Trainees’ Column: On Chronic Pain

ImageIt’s been six months since the pain in my shoulder started, a new episode in the journey of learning about my unnecessary habitual muscular tension. The event which started the consistent pain happened while trying something new, performing on a very heavy accordion. What followed was a week of not lifting my arm, then going back and forth to feeling better and worse on a daily basis until the present day.

There are many processes and experiments that I’ve gone through since the event. First, I just waited to see if it would heal. After a month of continuously hurting during certain movements, I realized it was now a use issue. At this time, I was on break from an Alexander Technique (AT) teacher training program, and was left with the process I’ve been learning: Awareness, Inhibition and Direction. Knowing that this process can be very slow to makes changes, I thought that maybe I’d try something new again, a martial art called Aikido. Brilliant idea, I know… After researching, I found this form of martial art had some of the same principles as AT – focusing on personal use over anything else and having some hands on help to change habits. For the first few weeks, it was helpful the way the sensai (teacher) explained the coordination of breathing with movement and other mental and physical instructions. It also helped that I was in a New Beginner class and the sensai taught at half the speed of a normal class. I found that as I applied my AT process to the instructions, my coordination improved and my shoulder started feeling better. But as the class sped up, I was no longer able to inhibit my habits, and I finished the classes feeling worse than when I started. What’s more, I left with a displaced rib that I eventually snapped back into place, ugh!

It was about time to start my third year of AT teacher training, and I was in pretty rough shape. My Alexander teachers, fellow trainees and guest teachers have helped me change some of those habits and responses that have caused my shoulder to lock up which make the act of raising my left arm very painful. The painful episodes are becoming fewer, and my left shoulder and my whole body is now learning to move more efficiently and with better coordination. Though my habits have not changed enough for the pain to be completely gone, I’ve seen small and permanent changes happen as I continually come back to the AT principles, particularly when I don’t give myself any expectations on my progress. For example, when practicing moving my arm up, I tend to get “fixed” on getting my arm up over my head, something we call endgaining. The real progress only comes when I no longer care if my arm goes up. Instead, I allow myself to notice what happens in my whole body as well as my shoulder as I begin to think of lifting my arm. This gives me a chance to prevent any tension from taking control. This kind of work takes enormous patience and willingness to experiment over and over again, but that is when lasting and permanent changes can occur. So, I will continue to work through the process and trust that I will continue to improve and learn as more challenges arise.

By Michelle Brake, 3rd-year trainee

Drawing by Michelle Brake, used with permission

 

 

When Mo-Mo, Who Eats Everything, Has Eaten the “Up”

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Yesterday, my student Jan told me that sometimes if she and her partner feel awful in the morning, they joke that Mo-Mo has eaten the up. I should explain that Mo-Mo is their cat who is on a diet, and because he is getting more fit, he is able to leap everywhere and eat everything.

In thinking about Mo-Mo and the up, I am reflecting on lessons that I have learned and relearned hundreds of times over the past 26 years. One lesson is that just because I can’t feel the up doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The other is that when I feel awful and am desperate for relief, I am likely to end-gain like mad in an effort try to get out of whatever it is that I presume is causing my discomfort.

Here are a few ideas for when it seems that Mo-Mo has eaten the up. Consider the possibility that your directions are going just fine, but something has happened, which will cause you to feel awful no matter what. Maybe you are sick or getting sick. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe you have allergies or there is some environmental factor that is affecting your system. Maybe you have pulled a muscle or injured yourself in some way. When I was in Alexander school long ago in Los Angeles, I recall noticing that often on a day I felt really terrible, someone would compliment me on how well I was doing.

More about feeling the up: as we have more and more Alexander lessons, our sensory perception gets more and more accurate. The improvement of our sensory perception is both wonderful and horrible. It is wonderful, because it is very helpful to be able to listen to our kinesthetic sense when it tells us we are going wrong. It is horrible because it can lead to a presumption that “up” always feels the same and if we don’t have a certain feeling, we must not be going up. It is horrible because it can lead us to seek that feeling (seeking the feeling is what we in the Alexander Technique call “feeling it out”). It is horrible because we can forget that even though our kinesthetic sense is better, it is not totally to be trusted. When we use our kinesthetic sense to try to “get the up”, we get into trouble instead.

Trying to get a certain feeling is end-gaining. “End-gaining” is a phrase that means going directly for your end (feeling better, doing it right) without regard for the best way of getting there.

The best way to lengthen and widen is not to try to lengthen and widen, not to try to feel lengthening and widening, but to do nothing. As we do nothing, we may give ourselves a mental direction for lengthening and widening. A direction is an intention but not a doing. Unfortunately (and this is the second lesson I spoke about above), when we feel really awful, we get desperate for relief, and even the merest idea of lengthening and widening or up can cause us to overdo the directions. In other words, we subtly or not so subtly TRY to lengthen and widen. Without realizing it, we cross over the line and start doing something to try to get the feeling of up, lengthening and widening. This is likely to cause us to feel worse and then to try even harder.

In these cases, what works for me is to take the words “lengthening”, “widening”, and “up” out of my vocabulary. I tell myself, “I accept that I feel awful right now. I am not going to try to fix it. I am not going to ‘direct’. I am just going to do less. If I do less, at least I won’t add to this mess. I am going to be patient with myself.”

Up is always there, but sometimes it needs uncovering. How does it get uncovered? By stopping. By doing less. By letting go of trying to get the feeling. And trusting that if you have stopped the desperate trying, and are doing less, you are making an improvement, even if you can’t feel it.

So the next time you wonder if Mo-Mo has eaten the up, try this approach and let me know how it goes. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

by Heidi Leathwood

photo courtesy of Jan and Mo-Mo