Posted: October 24, 2011

Last week I had a session with a very difficult new student. He had come to me because whenever he became stressed, he invariably experienced pain in his neck, upper back, and shoulders. Chiropractic helped the pain, but he was pretty convinced there was something he was doing to himself that was the root of the problem.

It was obvious to me he was interested in the Alexander Technique and was very willing to learn, but as soon as we started our lesson he grew very defensive very quickly. He became frustrated when I told him the first step in the process had to do with allowing his neck to be easy and free. Not only was he unable to let go of the tension in his neck, but he couldn’t explain to himself why he could not “loosen his neck” as he put it. The more frustrated he became, the more difficult it was for him to let go.

I knew this work would do wonders for him if he could stop being so hard on himself. If he could let go of the need to “get it right” and simply be curious about what he was experiencing I believed this frustration would abate on its own. I decided to put him on my massage table for what we call a “table turn” so that he could practice releasing unnecessary tension while lying down. I encouraged him to let go of his head and let the table support his body while I moved his arms and his legs. The expression on his face changed and he grew quiet and thoughtful.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

It took him a long time to answer. “I feel sad and I don’t know why.”

“That’s okay.” I told him. “Whatever you are feeling right now is alright.”

And with that he began to cry. We kept working quietly, me helping him release extra tension through his neck and across his chest, him noticing and observing his breath and his reactions.

Most people have no idea how much of their emotional life is locked up in their breath and their musculature. It’s very easy for us to roll our shoulders back and tighten our chest or abdomen against negative emotions like fear and sadness. We don’t want show the outside world what we are feeling. This armoring is not a bad thing in itself; things happen and it is imperative we develop coping mechanisms. The problem arises when the instinct to shield ourselves becomes habitual and subconscious. The problem arises when we don’t give ourselves a choice as to whether or not we express our emotions.

Adam Bailey, an Alexander Technique teacher who holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education has this to say:

For some people, their unconscious minds and their bodies may be the containers for feelings, memories and experiences that they’re unaware of. They may have “forgotten” about these emotions because of the demands of growing up in modern society – or because the original experiences were painful or the environment didn’t support their full expression of their feelings. This material is then stored in their bodies in the form of muscle tension, and may result in chronic pain, among other symptoms. Thus, these people, when they begin Alexander lessons, may experience deep emotions and memories from the past. For them, the Alexander Technique provides a safe, grounded means of dealing with this material as it emerges.

I need to specify here that Alexander Technique teachers are not therapists. We’re not interested in why these emotions have become buried or what experiences led to the holding and tensions that cause pain or stiffness. What we are interested in is helping students recognize these habitual patterns and strip them away so that they feel freer, lighter, and hopefully–pain free.

My student was pretty shaken up from his experience and though I’m afraid he left with more questions than answers he appeared lighter on his feet and more relaxed than when he walked in. “I’m don’t know why, but I feel like this weight has been lifted,” he exclaimed as he was getting on his shoes. I knew why. The downward pull in his chest and stiffness in his arms was gone.

Bailey, Adam. “The Alexander Technique and Psychological Growth | Alexander Technique Boston.” Adam Bailey | Alexander Technique Boston. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. .

Posted: August 16, 2011

Yesterday, while taking a jog through my local park, I sprained my ankle. It was one of those disorienting moments where one second I was thinking about how nice it would be to eat a hamburger for lunch and the next I’m sprawled in the dust with the sound of a loud crack still ringing in my ears. I knew immediately it was a bad twist and that I was not going to make it back to my apartment on my own. My day flashed before my eyes—work, errands, packing for a vacation I was to leave on the following day—and felt a frustration and disappointment and throbbing pain that brought tears welling up in my eyes. I pulled my head back and down into my neck, compressing my spine. I started getting angry. If only I had stayed on the pavement. If only I had turned off the alarm this morning and slept in like I wanted to—why was I being punished for doing the right thing and getting some exercise? Who lets this path get so uneven anyway? How am I going to get myself on a plane tomorrow? My trip is ruined!…

When there is a divide between What Is and What (we think) Should Be, we are often thrown out of the present moment. We spend our energy on regret or waste time running through looped scenarios of what might be but usually isn’t. That’s not to say we shouldn’t plan ahead or spend time learning from our past mistakes, but we have to honestly ask ourselves, how much of our daily lives are spent thinking pointlessly about yesterday and tomorrow?

The Alexander Technique is a method of teaching one to be here, fully present and engaged with the now. Sitting in the dust, my ipod and house keys twisted under me, I became aware of how tight my neck, back, shoulders and jaw had become. I stopped, allowed my neck to be free and easy, and allowed my head to delicately come to balance on top of my spine. Suddenly my world came a bit more into focus. My erratic breathing evened out, my heart slowed, and I was able to think more clearly.

A fellow jogger approached and asked if I was alright. I made a joke and she laughed, putting us both at ease.

Most people think Alexander Technique work is about posture—and it certainly is. But above anything else, it’s about learning how to give yourself a choice regarding how you respond to what life throws at you. When you react automatically, when you lash out, or find your emotional life out of control, you naturally contract into a fight/flight response which compresses your neck and acts as a parking break on your whole neuro-muscular system.

Try this: the next time something doesn’t go according to plan, whether it’s a broken glass, a traffic jam, a snafu at work or a disagreement with your partner, see if you can stop and give yourself some internal space before you react. See if you can allow your neck to be free and easy and let your spine lengthen. Step back and observe your thinking and breathing and see if you are lead to a different choice than you might have made only a moment before.

In the end my ankle sprain wasn’t nearly as bad as I had suspected. Generally I find that the hurdles that inevitably spring up are never as bad as I fear they will be.

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

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