Education, Posture And The Alexander Technique
Listening to an educational show on the radio recently, I heard a headmaster of a school commenting that he was very concerned with the changes that he saw in children during their school years. He noticed that when children of five started school they had bright eyes, smiling faces, beautiful posture and graceful movement; they were nearly always talkative, eager to please, willing to learn and enthusiastic about life. Yet by the time many of these children left school in their late teens, their posture was very slumped and all of them had rounded backs and shoulders, they were often disinterested in things around them and many of them generally looked unhappy or angry.
‘What,’ he asked, ‘in the name of education are we doing to our children to make them change so dramatically?’ I think that the answer to his question is simple: we remove children’s freedom. We do this physically by making them sit for long hours, mentally by putting them under huge stress at examination time, and emotionally by making them feel inferior or stupid when they do not reach to a certain standard.
It is easy for anyone to see that all young children have beautiful posture and move with great ease and agility. They are constantly varying their movements to suit their moods – sometimes hopping, then skipping, sometimes walking slowly and deliberately, and the next minute running wildly. They do not have to stress their bodies by being in certain places at definite times. Children at this age have a free expression of themselves, which it is a pleasure to be around, and they are often thought of as having a ‘free spirit’.
In contrast, by the time they leave school most of this spontaneity has disappeared, as they begin to stereotype certain movements which reflect the way they feel emotionally. These movements become ingrained and turn into unconscious habits, which frequently put disproportionate strains on certain muscles, joints and internal organs to the point where their bodies are no longer able to work efficiently. Often people think this is a normal part of getting old, but in other, ‘under-developed’ societies the adults’ posture and flexibility of movement remain unimpaired for most of their lives. In India or Africa, for example, the average man or woman in their seventies would still find squatting easy and natural, which is not the case with most people in western cultures even in their thirties.
School Chairs – Weapons of Mass Destruction
One of the most damaging influences to children’s posture is the school chairs that the children have to sit on for over 15,000 hours. The human being was designed for movement and most children do not like sitting down for more than a few moments as they find the school chairs very uncomfortable. The main reason for this is that the horizontal part of the chair that takes most of the weight of the body, is sloping backwards. The only reason for this is that it makes them ‘stackable’. If you think about it for a few minutes you will realize that this design is absurd when you consider that the child is trying to move forward to their desk while on a backward slopping structure.
The child is then forced to tense many of her muscles to maintain the upright posture that is so natural to young children. Within a few minutes nearly all children feel very uncomfortable and to alleviate the discomfort will try to stand up or wander off around the classroom. The teacher, often having thirty and sometimes even forty children to cope with, cannot keep his eye on this many children unless they are at their desks and, since the teacher’s main responsibility is for the safety of all these children, he will insist that they remain on their chairs.
Children have a natural ingenuity and intelligence that surpasses all the superimposed learning that is placed on them, so still not liking the sense of ‘falling backwards’ that the chair produces, nearly all the children tilt the chair forwards by raising the back legs off the floor thus producing the effect of sitting on a forward sloping chair – this allows the child to maintain his natural posture effortlessly.
Instead of the adult asking why most children tilt their chairs forward, they will tell the child exactly what they themselves were taught, ‘Don’t swing on the chairs – you will break them!’ There is of course the danger element that someone could trip over the back legs or that the children might tilt too far, fall forward and hurt themselves, but it is interesting that it is usually the damage to the chair that people give as a reason. The damage to the child’s posture that the chair is imposing is not even considered.
The child still does not give up; she then develops the technique of tucking one leg underneath her and sitting on it, which also has the effect of raising up the pelvis, once again enabling her to keep her upright posture enabling the child to use the pelvic joint. This, in many cases, is actively discouraged as it can interfere with the flow of blood down the leg. The child then has to endure sitting in backward sloping chairs for literally thousands and thousands of hours.
Sooner or later he or she begins to slump as her back muscles become more and more fatigued. To make the problem worse, the child then has to bend over her school work and since it is impossible for her to use her hip joint (as the pelvis is already tilting backwards because the shape of the seat), she will then bend her spine, causing unnecessary wear and tear on the vertebrae and discs.
Another significant problem that also occurs is that as the child hunches over the school books is that they are physically compressing the lungs making breathing more difficult and could be one of the contributory factors to the increase of children getting asthma that we are seeing today. Even if no breathing problems occur the compression of the lungs means that the child will take in less oxygen and lose concentration or get tired more quickly – not good when the children are trying to concentrate.
So, in effect by forcing children to sit for long hours on backward sloping chairs, we ruin our children’s posture and then, in our ignorance, we blame the children themselves for having poor posture. They are told to ‘sit up straight and put your shoulders back’, and the only way to do this is to arch the lumber spine with more tension than ever. The child then begins to think that this is the way she ought to sit and this posture becomes fixed within the body and can often remain with the person for the rest of her days, leading to a multitude of muscular-skeletal problems.
Since many of us have been through this same process, it is hardly surprising that there are millions of people at this very moment with back or neck pain.
Improving Poor Posture
Fortunately for all of us a very effective technique to improve posture, that starts to reverse the damage that was done in childhood, was devised over a hundred years ago by Frederick Matthias Alexander – an Australian actor who kept on losing his voice while performing due entirely to excessive muscle tension in the neck.
Alexander was determined to find a solution to his curious problem and this took him on a journey of self-discovery that, not only gave him the solution to his voice problem, but he was also able to cure himself of breathing problems of which he had suffered from birth. He discovered the how the body was designed to be used and it has been claimed that Alexander’s research was one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century.
His technique is based on the awareness and release of excessive muscular tension throughout the body that we have accumulated during childhood. It helps us to unlearn the detrimental postural habits that all of us learnt during our school years and helps us to regain our human dignity and integrity once again.