Do we humans really know how to walk? Or stand? Or sit? According to bodywork practitioners, we could use our bodies in a freer way that brings us more relaxation, healing, and joy.

Re-programming Your Body for Relaxation and Healing

Feldenkrais, Trager, and the Alexander technique are all bodywork techniques based on the idea that most of us have forgotten how to experience free and joyful movement. Poor movement and habits, as well as muscle tension caused by physical and emotional trauma, are to blame. Through observation, intuition, and simple, gentle touches and movements, practitioners remind our bodies how to move more freely, release tension, and relieve pain.

Rose Smith, PT, CSC, professor of physical therapy at the University of Cincinnati, says, "You can use any of these bodywork modalities for any type of neuromuscular dysfunction," including low back, shoulder, neck, and TMJ pain . Numerous anecdotes suggest that various forms of bodywork may relieve headaches and other chronic pain, increase movement range, and decrease stress. However, there is only minimal scientific supporting evidence at this time, primarily for the Alexander technique.

Giving It a Try

I recently tried my hand at three types of "bodywork." I was in Tina Holsapple's office 15 minutes before I learned that I've been sitting, standing, and walking incorrectly for 26 years. It's a bit of information most friends won't tell you.

"Most people wouldn't even know what to look for," Holsapple says. As a teacher of the Alexander technique, Holsapple is trained to detect poor posture and movement habits, or, more precisely, spinal "misalignment."

The Alexander Technique

The Alexander technique is not a series of treatments or exercises, but rather a re-education of the mind and body. It's a method that helps you discover a new balance in the body by releasing unnecessary tension. It can be applied to sitting, lying down, standing, walking, lifting, and other daily activities.

F. Matthias Alexander, actor and founder of the technique, believed that misalignment results from the human habit of pressing our heads back and down, like turtles retreating into shells, shortening our spines and torsos. Most of us have this posture, said Alexander, for reasons as seemingly benign as sitting in uncomfortable chairs in elementary school. The problem with such posture isn't sheer unattractiveness. The problem is that it can result in pain and stress, according to Alexander teachers.

Alexander practitioners try to realign the spine by releasing the neck and bringing the head forward and up. They may do this by first observing you, like Holsapple does, as I stand, sit, and walk across the room. She also gently touches me, concentrating on my head, neck, back, and even knees, to find and release muscular tension.

By watching me, Holsapple notices that I stand with my feet too close together.

"A foundation should be as wide as the house," she reasons, "so you need to stand with your feet at least shoulder-width apart." By touching the backs of my knees, Holsapple finds that I lock them when I stand. I should have "soft knees" instead. By the time I leave her office, I feel more aware of my body. Above all, I feel relaxed.

Some scientific research on Alexander Technique has been reported, suggesting, (but not proving) that it may be helpful for Parkinson's disease and back pain and the risk of harm is considered low.

Feldenkrais

Rick Innis, a 48-year-old musician, visited Feldenkrais practitioner Dorthea Morton, PT, because of his chronic neck pain. Innis remembers that Morton gently moved his head from side to side, touched his right shoulder, which she said was "two inches higher than the other," and encouraged him to lower it. "Immediately after the first session, I felt a release in my neck," says Innis, "The movements seem so simple...but you feel their effects everywhere."

The purpose of Feldenkrais is for clients to literally feel the effects everywhere: in their thoughts, emotions, senses, and movements. Moshe Feldenkrais believed that this quartet, in harmony, leads to self-actualization, happiness, and health. Scientific research done on Feldenkrais has suggested, (but not proven) that it may be helpful for stress, muscle spasms, and pain and again the risk of harm is considered low.

Feldenkrais assistant trainer Usa Jackson, PT, PhD, explains this mind-body connection.

"If you came to me with jaw tension, we would ask 'what do you chew on—What do you hold back—That's all the mental part and I leave you to play with that."

On a more physical level, Jackson would make you aware of your jaw's connection to the rest of your body.

"I would have you inventory all of your teeth with your tongue. And then we would move to your tongue and breathing. Is your breathing full on both sides of your body? Then I want to know if when you move your arm, whether your jaw gets in on it, as well. This allows you to notice that your jaw is a part of your walking or standing. We'd look at all the ways that your jaw overly participates in your movement."

Trager

With lesser goals than life transformation, I venture out to Trager practitioner Alan Hundley's office to relieve stress. Apparently it works. By the time I leave, I'm so relaxed that I put my shoe on the wrong foot, and he warns me to be careful driving home.

Trager practitioners help your body move in graceful and flowing ways that you may have never considered before. A boxer and acrobat, Milton Trager believed that the mind holds muscles in contraction. Therefore, the goal of the Trager method is to free these muscles by communicating light, easy movement to the unconscious via the nervous system. Scientific research on the Trager method has been reported, suggesting, (but not proving) that it may be helpful for stress, muscle spasms, and pain and that the risk of harm is considered low.

A single session usually lasts about an hour and a half. No oils or lotions are used. As you lie comfortably supported on a cushioned table in soft comfortable clothes, a Trager practitioner moves you, while listening (feeling) to find your most comfortable rhythm and range. Each body part is moved and connected.

"You use repetitive, rhythmic motion—rocking, lightly shaking, lengthening, and rolling. It's [all about] moving the body in a repetitive fashion the way the body is meant to move," Hundley says. He lightly shakes my right leg. Gently, repeatedly, he bends my right leg into my torso. Rocking my hips, he very lightly presses on my back, and a block of breath escapes in a deep exhale.

All the while he asks me questions to help me notice where I hold tension.

"Are you aware of the tension behind your knee?" and "Did you feel that tightness in your chest release?"

At the end, Hundley and I do "Mentastics"—a way of practicing Trager by yourself, without a facilitator. You listen to your body as you swing, lengthen, vibrate, shift, etc., using simple questions to focus on ease, comfort, and awareness.

"Visualize water rolling off your body," Hundley suggests. As I jiggled my jellied body in a kind of interpretive dance, it wasn't water that rolled off my body in the last hour. It was lead.