Heather Stegmaier, M.AmSAT

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« AT Question: I was in a car accident 6 months ago, which left me with pain on the right side of my neck. I went to the chiropractor for numerous sessions and was told I was back to normal. However, the pain came back and still exists, sometimes mildly sometimes more acutely. What can I do? ~Amy | Main | AT Question: I always have pain in my neck, shoulder and elbow due to flute playing and other activities. How do I stop the pain? ~Kim »

AT Question: When I'm out for my usual walk around the neighborhood, I tend to put my hands on my hips up the challenging hills, and find myself leaning forward. This doesn't make any sense, but I find myself automatically doing it and correcting myself. Any suggestions?  ~Diane

AT Answer: Great question, Diane! The key word in your question is challenging. When the body is challenged during a physical activity it can react in two ways:

  1. Compensate by contorting in an awkward position, or by having other body parts work and help out the muscles that need to work.
  2. Meet the challenge with length, strength, and proper body mechanics.

Based on your question, you are reacting the first way. I’m assuming this is not by choice but more by default. As you say, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s an automatic response.

It takes some training and awareness to meet a physical challenge with length, strength, and body mechanics. The Alexander Technique is a tool that helps you move from automatically compensating to making a conscious choice in order to use proper body mechanics.

Let’s explore these two options!


Compensation is the body’s way of getting the job done at any cost. As you walk up challenging hills, your legs should be doing most of the work (and it’s really hard work!). If you’re legs aren’t up for the challenge, the rest of your body will try to help out. As you state, you find yourself leaning forward. The act of leaning forward gives the illusion that you are propelling yourself up the hill, and your hands on your hips gives the illusion of stability. However, your entire body is doing the work that the legs should be doing while creating a lot of strain on your back.

A common example of this is getting out of a chair. Lots of people rely on their hands and arms to get themselves out of a chair. How? They use their arms and hands to press down on their lap or the arms of the chair in order to “lift” themselves up. This takes the work off of the legs and onto the upper body.

Try it now!

Sit in a chair and use your arms to “get up”. Try this a few times and notice how your legs don’t do much work, but your upper body does all the work.

This is compensation. By compensating, your body is working in parts and pieces, not as a whole. This also places a downward force upon the body which creates a feeling of heaviness.

Meeting the challenge with length, strength, and proper body mechanics:

The principles of the Alexander Technique can help you change your habit of automatically compensating. As you say, you are “correcting yourself.” This means that you are aware of doing it, and awareness is always the first step. You’re already off to a great start!

Learning about how the body (specifically the loco-motor system ) functions optimally is what I call learning about body mechanics. When walking, the muscles of the legs are working to propel the body forward, and the rest of the body (torso, head, arms) is balancing and moving as well. The muscles of the head, neck, and torso will ideally lengthen; the arms will swing naturally in opposition of the legs to balance, and the ribcage expands with every inhale. The human body in this sense is much like a suspension bridge with all the muscles and tendons working together to suspend the bones in movement.

Alexander’s Directions can really help with this. Try walking on a flat surface first, and repeat these directions to yourself.

I allow my neck to be free,

so that my head can rise forward and up.

My back is lengthening and widening.

My knees are forward, and my heels are down towards the ground.

Allow the arms to swing naturally as you walk.

Walking on a flat surface while you think of Alexander’s Directions is a great way to practice before you walk up the challenging hills.

When you bring this to walking up the challenging hills, the muscles in your legs will have to work harder. And this is OK, they were meant to do this hard work! With every step you take, think Alexander’s directions:

  • Think about your head rising forward and up. This will give you a sense of lightness.
  • Think about your back lengthening up towards your head and widening with every inhale. As you walk uphill, your heart rate will increase which will also increase your breath. Allow your ribcage to expand with every breath—this is what exercise is all about!
  • Think about your foot and your heel going down to meet the road. Your knee is forward and all the muscles in your leg are meeting the challenge with length, not gripping.
  • Now get a big picture perspective: your head is forward and up as your heels are going down (opposition, like the suspension bridge). Knees are forward and your back is back creating depth. Your arms swing freely helping to balance. The forward motion propels you.

Let’s go back to the previous example of getting out of a chair. This time, rather than using your arms to get up, rely on using your brain power. Trust that your legs can get the job done.

Try it now!

Sit in a chair and think about your head rising forward and up and your back lengthening. Your arms do not get involved--tell them to take a chill pill because you know they’re going to want to help!

In order to get up, think about those opposing forces of your head forward and up, and your heels to the ground. Think up to get up. Use your legs and allow your body to move naturally.

What happened? Was it different than before?

Your body is designed to coordinate beautifully well in order for you to move and get where you need to go. When faced with a challenge, it can responds with more strength and coordination or default to compensating. Some people never have to deal with this. Think about elite athletes like the basketball player LeBron James (click here to see him in action). But for regular folks like us, we need some help. This is where the Alexander Technique comes in, it gives you the knowledge and awareness you need to create new skills so that you can change your automatic default habits. The best way to learn the Alexander Technique is through a series of private lessons.

The last thing to know, Diane, is to decide when an activity is too challenging. If you are walking up the hill and thinking Alexander’s Directions and everything is going fine, great! If the hill is so steep that despite your awareness and better use of yourself, your body begins to stop functioning well, the hill may be too challenging for you just now. Always choose form over function.

In Health and Wellness,







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