Is the Monkey Out to Lunch?
by Nicholas Brockbank
(This article was written in response to a question about the use of monkey in tennis.)
Maybe I haven't seen enough tennis lately; but I've always felt - as an occasional player myself - that some form of monkey was the only way to receive serve. In fact, it seemed to epitomize for me the phrase 'position of mechanical advantage'.
Ive always been intrigued by what this means, and how useful it and its derivatives actually are for normal activities. What I mean by normal is obviously dependant on lifestyle. Personally, I do a fair amount of sitting around but also a lot of physical activity. Ive always found monkey, from its shallowest form, where the knees and hips and ankles barely bend, to its deepest, as in a full squat, invaluable. Also, the lunge.
However, last year I spent several months working part time at a local market garden. The tasks varied from weeding, planting out, and doing any number of things involving tomatoes, from tying strings to their bases, taking out side shoots, twisting them around their supports, etc. There were thousands of tomato plants; and most of these jobs were low level ones.
I freely acknowledge that attending to more tomato plants than I could possibly know what to do with is hardly normal; but the fact is, the vast majority of people do abnormal - in the sense of involving more repetitive tasks than are good for them - jobs; and if the Technique is to be adopted by them, it has, at the least, to be useful.
When I first started on the tomatoes - and all the other tasks, most of which involved getting my hands down to ground level and moving them around there - I squatted a lot. I found I could deal with three plants from a squatting position: one directly in front of me, and one on either side. The problem was, I then had to rise up to standing in order to get to the next row of three plants and then squat down again. Shuffling across in a half squat wasnt really possible.
After experimenting with this, I realized it was unnecessarily laborious. Squatting is a good resting state, and also fine for active rest; but, in my opinion, its not much cop as somewhere to dive in and out of, repeatedly, without feeling youre knackering - and feeling knackered as a result - something in the process.
I then remembered how often I had seen photos of South East Asian rice planters appearing to bend themselves double, from the hips and waist, and stay in that position while they worked. I tried this, and found it wonderfully liberating. Standing with my feet twice shoulder width apart, and keeping my knees more or less locked, I simply folded myself in half, letting my head and torso hang from my hips and lower back. I found, by judicious stretching, along with bending at the knees and ankles, I could get five plants done before having to reposition myself; and I also found that repositioning myself was relatively easy. In fact, given its intrinsic comfortableness, the whole thing became a breeze.
Then, I moved on to potato planting. Due to the financial constraints, this was practically medieval in format. We were issued with small garden trowels, several sacks of potatoes, a sharp knife to cut the potatoes into bits, and sent forth into the fields. These had been crudely ridged. We were instructed to plunge our trowels into the biscuit dry ground, scoop out as much soil as we could, and then shove our small segment of potato with its eye uppermost, as deep down as we were able to before the soil fell back into the hole. Planting was at about a foots distance, so I staggered forwards, bent double from the hips and waist, feet shoulder width apart, one step at a time, plunging, scooping and shoving.
I soon got into a routine of counting twenty holes before straightening up for a breather. After four successive mornings of this, our boss asked how my back was feeling. Although there were knowing smiles all round, I was able to tell him, in all honesty, that my back had never felt better in my life.
Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is that I have what I would think of as a fragile back. Maybe its inherited, since my Dad always had back problems; or maybe all I inherited was a predisposition to overdo things, as he did; or even a shared destiny: we both did our backs in at around the same age he falling off an armored car during the war, me trying to bundle a heifer into the back of an estate vehicle.
So, part of the reason I got interested in the Technique was because my back hurt. It stopped hurting during training, but it remained fragile. About once a year I would make a false movement and spend a couple of weeks regretting it. One constant, though, was a sense of weakness in the small of my back, epitomized for me by the feeling I got there when turning over in bed at night.
I turn over in bed a lot, and while this wasnt particularly painful, it nagged to some extent. Generally, I would brace myself for the movement, because it usually involved my head and trunk turning first, with my pelvis and legs following. At the point of transition, the snagging, catching feeling of discomfort would come. To avoid it, I needed to brace the area where my pelvis joined my upper body. Because most of the time I was half asleep, I would forget to brace and feel the snagging.
It wasnt that big a deal until one night, after I had been working on the nursery for a month or so, I realized I was turning in bed without bracing, and without feeling anything, apart from unusual fluidity. And I havent felt anything untoward since.
Another interesting feature of this change in me is that when I sit for long periods I sense a build up of tension in my lower back, with associated pain if I try to move that area. Whereas before this might have stayed with me a while, now I seem to be able to direct my attention to it and let it go This is an internal rather than external action, and it usually results in a muffled clunking sound, followed by the end of the sense of tension and of any associated pain.
If it persists, I simply hang over, as if I was about to start on a glasshouse full of tomato plants, and allow the weight of my torso to pull me out of myself.
As an adjunct to this, my daughters boyfriend is a sporty type, who would relish nothing more than to be able to touch his toes at every opportunity. Unfortunately, possibly due to chronic shortening of his muscles generally, he is unable to do this without a considerable amount of forced stretching, which, as he freely admits, feels to him like being involved in a tug of war with himself.
I suggested he hang from his hips and waist and simply allow the weight of his torso to bring him as far forward and down as it wanted to. We agreed there should be absolutely no stretching, in the sense of trying to get further or lower, but that allowing whatever was necessary to let this happen was okay. To reduce the desire he might feel for his hands to reach for his toes, he folded his arms.
He got quickly bored but persevered and the look on his face when he unfolded his arms and realized he could not only touch his toes but curl his fingertips under them was worth seeing. He swears by this now, but still finds it requires considerable reserves of patience.
The conclusion Ive come to is that what I would never have dreamed of teaching people to do, and would in fact often council them against doing, and which I would previously have thought might well be the root cause of their (and my) pain or suffering, I have now found salvation from practicing myself.
Its clear to me that the position of mechanical advantage has practical limitations. Its also clear it has inherent drawbacks, one of which is that unnecessary, even debilitating tension can still be stored internally, even when external use would appear optimal; and that the emphasis the Technique places on unifying the lower and upper backs, by minimizing movement at the waist, and encouraging it at the knees, hips and ankles, might mask rather than resolve an existing problem.
Nicholas Brockbank is an Alexander Technique teacher living in Sussex, England. He also trades stocks and futures and his other interests include gardening, writing, tennis, and travel. Nicolas has a number of other articles on the subject of learning the Alexander Technique on your own on his Web Site; These can be found on his page: http://www.dodman.org
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