The Alexander Technique and Skiing: Two Case Studies

 

In order to function well, we need a certain amount of muscle tone.  Unfortunately, though, most of us have more tension than we need, because of the stress of life in modern society.  This tension interferes with the natural alignment of our head, neck and spine, and puts extra pressure on our nerves and joints.  That’s one reason why so many of us are in pain or have difficulty with activities.

Through private lessons in the Alexander Technique, we can become aware of our unnecessary muscle tension and reduce it.  At the same time, we can rediscover the natural alignment that we all had as children.  This alignment gives us better balance, coordination, and ease of movement.

 

I’ve given Alexander Technique lessons to quite a few skiers, and all of them have found it extremely helpful.  To illustrate, I’d like to describe two skiers that I worked with.  The first was a lawyer named Robert who was in his early forties.  In college, Robert had been on the ski team, and, when I met him, he was still a serious skier, although he no longer raced.  He had a season pass at a local ski area, and often went on trips to ski.

Robert came for Alexander Technique lessons because he was suffering from neck and shoulder pain.  After a course of lessons, his pain improved a lot, but unfortunately, it still flared up when he went skiing.  So I suggested that we do some Alexander Technique lessons on skis.

During the first of these lessons, I saw right away that Robert was an excellent skier, and that he had a lot of athletic ability.  Yet at the same time, I noticed some things about his approach that I thought might be contributing to his pain.  First of all, there was something about the way he was planting his poles.

As you probably know, skiers hold a ski pole in each hand.  Each time the skier turns, she plants the tip of one pole in the snow.  Then she alternates pole plants with each turn.  This helps her execute her turns with the right rhythm and timing.  It’s similar to what we do when we walk: we swing our arms.

In Robert’s case, I noticed that he was overdoing his pole plants.  He was exerting a great deal of effort in his arms and shoulders each time he planted a pole.  Ideally, the pole plant is only an indicator: the skier lightly touches the snow with her pole.  But Robert was hitting the snow extremely hard each time he planted.  At the same time, he was dropping his head down and to the side with each pole plant.

So I pointed out those tendencies to him, and I also videotaped him so that he could see them.  When he saw the videotape, he was surprised.

“I can’t believe I’ve been doing that with my head all this time,” he said.  “I had no idea!”

“You’re not alone,” I told him. “Most of us develop habitual approaches to activities, which we’re not aware of.  It’s extremely common.”

As a next step, I gave Robert a suggestion.  I told him to try holding his poles in front of him, and to ski without planting them.  Once again, he was surprised at how difficult it was to do this – and how much he’d been relying on his poles to turn.  With practice, though, he found that he could make his turns without using his poles.

We also did something else during that lesson.  We stopped a number of times on the slope so that I could do some Alexander Technique hands-on work with Robert.  This helped him to be more aware of the tension that tended to build up in his neck and shoulders, as well as throughout his body, while he was skiing.  Once again, that tension was related to the extra movements of his head, neck, shoulders and arms when he was planting his poles.

Of course, the hands-on work didn’t just help Robert to be aware of that extra tension.  It also helped him to gradually subtract it.  At the same time, it helped him to realign his head, neck and back in a more natural and optimal way.

“While you’re skiing,” I told him, “you ideally want to keep your head, neck and back aligned – and you want to keep them still.  That doesn’t mean you fix them or hold them in place.  But as you carve your turns with your legs, your head, neck and back ideally don’t move.  The first step is to subtract the extra movement in those areas, and especially in your head.”

After that, Robert had quite a few Alexander Technique lessons on the ski slope, and we continued to work on all of these aspects of his skiing.  Once again, he worked on reducing the tension in his neck, shoulders and upper back – and above all, he worked to keep his head, neck and spine aligned while he moved his legs.  In addition, I encouraged him to continue skiing without his poles.  When he did use his poles, I encouraged him to think of them as indicators.  He could simply touch the snow with them rather than hitting the snow hard.

Eventually, after a period of time during which he worked on all of these issues, Robert found, much to his pleasure, that he could ski without any pain in his neck and shoulders.

 

Here’s another example of a skier I worked with.  I once gave lessons to a student named Carolyn, who came to see me when she was in her thirties because she had back pain.  After I’d been working with her for a period of time, her back pain went away.  Then she began talking to me about her skiing.  She told me that she’d been skiing for twelve years, and that she’d always found it difficult.

“For years,” she said, “I’ve been skiing with fear.”  She was afraid of the steepness of the ski slope, and, like many skiers, she was afraid of falling.  As you might imagine, those fears interfered with her enjoyment of the sport.

So I met Carolyn at the ski slope for some Alexander Technique lessons.  During those lessons, we did two things.  First, we worked on Carolyn’s skiing skills.  I told her that the most important thing every skier has to have is “good brakes.”  After all, if we don’t have confidence in our ability to stop, then we won’t enjoy the rest of our skiing.  So I showed Carolyn how she could bend her knees and use the edges of her skis in order to slow down or stop.  Gradually, as she became more confident in her ability to stop, she began to be less fearful, and she began to enjoy herself more.

The second and more important thing I did with Carolyn was Alexander Technique hands-on work.  As in Robert’s case, this helped her realize what had been happening when she was skiing.  It turned out that her fear had made her tense.  In other words, her fear had a physical aspect – and until now, she hadn’t realized that.

The thing is that the hands-on work, which we did two or three times on each run, didn’t just help her to become aware of her tension.  It also helped her to reduce it.  As a result, she experienced an emotional change: she began to feel calmer and less fearful.  Then because she felt calmer, her skiing also began to improve.

Finally, the hands-on work gave her a new experience in her upper body: she experienced a new alignment of her head, neck and spine.  Previously, she’d tended to throw her head back slightly and lift her shoulders, and her shoulders and neck would get tense.  These symptoms, though she hadn’t been aware of them, had been related to her fear of falling.  Now, though, she began to experience an improved alignment of her head, neck and spine.  Her head became more poised in relation to the top of her spine, and her spine began to lengthen upward.  This new poise and alignment gave her more stability and balance, and increased her self-confidence.

In the end, Carolyn’s Alexander Technique lessons helped her to experience a “great breakthrough” in her skiing, as she put it.

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