Friday, July 12, 2013

What Is the Alexander Technique?

(This is a repost of an entry from another blog I write, Helpless.)

In India, sadhus (ascetic students of yoga) sometimes practice austerities, committing themselves to difficult, long-term observances.  One example is hand raising.  A devoted sadhu may decide to raise his hand and never lower it.  We in the West look at a practice like hand raising and wonder how a person could do that.  We would never choose to deliberately contort our bodies for years at a time.

But in fact, like the hand-raising sadhus, we do practice bodily austerities.  The difference between us and the sadhus is that they consciously choose to practice mindfully.  But we develop our bodily contortions unconsciously, mindlessly, seldom realizing what we are doing to ourselves.

As young children, we are taught to sit still for long periods of time, often in chairs or desks that don't quite fit our growing bodies.  We learn to focus our minds and ignore bodily sensations.  At home, we learn how to slump on the sofa and watch TV or play video games, remaining out of touch with our bodies as we lose ourselves in the sounds and images.  We learn how to deal with tension and unwanted emotions by holding them in our bodies.  We graduate and take jobs that demand continual repetition of bodily movements, maybe on an assembly line, maybe at a desk.  If we have a career devoted to abstract mental tasks, we sit for hours at a time in poorly designed office furniture, working with our minds and ignoring our bodies. 

In our 20s and into our 30s, our youthful bodies can adapt remarkably well.  Somewhere in our late 30s, however, our bodies most likely begin to try to get our attention--a little twinge here, a small ache there.  By the time we're in our 40s, after a couple decades practicing the Western equivalent of hand-raising, our bodies raise the volume of their protests.  The aches and pains are more intense and last longer.  We might have a sleepless night once in awhile or miss a day of work now and then.  Pain relievers and sleep aids begin appearing in our medicine cabinets.  A chiropracter or massage therapist might find a place in our address books.

And then one day, our bodies finally demand our undivided and complete attention.  The pain reaches a level of intensity that cannot be appeased, and it does not go away.  We discover that the medical community has no good answer for our suffering.  We wonder how this happened, and we begin searching for a way out.

If you are as lucky as I am, you may find an Alexander Technique instructor.  The Alexander Technique has been a very important part of my way out of chronic pain.  An instructor can see unnatural patterns of muscular tension and knows how to help the student perceive them, too.  She gradually, patiently guides the student to release muscles that have been held dysfunctionally for years.  Instead of trying to teach an idea of correct or good posture, which really is just another form of bodily holding and rigidity, she instills the idea of ease of use, of the body as a dynamic, ever-moving system.

Much about the Technique seems counterintuitive or just plain wrong at first.  The Technique is a form of undoing, of unlearning, of breaking habits, of changing the way the body is felt and perceived.  When the instructor first helps the body release into an easier state, it often feels odd, or even wrong.  Many times, my instructor has had to show me in the mirror that, no, despite the sensation that I'm leaning to the left, that I'm tipping forward, that my legs are bent, in reality, I am standing more nearly upright than I have in a long time.

The Technique can be an emotional as well as a physical exploration.  The body can hold anger, fear, embarrassment, shame, guilt.  Releasing the body can be like opening a shaken bottle of emotional soda.  The emotions can bubble up, memories can gush into consciousness.  The enhanced bodily awareness I've received from the Technique also is an enhanced emotional awareness.  When I feel my left abdomen tensing, I know I'm becoming upset.  When I feel my lower back become rigid, I'm aware that I'm feeling embarrassed.

The Technique is an ongoing education.  The lessons continue out in daily life.  I learn something new about my body and emotions nearly every day.  The Alexander work has given me a sense of curiosity about my body and its relationship to my mind and the world around me.  I'm feeling a pain in my jaw?  That's interesting!  I wonder what would happen if I invite my shoulder to relax?  I'm feeling tension in my hip.  Fascinating!  Could it be related to this deadline I'm working under?  What would happen if I took a short break and breathed deeply for a few seconds?

After a couple of years of working with my Alexander instructor, I am free of the chronic pain that led me to her.  But I continue the work.  As each layer of tension, each pattern of holding, peels away, I find a new layer underneath.  Lifting away the pain reveals new possibilities of a visceral joy and ease.  I can't wait to see what I'll find tomorrow.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Don't Get Cocky!

In the original Star Wars movie (Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope), when Luke Skywalker bags his first TIE fighter and cries "I got him!" Han Solo yells, "Great, kid! Don't get cocky!"

Those words come to my mind right now, because for the past several weeks, I've been rehabbing from a nasty flare up of my chronic pelvic pain syndrome (CPPS), which I brought on myself. Things had been going well for me for quite awhile, in terms of my CPPS. I hadn't had any real flare ups for a couple of years. I'd reached a point where I rarely did trigger point massage on myself. My routine had evolved into a lot of stretching and exercising, with ongoing mindfulness and Alexander Technique (AT) work. Whenever an ache did spring up, it was always low-key, and simply using my AT work to relax would resolve the pain. I reached a point where I could go deep into my stretches, in a way that would have been extremely aggressive and pain-producing earlier. In short, I had it all figured out. Everything was under control. I was in complete mastery of my CPPS.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I drove to upstate New York to visit family. I'd been on several long car trips with my wife over the past few years, and all had gone well. When my CPPS had first flared up, I couldn't sit in a car for more than 20 minutes or so. Car seats were torture devices, designed to aggravate my pain. I got in the habit of using a folded towel on the car seat to help elevate my hips, and that had helped a lot. But for several years, I'd improved to the point where I didn't need the towel anymore. I could do an hour or two behind the wheel, and then some time in the passenger seat, maybe reclining once in awhile, with no ill effects.

When my wife and I set out on our trip, I was confident that everything would be fine. We drove east for two days, pulled into the bed and breakfast, and had a wonderful time with my wife's brother and his family and friends. I was having such a good time, I neglected my stretching and exercise routine. I figured I'd pick it up again when we got back home. I spent a Saturday afternoon standing, talking to people at a graduation party. Sunday, we all went hiking at Treman State Park. We went down a trail through the spectacular Enfield Glen, then climbed a lot of steps--a lot of steps!--back up to the upper park. Monday morning, we got in our car and headed west, back home. I offered to drive through Cleveland and wound up doing three hours behind the wheel through urban traffic. That night, at the motel in Indiana, I could tell I'd pushed the envelope. My lower back and groin ached. "Aha!" I thought. "My iliopsoas!" I knew what to do. A little massage and a light stretch and some ibuprofen, and I was good to go. The next day, driving through Indiana and Chicago back home, I was still stiff and achy. But I was sure that once we were home, I could go back into my routine and everything would be all right.

Back home, I realized that not just my iliopsoas muscles were involved. My left piriformis also seemed to be aggravated, to the point where my left sacroiliac joint felt locked up. As I went through my stretching routine, I discovered that my body would not let me do a couple of stretches completely--a bridge stretch, for one. This is where I got into trouble. This is where the mind took over and tried to override the body. "Of course I can do this stretch!" Instead of listening to my own advice, instead of listening to my body and accepting the condition it was in at that moment, I tried a couple of shortcuts. I dug out my tennis ball and did a piriformis massage, then did the bridge stretch again, deeper, this time. I repeated the process several times. Then, I hopped in the shower, turned the water toward hot, and did some hamstring stretches in the hot water.

The result was that for the next week, I was in intense, burning pain, around the left greater trochanter and radiating down into the upper thigh. I could barely walk. My left vastus lateralis and biceps femoris frequently went into spasm. My left calf felt like cement. I could sleep only if I lay on my right side with my legs drawn up, and only after taking multiple doses of ibuprofen.

Unlike when my CPPS first appeared, this time, I knew what was going on, and I knew what I could do about it. I went back to square one. I did not indulge the anxiety and fear that came with the pain. I had faith that I would be able to resolve this flare up. I continued my stretching and exercise routine, but I listened to my body and did not push. I did trigger point self-massage frequently. I saw a physical therapist and got an ultrasound treatment, and I had a couple massage appointments. Finally, after a couple of weeks of agony, I'm once again approaching normal.

Every flare up, every instance of overstretching, every stupid mistake I make offers me a choice. I can beat myself up, I can let the anxiety and the catastrophic thoughts overwhelm me, and I can descend into isolation and depression. Or, I can see the flare up as an opportunity to learn from my mistake, to reconnect with my body, to gain more confidence that I can live a full and active life even with CPPS. This latest flare up really knocked the wind out of me. But once I took a long, hard look at what I'd done, at the symptoms that recurred, I gained new insight into my condition. This flare up showed me how a problem can cascade into surrounding muscles. I can see now that there are further layers of muscular dysfunction that I need to continue to work with, using my movement therapy tools.

And lastly, a note to myself: Don't get cocky!