Category Archives: Pain

Prevention is better than cure

Alexander Technique as health and safetyIs it just me, or do you find when looking for car insurance that none of the categories in the online drop-down employment list accurately describe your job? Not surprisingly the category I wanted (‘Alexander Technique teacher’) didn’t exist, but none of the available options seemed even remotely relevant to what I do. When I came across the category of ‘health and safety consultant’ I immediately thought of someone on a building site wearing one of those bright yellow hard hats. But then it dawned on me that ‘health and safety consultant’ is actually quite a good description of our work as Alexander teachers – helping people to look after their health and wellbeing, and prevent injuries and accidents in everyday life.

In a previous post I talked about how I use the Alexander Technique to help keep me safe day-to-day. Here I’ll say a few things about how learning the Alexander Technique can benefit our long-term health.

Although I’ll never be able to prove it, I am convinced that I’d be in a bit of a state by now if 20 years ago I hadn’t decided to take up the Alexander Technique. I do know that at that time I had daily low-level neck ache and the beginnings of RSI linked to extensive computer use and, more worryingly, I had a family history of severe neck and back problems. When I decided to begin Alexander lessons I was seeing it as my attempt at an ‘insurance policy’ for my future heath. It’s very clear to me now that the Alexander Technique is essentially preventative in nature – promoting health in its broadest sense, rather than treating specific issues. At that time, however, I didn’t know much about it and I don’t even remember how I first heard about it – all I remember is that I was scared that I might end up with similar problems to my mum and brother and was willing to try anything that might help me protect my long-term health.

So how can learning and applying the Alexander Technique impact on our health over a lifetime? Anyone who has had a reasonable number of Alexander lessons will be very aware of, and enjoy, how differently they move, sit, stand and even breathe, compared with their previous habitual ways of being and doing. They’re also likely to notice a tendency towards a calmer, more open, and more self-confident attitude to life. Our current physical and mental state is a reflection of the cumulative conditions of our existence/experience leading up to this point. So it’s easy to see that if, for example, we learn to move more effortlessly with less stress and strain on our back, neck and joints, that this might have beneficial consequences over the long term in terms of flexibility, aches & pains and so-called ‘wear and tear’ conditions such as osteoarthritis. One of the more subtle and intangible benefits, however, is the greater understanding and acceptance of oneself that comes from taking on board the Technique. This is accompanied by a growing sense of oneself as a whole, rather than having a concept of ‘self’ as essentially being the mind, which is then carried around by a separate (and not always trustworthy) body.

One evening last week I found my right knee suddenly really jarred when I was going upstairs. I immediately stopped and considered the situation – was it something I’d done in that moment of climbing the stairs? And/or, had I slightly twisted and injured my knee without realising it when I’d been clambering over the rocks at Joppa beach earlier that day? Not knowing the answer to these questions, and certainly not wanting to make the situation worse, I was left with the fact that all I could usefully do in that moment was to apply my usual Alexander thinking and see what happened. So I gave myself a few seconds to bring my awareness back to myself, noticing my contact with the supporting surface of the step beneath me and thinking of the direction upwards, all the way up my spine through the top of my head up towards the ceiling, and the idea of my knees going ‘forwards and away’ (‘classic’ Alexander thoughts – or directions as we like to call them). I reminded myself that I was likely to automatically anticipate another experience of pain with my next step, and so invited myself to put such thoughts aside. Then, mindfully, I took another step – wow, no pain at all, my knee was fine!

We have three flights of stairs in our house so as I gradually continued up towards the top, I had plenty of time to find out what effect my thinking was having. Half way up, my mind wandered onto something else and then suddenly ‘Ouch’ again! So, giving myself a moment to renew my Alexander directions, I set off again and was fine all the way up to the top floor. In the course of that evening I found that each time I went up or down the stairs, or crouched down to pick something up I had no knee pain – but only as long as I remembered to think my Alexander directions; otherwise, each time that I didn’t stay ‘present’, it hurt!

I don’t always have such a clear-cut experience of the power of thought – Alexander-informed thought. It’s usually much more subtle e.g. walking might seem to become slightly easier and smoother when I change my thinking. But it did make me realise how important is the way we respond in that first moment of something going wrong. Our response can significantly influence the longer-term outcome, either aiding a speedy recovery or (unintentionally) predisposing to a worsening of the situation.

Now of course pain is a very useful immediate reaction whenever we encounter anything that is harmful. It’s how from a young age we learn to protect ourselves by knowing what to avoid etc. But a pain response can sometimes become entrenched unnecessarily. An experience of pain makes us anticipate pain again whenever we repeat the same action/are in the same situation. However, pain anticipation results in a whole-body/self response that includes tightening up and this in itself makes it more likely that pain will recur. So we can get stuck in a vicious circle of pain which can become persistent and remain long after any original tissue damage has healed up. There is now a lot of research on persistent (chronic) pain and ‘brain plasticity’, and one helpful and accessible insight into this is Steve Haine’s booklet, Pain is really strange.

My experience of knee pain that day led me back to memories of times prior to learning the Alexander Technique and the way I would react whenever anything went awry. Typically, any experience of unexpected pain or discomfort would unleash a stream of ‘what if’ thinking – for example ‘is this the start of osteoarthritis?’. But now, using the practical thinking skills I’ve learnt, together with a more accepting and curious attitude to the current situation, I was able to work through the present problem. I presumably had some kind of minor injury but preventing my reactions from making it any worse allowed my natural self-healing capacities to do their stuff. After a couple of days I didn’t even have any twinges in my knee.

Of course I can’t ever know for sure if my Alexander thinking had any role in preventing a minor injury potentially turning into something more serious or long-term – but I’ve had enough similar experiences over the years that I’m convinced that the Alexander Technique has had a major impact on protecting my health for the long-term. And of course there are now several clinical trials that back up my own personal experience, with evidence of how learning and applying the Alexander Technique can impact on some long-term health conditions.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can use the Alexander Technique to help protect your long-term health do get in touch if you live in or around Edinburgh, or look for events or teachers in your area.