Thursday, February 14, 2008

fitness without stress

My reminiscence in the last post, of lessons with Marj Barstow, re-connected me to the author of another very useful book on the Alexander Technique. Robert Rickover started visiting Lincoln and studying with Marj soon after I moved to New York – our paths have not crossed very often, but we certainly share many common colleagues and the benefit of Marj’s unique perspective.

Robert’s intellectual and scientific background in combination with the highly practical influence of Marj’s teaching are expressed in his book Fitness Without Stress. Besides being a general guide to Alexander’s work and how to learn it, the book is filled with fascinating accounts from people who have successfully applied the Technique in many and varied activities (including a riding instructor).

This book made a strong impression on me, and one resonant piece of information it contains is that releasing excess tension can, in and of itself, measurably raise a person’s level of fitness. The documented effects relate to both cardiovascular efficiency and oxygen utilization. This particular fact amazed me when I first read the book a number of years ago, but has been experientially proven in my own aikido training, particularly during the vigorous role of taking continuous ukemi (falling). Yet doesn’t it make sense that our habits of movement, which add constriction and put unnecessary pressure on our joints, actually “hold us back” and keep us from being our fittest?

Some activities by their very nature contain a potential for generating more wholeness – yoga, aikido and tai chi come to mind, along with of course lately for me, the art of riding a horse. Yet, every human endeavour has this potential and the masters of any art or sport demonstrate an exquisitely integrated use of self. Everyone will have their own favorite examples: Horowitz, Tiger Woods, Baryshnikov, Anky van Grunsven.

Just as it is not possible to produce beautiful music on an instrument that is not properly tuned, so we struggle against ourselves and develop compensatory habits when we attempt to learn a new skill or to raise our level of fitness without a way to restore the integrity of our original coordination. Applying Alexander’s principle allows us to tune ourselves, inside and out, mind and body, so that we bring a more harmonious self to whatever activity we are interested in studying. Alexander was not only ahead of his time, but I often muse that he is still ahead of ours, given the deeply essential quality of his discovery.

The subjects of ‘fitness’ and of ‘stress’ already fill many volumes. So in this post, I simply ask how releasing stress by letting go of habits of unnecessary tension reveals our fundamental integration and wholeness, and how does this quality of wholeness enhance our fitness?

Robert’s websites offer a tremendous wealth of information and resources to anyone interested in all the aspects of Alexander’s discovery (links in the sidebar: The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique, and, Marjorie Barstow).

Above, the very fit and relaxed rider Annelie Andersson-Beck on her very fit Swedish warmblood, Sober -- as relaxed as such an athletic and eager horse can be. Annelie continues to inspire and impress me with her dedication to excellence, through her study of both classical riding technique and the system of Centered Riding. She told me that she has recently started to learn Tai Chi and that riding is “so easy” (for her) in comparison!

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