Tension has been given a bad wrap. It is a common misconception that tension itself is the cause of pain and loss of function. It is more accurate to say that problems arise from an imbalanced use of tension, or an inappropriate engagement of muscle. Too much tension, in the wrong place, for the wrong duration of time is a problem. Balanced tension, however, allows us to perform acts of great poise and function. On the other hand, too little tension may in collapse of postural support and compression of organs.
Think of the tension on a guitar string. The appropriate balance of tension gives the string a vibrant rebound and resilient resistance to the musician’s stroke, causing a pleasing resonance throughout the whole instrument. To remove all tension from the string, it looses it’s ability to resonate and function. On instruments such as the double bass, the tension on the string itself gives the instrument it’s shape. Too much tension, though, will put strain on the whole instrument, a limit the string’s available motion, make it more susceptible to breaking, and create a harsh tone. We need to tune ourselves to perfect tension.
In Alexander Technique, it often appears what we do is remove tension. Many people will have attempted “relaxation” as a remedy for postal fatigue, RSI and such. The effort is understandable, but somewhat misguided. We need a balance of muscle tone to maintain effective poise. There is even a resting state of muscle tone when we are asleep which stabilises joints and prevents dislocation. Complete loss of tension is a complete loss of function.
An example to the apparent paradox of tension occurs in most student’s early Alexander Technique lessons. When asked to site unsupported, a pupil typically holds himself rigidly upright. He displays an excess of tension. If left for a while, he will tire of this, and “relax”. The resulting slump is also unsustainable as it doesn’t offer any support to motion, puts pressure on ligaments and other structures and may also be compressing organs. Either of the above may be associated with neck or back pain or a host of other ailments.
In the first instance, the visible tension is in the musculature close to the surface. This musculature is suited to large limb movements, and is of the muscle fibre type specialised for short bursts of intense work. The postural muscles in our example are under-engaged. They are suited to sustained, low level contraction and work upon the vertebrae responsible for stable posture. So to switch everything off is “throwing the baby out with the bath water” - the superficial musculature is relieved, but the postural musculature is also turned off circumventing the attainment of balanced posture.
The lack of appropriate tone in the musculature engaged for posture is a key factor in the functioning of the limbs. Too little tone doesn’t bring the arm into balance in relation to the spine, and robs it of support from the skull. Too much tone creates rigidity that prevents the body from moving to support the arms movement, and tends to pull the shoulders into an mechanically disadvantageous position.
If, for example, the arm is deprived appropriate support from the toro, it is forced to support itself. It does this by recruiting localised musculature (which is ill suited to the task) and by doing so works in conflict with the musculature responsible for fine finger movement. This is a situation where symptoms of RSI are bound to present, and one which most conventional treatments neglect.
In order to solve this conundrum, FM Alexander came up with some very effective tools and principles. Using inhibition (messages to the musculature to “not do”) prevents us from doing to much. Sending directions (forming an intention, attitude or orientation, but without consciously vitiating action) prevents us from doing too little.
The movements an Alexander Technique teacher takes a student through in a lesson enable the pupil to experience the elusive middle ground of balanced tone. It is characterised by lightness, ease and improved function.
The beliefs one has of tension as “bad”, relaxation as “good”, and the complex ideas about the kind of effort we should feel, form a framework for how the body coordinates itself. The body will always try to conform to a person’s perceived ideal - regardless of how inaccurate or destructive this image may be. An Alexander Technique education is about updating these beliefs with more accurate, refined and useful images. Thus students become empowered with tools to pursue excellence in the use of themselves.
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