Being a hypermobile Alexander Technique teacher Quite a few people have one or more joints that can move beyond the expected range - this is known as hypermobility. Although it can be an advantage in certain professions such as ballet, it can also lead to injuring yourself more easily, and a general instability of posture and movement. Joint Hypermobility Syndrome and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), where the joints and connective tissues are severely affected, can be very disabling conditions and may be implicated in fatigue illnesses such as fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue and ME.

I was always a bendy child, my sister even more so. We showed off by performing gymnastic contortions, and generally took full advantage of it. I was also very clumsy and often 'turned my ankle', finding myself all of a sudden on my hands and knees.

As a teenager I slumped for England - my mother used to say that I seemed to be resting my chin on the dinner table. I simply wasn’t able to sit up straight, and after a big growth spurt in my mid-teens I looked like a droopy flower.

During a routine medical at university I was told I had a scoliosis but not given any advice about it; I often used to stand with my left leg turned under at the ankle, in order to feel 'straight'. Our habitual family stance was with legs locked back like pigeons, hips thrust forward and bellies hanging out. My mother had severe osteoarthritis by her fifties and ended up having both knees replaced.

In my thirties, while teaching the piano, I developed terrible pains in my wrists, which led me via a circuitous route to having Alexander Technique lessons. I found them very helpful and had lessons for many years, but things really developed when I did the three-year full-time training as a teacher. During the training I experienced several episodes of 'change pain' as tight-locked muscles started to undo and find their natural balance. But I knew I was heading in the right direction.

I learned not to lock my knees back – this led to confusion for a long time as my knees simply had no idea where to 'be'. For a while I walked around with them slightly bent, but this just led to different problems. I also seemed to have exchanged fixing my knees for fixing in the hips – in order to stand up securely I obviously felt I had to tighten something! I'm still struggling somewhat with this dilemma, but at least I know when I'm doing it.

My mother felt very tired a lot of the time, needing a nap after lunch just to make it through the day. My sister got ill for a number of years with ME/CFS, and in my mid-forties, after a shocking life event, I succumbed to the same condition. Although pain was not one of my main symptoms, I often felt shaky and weak, as though my legs could not hold me up. I finally recovered from the illness using a combination of the Alexander Technique and something called the Lightning Process, which also retrains the brain and nervous system to avoid triggering spiraling symptoms of illness. I still often have a lie-down during the day - fortunately the Alexander Technique encourages this practice!

I have never officially been diagnosed as hypermobile, although my legs, arms, hips and lower back clearly fit the bill. Since becoming aware of it in myself, I have realised how many of my pupils have issues with hypermobility in one or more areas of the body, some quite severe. It's often the people who seem at first to be the most stiff and unaware of sensation in their joints who turn out to be gripping tightly in order not to collapse. The Alexander Technique can help to return proprioceptive awareness to these areas and undo inappropriate muscle tension, and also to exercise safely in order to build strength in the joints.

Three years ago I started doing yoga classes, and initially managed to injure myself frequently, despite a very sensitive and non-pushy teacher. It's taken a while for me to learn how to do the movements without over-stretching – ironically it's often the things that feel 'easy' that lead to problems.

I always think that without the Technique I'd probably be in a real mess by now, but fortunately I have this marvelous tool to keep myself in the best condition possible as I grow older.

© Maddy Paxman

Reaction or response - expanding our awareness In this age of individuality and apparent self-consciousness, how much do we really know about what we are up to? A stimulus comes to us – either from the outside world, or from our own thoughts or bodily needs – and before we know it we have begun reacting to it. We feel thirsty, and we find ourselves reaching for a drink. Brain research indicates that the physiological system starts to react to a stimulus up to a second before the conscious mind becomes aware of it (1) (if indeed it does become aware). There is then a tiny window of opportunity where we can choose whether or not to proceed, and if so, in what manner. All of this takes place millions of times a day – we make split-second choices about whether to let the pattern run according to habit or do something different. Alexander

Particularly if the stimulus is unpleasant (invoking fear, anger, shock, discomfort), the reaction will probably involve much tightening of the muscular system, not to mention release of ‘stress hormones’. This is a natural process – animals also flinch or start – but the difference is that they quickly return to neutral, whereas we have the mental capacity to hold onto a situation, thus prolonging the tension and its effects. In fact it could be said that the habit of tension becomes ingrained; we find it harder and harder to recover our equilibrium, and thus live on a kind of constant “red alert”. But even a pleasant or neutral stimulus can invoke superfluous muscular tension – watch what happens when you next pick up a cup of tea.

Many of our actions and reactions are totally habitual and this is of course necessary – otherwise we’d have to re-learn how to do everything anew all the time. Most of our bodily systems function perfectly well without our intereference (if we can get ourselves out of their way) and of course we need appropriate muscular tension to be able to stand and move. But our automatic patterns of reaction frequently use too much effort, bringing about pain and strain, and leading to constriction of breathing, circulation and other bodily functions. We also feel trapped in our own mental habits – “I just couldn’t stop myself”.

The key is to use that tiny moment of awareness to challenge those habits. As we have seen, once we are aware of the stimulus, the reaction is already under way. So we must first seize on that moment when we become conscious of it – this is what “being in the present” truly means. At that point our choice is very simple – “yes” or “no” (volition or inhibition, in neurological terms). Have you ever tried to change gear in a car without passing through neutral? It’s equally impossible to impose a different behaviour choice on top of what’s already set in motion. The first reaction has to be put on “hold” while we consider our options. One is to stop and do nothing. One is to proceed, but without (or with less of) the usual pattern of muscular tension. One is to do something different. Or we can just go ahead with what we had begun, if we wish.

The point is that in this way a “reaction” becomes instead a measured, conscious “response”, a choice rather than an inevitability. I know it seems that if we put this into operation all the time we’d end up frozen in inaction, but help is at hand. The Alexander Technique, I believe, is the tool with which we can become more quickly aware of our reaction and more in control of our response. How does this work? Isn’t the Alexander Technique simply about standing up straighter? Or about relaxing? Well, I return to my first question – how much do we know about what we are up to? And the answer, sadly, is not a lot. We have let our habits take us over, and in the process our whole sensory system has become dulled and corrupted. We may think we are “standing up straight” but a quick glance in the mirror may show otherwise – our proprioceptive sense (which tells us where we are in space) is malfunctioning. Remember that cup of tea? How much tension was there in your hand, wrist, arm, neck as you reached for it? Did you gulp, toss your head backwards, hold your breath as you drank? Did you really need to use that much effort? What about when you have an uncomfortable feeling, do you hold your breath in order to suppress or manage it (most of us do)? What does holding your breath do to your balance?

Working with an Alexander Technique teacher to untangle our physical and mental habits is a fascinating process of self-discovery. The gentle touch and guidance of the teacher works to calm the nervous system and make it less reactive, thus allowing us a bigger “window of choice”. If you like, it helps us establish better habits, which don’t involve so much tension and pain – but also not to get ourselves too comfortably fixed into those new habits. Because there is always room for change.

There may or may not have been a distant time when human beings functioned in perfect balance and co-ordination like animals, but it is certain that our current pressured way of life makes it very difficult to be either. I believe that our consciousness is at once our greatest tool and our greatest enemy. It is what made us change the world in the way we have, because we were able to imagine that things could be different, better, and think of ways of bringing that about. But the ability to think in the future, the past, the alternate present, took us gradually further and further away from what was happening right now, under our noses, in our own bodies and minds. We can’t go back to some imagined former paradise, but we can use our consciousness to wake up to the present, to expand our awareness of both our inner and outer worlds. To ask ourselves continually, what’s really going on?

© Maddy Paxman 2008

(1) Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W., and Pearl, D. K. (1983). Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 106:623-642.

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