Almost twenty years ago I was invited by Dr Lars-Erik Uneståhl (the founder of Mental Training) to give a presentation of a method that was then in its infancy to some of his students. A psychologist colleague of his who was present then invited me to teach on her course at a leading management consultancy (MGruppen) and so the course was set for the next ten years.

str-farg-22The method I presented then I eventually named STR which in Swedish stands for Sammanhållning Teknik Resultat, where sammanhållning (pronounced sammanhollning) means ‘being unified’ or ‘cohesive’ or ‘together’. The idea behind the method was and still is that if you are calm, collected, and in balance (sammanhållen) then it will be easier to act or perform some technique (eg sports) in order to achieve good results. The corollary of this is that if you are stressed, out of balance, tense, and all hyped up (as we most often seem to be these days), then achieving good results – in any area – will also be possible, but it will also be harder and we are more likely to make mistakes and also more likely to miss out on a lot of fun.

Everyone thought this made sense, until I pointed out that the order we usually practice is the opposite, i.e. TRS or RTS. We are usually so focused on Results or on Technique (or Method) that we lose sight of the way we Are (relaxed, balanced vs tense, stressed, out of balance) to the extent that we often mutate from Human Beings (children?) into Human Doings (adults?).

Over the years I have had the pleasure and honour of being invited to teach many different people in a wide variety of situations. For example, golf players, equestrians, tennis players, many stage artists including musicians, singers and dancers, as well as stroke patients, physiotherapists, massage therapists, hospital staff, psychologists,

Teaching farriers in Stellenboch, SA

Teaching farriers in Stellenboch, SA

farriers and hoof care specialists . All were interested in ‘getting balanced’ or ‘getting into the flow’ in order to perform better or feel better, and it was all great fun, especially when they did get into the flow and did perform better and did feel better.

Many of the people I met were stressed and many suffered from back, neck and shoulder pain. Interestingly many reported as I taught, that their aches, pains and stress subsided or even disappeared completely. At the time I just saw this as a kind of ‘bonus’, a curious side effect. But as time went on and as the STR method developed I realised that this made sense. As the body comes into balance and the mind is calmed we start to heal, and there is nothing strange about this.

I started wondering if it would be possible to focus on these problems more deliberately. By the mid 90s stress was becoming quite popular in Sweden, so I opted to develop a Stress Management program, based on the things I’d taught sportsmen and artists. To my surprise it worked rather well, at least for a number of individuals who reported that the tools I taught them really did help reduce their stress and perform better at work (as well as in their leisure time). This program I sold to among others Ericsson and WM-data (now Logica) for a number of years. I was also involved with the Swedish Burnout Victims Association (DuFIS), teaching five or six groups the same basics, also with positive effects.

Riders in Norway experimenting with elevated and oppressed sitting

Riders in Norway experimenting with elevated and oppressed sitting

I decided some years ago though to change direction, and instead focus on posture and body use, as well as musculoskelatal disorders (MSDs) associated with incorrect use and poor posture. I had by then met so many people who had become much better in their backs, necks, shoulders and so on,  as a side effect of the training I was offering that I thought it would be interesting to work more with these issues. I too had suffered from similar aches and pains over the years. As a teenager, my posture was already a disaster, so much so that friends even came up to me and straightned me up manually – only to watch in dismay as I quickly collapsed back into my old ‘comfortable’ habits.

By the time I was 20 things were so bad I was running (and sometimes limping) from treatment to treatment looking desperately for some final relief. In the end an Osteopath explained to me why treatments wouldn’t cure me. He told me I had to learn to use my body in a completely different manner, and sent me off to the first of many teachers. I had at that time no idea as to what he meant.

I struggled for years diligently practicing what I learned  from all my teachers and sometimes I felt better and sometimes the same old problems returned. It never dawned on me that all the theories and ideas about posture and body use that I had collected could possibly be in conflict. I just assumed that all the experts I’d met were in some sort of fundamental agreement, and that each was just providing me with different pieces of the same puzzle.

Student at Stockholm's Royal College of Music testing the true balance that makes sitting comfortable and staying focused easier

Student at Stockholm's Royal College of Music testing the true balance that makes sitting comfortable and staying focused easier

It took a while but eventually I worked out that such a conflict did exist and that all I had learned could be divided into two basic categories of body use, that I named elevated and oppressed. It became clear to me that most of the ‘recipes’ for good posture I had learned lead not to elevated use, where the body is naturally held up without conscious effort, control and thought, but instead to oppressed use, where the body bears down on itself,  in particular along the spine – and this was the main reason why my aches and pains kept coming and going. I had always thought that ‘keeping my back straight’ and my body ‘aligned correctly’ was the right way to go. Imagine my surprise when I realized that this thinking actually had a weakening and destabilising effect that was also easy to prove!

Today, some years later, I can safely say (touch wood) that I manage 98% of the time to keep myself completely free from aches and pains in my back, neck and shoulders. This is largely due to having finally sorted out the thinking that leads to elevated body use from the thinking that leads to oppressed use, as well as understanding how to apply this knowledge both in daily actions and in training and other activities. In other words, I know now what to avoid and what to practice – and the beauty of it is that it is SO EASY! Basic everyday actions such as standing, sitting, carrying, lifting, walking with stability, power, lightness and ease HAVE NEVER BEEN EASIER to practice or to teach to others.

What worries me though – and this is one reason I teach Power Ergonomics - is that at least 90% of the stuff that is taught about posture and body use relates to oppressed use. I see this in books, articles, research papers and on the Internet. I see it too every day I meet new students or clients, who tell me time and again how they have been taught to stand, sit and exercise in ways that are obviously oppressed. And I see it every time I attend an exercise class, as the leaders diligently instruct everyone to get back on their heels, or straighten their backs so that they in reality not only lose some power, stability and control, but also increase the strain in the back as well as the risk for injury.

Cissi demonstrates at Axelsons Gymnastiska Institut the oppressed standing that is normal for many body therapists

Instructor Cissi Douglas at Axelsons Gymnastiska Institut demonstrates the 'normal' oppressed standing that causes so many back backs and aching shoulders

The extent of this contradiction is beyond measure; it seems most of us are ‘infected’ (I was very infected) either by ‘straight back thinking’, ”plumb line alignment’ or by various ideas of body balance, alignment or ‘positioning of body parts’ that also encourage oppressed instead of elevated postures and body use.

It worries me too that posture analysis software based on plumb line alignment (i.e. oppressed use) is also becoming more popular. Most surprising though is that Wii also now offer a training program that helps players check their balance. Unfortunately even this is based on the balance that encourages oppressed body use!

Some people wonder if I am not a bit mad, claiming that current theories about postural alignment actually prevent people from achieving the elevated postures and use of body they seek. I mean, how could these theories and models possibly be wrong? They are after all scientifically validated, aren’t they? Actually I’ve so far failed to find the research that validates plumb line alignment, or ‘straight back thinking’…

Please God, save us from this kind of thinking!

Please God, save us from this kind of thinking!

If were not for the reliability of MUBA or the fact that I have meet so many people who have surprisingly quickly ridden themselves of backache (often chronic) and other associated disorders, simply by abandoning alignment theory and instead learning to identify true elevated body use, then I wouldn’t make Power Ergonomics available to others, and I wouldn’t be writing this blog.

I sincerely look forward to stiring things up and creating some debate in this area and hope you will join me in what has so far been a fascinating exploration into our common human potential.