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 adds that the position lends itself to observing one's hands and wrists 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, p.138. See also: Dimon 2015, p.25; Soar 1999, p.27, Carey 2014, p.152).

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 'earthworm' 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 p.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. 

To take full advantage of the HOBC procedure you ought to be able to perform the grip on the rail of the chair with straight fingers. Not everybody can do this. Below are some exercises that highlights this way of using fingers and hands. In the exercise instructions, pausing and planning, Inhibition and direction, is taken for granted.(9)

A) Forearm on table. (Dimon 2015, p.27, Grennell, p.52)
Sit at a table, (alternatively you can stand by a shelf of suitable height). Place your forearm on the table and let your hand find its natural position. Normally there will be a space between the table surface and the knuckle joint of the index finger. 

Lift the index finger so that it forms a straight line with the metacarpal bone. Do this with each finger in turn as you gather them one by one (except the thumb), keeping them all lifted. Your hand and fingers makes one single surface. 

Leaving your wrist and thumb on the table, extend your hand so that the fingers point more in an upwards direction. Go only as far as you can comfortably go. 

Next, let your hand itself (metacarpals) stay in the position while you flex the fingers at the knuckles. One or more fingertips will probably end up touching the table. 
Letting the fingertip(s) stay in contact with the table as you move your wrist and and arm upwards so that the fingers are pointing vertically into the table.
In this position, let the thumb lengthen and move to touch the fingers, which and where depends on the flexibility of your hand, fingers and thumb. 
Having formed this grip, you can lift your hand from the table and move it around, maybe use this grip to take hold of an object if you wish.

B) Knuckles on Wall (Dimon 2015, p.28).
Stand (or sit) in front of a wall. Place the knuckles of you hand(s) against the wall so that the fingers are pointing down, and the bones of the hand, the metacarpals are pointing straight into the wall. In other words – you are using the contact with the wall to help flex the fingers at the knuckle joint. 
Next, gather and straighten the fingers, (they will normally be more or less gathered and straight already). And then let the thumb move to touch a finger of your choice. 

If you are performing this with one hand, you can use the other hand to put an object, like a pen or small book, against your fingers before placing the thumb on the object. Then take your hand away from the wall, holding the object in a ‘precision grip.’ If performing this exercise with both hands, you may want to place the hands sufficiently close together so that the wrists are pointing slightly inwards and the elbows out.

C) Thumbs first.
Sit, or stand in a ‘monkey’ position behind an ordinary straight backed dining room chair, close enough to easily take hold of the sides of the chair. 
Start by gathering the fingers, except the thumb, and point them towards floor. Avoid engaging the thumb. 
Lift your hands and place the thumbs against the side of the back of the chair, in such a way that the other fingers are pointing forward by the side of the chair. 
Move you hands forward, slightly stretching the thumbs, until you are able to place the fingers on the front of the side of the chair by bending at the knuckles. (If you find this difficult, you can easily modify the setting by letting you elbows move out to the sides and/or lean forwards so that less flexion is required in the hand and fingers). 
To finish, move the hands to the top of the chair. 

As a rule of thumb, (literally), it can be advantageous to place the fingers against the rail of the chair first, then the thumb, when performing variations of HOBC. This exercise is an exception. 

D) With the help of a book.
Variation 1
Hold a book with one hand, the front of the book towards you. Begin by letting the other arm hang by your side. Point and gather the fingers, leaving the thumb alone. Lift your hand and place the flat, straight fingers against the back of the book. The elbow will be pointing out to the side. 
Next, let the thumb touch the front of the book. Then, let it slide towards the centre of the front of the book, taking the rest of the hand with it. The knuckles will have to bend, the wrist will have to bend, and the elbow will come closer to the body. You will end up holding the book between the thumb and the straight fingers. Let go of the book with the other hand. 
While keeping the position of hand and fingers holding the book, turn you hand so that the fingers are pointing down. Allow the weight of the book help directing length in the fingers and thumb, and to stimulate lengthening up the rest of the arm.

Variation 2
Before performing this variation, take a look at the palm of your hand. Ask yourself whether you know exactly where the knuckle joints are, looking at your hand from this side. As an experiment, place the index finger of your other hand on the innermost or bottom crease of the middle finger. Try to bend this middle finger at the knuckle joint. You will discover that the joint itself is not where the crease is, but a little bit towards the palm. Unlike the other finger joints, the location of this joint does not correspond to the location of the crease. (Johnson 2009, p.110. Langford 2004, p.138. Langford 2008 p.140).

Begin as in the first variation with the book in one hand, the front of the book facing you, the other arm hanging by your side. Straighten and gather the fingers, pointing towards the floor, leaving the thumb alone. 
Lift your hand and place it against the spine of the book so that the spine of the book lies across your palm, and sufficiently close to the base of the fingers that it just allows you to freely move your fingers at the knuckle joints. 

Next, bend you fingers at the knuckle joints so that the straight, flat fingers are resting against the back of the book. 
Then, let the thumb come into contact with the front of the book. Let it glide along the front surface until it opposes the index-, middle-, or maybe even ring finger. 
As in the first variation, let go of the book with your other hand. Turn the hand holding the book so that the fingers are pointing down, allowing the weight of the book to lengthen you fingers and thumb, and subsequently your lower and upper arm.

In this last exercise the contact between the palm and the spine of the book is used to create awareness of where the movement takes place when you bend at the knuckle joint. When we are performing HOBC, the palms of the hands are not to touch the rail of the chair, only the fingers and thumbs.

Some further remarks on the position of fingers and thumbs
Some of the above exercises requires you to bend fully at the knuckles. This is not necessary when performing HOBC.

Alexander Technique teachers perform ‘Hands on the Back of a Chair’ with lots of variations when it comes to the detailed position of hands, fingers and thumbs. Some gather the fingers, flex fully at the knuckles, rotate the thumb and place it more or less opposite the tips of the fingers, with the back of the hand more or less horizontal. Others flex only a little at the knuckles, leave the fingers spread out, and do not rotate the thumb but place its side against the back of the chair, keeping the wrists higher than the fingers.

These differences are largely associated with the different teaching styles stemming from prominent first generation teachers.(10) One can wonder how and why these differences developed. Maybe it had to do with whether HOBC was performed mainly sitting or standing in ‘monkey’; or maybe it had to do with the furniture available? (A tall teacher standing using a low chair would probably tend to have the wrists fairly high in relation to the hands). 
Or maybe it had direct relevance to the positioning of the hands in teaching?(11) Or could it be that different teachers were emphasising or seeking different physiological effects when performing the procedure?(12)

One thing is certain: there is more than one way to perform ‘Hands on the Back of a Chair’. This means that the procedure can be a rich source for experimentation and exploration. 
The only requirement during exploration is that there is no strain anywhere caused by the chosen position. Also, based on the description above, I would suggest that to utilise fully the inherent properties of our physiological make-up the fingers should be straight and vertical, and that at least some flexion in the knuckle joint would be useful.(13)

Gripping without gripping
I have heard comments, even from Alexander teachers, that the grip we use in HOBC is not ‘relaxed’. This is true. We engage much of the musculature in the hand, especially the sensitive lumbricals. Some versions of the grip demands a high degree of flexibility in the fingers, thumbs and hands. When practised it will help develop suppleness that is useful in many instances, not the least when putting hands on someone's neck.(14)
We are securely anchoring the hands in a sensitive ‘extensor’ precision grip which facilitates other effects of the procedure. One way of putting it is to say that we grip the chair in a way that makes it possible to ungrip the shoulders. Gripping the chair with straight vertical fingers also facilitates the dynamics of the lower arm, with opposition between hand and elbow. This will be the subject of the next article in this series. 

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 (the list is not exhaustive)
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 (Alexander 2004, 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, p.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, p.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.

The sources and inspiration for these exercises are to be found in The Use of the Hands in Teaching (Dimon 2015), Directed Activity (Grennell 2002), Body Breath and Being (Nicholls 2008) and Alexander Technique Workbooks 1 (Nicholls 2011).

10) The ‘Carrington style’ is to bend more or less fully at the knuckles. An example: ‘Drop and rotate your thumbs to bring them opposite your finger tips, allow the palm to drop and the wrists to curve inwards’ (Nicholls 2014, p. 39)
The version with high wrists is typical 'Macdonald style’: ‘Can I ask you about “Hands on the back of a chair” again? I was trained to raise my wrists. “Wrists up and in”. You don't do that. Pat did that. I don't know where that came from – I suppose it's to get a lengthening of the fingers, isn't it? Did Pat develop that later on, or was that something that he was doing while with F:M.? No, he wasn't doing it in the training course. F.M. didn't. It was always like that (flat wrists) and then flat fingers‘ (Barlow 2002, p.254). 

11) Ted McNamara showed me during a workshop in Oslo in September 2014 how the ‘Macdonald style’ hand position was directly transferable from the back of the chair to a pupil's neck and chin. Place the hands ‘Macdonald style’ on the back of the chair, lift the hands and rotate so that the fingers are pointing towards each other, and you will more or less have the hand positions seen at about 30 seconds out in this youtube video of Macdonald teaching in 1966: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDuKWWo8EnU. You can see that even when putting hands on the pupil's neck Macdonald keeps the fingers relatively straight, as in the HOBC procedure. 

12) According to Marjory Barlow, thumb placement could influence shoulders and back: ‘Marjory told me that the pad of the thumb can be placed opposite any of the other fingers but that through experimentation she had found it useful to place it in opposition to the second finger as that action facilitated release in the armpit and a widening of the back’ (Carey 2017, p.124).

13) Pedro de Alcantara points out in the first edition of his book Indirect Procedures that: ‘The positions of the arms and hands are much less important than their directions’ (Alcantara 1997, p.124). He is correct, of course. Any contact with the chair can be taken advantage of by directing. But why not take advantage of the inherent properties of our hands as well?

14) My own experience from practicing HOBC extensively when researching this article is that performing the procedure is, maybe counterintuitively, a very efficient means for limbering up the hands.

Alcantara, Pedro de. 1997. Indirect Procedures. A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique. Oxford University Press. Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 1995. Articles and Lectures. Mouritz.
Alexander, Frederick Matthias. 2004. Consctructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Mouritz.
Barlow, Marjory; Davis, Trevor Allan (ed). 2002. An examined Life: Marjory Barlow and the Alexander Technique. Mournum Time Press.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.

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