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Why Such a Tense Neck?

7th July 2011

Posted by Mark Claireux

As an Alexander Technique practitioner in Brighton  we are trained to encourage our pupils to free their necks as poor posture can be traced to over tense neck muscles triggered by stress and emotional problems. Also a twisted posture can put a strain on the spine, restricting movements and breathing.

However do we ask enough why they’re tense in the first place?

During Alexander lessons I never really understood an expression we use: ‘Let your neck be free’.  I knew I wasn’t actively tensing my neck. Oh yes I’m in no doubt my neck was pulling back when going into sitting and again into standing but I’m not doing that.

Was it a result of something else I was doing? Most people I work with are out of balance with their feet. They are either too forward, too far back, too on the insides etc. Once they get into better balance things  let go especially in the legs and hips, and as you are all connected,  their necks free up too. If they can stay in balance as they move, the movement will be much freer and open.

However some pupils were still quite tense in the neck and I wondered if they were pulling their whole neck column back in an attempt to stand up straight. They often incorrectly mapped the top of the spine too far back in the neck. Some were also holding onto their tummies, clenching their buttocks and even tucking their tail bones under in the attempt at perfect posture. When they stop doing these things ie: DID NOTHING their necks freed some more.

A few of my pupils work out hard in the gym and I asked myself why they we’re so difficult to work on.  If they are moving in an imbalanced way, lifting heavy weights is only reinforcing this pull down so I encourage them to reduce the weights and think about how they are using themselves. They need to come to their own conclusion and choose lengthening and widening or squashing and tension.

Is neck tension sometimes a reaction to stress, are they in effect going into the startle reflex pattern slowly? (startle reflex is the reaction in the body,  for example when we hear a sudden load bang, everything shortens and comes in ). I saw the correlation between pupils with neck and shoulder pain. They couldn’t quieten the mind, so I got them to be aware of the room around them including their peripheral vision which really helped. I encouraged them to choose not to rush around and to understand that perhaps they don’t have to do everything. In the words of the American teacher Amira Alvarez:  ‘It’s not a Tiger! I’m just 10 minutes late’, or’ It’s not a Tiger I just have a presentation to give’. This helped enormously. Try putting those words in front of whatever you’re doing next time you feel stressed.

A friend with a prolapsed disc told me about a traumatic experience in his childhood.  Was his reaction to go into the startle reflex pattern because it actually was as bad as a tiger coming towards him? This may have become habitual and he would move this tense neck and body around year after year.

Our reaction to bereavement, an accident or illness might be another cause or even our response to temperature. It’s been difficult to free our necks this winter.

I know myself I don’t deal with stress well. This is probably why I was drawn to the Alexander Technique. I remember playing tennis one day and my neck pain started to come back , quite upsetting for an Alexander  teacher. I knew I was worrying about something so I decided just to be present in the here and now and be in the game. I checked out my peripheral vision which helped instantly, the pain went and my game improved. Marvellous!

People who know about the Alexander Technique know that our heads should naturally tend to go forward and up like a toddlers but in many cases they  don’t.  We can encourage people to free their necks but it is worth exploring the WHY? Ie: how have they got to this point.

  • Genetic or structural weakness?
  • Out of balance?
  • Reaction to stress?
  • Unable to quieten mind, always rushing?
  • Trying to stand or sit up straight? Unreliable body map?
  • Reinforcing imbalance in the gym etc?
  • Trauma from childhood or more recent?
  • Reaction to accident/illness?
  • Or are they just cold?!!

Alexander Technique teachers can help by:

  • Getting them into centred support/balance.
  • Stopping the reaction to stress -Remember it’s not a tiger!
  • Quieten the mind – be visually present, include peripheral vision
  • Reinforcing that good posture is not about trying to stand up straight. Encouraging the pupil to hold on less by using their minds..
  • Map where the joints are more accurately, especially the top of the spine and hip joints.
  • Reduce weights in gym concentrating on use and making sure the neck is free.
  • Counselling or therapy might be a good addition if tension is due to trauma.
  • Wear a scarf and wrap up warm when it’s cold allowing arms to move freely

I still encourage a free neck and at least I now have a better understanding of what that means and how tense necks came to be.

Mark Claireaux M.S.T.A.T.

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