time. Neural and muscular training, two for the price of one! Who doesn’t like a deal like that?

Movement is life – have some fun.

 

Movement…Served with a Twist

An interview with John Macy from Body Learning, the Alexander Technique podcast.

Movement…Served with a Twist – John Macy talks with Robert Rickover about the implications of the asymmetrical pulls exerted on us by our viscera and how we can prevent them from interfering with efficient movement.