Is the Alexander Technique useful for posture and back pain?
June 6, 2006 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Is the Alexander Technique useful for posture and back pain?

I have been having some back/shoulder/neck pain which my doctor thinks may have to do with postural problems. Someone recommended the Alexander Technique. Any experiences or other ideas that would help me decide whether to do it? Do you know how much it costs? Is it worth it?
posted by rwatson to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Alexander Technique is basically an education and retraining of the bad postural/muscular habits we've picked up since we learned to stand as toddlers. It's done under the guidance of a trained practitioner (I believe it takes 3 years to complete the training), but the onus is really on you to learn your bad habits and change them during and between sessions.

The basic idea is that when we're babies, our bodies are pretty well aligned. Look at toddlers as they waddle around - they pretty much manage to keep their heads balanced freely on top of their spines, and when they don't, they fall down. As we grow up, we make adjustments that allow us to move in various ways without falling down...but those muscular movements aren't always so good for us. An Alexander practitioner will train you to observe your own alignment, and will gently guide you into the proper alignment, which will feel awkward and while you'll lose in about 10 seconds. But over time, you'll learn to sit, stand, and walk in a more healthy, comfortable way.

One odd thing about Alexander Training is that there's a lot of "not doing." You don't hold poses. You are trying to get back to the sort of ease you had before your spine was pulled in various directions by chairs and sports and growing taller/older, and this is mostly done through very subtle movements and retraining the way you think about moving. It's not like going to a chiropractor and walking out 'adjusted.' Adjustment via the Alexander Technique takes longer, but if you commit to it, can be good for life.
posted by hsoltz at 8:06 AM on June 6, 2006

Alexander Technique is definitely useful for posture and alignment issues, and will make you aware of patterns and habits you may not have noticed (turnout/turning in of your hips, head held too far up/down/forward, walking on your toes, etc). You'll definitely learn things in one session and then you can decide if it would be useful to continue.

After that, you may find ongoing practices like Pilates or yoga more useful to continue working on alignment and build strength in your abdominal muscles. For me, this has eliminated back pain entirely.

Cost should be in the range of any other bodywork in your area (in SF, generally $80-100 per session).
posted by judith at 8:13 AM on June 6, 2006

The Feldenkrais method could also help you out. It's focused more on the whole body and its movement, whereas to my understanding Alexander is focused more specifically on posture. They share some commonalities but I find Feldenkrais to be more "holistic" for lack of a better word.
posted by bobot at 8:20 AM on June 6, 2006

More thoughts, truisms, and myths:

- AT is most commonly seen in the media as something that musicians and actors study. I've seen several tv news segments (long ago, sources forgotten) on violinists and music students who incorporate an Alexander session into their weekly (or even daily) routine.

- Alexander Technique is based on human physiology, and the idea that when the body is properly aligned, movement occurs easily (and conversely, when years of sitting in crappy office chairs and car seats have resulted in bad muscular habits, movement does not happen easily --> pain results). During a session, you may look at skeletons and diagrams of the muscular systems so that you understand how your own body works.

- A lot of people bail on Alexander study because progress is slow and there is little immediate gratification. It doesn't feel like you're doing very much...until one day you suddenly realize that your back pain is gone, or you're standing straighter, or you can breathe more easily.

- Some people find it frustrating to practice a task such as getting up from a chair over and over again. Much of the work involves observing how you do such tasks and how you can do them with more ease and less strain.

- Sessions are usually performed one-on-one, but sometimes you can find a group class at a college or theater school. Pricing varies, of course; group classes can be a more economical way to study, but one-on-one sessions may help you to see results more quickly.

IANA AT practitioner, and I haven't studied Alexander in almost 10 years, but I do think there's a lot of value in understanding one's bad postural/muscular habits, learning about muscular/skeletal structure, and retraining some of the bad ways in which we move so that we (or at least I) sit, stand, and walk with more ease (and less pain).
posted by hsoltz at 8:42 AM on June 6, 2006

I would recommend Alexander over Feldenkrais, but it would have to do with your temperament and most of all, the instructor. I remember some wacky Feldenkrais stuff, like, if you fall asleep in a session, that means deep learning is happening. My take on Feldenkrais was : Hit one side of your head ten times. Instructor says "how do you feel?" You say "unbalanced." Hit the other side of your head. "How do you feel?" "Balanced." But, she may have been a whack job.
posted by rainbaby at 9:03 AM on June 6, 2006

Response by poster: One other thing to consider is that my insurance will pay for a few more sessions of physical therapy, so I was thinking of exhausting that before moving on to Alexander Technique. Good idea?
posted by rwatson at 1:40 PM on June 6, 2006

I just posted this in another thread, but I just read in Yoga Journal that a recent medical study demonstrated that yoga was more effective than physical therapy for back pain. So if you think you might need physical therapy for another issue in the future and your insurance lets you save those sessions, it might be worth considering that.
posted by occhiblu at 1:45 PM on June 6, 2006

I have just started going to Alexander Technique lessons. My third is tomorrow. I work at a PC all day and my posture has gradually got worse over the 4 years since I started my career - sometimes I get pain at the end of the day in my neck and shoulders. Lessons so far have looked at:

- how I hold my head (looking up about 5 degrees too high, apparently)
- how I stand
- how I sit down and stand up from a chair
- how I turn
- how I sit at a PC

I also have to lie down on my back on a flat surface, knees bent, with my neck propped up, for about 15-30 minutes a day - the point of this is to relax neck and shoulder muscles and give the spine a gentle stretch to help regain natural posture.

Lessons themselves don't give any relief or improvement - it's not like going for a massage or something where the impact is obvious. However, after 3 weeks of practice based on 2 lessons, I have noticed a difference in the way I stand and sit, and have noticed less pain in my shoulders. This is hardly scientific, I know, but I have a definite impression it is doing something (very gradually). The hardest thing has been how weird it has been starting to retrain my body. Holding my head down (as it appears to me) feels bizarre and robotic. The point is that as you unlearn habits, it starts to become more natural. You need to have quite a few lessons to really start unlearning everything, though.

I pay £30 for a 45 minute session (that's in London). Not quite sure what value that is compared to other cities/countries. This is who I go to (UK Mefites - would definitely recommend her. I don't get a sign-up fee for recruiting, sadly...)

Your profile doesn't say where you are, but I'm going to hazard a guess that it's the US - if so you should go to the American Society for the Alexander Technique site, which is a professional organisation for those who have gone through the 3 year training.
posted by greycap at 2:31 PM on June 6, 2006

Response by poster: I just read in Yoga Journal that a recent medical study demonstrated that yoga was more effective than physical therapy for back pain.

You'll never believe what I just read in Physical Therapy Journal then. Actually yoga is a good idea. I tried it once and thought it was helpful except that I need an instructor who is better at helping me work around my injuries.
posted by rwatson at 2:33 PM on June 6, 2006

You'll never believe what I just read in Physical Therapy Journal then.

Heh. Yeah, I know. I think it was a hospital-based study, though, not all yoga-funded. I tossed the article, so I have no further info for you.

Aha. Here is the study they seem to be referencing.
posted by occhiblu at 3:07 PM on June 6, 2006

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