This all too common complaint can be dramatically alleviated by lessons in the Alexander Technique. When meeting anyone with neck, upper back and shoulder pain, I am always confident that I will be able to help them. After all, the neck area is significant to the A.T. and is the part of the body we, as teachers, focus on. We know from experience and from F.M. Alexander’s discoveries that the neck is where it all goes wrong.
Alexander discovered that the proper functioning of the body was determined and greatly influenced by the relationship of the neck to the head and to the back. He called this the ‘Primary Control’. Every person suffering from neck pain will be doing harmful things to themselves in this area. The way people misuse their neck muscles—by compressing or slumping the neck—is obvious to the expert’s eye, yet is unconscious in those who do it. This unconscious misuse is indicative of a staggering lack of awareness, as before taking lessons, nobody knows how to correctly use this area. In every act we do, whether it be sitting, standing, walking or bending, the neck is put under strain. Once a pupil is shown by a skilled teacher how to prevent misuse in this area, the A.T. is primarily a technique of prevention. The pupil will gradually come to understand both the wrongs they are doing to themselves, and what measures are necessary to prevent them. At first assistance is required, but over time the pupil will develop their own inhibitory skills. It is then only a matter of practice, moment to moment, hour after hour, before a new and beneficial habit is acquired. This remembering to remember, to consistently apply what you know, is the greatest difficulty. Our Western culture has indoctrinated us with the idea that in order to improve we must learn to do something. The idea of non-doing is not part of our educational makeup. But the cornerstone of the A.T. is prevention, prevention, prevention.
Pupils vary enormously in their ability to grasp this concept. Under the pressure of work and the need to rush, the new habit of a few hours is competing with a twenty, thirty, even fifty-year habit. There is only one winner under these circumstances; the old habit and wrong use of the neck will dominate, and pain will inevitably return. Even the most intelligent person who fully understands that they must learn to stop and think—to use their brains to help themselves—will initially fail. Eventually, though, a point will be reached when after enough lessons the principle will be effectively established. At this point, neck pain will become a thing of the past—to the sufferer’s great satisfaction. This will be achieved not by massaging, manipulating or relaxing the neck, nor by doing exercises or stretching. It will be achieved by preventing the wrong use occurring in the neck. At the moment of consent in all movements, for example when sitting down in a chair from a standing position, the brain sends messages to the body’s muscles—unfortunately the wrong messages. Unless these instructions can be cancelled, the wrong unconscious tensions will continue to occur.
Learning to prevent these messages from reaching the muscles is a principal concern of the Alexander Technique. It is not about posture, positions, or doing things right; it is about stopping habitual, unthinking consent.
Within the last three months, a new pupil consulted me about a long-term neck problem. Their neck and shoulders had been sore for years, and they had tried their G.P., physiotherapy, chiropractics and massage without relief. Powerful painkillers barely eased the discomfort. The pupil could not find a comfortable sitting position, and sleep was now a problem. It literally was a pain in the neck. The pupil, only in their thirties, was forced to give up golf, squash and swimming, as well as finding playing with their children difficult. Ultimately, they were unable to work, as sitting in front of a computer all day rendered their back and shoulders near paralysis. In their first initial lesson they became aware of how much they stiffened their neck and pulled their head back and down into their shoulders as they sat. This compressed the neck and spine, slumped the upper back and pushed the collar bone far forward. Furthermore, when the pupil moved out of the chair everything was exaggerated. Once I was able to guide them away from this arrangement, the pain all but stopped, and after some forty minutes of working together the pain was gone. ‘I haven’t felt like this for years,’ they said. They told me they had become lazy about their posture over the years, despite the advice they had received about sitting, standing and handling during a Health & Safety course. I told them that even if they had tried to put the advice into operation, their well-established misuse would have precluded any possibly benefits.
Sadly, many people are under the illusion that an act of will is all that is required to regain co-ordination. If only that were the case. When a person succumbs to indifference in what they are doing, that becomes the habit. This leads to stagnation where things become fixed and rigid and extremely difficult to rectify under our own instruction. To make the transition between unconscious misuse and conscious prevention possible, a course of Alexander lessons is needed.
I am happy to report that the aforementioned pupil followed this course and made a full recovery from chronic neck pain. They are now back playing golf and working where sitting at a desk and lifting IT equipment presents no difficulty. They still attend lessons and have recently encouraged a friend with neck pain to come along too.
That is how this awareness of the Technique grows; mostly from personal recommendation. I hope you, reader, on coming across this will be inspired to follow it up. I would like to help you.