Sleepless nights, Irritability, Depression, Headaches, Aching, knotted muscles and stiff joints. Sometimes the pain is so intense you can’t go for a walk or even lift your arms. Frustrated and discouraged, you’ve spent countless hours on the internet—and countless dollars searching for solutions. But nothing provides lasting relief.
This is what the two people profiled in this article were experiencing when they decided to try the Alexander Technique. David suffered from inexplicable aches in his wrists, ankles, and neck after returning from Iraq, where he was an embedded journalist. Alana suffered from chronic pain for 20 years. Both were diagnosed with fibromyalgia—and both were desperate for relief.
Alana and David were both far too familiar with pain and tension. Pain made them clench their jaws, hold their breath, and grip their muscles. The Alexander Technique addresses this type of tension by teaching students three skills:
- To recognize their habit of tightening muscles when in pain;
- How not to tighten muscles in reaction to pain (this skill is generally described as the skill of non-doing);
- How to release tightened muscles with conscious thoughts
FROM QUESTION MARK TO EXCLAMATION POINT
David, a witty and inquisitive British journalist in his mid-40s, arrived at my office with his head thrust forward and his shoulders pulled up to his ears: this was his habitual posture. “My body was shaped like a question mark,” he said, “all hunched up, scrunched, bowed, and buckled.” Even though he was well aware of his tension, he had no idea how to remedy it.
During our first lesson, David discovered he was holding a lot of tension in his neck and shoulders while sitting, standing, and walking. He was even holding his breath, a common reaction to pain or other stressors. That day (and in subsequent lessons), I used gentle guidance, along with explanations and demonstrations of how he is designed to move, to teach David how to unravel his tight muscles. This understanding helped him to release the tense muscles of his neck and torso, relieving the compression of his spine.
As David learned how to let go of unhelpful postural and movement habits, he developed a greater sense of relaxation and an enhanced awareness of his body. “I look more like an exclamation mark,” he says now, “more upright and more masculine.”
David’s favorite part of Alexander Technique lessons is semi-supine or constructive rest, a very simple and easy activity during which a student lies on his back with support under his head. The teacher encourages the student to quiet his nervous system by releasing muscular tension. During constructive rest, David and I worked together to help him recognize where he was holding tension that caused or aggravated pain, and to give his body conscious thoughts to release muscles. Before, when David had pain, he would seize up with muscular tension.
Now, when he does constructive rest on his own, David achieves a state of complete relaxation while still feeling alert. “This is very helpful for a good night’s sleep,” he says. “Instead of going to bed tense and wincing with pain, I fall asleep with ease.”
David took lessons once a week for about a year. He especially valued the fact that the 50-minute lessons were tailored to his individual needs, and he was able to apply what he learned to his own daily activities, such as sitting at the computer and speaking publicly. He learned how to calm and quiet the parts of his body that tensed in response to pain by paying more attention to his whole body and allowing it to breathe. He also learned to move more effortlessly. The pain he experiences now varies from day to day.
The Alexander Technique benefit that most surprises David is the confidence his newfound sense of calmness brings. Before, when he felt tired and lethargic because of pain, he would be less likely to go out and enjoy social events. When he did go out, he felt uncomfortable and awkward. Now, after learning how to calm himself and move with less tension, he has more energy. Feeling calm and confident, he experiences less pain, feels relaxed in social situations, and can enjoy himself.
FROM STUDENT TO TEACHER
Alana, a fellow teacher, found the Alexander Technique after searching the internet for anything that could help her persistent, nagging headaches and the pain that aﬄicted the entire right side of her body. Her symptoms were triggered by a traumatic car accident. For many years, Alana sought relief from an array of doctors, therapists, and practitioners. She was eventually diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
Alana loved to walk, but her symptoms made it almost impossible. She often tripped or stumbled. Both her shoulder and hip flared in pain. She gasped for breath and needed to use an inhaler. With all these obstacles, it was amazing that Alana could go for walks at all. Through Alexander Technique lessons, she discovered the unconscious habits that worked against her: leaning backwards, pushing her hips forward, and clenching her jaw, which tightened her back muscles and cut off her air passage.
Working with her Alexander Technique teacher, Alana learned how to move with more ease, better coordination, and less tension while walking, bending, standing, and even sitting. She learned to undo the gripping of her shoulder and hip while doing those activities. Her balance improved as well. Alana took lessons for three years, and then decided to become an Alexander Technique teacher herself. Even though it wasn’t an easy process, she relished the times she felt pain-free. When she experienced the fog of chronic pain, she used constructive rest, calming herself and her nervous system to release tension. Now, when her pain flares, it passes more quickly—and she enjoys more pain-free time.
“My thinking is much clearer, and I have a new, keener sense of body awareness thanks to the Alexander Technique,” she says. “It’s not a treatment or a therapy, but a lesson, an educational process.”
Alana has also discovered unexpected benefits. Not only has she stopped using an inhaler, relieved her headaches, and improved her general health and quality of sleep, she says, “I experience an awareness of my own energy, life force surging and vibrating throughout my body, a new-found acquaintance [with myself] separate, above, and beyond my pain-ridden body.”
Taking Alexander Technique lessons and becoming a teacher have given Alana powerful tools to manage the pain of fibromyalgia. One was her discovery of the relationship between her body’s pain and emotional trauma. Her emotional trauma was bottled up in her body as tension, which caused pain. Learning to calm her nervous system allowed her to let go of the physical tension and ease the pain she experienced. Unwinding these deep layers of holding has required perseverance and patience—but realizing her own and others’ potential to release physical and emotional tension has been an empowering process for Alana.
With the Alexander Technique, David and Alana have not only gained effective skills to relax their bodies when in pain, they have gained skills for life:
- the ability to recognize their habit of tightening muscles when in pain;
- the ability not to tighten muscles or not react to pain;
- the ability to release muscular tension with conscious thoughts.
These skills can be used on a daily basis, and do not require a lot of effort. They are, in fact, effortless. There are hundreds of people across the United States who, like David and Alana, have benefited from the Alexander Technique and can go for walks, socialize with friends, write articles on the computer, speak in public, and get a good night’s sleep without tight muscles, without stiff joints, and without pain.
Sharon Jakubecy is a board certified Alexander Technique teacher practicing in Los Angeles, Calif. She has been a teacher for five years and co-chairs the Marketing and Media Committee for AmSAT. A dancer, she was led to the Technique by her own hip and lower back pain.
To contact her, go to www.AlexanderTechniqueLA.com.
The Alexander Technique is named for F.M. Alexander, who developed it around the turn of the nineteenth century. Alexander suffered from a vocal problem that threatened his career as a Shakespearean actor. Through a persistent process of self-observation and experiment, he developed the Alexander Technique and restored the full use of his voice. Eventually, he trained others to teach his technique. Today, Alexander Technique instructors teach students how to change their harmful habits and move with less tension.
There are Alexander Technique teachers nationwide and around the world. The American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT) is the largest professional association of certiﬁed Alexander Technique teachers in the United States. The website (amsatonline.org) has information about lessons and a list of certiﬁed teachers under the heading “Find a Teacher.”
AmSAT certiﬁed teaching members have successfully completed a three-year (1600 hour), full-time training course approved by the Society or an afﬁliated society. Alexander Technique lessons cost anywhere from $50 to $100 per class. The Alexander Technique is not generally covered by insurance, but is reimbursable under the terms of some Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA).