What Are the Straws That Broke the Camel’s Back?

Lots of little things

Have you heard the one about the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Most of us know this line and the idea that its a lot of little things which contributed to the effect of the Final Straw.  I met someone yesterday who had been off work for 6 weeks with a bad back.  I asked her what had happened?  She shrugged and said she didn’t know, she was just bending down to pick something up – and it (her back) went.  Ouch!

Let’s look at this in terms of everyday life and the many movement choices we make: to move well in a coordinated, easy, free, light way, or to fudge a movement, to take the ‘lazy’ way, or leave the decision to our automated system to pre-decide for us.

Habit vs conscious choice

Even when we are not choosing consciously, we are still making a choice to let the habitual way reign.  This is fine if the habitual way works well for us, when we suffer no pain, no loss of coordination, no bumps into furniture, no loss of poise.  Sadly, the truth for many of us is that we have unexplained bruises on our thighs, that we spill our drink from time to time, and that we stumble and trip when out and about.

I’m going to lead you through a set of simple actions that make up a daily/weekly task.  I will show you some of those small moments which are like the ‘straws’ that once we see them and know them, we get to have a choice whether we gather them or carry them around with us.  A simple act such as washing our clothes is something most of us can relate to.

Getting started – Awareness

Where do we start?  Getting the clothes to the laundry basket, putting them in the washing machine or sink, taking them out to the line or hanging them up on the line?   The best place to start, is wherever you are right now.  In this moment.

If you have a load of washing to put in the machine now we could walk through this together.  Or save this post and come back to it next time you do.

Notice vs changing

To start with, simply be aware of your whole self and how you are in relation to the ground – which parts of you are touching the ground?   As much as possible simply notice without changing anything.  Are you aware of any piece of furniture you are touching, or anything you are holding in your hands?  Pay attention to What you are currently doing, without changing anything.  Bring your attention to gravity and allow it to do its work, and you can just let it draw you down towards the ground.  Perhaps you can notice the weight of your body against the ground a little differently, more fully, in more detail?

Back to the task – think about where your laundry is – perhaps its in one basket, perhaps its in several places and needs gathering up to get to the machine.  Do one thing at a time.  Be aware of any tendency to rush or skip this section in the hope that the next element you may judge to be more enticing.  This is Life just now, see what its like to be fully alive in this moment, its just as important as the next.

Awareness of your whole self and specific moments

Think about where the first item of clothing is that you want to gather, and set your intention about How you are going to move in order to get to it and bring it to the machine.  (I’m not suggesting you go and get each item and take it individually to the machine!)  Perhaps you’ll put them over your arm, into a bag or into a basket.  See what its like to intend to stay with the awareness of your whole self, your relationship with the ground and what is in your hands.  Perhaps you’ll have some more information about the shape of your whole body, the energy level you have/don’t have, the texture of the fabric in your fingers.  Welcome all these sensations and impressions.

Gather a few more items and then stop for a moment.  What could  be easier right now?  Perhaps you have raised your shoulders a little and they can release that upwards holding pattern.  Perhaps you were holding your breath and you can allow the air to move all by itself again.  Perhaps you were fighting gravity and can settle back into the support of the ground with your whole foot resting easily again.  These are not things to do, or force to happen.  These are thoughts to think, gentle wishes, and subtle body awarenesses to simply notice.

See what awareness you can take with you as you go from room to room gathering clothes, bedding, towels, clothes and socks.  Keep it general, stay with your experience and notice when your mind wanders onto the next part of the job or another idea altogether.  As soon as you notice that you have lost awareness with yourself, you are back in the game and can reconnect to your whole body in this moment, this breath, this bit of you with the ground and whatever is in your hands.  (Repeat as often as necessary.)

Stay on task – the task is self-awareness 

Now – how are you doing?  What do you notice?  Are you still with yourself?  Are your interested in how you are doing what you are doing?  Did you pick up any new information?

Did you notice how you held your breath to pick something up off the floor?  Did you notice that you set your jaw when you lifted something up?  Did you become aware of how your hands clench the bag or basket and that you can still hold it, with less tension?  Did you realise that you can (for moments) stay aware of your whole self whilst doing such a simple, mundane task?  Is this familiar to you, or do you now realise how often your mind becomes separate from your body or the activity you are doing?

Using Alexander’s discoveries to re-unite yourself

When you have all the items you want to wash, come and stand in front of the washing machine and laundry basket.  Take a moment to simple observe how you are – the whole of your body’s shape, balance and breath.

Now, you have some choices to make…  Just think it through before you do any of these possibilities.   Will you try and empty the laundry basket into the washer in one go and then push and shove the clothes in as one ball using the door and a hip to squash it all in?  (Anyone else recognise this option – its not just me, right?)  Will you methodically move one item at a time from basket to machine?  OR some mixture, a handful here and a little push there, and oops picking that single sock off the floor.   The choice is yours, and I would like to encourage you to do this consciously.  As you do this next part, can you be aware of your whole body, gravity and the ground and how your hands feel as you move?

Wait a moment

Before you shut the door…

IF you’ve done this already, see if you can remember how you did this.  Was it a blur, was it a precise movement, were you doing it at the same time as picking up the laundry basket and reaching for the washing liquid?

I’m interested in whether you noticed, were you aware of yourself, and how much of is was a conscious choice coupled with self-awareness?   Take a moment to be honest with yourself.  Are you feeling impatient and just want to get the wash on and then come to finishing this post?  Did you get bored?  Are you so engrossed in a detail – the softness of a T-shirt for example – that you lost the bigger picture of yourself, the ground, your breath?

Be kind to yourself whatever you notice.  And start again now.

Thinking in activity

If your washing liquid/powder is in a cupboard – how are you going to get it out without distorting your body, without compressing your spine, without banana-ing one side of your ribs to reach it out of the cupboard?  How can you move without holding your breath?  How can you stay mindful of what you are doing whilst you do it?

These are some of the proverbial straws:

  • lack of awareness
  • lack of presence
  • lack of choice
  • lack of self-care
  • lack of thinking in activity
  • moving in ways which don’t agree with your natural design
  • holding your breath
  • clenching your jaw, hand, feet
  • trying to do two different things at the same time
  • doing things you say you don’t want to do

In the everyday round of life you may not realise just how many straws you pick up and put on your back, loading yourself up bit by bit.  But here is a chance to notice and choose.  You can hold your breath if you want to, you are your own boss, its not for me to say what you should or shouldn’t do.  I’m here to point out that if you do hold your breath to move that you are stopping the oxygen, the fuel you need for life reaching your lungs and fuelling your muscles and movement.

Holding your breath will have an impact on restricting the movement of your limbs – if you are holding your breath, you are probably holding some other muscles – legs, arms, jaw and this will have a knock-on effect with your digestion.  Digestion relies on the diaphragm moving up and down as a result of the air coming and going.  The diaphragm displaces the organs which gives the digestive tract a squash and a squeeze, moving the food along the tubes.

Coming back to the washing… pour the liquid or powder into the machine and before you shut the door, think about yourself first.  How can you stay breathable? (no, you don’t need to suck or push the air, your job is to Not interfere and let the air move all by itself).  How can you bend your legs to that your spine doesn’t have to be scrunched or squished in the first instance?  How can you stay with the whole of yourself whilst you do something quite specific?

Next you will need to set the machine going – using the buttons and dials.  My hands know just what to do – I nearly always use the same short, cool programme and turn it on to Go in a flash or twists, press, push with my hip (as the door doesn’t always fully close on its own) and keep pushing the door until I hear the swish of water in the tray.   Sometimes I will set it to Go in a few hours time, and then I need to slow down, bend down to look at the control panel and go through it more methodically.  When I’m not on automatic, it takes a few more seconds to think it through and check I’ll get what I want.

Habits can be wonderfully useful, and enable us to get a lot of different things done without having to learn everything from scratch.   This is great, but only if the habits are not harmful.  If the habits are harmful – perhaps not much in each moment, but as they build up and stack one on another, the cumulative effect can be harmful.  We can get away with shortening and banana-ing our spine for a little while, but eventually we get a bill – pain and bed-rest for example.

Finally, when I get to the end of this laundry gathering, filling the machine with clothes and liquid and setting the controls to Go – I am not tired, stressed, or strained.  I’m ready to carry on and do the next activity – having no wear and tear on Me as I do so.

If I’d just done the washing in a mindless way and fudged many of those decisions and hadn’t taken myself, my whole body, my relationship with gravity and my breath into account – I would probably have picked up a good handful of straws and had to continue carrying them for the rest of the day.

Its all those little moments which can make a big difference.

Learning to notice what we are doing, how we are doing it and choosing how we continue with ourselves and the task is the Work of a lifetime.  One activity at a time.  One thought at a time.

Start where you are.  Be kind to yourself.  When you realise you’ve skidded over a few moments, be glad you are aware now, and you can join in with your fuller self now.

You can continue this practice when the wash is done, as you take the clothes out of the machine and hang things on the line.  Yesterday,  I caught myself reaching up with one arm to the peg bag, whilst reaching down with my other hand to pick up a cloth the other day.  I was rushing.  I was trying to go in two different directions at the same time.  I felt stressed.  I started to notice the cool air, the bright sunshine, the plants nearby and decided to do one thing at a time.  I picked a peg.  I bent my legs to pick a cloth.  I didn’t stop breathing.  I let my torso stay long and full.  I put the peg and cloth on the line.  Much calmer, more connected and present.

Lucy Ascham is an Alexander Technique teacher who enjoys the simple, everyday movements as a spiritual practice, well – a physical practice which has emotional aspects to it, and needs some thinking about too.  One at a time, and all together at the same time.

Written by Lucy Ascham, Body & Soul Energy Expert

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