In India, sadhus (ascetic students of yoga) sometimes practice austerities, committing themselves to difficult, long-term observances. One example is hand raising. A devoted sadhu may decide to raise his hand and never lower it. We in the West look at a practice like hand raising and wonder how a person could do that. We would never choose to deliberately contort our bodies for years at a time.
But in fact, like the hand-raising sadhus, we do practice bodily austerities. The difference between us and the sadhus is that they consciously choose to practice mindfully. But we develop our bodily contortions unconsciously, mindlessly, seldom realizing what we are doing to ourselves.
As young children, we are taught to sit still for long periods of time, often in chairs or desks that don't quite fit our growing bodies. We learn to focus our minds and ignore bodily sensations. At home, we learn how to slump on the sofa and watch TV or play video games, remaining out of touch with our bodies as we lose ourselves in the sounds and images. We learn how to deal with tension and unwanted emotions by holding them in our bodies. We graduate and take jobs that demand continual repetition of bodily movements, maybe on an assembly line, maybe at a desk. If we have a career devoted to abstract mental tasks, we sit for hours at a time in poorly designed office furniture, working with our minds and ignoring our bodies.
In our 20s and into our 30s, our youthful bodies can adapt remarkably well. Somewhere in our late 30s, however, our bodies most likely begin to try to get our attention--a little twinge here, a small ache there. By the time we're in our 40s, after a couple decades practicing the Western equivalent of hand-raising, our bodies raise the volume of their protests. The aches and pains are more intense and last longer. We might have a sleepless night once in awhile or miss a day of work now and then. Pain relievers and sleep aids begin appearing in our medicine cabinets. A chiropracter or massage therapist might find a place in our address books.
And then one day, our bodies finally demand our undivided and complete attention. The pain reaches a level of intensity that cannot be appeased, and it does not go away. We discover that the medical community has no good answer for our suffering. We wonder how this happened, and we begin searching for a way out.
If you are as lucky as I am, you may find an Alexander Technique instructor. The Alexander Technique has been a very important part of my way out of chronic pain. An instructor can see unnatural patterns of muscular tension and knows how to help the student perceive them, too. She gradually, patiently guides the student to release muscles that have been held dysfunctionally for years. Instead of trying to teach an idea of correct or good posture, which really is just another form of bodily holding and rigidity, she instills the idea of ease of use, of the body as a dynamic, ever-moving system.
Much about the Technique seems counterintuitive or just plain wrong at first. The Technique is a form of undoing, of unlearning, of breaking habits, of changing the way the body is felt and perceived. When the instructor first helps the body release into an easier state, it often feels odd, or even wrong. Many times, my instructor has had to show me in the mirror that, no, despite the sensation that I'm leaning to the left, that I'm tipping forward, that my legs are bent, in reality, I am standing more nearly upright than I have in a long time.
The Technique can be an emotional as well as a physical exploration. The body can hold anger, fear, embarrassment, shame, guilt. Releasing the body can be like opening a shaken bottle of emotional soda. The emotions can bubble up, memories can gush into consciousness. The enhanced bodily awareness I've received from the Technique also is an enhanced emotional awareness. When I feel my left abdomen tensing, I know I'm becoming upset. When I feel my lower back become rigid, I'm aware that I'm feeling embarrassed.
The Technique is an ongoing education. The lessons continue out in daily life. I learn something new about my body and emotions nearly every day. The Alexander work has given me a sense of curiosity about my body and its relationship to my mind and the world around me. I'm feeling a pain in my jaw? That's interesting! I wonder what would happen if I invite my shoulder to relax? I'm feeling tension in my hip. Fascinating! Could it be related to this deadline I'm working under? What would happen if I took a short break and breathed deeply for a few seconds?
After a couple of years of working with my Alexander instructor, I am free of the chronic pain that led me to her. But I continue the work. As each layer of tension, each pattern of holding, peels away, I find a new layer underneath. Lifting away the pain reveals new possibilities of a visceral joy and ease. I can't wait to see what I'll find tomorrow.