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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher in Melbourne, Australia

Specialist in working with musicians, RSI, posture re-education, neck, back and chronic pain management. 

Articles on Alexander Technique in life - by Jeremy Woolhouse

Monthly blog articles by Jeremy Woolhouse.  Alexander Technique for daily life, music performance, specialised activities, pain relief and management.

In Search of the Perfect Office Chair

Jeremy Woolhouse

FM Alexander, the founder of The Technique, was once asked for recommendations on furniture for a school.  His famed response was:

“We need to educate our children, not our furniture.”

From an Alexander Technique perspective, our principle interest is stimulating in the student, the ability to sit in any chair and maintain positive poise.  The Technique is based on the premise that there remains within us all, the capacity for the best use of whatever physicality we have.  The role of the teacher is to help the student to transcend habits of movement and thinking which interfere with the body’s ability to access this coordination.  In a lesson, various procedures may be used to train the student to do this independently.

Sitting Without a Backrest

In the case of sitting without a backrest, the most balanced and sustainable orientation is when the head is poised on the spine - replete with its curves, over the base of the pelvis where it meets with the chair.  The legs function as independent buttresses taking some weight through to the floor.  The arms are integrated with the back so as to increase the integrity of the torso and not be a liability to upright poise.

I avoid the word “posture”.  The word “posture” is too often equated to “position” for me to safely use it.  The problem with “position” is that it is generally understood to be something static.  Our optimum balance in sitting is not something immobile.  There will be accommodations through the whole body for the movements of the arms and head.  Each breath moves the torso and requires some adjustment in muscle tone throughout the body.  Disallowing this movement in order to “sit up straight” results in a rigidity which is not sustainable.

The slump and the rigid upright

Many students present to me believing it is not possible to sit without a backrest.  The common experience is that sitting rigidly upright becomes quickly tiring and stiff.  The slump that follows brings limited relief as it soon starts to restrict breathing and strain the back musculature.  Which leads the poor student back into rigid upright sitting.  We could reframe that experience as being over-engaged in upright sitting, then under-engaged in slumping.

Recruiting appropriate muscle

Neither slump or rigid upright is sustainable, and each eludes the point of balanced tone which makes for easeful sitting.  In lessons I often start with students in a slump and gradually work to stimulate the postural musculature into supporting the body effortlessly.  The postural muscles are located next to the spine in the deepest layers of back muscle.  They are made of different muscle fibre type to the surface musculature.  

The deep layer is suited to sustained low grade contraction, whereas the surface layer functions best in short bursts of intense activity.  If the arm moving musculature is engaged to hold the torso upright, it will tire quickly.  In many students, the habitual over recruitment of the surface musculature has resulted in an atrophy of the postural muscles, which may then take some time to gain fitness required for sustained balanced sitting.  In Alexander Technique, one is not given “exercises” to strengthen weak muscle.  Rather, one is taught how to move in a way that naturally recruits the appropriate musculature, and exercises it by default. 

Some chairs are easier to use well without a backrest.

For sitting without a backrest, a flat surface or one which is slightly raked forward helps the hip joints be free and the legs find their independence from the torso.  A chair height which allows the knees to be below the hip joints also encourages this.  If the knees are above the hip joint, or the seat raked backwards, the limit of hamstring flexibility will draw the pelvis into a backwards roll (posterior tilt) which will make it difficult to maintain the concave curve of the lower back (lumbar lordosis).

A firm surface gives the body the message it has something to release into, and can safely be supported from below.

Using a backrest well

The graceful curves of the spine support the skull in upright carriage.  When we lean back, even just a small degree, the curvature of the spine must accommodate the change in weight bearing.  The amount of lumbar lordosis changes proportionately to the angle at which the torso is reclined to maintain maximum support for the skull.

Thus it is appropriate to allow the spine a gentle “C” curve.  The common slump creates a collapsed and/or compressive C curve.  Using the backrest provides another surface to release into however, and it is possible to use this to sustain a C curve expansively.

Our intention to stay upright needs to honour the various planes which the supporting surfaces present.  One can release into and away from the backrest much in the same way as one does from the chair’s surface under the pelvis, or the floor under the feet.  The C curve can be an expansion of the back rather than a compression of the front.

The C curve also presents no contradiction to width through the front and the integration of the arms into the torso.  The constructive thinking processes of Alexander Technique is most functional when we have clear concepts.  Accurate concepts of the location of the external surfaces mean we can interact with them most effectively.

Better Backrests

A backrest which gives firm contact in the lumbar (lower back) area often helps the spine find an appropriate curve.  Sitting against a backrest in a way which creates a “hole” around the lumbar area will make it prone to fatigue, so a relationship of seat depth to backrest base which allows most contact will be beneficial.  A seamless curve from seat to backrest (as in “slung” chairs) can make it difficult for the body to have clarity about the horizontal plane the legs fall in, and the vertical plane the torso is aspiring to.  

Firm cushioning provides feedback to the body.  The more sensitivity we have about our relationship with our environment, the better the body’s capacity to respond.  Also, the more precise our directions to ourselves can be.

Directions in Sitting

Generally, the most effective directions to begin with address the Primary Control.  Beyond that, they will be more specific to the environment and individual.  This is what we work on in lessons.

Musical Chairs

Novelty will always give rise to increased attention, so changing the chair or workspace during the day may also be beneficial.  For instance, some students have used a fit ball to sit on for part of the day, others have alternated between back rest and no back rest.

The standing workstation seems to effectively remove the challenge of sitting altogether.  I always wonder though, if those who change permanently from a sitting to standing desk are simply avoiding the problem.  Potentially, the misuse which made sitting untenable may present in standing too.

The most customised and perfected ergonomic workstation can still be sat in badly.  The least ergonomic chair can still be met with grace.

Chair Choice

The ultimate solution is to have the skill to find the best possible way to use yourself in any given chair.  One who has such skill would have a yardstick for selecting furniture.  The question would be: “does this chair make it easier for me to use myself well, or more difficult?”  

The skill of coordinating yourself is universal to all chairs and the decision to engage in it is the most profound choice to make.  If one is not engaged in the most positive use of the self in relation to the furniture, a search for the perfect chair will be futile.  To look for an external solution without first considering the way you use yourself is to put the cart before the horse.  

One who is always looking to change the environment in preference to changing the self, will be perpetually disappointed.  Improving the use of oneself not only makes meeting any chair easier, but is positively empowering.  It means there will always be a way to meet any ergonomic challenge, and one is not dependant on furniture for comfort.  Such an attitude lays the foundation for satisfaction in all aspects of health.


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