Five years ago I discovered knitting, and it quickly became one of my favorite pastimes. Working with needles and yarn is a deeply satisfying experience on many levels. The color and texture of the yarn running through your fingers, the rhythm of the needles slipping and sliding away in your hands, the satisfaction of seeing the project develop bit by bit, all build into an experience that is visceral, addictive, and deeply calming.
And yet it is not without its pitfalls. A few years ago my mother-in-law gave me a set of metal needles. Different needle materials can give you different results. Bamboo needles are often lighter and have a little friction to them, so they can be perfect for slippery yarns, whereas metal needles are slick and slippery. You can get up a good head of steam with them and zip through a project. I hadn’t used metal needles before and launched into the project with my usual gusto, only to find my wrists and elbows in agony after two weeks of knitting.
Muscle Memory and Habit
One of the key benefits of the Alexander Technique is learning to unpick and re-pattern habits. Much of the challenge involved in that lies in the fact that habits get coded into muscle memory so we don’t have to expend valuable attention on behaviors we do all the time.
A huge part of knitting is muscle memory and habit. The knitter learns a limited vocabulary of small movements—knit stitch, purl stitch, yarn over, etc.—and sequences them together, repeating them over and over again thousands of times to make a finished object. If the pattern of stitches is simple enough, the skillful knitter can work away without even looking at their project.
We run into trouble with any repetitive movement when the underlying organization of our parts as we move pulls us away from our optimal coordination, and that doesn’t just mean sitting or standing up straight. Knitters can develop all sorts of problems in their arms, hands, and necks because they are using more force than necessary, are bracing themselves and not allowing their movements to be fully expressed in their bodies, or aren’t supporting themselves properly.
This is what happened to me. When you knit, you do your best to keep the tension in your stitches consistent. That tension requires effort from your hands and arms: to pull on the yarn and to hold firm and move the needles. I wasn’t used to using the slippery needles. My fingers felt like they needed to work extra hard, which they didn’t, and my poor wrists and elbows took the brunt as I gripped the needles and yanked on the yarn with all my might.
Once I realized what I was doing, I started to apply the Alexander Technique.
First, I put down the project for a week or so to give my arms a chance to rest. Once the soreness had gone down, I took up the project once more and set about re-engineering the way I was working.
The Alexander Technique uses a simple and elegant three-part process to re-pattern habits: awareness, inhibition, and direction. You become aware of what you’re doing, let go of all the excess effort you don’t need, and organize in your mind the way you would rather carry out your goal. With this process to guide you, you can bring back mindfulness to a well-established movement pattern and re-pattern it surprisingly quickly.
To apply that to my knitting, I took some time to work on the project paying attention to the mechanics of the way I was using my hands, taking care not to overdo it. I discovered how I was over-working in my fingers and was bracing in my shoulders, arms, and neck, forcing unnecessary wear and tear on my poor joints. It then became a simple process to soften all the places I was bracing and allow my neck and the rest of my body to be freer and more expansive. All it took was a few inches of progress and I was back to zipping through the project without all that pain.
Changing a habit can seem an impossible effort, like pushing a heavy boulder up a hill. With the skill of the Alexander Technique, a manual repetitive task can be like riding a bike along a flat road with the sun on your back and the wind in your hair. Or like turning a ball of yarn into an object of beauty.
If you’re a knitter or crocheter and are curious about how you can free yourself from pain and discomfort, I’ll be offering a “Self-Care for Knitters” workshop on Saturday June 29th at 100 Smith Studios in Brooklyn. Click here for more information and to sign up!
If you’re reading this after the fact and would like to find out about future workshops, sign up for the Craft of Living newsletter so that you don’t miss out. You’ll also receive a free guide to the practice of Constructive Rest, a great way to begin or end your yoga practice.