Body Wisdom Starts Here
Learn to ask these two simple questions
I meet a group of friends once a week at a local park to work out together. One of the women in the group has the most interesting collection of t-shirts. A big reason I look forward to my workout with this group is seeing what new shirt Angi has on each week.
A few weeks back, Angi arrived wearing a black t-shirt with crisp white lettering.
On the front it read:
The most dangerous phrase in the language is…
And on the back…
We’ve always done it this way.
If you’re in the computer programming field you’ll recognize this as a quote attributed to Grace Hopper.
You and I are creatures of habit.
The way you sit, stand, walk, eat, type, text is habitual. You become so accustomed to the ways in which you do things — you always stand with your weight into your right hip when you’re waiting in line, you always text holding the phone in your right hand using the right thumb — that it almost seems impossible you could do the same things differently. This plays out in some very comical ways.
I passed a young man the other day walking a black lab. He held the dog leash in his right hand. He held his cell phone with his left hand up to his right ear! The whole thing looked very awkward. Yes, he might have been deaf in the left ear but I doubt it very much.
Like the man with the cellphone, a lot of times you may not be doing something in the most efficient and easy way — but you get away with it. You don’t experience any major discomfort or problems. However, questioning how you’re doing an activity becomes especially important when things aren’t going well.
If performing a certain activity has started to cause you discomfort where it hadn’t before it’s time to ask two questions.
How am I doing this? and Can I do differently?
A student of mine was dealing with some overuse issues in her right shoulder. Talking on her cellphone came up. It hurt at the moment to talk on the phone for any length of time and she didn’t have an earpiece (which might have been another way to go). I asked her to hold her cell phone in her left hand. I asked her to raise it up to her left ear.
“I can’t talk on the phone that way,” she said.
“Sure you can,” I replied.
I asked her if there was something wrong with the hearing in her left ear.
“No,” she said. But she always held the phone in her right hand up to her right ear. That's just the way she always did it.
We had a good laugh.
Most people will put up with a lot of discomfort before they're willing to start questioning how they’re doing things. Simply because you always do something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. Sure it feels right and comfortable because it’s your habit, and habit is familiar. But if it’s causing problems you might want to take a second look.
Because I’m fascinated with movement and habits I’m always noticing how I prefer to do things (my habit) and experimenting with doing differently. When I get dressed at the gym I notice how I habitually tend to put one leg in my pants first and so I’ll do differently and put the other leg in first. When I put my jacket on I habitually put my right arm in first and so I’ll do differently and put the left arm in first.
This type of silly exercise spills over into other areas of my life. The benefit is that I start to notice more often when I’m doing something inefficiently (out of habit) and can choose to do differently — hopefully before it literally becomes a pain in the back or neck.
Too often when you’re hurting physically you blame an activity. Computer work makes my neck ache. Vacuuming makes my back hurt. What if instead of blaming the activity, you asked yourself two questions?
How am I doing this? and Can I do differently?
If you come into my office you’ll find my mouse on the left side of my keyboard. I’m right-handed. But I purposely mouse with my left hand.
A couple of years ago, I started having right shoulder problems. I would sit down at the computer and after a while, my right shoulder would start to bother me. It wasn’t painful. But it was uncomfortable enough that I noticed it. At first, I just ignored these little “niggles” and got on with whatever computer work I needed to do. Those “niggles” were my body whispering to me: “Something is amiss. Nothing bad is going to happen right this moment. But I’m giving you ample warning to do something about it soon so something really bad doesn’t happen in the not too distant future.”
I confess I didn’t listen.
Things didn’t get better. The discomfort in my right shoulder would appear sooner and sooner after I sat down at the computer. It got to the point that just reaching for the mouse would set it off. Resting and coming back to the computer didn’t help. Because when I came back to the computer I was using the mouse the same old way that was directly causing the pain. I needed to mouse differently.
I’ve got a wireless keyboard, so I tried sliding the keyboard over to the left so I could bring my mouse in closer when I was using it. This made my shoulder feel better. But that wasn’t a workable solution because I’m often going back and forth between mousing and typing and I needed my keyboard centered in front of me.
What I learned from this experiment was that my shoulder was happiest when my hands stayed within the width of my shoulders. The further outside the width of my shoulders my hands went, the more uncomfortable my shoulders were. Ask any ergonomics consultant and they will tell you exactly what I found out by experimenting: try to keep your hands within the width of your shoulders.
The problem with my keyboard—and most keyboards—is that there is a number pad attached to the right side of the keyboard. This means that if you use a traditional mouse as I do, it must be placed too far to the right to be comfortable. Each time you reach for it you’re moving your right hand outside the width of your shoulder and that taxes the muscle. But there wasn’t a number pad attached to the left side of my keyboard. So, I decided to try mousing on that side. It solved my problem immediately. It took me about three weeks to get used to mousing with the left hand. I was a bit slower at first and I had to pay more attention to it but it was well worth the effort.
So next time you’re getting some aches and pains or just some “niggles”, Don’t ignore them. Instead, listen to your body. And learn to ask two questions: How am I doing what I’m doing? and Can I do differently?
I am a posture and movement coach trained in the Alexander Technique. I'm also a health and wellness writer. Find me at https://AlexanderTeachingStudio.com