lørdag 30. november 2019

Hands on the Back of the Chair (part 2)

This article is written for Alexander Technique teachers, teacher trainees and advanced pupils. It is the translated and rewritten version of Hender på stolrygg (del 2).

In the Alexander Technique, any activity can be used as an 'exercise,' anything from simple everyday movements to highly skilled movements related to sports or playing a musical instrument. We can also use activities especially adapted for the purpose of learning and practising the Alexander Technique. The 'Hands on the Back of the Chair' procedure (HOBC) is such an activity, developed by Alexander himself. 

Last time I wrote about the origins and history of this exercise, or 'procedure' as we Alexander Technique teachers prefer to call it. In this and following instalments I'll have a look at the details of the procedure, and the physiological features that underlies its functioning.

In the Alexander Technique we always give priority to the central structure, the head, neck and back. This time I will for once go the other way and begin by taking into consideration the use of the fingers. When performing the HOBC procedure, we take hold of the top of the chair in a particular way. Why do we do that?

The Precision Grip
Alexander stressed the importance of following the instructions with regard to the particular use of hands and fingers when doing HOBC:
Special attention is directed in this connexion to the instructions given in the following illustration to the pupil in regard to the work to be done with his hands and arms, associated with a more or less co-ordinated body, and particularly to the position of his fingers, wrists, and elbows when placed on the chair as directed (Alexander 2004, p.110).
When performing HOBC, we take hold of the top rail of the chair with fingers and thumbs in a precision grip, more precisely defined as a type of pinch grip.(1)

It is clear from the very first description we have of this procedure, from 1910, that the fingers should be straight: 
The hands are placed so that the four fingers are kept quite straight on one side of the back of the chair and the thumb on the other side of the back of the chair. (Alexander 1995, p.103).
In the later and more detailed exposition in Constructive Conscious Control from 1923 he writes that the fingers should be as straight as possible, and also the thumb. (The italisation is Alexander's own): 

If the fingers are kept straight, one is ensured, according to Alexander, that the minimum amount of tension is applied:

If the pupil will carry out the act ... whilst continuing to recognize as factors of primary importance the keeping of the fingers straight and the wrists curved inwards, the minimum tension will be exerted (ibid, p.121).
He ads that the position lends itself to observing one's hands and wrist to ensure correct performance:
... It should be remembered here that the pupil's position in this act is an ideal one for watching the hands and wrists. Therefore, if the pupil will watch carefully any tendency to the incorrect movements described above, these can be checked as soon as they show themselves (ibid).

I would anyway recommend doing HOBC in front of the mirror from time to time. There is always more to discover if you observe yourself from another angle. 

If your wrist or fingers deviates from the position, it is an indication that too much tension is applied:
Immediately the pupil interferes with the position of the fingers or wrists (in the latter case, tending to curve them outwards instead of inwards), this will indicate that the point of minimum muscular tension has been passed (ibid).(3)

Not allowing the wrists tending to go outwards is most easily achieved if the fingers are not only kept straight, but also vertical:

Straight in themselves and vertical (i.e. not slanting to left or right) (Langford 2004, s.138. See also: Dimon 2015, s.25; Soar 1999, s.27).

The Earthworm Muscles 
If we are going to try to understand the rationale behind the position of hands and fingers in HOBC we have to have a closer look at the muscles involved.

The skeletal structure that makes up your palm consists of the carpal bones and the four metacarpal bones, (we disregard the thumb for now). Between the metacarpals there are three groups of small muscles. The dorsal interossei, closest to the back of your hand, spread your fingers. The two other groups, the palmar interossei and the lumbricals gather the fingers. All three groups contribute in the action of straightening the last two joints of the fingers. The main muscle responsible for extending the fingers (extensor digitorum) is not capable of performing this on its own.(4) 
Additionally, these muscles are used for flexing the fingers at the knuckle joint (metacarpophalangeal). In cooperation with the muscles moving the thumb, the interossei and lumbricals can perform the task of taking hold of the chair with straight fingers, involving mainly the small intrinsic muscles of the hands. 

The lumbricals, meaning 'earth worm' in Latin, plays an important part. What is special about these muscles is that they do not connect directly to bones. They arise from the tendons of the deep flexor muscle (flexor digitorum profundus) and ends in the ligaments of the extensor. (Dimon 2008, p.180). It could be said that by their function the lumbricals engage the deep flexor muscle to work partly as an extensor.(5)

The lumbricals are relatively weak, but very sensitive. They have a high density of muscle spindles and contribute to the precise and sensitive use of the fingers. They make it possible to take hold of the chair 'gently and firmly' as Alexander instructed (Alexander 2004 s.109).(6) 

To sum up we can describe three aspects characterising the particular use of the hands and fingers in HOBC:
  1. This way of using the fingers and hand distributes the work among a high number of muscles, necessitating a lower level of tension in each, thereby leading to potentially higher sensitivity. (7)
  2. The involvement of the intrinsic muscles of the hand reduces the demand on the larger muscles in the lower arm, facilitating release and 'lengthening,' particular of the flexors. (Dimon 2008, p.180)
  3. The hold on the chair involves extensors as well as flexors. (Some Alexander teachers call this an 'extensor grip' (Dimon 2015, s 27).(8) Activating the extensor musculature counteracts the normal tendency of excessively engaging the flexors of the fingers, arms and shoulders when taking hold of something. Avoiding flexor overactivation is crucial to other physiological effects of the HOBC procedure.
A simple experiment illustrates the difference in the functioning of muscles between this type of precision grip and the commonly used 'power grip.' 

Hold a pencil or pen pointing vertically, using minimal amount of force, just sufficient to not drop it. Alternate between using a power grip, holding it as you would the shaft of a hammer; and using a precision grip, keeping fingers and thumb straight as when performing HOBC. 
With your other hand, lightly palpate and squeeze your lower arm, especially the area closest to the elbow. The differences in the organisation of muscular tension should be observable. 

Gently and firmly 
Alexander's instruction was to take hold of the chair ‘gently but firmly,’ (Alexander 1995, p.103). How firm is firmly? Walter Carrington is reported to have illustrated in it this way: 'If you are drying a good wine glass, you hold it firmly enough not to drop it, and gently enough not to crack it' (Langford 2004, p.138).

The contact with the back of the chair is to be a stable and neutral point of reference. You are not to put any weight on the chair. nor at the outset actually lift or pull. Alexander writes about a 'gentle forearm pull' and 'supporting the torso with [the] arms' (Alexander 2004 p.120). This primarily describe sensations which are the result of the process of directing and the organisation of passive muscular pulls, not necessarily something performed directly. I will return to this in later instalments. 

[This bllog post is not finished. It will be extended with additional material within the next few days].

Related blog posts

1) The pinch grip is a form of precision grip where by an object is pinched between the palmar surface of the fingers and the opposing thumb. (precision-pinch-grip)
In Mind and Muscle Elisabeth Langford uses the term 'pincer grip', giving an example of a person reading a newspaper holding it between straight fingers and thumb (Langford 1999, p.188)
Several Alexander teachers describes this as 'cortical opposition' (Grennell 2002, p.6, Carrington D. 2017, p.275). I have not been able to find an exact definition of the term. 

2) Alexander Technique books where you can find descriptions of the positioning of the fingers and hands on the back of the chair: 
Alexander Technique in Everyday Activity (Carey 2014, p.152/156)
Alexander Technique Workbooks (Nicholls 2014, p.36)
Articles and Lectures (Alexander 1995, p.103) 

An Evolution of the Alexander Technique (Carrington, Dilys 2017, p.275)
Body Breath and Being (Nicholls 2008, p.149)
Constructive Conscious Control (p.117)
Defining the Alexander Technique (Soar 1999, p.27)
Directed Activities (Grennell 2002, pp. 6, 65, 75, 77, 94, 129)
Mind and Muscle and Music (Langford 2008, p.138-139)
Notes on the work of Dilys Carrington (Nicholls 2013, p. 92) 
Only Connect (Langford 2004, p.138)
Secrets of the Alexander Technique (McDonald/Ness 2001, p.122)
The Ground Rules (Barlow 2011, p.122) 
The Use of the Hands in Teaching (Dimon 2015, p.22-23)
Think More Do Less (Carey 2017, p.120-122)
Thinking Aloud (Carrington 1994, p.142)
You Guide to the Alexander Technique (Gray 1994, 128-127)

3) In her Alexander Technique Woorkbooks 1 Carolyn Nicholls says: 'If you let your fingers curve, you have allowed the flexor muscles to come into play too much' (Nicholls 2014, s 36). Wrong position of hands and fingers could of course just as well be caused by general collapse, or too little muscle tension where tension is needed. 

4)Several species has some degree of opposable grip but: 'The pad-to-pad pinch between the thumb and index finger is made possible because of the human ability to passively hyperextend the distal phalanx of the index finger.' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thumb 

5) In a note to his article 'The Emancipation of the Upper Limbs: "Hands of the Back of a Chair' Revisited" Malcolm Williamson cites David Gorman's The Body Movable: Vol. II, The Upper Limb: 'In effect because of their diagonal course, contraction of [the] lumbricals displaces functionally the insertion of flexor digitorum profundus from the front to the back of the distal phalanx and transforms it into an extensor muscle (Gorman 1981 p. 121)' (Williamson 2019, p. 59).

6) ‘With the smallest physiological cross-sectional area in the upper extremity, the lumbrical muscles have weak motor function, which is only 1/10 of the interosseous muscle. Because it is spindle-rich, the lumbrical muscles play an important role in the sensory feedback of the distal interphalangeal, proximal interphalangeal and metacarpalphalangeal joints of the fingers’. A Biomechanical and Evolutionary Perspective on the Function of the Lumbrical Muscle 

7) As a general rule the higher the tension, the lower the sensitivity. This is related to the Weber-Fechners Law.  

8) One of the exercises in The Use of the Hands in Teaching is titled «Extending Hand at Wrist to Form an Extensor Grip» (Dimon 2015, p.27). This exercise is more or less identical with exercise A) in this article. 

Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 1995. Articles and Lectures. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 2004. Consctructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz.
Barlow, Marjory. 2011. The Ground Rules: Marjory Barlow in Conversation with Sean Carey. Hite Books.
Carey, Sean. 2017. Think More, Do Less: Improving Your Teaching and Learning of the Alexander Technique with Marjory Barlow. HITE Books.
Carrington, Walter. 1994. Thinking Aloud: Talks on Teaching the Alexander Technique. Mournum Time Press.
Carrington, Walter and Dilys. 2017. An Evolution of the Alexander Technique: Selected Writings. The Sheildrake Press. 
Dimon, Theodore Jr. 2008. Anatomy of the Moving Body: A Basic Course in Bones, Muscles, and Joints. North Atlantic Books (2.ed).
Dimon, Ted 2011. The Body in Motion Its Evolution and Design. North Atlantic Books
Dimon, Theodore. 2015. The Use of the Hands in Teaching. Dimon Institute (egenpublisert).
Gray, John. 1994. Your Guide to the Alexander Technique. Victor Gollancz Ltd.
Grennell, Gerard. 2002. Directed Activities: A Diary of Practical Procedures for Students and
Teachers of the F.M.Alexander Technique as Taught at the Constructive Teaching Centre (1989-1992). Mouritz.
Johnson, Jennifer. 2009. What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body. GIA Publications Inc.

Langford, Elisabeth. 1999. Mind and Muscle. An Owner's Handbook. Garant Uitgevers.
Langford, Elisabeth. 2004. Only Connect: Reflections on Teaching the Alexander Technique. Alexandertechniek Centrum vzw.
Langford, Elisabeth. 2008. Mind and Muscle and Music: A companion to Mind and Muscle: an owner's handbook. AT Centrum vzw, Leuven.
Nicholls, Carolyn. 2008. Body, Breath and Being. A new guide to the Alexander Technique. D&B Publishing.
Nicholls, Carolyn. 2014. Alexander Technique Workbooks 1: Hands on the back of the chair. Blurb (egenpublisert). 
Soar, Tim. 1999. Defining the Alexander Technique. Publisert privat.
Williamson, Malcolm. 2019. ‘The Emancipation of the Upper Limbs: “Hands of the Back of a Chair” Revisited’ in The Alexander Journal 27, 2019.

alexanderteknikk, alexander technique, articles in English, articles for teachers, 

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