We often get asked questions about how the Alexander Technique (AT) can help and how it relates both to effective pain management and to performing any skill better. Below are some answers to give you more insight into the AT.
1. Why is it so hard to maintain good posture?
Have you ever stopped to wonder what “good” posture means? It can’t be what we were taught in Kindergarten, because that version of “good posture” is stiff, uncomfortable and unsustainable. The AT can help you achieve light, easy posture and movement, regaining some of the grace and poise of young childhood.
2. Do you suffer from any of the following, either intermittently or continuously?
• Neck pain
• Back Pain
• Shoulder pain/stiffness
• Muscular Tension
When we use ourselves well, it feels good and there is no pain. Chronic aches and pains are signals. They may be your body’s way of alerting you that your way of (mis)using yourself, ie your “personal norm” of posture and movement, involves unnecessary strain. Your way of using yourself is unconscious and habitual. It feels “normal” even if it is uncomfortable!
The AT helps you to reduce strain in the ordinary, everyday activities of life; discover how you can ease that aching lower back, relax those stiff shoulders, avoid tension headaches, control sciatica…
3. Do you suffer from any of the following?
• Overuse-type arm or hand pain
Multi-factorial conditions invariably include poor Use, which keeps the sufferer stuck in a vicious circle of pain. Then the pain itself leads to potentially harmful adaptation.
The Alexander Technique can help you break the vicious circle of pain.
4. Have symptoms intensified or increased in frequency?
Our habits of movement, and posture tend to intensify with time. Whatever mildly bad habits you had at age 25 will be deepened considerably by age 50 or 60. Similarly the accompanying symptoms of misuse will tend to intensify, increase in frequency, or become chronic.
The Alexander Technique can help you to wind back the clock, easing poor postural and movement patterns, and any associated symptoms. Not only does it feel good, it also looks better!
5. Have you been involved in any car accidents or suffered major falls, eg from a horse?
Following an injury, we adapt and compensate for the injured part. It is difficult to avoid these compensations becoming part of our on-going base-line of co-ordination. Symptoms arising out of injury-induced adaptations may develop months later, and therefore be difficult to relate to the original injury. Whiplash is one of many examples.
The AT can help you to back-track and eradicate symptom-producing patterns of posture and movement which have arisen out of compensation or adaptation following trauma or injury.
6. Have benefits from manipulative therapy or drug treatments “levelled off”?
Once manipulated, you may get up feeling better, but your underlying, symptom-producing habits of (mis)Use remain. It may just be a matter of time before your habits of (mis)Use reassert themselves and start to hurt again.
The AT addresses your Use – how you use yourself affects the way that you function: with ease and grace, or strain and pain. Yoga, “remedial” exercise eg Pilates, gym routines etc. all are performed out of your habitual pattern of use. If your habitual use is implicated in the problems you have, then exercising in this manner may further entrench or exaggerate the problems. As the nursery rhyme puts it, “A crooked man walks a crooked mile”. The AT addresses your Use, coming in as a means of enhancing your Yoga or T’ai Chi practice, or other discipline.
7. Have you had to give up or reduce any exercise?
Any activity performed with poor form is likely to lead to strain and injury, as well as reinforcing the poor form.
The AT emphasises good use (ie good form). Exercise with good form – you perform better, last longer, tend to suffer fewer injuries, and deepen your good form into everyday life.
8. Do you suffer any type of breathing-related issues?
The AT is well known among actors and singers as being a great underpinning to their art: Voice projection, hoarseness, vocal depth and beauty, breathing related to sporting activity, playing music and singing, even asthma.
Early in his career, Alexander was known as “the Breathing man”. Optimising your use of your self generally is inseparable from optimising efficiency in the way you breathe: Deeper, slower and above all freer.
9. Are you able to avoid the build-up of tension or unnecessary internal strain?
Does pain make you suddenly realise that you have been sitting too long, or that you overdid it in sport or other leisure activity? Wouldn’t it be useful to notice before you hurt?
The AT gives you the basics which are relevant to staying comfortable whatever you are doing.
10. How effectively do you minimise musculo-skeletal wear and tear, particularly in relation to neck, back, shoulder and arm issues?
Wear and tear is a fact of life for most of us. But have you ever considered those who seem to function well, with no injuries or strains, well past the age that many start to suffer?
What are they doing that the rest of us aren’t? Perhaps they have learnt to use themselves without strain, the secret of the AT.
11. Are you able to maintain good “form” across the range of your activities?
The Grace and ease of childhood can be re-acquired! It feels and looks good!
12. How much would you value having greater control over your physical well-being?
A survey of our pupils (not “patients”) showed that what they valued most from the AT lessons was simply getting out of pain. What they valued next was knowing how to regain their pain-free state when they lost it. We all “lose it’ from time to time! Knowing exactly how to get yourself back onto a centred, even keel is invaluable.
The AT shows you how to avoid strain and pain.
We all know about the desirability of relaxation, flexibility, good posture and the absence of tension. Despite our best intentions, despite relaxation classes, fitness classes and Eastern disciplines, despite stretching exercises, posture exercises, taping and Californian know-how, we’re still tense and uncomfortable in our bodies, with aching backs, sore necks, stiff shoulders, injuries and named conditions. What information are we lacking?
There is no shortage of advice and injunctions.
We all know about the desirability of relaxation, flexibility, good posture and the absence of tension.
Yet by the end of the day your shoulders ache, or perhaps it’s your neck or your lower back. You’ve tried to improve your posture. You’ve done various exercises, stretches, treatments. They work, up to a point. Your approach is palliative, a management strategy. Things are OK most of the time, but occasional periods of more pain, or a real “back attack” get you. You see your therapist of choice, the pain mostly goes away, until next time. Perhaps you feel you are “just getting older”; some activities are a little circumscribed, perhaps knees are giving a bit of trouble, or your flexibility is decreasing.
Or else you’ve had a diagnosis of something actually “wrong” – scoliosis perhaps, or part of your spine is “too straight”, or else you have osteophytes, or disc degeneration. You have been told that “nothing can be done, you’ll just have to live with it”. Maybe you have a special exercise or stretching routine that keeps the symptoms under control, but you know you might be in trouble if you miss a day or two.
Despite our best intentions, despite relaxation classes, fitness classes and Eastern disciplines, despite stretching exercises, posture exercises, taping and Californian know-how, we’re still tense and uncomfortable in our bodies, with aching backs, sore necks, stiff shoulders, injuries and named conditions. Diagnosis of a named condition can also give the impression of permanence, so that one does not look further for a solution, not learning to exercise the choices that can make a big difference.
What information are we missing?
It should not have to be this way! If it’s aging, the passage of time, why doesn’t everyone over a certain age have these problems? And why do some very young people, in their 20’s and teens even, have these problems? Why do some of us recover more fully from accidents than others? Why do some of us remain fit and active far longer than others? What makes the difference between those who breeze comfortably through life, and those who seem to suffer successive aches, pains and injuries?
“Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right” FMA
We don’t even know it is there.
The hidden part, the unseen portion of the problem, is that many of us get stuck at some point in a certain level of tension, or fixity, or distortion, or holding, which becomes built in to our habitual way of being. We become accustomed to “typist’s hunch”, “jogger’s slump”, “mother’s hip”, “driver’s neck”, “student’s shoulder” and the like. Because it is there all the time, our own individual holding pattern simply slips below the level of our conscious awareness.
Our own personal pattern
of “use” can levy a hidden strain, lowering performance and predisposing us to injury and back pain. Yet we remain unconscious of the fact that the pain we are in may be a cumulative result of strains we are inadvertently imposing on ourselves day in, day out.
Our individual movement, holding and postural patterns, comprising our way of applying ourselves across all our activities, may encompass compensatory mal-adaptations to earlier injuries or on-going adjustments that generate further strain and injury.
Our personal pattern.
Our personal pattern, for better or worse, comprises the matrix out of which all our actions are performed; exercise, relaxation, work, leisure. It is precisely in unravelling these patterns that the Alexander Technique of neuromuscular re-education sheds light and may be invaluable.
In other words, it’s the things that we don’t know that we are doing, that may be at the root of back or neck pain.
How are you “wearing” yourself?
Aches, pains and even degeneration may be symptoms of a hidden problem. Until the “conditions of use”, ie the individual’s habitual holding pattern or way of “wearing” themselves, has been adequately assessed, the diagnosis has only been partial. If there is an undiagnosed pattern of movement which involves, for example, unremitting pressure through the lower back, then until that pressure-producing habit is changed, the results of the pressure (ie pain) will continue.
Pain may start to dissipate.
An Alexander Technique teacher is highly trained to recognise poor habits of “use”, assessing where and how a person is introducing unnecessary strain into their way of being. The Alexander Technique teacher brings to your attention things you are doing that you are unaware of. That is, (s)he helps you to extend your choice in the way that you move, act and react. ….You learn a new way of moving; sitting, standing, applying yourself across the range of your activities with less strain, less effort and less energy. You begin to feel lighter and freer as old habits are unlearned. Pain, even of many years’ standing, may start to dissipate.
Whatever our situation, we can learn to minimise strain, and work with ourselves, rather than mechanically performing mindless exercises, stretches or forcing “right” positions, and ultimately fighting what is perfectly natural, comfortable, strain-free and sustainable.
© M Stenning, Canberra 2002
Would you like to be able to perform your choice of exercise with efficiency and grace?
Would you like to ensure good “form” whether in the gym, jogging, swimming, stretching, walking or even in martial art forms?
Would you like to avoid strain on joints or other tissue when you exercise?
What have summer and winter Olympic athletes, marathon runners, hammer throwers, elite equestrians including Australian Olympian Mary Hannah and the entire British team, multi-disciplinarian Daley Thomson and many others in common?
They have all used the Alexander Technique to improve some aspect of the way that they function – breathing, freedom or efficiency of movement, balance, dealing with stress, aches and pains or injuries.
In the early l950s, Percy Cerutty, the celebrated and sometimes controversial athletics coach, wrote in a letter to his Alexander teacher, “Alexander is a “must” for all competing athletes. You have taught me a lot of interesting material about the correct use of the body which I have passed on in my training with marked results eliminating bad use.”
The Alexander Technique is being increasingly adopted by recreational and competitive Sports people. Athletes involved in sports as diverse as long-distance running, dressage, swimming, X-C skiing and hammer-throwing recognise the benefits that come with a training in the Alexander Technique. For Sports people these can be divided in to three categories:
- General fitness (how to avoid wasting energy);
- Technique (ensuring that you’re actually doing what you think you’re doing); and
- Avoidance of or recovery from injury (not using yourself in a way which imposes unnecessary stresses on joints or other tissue).
Economy of effort
The Technique is particularly relevant because it is directly concerned with the working of the “postural reflexes”, i.e. the mechanisms that enable us to support and balance our bodies against the ever present pull of gravity while we go about our daily activities. It addresses how to move with an economy of effort and maximise poise and balance.
How hard are you making it?
The tensions and distortions that most of us, over the years, build into our habitual way of being and which have thus slipped below the level of our conscious awareness, provide an on-going restriction to the working of these natural postural mechanisms. This restriction renders movement more effortful and less efficient than necessary and can predispose us to injury. In our sporting activities, we are coping not only with these on-going interferences, which give us our “base line” of tension, but also often with further interferences engendered by the situation, e.g. the challenges involved in learning a new skill or the pressure of competition.
In other words, we’re making hard work out of simply standing upright, before complicating things with moving.
“My brain knows what to do but my body won’t do it”
In training or competition this is often more so, at exactly the time when economy of action and an absence of tension would be most desirable. This interferes not only with our poise and coordination, but also with our perception both of our inner environment, for example failing to notice that we are tensing our shoulders or holding our breath, and of our outer circumstances, so that for example, distances seem greater, or it feels as if we have insufficient time.
Enhancing kinaesthetic awareness (awareness of one’s inner environment), and learning greater control of one’s mechanisms of balance and coordination are an enormous help in any activity.
It is not just the elite who can learn to optimise their way of working with themselves to gain that competitive edge. Sports people who have trouble improving beyond a certain level can also gain. Technical imperfections can easily be unwittingly established as part of one’s basic modus operandi, limiting further improvement. Who at some time has not said to themselves, “My brain knows what to do but my body won’t do it”?
Discovering that not trying so hard can mean moving further, faster and with less effort, often comes as a pleasant surprise to many people.
The Alexander Technique gives us some simple ground rules through which we can observe ourselves, in order to achieve a gradual general improvement in poise and coordination, as well as simultaneously supplying ourselves with conditions most conducive to the development of a skill and reducing the risk of injury.