In order to function well, we need a certain amount of muscle tone. Without realizing it, though, most of us have more tension than we need, because of the stress of daily living. This tension interferes with the natural alignment of our head, neck and spine and puts pressure on our joints and nerves. That’s one reason why so many of us experience chronic pain or have difficulty with activities.
Through private lessons in the Alexander Technique, we can become aware of our unnecessary muscle tension and reduce it. At the same time, we can rediscover the natural alignment that we all had as children. This alignment gives us better balance, coordination, and ease of movement.
As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I’ve worked with many people who suffered from back pain. Here’s one example. I once worked with a woman in her early forties who came for lessons because she’d had a herniated disc and sciatic pain (numbness, tingling and pain down her right leg). Her name was Jessica.
Jessica told me that she’d first experienced back pain during the blizzard of 1978. She’d been shoveling snow and she’d thrown her back out. From then on, her back would go out once or twice a year, with more or less pain each time. She would always experience pain in her low back, and sometimes, she also experienced tingling and shooting pain down her right leg.
Finally, in 1990, two years before I met her, she had a much more serious episode. She was walking from her house to her car and she sneezed. What followed was the worst pain she’d ever experienced. In addition, she not only had shooting pain down her right leg; for the first time, she also began to have numbness in her right leg.
She went to see an orthopedic surgeon, and he told her she had a herniated (or bulging) disc between her fifth lumbar vertebra and her first sacral vertebra (L5 and S1), in her low back. The surgeon recommended surgery to address the problem.
After she’d had the surgery, Jessica’s pain was much better. She went through a few months of bed-rest and physical therapy, and then she was able to return to work. Unfortunately, though, she still had nagging pain in her back. At times, she still had to limit her work or even miss it altogether.
So two years after her surgery, she came to see me for Alexander lessons.
Here’s what had happened. Jessica’s vertebrae, the bones of her spine, had begun to rub against each other. As a result, they had squeezed two of her discs. We have discs in between all of our vertebrae: they act as “padding” for our spine. They’re made up mostly of water, so they’re like little water-cushions all along our spine.
In Jessica’s case, when her compressed vertebrae began to squeeze those two discs, they pushed them out of place. As a result, the discs began to touch her sciatic nerve. That was the reason for her pain and numbness.
During her Alexander Technique lessons, Jessica realized why her vertebrae had been squeezing her discs. The cause was extra tension in the muscles surrounding her spine. As those muscles shortened and became tighter, they put pressure on her vertebrae, leading to a cascade of symptoms. That underlying tension built up gradually – but until Jessica began taking Alexander lessons, she hadn’t been aware of it.
Now Jessica not only became more aware of her underlying tension, she also began to realize where it had come from. One important cause was stress: she had a very demanding job working for a computer software company. Little by little, the stress of her job had turned into physical tension.
She also remembered something else that had contributed to her tension. When she was about ten or eleven years old, her parents had become extremely concerned about her posture. They’d said that, if she didn’t improve it, they’d take her to a doctor and get her fitted for a brace. By the time she was a teenager, she’d worked so hard on her posture that she won Miss Indiana Posture!
Now Jessica could see that all her efforts to improve her posture – to sit up straight and stand up straight – had caused her to become tense. In the end, after many years of posture-improvement and many years of job-related stress, her tension had reached a threshold. Once that happened, even a relatively minor event, like a sneeze, could cause a major episode of pain.
Jessica learned something else during her Alexander lessons. She not only had extra tension in her back, she also had it throughout her body. No matter what she was doing, it was always there in the background. It turns out that most people have some extra tension in their muscles (although thankfully most of us don’t have the kind of pain Jessica did)
Our background tension is a little bit like your refrigerator. Think back to a time when you were in your kitchen and your refrigerator shut off. Suddenly, the room got very quiet, and then you realized that, all this time, the refrigerator had been making a noise, a background hum, that you hadn’t been aware of. It was only when the hum stopped, and the room got quiet, that you realized how loud the noise had been.
For most of us, our extra muscle tension is like that: it’s there all the time and we’re not even aware of it. Then, when we take Alexander lessons, our teacher helps us “shut off” the tension for the first time. That way, we learn how much “noise” we had inside, so to speak – and also how quiet our body can potentially be.
Let me get back to Jessica and her story. During her Alexander lessons, she learned how to reduce the extra muscle tension in her back and in the rest of her body. In addition, she learned how to improve the alignment of her head, neck and back. As part of that process, she learned how to lengthen her spine so that there was much less pressure on her vertebrae.
As a result, she was pain free when I last saw her.
One final note. Jessica wishes she’d had Alexander lessons as part of her rehabilitation right after her surgery. She thinks that might have sped up her recovery. She also wonders what might have happened if she’d had lessons five or seven years before the surgery. It’s possible she might have been able to prevent all of her back problems.