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On Fitness

Extracts from a Conversation with David Gorman

Interviewed by Sean Carey, PhD


Sean Carey:
A lot of people nowadays are into fitness regimes of one sort or another. Clearly, people's motivations in taking up an activity vary, but a fairly common one is the attempt to achieve a high level of cardio-vascular fitness. Very often sport is seen as the perfect antidote to the sedentary job. How do you see this fitting in with our work?

David Gorman:
Well, people are in jobs that they feel aren't very physical and which don't demand very much of them other than their mind. And very often there's a fear factor in there somewhere: "I'm going to have a heart attack or get a bad back unless I do something very active and get my heart rate up and strengthen myself". Another element is that because of all this 'unfitness' they want to make up for lost time quickly in their working out which leads them easily to the 'no pain, no gain' syndrome: that if the activity isn't strenuous it's not building up any worthwhile strength and if it isn't hurting it's not doing any good at all.

But the big question is: what are we trying to achieve by this so-called 'strengthening'? Obviously if someone is not working on changing their habits, all they end up achieving by exercising their habit is to reinforce the vicious circle whereby they get stronger at their habit. In other words, if they're pulling down and tightening in ordinary activities, they'll just pull down and tighten that much more when they exercise. And even if they do achieve a higher level of cardio-vascular fitness and they've gotten stronger at contracting, bracing and tightening with weights or fitness machines—the type of activity that makes somebody hard and firm - then they will actually need that cardio-vascular stamina in order for the heart to be able to push the blood through those tightened and braced muscles. In fact, it's very revealing that often when someone like that manages to achieve the sort of global release in a lesson that takes a lot of pressure off both the contents of the torso and the musculature, their blood pressure can drop so radically that they'll see black spots in front of their eyes, feel light-headed and maybe even pass out. They're no longer so hard and tight and hence the blood can flow through rather than being forced through the veins and arteries that had previously been squeezed in the muscles. It shows very directly how much the heart had to work when someone is maintaining a strongly held musculature. Previous to this experience all they may have felt was that exuberant and seductive exercise after-glow.

Sean Carey:
There are now signs that the more thoughtful writers of sporting literature are moving away from the simple idea that cardio-vascular fitness equals health. The argument is clearly put in, say, Dr. Kenneth Cooper's book Running Without Fear, (Bantam Books, 1986) which is an attempt to counter the criticisms and the fears that accompanied the death of the USA's running guru Jim Fixx (author of The Complete Book of Running, Random House, 1977) after a training run in 1984. He states very clearly that people should not over-exert themselves, have regular medical check-ups and that is a myth that the more we exercise, the healthier we are. And yet sensible though all the advice is, Cooper doesn't really consider the fundamental thing—our use, except indirectly insofar as certain conditions like heart-attacks often express gross mis-use of ourselves.

David Gorman:
Yes, it may be better that people don't strain themselves so much in whatever exercises they may do, but with or without strain the brute fact is that without changing their use they haven't changed the foundation, they're just practicing their habits with a little more strength and vigour. If they haven't changed their use, they haven't changed any of the neuromuscular patterning built up over the years from all their previous use. They're still deepening those neuromuscular connections, deepening the established arrangement and organization of the muscles, the connective tissue and the joints and, of course, deepening their familiarity and adaptation to the sensory side of their experience. The territory we should be exploring is not so much: "How do I change this movement so I can do it better?" but "How do I change the 'I' that is generating the movement?" The movement will then, of necessity, change in accordance with how I change. In other words, a certain moderation is probably a good thing, but you're quite right that without changing the foundations there's always a flaw built into any system no matter how benevolent the consequences.

Sean Carey:
Still a lot of Alexander teachers go to the opposite extreme and actively discourage their students from performing almost any activity whether it's running, rowing or weight-training. Obviously that's problematic to people who say: "Well, what do I do instead? I want to be involved in something". That seems to me to be a perfectly valid question.

David Gorman:
Clearly if someone loves doing something it's obviously to their advantage if they can do it with good use. On the other hand, if they can't bring in good use and they still do it in spite of all that, it's their choice and they must live with the consequences. But it's rarely as clear-cut as this. Let me give you an example: I was giving lessons to a very keen oarsman. It soon became clear that he wasn't making much progress with the Technique because of the sheer amount of time and effort he was putting into rowing which had resulted in a massive pull-down the front and a bend in his back. So I mentioned to him that he had two options. First, he gives up rowing for a while, learns the Technique and later on sees if he can take it back to the rowing; second, he carries on rowing but for the moment foregoes all the speed and effort and spends more time exploring how he is rowing. He wisely chose the second course. I went to work with him at his rowing club on a rowing machine and could observe him at first hand on the river. It was very productive and (not coincidently) his rowing improved in speed and ease when he did take himself back to competition. But, ultimately, how we worked was his choice. It's certainly not up to the teacher to make the choice. We can only say what we ourselves might do which may or may not have any relevance for the student.

I think that often it's not a question of saying to people that this is the wrong sort of activity and you shouldn't do it, but rather making a different emphasis and working with people in such a way that helps them to develop a sensitivity to their use so that they are able to notice when they're not using themselves well in whatever activity they happen to be doing at the time. If we as teachers actually want people to develop an internal register and value-system for their use, then we have to allow them to make experiments and discover what does and doesn't work for them. The more they develop that register the more they'll be able to assess the value for themselves of any particular activity at any particular place and time.

Sean Carey:
Yes, I take your point but it's precisely that internal register of use and mis-use that is often omitted from even fairly sophisticated attempts to link particular disciplines with improvements in co-ordination. For example, the anatomist Philip Tobias became interested in certain similarities between ballet and karate. He writes:

"I managed to obtain the services, and indeed the enthusiastic co-operation of the leading karate-ka in Johannesburg and of a group of ballet dancers. The groups I have worked with enabled me to obtain a greater understanding of the movements of ballet and karate. They helped me to comprehend that to achieve physical skill one must acquire poise. To acquire poise, one must convert malposture to posture—by undoing the torque. One must de-rotate the body." (The Tottering Biped, Committee in Postgraduate Medical Education, University of New South Wales, 1982:56)

Tobias seems to be suggesting that performing ballet or karate will of themselves—and in a simple, mechanical way—allow an individual to achieve balance and poise. Now my experience of several forms of karate is that it isn't that simple. Moreover, most karate is taught in a very stiff and held sort of way. The idea of releasing and opening into movement is not widely practiced. In fact, a few weeks ago I was talking to a chap who practices the Shotokan style of karate. He adopted the very low stance that they employ and proceeded to demonstrate several different types of kicks and punches. There was a tremendous amount of tension and effort in all of this, not least because he'd been taught to pull his shoulders right back thus narrowing and shortening his torso and gripping his legs.

David Gorman:
Well, I think it's possible to perform karate with good use but it's certainly not going to be done by the person who assumes a position or shape by pulling his shoulders back. As you suggest, there is nothing intrinsic to karate, ballet or t'ai chi that will by itself achieve poise or balance. For that matter, there's nothing intrinsic to the Alexander Technique that will automatically do that either. It's how we go about it that counts. However, I would agree with Tobias that to achieve skill one does need 'poise' and a good functioning 'posture' otherwise there is always a flaw in the foundation no matter what the activity. What we need to work at, whatever the method we use, is finding how we interfere with our innate poise and then get out of the way. I have no doubt that through almost any method or form one could potentially achieve a deep integration and harmony—look at Zen and the Art of Archery—but of course one has only to look around to see how often it actually does occur. While it is certainly possible in more form-oriented pursuits it seems to me that it is precisely this territory of how to get at the malposture/posture, disturbance/poise, action/reaction etc. which the Technique attempts to directly address, even though we do not always succeed either. From this point of view, the Alexander Technique is a 'pre-technique' through which we gain the foundation skill of coming out of poor use and sustaining better use so that we can take advantage of the technique of our favourite activity whether it be ballet, karate, sport or just plain living.

There is another aspect to your question, though, concerning ballet which is a little more problematic. Ballet emerged, after all, out of a very artificial, stylised court culture in France. The first forms were cultivated to distance the courtiers from the natural, 'animal' side of themselves and to make an art form of life! With such a historical background, it's difficult to escape balletic values and assumptions. It's very different, therefore, from the more free-flowing modern forms of western dance or for that matter, traditional Balinese or various African dance types. In fact, the way in which people try to attain the ballet style takes us to the heart of the matter. For the most part, the dancers are taught to operate from a fixed 'pull up' like an imaginary line hauled right up through their middle until they identify with it as their badge of 'dancerness'. With the hours and hours of practice they get very skilled at a controlled holding wherein the most important thing is what it looks like. They are actively engaged, therefore, in ignoring their inner sense of use and concentrate instead on manipulating their sense of shape from the point of view of the visual impact.

Sean Carey:
So are you saying that ballet is so artificial and necessarily involves so much holding that it's impossible for someone to do it with good use?

David Gorman:
I certainly wouldn't go that far because it's possible to work with ballet dancers in such a way that they dispense with some of their tight holdings and forced controllings and open up and release into movement. It just can be very difficult, that's all—often more difficult than, say, working with someone involved in a modern form of dance that is more free form and explorative of flow and integration. But, then again it depends upon the particular person. Some ballet dancers are a joy and delight to work with. One can't escape that we are working with individuals no matter what they've gotten themselves into.

Sean Carey:
One way out of this dilemma, of course, would be to advise the student that when they're doing ballet they should just get on with it but that the rest of the time, in their ordinary life, they can bring in the Technique.

David Gorman:
Well, all of us inevitably do that to some extent anyway. It's impossible to think about the Technique all the time and, furthermore, the more complex the activity, the more difficult it is to employ the Technique. This is why in a lesson you'd normally start with something relatively simple like getting in and out of a chair, walking or picking something up, until people get an idea of the tools they are using so that they can take their new skill into more complex activities. It's going to be much easier for someone to be aware of their use and be able to change it when they're walking down the street than, say, if they're up on a stage performing a violin solo where their living depends upon it. They can't really stop and say: "Hang on a moment, I've just noticed my misuse. Give me a second to work it all out... Okay, now I'm fine. Let's get back into the music".

But any artist has practice time and that's one place they can begin to bring the Technique into their work. And if we as teachers can help them with that then so much the better. If a student can spend at least part of their practice time—whether the activity be dance, music or the martial arts—exploring their use rather than practicing their existing skills they'll be able to bring the Technique into more and more of their lives including the more stressed real performance. On the other hand, if they find that they can't bring their improved use successfully into the old activity then, perhaps, they have to assess whether they want to express their new self in the old medium. A dancer, for example, experiencing a greater level of integration and flowingness through the Technique might well find themselves drifting towards a different form of dance. But that's something they must decide for themselves in the light of their own experience.

Sean Carey:
Let me now turn to isometric exercise where, for example, someone puts their hands on either side of a door frame and pushes really hard and yet nothing is moving? How do you assess this?

David Gorman:
I must say I'm not really a great fan of isometrics because to put the effort in pushing or pulling against an unyielding resistance is almost always to engage in rampant shortening. It's interesting when you think about it that most of our misuses are isometric contractions. We hold ourselves in fixed positions contracting against our own resistance. Instead of you pushing or pulling against the machine or doorframe, you're pushing or pulling against yourself. In fact, you are pulling with one part of you against another pull from another part of you. This doesn't seem to do us much good in our own use, I can't see that it's going to do us much more good doing it against a door. If we can already use ourselves openly without shortening, then there are much better activities in which to practice such a use than against immovable objects. However, having said that, let me re-iterate that I think it really is someone's own choice what they do. My job is to help them discover the full implication of what they're doing and how they're doing it so that they can make an informed choice.

Sean Carey:
Last time we spoke you told me you had some interesting thoughts on Nautilus machines.

David Gorman:
Ah, yes, it's easy for Alexander people to get elitist about aerobics, exercise and the like but it's useful to realize that the equipment in gyms—Nautilus machines being one of the most common—present wonderful opportunities for the exploration of our skill in the use of ourselves. In fact, there is an opportunity in almost any activity or situation for bringing to bear these 'Alexander tools' if we are willing to drop our prejudices and get down to it.

But to get back to working out on exercise machines... The nautilus machines consist of a range of different apparatus, each designed to work on a specific area— one for the quadriceps, one for the upper chest, one for the hamstrings, etc. The Nautilus name actually comes from a little gearing mechanism shaped like a nautilus shell in the machine which ensures that though the weight you are moving remains constant, the force needed to move it is larger in the middle range of movement when the muscle is capable of more force and diminishes toward the end of the ranges when the muscle's capability diminishes. They generally have a seat or bench to sit or lie on and you push or pull on the handles or levers to lift the weights and work out the specific parts. The weight is variable usually in 10 lb. units starting with zero or 10 pounds and going up toward a hundred pounds or more. You get on the machine and do a cycle of repetitions at your chosen weight load, then move to the next machine and do another cycle, and so on through the whole set of machines until you have 'worked out' the whole body.

However, what most people actually do is over-exert themselves by loading up as much weight as they can manage to move through the cycle of repetitions. With that amount of weight they can't actually move it in a free and open way but only by bracing and tightening the rest of themselves. It's easy to tell when a pupil has been to the gym the day before. They come in all hardened, compacted and bound up in themselves from the pulling in on themselves. They think that they're getting stronger and they are—they're getting stronger at compacting themselves and using their energy against themselves in bracing and tightening. From our point of view this is obviously not desirable even though it is a virtue in part of the gym-going culture to have that hard body.

However, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the machines. If you are willing to change the way you use them you can learn a lot. The first step is to take off all the weight and just add on the amount which still leaves you able to do the motion of that machine without any bracing or stiffening. In my experience this will be no more than ten pounds in the beginning for most people. Unfortunately, I haven't had the occasion to work with anyone in the gym enough times to see how far they can go beyond that. In the times which I have helped someone, ten pounds has been sufficient for a very good workout.

Let's take the example of the machine which works the pectoral region. You sit upright and with your arms out to the side, forearms upwards you press in on the apparatus to bring your arms in front of you then back again out to the sides and so on. Usually people bear down with all their effort on the squeeze in to the front, typically holding their breath with the effort and then allow the weight to slam them back out to the sides. People working with a trainer will often be told to breathe out during the effort when the arms come together and breathe in when the arms come out to the sides. This further reinforces the impression that the 'real work' is in the contraction of the muscles frontward and the opening out is just to get ready for the next 'work out'. This is not how the machines are designed and a good trainer will ensure that more equal attention is paid to each direction, yet without care this bias will be reinforced.

But to get back to how to use the machine well. Take off most of the weight. Then the real endeavour is to be able to allow the movements of the arms with the load of the weight without having to tighten through your ribs, abdomen, lower back, shoulders or anywhere else. And without having to interfere with your breathing or force it into a simplistic rhythm with the movement. Let it find its own harmony, its own un-interfered with rhythm. Can you release onto the seat and use the full range of the machine without squeezing in your chest in front or your shoulder blades in back? Can you support the load during the movement with equal release in both directions of movement, especially the opening-out movement where you must support the load yet still allow the muscles to lengthen? Can you keep the release going with a slower or faster movement? All sorts of productive playing around are possible...

What you will be practising is not bracing and shortening in the rest of you to work out an area through contraction, but being able to remain free and open while doing an activity in spite of its load. This is a very valuable skill and is quite usable outside the gym! In addition, what you will find working in this way is that while you may initially think that 10 pounds is nothing, at the end of those 10 repetitions you will have had as much of a workout as you ever did with 50 pounds. In fact, more of a workout. Everyone I've worked with has said that they feel more of the rush of 'exercise' afterwards than they ever did with the heavy weights, and they have the delight of having learned something constructive on top of it.

Working this way shifts the emphasis away from the work-out of the part to the use of the whole during any specific activity. The particular machine and how it loads you is simply the medium for the larger task of paying attention to how you use the rest of you. The idea behind it is simple, but it's not easy to do in the average gym environment because you have to spend a lot more time in order to be able to keep releasing throughout the repetitions. This is a good thing from the point of view of the work-out since you then have more time in a released state during the movements. But it is difficult for many people to take the necessary time if they feel the other gym fanatics are waiting to get on the machine and snickering behind their hands: "Look at this wimp, he's only pumping 10 pounds. Hurry up and let us real men get to work!"



There is a small biography with some personal details about the author below.


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About the Author

David GormanDavid Gorman has been studying human structure and function since 1970. He is the author of an illustrated 600-page text on our human musculoskeletal system, called The Body Moveable (now in its 6th edition and in colour), and numerous articles and essays, including the book, Looking at Ourselves (2nd edition in colour).

David has been working with performers (singers, musicians, actors, dancers and circus artists) for over forty years. He is a trainer of teachers of LearningMethods and of the Alexander Technique and has taught all over the world in universities, conservatories, performance companies, and orchestras; for doctors in hospitals and rehabilitation clinics; and in training courses for Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, physiotherapy, osteopathy, massage & yoga.

Over the years, his changing understanding about the root causes of people's problems led him to gradually extend his Alexander Technique teaching into the development of a new work, LearningMethods (and an offshoot, Anatomy of Wholeness about our marvelous human design), which is being integrated into the curricula of performance schools in Europe, Canada and the United States by a growing number of LearningMethods Teachers and Apprentice-teachers.

Since 2010, David has been running online post-graduate groups for Alexander Technique teachers and groups for those who want to learn to use LearningMethods in their own lives, as well as those who want to integrate the work into their existing professional work as a teacher, therapist, medical or body-work practitioner.

E-mail:     Telephone: +1 416-519-5470
78 Tilden Crescent, Etobicoke, Ontario  M9P 1V7  Canada   (map)