In order to function well, we need a certain amount of muscle tone. Unfortunately, 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 that’s one reason why so many of us are in pain or have difficulty with activities.
Through private lessons in the Alexander Technique, you can become aware of your unnecessary muscle tension and reduce it. At the same time, you can rediscover the natural alignment that we all had as children. This alignment will give you better balance, coordination, and ease of movement.
I once gave Alexander Technique lessons to a student who had cerebral palsy. I’ll call him James. James traced his cerebral palsy back to his birth. He had been a large baby, weighing almost 14 pounds when he was born. His birth had been difficult and, unfortunately, he had suffered hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, which caused damage to his brain and nervous system.
Thankfully, James’ intelligence had not been affected. When I met him, he was married, had two children and had a full-time job working for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Instead, the damage took a different form: there was increased excitation and decreased inhibition in the descending pathways from his brain and central nervous system to his muscles.
Excitation and inhibition. These neurological concepts may sound complicated – but they’re actually very simple. And they’re also extremely important not only if we want to understand James’ difficulty, but also if we want to understand the Alexander Technique and how helpful it was to him.
Think of it this way. Whenever you engage in an activity, your brain sends two kinds of messages to your muscles: excitatory messages and inhibitory messages. The excitatory messages tell certain muscles to contract, to do something. Meanwhile, the inhibitory messages tell other muscles not to do anything, to stay at rest.
But here’s the thing. Modern society puts a huge emphasis on doing – on accomplishing tasks, working hard, and achieving goals. This emphasis is obviously useful and important – but unfortunately, it has a downside. For many of us, it’s gradually led to an imbalance in our nervous system. Little by little, the excitatory messages have begun to outweigh the inhibitory messages. As a result, we’re living with an internal state where both our nervous system and our muscles are working overtime, so to speak. Even when we’re at rest, there’s a lot of extra activity going on inside.
I often compare that activity to the refrigerator in your kitchen. Think back to a time when you were sitting in your kitchen and the refrigerator shut off. All of a sudden, the room got really quiet – and then you realized there had been a hum all along and you hadn’t even noticed it.
For many of us, something similar is going on in our nervous system and our muscles. There’s a “background hum” that’s there no matter what we’re doing, and we’re not even aware of it!
Keeping all of that in mind, let’s get back to James and his cerebral palsy. While most of us have an overly active nervous system, the problem was considerably heightened for James. In his case, the imbalance between inhibition and excitation had gone to the extreme. As a result, he suffered from something called spasticity. For example, his left arm “had a life of its own,” as he put it: it would tremble and shake a lot of the time. It would move even when he didn’t want it to. That was actually true of his whole left side, but the problem was most extreme in his arm. Despite his best efforts to keep those areas still, nothing had helped.
Until he started taking Alexander lessons, that is.
How did the lessons help him? It turns out that F.M. Alexander, the founder of the Alexander Technique, made an extraordinary discovery. He discovered that we can use a special thought process to consciously increase the amount of inhibition in our nervous system.
As a result, we can restore the balance between inhibition and excitation, and quiet the background hum that exists in our nervous system. At the same time, we can encourage our muscles to lengthen and return to rest. That way, when we carry out activities, we don’t have to overdo. We can exert only the minimum amount of effort necessary for the activity.
James found the conscious practice of inhibition extremely helpful. Invariably after lessons, his whole left side, and his left arm in particular, were quieter. Of course, progress was slow because he not only had to deal with spasticity, he also had a lot of background muscle tension.
There was a good reason for that. James, like many other people with cerebral palsy, had difficulty balancing – although, unlike some, he could stand and walk. Once again, his difficulty balancing was related to the lack of inhibition in his nervous system. As you might imagine, inhibition is extremely important when we’re walking, maintaining our balance, and carrying out activities.
In any case, because of his difficulty balancing, James had had a lot of falls over the years – and so he was understandably afraid of falling. His fear had in turn led to a lot of extra tension.
Still, he was able to make good progress with the Alexander Technique. Not only was he able to quiet his overly active left side, he was also able to address a lot of his background tension. As a result, his balance gradually began to improve.
Of course, inhibition wasn’t the only thing that James learned about during his Alexander lessons. He also learned how to realign his head, neck and spine. As a result, his coordination improved along with his balance. Still, the single most valuable thing he learned, as someone living with cerebral palsy, was the conscious practice of inhibition.