Hands on Back of Chair Revisited
This is a way of practicing HoBoC which I find very useful for myself as it can be very energising, and experienced AT people I’ve shown it to have usually also found it quite dynamic and helpful.
Describing an experiential practice in detail in words necessarily seems a complex process. I recommend reading this description several times and thinking through the instructions perhaps one part at a time before attempting to put it all together.
First flexing the knees and hips and ankles in our normal way, head going forward, hips back, knees forward and away from each other. Hold the back of the chair with straight fingers bent from first knuckle, thumb at the back opposite the index fingertip.
Establish basic directions to head, neck, back, and knees, and direct up through the hands to keep fingers and thumbs straight (i.e. do not let them buckle downwards) while directing out and down through the elbows.
Now we move into the arena of setting up a series of antagonistic pulls, which is also an arena where thinking directions shades over into “activating” them. The Grey Zone.
What we are aiming at is the head neck and torso (or head spine and pelvis if it’s easier for you to think that way) gradually lifting itself slightly away from the feet without it being the legs that are making that happen. It’s as if you are using your directed intention to activate an intrinsic spinal and back musculature to lighten yourself up out of your legs and hips. You are lengthening forward and up in the direction your head and spine are pointing, yet also directly, vertically upwards out of your feet and hips as if being gently lifted by strings attached to each spinous process and to all of your neck and back structures. Meanwhile the legs are releasing forward and away through the knees so the feet are opening onto the ground in opposition to the head/spine/pelvis lightening up. With this antagonistic pull between torso (including neck and head) and legs/feet there must be no change in the angle of the knees and hips, in particular they must not tend to straighten as that would suggest either that the legs are surreptitiously being used to push the torso upwards rather than activating intrinsic musculature, or that you are simply trying to straighten up at the hip joints.
This lightening up of torso and head will also naturally exert an antagonistic pull on the arms and hands. You will feel as if your torso is exerting a slight upward pull on your hands as they hold the back of the chair. Since you are simultaneously directing your elbows both outwards and downwards there should be no change in the angle of the elbow joints just as we don’t want any change in the angle of knee joints. The pull that travels from the lightening up of the torso through the arms to the hands on the chair has to be counterbalanced by the downward component of the elbow direction. So that, seemingly paradoxically, the upward direction, while applying an upward pull on the back of the chair travels back through the body and legs, inspired by the downward element of the elbow directions, to take the feet onto the ground. And this contact with the ground in turn further stimulates the upward direction thus establishing a self-enhancing loop.
To add further complexity, this is not the end of the antagonistic pulls. We’ve considered how the upward direction through torso and head applies an upward pull on the hands and this is counterbalanced by the downward direction through the elbows. However we are also directing the elbows outwards, away from each other as well as downwards, and this has to go with the inner upper arms and the shoulders continually releasing apart from each other. So this energy, this pull, which is being generated by the vertically upward as well as lengthening intent of torso and head (or head spine and pelvis), when combined with the outward component of elbow direction, adds a widening through the shoulders and tops of the arms which can be encouraged to continue as a widening in the torso, especially the back musculature.
Just as this whole enterprise should not involve any change in the angles of knee and elbow joints, so also is it essential to not allow any narrowing between the shoulders. Narrowing the shoulders either forward or back will block the smooth transfer of the upward energy into the arms and hands which in turn generates the countervailing downward connection to the ground and the overall widening. In this way there will be an integrity, a “connectedness” throughout the whole body.
Finally there should also be no change in the angle of the wrists which will have a slight inward curve if the fingers remain vertical and the elbows point outward and downward. In this way the pull of the hands on the back of the chair will have an outward component reflecting the outward component of elbow direction, as if the hands are gently trying to pull apart the back of the chair.
So you can see this is a very difficult process to simply describe in words. Ideally it should be conveyed, along with the verbal instructions, by the hands of a skilled teacher who has adequate experience of the practice in themselves. But if you can get it working you will observe a sense of the entire back line of the body, which includes the backs and outsides of the arms and legs, being toned (firmed) and spread. At the same time the musculature of the front of the body and the inner aspects of arms and legs, including pelvic floor, can release more and more to go with this overall expansion. Integrated expansion is paramount. People sometimes ask the question “How much of a pull is appropriate?” A skilled teacher with hands on you can monitor and warn you when your attempts to stimulate tone are compromising overall expansion. If this experience is repeated a number of times with a teacher we hope you will become better able to monitor yourself to find the optimum balance of tone and expansion.
I do believe this expresses the aim of FM’s Hands on Back of Chair practice from the semi-flexed attitude often called “monkey”. It incorporates directions throughout all major parts of the body, including what FM called a “pull to the elbows” and a “widening of the upper parts of the arms. It is toning and enlivening, and, as he also suggested, by relieving habitual unnecessary muscular drag on the ribcage it opens up the thorax for fuller freer breathing.
Note: I’ve deliberately referred in several places to “torso and head” rather than “head and torso”. I do this to emphasise that for the above practice to be effective the lower back and pelvis lightening up out of hips and legs is an essential part. The lower back and pelvis are not simply following the head, they are a key part of supplying that up energy that drives the whole process.