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07 Feb, Tuesday
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Montreal Families

Relieving tension promotes good health

I’ve tried plenty of ways to reduce the tension and stress in my life. Yoga. Running. Long, meditative walks. Each in its own way helped me feel better, relieving at least some of the knots that tended to form in my shoulder muscles, the occasional tension headaches and the chronic feeling that there was always too much to do.

Then last winter, a friend who is involved in dance, listened to my complaints and then said, “Have you ever tried the Alexander Technique?” I’d never heard of it, but was especially intrigued by my friend’s comment that it was “very relaxing — you get to lie on your back with your head supported by a book and it feels great.”

Having never encountered an exercise regime in which lying about was a central component, I was eager to find out more. A quick Internet search revealed that in fact the Alexander Technique is neither a series of exercises nor a kind of therapy. Rather it is based on the work of an Australian, Frederick Mathias Alexander, who at the beginning of the 20th century began studying how tension in the body, especially in the neck and spine, has a negative impact on the way people function. Help them relieve this tension, Alexander reasoned, and they will move more easily and be able to perform tasks — sitting, standing, walking, doing a sport or playing an instrument — with less stress on the body’s joints and muscles.

What makes this technique unusual is its highly personalized nature: students work one-on-one with a teacher, addressing their particular habits of movement and their particular needs. A student might spend a class sitting in and then rising from a chair, trying to find a more fluid, less tension-filled way to accomplish this seemingly easy task.

Embracing this technique

Robert Schweitzer, a local certified Alexander Technique teacher, calls this “good use of self,” and it was while perusing his website, www.gooduseofself.com, that I made the decision to give this technique a try.

The term “good use of self” resonated in a deep way for me. Maybe it was because I’ve spent hours teaching my kids the “good use” of all kinds of things, from the computer (no eating over and getting crumbs on the keyboard) to proper use of a knife when they help me in the kitchen. I applied “good use” to my car, sending it for regular oil checks and installing winter tires.

But did I actually “use my self” all that well? Nope. I was only too willing to tuck a phone between my ear and shoulder so I could tap on my keyboard as I talked. I thought nothing of loading up and then toting around a large handbag filled with books, snacks and assorted gear to get me through the day. And standing almost six feet tall, I’d gotten used to bending awkwardly at kitchen counters or folding myself into chairs that were the wrong height.

So I made an appointment with Schweitzer, showing up one winter morning at his studio near the Charlevoix metro. I walked into a warm, sunlit room, with a straight-back wooden chair in the centre and a mirror on one wall. We talked about my interest in the technique, what I hoped to accomplish and my physical problems. Schweitzer reassured me that I was free to take as many or as few courses as I desired. Some people come for a few sessions, some people continue for several years, he pointed out. It all depends on the individual’s needs. Depending on the teacher, a lesson will last around 30-50 minutes and cost around $50 to $70.
Then we started, focusing first on releasing the tension in my head and neck. Schweitzer would gently place his hands on my neck while instructing me to think about “neck free, head forward and up,” as a way of releasing tension and bringing the head and spine into a better alignment. Then, we would work on getting in and out of the chair, trying to make the movements easy and fluid. Each session would end with “active rest,” where (as my friend had mentioned), I could lie down with my head supported by a book and try to ease tension in various parts of my body.

Over a period of weeks, I could actually feel the difference in my neck, then my shoulders, back and arms. There was an ease, a sort of “letting go” that made my whole body feel lighter.

It would be possible to dismiss these feelings as just that — a sort of “placebo effect” stemming from the fact that since I’d sought out treatment, I had made up my mind that it would work.

But a recent study from England suggests that the Alexander Technique can help reduce physical pain. In the study, people with back problems were randomly assigned to receive massage therapy or either six or 24 Alexander Technique lessons. (As well, some participants were given an exercise program). People who did the technique reported better functioning (meaning they could do more) and less pain than those who did only massage or who received no special care. Even six lessons, combined with exercise, helped people feel considerably better although those who reported the most improvement came from the group who did 24 lessons.

With its emphasis on changing habits and patterns of movement and even thought, the Alexander Technique offers as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Curiosity and a willingness to try new things (such as standing or sitting in a different way) are what make the Technique different. In a society where people are often searching for the next best thing that will give them good health, it’s easy to miss out on the obvious: how we use ourselves, day in and day out, has a deep impact on how we feel and our long-term health.

If you would like to see what the Alexander Technique is all about, a group of certified teachers is offering an introductory session the first Tuesday of each month from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Queen Elizabeth Health Complex, 2100 Marlowe Ave, Suite 331 in N.D.G. Cost is $10 . For more information, call (514) 934-5972.

To find a certified teacher, which means the person has undergone a 1,600 hour training program, visit the website of the Canadian Society of Teachers of the F.M. Alexander Technique, www.canstat.ca, where you can do a search by province.

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