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Clarify Your Body Map To Avoid Injury

    • 4 posts
    August 12, 2011 8:28 PM EDT

    This is my second post about using the principles of the Alexander Technique to avoid injury. If you haven't done so already, please read my first post, How The Alexander Technique Can Help You To Avoid Injury. This wil help to put some of the following ideas into context.


    When I teach the Alexander Technique to musicians (saxophonists or otherwise), I'm often struck by one commonality: A rather pronounced misunderstanding of how their bodies actually work in relation to playing their instrument.


    There are a variety of reasons for this. Sometimes they're just following some misguided advice from somebody they respect (never realizing that this person doesn't understand their bodies any more than they do). Usually it's just a simple matter of not taking the time to carefully consider the topic.


    This misunderstanding practically always leads to either chronic pain, injury, mal-coordination, or all these things combined.


    In recent years neuroscientists have been learning a great deal about what they refer to as internal representations, body schemes, and body models. In the Alexander Technique world we often use the term body maps (based on the work of Alexander Technique teachers Bill and Barbara Conable).


    In the simplest sense, your body map is your brain's representation of your body, and the representation of your body in relation to your external environment.


    What researchers have found (and Alexander Technique teachers reaffirm on a daily basis) is that your body map will always trump reality. That means that you'll always move (or try to move) in accordance to how your brain maps your body, whether that map is accurate or not. 


    This is where the trouble can start to happen.


    For example, if you think of your head as connecting to your spine at the very back and bottom of your head (instead of higher up and farther forward between the middle of your ears), you'll move and otherwise maintain balance accordingly. This means you'll unduly stiffen the back of your neck in an effort to hold your head up (as opposed to letting it balance in an upward and forward direction on your spine).


    This in itself will lead to a huge amount of excess tension in your neck and shoulders, manifesting itself all the way down your back and affecting your arms and legs (and your hands, and your breathing;not good for playing saxophone!) Once you rectify this misconception, you've taken the first step toward moving more freely, easily and safely (and playing better!)


    Body mapping errors usually involve one or more of the following things:


    • The location of the joint
    • The actuall movement of the joint (does it pivot, slide, hinge ?)
    • The size of the joint
    • The muscular direction of the movement at the joint


    There are countless ways that we map ourselves inaccurately. Here are the most common mapping errors that I see with saxophonists (besides the head/neck misconception mentioned above):


    • The jaw. This is a hinging joint that connects to the skull just in front of the opening of the ears. Saxophonists often imagine the jaw as being the bottom, flat half of the jaw. This not interferes with the free movemen of the jaw, but also, interferes with the freedom and control of the tongue.
    • The upper arms and shoulders. The actuall skeletal connection of your arms to your body is not at your shoulder (your upper arm bone connects to the shoulder blade, not to the skeleton itself), but to the top of your sternum (breast bone) via the collarbone. Your shoulder blades in back have many of the muscles that support and move your arm. This "shoulder girdle" must remain highly moble, letting your shoulder blades freely to provide strength and balance. Many saxophonists think of their arms as beginning and ending at the shoulder joint. This causes a pulling of the shoulders inward and downward, creating shoulder pain and leading to lower arm, hand, and wrist pain. 
    • The rotation of the lower arm (wrist rotation). There are two bones in your lower arm, one on the thumbs side (the radius) and the other on the pinky (smallest) finger side (the ulna). To rotate most efficiently, you have to let the small finger side act as the pivot point and let the thumb side sweep into rotation. This is highly mismapped in many saxophonists I teach, and I think it's one of the leading causes of tendonitus at the elbow. 
    • The knuckle joints. If you look at the palm side of your hand you can see what looks like your fingers meeting your palm. But the knuckle joints aren't located there. If you straighten your fingers and bend at the knuckle, you'll see that the joints are much higher up your hand (closer toward your wrist).
    • The diaphragm. This is a thin, dome shaped muscle that attaches to your ribs, spine and lungs. It's main function is to draw the lungs downward (as it works in concert with the intercostal muscles ot raise your ribs upward and outward) during inhalation, then release on the exhalation.The biggest misconceptions about the diaphragm: First, that it moves back and forth (that's acutually your abdominal contents moving back and forth as you breathe, not your diaphragm. Your diaphragm moves upward and downward only). Second that you "tense" your diaphragm when you exhale (as in "support the breath from the diaphrgm"). The diaphragm actually releases (as stated above) on the exhalation. Mismapped diaphragms lead to many problems: Breathing, back aches, sore knees, etc.)
    So if you think you might be misunderstanding how your body actually works best, here's some things you can do: Open an anatomy book and study it, expecially the images of your skeletal structure. Practice moving in accordance to how you understand the images. 
    You can also be greatly helped by an Alexander Technique teacher, and/or somebody proficient in teaching body mapping. There is a fine DVD available called Move Well, Avoid Injury that addresses thoroughly and clearly the subject of body mapping in a hugely practical way.
    Just rectifiying your body map will very likely help you avoid injury. But you still come face to face with one more challenge, and that's your faulty senory awareness (see my first post here on the Alexander Technique) which is driven by your unconscious habits. This is where a good teacher can help. I'll be writing about this specifically in a future post.
    Please feel free to contact my via my blog if you'd like me to help you find a good Alexander Technique teacher in your area.