March 30, 2011
Mind-body fitness and health programs are wildly popular. Yoga and Pilates studios are popping up in many communities and tai chi classes are even offered in the workplace. Yoga, Pilates, and tai chi offer well-documented health benefits, but they’re not the only mind-body fitness activities on the block. The Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method® may also offer some health benefits — and elements of these training methods are making their way onto college campuses and mainstream fitness classes.
What is the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique was developed by Australian Frederick Matthias Alexander in the late 19th century. As a young actor, he experienced a devastating problem — his voice became hoarse while onstage, and no medical condition was ever diagnosed. After years of study, Alexander concluded that proper functioning of every part of the body depended on the correct balance of tension from top to toe and came up with a training method to achieve and maintain that level of tension. Today’s Alexander Technique is taught in a 1:1 setting, and instructors undergo a rigorous full-time, 3-year, 1600-hour training program.
What will the Alexander Technique do for me?
Most people carry a certain amount of physical tension without even being aware of it. The Alexander Technique teaches “use of the self” to become aware of bodily tension and learn to pause instead of reacting to situations, thereby reducing stress and neuromuscular tension. Students learn how to regain alignment and coordination between the head, back and neck as a foundation for everyday activities — and how to move consciously and skillfully. According to the American Society for the Alexander Technique™, changing problem postural habits leads to “improved mobility, posture, performance, alertness, and relief of chronic stiffness, tension and stress.”
Research points to the value of the Alexander Technique as a way to manage chronic back pain. In one study, subjects with chronic back pain who were given Alexander Technique lessons both with and without an additional exercise prescription experienced a significant decrease in the number of days with back pain and improved quality of life compared to subjects undergoing massage therapy — and these benefits remained effective at one year of follow-up.
Many people practice the Alexander Technique as a way to cope with chronic illness or pain, to enhance exercise performance, or for personal development, although the effectiveness of this method is largely unstudied.
What is the Feldenkrais Method®?
Looking for a way to improve your balance, flexibility, and coordination? The Feldenkrais Method teaches increased body awareness — expanding the image of the self to include parts of the self that are often overlooked, and tapping into these parts to expand movement capacity. Students become more sensitive to existing neuromuscular patterns and learn ways to cultivate more graceful, efficient movement patterns.
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, a Russian-born physicist, engineer, judo expert, and educator, founded the method in an effort to recover from severe knee injuries. The Feldenkrais Method® is taught in both the group and 1:1 setting and includes floorwork, standing, and seated movements. Awareness Through Movement® is a group class with verbal cueing from the instructor. Functional Integration® is a hands-on individual class, with gentle touching and movement to assist the student in regulating and coordinating movement. Feldenkrais practitioners undergo 740-800 hours of training over 3-4 years.
What are the benefits of practicing the Feldenkrais Method®?
Research on the Feldenkrais Method® has demonstrated its effectiveness in improving balance and mobility — two major factors in preventing falls, especially in older adults. A small amount of research indicates that Feldenkrais exercises may be helpful for low back pain when used alone or in conjunction with other therapies. It stands to reason that anyone could benefit from improved movement patterns — whether you’re a dancer, a soccer player, an office worker, or a parent. Simply put, the Feldenkrais Method® teaches you to move with less effort — and that can mean more comfort, less pain, and less stress.
Where’s the Evidence?
Both the Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method lack solid scientific evidence for the vast amount of health benefit claims often touted by websites and enthusiasts. Many of the existing studies were poorly designed and offer mixed results. More research is needed to fully define and understand the physical and psychological effects of these training methods. Because the movements involved are gentle and controlled — and work within the body’s natural ranges of motion, these training methods are generally regarded as safe for most people. But it’s always a good idea to check with your health care provider before starting a new exercise program.
Learn more about these mind-body training methods by exploring the additional resources below.
The Alexander Technique —American Society for the Alexander Technique™
The Definitive Guide to the Alexander Technique — The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique
The Feldenkrais Method —Feldenkrais Movement Institute
- The American Society for the Alexander Technique™, http://www.amsatonline.org/
- The Definitive Guide to the Alexander Technique — The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, http://www.stat.org.uk/index.htm
- The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education, FAQs, http://www.feldenkrais.com/method/frequently_asked_questions/
- Natural Standard and Harvard Medical School for Aetna Intelihealth, Feldenkrais Method, 2008, http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/8513/34968/358818.html?d=dmtContent and Alexander Technique, 2008, http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH?d=dmtContent&c=360044&p=~br,IHW|~st,8513|~r,WSIHW000|~b,*|
- Ullmann G, Williams HG, Hussey J, McClenaghan BA, Effects of Feldenkrais exercises on balance, mobility, balance confidence, and gait performance in community-dwelling adults age 65 and older, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2010 Jan;16(1):97-105 (abstract).
- Image Source: The Feldenkrais Method of Somatic Education (http://www.feldenkrais.com/method/article/embodying_life_an_interview_with_russell_delman/)
Beth Shepard, M.S., ACE-PT, ACSM-RCEP, Wellcoaches Certified Wellness Coach is a clinical exercise physiologist, health promotion consultant, and educator with more than 20 years of experience in hospital-based exercise and educational programming, wellness coaching and population health management. She is certified by ACE, ACSM, and Wellcoaches Corporation, a volunteer course reviewer for Desert Southwest Fitness, and works with corporate and individual clients to deliver sustainable health behavior change solutions.