Until several years ago, my back pain was constant and my quality of life had deteriorated to the point of not being able to travel, having to wear an orthopaedic corset, and taking heavy painkillers that were also detrimental to my appetite and zest for life. I was dragging myself to work and home again, and every weekend I lay flat on my back, trying to recuperate for the next week’s work.
I tried the Alexander Technique at one point, but stopped after six lessons because I sought an immediate solution to my problem. I later had significant improvements (decreased pain) with an osteopath, and then with a chiropractor and a physiotherapist. But only short term. Today I know that the Alexander Technique is a long-term solution, it’s the ‘patient’ (the AT pupil) who works on her poor habitual use. Use?? Yes the use of her body: her neck, limbs, head, spine and of her mind. Because her mind, if willing and instructed, can interrupt bad habits. All those who have given up smoking tobacco understand.
If I finally decided to resume Alexander Technique lessons in 2003, it was because I met a colleague’s husband at a business dinner. He was the only one at a table of eight (average age forty-five) who was not slouching. At the time I was using an ergonomic cushion on the restaurant chair for back support. Seeing this, he suggested that I try the AT. I said I already had. He said ‘Try again. My back pain has gone. Even my golf swing has improved. So has my muscle tone.’ He was roughly my age, but looked more fluid and fitter than I either looked or felt. So I retried the AT. He said, ‘Persevere this time.’ I promised him and myself that I would take a minimum of ten lessons.
I did not like my AT lessons any better the second time around: I got up and sat down for half of the lesson; the only good part was the second half, where I got to lie down (in the AT ‘semi-supine position’) after my hard work in the first part of the lesson. But I realised why my colleague’s husband had specified ‘ten lessons minimum’ because, on the eighth lesson, I started to understand that my habitual use was dis-coordinating my body instead of coordinating it. I discovered (to my initial dismay) that in the Alexander Technique there is no concept of a right position for the body. Instead, the AT concentrates on promoting ‘right direction’, which must be learned anew because we have lost the sense of it. And most importantly, F.M. Alexander found that by changing our ways of thinking, we can free ourselves from physical misuse. In his own words, ‘We can throw away the habits of a lifetime if we use our brains.’
The Alexander Technique is teaching me just that: how to change the habit of a lifetime. I was always ‘shortening’ my spine (slouching) instead of allowing it to lengthen. To recount, not the end of my story, for I am only in its middle myself, my scoliosis has ‘evened out’ and is no longer flagrantly visible. It doesn’t impose itself any more on my daily feelings and sensations. My Alexander teacher explained to me what her own teacher had once said: ‘People think that there is a body with a spine somewhere inside it. But you must learn that you have a spine with a body around it!’
I imbibed this perception and began to use the AT to change the poor habitual use of my head, neck and back, which was producing the back pain to begin with. I say the AT phrase, ‘Let the neck be free, to let the head move forward and up, to lengthen and widen the back.’ With ongoing lessons, understanding and attention on my part, my back has started to lengthen and widen more frequently and more generously. From a pitiful condition of weakness and vulnerability, it has become stronger and more resilient. My spine has untwisted itself to a significant extent, and has recovered its indispensable natural curves.
Today I am no longer afraid of pain, and it no longer dictates my life, corsets and special cushions are things of the past. I can drive a car for a two-hour stretch, can sit in a train for a seven-hour journey to Italy, can do everything that pain - or the fear of it had stopped me from doing. No more back pain. And I have noticeable flexibility and fluidity. One example: I get out of a sports car easily. Another: I get up elegantly from a low sofa without having to ‘hoist’ myself up. (Watch your colleagues or friends, or even twenty-year-olds hoist themselves out of low cars and low chairs!) I have a life again, with a well-rounded social, leisure and working schedule.
In the novel The Cookbook Collector, the writer describes back pain (p. 125)
The commute was bad enough. One morning he could not get out of bed. If he lay perectly still, he felt no pain, but the moment he shifted his weight, his muscles seized up again. ‘Barbara, ’ he called out, ‘I can’t move. ’After three months, he had come to think of it as the pain - not his pain, but a larger, impersonal force. Everyone gave Mel advice. Dave recommended a chiropractor. Jonathan suggested that he hit the gym. ‘I think, ’ Barbara said cautiously, ‘you might want to talk to Rabbi Zylberfenig. Everybody had a guru. Even Sorel Fisher, his newest hire, insisted, ‘I’ll give you the name of my Alexander teacher. ’
And, in art imitating life, the Alexander teacher ‘showed Mel where his posture was indeed misaligned’. ‘Posture’ is not a word in the AT lexicon. However, if you have back pain, go to an Alexander teacher and find out for yourself.
By now, and thanks to direct personal experience, I am well past the stage of ‘I’ll try it and see if it helps.’ I am committed to the process that Alexander’s principles imply. I continue with my weekly lessons - now with great pleasure because it’s like treating myself to dinner in a fantastic restaurant and at the same time learning to become a gourmet cook. And it’s even much better!
After writing my original text, last year my teacher and I started to work on encouraging more cervical curve in my ‘too straight’ neck (which was already an improvement on the reverse curve I’d started out with).
During this work, I made the personal discovery that end-gaining is less effective than non-doing and thinking. To many this may sound obvious, but for me it constituted a real breakthrough. Up until this moment, it had been very difficult for me to even recognise end-gaining in my Alexander work, although I had had no problem incorporating ‘stopping’ -inhibition -in my AT process.
I now perceive that this breakthrough occurred when ‘who cares if I slump or not?’ became a watch-phrase. It’s not, of course, that I wanted to slump ... or that I planned to slump ... but that I was finally not entirely oriented towards not slumping. This letting-go of my unconscious end-gaining of secretly and always wanting better posture re-oriented me to fuller attention on the means-whereby that Alexander offers us. This has curbed my end-gaining and enhanced the quality of my thinking and non-doing, both during lessons and in every-day life.
Every lesson now brings new benefits and new discoveries, thanks to my own doing less while thinking clearly. I have profited much from keeping this in mind, and now use it in conjunction with the idea of allowing flow instead of -however subtly - looking for some kind of better position.
When I was originally writing an account of my experience through having had lessons, I thanked the Alexander Technique for releasing me from my prison of pain. Today, I find I’ve stopped trying to fight the universe and thank the AT for helping me cultivate flow in all aspects of my life.