Body habits that affect the body negatively are common, so common that some people may not even realize they have developed these habits. Slumping, moving awkwardly, poor balance—any of these behavior patterns can create discomfort and pain and even lead to immobility over time.
The Alexander Technique can help people become more aware of their bodies. Practitioners of the approach work to help people “reset” their bodies, gaining increased awareness of their posture and habits of movement in order to help them improve in these areas, move with new flexibility and grace, and eliminate the tension in their bodies.
What Is the Alexander Technique?
This approach to bodywork was developed by an Australian actor, Fredrick Alexander, who found himself becoming hoarse when he performed but at no other time. After conducting experiments on himself, he theorized that muscular tension begins in the neck and head and then spreads throughout the whole body. He proposed that bad habits of movement cause people to lose their proprioception, or internal sense of movement.
With this idea in mind, Alexander created a method of assisting people with their posture and movement habits through the use of verbal cues and hands-on therapy. Today, his postural coordination method helps people develop better balance, movement efficiency, and flexibility so they can engage in their daily activities with ease and with less or no pain.
How Does the Alexander Technique Work?
Practitioners of this approach to massage help clients learn to alter their unconscious automatic habits and movements by teaching them how to consciously stay in positions of postural readiness.
Through a series of lessons and the incorporation of at-home practice, clients can often increase their body/mind awareness and learn to recognize and alter their physical habits while standing, walking, or sitting. Restoring steadier levels of muscular tension in one’s daily life is believed to help improve health and wellness overall.
Researchers found that 6-class courses of the Alexander Technique, in combination with light exercise, provided the greatest back pain relief to study participants. A different team of experts found that, when combined with both massage and exercise, the Alexander Technique provided excellent long-term back pain management. This technique has been shown to benefit even clients seeking treatment for decades of chronic back pain.
What to Expect from an Alexander Technique Session
Alexander Technique lessons are most often provided one-on-one—though in some settings sessions might be conducted in groups—with skilled practitioners who have received at least three years of training. Some clients might also choose to seek out a practitioner who has gained their certification from a professional society that specializes in the Alexander Technique.
Alexander Technique sessions should be pain-free, and clients are not required to move their clothing. Some parts of the session will be conducted while the client is lying back on a table, so some people may wish to choose their clothing with this in mind. The practitioner will generally use their hands on the client’s neck, shoulders, back, and so on, seeking out areas of tension and obtaining information about the body.
In each 30 to 45-minute session, practitioners teach clients simple and powerful techniques, like how to be comfortable while sitting up straight, helping them learn how to slowly remove tension from the body and discover and eliminate the habits that led to the development of the tension. The massage therapist will match the client’s preferred pace, and the client is encouraged to pause or stop a session at any time.
Clients work on their postures in order to increase proprioception and body awareness. The idea behind this is that quick and accurate notice of compression or tension in the body can help a person make adjustments to posture and avoid habits that can lead to chronic pain. During the session, practitioners help clients become aware of and release unnecessary tension in their muscles in certain postures.
Alexander Technique practitioners generally advise new clients to participate in 2-3 sessions each week for the first few months, as this is thought to be the most efficient way to create the new body movement and posture habits need to reprogram the musculoskeletal system. After that, clients generally return for a refresher session when they feel as if they are falling back into uncomfortable movement patterns and postures.
How Can the Alexander Technique Help?
A number of studies have shown this technique can help reduce back and neck pain, especially in clients who follow a walking exercise program along with this therapy. The long-term effectiveness of the technique has not yet been studied, however.
The Alexander Technique helps people improve sitting and standing coordination as well as their ease of movement, which may reduce wear on the musculoskeletal system and prevent spinal compression. People who have received this type of massage therapy may find they have increased lung capacity and greater productivity and endurance when performing repetitive work. Improved social confidence and easier speech may also result.
Some people with Parkinson’s disease have found it somewhat easier to perform daily tasks after receiving this type of massage therapy, and many also report feeling better overall about their condition.
Precautions to Consider
Because the Alexander Technique involves new terminology and posture/movement habits, some clients may become confused at first. But because a greater sense of proprioception (body awareness) must typically be obtained for a person to be aware of improper posture, clients are encouraged to be patient with the process. Those who have trouble understanding the practitioner or identifying the body sensations referred to should always ask the massage therapist to slow down or provide more explanation.
The Alexander Technique, like any approach, and those who practice it should be accommodating of the unique pace and individual needs of each specific client. Each individual will experience a different rate of progress and adopt new habits in their own way, and clients are encouraged to give themselves the time and space needed to create these new habits while also letting go of their emotional attachment to unproductive habits.
It is always advised that those interested in an alternative or complementary therapy always consult a doctor before beginning a new course of treatment. The Alexander Technique may not be recommended for those who have certain spinal injuries such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine), or fractured vertebrae.
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- Cacciatore, T., Horak, F., Henry, W. (2005) Improvement in automatic postural coordination following Alexander technique lessons in a person with low back pain. Physical Therapy, 85(6), 565-578.
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- Little, P., Lewith, G., Webley, F., Evans, M., Beattie, A., Middleton, K. … & Sharp, D. (2008, August 19). Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. British Medical Journal, (337)a884. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a884
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- Rickover, Robert. (1988) Fitness Without Stress. Portland, OR: Metamorphous Press.
- What happens during an Alexander Technique lesson or class? (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.alexandertechnique.com/lesson.htm