Jessica Wolf, a teacher who specializes in breathing coordination presents a case study of a woman suffering with chronic pain.
by Jessica Wolf
Two years ago I received a phone call from Elizabeth, a partner in a law firm, who told me her chronic headaches had become so intense that she could no longer do her job. She had consulted doctors, taken medication and been in physical therapy – none of which seemed to be helping her to feel better. She was desperate to find lasting relief and I was the last stop on her journey.
I am an Alexander teacher specializing in breathing coordination. The Alexander Technique is a simple and proven method of self-care to alleviate pain, muscular tension and stress caused by everyday misuse of the body. It is unique among all the psycho-physical techniques because it is the only one that can make changes that will last a lifetime.
Pain, the great motivator, encouraged Elizabeth to be open to a new way of thinking. Elizabeth had accumulated decades of unconscious, bad habits, which restricted her mobility and interfered with her breath and body. By the time she had come to me, Elizabeth had lost a lot of flexibility and, thus had very few choices in her overall movement. Her hips were locked onto her legs; her neck and shoulders were held tight, and she strained when she turned her head. She had little volume in her voice and was in a frustrated emotional state caused by her chronic pain.
Elizabeth’s headaches were triggering her body’s fight or flight response causing muscles to contract, breath to get held, heart rate to rise and her posture to compress. When you are in pain, you move less and in Elizabeth’s case, she noticed that her respiratory and circulatory system were being compromised and felt she had lost strength in her muscular skeletal system. Elizabeth’s headache was not the problem, it was a manifestation of the problem. Instead of focusing on the symptom we agreed to search for the cause.
The first step in Elizabeth’s healing process was to make her aware of how her habits of use caused her headaches. The way she stood, sat at a desk, held a phone, read a brief were activities that compounded her pain. Because nature does not see us in parts but views us as whole, it was important for Elizabeth to sense her whole self– body and mind– as she consciously explored her condition and the response to her pain.
Before Elizabeth could be in charge of her own healing process, she would need to develop a kinesthetic awareness in order to gain a sense of conscious control over her muscular-skeletal tension and bring significant relief to herself.
During weekly lessons with Elizabeth, I would give verbal instruction and gentle, ‘hands-on’ manual guidance to help activate her body and reawaken its natural ease and coordination. She was able to recognize patterns of movement that aggravated her; for instance, together we observed her habit of locking her knees while standing. As we explored the possibility of balancing more easily on supple legs, Elizabeth made an unexpected connection to her neck and her jaw. When she released her knees, she let go of her jaw and was immediately impressed with the release of tension at the base of her skull and in her neck. Soon, she was able to stand for longer periods of time without discomfort.
Within a month of taking lessons, Elizabeth discovered another significant habit that contributed to her pain. I asked her to observe how she was sitting and to notice the shape of her body and how it might be affecting her breathing pattern. She recognized that when she sat she would arch her back and push her ribs forward. Without skipping a beat, Elizabeth saw the profound connection between tightening her ribs and holding her breath. She exclaimed,” I always hold my breath!”
To revitalize Elizabeth’s respiratory system, we had to redevelop her breathing coordination. Her breath had been disturbed by pain, fatigue and stress. The rhythmical function of her breathing had lost some of its responsiveness. We worked with a particular procedure that encouraged a long and relaxed exhalation. This gentle release of air indirectly influences the respiratory system by triggering a reflexive and automatic inhalation. . I explained to Elizabeth that she didn’t have to “do” anything to breathe, because proper breathing is involuntary.
Over the course of a year, Elizabeth was able to gain conscious control of her use. This allowed her to use her body as a feed-back system. By breaking the habits that had caused her muscular tension, her pain practically disappeared. This form of re-education of breath and body and the return to ease may be a slow process, but well worth the joy and the journey.