A Conversation on Applying Alexander Technique Movement Principles to Figure Skating

by ethankind on January 21, 2015

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JOE: I wonder if you could share your insight on various types of figure skating elements:

* STROKING AND CROSSOVERS – especially backward ones
* SPINS – such as a layback spin (standing), sit spin (sitting down and spin), donut spin (connecting arm with leg and spin)
* EDGE JUMPS – (jumping off one foot without assistance from the other), such as salchow, loop and axle
* TOE JUMPS – (jumping off one foot with assistance from toe of the other foot), such as toe-loop, flip and lutz

ETHAN: Here are the Alexander Technique principles applied to your questions:

STROKING AND CROSSOVERS – especially backward ones?

As I understand stroking, these are the skating steps that bridge, connect the specific elements of a routine. From the Alexander perspective, it is critical in these steps that a fully upright balance is established and that the head and neck are fully released, with the head leading a lengthening spine upward in preparation for what are pretty difficult elements in today’s competitive skating.

So, I’m suggesting that the body is brought into the optimal balance with a lengthening and very dynamic spine in preparation for the hard stuff.

In crossovers, two major points of awareness, a free neck and head leading a lengthening spine, and second as the leg crosses, very free in the hips, so that the legs crossing feels incredibly free, instead of muscling one leg past another.

SPINS – such as layback spin (standing), sit spin (sitting down and spin), donut spin (connecting arm with leg and spin)?

An Alexander perspective on spins, is pre-spin you release the neck, let the head lead a lengthening spine, then you let the head in your thoughts lead the body up off of the ice, as you turn the head, draw in the arms precisely and quickly, without tensing the arms before you move them.

In other words all of the spin moves are done with reflexive quickness and precision without tensing right before you do them or while you do them.

One other point as the head leads you up off of the ice, don’t compress the joints of the hips, knees and ankles to force alignment. The ultimate skating aesthetic is a lengthening body through the spin, so that the feet are FAR away from the head. I bet many skaters unconsciously draw their legs upward to theoretically gain more time for multiple spins.

EDGE JUMPS – (jumping off one foot without assistance from the other), such as salchow, loop and axle?
TOE JUMPS – (jumping off one foot with assistance from toe of the other foot), such as toe-loop, flip and lutz?

I wanted to lump these two together, because again the Alexander principle of jumping is the head leads a released lengthening spine with the feet far away from the head. This isn’t to say that the musculature of the legs doesn’t lift you off of the ice, but it is to say that if the head is leading a lengthening spine, the central nervous system will organize the whole body into graceful movement.

What you’re asking about here can be broken down into the individual movements of the legs and feet etc., but what makes Alexander unique is trusting you have the details of the jumps etc. internalized. So, you can figure out how you can get out of your way by removing excess tension and using clear orders to the body and visualizing what you’re doing without muscling the body and tensing to avoid messing up.

JOE: Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. Like in other sport fields, there exist different technical styles in FS (Russian, American, etc), which usually describe different feels with focus on different body parts, to achieve same technical merit. I only recently found out about AT and Body Mapping, which I think would have helped clarifying some fundamental questions.

How should backward stroke movement feel like, compared to forward one?

ETHAN: Style is one thing, but organization of the body to do a specific movement is universal from the Alexander perspective.

In both back and front stroke, again release the neck, let the head lead a lengthening spine upward, but DON’T arch the back. In just about every activity, what most instructors call good posture, Alexander Technique sees as over arched backs. This means instead of a lengthening spine, the person is trying to push their back forward to create a straight torso.

In the forward stroke the leg is sent forward and diagonally out to the side by the abductor and psoas muscles to propel the skater forward on the release of the neck and spine lengthening.

In the backward stroke the leg is sent in an circling arc out to the side by the abductor muscle and then is drawn inward by the adductor and sent forward on the ice by the psoas on the release of the neck and spine lengthening.

One of the things I found transformative in my guitar technique was to describe and draw what the right hand fingertips do in space when they play a string, the exact path the finger takes in space.

So, it would be neat for you to draw out on a piece of paper what the foot does in space on the two different strokes. It is incredible how unclear we are about the repetitive things we do that require precision.

I wanted to say something about the Yuna Kim video you sent me. It is a wonderful routine, but it could have been better, if she lengthened the front of her neck whenever her head tilted backward, rather than shortening the back of her neck.

JOE: These remind me of a more general “muscle-use” question that I have been trying to figure out but never found satisfactory answer:

What are good ways to activate the adductor and psoas muscles for movements like these? I see two different ways here:
(1). by rotating the overall pelvis structure (which cover those muscles)? or,
(2). by engaging the specific muscles directly?

Alexander Technique teaching doesn’t seem to care much about such details, but for complex sports like figure skating, refinement/sensitivity becomes a key factor. Do you know of any fields that specialize on these things?

ETHAN: Activate is an interesting word. “By rotating the overall pelvis structure” implies the muscle will just do its things if you do a particular movement, a repositioning. But what about the rotation itself, how is that best accomplished?

“By engaging the specific muscles directly” is also interesting, because it implies you need to concentrate on engaging a muscle. What if you know what muscle does what, give it a clear loving order, trust it will obey by doing what’s asked of it, and get on with elegant skating.

What I’m trying to say is that the only way I see of creating elegant poised skating is by assuming you know what elegant poised skating is, what muscles do what, what is also elegant poised posture on the ice, and trust the thought of what you want done, your intention, will be done by the body.

As to refinement and sensitivity, the Alexander Technique is what a whole lot of the greatest dancers and classical musicians use to get out of physical trouble.

It was an Alexander Technique teacher who taught me how to play classical guitar with infinitely greater ease, precision, and accuracy than my guitar teachers. My experience with the Alexander Technique is it allowed me to consciously discover my genius on the guitar, rather than remain a struggler, continuing to mindlessly do endless repetition with poor posture and tension and body use misconceptions.

In my ebooks I’m very detailed about the refined movements in many of the different activities. But there is no substitute for the ultra-refinement of a certified first-rate Alexander teacher who works with the skater on the ice.

JOE: That is an interesting suggestion (referring to head being tilted back or not), which I think I understand why Alexander Technique teachers would have an issue with (a primary control violation).

However, that type of “back-swing” preparation is so common, and seem to be very effective for managing timing (not just for artistic purpose). Some top Alexander Technique compliant tennis players back-swing the head a little as well; I also see such occasional head back-swinging in Alexander Technique compliant violinists such as Heifetz and Oistrakh.

On tennis court, I find it feels good/better, when I consciously let my head to back-swing a bit in tandem with rest of my limbs. I actually like to call head as “rudder-limb” or “the fifth limb” when I coach tennis. In such case, the head will auto-straighten back with rest of the body, right before ball-contacting.

Performance sports are about well-timed acceleration; pre-coil/backswing seems to be the universal mechanism to allow acceleration within minimal amount of time.

I might speculate that such temporary primary-control violation during preparation of an *acceleration* should be allowed in the Alexander Technique, because the Alexander Technique does emphasize the “dynamic” aspect of posture.

ETHAN: “Alexander Technique compliant” is not something recognized by Alexander Technique teachers. I don’t believe that Heifetz or Oistrakh ever worked with Alexander Technique teachers. What I’m trying to say is that a performer or athlete can do what they think is suggested by the Alexander Technique, but so many of the times it isn’t. So, tilting the backward pre-movement or during an activity to create freedom is not an Alexander Technique injunction.

I believe if I understand what you’re saying, is that you see people tilt their heads back to release their necks. This may be so, but in most activities that require intensity, focus, and precision, the performer or athlete is hunkering down, not unlocking the neck, to be precise and clean to skate well or not miss the ball.

In terms of body mapping, if you know what muscles are involved in a specific activity, then when you direct your body in a specific movement, then you have an accurate sense of what muscles you’re not interfering with. If you think you’re not interfering with muscles that aren’t initiating the movement, then your misconception of what is happening can create confusion and tension within the movement. In other words you won’t be inhibiting the muscles that need inhibiting to create ease in the activity.

I know of no other books on Body Mapping but in my ebooks you’ll see that I really like to identify which muscles are doing what, so that you can get out of their way. Alexander Technique teachers have been doing this long before it was given a name.

I’m not sure, but I believe you may have misunderstood what I was referring to in Yuna Kim’s figure skating. I was referring to her tilting her head backward whenever she did a movement where her torso was not vertical. She needs to tilt her head backward as she pivots forward. Most people in most activities, and skaters, shorten the back of their neck unconsciously rather than lengthen the front of the neck when tilting the head backward.

When a skater is fully vertical it is ideal that the head not be tilted backward. But for this to happen a skater needs an Alexander Technique teacher to show him or her that this is much more freeing than the head tilted backward. F. M. Alexander called this backward pull down of the head “back and down”.

You mentioned that you felt this as a release in your neck when tilted your neck backward in tennis. What you may be feeling is the “release” of your neck as it changes position. There is a huge qualitative difference between moving the head to release tension and clearly ordering your neck to unlock and the spine lengthen. The word “orders” in the Alexander Technique refers to telling voluntary muscles what you want and them responding with either release and/or movement.

The musculature always does what the mind asks of it, if what is being asked for is possible, consciously or unconsciously.

JOE: (1). On “lengthening front neck to tilt head back”: how would I lengthen one side of the neck that much (to implement a tilt) without feeling too stretched/tired? I tried the other day to lengthen the back of my neck to tilt head down while playing flute, and felt stiff & tired quickly.

(2). On individual muscles vs whole body structure: are you saying that, we do need to study individual muscles “offline” (during specific drills), but when we go “live” (playing full game), we’d try to forget about
individual muscles, and let all muscles figure out by themselves sub-consciously? I find that if I don’t explicitly pay attention to a muscle group, I often end up not using it adequately or not at all.

This second topic has wider implication. Human body has a lot of muscles; for any given physical movement, different people might use different muscles at different amounts. Question becomes: would it better to try using as many as possible, or as less as possible? From efficiency perspective, there seems to be pros and cons.

Look at the figure skaters: most figure skaters don’t seem to lengthen/release at hip joints enough. As a result, they move thighs-hips-low back as one unit. While their performances might not look as refined, they sometimes seem to be more stable.

ETHAN: To lengthen the neck means to release the front of the neck and then allow the musculature of the back of the neck to do the minimum necessary to tilt the head backward. So, to “lengthen the neck” is not forced elongation. Lengthening the neck in the Alexander Technique is never an over-stretched or immobilized neck.

The Alexander Technique always tries to find a way to describe a movement in terms of the musculature releasing and lengthening without strain, rather than describing movement as what muscle contracts to create movement. Alexander teachers know that muscles contract to move the skeleton, but almost everyone in almost all activities does too much work in anticipation of what they want to do.

Now, I had to think about what you said about some of your muscles don’t do their job if you don’t focus on them.

If I bend my arm, the only way it’s going to get done is if the biceps raises the lower arm. It is only the biceps that does this and/or the half biceps (the brachialis). If I tense my forearm as I bend the arm, it feels like the forearm musculature is helping, but in truth the musculature of the forearm is locking up and not doing anything.

So, if you do a complex figure skating or tennis move you have no choice but to use the necessary muscles, but it is the tensing/immobilizing of the muscles that don’t assist in the movement, that create uncoordinated movement and/or joint damaging movement.

There is a fine balance necessary in the muscular engagement throughout the skater’s body, without it being too rigid or not dynamic enough. In either case the skater won’t be stable through the movements.

“Stable” is a word not usually used in the Alexander Technique, because it’s one of those words that implies a held position or posture. In figure skating, even when the skater is relatively static through a move, there should always be a sense of movement throughout the body. For example: the head moving forward and away from an extended foot and leg. So, the Alexander Technique always thinks in terms of vectors throughout the body. An extended leg is a leg that is flowing away from the body, not held immobilized up off of the ice or on the ice.

ETHAN: I’ve been watching the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Let me tell you what I observed instantly in nearly a 100% of the skaters, men and women.

THEY ALMOST ALL OVER-ARCH THEIR BACKS BACKWARD TO BE FULLY UPRIGHT. What this means physically is almost all of the skaters have tight psoas muscles, which tilts their pelvises forward and draws their legs into the torso, and forces them to arch their backs to be upright.

I also noticed that as almost all of them get on the ice, their torsos are leaning forward, which is an unconscious posture of giving their over-arched torsos a rest before they compete.

In the Alexander Technique teacher training we are taught to intuitively trust where our eyes take us when a client comes in. This is because that particular habit in the client’s movement pattern that we are drawn to instantly, is possibly the key to the release of his or her aches, pains, and strains.

JOE: One common figure skating coaching style here in the U.S. is to bend abdomen/low-back for flexibility, especially for young girls, for fancy spins and moves.

Coaches don’t seem to be aware of any mechanical advantage of Alexander spine-torso (neck-shoulder-back-pelvis). A common pose is locking thighs with pelvis, and arms with shoulders; so somehow the body divides into two halves around abdomen (which is commonly considered as the key muscle group for figure skating). Such configuration does seem intuitive to accomplish body rotation, but it’s probably just an end-gaining fallacy (now that I know some Alexander). I must admit that I haven’t figured out how to perform Yuna Kim’s jumps (would guess that the jumps might just come out auto-magically as a result of spiral-lengthening, but I have a hard time imagining how a two or three rotation feels, because I can only execute one rotation on the tennis court myself ;-).

Figure skating is uniquely complex. I am pretty convinced that figure skaters benefit most from Alexander (probably more so than instrumentalists). It could be a game-changer if Alexander Technique teachers like yourself step in (I’ve suspected for years that Yuna Kim’s coach Brian Orser have some secret formula; now I think he probably just received Alexander while he was skating — Utube has Orser’s own skating videos, including his 1988 Olympic one).

ETHAN: The Alexander Technique sees the divide between the legs and torso as at the hip joints. What this means is the bottom of the torso is at the bottom of the buttocks. This makes the bottom of the pelvis, the sits bones, the completion of the torso and creates opening and ease in the hip joints.

What you just described in terms of dividing the torso at the low back and waist in skating instruction is the common misconception of treating the waist as an articulating joint. If you were to ask most people where the hip joints are, the ball and socket, most would point to the waist, not the bottom of the rear or the crease at the top of the thigh from the front of the body.

When you’re aware that the torso extends to the bottom of the rear, you back up the power of the spin in figure skating with the hips. Think about this. The most powerful golfers and baseball players back up their hitting the ball with their hips for great distance hitting.

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