One of the cool things about having a website is that you get to see which pages people click on, in what order, how long they stay, what country they are in, and various other statistics. It’s like being real life ‘big brother.’ To my surprise, by far the most popular page on my site is the About Colin section. I guess folks are curious who this Alexander Technique teacher guy is, so I thought I would give the people what they want and share a bit more about myself and my personal experience with this work. Why did it solve my chronic pain issues when nothing else worked? And why did I find it fascinating, important, and profound enough to uproot my life and move across the country for 4 years to learn how to teach it?
Perhaps you have already read the short version about my own reasons for trying the Alexander Technique in the About Colin section. Needless to say it involved a lot more ups and downs, frustrations and epiphanies, and hope and despair than I can fit into a few sentences. Maybe sharing a bit more about my experience will help you figure out if AT is something that could help you or someone you know.
It all began on Christmas morning in 1998, when the 13-year-old me got a red electric guitar under the tree. Starting almost immediately, I proceeded to annoy the heck out of my family for the next several years, endlessly repeating terrible versions of Led Zeppelin and Metallica songs. After a few years of this I had a lovely old Washburn acoustic guitar come into my life, much to the relief of my sibling neighbours. This meant less of a racket coming from my room, but it also meant a much larger instrument with thicker strings that were far more difficult to play. It was challenging at first, but I slowly developed the strength and calluses needed, and soon I was playing much more acoustic than electric guitar.
This all went on without a hitch for a while, but after a few more years I started to get pain in my right shoulder when I was playing. I didn’t think it was anything serious, but after a while I saw that it wasn’t going to go away on its own like I hoped. So I did what most of us do when we face problems like this, and after seeking medical advice I started out on what I thought would be a relatively quick and easy fix.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of years of physiotherapy, massages, chiropractic work, stretching, strengthening, yoga, heat, cold, ergonomic devices, diet changes, supplements, and many other things all aimed at trying to get rid of the pain that was preventing me from pursuing my passion of playing the guitar. Some of the things I tried over these years helped in relieving the pain temporarily. But none of them addressed why I was getting pain in the first place, or helped me figure out how I could continue playing guitar without the accompanying injury problems.
I knew that I didn’t really have great posture when I played, and tried experimenting with it in many different ways. I would try to sit up straight, relax certain body parts, and play with different chair types, heights, and playing positions. I bought ergonomic guitar gadgets and accessories, thinking every time that this next one is surely going to be the thing that will finally let me play without pain. Lots of hopes came tumbling down when the pain persisted even with the new gadgets, chairs, and postures.
All the treatments, stretching, strengthening, heating, colding, gadget-buying and more was turning into an increasingly frustrating cycle of injury, false hope through temporary relief, and the inevitable return of the pain. I was barely touching my guitar, and even playing for 5 minutes was often enough to flare things up. Many practitioners recommended that I stop playing guitar, but this was not a very attractive option. I also intuitively knew that this wasn’t the answer. Millions of people all over the planet play guitar without pain. Why couldn’t I?
For some mysterious reason I recalled this Alexander Technique thing that my brother was greatly helped by for his wrist problems, and thought I would give it another shot. I had taken two or three lessons years ago and found it interesting, but I didn’t really give it a serious try and actually apply it to my daily life much. This time my injury issues were worse, and desperation had made me a lot more serious about figuring out what the heck was going on. I began taking lessons again once or twice a week, reading many books about it, and exploring other resources online.
Over the next few months of study and experimentation, a whole new way of moving and being in the world was revealed to me. I started to notice how I was doing so many things during the day with way more force and tension than was needed. I became aware of how I was literally pulling myself down and squeezing my joints together in pretty much everything I did, not just in playing the guitar, but in simpler everyday things like standing, sitting, walking, doing the dishes, and pretty much every else I did on a daily basis. I started to tune in to how I would tense unnecessarily in response to the various stimuli of life. Most importantly, in lessons I was introduced to new patterns of movement that allowed me to still do what I needed to do during the day, but without all the excess tension, strain, and pain.
Slowly the truth was being revealed to me. Despite being told otherwise by various practitioners for years, I began to realize that there was nothing wrong with me. I didn’t have a ‘bad shoulder’ as I believed for years. I had simply developed certain ways of moving and patterns of tension in activity that were very likely to cause pain. If I did not change these movement patterns, there was no reason to think that I would be free of pain while playing. Previously these tensions were under my radar, but the experiences I had in lessons had helped me become aware of things I was doing that I was not previously aware of. I had met the enemy, and it was me.
“Like every man I am my own worst enemy, but unlike most men I know too that I am my own saviour.” – Henry Miller
This is both an incredibly liberating and also a terrifying realization. It is easy to think that ‘I have this bad shoulder’ and to go around searching for someone or something else to fix it. It is not so easy to take responsibility for it, or at least to admit that possibility, and investigate what reactions, movements, and behaviours could be causing it. Fortunately for me I had learned the reality of my situation – that I was the cause of my own suffering – and there was no going back.
After beginning the process of observing myself and my own moment patterns and reaction process, I started applying my newly developed observation skills to notice things about other people. I could now see how they also had ways of moving that were full of misdirected effort, how they were working against their own architecture and design, asking their bodies to move in ways it doesn’t like moving, but most likely unaware that they were doing so. I also realized that most people I spoke with had some nagging body issue that they hadn’t been able to figure out. A back problem, neck pain, shoulder issues, tendonitis, carpal tunnel, knee problems, or some other tension-related body problem.
Very often people think it is due to something wrong with their body, some mysterious problem that has no connection to their postural habits or their way of moving around and responding in the world. How many times have you heard yourself or someone you know say ‘I have a bad …?’ Of course there are situations where this is the case, but very often I believe it is a misunderstanding as to the actual cause of most tension-related body problems. It isn’t the case that we have these defective bodies that are poorly evolved and break down too quickly. We simply don’t know how to use them very well, since this isn’t part of our education as children or adults. We don’t get taught about how we are built to move, so we go about our lives with the gas and brake on at the same time working against the very architecture that gives us so much potential as upright bipeds.
The real challenge is that we are generally unaware that we are doing so, because we acclimatize to our postures and tensions so that whatever we do, no matter how harmful or inefficient, becomes habitual and feels normal. Because we generally aren’t aware of this connection, we go around in circles trying to get rid of pain, when we could be learning how to move in a way that won’t cause pain in the first place. These two different approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but I certainly know which of them makes more sense to me and has been more liberating in my life.
I can still remember the first day that I played guitar for half an hour without having to stop due to pain. It seemed too good to be true, and for the first while I didn’t really believe it would last. I thought it was going to flare up again any day, maybe in a different area. Sometimes it did for a moment, but when I did feel a bit of pain or strain, I now had tools and principles with which to investigate myself to notice and understand why things hurt where they did and when they did. I could consciously redirect the distribution of muscle tone throughout my whole body to do things more efficiently.
This is one of the most useful skills I have ever learned, yet most people don’t even know it is a field of knowledge that we can learn about and improve. We can develop and refine our kinaesthetic sense to discover patterns of tension and reaction that were previously unconscious, and bring them to a conscious level, giving us the freedom to change old ways of doing things. This is the great gift that F.M. Alexander discovered and articulated, and it is here for anyone interested in exploring it’s potential.
So, by popular demand, that’s a little bit more about my journey with the Alexander Technique so far. Does any of this sound familiar? Have you been making your life smaller due to pain and limitation? Have you had to stop doing something you love? Have you tried a bunch of things already without much success? Are you starting to think that you’re going to have to live in pain for the rest of your life? Are you intellectually honest enough to admit that you may have something to learn with respect to how humans can move well? Are you open to the challenge and adventure of rethinking the way you move throughout your day?
Important questions. Speaking of questions, if you have any, or would like to give this Alexander Technique thing a shot, get in touch and book your first lesson. Maybe in your life too, this could be the one thing you try that actually works! Imagine that.