Old Method To Alleviate Back Pain Enjoying Surge In Popularity

I’ve only met one group of people who have bad things to say about the Alexander Technique — some chiropractors. And they’re reacting to the bad things many Alexander teachers say about them.

Other than that, everybody I’ve met who knows about the Technique and has experienced it regards it with great respect.

It’s cool to teach something that is prestigious.

Alexander Technique attracts the right crowd — people who are interested in looking at their habits and are open to letting go of those reactions that do not serve them.

MIAMI, Jan. 22 (UPI) — A little known European holistic technique that relieves back pain, dating back to the 1890s, is gaining popularity in the United States, fitness experts say.

…Although not well known among the public or fitness experts, the technique became wildly popular among actors for bringing poise and ease of movement to a performance, including Hollywood actors like the late Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Hilary Swank, Robin Williams and singer Paul McCartney, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

Since a 2008 study of the technique published in the British Medical Journal, the Alexander method has gained new credibility. The researchers found 24 lessons over a year’s time had significant, long-term effects on flexibility and coordination, and reduced the number of days patients felt back pain by up to 86 percent.

You Might Be Part Of Your Problem

Most of us just want to be fixed. We want other people to solve our problems. We don’t want to work on ourselves.

If you’re addicted to shopping or eating or sexing or movies to escape from your inner pain, then you are your problem in that respect. Until you stop fleeing from your pain and distracting yourself from your anger, you can’t make meaningful progress with your life.

A foundation of Alexander Technique is that you might be part of your problem. If you are in chronic pain, you’re likely exacerbating the pain, if not causing it, by needless muscular holding around the pain. If you are consistently behaving inappropriately in social settings (like I used to do), then you likely have unnecessary tension patterns that distort your picture of reality.

I’ve found that people are not at all likely to see themselves clearly. Many people who think they are funny are not while people who think themselves dull are often quite sharp.

My students usually don’t notice their habit of leaning back from the hips while they walk and stand. They don’t notice their habit of tipping their head back and compressing their neck every time they get in and out of a chair. They have all sorts of harmful habits that they just don’t see. They need a teacher to point them out.

If you offer a person a free Alexander lesson and then start pointing out some of these habits, you will rarely be taken seriously. I’ve found that people only listen to me in these matters if they’re paying me.

Giving away free lessons in the Technique is usually a loser for both me and the student. People don’t take things like this seriously when they don’t pay for them.

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The Debauched Life

All of us adults have debauched kinaesthesia (a favorite phrase of the Alexander Technique to indicate a faulty kinaesthetic sense).

Through paying attention to your habits and letting go of ones that hurt you (such as unnecessary tightening and compression), you can develop an increasingly accurate kinaesthetic sense.

It’s rare to unheard of to find an Alexander Technique teacher who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol or prescription drugs. We tend to be a poised group.

I have students who frequently lead debauched lives. They abuse drugs, sex, alcohol and the like. At the same time, the way they move, the way they used themselves, is debauched. Their heads tip back, compressing and tightening their necks and torso, they lean back from the hips, their heads are not balanced on top of their stiffened and shortened spines. In short, they’re a mess.

I wonder if they would stop abusing drugs and alcohol and sex if they were to stop abusing their bodies in daily activities such as sitting, standing, walking and talking?

I find it hard to believe that they could learn to walk and talk elegantly and then would go on to lead lives sunk in addictions to television or drugs or hookers.

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Alexander & Chronic Pain

After a car accident at age 19, Lauren Hill developed chronic pain in her neck, shoulder and back. She went to the doctor and got some tests. She searched for somebody to fix her pain problem. She went through physical therapy, chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, acupressure and the like. Nothing helped long-term.

Six years later, Lauren’s mom heard about the Alexander Technique. Lauren then read a book on the Technique and found a teacher, who said, “You might be part of your problem.”

Lauren was taken aback. The teacher said, the way you’re using your body during the day, you’re contributing to the problem. You may be causing it completely. If you are willing to study your habits and how you go about daily activities, you might gain some control over your pain.

Lauren tells Robert Rickover: “She was saying, I’m not going to fix you, but we can work together and I can teach you how to help yourself. That began to change my mindset about my problem.”

“I started having three lessons a week. I had spent six years up to that point learning to ignore my body because it hurt so much. The first part for me was learning to pay more attention to myself. I hurt more at the beginning because I was beginning to pay attention to myself. If you have a habit and you want to change it, you first need to know you have it.”

“It took several months before I started to have some improvement. As I paid attention to myself, I was shocked at how much effort I put into everything I did such as scrubbing a toilet, chopping an onion, driving my car or working at my computer.”

Lauren Hill is now an Alexander Technique teacher. She works with people with chronic pain.

Lauren: “I say the Technique is for people who want it, not for people who need it. You have to be willing to take some responsibility for yourself and be willing to make some subtle changes.”

“Take the example of somebody who works in front of a computer and gets sucked in to their work. They’ll tell me they can’t do anything about it. Three hours go by and their neck hurts. They have to be willing to pay some attention to themselves as they work. We might talk about ways they put that into their routine. They put an alarm to go off or at the end of every page they’re working on, they give themselves a second to check in. If they’re not willing to pay attention to themselves, they can’t expect to change things. You have to be aware of what you’re doing before you can make a choice to do something different.”

“I’ve never met anyone who isn’t contributing to their pain problem by how they’re holding tension in their body or how they’re going about mundane daily activities such as brushing their teeth and sitting in a chair.”

Robert: “You have to be willing to devote some time and energy to noticing what you’re doing. Some people, even if they seem to benefit from the Alexander Technique, are not willing to make that commitment. You have to be willing to work on yourself and to be patient about the process.”

Lauren: “Take something like arthritis. The Alexander Technique does not claim to cure anything. It helps the student understand how they might contribute to the condition they have.

“If someone has arthritis, they might pull down on themselves as they go from standing to sitting, compressing on the joints, which will make movement more uncomfortable.”

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The Perils Of Giving Free Lessons

It is very tempting as a new Alexander Technique teacher to offer your friends free lessons because you just love teaching so much.

It rarely works out.

Alexander Technique demands a lot from the student and somebody taking a free lesson is unlikely to do the work necessary.

It’s not just that people will show up drunk or high or late, it is that the freeloader is unlikely to treat your observations with any respect. If you point out that they hunch their shoulders when they get in and out of a chair, they’ll say it’s not a big deal. Or it’s just a temporary blip. It’s not an observation that means anything to them.

Most people enjoy getting a table turn because it’s like a massage. But when it comes to the cognitive work demanded by the Technique, they’re not signed on.

By contrast, if you give a free lesson to a busy professional like a doctor, they are signed on. Because their time is so valuable, if they are willing to extend some of it to you, it’s because they’re seriously interested in what you have to say and what you observe. All the doctors I’ve met with and given free lessons to have taken the work as seriously as my paying students.

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The Strain Of Repeated Precise Movements

I’m listening to a great interview by Robert Rickover with dentist and Alexander Technique teacher Martin Goldman of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This interview will be of interest to anyone who has to work in odd positions doing precise work.

Martin: “The Alexander Technique is a 100-year old method for streamlining how you perform day-to-day activities. It provides a way to let go of unnecessary tension and to allow for free and open movement.”

“I had a private practice for 30 years. I thought that coming home after a long day with a sore aching back and shoulders as tight as piano wire was just part of the game. I tried acupuncture, yoga, various exercise regiments. They’d give some relief for a time but the pain would always come back. I now realize it wasn’t so much what I was doing but how I was doing it.”

“To address the patient, dentists usually have to come down and to the left. To be downward directed and unilaterally collapsed can lead to all kinds of woes up and down the spine.”

“Most dental procedures last from an hour to three or four hours. It can be intense to be in a held position doing precise minute activity. There’s a different way to do this from an open easy attitude.”

“I feel better now than I did 30 years ago and I am thankful to the Alexander Technique for being able to say that.”

“Dentistry is done sitting down.”

“The atlanto-occipital joint. I want you to imagine that on your shirt is a row of buttons. I want you to look down at the third button. It’s on the lower half of your sternum. Bring your hand to the back of your neck and see if the cervical spine of your neck is engaged while you are looking down. There is a price to be paid while you look down at your patient if the neck is involved in that activity more than it needs to be.”

“I’d like you to put your fingers underneath your ears. Do that with one finger on each side of your head and then imagine there is a rod between your fingers. This rod would pass through the atlanto-occipital joint. This is the head-neck joint. This is where the head rests on top of the spine. If you could visualize that when you look down, that downward motion of the front of your face is going to rotate around this axis, looking down is done from an open attitude.”

Robert: “When I show students that, I have them put their fingertips at right angles to their head where their ear hole is and I tell them to imagine between your two fingertips. Nod your head back and forth and know that you are rotating your head around that line.

Most students will notice that the movement seems freer and easier. The neck is available to you but not the best thing to use first.

“The same thing applies to sideway movements of the head. Imagine that line between the two fingertips and imagine a vertical axis in the middle and when you turn your head from side to side, know that you are rotating around that vertical axis.”

Martin: “It’s good to have feedback from your feet. Let your feet share the load while you’re sitting. The more simple the chair you have, the better. Any time you come off the height of your sit bones, you’re introducing muscular tension to your body and constricting your breathing.”

In his next interview, Martin says: “The breath is the canary in the coal mine. If your breath is restricted and you find you can only take shallow breaths, you know that somewhere in your musculoskeletal system, there’s a compression or restriction or you’re off balance.”

“You’ll benefit from allowing your jaw to be free while working. There are parts of the body that are filters for tension such as shoulders and jaws. You can even see muscles bulging on the side of people’s jaws while they’re concentrating on a task. There’s a direct correlation between a tight jaw and a tight neck.

“You can bring your hand gently to the back of your neck and bring your jaw to a tense held position. You might even think a thought such as, ‘Ohmigod, I have to hurry up.’ You can’t have a free jaw if you have a tight neck and vice versa.”

Robert: “The joint between the jaw and the head is not a hinge joint.”

“The temptation in doing precise work is to focus all of your attention, particularly visual attention, on one area. You do that at quite a cost to the rest of you. Don’t forget your back even though it does not seem involved in what you’re doing.”

Martin: “People say, how can I think of all these things while I’m engaged in a complex task? I say, through practice, you can become more aware of where you are in space. That’s kinaesthetic awareness. Alexander Technique helps you gain this self-knowledge.”

Robert: “It’s a light awareness. It’s not concentration.”

Martin: “It’s like a background hum.”

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How The Alexander Technique Can Help Musicians

Laura Klein is an Alexander Technique teacher and professional jazz musician in Berkeley, California.

Laura tells Robert Rickover: “In a way, musicians and singers are athletes. We don’t think of ourselves as athletes, but we are athletes of small movements. We need optimal coordination. If you are doing something that is even a little bit problematic and you’re doing it hundreds of times a day, it’s going to start to cause problems. The majority of musicians suffer some kind of injury during the course of their career so we need all the help we can get.

“We need to be able to execute our musical conceptions without any hindrance — mental or physical. There are lots of things that can get in the way of our playing or singing at our best.”

“When somebody comes in for lessons, they’re usually concerned about specifics. A pianist or guitarist might be concerned about their hands. A singer might be concerned with breathing.

“We really play and sing with our whole selves, not just one part of ourselves.

“One of my tasks as a teacher is to be concerned with the person’s general use of themselves and what might be getting in the way. I used to work with a young man who was on track to be a professional conductor. He was having a lot of pain conducting. He was getting his shoulder inappropriately involved in his conducting movements and his standing balance was not optimal and was interfering with the length of his spine. When you compress your spine, you’re not going to breathe as freely.

“We were able to resolve those issues and he was able to conduct for long periods of time comfortably.”

“People come to the Technique for many different reasons. One of the most common is if they’re having some kind of difficulty, pain or injury. Maybe they feel they’ve hit a wall with their technique and they’re not improving. Sometimes people come because they’re having stage fright and anxiety. Many times we find we can change that by changing the physical response to performing. How to use the excitement of performance to enhance performance and not to detract from it. ‘Don’t get excited. Be exciting.’

“Alexander Technique can improve your stage presence. If you don’t like the way you look on stage, it can give you more poise and more confidence.

“A lot of musicians when they’re trying to express themselves musically make movements that detract from their performance. We all know musicians that might play like angels but they’re hard to watch. Maybe they’re making funny facial expressions or grimacing or compulsively hunching over their instruments. It’s nicer for the player and the audience if they’re moving in a way that helps the playing and is visually attractive.”

Robert: “What was your original reason for taking Alexander lessons?”

Laura: “I had a lot of back pain. I tried various approaches. Nothing was working. A couple of people advised me to try the Alexander Technique. As soon as I started taking lessons, I loved it. I didn’t really understand it but I felt it was helping me.”

“Once I started taking lessons, I realized that all the habits I brought to playing generalized into all of my activities. Not only was the Alexander work helping me to play better and to feel better while I was playing, it was helping me in all aspects of my life. I felt calmer.

My general coordination was improving.”

“When you’re paying attention in your daily activities, if you’re using yourself well, then when you sit down at your instrument or it is time to sing, you’re well set up. You can be improving your musical performance even when you’re not practicing.”

“As you go through your day, whatever you’re doing, speaking on the phone or getting dressed or taking a shower or reading a book or using your computer, in all of those activities, you’re moving. The way that you sit, stand, walk, bend, you can do those things with efficiency or ease. We call that using yourself well. Or you can be doing those things with contraction and unnecessary tension. That’s not good use and often leads to problems.”

Robert: “One of Alexander’s great discoveries was that patterns of misuse tend to carry across wide degree of activities. Somebody who tightens his neck to play his guitar in all likelihood tightens his neck to drive the car.”

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Alexander & Anxiety

Even though I keep telling my students I am not a therapist, some of them use me in that way. As we work with Alexander Technique, they find themselves releasing unneeded tension and at the same time releasing emotions. The two work well together. Emotional release tends to lead to tension release and vice versa.

Many of my students battle with anxiety. When their boss reprimands them or a girlfriend gets on their case, they become anxious. They ask me what to do.

“Free your neck,” I say. “You may not know what that means but you do know its opposite. You know what a stiff neck is. You know what it means to tighten your neck. So check in with your neck a few times a day and see if you are tightening or stiffening or holding it. And when you can, let go of that unnecessary tension.

“All negative thoughts require a tightening of the neck. You can’t feel sad or depressed or anxious or afraid unless you tighten your neck, clench and pull down. Every emotion requires a particular alignment of the body. As long as your neck is free and your head is poised on top of a lengthened spine, you’re not going to be disabled by anxiety or depression. And when you find yourself stuck in sadness or anger or some other unwanted state, you have the means now to let go of that unnecessary tension and take up your full space in the world and operate from a position of poise and grace. This will transform the way you relate to yourself and to others.

“I can’t tell you why you’re tightening your neck unnecessarily. You probably learned these habits from family and friends. I can’t tell you why you get anxious around other people. I can’t deconstruct the thinking that leads to poor self-esteem. I’m not qualified. I can show you how to move more easily and gracefully and when you do that, many of these other problems thin and disappear.”

How did the Alexander Technique come to be mistaken for therapy or treatment?

Imogen Ragone writes out three reasons for this confusion:

Alexander Technique teachers use touch to help guide their students, and so the Technique can be confused with bodywork. The use of the hands, however, is just a teaching tool, and is used as an adjunct to verbal instructions, demonstration and other visual cues. Touch helps the teacher have a better understanding of what is going on in the student, more precisely than observation alone. For the student the teacher’s hands enhance awareness, and guide an experience of movement so the student can more accurately interpret the teacher’s demonstration or verbal instruction.

While part of a lesson is spent learning ways to bring more ease and efficiency of movement to a variety of different activities (from everyday movements such as sitting, standing and walking, to a more specialist activity tailored to the needs of the student), the other part is often spent lying down on a massage-type table while the teacher uses touch to help you let go of tension. Superficially this may seem quite similar to various types of bodywork or therapy, but, while the student is more passive, it is still a learning situation in which the student is asked to use awareness and conscious thought. In fact, the student is learning very important skills in letting go of unnecessary tension. Indeed, if we can’t first learn to do this lying down, there’s not much hope of being able to do it in the middle of a complex activity.

You invariably feel better after an Alexander Technique lesson than you did before! After all, this is a lesson in which you study and practice letting go of unwanted and unnecessary tension, both lying down and in various activities. Students often report feeling lighter, taller, more relaxed and at ease in their body.

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The Dissolute Life

I’ve never done any kind of illegal drug. I’ve never smoked marijuana. I’ve never felt tempted to indulge this way.

I’ve never led a dissolute life. While I’ve hung out with dissolute people at times, I’ve not participated in that life.

When I took up the Alexander Technique, I learned a term called “debauched kinaesthesia.” That’s a term for when you’re a mess. You’re head is not balanced on top of your spine. Your spine is compressed. You have all sorts of interfering tension patterns. You may be stooped or compressed or unnecessarily tight. Your movements are not fluid.

I’ve noticed that debauched kinaesthesia often goes with a debauched life. People I know who use cocaine, for instance, are not poised and elegant in their movements. They’re stiff and jerky.

People pursue debauchery because they’re not happy with their lot. They want to escape their life. They’re unhappy in their body.

If they were to take Alexander lessons, they would slowly let go of unnecessary tension and would likely begin to behave in a more sane and elegant way.

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Alexander Technique And Beauty

Thinking about writing on this topic, I Googled “Alexander Technique and beauty” the other day and found no consequential results.

Nobody that I can find has written on this topic.

Call me shallow, but I not only prefer to look at beautiful people rather than ugly people, I much prefer to be around beautiful people rather than ugly people.

Beauty just makes me happy while ugliness brings me down.

Unnecessary tension patterns are ugly, even if the underlying framework of a person is handsome. People with stiff faces, postured expressions, furrowed brows are usually not fun to be around.

By contrast, many of my Alexander teachers were in their 60s and I found them most pleasant. Some days I just wanted to hug them. The
Technique did not remove their wrinkles and the other signs of age, but they were so alive to the moment, so spontaneous and free in their movements, they were beautiful.

When we stop interfering with ourselves, when we stop pulling down and in, when we stop unnecessarily holding ourselves, when we let go of needless stiffness and tension, then our real selves can blossom. We can create the life we want.

One of the major areas of the body where people hold excess tension is
in the face. A tense face is not attractive. By contrast, when people
stop furrowing their brows and tensing around the eyes and lips and
jaw, then they can come alive. It’s intoxicating to talk to a person
who’s alive to the present moment and you can see their thoughts and
feelings write themselves across their face.

Jennifer, an Alexander teacher, comments: “I rarely say anything about
this to my students (for many reasons), but just a few weeks ago, I
was teaching an 84-year old woman, and at the end of the lesson I held up a full-length mirror so she could see herself in the mirror. I was
so taken by her image that I spontaneously and joyfully gushed, “Now
that’s a BEAUTIFUL woman!” It was nice to see that she barely reacted to the comment, but was pleased by seeing her own image.”

Alexander teacher Franis Engel writes: Height is statuesque – and it’s standing up to your full height that Alexander Technique offers a way to do without it appearing forced or arrogant. Learning grace under pressure by showing how to redirect reactive habits that tend to pop out during stressful situations. Using A.T. as a tool in your bag of tricks shows off confidence and feeling at ease in an open and flexible countenance – that’s attractive and inviting.

Symmetry is beautiful. As you age, things happen that tend to make a person’s face and body posture asymmetric. Even a temporary injury can leave a person with the “battle scars” of being incompletely healed. By knowing Alexander Technique, you have a way to train yourself out of being lopsided – a way that doesn’t sacrifice the pursuit of beauty for increased suffering.

By the time you’re fifty, it’s said that you have the face you deserve. Often I thank my first Alexander Technique teacher. Seeing the hint of knitted and raised eyebrows that popped out to show others my concern, he would reach up and draw his finger across my forehead. I never knew I was doing this to my face until the moment he would point it out; he never blamed me for not being aware of it. Now that I’m in my mid-fifties with an unlined forehead, I give a little thanks to how he showed me Alexander Technique could train the worried look out of my face.

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