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:

For more on the study mentioned above, click here.

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

Posted: January 11, 2012

I recently read an article in the New York Times by William J. Broad called How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. Contentious? Probably more than a little. Upsetting to those who practice? Absolutely. Being a dabbler in yoga myself I had to say my hackles went up at this one. Still, the article made some valid points.

Broad’s article features a renowned instructor named Glen Black who teaches only a few simple poses and almost no inversions (head stands, shoulder stands). “Black has come to believe that ‘the vast majority of people’ should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm…Not just students, but celebrated teachers…injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable.”

Although his viewpoint is extreme, I can’t completely disagree with what he’s saying.

According to the New York Times, “The number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — [this] means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury.” The demographic of people doing yoga has also shifted. Indian practitioners of yoga grew up sitting cross-legged and squatting, and continue to sit in these positions their entire adult life. According to Broad, “Yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures.” Americans who sit sedentary in chairs all day staring at computer screens or fuming in traffic lack the natural flexibility that yoga demands. Even those of us who stay fit and take regular exercise are not necessarily equipped for the demands of some poses.

Furthermore, “a growing body of medical evidence supports Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky. The first reports of yoga injuries appeared decades ago, published in some of the world’s most respected journals — among them, Neurology, The British Medical Journal and The Journal of the American Medical Association. The problems ranged from relatively mild injuries to permanent disabilities.”

I believe the reason we are seriously injuring ourselves in Yoga at such an alarming rate is that many of us are out of touch with our bodies. But we don’t have to be.

The Alexander Technique teaches you how to do whatever it is you do with more freedom and less tension. It teaches you to become aware of yourself in a new way, as well as how to pay attention to your body’s (sometime subtle) warning system. Most of us walk around unconscious of how we move through our daily lives. Even worse, if we are consistently in pain we adapt by divorcing ourselves from our pain (and in doing so, divorcing ourselves from our bodies). We learn to put all our attention on the goal (“I’m going to get this project done tonight no matter what it takes!”) and ignore how we get there. In doing all of this, we develop harmful postural or movement patterns that throw the body out of balance and weaken the structure as a whole. This is what creates those “underlying physical weaknesses” that Black mentioned. When the system is compromised, it only takes one wrong step and a little twist to cause a serious injury.

“Awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them,” says Glenn Black.

Yoga is a five-thousand-year old form. It has been proven to improve strength and flexibility. It can lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and fight fatigue. Can it be dangerous? It can. But by applying the principles of the Alexander Technique to your practice and arming yourself with a heightened sense of awareness, freedom, and better overall coordination, yoga or any strenuous activity can remain safe and fulfilling.

The article quoted above is adapted from a new book coming out next month called The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, by William J. Broad.

I’d love to hear your thoughts….

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

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