This Alexander lesson in the form of a blog post is dedicated to Camara Rhodes, who inspired it by asking the following question:
So I carry a lot of weight on my back (college student.. blegh) my back is starting to hurt a little bit. wasn’t sure if there’s any back stretches to get the kinks out?
(I’ll address my teaching directly to Camara, but I encourage anyone to participate in the learning by reading along and doing the suggested activities and writing assignments on your own.)
Thanks for the great launching question, Camara. It’s perfect as the topic for my first blog lesson because back pain is a nearly universal problem. What differentiates the Alexander Technique from other ways of addressing your problem is that we’re not going to DO anything in an attempt to ease your pain. So there will be no exercises or stretches or prescribed routines involved in our approach. Rather, we are going to see how focusing your awareness in a particular way can help transform your situation.
A major benefit of this method of dealing with a problem is that what you learn will apply to everything you do. You will have a means of transforming any situation you might find yourself in.
Let’s start with tuning into an aspect of yourself that might be very new to you: the cyclic lengthening and gathering of your spine. In the same way that the tide cycles between flowing in and flowing out, your spine cycles between two phases—one in which the vertebrae move a tiny bit farther apart and one in which they move a tiny bit closer together. It’s like a spring that compresses and releases over and over as you move through your life.
Tune into the cycle in your spine right now. (You may find it easier to tune into just your neck or perhaps the entire spine. Do whichever comes more naturally to you.) See if you can notice when your spine is lengthening and when it is gathering. The phase may shift every few seconds. If you aren’t sure, just guess. It doesn’t even matter whether you are correct in your analysis; the real value is in the tuning in.
Once you are tuned into the cycle (or are at least pretending you are!), walk around the room for a couple of minutes, continuing to pay attention to the cycle. You could also add some simple movements, like lifting your arms or doing some shallow squats. What happens in your spine as you perform these movements?
By the way, there is nothing inherently wrong with either phase of the cycle. Your spine needs to be able to compress and lengthen. When you pay attention to this alternation, you are helping to ensure that your spine doesn’t get STUCK in one phase or the other, which is one way in which problems such as pain start.
ASSIGNMENT 1: During the first day of doing this lesson, aim to bring your awareness to your spinal cycle at least 10 times, while engaged in various activities. In the comments below, write 3-5 sentences about the experience, labeling it “Assignment 1”. (Any aspect of your experience is fair game for the writing, including emotions, discoveries, frustrations, funny observations, questions for further investigation, whatever.)
ASSIGNMENT 2: The next day, you are going to apply this process of awareness of the cycle to the activity that has been giving you trouble: carrying your backpack. Start by tuning into your spinal cycle of lengthening and gathering while standing without your backpack on. When you are tuned in, continue paying attention to the cycle while a) picking up the backpack, b) putting the backpack on, and c) walking around with it on. In the comments below, write 3-5 sentences about the experience, labeling it “Assignment 2”.
ASSIGNMENT 3: A day later, apply the process described in Assignment 2 to any other activity of your choice, breaking it down into steps while maintaining awareness of your spinal cycles. For example, if your activity were playing a scale on your oboe, you might tune into the cycle while a) opening your oboe case, b) putting the instrument together, c) blowing through your reed, etc. In the comments below, write 3-5 sentences about the experience, labeling it “Assignment 3”.
After you have completed all 3 assignments, I will write a response in the comments. (I will respond to anyone who participates, not only to Camara.)
Have fun! Thank you for helping me to develop a new way of teaching for the 21st Century!