Alexander Technique for Scoliosis
hope for sufferers, especially for parents of children with the condition
Scoliosis is a lateral curvature of the spine. Mine is “adolescent idiopathic scoliosis,” which means “onset during puberty, cause unknown.”
There is a cruelty, a double-whammy in this condition: that just as one is becoming conscious, self-conscious, of the body and its changes, the scary, alien nature of adolescence is given a literal twist; scoliosis-havers confront potential deformity and lifelong pain and health issues.
I never felt seen, or heard. The only cultural artifact that resonated was Judy Blume’s novel Deenie, which may still be the only true-as-a-bell account of what it feels like to be blindsided by the diagnosis.
In fact, when I was diagnosed, I was having my annual check-up with the family doctor. Excited about having “caught me early,” the doctor showed me plates in a medical tome, images of severely deformed people, saying “this is what you have.” I was 12; it was horrifying.
Scoliosis is not just a cosmetic issue, although it is painful when clothes hang wrong, skirt hems are never level, when catching sight of yourself in a mirror can feel assaultive.
To compensate for the spinal asymmetry, some muscles and ligaments overwork, others atrophy. Organs are squashed or displaced. One leg does more work, one shoulder tightens. In a negative-feedback mechanism, the compensations become codified, and worsen the situation. It all feels, however, normal. The body is coiled like a spring; bilateral equipoise is lost to sense-memory. People with scoliosis are working very hard, even when at rest, to literally and figuratively, hold it all together. This actually affects neural pathways, the brain, and thus mood and psychology.
I have, as my Alexander teacher told me yesterday, “debauched proprioception.” That means that I have an innaccurate map of my own body, a skewed sense of the vertical, of where center is, of what relaxed is, of where I am in space.
Alexander Technique is a bodywork modality. For me, it has been the most helpful, the most crucial thing I have done for my scoliosis, and for my psyche. I recommend it unreservedly for adults or adolesents with scoliosis. I also recommend it with parents in mind, the parents who’ve schlepped their kid to orthopedist and brace-maker and radiologist, who’ve watched their child have to pathologize and quantify their own body, who feel helpless and saddened by the seeming inexorable and fated progression of the disease.
Alexander is the antidote to a mechanistic, objectifying, and alienating diagnosis-treatment process. I’m not advocating abandoning mainstream medicine. I do, however, believe that Alexander is both the perfect complementary treatment, and also life-saving for adults for whom there is no more treatment except wait-and-see.
An Alexander session is called a “lesson.” There’s something telling and crucial in that. You’re not a patient, you’re not a client, you are a student. You are in a process of learning to connect with your body in a deep. experiential way. The teaching is mainly through touch, which bypasses both linguistic, conceptual thought and habitual body patterns and defenses. There is always more to learn, deeper to go. And it feels really, really, really good, as if you are being returned to yourself, when you didn’t even know you’d been gone.
When I leave my lesson, I am more grounded to the earth, and also literally taller. There is more spece between formerly compressed vertabrae. My breathing is deeper, my voice comes from a deeper place, less wispy. Tension I didn’t know I was carrying is dissipated. I see more clearly, and see others less judgmentally. My movement is efficient and integrated. My joints are more articulate and freer, and at the same time more connected to my core. Most of all, I remember who I am. I don’t mean in some epiphany way to do with thoughts or words or insights; it has to do with re-inhabiting myself, as myself.
At least as my teacher practices it, my hour session has two components. Sitting, and lying down. After each, I also walk, to incorporate what has just been learned.
At the core of Alexander is the simple principle of body alignment, that the feet connect and ground into the earth, the head rises into the sky on a plumb line, that the limbs move freely in the sockets, that there is no extra effort or distortion of natural body mechanics.
More easily said than done, as anyone who lives now on earth knows.
In order to facilitate alignment, Alexander teachers guide the student with touch, sort of suggestions that can be whisper-light, or sustained and firm. It is a different touch than a massage, and although it is about, really, untangling energetic pathways and unwinding long-standing habits, it employs no reiki, meditation, mantras, or spiritual-symbolic systems.
Alexander Technique teachers learn and teach (the certification is extremely rigorous, and involves anatomy, developmental physiology, neural and brain patterning) that the headbone is connected to the neck bone, the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone. The body is one system, and everything is connected and affects everything else.
Since scoliosis produces and reinforces patterns of imbalance and distortion that become habitual and codified, the entire body-mind system is out of whack. But, rather than focusing on the spine itself, or on areas of pain, Alexander creates space and freedom by working equally at the extremities.
It is eye-opening to begin to understand the body’s maps through a lesson. I have worked with my teacher for many years, so she is highly attuned to my body states. Each lesson is different. Yesterday she gripped right above my elbow, very firmly, a place I believed to be in a neutral state. After a moment of resisting, some deep ligaments released, and my shoulder released, and my spine uncoiled, in a smooth unspiraling. I have had the same holistic experiences whne she presses my outer calf muscle, or pulls firmly on my second toes as I lie on the table. Sometimes she will press on either side of the hinges of my jaw, and my whole head gets hot and I feel like I can finally rest inside my head.
Now, the Alexander Technique speaks to me in my own language, partially because I was/am a dancer, and have both a matter-of-fact mechanic’s relationship to my body as well as an attunement to energetic trajectories. For me, the body has been the most direct way for me to both think and feel. I can’t get to the same place, for example, through talk-therapy, because I am articulate and analytical and words become a gorgeous prison. I can’t get there via mantras and incense because iconographies are seductive and loaded.
People are different, and different things work.
But the reason I highly recommend giving Alexander a try, and a good 5 or more lessons of a try, at that, is because, for those with scoliosis, our bodies have been pathologized and problematized in a terrible cycle of self-alienation. The body is a site of censure, and self-abnegation or repulsion.
Alexander allows a direct experience of a pleasurable, integrated, fluid, malleable body. While the orthopedist pronounces a seemingly immutable number of degrees of curvature, and by doing so fixes an immutable distortion that the sufferer identifies with, despairs of, Alexander allows for a forgiving, mutable, resonant and alive bodymap.
And, while it feels wonderful, it’s not simply a relaxing indulgence; it is actually a rigorous lesson of deep repatterning, but requires no theory or self-judgment or act of willpower to change things. In fact, used to being proactive, I have had to untrain myself from doing too much, from patterns I had thought helpful. It is such a relief to understand I can do less.
My sense is that the Alexander Technique will really resonate with teens who are coming to terms with scary body changes. Like all one-on-one therapeutic modalities, a lesson is a conversation, and you’ve got to find a teacher you trust and like for it to really work.
I am not sure that adolescent-onset scoliosis is entirely dissimilar from bulimia, anorexia, or self-cutting.
I’m also going to go out on a limb here — and this is intuition, not data, not science.
Although adolescent-onset scoliosis is mostly “idiopathic,” as in unknown cause, I have a strong intuition that it correlates to trapped energy seeking an outlet; the energy could be stress, anger, unconscious sexuality. I have an intuition it has an element of repression or control, and believe there is anecdotal and statistical correlation to a certain kind of girl (most sufferers are girls), with characteristics of perfectionism and a tendency to worry or anxiety.
I am not sure that adolescent-onset scoliosis is entirely dissimilar from bulimia, anorexia, or self-cutting. All occur primarily in adolescent girls, have a distorting, punitive aspect, and have elements of control and repression at core— almost like a compulsive self-BDSM.
I would be very curious whether the Alexander technique might not be as effective as talk-therapy for some of these disorders, or at least a valuable complement. For girls who have pathologized, disowned, rejected their bodies, a practice involving re-integration and which allows for a different experience of inhabiting the body may just help distance and dissipate the fierce identification with dysmorphias.
Yoga. I practice Iyengar yoga, for much the same reasons I take Alexander; it is a body-alignment-focused asana practice, encouraging body awareness and balance with liberal use of props and tractioning. (I take an advanced Iyengar class at a studio equipped with a rope wall, and spend much of the time hanging upside-down, stretching and tractioning. I modify most poses.) I could write an equally long piece about Iyengar yoga, but my one caveat is that it is possible, in a group class, or with an inexperienced teacher, to work the body unintelligently, or even further stress it. For that reason, new students should find a teacher who specifically offers classes for scoliosis, or who has trained with an Iyengar-for-scoliosis master teacher. Iyengar is the yoga tradition that has actually developed this sub-specialty.
Pilates is great for core strength, which is one of the first casualties of bracing. It also has traction, and tracking apparatuses. However, Pilates teachers tend to be from a fitness background (some are ex-dancers as well), and have not been trained to modify the exercises for spinal asymmetries. Especially for growing and malleable adolescent bodies, I would not recommend Pilates. I have had many classes and private sessions, and only ONE teacher grokked the situation and gave me some modified insruction that lengthened and balanced my spine.
Body-mind-centering and Feldenkreis are two other bodywork modalities that focus on movement repatterning, body integration, and simple movement in space.
Google these: (will not link as I do not want this general article to be conflated with any sort of marketing or endorsements.) Any of the below resources can help you find a trained practiononer in your area.
Balance Arts Center (Alexander technique lessons, also wonderful floor classes that combine yoga and Alexander.)
Yoga Union Center for Back Care and Scoliosis (Iyengar yoga)
Genny Kapuler (Iyengar)
Elise Browning Miller (Palo Alto, yoga for scoliosis pioneer.)
And best of luck. I am not someone who can fully embrace the “scoliosis is the best thing that ever happened to me” narrative, but I can say that the paths I have taken to ameliorate it have led me toward self-acceptance and moments of wisdom. And, on the money front, when I had a corporate job, I was able to use my supplemental health flex-pay benefit to pay for Alexander lessons. (You pay with before-tax income.) You need a doctor to prescribe Alexander to do this.