“The Empowered Body”
There are countless options available to you for pain-relief, stress-reduction, and the general well-being of your mind and body. How do you know which are truly lasting and truly effective?
In my own search for pain-relief and deep well-being I’ve tried dozens of therapies and techniques. I’ve found three characteristics of the methods that really work, that really last, and which empower you to remain pain-free and discover what it means to truly thrive.
It must be body-centered
It must teach that it's not what you do, it’s how you do it that really matters
Progress comes through “Aha!” moments, not passive treatment
1) It must be body-centered
We all have heard of “the wisdom of the body,” but many of us don’t know how to tap into this wisdom. Here’s a starting place: Your body is the center of the things that really matter in your life. Consider all the things that you do during a day - working, playing, talking, connecting, laughing, crying, growing, learning, etc. Can you do any of these things without your body? Of course not.
Musculoskeletal problems like back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, and that sore spot in your shoulder all stem from what’s happening in your body. Your emotions, your subconscious reactions, and your stress levels are all centered in your bodily experience - and are best treated through paying attention to and connecting with your body.
The explosion of yoga centers and the rising popularity of body-centered psychotherapy are a testament to the level of need for embodied approaches in our culture, which normally values thinking-based approaches over all others. While there’s nothing wrong with thinking-based approaches as such, you may have experienced their limitations if you’ve ever tried to talk yourself out of being in love, or tried (and failed) to use logic to calm yourself in the midst of a panic attack.
Only connecting with your embodied self, with your lived experience of your body, and specifically with how you use your body (a core principle of the Alexander Technique) can you begin to tap into “the wisdom of the body” and begin experiencing deeper levels of well-being.
2) It's not what you do that matters, it's how you do it
Back in college I had repetitive strain injuries in my arms related to playing violin. For a long time I thought I was in pain because violin-playing was somehow inherently painful. But the real turning point for me came in my first Alexander Technique classes when I realized that violin-playing wasn’t inherently painful; I was in pain because I was unconsciously holding excess tension in my body while playing violin. In other words, it was how I was using my body while playing violin that was the real source of my injuries. Recovery at that point, although not immediate, was a straightforward matter: once I began using my body better (i.e., with more awareness and less tension) I experienced less pain and my violin technique improved immensely.
The path to relieving your own pain points might come into greater clarity with a similar shift in thinking. It’s probably not what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it.
Specifically, the “how” has to do with how you use your body, moment-by-moment, during the activities you do every day. How you walk, how you sit, how you use your computer, how you talk, how you sleep, and how you do everything else will all affect how you feel and function.
This is especially important for you if you have chronic musculoskeletal injuries, like I did. The reason these injuries are so hard to fully and permanently heal is the fact that they originate in your unconscious habits of body movement. Until you change these habits your injuries will continue to smolder. As helpful as they are in many cases, “after-the-injury” methods like exercises, stretches, cortisone shots, massage, chiropractic, electrical stimulation, and surgery all miss this essential point, and therefore won’t have truly lasting and comprehensive results. If you have chronic muscle or joint pain, or simply notice that your muscles are often too tense, don’t overlook this point.
The great news about this is that by making improvements in this one thing - how you use your body - you automatically make immediate positive changes to your pain and stress levels, your freedom of movement, your emotional balance, your posture, and your overall feeling of “OK-ness.”
The best thing about improving how you use your body is that it empowers you to make more intelligent choices about your well-being and thus free yourself of the pain points you currently face.
3) Progress comes through “Aha!” moments, not passive treatment
Empowerment really is the key to lasting and comprehensive body/mind well-being. If you’re relying on other people to fix you or make you better, then your well-being will only last as long as they’re treating you and will only go as deep as what they see in you.
In my experience, real empowerment comes only when you have the tools to make genuine self-discoveries on an ongoing basis. For me, the most fruitful source of self-discovery for your overall body/mind well-being lays in having direct awareness of how your physical, emotional, mental, and attentional habits are all connected.
For example, you may have shoulder pain and tension which manifests during computer use. If I guide you to a freer, less tense way of sitting in front of your screen (or during other activities) you may have a sudden insight about how your emotional state or quality of attention was contributing to your level of muscular tension. You may realize you were getting tense because of a looming deadline, and then we would talk about how muscular tension often arises as a sort of “emotional armoring” that develops in response to stress. Alternatively, you may have an insight into your overall quality and scope of attention. As a rule, a large, spacious field of attention relaxes your muscles, and a tiny, cramped field of attention tenses your muscles. Screens suck our attention into this tiny, narrow visual field, and then we stay there for hours and hours (and given this, it would be a miracle if your neck didn’t hurt). However, once you recognize the link between quality of attention and muscle tension, and you then begin to relate to your computer in a more spacious and open way, your neck and shoulder tension will automatically be relieved.
These sorts of self-discoveries are the core of the Alexander Technique, and my job as an Alexander Technique teacher is to create an environment in which my students can experience lots of these body/mind “Aha!” moments so that they can rely on themselves more and more to prevent their own habits of tension and stress. I love seeing that little “light bulb” turn on for someone when they realize they can let go of all the tension they didn’t even know they were carrying. It’s that “Aha!” moment that contributes most to their empowerment.
Conclusion: Empower Your Body
As you continue to explore methods of physical, emotional, and mental well-being you would do well to keep these three questions in mind:
Is it body-centered?
Does it focus on the “how” or merely on the “what”?
Is progress made through “Aha!” moments, or do you only passively receive treatment?
For me, the Alexander Technique is what most comprehensively fits these criteria when compared to other modalities, but it’s not the only one; there are also lots of other modalities out there that share some of these characteristics. Very few have all three in one place, however.
Remember - self-empowerment is essential you’re looking for long-lasting, comprehensive, and deep improvements in your well-being.
I hope that’s helpful!