Three Paths to a More Flexible Body
by Sarah Todd
Bad habits are hard to break—and it’s even harder to eliminate the ones we are unaware of. Many people experience pain from unconscious physical patterns such as hunching over a computer keyboard or holding a musical instrument at an uncomfortable angle, but don’t know how to identify and change limiting positions. This calls for body movement re-education.
“Let’s say you’re a runner and didn’t realize that you were running in a lopsided way,” explains Alexander Technique practitioner Beret Arcaya, who has taught the practice in New York City for almost 30 years. Students learn to retrain their thinking, movements and posture for better natural alignment. “It helps you understand how you’re making an argument between yourself and gravity,” she says.
Invented by Australian thespian F. Matthias Alexander at the end of the 19th century as a means of improving his onstage presence, the Alexander Technique is highly regarded by actors and entertainers, yet anyone can benefit from it, according to Arcaya.
In typical one-on-one sessions, Alexander movement practitioners use a light, gentle touch and verbal instruction to show students how to realign their head, neck and upper back while standing in front of a mirror, which helps the rest of the body attain a more natural position. Next, students learn to move through routine activities like sitting, walking and bending in ways that replace damaging habits with easier movements.
The technique is easily modified to meet individual needs, Arcaya says, citing a former student that suffered from hemophilia. “He could hardly bend his knees, and he had little mobility in one elbow; he was terribly stiff,” she recalls. While the technique couldn’t treat the disease, “It allowed him to skillfully use his remaining uninjured tissue.” One day, when he returned from a three-mile walk with his young son, he was beaming. “‘I walked with a freedom and a lightness,’ he said, ‘I didn’t want to stop.’”
Others in need of movement re-education use the Feldenkrais Method, founded by physicist, electrical engineer and judo black belt holder Moshé Feldenkrais in the mid-20th century. Feldenkrais was familiar with the Alexander technique, and the two methods share the same fundamental goal of helping students change harmful patterns by combining movement training, touch and dialogue.
The Feldenkrais Method avoids giving students direct instructions, instead encouraging individual exploration toward fluid physicality. In one-on-one sessions with practitioners, students lie on a massage table while teachers help them discover freer movements. In group classes, students lie on the floor, sit on a chair and stand while being guided through a sequence of movements to increase flexibility and physical self-awareness. “What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies,” Feldenkrais stated, “but flexible brains; to restore each person to their human dignity.”
Scientific research attests to the benefits of both techniques. A 2008 study in the medical journal BMJ found that patients with chronic back pain experienced long-term benefits from Alexander Technique exercises and lessons. People with Parkinson’s disease also improved their walking, speech, posture and balance through Alexander training, according to a 2002 study in Clinical Rehabilitation.
Seniors that practiced the Feldenkrais Method enhanced their balance and mobility, according to a 2010 study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. It may also alleviate symptoms of nonclinical depression, according to a 2011 pilot study reported in the Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association.
Others considering such a reawakening might try the Trager Approach, invented by Dr. Milton Trager, an athlete who suffered from a congenital spinal deformity. “The intention of the practitioner in a Trager session is to introduce the client to a series of playful and pleasurable sensations as the session unfolds,” says practitioner Martha Partridge, of New York City, who works primarily with people that have Parkinson’s disease.
During tablework sessions, practitioners “bring awareness” of a specific movement by rocking, cradling and gently rotating a client’s body, Partridge explains. The feeling of effortless movement is further ingrained through a series of mental gymnastics, termed mentastics, that clients can do at home. The objective, says Partridge, is to help people have a sense of joy in everyday, common movement.
All three bodywork techniques can help people banish bad habits for good. “Gradually, aches and pains will go away,” Arcaya says. “You can undo the imbalances that have done you wrong.” Then go forward doing things right.
Sarah Todd is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY. Connect at SarahToddInk.com.