July 18, 2008

It’s Not Just Relaxing; It’s Reprogramming

For years I've been plagued by excess muscle tension in my neck, shoulders and back. I do breath work and yoga. I get massages. I drink wine. But the minute I stop, the tightness creeps back in.

Hoping for some long-term relief, I recently started taking lessons in the Alexander technique, a subtle process of "un-doing" that helps you learn how to recognize and reprogram my body's bad habits.

Initially, the relatively obscure method, used by musicians, actors and athletes, seemed daunting and a little maddening. Unlike yoga, pilates and tai chi, you're not "doing" poses or prescribed exercises. And unlike massage or chiropractic work, no one is actively doing anything to you.

"It's not an end-gaming type of thing," said my Chicago-area instructor, John Henes. "It's a learning process that's not goal-oriented."

But the idea that the body functions best when it's in its natural state made plenty of sense. And after herniating a second disk in my neck, I wanted something that could improve my posture and teach me to move more comfortably.

My problems apparently began about 40 years ago, when I learned how to sit, stand and walk. My body stored this information in its procedural memory, allowing me to move unconsciously. Over time, however, bad habits and poor posture became my default mode, creating unnecessary pressure and strain.

The Alexander technique, developed by an actor who discovered that muscle tension was affecting his voice, teaches self-awareness to help us notice how we move. It can be used to treat back, neck or shoulder pain, repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel, stress, and vocal or breathing disorders.

Change comes when we "stop initiating the movements that are causing us problems," said Ed Bouchard, another Chicago-area teacher of the technique.

Leaning how not to do something is the hardest part of the process. In addition to patience and a commitment to change, it usually takes a minimum of 30 lessons, once a week.

A typical 30- to 45-minute session, which can cost between $55 and $85, involves two segments: chair and table work. As you sit in a chair, stand up or walk, the instructor gently guides your movements with his hands. On the table, you'll lie fully clothed on your back, with your eyes open, while the teacher helps you practice releasing tension.

In my first lesson with Henes, I learned I stand with locked knees, which creates excess strain on my joints. During my second visit, we practiced "letting go" while trying to balance on a wobble board.

I'm months _ maybe years _ away from making any permanent changes; in the last week, I caught myself locking my knees while standing in line at the grocery store, while washing the dishes and while taking a shower. I also consistently scrunch my neck into my shoulders when I swim, bike, reach for a cup or stand up from my desk.

But the Alexander technique says that small, mindful changes can create huge physical and emotional shifts. And the fact that I'm noticing things like locked knees and scrunching is the first step to change. After two sessions with Henes and one with Bouchard, I felt oddly loose and back in balance for the first time in years, even though they only lightly touched my body.

For someone like me, a sweaty disciple of the "no pain, no gain" school of thought, that alone was a breakthrough.

For more information, visit alexandertech.org.


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