Do you tend to suffer from lower back pain while walking through a museum or large gallery exhibition? I know I do. For too long, I’ve kept this aching to myself, blaming it on my sedentary lifestyle or on not going enough (or at all) to the gym. But it turns out it’s not necessarily the case. Mark Josefsberg, a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, a method for improving posture and movement, claims that there’s a reason why this specific pain occurs in museums and galleries. But worry not, the posture expert says that there are simple ways to avoid it.
Josefsberg uses the term “Museum Walk” to describe the unhealthy way in which we tend to move our bodies while seeing art.
“It’s a certain type of walk that is different from walking outside or going someplace with a purpose,” he told Hyperallergic in an email. “You walk a couple of steps, you see something, and then you walk a couple of more steps.”
Josefsberg started studying the “Museum Walk” when one of his students, who was suffering from lower back pain, reported worsening pain every time he visited a museum. “He was doing great, he got better and better until he went to a museum and he came back with more pain in his lower back,” Josefsberg said. “After talking to many people, I realized it’s a common thing to get that kind of pain.”
Josefsberg analyzed his student’s case in a blog post titled “The Alexander Technique and the Museum Walk.”
“His pain recurred because of the way he was walking in the museum,” the teacher wrote. “He was walking very slowly, for a few steps at a time, with a lot of ‘down’. He was doing the ‘museum walk’.”
The Alexander Technique is a method that focuses on releasing unwanted muscular tension throughout the body. It advocates for awareness of balance, posture, breathing, and coordination while performing everyday actions.
The method was developed in 1931 by F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian Shakespearean actor who began to experience chronic laryngitis whenever he performed. After his doctors failed to help him, Alexander found a solution on his own. The actor discovered that extreme tension in his neck and body were causing his problems, and developed a technique to speak and move with more ease. His technique is now taught by thousands of practicing teachers worldwide.
Josefsberg, a musician by training, began practicing the Alexander Technique in 2003 after suffering from severe hand and neck pain that forced him to give up playing music despite several attempts at physical therapy and visits to the chiropractor. He became certified to teach the Alexander technique that same year.
So how can you enjoy an exhibition without ending up with exhaustion and lower back pain? It’s possible with some changes in postural habits, Josefsberg says, sharing the following tips with Hyperallergic. (Nota bene: this is not medical advice and Josefsberg is not a medical professional.)
Free your neck (and the rest will follow)
“Even though we’re talking about lower back pain, we have to start with the neck,” said Josefsberg. “When we don’t free our necks, they become tight, which shortens the muscles as they work,” he added. “And when you shorten your neck, your head presses down on your entire spine, which may cause pain in the neck, shoulders, or back.”
Josefsberg recommends an exercise for relieving neck tension: “Let go of the tension in your neck with the intention of rotating your head forward. Slightly lower your nose as the crown of your head moves up, taking your whole body with it.”
“The problem with the Museum Walk is that you’re not walking with momentum, you’re not walking a ‘spiral’ (when your arms are swinging) because you’re walking so slowly,” said Josefsberg. “It tends to be a kind of plodding where your neck is poking forward, which compresses your spine. You can get neck pain or back pains just from this depressing, downward energy when you’re walking around.”
“Don’t plod down,” the teacher instructs. “Spend less energy going to the left and the right and looking down.”
Lead with your knee!
“As you walk in a museum, don’t lead with your neck or your chest or any other part of your body, not even your foot, but your knee,” said Josefsberg.
“If you lead with a foot you could jam your legs into your hip joints,” he warned. “But if your knee goes forward first, you’re thinking up, the energy is going up.”
While pausing in front of a painting, Josefsberg recommends distributing the body’s weight fifty-fifty left and right, and fifty-fifty front and back, and keep your knees soft and poised.
“Unlocking your knees is the most important thing, whether you have back pain or not. Locked knees cause tension in the lower back.”
How to look at artwork?
“When you look up at an artwork, the head presses down on the spine,” Josefsberg said.
There is, however, a way to avoid that, according to the teacher: “Put your index fingers in your ears and imagine a rod at that angle. That’s that point from which you want to look up and down.”
“If you try that, you’re not doing anything with your torso or your neck,” he explained. “The head is nor pressing on the spine. You’re giving your spine a rest.”
And finally, Josefsberg argues that part of the reason why we experience back pain while seeing art is that we simply forget about our bodies while being absorbed in the visual stimulation around us.
“Try to be mindful of your body while walking in a museum,” Josefsberg concluded. “Save some brainpower to what you’re doing with your body as you are looking at the artwork.”