THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE AND PSYCHOLOGICAL GROWTH
by Adam Bailey
The Alexander Technique is a century-old discipline that has many different applications. It involves an educational process in which the student learns a set of skills that he or she can apply in all facets of life. One of the assumptions underlying this process is that most people carry more muscle tension than they need, in order to carry out activities. The first skill that students learn, then, is how to lessen these areas of tension so that movement becomes easier and less effortful. Second, they learn that, without the interference of the tension, they can cultivate a more natural alignment of their head, neck and spine that has associated with it qualities of balance, strength and coordination.
The Alexander Technique provides a number of psychological benefits. First, it's helpful to anyone who leads a stressful life. Through it, we learn to face the inevitable stresses of life without adding to the stress and tension in our body. Eventually, we can even lead our life while subtracting from those internal levels of stress!
The Alexander Technique can also provide a deeper benefit. For some people, their unconscious minds and their bodies may be the containers for feelings, memories and experiences that they're unaware of. They may have "forgotten" about these emotions because of the demands of growing up in modern society - or because the original experiences were painful or the environment didn't support their full expression of their feelings. This material is then stored in their bodies in the form of muscle tension, and may result in chronic pain, among other symptoms. Thus, these people, when they begin Alexander lessons, may experience deep emotions and memories from the past. For them, the Alexander Technique provides a safe, grounded means of dealing with this material as it emerges.
In order to illustrate the role of the Alexander Technique in psychological growth, I would like to describe my work with one particular client. Before I do that, however, let me offer a kind of disclaimer. While the Alexander Technique is a powerful tool for uncovering psychological material, most teachers do not offer counseling as a part of their work. Rather, when necessary, they refer a student to a counselor or psychotherapist. By contrast, I do include a counseling component in my work when it's appropriate. I'm comfortable doing that because, in addition to being trained as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I have a master's degree in Counseling Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and have done training in a variety of related disciplines. In addition, I taught psychology at the high school and college levels for nine years.
The person I'll describe is a person in his 30's who runs an organic farm. I'll call him Seth. When he came to me for lessons, he was married and his wife had a long-term drug dependency. At the same time, he had had a history of chronic and at times severe back pain. He felt that this back pain had two causes: first, the tremendous physical and psychological demands of his work, and second, the stress of his relationship with his wife.
From the beginning of our work together, we talked about the stresses that Seth was facing, especially in his relationship. He told me that three years before he started the lessons, he had given his wife an ultimatum: either she had to stop using drugs or he was going to leave her. He and his wife had been married for a number of years; over that time, he had repeatedly asked her to seek help for her problem. Unfortunately, she had not made the changes for which he was hoping, and he had at long last run out of patience.
Unfortunately, as he related to me, soon after Seth delivered the ultimatum to his wife, his back went out and he had to spend a month in bed. It took between three and four months before he was able to fully return to work. More importantly, as a result of this episode of back pain, he had not had the strength to follow through on his ultimatum - and when he first came to see me, things with his wife were unchanged.
After a year of Alexander Technique lessons, he was at last able to follow through on the ultimatum that he had delivered to his wife. Here is how he described this important decision: "I finally feel as if I can stand up to my wife, without fear of stressing my body. Deep down, I feel as if I have a spine now - in more ways than one."
As you might imagine, the process that Seth initiated with me, that led to this decision, was both psychological and physical. I'll describe two events that took place during this process, since they're emblematic of the overall process. First, during one lesson, Seth experienced a deep release in his psoas muscle. Along with this release, he had a powerful memory of something that had happened to him when he was an infant, before he could walk. Here is how he describes 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), and I was crying for my mother. All I wanted was for my mother to come and get me. Finally, she walked into the room. All I remember is 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."
Along with this memory came a lot of tears. When Seth asked his mother about the incident, she remembered it also. They both recalled that it was one of only a few times in his life that she spanked him. One of the things that Seth told me afterwards was that he had had a life-long fear of people's anger, and he now understood that that event, though not the sole cause, might have played a part in his fear. He also now understood that he did not have to carry around the memory in his body anymore, if he was willing to bring it to consciousness and feel and express all of the emotions associated with it. Finally, we discussed what role his fear of anger might have played in his difficulty setting limits with his wife.
The second important event that took place during Seth's Alexander lessons was a suggestion that I made to him. At a certain point, when I was working on his back and shoulders, I suggested to him that he could take up the space that is rightfully his. His response at the time was to cry very deeply. Later on in the lessons, he came back to this moment repeatedly, for he realized that part of his muscle tension had to do with the fact that he was "not letting myself take up my space in the world." In retrospect, he felt that his tendency to not express himself fully, while it had a physical component, could be traced to his sensitivity to the expectations of those around him. For example, he had often felt an expectation that he be a good boy, and that he present a certain image of politeness and decorum.
One final point - and this is perhaps the most important point of all. In describing my work with Seth, I've emphasized the release of muscle tension as an important theme. I must make clear, as I did in the introduction, that it is not the central goal of the Alexander Technique, despite the detail with which I've described it here. The central goal of the Alexander Technique is the cultivation of an optimum alignment of one's head, neck, spine and torso - and the release of muscle tension is a means toward that end. Recall, for example, Seth's comment about having a spine, at the time that he decided to leave his wife. It was clear from this comment that he was experiencing something new in the relationship of his head, neck and spine.
Adam Bailey is a teacher of the Alexander Technique who lives and works in the Boston area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (978) 461-0946. Website: http://www.alexandertechniqueboston.com
For more information about the Alexander Technique, click here:
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique