From the category archives:

Conditions & Discomforts

No Easy Fix: Part III

January 22, 2011

I’d like to continue my exploration of Dr. R and her back pain (see here and here).  Her problems did not begin over night.

She tells her Alexander teacher that in high school her back would get tired frequently, but since the problem would go away, she didn’t bother with it. “But surely, you don’t think the problem started way back then, do you?” she asks.  “No,” the teacher replies, “probably even earlier, when you were about 6 or so.”

This seems unbelievable to her.  The idea that poor overall coordination could start so young is a thought that she has never considered.

And yet, as an eye doctor, she does have children in her practice with poor eye function which, left unchecked, she concedes, could cause neck and shoulder pain.  Still, Dr. R does not connect those dots; that a person’s general use could have effects on their functioning.

Later, the Alexander teacher learns that when Dr. R was in college, she often had stiff necks and tight shoulders.  These became worse in medical school as the stress built up.  Then, there were the personal disappointments and struggles (which we all deal with in life) that added to her exhaustion and strain.

She was always active in sports such as swimming, riding, running, tennis and expected that such activities would “do the trick” in reducing the pain and pressure.  When she is told that every sport, every activity, is still performed within the context of an overall manner of use, is still taking place within a response to the ever-present field of gravity, and that this response to gravity is both mal-coordinated and habitual, she is overwhelmed.

And here is where we come again to the question of why Dr. R stops her Alexander lessons.  In the last post I offered the explanation that the work was a threat to her self-image.  Here I would like to give another possible reason: She is overwhelmed by what is being asked of her, and she doesn’t know if that kind of fundamental change is possible.  When we talk about general use, we are talking about a constant.  It requires a lot of desire and genuine patience to change a constant.  Dr. R might become disheartened.  She might return to the physical therapy and skip the Alexander lessons.  She would at least feel like she’s doing something.  And if the PT does give her some relief, even temporary relief, from back pain symptoms, she can tell herself that that Alexander stuff about “general use” wasn’t that important after all.

It is unfortunate.  Although it can feel like a daunting task at first, conscious improvement in our own use is possible.  Yes, change in our use is demanding, as it calls for sustained attention, but the Alexander Technique works.  It is not an easy fix (there is no such thing), but it is an easeful one.

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No Easy Fix: Part II

January 11, 2011

In Part I, I started to describe Dr. R and her struggle with back pain (and the idea of a blind spot).

Dr. R comes to an Alexander teacher who tells her that her back is not the key issue in her troubles.  Dr. R does not follow this line of thinking.  When she is told that her poor overall manner of use of herself is the root cause of her pain, she blanks out.  She really can’t understand this as a concept; it is in 180-degree opposition to how she has been taught to think.  Now, she is certainly not a stupid person.  She speaks the language.  So why can’t she understand this idea?

She holds a belief: If a part is giving pain, fix it.  End of story.  She has no sense of the person as an integrated unity that works as a whole.  Her sense is that she possesses a body which is made up of separate, independent parts.  According to this model, overall use can’t have much meaning, and that is why she doesn’t understand what the teacher is trying to convey.

Bear in mind that she has been dealing with her condition of pain as it deteriorates using her medical model and taking physical therapy –which by her own admission has not helped her. Yet she cannot see any other possibility.

But here is where things get really interesting.  Dr. R takes some Alexander Technique lessons and does feel oddly better.  She enjoys the lessons and for awhile goes a few times a week.  Then, she suddenly decides to stop the Alexander work, and resume her physical therapy.  Why do you suppose this is her conclusion?  She saw results, her pain was lessening, and her overall use of herself was improving.

It is because the Alexander work demanded that her thinking undergo a shift, and this is very dangerous to a person.  Change thought; change the fabric of the self.   Dr. R knew herself largely by her habitual thinking, by the beliefs and the crucibles that carried her along in life.  This is true of all of us to some degree.  In order to make changes in our overall use, we must start to become aware of our blind spots.  This can be an unsettling experience, because those blind spots can be a line of defense, protecting our habitual self-image.  In order to make the most of the work, we must be willing to take down some armor, and be willing to see ourselves from a different point of view.  That’s not easy.

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No Easy Fix: Part I

January 5, 2011

I have been writing about debauched Kinesthesia (here, here, and here) and there is an aspect to this topic that rules most of our habitual reactions.  Let’s call it the blind spots in our thinking and in our perceptions. Of course we are unaware of the blind spots otherwise they would not be blind spots.  I am speaking about types of fixed ideas we have regarding the accomplishment of goals.

We have these deeply held beliefs that shape and color how we go about achieving what we want to achieve, and we are unaware that we are pre programmed, as it were, to do things in a certain way.  We are only aware that a task is demanding, or boring, or tiring, or that we are lacking.  Lots of times we feel, in the end, like we’ve failed ourselves.

We do not see how our basic thinking processes have been corrupted by habits of mind that have been in place for many years.  An example:

Dr. R is a very well regarded eye surgeon. Her career is solid and she is always in demand for her excellent services.  She is well paid and also teaches.

Now, Dr. R has terrible back pain, which has been getting steadily worse.  She has had a lot of medical diagnoses and some surgeries and yet the pain is never gone.  Her career is threatened, due to this condition, and she is losing confidence in her capacity to operate since there are times that the pain is so terrible that she needs medicine, which makes her thinking cloudy.

She firmly believes that since she can “fix” eyes, she should be able to “fix” her back also, and that then the pain would go away.  She is not aware that her medical model separates the person into parts.  Until she recognizes that this model is not accurate, that a person is whole, she will continue to struggle, unsuccessfully with pain.  She will try and try, but with major blind spot.

When the thinking stays the same, so do the results.

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Width

October 21, 2010

by Stella Weigel

What do you think of your shoulders?  I only ever thought of mine as being ugly and rounded.  I loathed seeing them in a mirror or in photographs, and tried to conceal them from display, not wishing to draw attention to them.

I was asked to push my shoulders back and I tried to do this with the best will in the world. This didn’t help.  In fact it just increased the amount of tension I already had there.  On top of all that, I generally carried around a heavy shoulder bag full of books.  I was aware that my shoulders were not as they should have been, yet until I took Alexander Technique lessons, I did not know that I could help myself by thinking of them widening away from one another.

I now know that the shoulder girdle is only attached to the spine indirectly, at the sternum.  It is a very basic aspect of our anatomical design, but for me during the third term of training, it was a revelation. I was holding onto my shoulders, thereby causing an inordinate amount of tension, when in fact I could just as easily think about releasing them and letting go.  The shoulder pain, which I had had for quite some time, disappeared when I thought my directions.

I continually need to think about asking for more width across my shoulders, to think of my shoulder blades hanging, and of all the weight flowing down through my hips, knees and ankles, those major joints.  Last week I experienced this as I was practicing putting hands-on.  My teacher encouraged me to think of a “Y” shape at the front of my body and an inverted “Y” at the back, and I was struck by just how free and released I felt.

Instead of hunching, narrowing, and generally, pulling down, see if you are able to think of that all-important width, as well as height.

Guest Blogger, Stella Weigel, is a fifth term Alexander Technique student at The Constructive Teaching Centre, London, the world’s oldest and largest Alexander Technique training school.  She had Alexander Technique lessons from 2006-2009 before embarking on her training in April 2009.  She lives in the city of London.

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Many people come to the Alexander Technique because of lower back pain.  It’s not surprising. Our lives have become very sedentary and most of us will spend many hours a day in service related jobs sitting at desks looking at computers. Working pain free in our stressful world is becoming very difficult.  According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “Nonspecific chronic low back pain (LBP) remains one the most prevalent, expensive, and poorly treated conditions seen by primary care clinicians.[1]

Everywhere we see “cures” for back pain, ranging from surgery to pills, including exercises, chiropractic treatments, physical therapy, steroid shots, and acupuncture to name a few.  No one seems to think about prevention.

Prevention is what the Alexander Technique is all about, because the Technique is the study of how we use ourselves.  If we have back pain, there is a good chance that something we are “doing” is causing the pain.

The British Medical Journal conducted a randomised controlled trial to evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches and treatments in dealing with chronic back pain.  Subjects who took Alexander Technique lessons reported long-term benefits.

Best of all, the cessation of the pain is only a small part of what we achieve when we learn to use ourselves better. Alexander lessons enhance everything we do in our lives because they teach us how to stop putting ourselves wrong.


[1] See Glucosamine and the Ongoing Enigma of Chronic Low Back Pain, JAMA, 2010;304(1):93-94.

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