Functional, Structural, or Both?

For over a hundred years now, the Alexander Technique has been helping thousands of people all over the world how to move with greater ease. It’s a powerful skill set to learn, and many performers, especially actors and musicians, find it invaluable for improving their performance. But many come to the work because of movement and tension problems, and these are the people who constitute the majority of my particular client list.

One of the key principles of Alexander's technique is that the way someone mentally directs their movement determines the efficiency of their movement (as well as other things like breathing). So, the Alexander Technique works with functional issues - unnecessary muscular use that hampers efficient movement and optimal performance.

It does not deal with structural anomalies. Neither is it about pain management. And yet, more often than not, clients present with pain, quite understandably seeking help to get rid of it.

My early zeal and enthusiasm as a newly qualified teacher soon gave way to great care never to overpromise the capacity of the work, superb though it is. A course of Alexander lessons, while it can absolutely revolutionise someone’s thinking and movement, will rarely magic away all of a person’s problems. And structural issues cannot be resolved by thinking differently.

Having structural issues of my own, I understand the very human desire of putting hopes and trust in this or that ‘one magic solution’. When things hurt, you’ll try anything and everything that might help. The nature of marketing also drives many health practitioners to use hyperbole when advertising their services and selling hope to prospective clients. “What’s your pain point? Here’s the solution!” I know all too well, sadly, what it’s like to spend money (sometimes an awful lot of it) and have that hope dashed, time and again. It’s very hard on morale.

The fact is, some difficulties are structural. It’s so important as a teacher always to look for such things, to find out through observation, discussion, and examination what it may and may not be possible to achieve; to remember and humbly accept that no one specialist can ever know everything about the insides of a working body , and to be mindful of managing a student’s expectations.

Structural issues, include injury, disease, and congenital abnormalities (e.g. non-development, underdevelopment or overdevelopment of particular bones and muscles), may go unnoticed for years or even a lifetime. And over time, due to wear and tear, functional misuse may sometimes in fact become structural.

Some people seem to handle the hard realities of painful structural problems with great equanimity. In an interview with the actor Warwick Davis who was born with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita, a rare form of dwarfism, he sounded extraordinarily sanguine about living his whole life with pain, and with joint problems that will inevitably worsen with age. He may of course be keeping the deep lows that can come with chronic pain private; but to me he is a shining light of courage, tenacity, and cheerfulness.

The ‘functional or structural’ question is by no means always binary. It’s good to take as much responsibility as possible for ‘the ills our flesh is heir to’, as Alexander put it. But compassionate help and support is also needed. To be entirely honest with you, as an arthritic teacher, I experience frequent dissonance between teaching 'freedom and ease of motion' and the mental effort of managing pain, and the daily experiences of moving with far less freedom and ease than I'd like.

If you’re living with chronic pain, I GET IT. I know what it’s like to live with compromised movement. What I can offer and which I'm passionate to offer is to teach a powerful way to help yourself ameliorate and manage structural issues and get the very best movement possible in the presence of them. When it comes to structure or function, it might not be just one or the other (though it might be); there might be a mixture of both, needing ongoing management.

This includes learning not only about the self-responsibility of moving with the greatest possible efficiency; but alongside it the tender, self-supportive work of managing your expectations, your morale, repeated disappointment and sometimes grief, and of fending off self-comparison with the perfect specimen you imagine other people to be….

If you would like to discuss anything raised in this blog, please get in touch.