Posted: June 22, 2014

When I was in high school and college I was told by lots of people that I had great posture. As the daughter of a chiropractor (who never let me do my homework or watch TV on the floor) and after a decade of ballet lessons, without having to think about it I walked around with my head held high, my back straight, and my shoulders pulled down. And while this sounds like an ideal way to move through life, by 18 I was struggling with some mysterious neck and low back pain, and had learned through some hard life lessons that people thought of me as unapproachable and maybe even a little stuck up.

We tell a story about ourselves that is grounded in the way we move. For some of us, it stems from unconsciously protecting an injury long healed; for others it comes from feeling we are too short and desperately want to be taller or too fat and wish we could take up less space. Some people hold a strong belief that they are klutzy and spend their life watching their own feet. Growing up I had a friend who was very self-conscious about her smile and walked around with her jaw tight and her lips pressed together, making her appear very stern. She was a wonderfully funny and warm girl, but her belief that her smile was ugly told the world a very different story.

My sophomore year of college I was fortunate enough to take an acting class where the professor also happened to be a teacher of the Alexander Technique. I was doing a scene from The Rainmaker, where a young, plain girl, Lizzie, is made to feel special and beautiful by a confident stranger from out of town. We were half way through the scene when my professor stopped us.

“Jenn, you’re bringing a story into this scene that isn’t Lizzie’s. When you pull your shoulders back and walk around with your chin up you’re armoring yourself. You can’t breath and you can’t feel. The author has written a story about a vulnerable, wounded girl. That isn’t the story you’re telling.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

Then he put his hands on my shoulders and they suddenly widened and released forward into what I can only describe as home. I felt like I was slumped, but I also kind of knew that I wasn’t. I started to breath in a deeper way, and then all of the sudden, I just started crying. We continued the scene and it was probably the best work I’ve ever done.

As I gradually learned to let my shoulders release and widen, my back and neck pain disappeared. People suddenly seemed to be more open and welcoming. But what is so interesting is that I felt more open and easy-going.

Looking back, I realized that growing up in my home we frowned on expressing deep or negative emotions. We were and continue to be a close family, but we held back tears when we felt sad. Hugs only happened at airports and bus stations. What that professor was trying to tell me was that pulling my shoulders back and down and stretching my neck up helped me to create a shield against feeling things too strongly. It made me feel more invincible. It warned people against approaching me.

We tell many stories to the world through how we hold ourselves down, in, up, and together. Sometimes these stories influence how we even see ourselves. But when we get right down to it – are these stories accurate? Are they really us? And if we can find a way to allow for our innate balance and ease to restore itself, what possibilities await?

Posted: March 20, 2013

Doctors who study pain have hypothesized that there is a link between stress and chronic pain. Recurring pain can cause a sustained stress response, which in turn contributes to the pain, which in turn creates more stress, and so on.

A new study has found “that basal levels of cortisol (i.e. stress hormone in humans) were higher in chronic back pain patients than in healthy individuals….[these] findings are in accordance with the emerging perspective that the limbic system involved in fear, learning, and motivation would be the neural networks mainly impacted by recurring pain.” In other words, “Stress management might be a new avenue of dealing with chronic pain sufferers.”

Perhaps this is why so many chronic pain sufferers find relief by studying the Alexander Technique.

Here’s why: One of the things a student explores in an Alexander Technique lesson is their stress response (otherwise known as fight-or-flight, or the fight/flight/freeze response). Ever heard of it? Most people have somewhere in high school biology or on Jeopardy or read an article about it sometime in their lives. You probably see and experience the fight/flight/freeze response all the time and just never stop to think about it. Ever caught a squirrel off guard? There they are, going about eating their acorn, and all of the sudden you lumber by. What happens? They sense you, tense up, freeze for about a half second, and then fly up higher into the trees. The term “deer caught in the headlights” also sums up fright/flight/freeze. The deer freezes when it realizes that your car is barreling down at it at 60mph, and then (hopefully) it bolts off into the night.

Humans also experience this same response. Our unique problem as a species is that we don’t get to fight or fly when fight-or-flight is triggered. Instead, we hunker in, pulling our heavy heads down onto the delicate column of our spines and stay there. Next time you find yourself late for an important appointment, fighting with a loved one, or asked to give a speech at an event, notice what happens to your neck and back (are you putting yourself into a stress response trying to get this article read quickly before getting back to work?)

In an Alexander Technique session, you and your teacher will examine your head/neck/back relationship and see what unique patterns of tension and stress you are maintaining. They are probably patterns that up till this point have been unconscious. Once these habitual patterns are brought into awareness, your teacher will help you work out a way for you to undo them. In other words, you’ll re-train your brain to be more conscious of your unconstructive habits – whether they are postural, mental, or emotional – or all three.

So in a sense, when you take an Alexander Technique lesson, you are attacking pain from two angles – you are learning to observe your stress response while simultaneously learning to release muscle tension and experience new ways to delicately release back into your natural length.

Have you found yourself in a pain loop? Do you fear triggering an episode, or find you spend time worrying over your pain? Leave a comment. Then see if the Alexander Technique is right for you.

To find a teacher in the US or Canada, visit: alexandertechnique.com/teacher/northamerica/

For more on the study mentioned above, click here.

For a great 5 minute segment on pain and the brain, click here:


Author
Jennifer Schulz is an AmSAT certified Alexander Technique teacher. She maintains a private practice in Los Angeles, CA

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