Alexander Technique for Depression and Stress

Background

The Alexander technique is an educational program that aims to change habitual patterns of movement and posture that are thought to be harmful. Teachers of the Alexander technique guide clients ("students") through various movements using verbal directions and light touch. The goal of these sessions can be to improve coordination and balance, reduce tension, relieve pain, decrease fatigue, improve various medical conditions or promote well-being. Students are encouraged to use what they learn in everyday life. Actors, dancers and athletes use the Alexander technique to improve performance.

F.M. Alexander, an Australian-English actor, developed the Alexander technique. He believed that poor head and neck posture was the cause of his recurrent voice loss. He suggested that people be trained to alter harmful movement patterns and positions.

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In 1964, the American Center for the Alexander Technique was founded to provide teaching certification. The certification process generally involves 1,600 hours of training over three years in an approved program. The North American Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique was established in 1987 to educate the public and to maintain standards for certification of teachers and training courses in the United States. The Alexander technique is taught at wellness centers, through health education programs and by individual teachers.

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Theory

Basic beliefs underlying the Alexander technique are that musculoskeletal movements and relationships can directly affect other aspects of health or function and that beneficial movement patterns can be reinforced through repetition. The position of the head and spine is thought to be important in this approach. Many physiologists and behavioral scientists are advocates of musculoskeletal techniques similar to the Alexander technique, although there are few scientific studies of the Alexander technique specifically.

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Method

The Alexander Technique is a way of becoming more aware of your balance and how you move. It's based on the premise that most people have bad postural habits that, over time, stop us using our bodies as easily and comfortably as we should be able to. Wrongly used muscles contract and pull down, giving rise to the classic sign of bad use: head tipped back at the start of any movement, especially sitting down or standing up. As well as the long-term damage to joints and cramped internal organs, poor posture causes a lot of tension, most commonly felt as chronic backache or stiff shoulders. It's also linked with respiratory ailments: people develop round shoulders from hunching protectively around their painful chests as they cough and wheeze, which in turn restricts their airways still further.

Frederick Matthias Alexander believed modern living gives rise to our bad postural habits: shoulders raised and stiffened by stress, neck poked forward over desk work, tired bodies slumped into saggy armchairs. Soon we've lost all sense of how we really are, so that what feels natural (because it's habitual) is wildly out of line. That's why it's very hard to correct our own posture without expert help.

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The Alexander Technique aims to re-educate each body into moving more easily - relearning the natural grace all children have till they go to school and start slouching over desks.

It's based on what Alexander teachers call 'good use of the body' - allowing the spine to regain its natural curves, holding the head effortlessly in the easiest position and distributing weight evenly over your feet. The bonus is that you look taller and feel two stone lighter.

It's a hands-on teaching method, though you don't undress; after three years' full-time training Alexander teachers can 'read' people's muscles through layers of clothes with their fingertips. To start with, you and the teacher observe your stance and movements for some time, and the first shock is seeing how asymmetrical you are when you think you're standing up straight. Then you're gently moved into a healthier position when you're sitting, standing and lying down.

As part of the relearning process, you stop and think before plunging into a habitual move, then make the movement mindfully. It feels odd to practice getting up or walking with someone's hand lightly holding the back of your neck, and even odder for the first few days when you keep making conscious efforts to do it the way you've learnt. If you're used to standing with your pelvis jutting further forward than your toes, for example, you feel as though you're going to fall over backwards when you tuck your tailbone in and bring your weight nearer a point above your heels. But your legs, no longer struggling to hold you at a slant, now carry you effortlessly. You may be noticeably taller. Walking upstairs feels like levitating. The idea is that this soon becomes second nature.

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The Technique's basic idea is that when the neck muscles do not overwork, the head balances lightly at the top of spine.  The relationship between the head and the spine is of utmost importance.  How we manage that relationship has ramifications throughout the rest of the body.  As the boss -- good or bad -- sets the tone for an organization, the head / spine relationship -- compressed or free -- determines the quality of the body's overall coordination.  Our neuromuscular system is designed to work in concert with gravity.  Delicate poise of the head sparks the body's anti-gravity response: a natural oppositional force in the torso that easily guides us upward and invites the spine to lengthen, rather than compress, as we move.  Instead of slouching or holding ourselves in a rigid posture, we can learn to mobilize this support system and use it wherever we go -- in the car, at the computer, in the gym.

And the homework couldn't be easier: for 20 minutes a day you lie on your back on the floor, with just enough books under your head to keep your neck parallel to the floor (so you can swallow comfortably), knees raised and hands on abdomen. Keep your mind on the Alexander mantra: 'Let the neck be free so the head can move forwards and upwards and the back can lengthen and widen.'

Young children have this natural poise. If you watch a toddler in action, you will see an erect spine, free joints and a large head balancing easily on a little neck.  A healthy child walks and plays with regal posture.  Barring birth defects, we all began that way.  But over the years, we often lose that spontaneity and ease.

Using the Alexander Technique, you can learn to strip away harmful habits, heighten your self-awareness, and use your thought process to restore your original poise.  In a way, you are learning something that, deep down, your body already knows.  With the Alexander Technique, you come to understand much more about how your body works, and how to make it work for you.  You can tap more of your internal resources, and begin on a path to enhancing your comfort and pleasure in all your activities. 

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Self-Help

Begin observing yourself in a mirror. A full length one is best. Pay special attention to the relationship of your whole head (not just your face) to the rest of your body. Notice how this relationship changes as you perform simple activities like talking, walking or raising an arm or leg.

How does what you see in the mirror correspond to what you think you're doing, and what do you feel you're doing? Which do you think is more accurate? Take plenty of time to explore and compare your experiences with Alexander's.

Experiment with changing the relationship of your head to your body, perhaps tilting it a little forward or backward from the top of your neck and observe what difference these shifts make to your movements and to your breathing.

Alexander found that the most useful change he could make was to mentally direct his neck to be free so that his head, followed by his body, could release in an upward direction - delicately, without any stiffening or undue effort.

Try this. What do you notice? Does anything look or feel different?

Now, try doing the opposite. Stiffen your neck a little as you gently push your head down towards the rest of your body. What effect does this have on your ability to breathe, speak and perform simple activities?

What happens when you just leave yourself alone? Is there a relationship between your head and your body that you tend automatically to go back to? 'Exaggerate yourself' for just a moment. Notice what happens to your head/body relationship when you do this.

Feel free to experiment in other ways that occur to you. Pay close attention to the results of your experiments. Remember that you are both the experimenter and the object of the experiments. So you are always going to have to be careful that you are not deceiving yourself. Continue comparing what you see with what you're thinking about and what you feel.

After you've experimented in front of the mirror long enough to have made for yourself some of the same kinds of observations that Alexander wrote about, extend your self-study to your daily round of activities. Can you sense how your body reacts to stressful situations, for example? How about pleasant experiences? Does the presence of some people act as a stimulus to tighten your neck? Do others seem to encourage freedom and expansion in your body?

Notice the effects of sound on your physical mechanism. Experiment with scanning your auditory 'horizon' and noting the effects of actively listening to the highest pitched sounds available to you. These could be high musical notes, the chirping of birds, even the sound of wind blowing through the branches of a tree. Then, shift your conscious attention to the lowest-pitched sounds you can hear - drum beats, the sounds of heavy machinery, for example. What effect does this shift have on the way you're using your body?

Keep in mind that Alexander's purpose in performing his investigations was to improve the quality of his performance. So begin to observe other people--and animals and small children--with a view toward becoming a good judge of quality of movement. Keep a look out for particularly good examples of ease, balance and co-ordination. Look also for particularly bad examples. Can you make any generalizations about quality of movement and the nature of the head/body relationship?

Potential Dangers

Instruction or practice of the Alexander technique has not been associated with reports of severe complications. However, safety has not been studied systematically. Some practitioners believe that this technique may be less beneficial in people with mental illness or learning disabilities. Safety during pregnancy has not been established scientifically, although the Alexander technique has been used by pregnant women and during delivery without reports of complications.

Do not rely on the Alexander technique alone as an approach to treat medical conditions. Speak with your health care provider if you are considering using the Alexander technique.

Summary

The Alexander technique has been used to address several health issues, but there is still no overwhelming scientific evidence that it has been proven effective for any specific condition. Do not rely on the Alexander technique alone to treat a potentially severe medical condition. Speak with your health care provider if you are considering using the Alexander technique.


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