Basic chair work in the A.T. is about seeing what happens in a dynamic postural system when body weight is moved.
Anyone remotely familiar with the Alexander Technique knows about chair work. It was at the heart of Alexander’s work, both in his own personal exploration, and in his development of his eponymous method. True Alexander teachers spend years in training, a large proportion of which is being worked on by others, both teachers and trainees, and working on others in the act of moving from sitting to standing and back again to sitting. This will seem a bit strange and limited to the uninitiated; indeed, videos of Alexander lessons look downright absurd if one does not understand the essentials of the work.
After nearly 35 years in the Alexander Technique, during which I was able to explore several sports — in particular, running — I have come to the conclusion that chair work is the best way to begin the teaching of running, and is, as well, an extremely effective means of eliminating postural problems that are evident in many (if not in most) runners. Runners, in fact, run the way they sit. Sitting badly involves misplaced effort. Taking the bad posture evident in poor sitting into movement requires compensatory effort, which will lead to mixed results and increase the chance of injury.
As I have written elsewhere, the job of posture is to adapt the body to support our responses and our intentions. Good posture distributes the work involved in any action reflexively. Thus, if you pick something up, there is nothing you can do before beginning to lift that object that will prepare your muscles for the work of lifting. Once you actually engage the body in the act of lifting, the work will be appropriately distributed throughout the body, that is, if your body is free to adapt. An adaptable body responds to the weight of the lifted object, and to the intention of the direction of movement involved in lifting.
In Alexander Technique chair work, one usually begins with the student seated. This is because the first job of posture is balance, and one can more easily give up habits associated with balance in a condition in which balance is not so important – seated. But, even when seated, the primary reflexes involved in standing posture are active. The force of gravity stimulates length in the trunk by acting on muscles responsible for preventing the masses of the body from toppling. Yet most people have created interference with basic reflexes to the extent that they seek out the support of chair backs and find it difficult to remain dynamically erect even while seated, although all of us could do so easily as children. In response to stressors in our environment, we have all learned to retract and block the constant postural adaptation that enables humans to move easily and to sense the world around them. We see this retraction in the way we grasp objects, hunching over desks holding our pencils as if they were life rafts. Eventually, the retraction we create becomes constant – our brains learn to identify the hardening of retracted muscles as control; the child who began by gripping his pencil too tightly now grips his pencil even when sleeping — muscles from the fingers to the head are constantly over-toned. He brings the posture of fear into all his actions, including how he walks and runs.
The retracted runner balls his hands into fists, lifts his feet by lifting his toes, lands on his heels and has his shoulders lifted, causing his head to pull backwards and down upon his neck and spine. In this retracted state, balance is hard work – the subtle work of the neck reflexes is impeded by the shortening of the large muscles between the shoulders and head (trapezius). His arms no longer swing easily from the shoulders, and his elbows and wrists remain fixed as he runs. The large muscles that cross his hips work over-time to compensate for the restricted movement of the head’s weight, which is essential for optimal functioning of the vestibular (balance) system.
The average coach can see the faults in the runner’s form, and tells him to move and position himself differently – “get your head over your shoulders, pull your shoulders back, drive your knees forward” – all actions that require increased effort as a means to resist the unconscious effort that his causing the poor posture to begin with. These instructions or exercises to strengthen muscles to do the work required to struggle against poor posture may briefly appear to bear fruit. But, as Alexander repeatedly noted, “sometimes, when you are getting better, you are actually getting worse,” meaning that these short-term solutions lead to more serious problems later on: pulling back the shoulders that you are contracting forward or pulling back a head that is thrust forward winds up adding compression to the joints, and makes all movement more effortful.
Back to the chair. The A.T. teacher takes a student sitting, and guides him into mobility, out of retraction, into an uprightness that does itself, in which the body is upright because extensor muscles are stimulated by the force of gravity. From this alert and alive condition, all movements may flow. There is no need to work to overcome constant imbalance in posture.
The A.T. teacher can then easily move the student so that his weight, which is on the sit bones in upright seating, is transferred to the feet. If this is done without preparation in the form of pre-contraction of leg and arm muscles, the muscles that will support the body’s weight while standing will be loaded reflexively. Muscle chains from the head to the toes will engage to support the action of extending the body to stand (see The Bi-articular muscles in running) .
Running or walking is merely the next step. In much the same manner that extending and inclining the trunk forwards from sitting stimulates standing, transferring the body’s weight from the mid-foot (or just behind the balls of the feet) to a point forward of the metatarsals stimulates locomotion. Muscles that work lightly to keep the body upright in standing are stimulated to do more work: specifically, the bi-articular muscles take tone to cause uni-articular muscles (especially the gluteus muscles) to contract strongly, extending the inclined trunk on the legs into forward movement.
Thus, being able to shift the body’s weight from the sit bones to the feet without artificially preparing the muscles of the legs is very much like what one must to when one extends the body forwards and weight moves forward on the feet, activating the muscle chains that create walking and running.