Managing Back Pain With the Alexander Technique

Back pain is a highly common thing people suffer from—so much so that it is almost assumed after a certain age. It can range from debilitation to general achiness, leaving one feeling depressed and exhausted from having to battle the discomfort all day, and fearful they may hurt themselves more because of the apparent vulnerability. There are obviously remedies out there from massage, to yoga, to ibuprofen, to CBT, to PT, etc. We rely on these things of course. And everyone must find their path to relief and physical health. I am here to offer another avenue—for those who are unfamiliar with the Alexander Technique and its approach to back pain.

The Alexander Technique is an educational approach that offers therapeutic benefits. It is not treatment, per se, which is why it does not fall into the category of physical therapy. But in the end if it works for you, it will give you the personal tools to manage the pain and learn how to come out of physical habits that will prevent the issue from surfacing. In a nutshell, it can be miraculous, but does require awareness and practice. As a former professional dancer and someone who still dances at 58, I can say that it has been the one and only best, most effective system for working out any musculo-skeletal issues I have had to deal with.

So how does it work? Unlike other systems of musculo-skeletal care, the Alexander Technique brings your awareness to the whole body and its coordinated functioning that is inherent to our neuromuscular system. We don’t address the body in parts. As adults, we have no knowledge of this, but a teacher will bring your attention to the fact that when you were very young, your body moved in a fluid, coordinated fashion, without tension or pressure on certain parts to take on work they were not designed for. There are many reasons why back pain is so prevalent in our culture. It is almost inevitable based on the ways we are conditioned to use our bodies in everyday life, in addition to whatever other repeated tasks or positions one’s lifestyle requires.

Much of this has to do with furniture, our hyper focused dependency on sitting in chairs and the like, being forced from a young age to be sitting at a desk in school and then work, and the lack of awareness/education of how the body is designed to move/be supported that allows skeletal joints to fold where they naturally do, again, not putting undo pressure on muscles and joints that are not meant to bend or take the load. We have all witnessed people in certain cultures, whether in magazines or the movies, where, for example, adults still utilize their natural deep squat (not the kind that is taught in a gym or fitness class) as a mechanical advantage (as Alexander termed it) facilitating efficient, easy movement and support to simply hang out in, or get down to the ground to pick something up, or the like. We see this in toddlers and young children, so familiarly, but would never imagine that is how we could still be moving around!

I remember the first time I was introduced to this work in 1991, and the teacher showed us a photo projected on the wall of his son who was around 2. The deep squatted, wholeness and positioning was almost unrecognizable, and obviously so normal for someone of that age. I just had never considered that not only was I once moving like that, but could be at the age of 25 (my age at the time). When one’s body is permitted (invited) to return to its tension-free, natural, fluid, coordinated, easy state of skeletal joint efficiency, there is no pain (generally—and of course depending on what one is suffering from). This is always proof to the student that not only is there a way out of the usual, assumed discomfort, but that they can learn how to allow their body to let go of the muscular holding patterns that are hindering skeletal effortlessness.

The Alexander Technique is not a fixative. Rather, one discovers that the answer is to come out of tension in the moment of activity—and the ingrained, habitual holding patterns in their muscles that they never even realized they were employing. Alexander highlighted that as we age, with every move we make, our body subconsciously contracts muscularly in preparation for all its behavior. This sets us up to not only be in pain and varying degrees of malfunction, but also to have lost all recollection of the relaxed yet supported buoyant way we once moved.

The sky is the limit with this work. Because it is an approach of coming out of what feels familiar versus doing something new to fix a problem, it is not for everyone. People learn in all different ways and are drawn to certain applications over others. I thoroughly enjoy presenting this work to people and exploring the ways they most comfortably learn and absorb new information, especially when it is as personal as living in one’s own body. One must try things on and see for themselves the changes that can occur—and the absence of pain. Only then is the proof evident. But I can tell you there is a way out…and you are not forced to live forever with habitual back pain. That is because your body once did move in an effortless manner, and it knew exactly what to do. The education of the Alexander Technique is remarkable because it points something out that has always been available to us, we just didn’t know! I would never guarantee results because, as I said, the work is not for everyone, and does require awareness, practice, and patience. Nevertheless, when one discovers that underneath immobility, familiar tension patterns, and muscularly contracted reactions to everyday life, there is an unforced movement and support system available, and it is a wonderful thing to witness.

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