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 worked with a student who came to see me because she’d been suffering from back pain for many years. I’ll call her Jamie. During one of her early lessons, Jamie told me that she thought her back pain had an emotional aspect – that it was related to stress. For one thing, she said, her work was stressful. She ran an organic farm, and she found it stressful, both physically and emotionally. In addition, she was married and she said there were difficulties in her marriage.
Jamie made it clear that, as we addressed her back pain, she also wanted to deal with these emotional stresses. She wanted to talk about them with me, and process them. I was comfortable doing that with her because, in addition to being an Alexander teacher, I have a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In the past, I taught psychology for nine years, at both the high school and college levels.
As you might imagine, most Alexander teachers don’t do what I do: they don’t process emotional issues with their students. If feelings come up for a student during her Alexander lessons, or if a student has a psychological issue she wants to address, most teachers will refer her to a psychotherapist.
I take a somewhat different approach. I begin by telling my students that, for some people, learning the Alexander Technique involves an emotional component – while, for others, it doesn’t.
“It all depends on the person,” I explain. “Some people experience feelings during their lessons, or want to talk about their feelings, while others don’t. I’d be happy to talk to you about that aspect of the process if you’d like to. I don’t want you to have to deal with your feelings by yourself. In the end, though, it’s entirely up to you.” After I’ve said that, I don’t bring this topic up again unless the student does.
There’s one other boundary I observe. If a student does want to talk about her feelings, or about a psychological issue she’s dealing with, I make sure we don’t do that at the same time that she’s learning the Alexander Technique. I set aside separate times for each learning process. So for example, with some students, I set up an alternating schedule: every other week, we do an Alexander lesson, and every other week, we do a session in which she can process her feelings.
Keeping all of that in mind, let’s get back to Jamie and her story. From the beginning, she was clear that she wanted to talk to me about some of the psychological issues she was dealing with, as I said. In particular, she wanted to talk to me about her relationship with her husband. She explained to me that she and her husband had been married for many years and that he’d used drugs throughout their marriage. She saw this as a problem, and had repeatedly asked him to get help. He hadn’t done that, though, so she’d finally run out of patience and given him an ultimatum. Either he had to stop using drugs or she was going to leave him.
Unfortunately, soon after that, Jamie’s back had gone out and she’d had to spend more than a month in bed with severe back pain. It had taken three or four months before she’d been able to return to work full-time. Because of that episode, she hadn’t had the strength to follow through on her ultimatum.
All of that had happened a few years before I met Jamie. When she came to see me, things with her husband were unchanged.
She also explained to me that her relationship with her husband wasn’t the only relationship that she found stressful. She also found it difficult to be in charge of a number of employees at work (once again, she ran an organic farm). She’d always had a hard time dealing with conflict, and it made her uncomfortable when other people got angry. Because of that, she didn’t like having to give her employees constructive criticism. She also didn’t like setting limits with them.
Muscle Tension And Memory
During her Alexander lessons, Jamie went through a number of changes, both physical and emotional. First of all, she discovered that she had extra muscle tension both in her back and throughout her body. It turned out that that tension was causing her back pain. During her lessons, she learned how to reduce that tension. At the same time, she learned how to realign her head, neck and back in a more optimal way. As a result, her back pain gradually but steadily improved.
During one lesson, Jamie had an experience that helped her understand one of the causes of her muscle tension. We were working on the tension in her back, and she experienced a deep release. Muscles that had been tight for many years began to let go and lengthen. As a result, she had a powerful memory of something that had happened to her when she was an infant, before she could walk. Here’s how she described the memory:
“I was very small, wearing the kind of terrycloth sleeper babies and toddlers wear. I was holding on to the rail of my crib, in a room with green walls. I can see the pattern of the wallpaper. I was crying for my mother. All I wanted was for my mother to come and get me. Finally, she walked into the room. I remember that she was angry, and that she had her hand raised to hit me. She said something with strong words and I felt the deepest pain – emotional as well as physical. I don’t remember what happened after that.”
As Jamie re-experienced this memory, she cried deeply. Afterwards, we talked about the memory, and all the issues related to it. It began to dawn on her that that interaction with her mother, which she’d forgotten about until now, might have played a role in her fear of anger, and her difficulty with conflict. It might also have had something to do with her difficulty setting limits with her husband.
I also explained to Jamie that what she was experiencing was not uncommon. Other people I’ve worked with have had similar experiences. It turns out that many of us set aside some of our feelings as we’re growing up. We may do that because of the stress of school or work, or it may happen because a feeling or memory is especially painful.
It’s well known to psychotherapists what happens when we forget about some of our feelings. They don’t go away. They “go underground,” so to speak, and they may stay hidden for many years. Eventually, though, they may come back and affect us indirectly. We may experience psychological symptoms such as depression, addiction, nightmares, or fears, to name a few. Like Jamie, we may have difficulty with relationships.
What’s less well known is that our hidden feelings may also affect us physically. Without realizing it, we may carry them in our body. We may “store” them in our muscles, in the form of extra muscle tension. In Jamie’s case, she now understood that this was one of the causes of her muscle tension, and of her back pain.
She also understood that she didn’t have to carry that memory in her body anymore. Instead, she could bring it to awareness and work through all the feelings she had about it.
Our Rightful Space
The second big thing that happened during Jamie’s lessons was a suggestion I made to her. At a certain point, when I was working on her back and shoulders, I suggested to her that she could take up the space that rightfully belongs to her. Here again, she began to cry. After she’d had a chance to express some of her feelings, I asked her what her experience was. She said that she’d never really done that.
“I haven’t let myself take up my space in the world,” she said. Until now, she hadn’t realized how powerful that theme had been in her life – but she’d always been extremely sensitive to the expectations of others. She’d always been concerned about what they thought of her. Above all, she’d tried hard to please other people, and avoid conflict with them.
Now she was beginning to realize that all those efforts had taken a physical toll. Without realizing it, she’d been holding herself in check. She’d been “keeping a lid on things,” as she put it. She’d even made herself small. It seemed as if all of those efforts had made her tense, she said.
Thanks to her Alexander lessons, Jamie began to be intrigued by the possibility that she could begin to expand and occupy her rightful space. She could make a decision not to hold herself in check quite as much. At the same time, she could begin to address some of her tension. Even though it felt unfamiliar, and at times even scary, she began to take gradual steps in that direction.
“I Have A Spine Now!”
So far in this article, I’ve talked a lot about what happened when Jamie addressed her extra muscle tension. Once again, that process led to some important psychological changes. The thing is that that’s not the only thing Jamie learned during her Alexander lessons. She also learned how to realign her head, neck and spine. The release of muscle tension helped her do that because her extra muscle tension had been interfering with the natural relationship of her head, neck and spine.
As Jamie learned how to realign her head, neck and spine, that led, along with the other changes she’d made, to a dramatic turning point in her life. She finally decided to follow through on her ultimatum to her husband, and ask him for a divorce. She explained to me that she’d decided to do that because he’d still not taken any steps to deal with his drug problem. I’ll always remember what she said when she told me about her decision. It was one of the more dramatic moments of my teaching career:
“For the first time, I feel as though I can stand up to my husband, and to other people, without being afraid that I’m going to hurt my back. Deep down, I feel as though I have a spine now!”