The Alexander Technique and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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By Martin Finnegan

What exactly is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?* Sometimes referred to as ME or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, it is a term that describes a chronic, debilitating disorder that affects the immune and central nervous system. Typical of its symptoms are a profound fatigue, totally out of proportion to a person’s physical activity and independent of mood, plus a range of other symptoms that can affect any organ of the body. The causes of CFS are unknown. Indeed there appear to be any number of apparent causes and in many cases the onset seems to be linked to a stress to the immune system such as an acute infection, especially viral in nature. After the stress or virus has run its course the symptoms do not abate as you would expect but set in, becoming chronic and are often associated with profound fatigue and feelings of general malaise.

The symptoms of CFS are a prolonged and disabling feeling of exhaustion lasting at least six months. The symptoms are often made worse by any activity and are often unrelieved by sleep. Symptoms vary between people but may include persistent and profound fatigue, exhaustion, flu-like symptoms including a sore throat, fever and sore lymph glands, muscle and joint aches, pains and weakness, headaches, nausea, balance disturbances, dizziness, vision problems and sensitivity to light and noise, sensitivity to foods and common chemicals, thoracic symptoms including palpitations and breathing difficulties and sleeping problems including insomnia and an excessive desire to sleep. Western medical science has no specific diagnostic test at the moment. As a result diagnosis must be made by excluding other illnesses. This can be a long, difficult and costly process. Many CFS symptoms overlap with those of a number of other illnesses including multiple sclerosis. Nor is the symptom of chronic fatigue confined to CFS. Just about anyone can get CFS however it seems that it is most common among 20 to 40 year olds and women outnumber men. Symptoms can last from a few months to years. Some people make a gradual recovery, some never fully recover and others become progressively worse.

At this stage western medicine has no cure and because there is no definitive diagnostic test some skeptics claim that it is ‘all in the mind’. Other experts say that it is rather ‘a condition in which the physical and psychological intermesh’. These comments are interesting from an Alexander Technique perspective. From his earliest experiments F.M. Alexander realized that it was impossible to separate the physical and the mental and spoke of the indivisible unity of the body and mind, a concept that is hardly revolutionary today. Yet we see the strong Cartesian influence in the thinking of western medical experts who perceive ‘mind’ and ‘body’ as distinctly separate elements. How could it be otherwise that the physical and psychological intermesh, for as Alexander puts it, we are psycho-physical beings. Here we run directly up against the limitations of the western medical model, which has the underlying assumption that each disease has a single cause that can be identified by ‘objective testing’ and that this information determines the best treatment. The model also suggests that the solution to any health problem depends almost entirely on the actions of physicians and the health care system and very little on the actions of the patient. It virtually ignores the patient’s thoughts and feelings concentrating pretty much exclusively on the physical aspect. This is not to say that good medical care should not be sought. Indeed if you have a serious injury or pathology you sure as hell want that medical model in place because it works and works very well – but only up to a point!

When it comes to something like CFS it is obvious that the model has some substantial limitations and you need to start thinking outside the current paradigm. Gregory Bateson talked about how the medical model has accumulated a lot of very clever tricks that work very well, such as the vaccine for polio; but the minute that such a vaccine is found nothing further is researched about it. The end result is a medical system that has no underlying wisdom, no superstructure that binds it all together in an holistic way. The rise of alternative therapies is certainly an indication of this. So if the model is inadequate what can we do? We can always try another model. In my own case the Ayurvedic or traditional Indian model worked very well returning me to health in about 2 years and helping me to make some major life adjustments along the way. The advantage of the Ayurvedic (literally the ‘science of life’) model is that it does have a systematic and profound wisdom underpinning it, that stems from over five thousand years of culture and learning. It treats the whole person – physical, emotional and rational.

Western medicine advocates rest, counseling, adjusting lifestyle and support as the best approach to treating CFS and this is all good advice. The problem, it seems to me is one of perception. The orthodox point of view perceives CFS as a thing. It is my opinion that CFS is not a thing at all, which is the reason that no cause and no diagnosis can be found. It is a process. A process of a human system running down, in a variety of ways, to such a point that it can’t function properly anymore. In my own experience of CFS, it was exactly that and the solution was not to attempt to ‘fix’ a part of my body but to address the whole of ‘me’ and my life, in all its various aspects – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. And the new model that I followed worked.

As Alexander Teachers we are, of course, not in the business of treatment at all. We are in the business of education. Marjorie Barstow, a renowned Alexander Teacher and a student of Alexander, once described the technique as ‘the study of the conservation of energy for human beings’. This is an apt description and especially relevant for CFS sufferers for whom the issue of energy conservation is critical. Many people afflicted by CFS may be depressed, angry, bitter and resentful at the inexplicable loss of their health and vitality and at the skepticism of others about their condition. A supportive Teacher who is non-judgmental and has the skills to help reeducate the way a person uses themselves -and their available energy – can make a huge difference. Using the Alexander Technique we would seek change in the ‘whole’ person through their thinking, feeling and moving by peeling back the habits of misuse that manifest in the student as chronic tension, pain or disease. Perhaps they are the very habits that contributed significantly to the condition we have labeled CFS in the first place.

Habits are by their nature below the level of awareness of the individual and by bringing them into the students field of observation they are in a position to bring them under conscious control and thereby give them more choices about how and where their energy is spent. This is especially so regarding the amount of energy expended in inappropriate muscular tension. The Alexander Technique does not offer any kind of magic pill nor does it seek to replace standard medical practice. What it does offer is a practical and proven method of self-care that places the responsibility and the power of recovery back into your own hands.

*References: Information about ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was supplied by the ME/Chronic Fatigue Society of NSW Inc. C/- Royal South Sydney Community Health Complex, Joynton Ave Zetland NSW 2017, Australia Telephone: (02) 9439 6026

Martin’s interest in the Alexander Technique initially came about due to his own recurring lower back problem. After realizing that the Technique was not only a practical and effective method of self care based upon sound principles, but also a powerful tool for personal development, he decided to train as a teacher. He has a long-standing interest in music, martial arts and philosophy and had lived in the Ryde District of Australia for the last 12 years with his family. He can be reached at