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February 23, 2010

Why warm up?

Do you warm up before singing?  Before exercising?

Do you have a specific intention behind your warm-ups?  If so, how well does your warm-up regimen fulfill these intentions?

Before the Alexander Technique transformed my thinking on just about every topic, I approached warming up with a mind-set quite different from my current one.  Well, to be honest, I approached warming up with no mind-set to speak of.  I warmed up "because they say you should."  At the gym, I'd perform some desultory stretches based on what I could recall from P.E. classes (or the brilliant thinking [irony alert!] I was exposed to in Physical Training during my brief military career) before heading off to the weight room.  Backstage before a show, I'd scream through some group warm-ups (usually led by a non-singer) while making last-minute costume adjustments.  Later, when I was performing classical music, I "refined" this pre-show warm-up into pacing back and forth in the dressing room while singing arpeggios and whatever sounded good through the walls of the other soloists' dressing rooms.  Normally, I'd continue singing and singing and singing as long as I could from the moment I arrived at the theater until it was time to go onstage.  The more, the better. . .right?

Well, since then, the Alexander Technique has encouraged me to think for myself, to analyze my behaviors and beliefs—which turned out in the case of warm-ups to be based on, well, nothing, or misconceptions at best—and to approach every activity mindfully.   I'm going to describe here my resulting personal philosophy of warming up,  which I hope will give you some insights into discovering what works best for you.

Warming up activates a particular coordination in my body.  Athletic activities, like lifting weights, running, or singing, demand a high-level coordination of the entire body.  If I've been slumping over my computer all day, my whole-body coordination is unlikely to be primed for a high-demand activity, so I need to do something to bring about an improvement: to stimulate into action any muscles that have gone slack and to calm down any muscles that have become tense so that my whole system can work together efficiently.  Because my Alexander experience helps me to bring a dynamic whole-body coordination to all my activities, even working on the computer, I usually arrive at the gym in a pretty well-tuned state these days.  If I start my workout with light weights and lots of Alexander awareness, the additional demand placed on my system causes it to spring into an even more dynamic coordination.  (This would not happen if my system weren't "primed" for such an activation by Alexander practice.)
     Singing is a bit of a special case, since the particular coordination required of the laryngeal muscles is not one that occurs naturally or during any activity other than singing.  If I have not sung (well) recently, I may need to engage in some sort of warm-up exercise to remind my singing muscles how I want them to respond.  I'll talk about this more in another post in this series.   (Singing is different from other activities requiring advanced skill, such as tap dancing or gymnastics, in which a high degree of refinement of action or an extended range of motion is called for, but not a different coordination.  Readers, please let me know if you are aware of any other activities calling for a kind of muscular interaction that does not otherwise occur in the body.  Maybe what dancers refer to as isolations would qualify.)

Warming up wakes up my awareness.  Some activities, because of their complexity or potential for injury, require us to be more mindful of the way we use our bodies.  So if all day long at work I've been ignoring the use of myself (as Alexander would have phrased it), I need to spend some time noticing how I'm employing my muscular efforts before embarking on more demanding pursuits.  Paying more attention to my use throughout the day eliminates the need for the extra step of tuning in my awareness (and might help prevent throwing my back out while moving a chair or bending to pick up a dropped pencil).  If I want to fine-tune my use and heighten my awareness that extra bit, I might apply some Alexander Technique thinking to my preparatory activities like walking to the gym, putting my clothes in my locker, and getting a drink from the water fountain.  (This Alexander thinking can be as simple as noticing what effect said preparatory activities are having on my spinal freedom or my breathing.)

Warming up eases the transition between inactivity and activity.  Our systems do not like abrupt changes to how dynamically we use them.  For instance, you would probably be more ready to work out after jogging to the gym than after driving the same distance.  Unfortunately, many modern-day tasks, powered by computer chips rather than muscles, are possible to accomplish with poorly coordinated bodies, so we allow ourselves to become physically disorganized.   Then, when we need a more dynamic coordination, we have to work to bring it about.  The more we can achieve a dynamic muscular coordination in all our activities, even the most sedentary of them (here's where the Alexander Technique comes in), the less we will have to employ special procedures to prepare for our more demanding activities.  Think of a cheetah, who can spring into action to chase its prey at top speed after crouching—dynamically—in a tree for hours of patient waiting.  If I've been less than cheetah-like in the dynamic employment of my whole body while, say, reading a book, before I hit the gym I might have to wake up my muscles, particularly at the extremes of their range of motion, with some movement sequences I've designed to accomplish just that.   Or there is an Alexander procedure known as "constructive rest"—basically just lying on the floor + directed thinking—which stimulates proper muscle balance throughout the body.   (Look for more about those movement sequences and constructive rest in future posts.)

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