In February 2016, Senior Alexander teacher Judy Stern convened a panel discussion entitled Living with MS and How Alexander Technique Can Help: A Students Perspective. The discussion centered around a student named Ron, who shared the numerous ways the Alexander Technique has been effective for coping with symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). To protect Ron’s privacy I’ll use only his first name.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society defines MS as “an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body.” Ron credits the Alexander Technique with lessening the severity of his symptoms, improving his quality of life and overcoming several professional prognoses that “there is nothing you can do”. With the aid of the Technique he is still ambulatory, walking with only a cane. He also drives, plays golf and is very physically active.
Ron is in his mid-70s and has been living with the disease for many years. He is a resident of the greater New York metropolitan area, is married with grown children and is a retired business executive. He has studied Alexander regularly for the last seven plus years. During the panel he spoke about how learning the Technique has transformed the way he lives with the disease.
Stern gave a demonstration of working with him in walking, inviting the audience to observe visible changes in his movement patterns. One of Ron’s great concerns is his gait. A few years ago his right knee began to lock involuntarily; spasticity or involuntary muscle contraction is a major symptom of MS. This prevented him from being able to transfer his weight fully onto that leg as he walked. The demonstration showed both Ron and Stern attending to his overall coordination, taking into account the working of his whole body in walking including his head, neck and back. They examined how his whole system responded to weight transfer on to the compromised leg. With an awareness of how he was using his whole body he was able to control his knee spasticity in walking enough to execute a smooth and complete weight transfer onto that leg. Ron was able to release his hips, allowing for an easier leg swing and hence greater flexion through that joint. Conscious releasing of his neck and back muscles helped him resolve the compensatory, maladaptive patterns in his upper body that formed as a result of the knee spasticity. He uses a cane to further improve his balance and coordination but doesn’t need to use it for weight bearing.
Ron discussed how Alexander Technique helps him deal with symptoms of fatigue and stress. These are extremely debilitating symptoms for people with MS. In his Alexander sessions he spends some time lying on the table, practicing constructive rest. The focus in AT on learning to release unnecessary tension often provides him a complete release of spasticity during his lesson time on the table. In addition, a lot of attention is given to releasing his ribcage and improving his breathing coordination. All of these components of the work likely lessen his fatigue and stress level. Working with his breathing in AT piqued his interest in mindful meditation, another modality that has brought him some relief from these symptoms.
Ron describes how his lessons have helped him develop a keen kinaesthetic awareness of himself in movement, learning to pause thoughtfully when he becomes aware of maladaptive patterns, gaining more control over his motor coordination. He describes how it maximizes his abilities in other techniques such as yoga and strength training, both of which he does everyday and have been crucial to his health maintenance. He credits AT as helping him become more adaptable to the rigors of these techniques, able to more quickly and efficiently learn new movements, developing crucial new neural pathways.
The discussion took place at The American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT) in New York City during their Annual General Meeting 2016. In addition to Judy Stern, four other teachers (Kim Jessor, Rebecca Tuffey, Joan Frost and myself) who’ve worked with Ron joined the conversation after the demonstration to share methodology, insights and observations. Each of us remarked on what we saw as his extraordinary progress.
The event provided an important context for looking at the benefits of AT through a medical framework, offering an anecdotal example of how Alexander Technique has improved the quality of life for a patient dealing with MS and how it may, with further study, become an accepted practice for functional recovery for MS patients.