Somehow, something has gone terribly wrong ...!
The above illustration is no joke for many folk nowadays. We used to assume that, barring accidents or bad luck, we would be reasonably fit and well for most of our lives, although we also take it for granted that we will inevitably have less energy and more aches and pains as we pass through and beyond middle age. Now it seems that neither of these assumptions entirely holds true. Sadly, it is the case that more and more people are having problems at quite a young age with back-ache, RSI, headaches and other symptoms of stress, even while still at school or in their twenties. These aches, pains and anxieties may be caused in part by the increasing use of computers and mobile phones, and also by the high expectations, pressures and uncertainties experienced from an early age.
On a more upbeat note, a growing number of people are realising that we do not necessarily face a downward slide into pain and infirmity, or at least that we can postpone this for a while longer. These people are taking lessons in the Alexander Technique, a practical way of learning how to let go of harmful habits of muscle tension, and they are finding out how to care for themselves in a new and exciting way in their day to day activities. They discover that we are blessed with an amazing body which, despite our ideas to the contrary, is designed to carry us easily and gracefully in the upright position all through our lives. We see these body systems working beautifully in babies and young children, and we assume that somehow they just wear out. But Alexander students learn a whole new way of thinking about themselves. They realise that we really are ‘all joined up’, from head to toe, and mind and body, so that what we think as well as what we do really does affect every single part of us, for better or worse. They discover that much of the deterioration that seems inevitable is in fact avoidable, and that they themselves, with some help and practice, can rediscover that lightness of being which is so evident in the very young.
But isn’t the Alexander Technique just another way of getting your back fixed?
Well no – it is more like learning to drive a car, or rather, like re-learning how to drive a car which has been driven pretty badly for many years. The body is the most important vehicle we will ever own, and yet we rarely think about whether we are actually using it well. Those who come to an Alexander teacher have lessons rather than treatments and, as in any kind of learning, their own participation is just as important as the words and guidance of the teacher. We are not trying to repair something, or to give the student something new, but to rediscover and restore the perfectly sound inbuilt support mechanisms that we had as young children, and which most of us still have if we can stop getting in their way!
So what has happened to them, these support systems which used to serve us so well?
One answer is that we have spent long periods over many years doing things our bodies were never really meant to do, such as sitting at desks, doing repetitive tasks of all sorts, driving for long periods in heavy traffic, enduring the ongoing stresses of noise, demanding work and difficult relationships, all of which contribute to the multi-faceted tensions and symptoms such as those outlined above. Well, we may say, there is not much we can do about any of these things – they are part of life as we live it. This is true to some extent, but what we can do is learn to change the way we react to these negative conditions. The Alexander Technique is a way of teaching us to notice and, if necessary, to change our habits of reaction to what is going on around us.
What has this got to do with our backs and sore knees?
Well, one of the responses to stress, which is so ingrained in us that we don’t even notice it any more, is the good old ‘startle reflex’ – a pulling back and down of the head and neck into the shoulders, a contraction of the whole musculature which results in the almost universal habit of fixing in a tense or slumped (both are comstricted) position. This becomes habitual, and the pressure this puts on the whole body becomes obvious as we begin to suffer from stiffness and pains in neck, shoulders and back, as well as a host of other problems. So we try to ‘sit up straight’, only to find that within a few minutes we have reverted to our ‘comfortable’ slouched position. The problem is that the muscles which we use to pull ourselves upright are not the right ones for the job – they are designed to be used for short periods only, for strength and movement, and they quickly get tired. The deeper postural muscles which are intended to hold us upright for long periods without effort have been left out of the picture, and so like any muscle which has been underused, they need to be re-trained.
So is it like physiotherapy, or yoga?
The Alexander Technique is as much mind-work as body-work. The aim is to intervene in the space between stimulus (the stress) and our response (generally speaking, a tightening and pulling down), and so to make a difference at this early stage in the process. In lessons we learn to create a tiny pause, and so to have some choice about the reactions which normally come automatically, particularly this overall pattern of scrunching up of head, neck and back. Then we learn a more positive way of responding, a series of thoughts which work in co-operation with our anatomy to gradually re-build the body’s strong centre, the support system we have ‘lost’. Our neuromuscular system is beautifully designed to work in concert with gravity. Instead of slouching or holding ourselves in a rigid posture, we can learn to mobilise this support system and use it wherever we go – in the car, at the computer, in the gym. We can regain a real sense of our natural upward energy, of ease and spaciousness in our bodies. In this way, we can experience again the lightness and energy we had as children, which literally ‘takes the pressure off’ our sore shoulders, compressed spines, tight hips and painful knees. This in turn makes space for all our organs and systems to function more efficiently, so that problems with breathing, digestion and voice may also improve. And we may also begin to notice that we ‘lighten up’ in the sense of being able to let go of some emotional tension Our minds and bodies really are so closely linked that this way of working can have unexpected effects on our overall well-being.
How does it work?
These Alexander ways of changing our patterns of habitual tension are practised in lessons over and over again, at first when lying down (yes, we do have habits of tension even there, but it is the easiest place to learn to let go of them). Lessons are a bit like learning to drive in a dual-control car - the teacher will use words and gentle hands-on guidance to help the student to ‘give up’ their habits for the moment, and so experience of a different way of using their mind and body. They will gradually learn how to take these new ways of thinking and being on themselves, and into activity – from sitting and standing, to working at a desk or playing a musical instrument. In this way, a student will eventually be able to apply what they have learned to their own tasks and situations in the real world We find out how to use appropriate effort for any given task, rather than wasting energy and doing ourselves damage with unnecessary tension. To return to the car metaphor, we can learn to drive in the right gear.
How long does it take?
This is no quick fix - we are, after all, undoing the habits of many years. So if somebody is in acute pain, I would always encourage them to find ways of dealing with that if possible – the equivalent of a service for the badly-functioning car. Then I would help them to look at what they were doing to cause the pain, and whether it might be possible to prevent it happening again. But even for those who for one reason or another are suffering damage that cannot be undone, the Alexander Technique can help with management of ongoing conditions, for example by becoming aware of the habits of muscular tension which build up around chronic pain and which can hang on long after they have outlived their usefulness.
Will a series of group classes sort me out?
Like learning to drive, the Alexander Technique needs to be taught one-to-one to see real progress, but a group class is a chance to find out if this way of working is of interest to you. In a group class, students can learn something of the fascinating background to this way of working, and about the ‘anatomy of up’ - the anti-gravity mechanisms and postural reflexes which we have forgotten that we have. A class will be fun, with games and activities which will show up some of our habits and give us ways of becoming more aware of how we use and misuse ourselves, without beating ourselves up about it! Students in a group can experience some of the teacher’s hands-on support, which will give them a taste of the delightful experience of letting go of long held tension. And many people find it helpful to hear about and watch others in the learning process. But best of all, in a group class combined with individual lessons, they can begin to learn how to unravel these habits for themselves, and how to take better care of themselves, at any age and stage of life.