Erik Peper and Elyse Shafarman
After taking Alexander Technique lessons I felt lighter and stood taller and I have learned how to direct myself differently. I am much more aware of my body, so that while I am working at the computer, I notice when I am slouching and contracting. Even better, I know what to do so that I have no pain at the end of the day. It’s as though I’ve learned to allow my body to move freely.
The Alexander Technique is one of the somatic techniques that optimize health and performance (Murphy, 1993). Many people report that after taking Alexander lessons, many organic and functional disorders disappear. Others report that their music or dance performances improve. The Alexander Technique has been shown to improve back pain, neck pain, knee pain walking gait, and balance (Alexander technique, 2022; Hamel, et al, 2016; MacPherson et al., 2015; Preece, et al., 2016). Benefits are not just physical. Studying the technique decreases performance anxiety in musicians and reduces depression associated with Parkinson’s disease (Klein, et al, 2014; Stallibrass et al., 2002).
The Alexander Technique was developed in the late 19th century by the Australian actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander (Alexander, 2001). It is an educational method that teaches students to align, relax and free themselves from limiting tension habits (Alexander, 2001; Alexander technique, 2022). F.M Alexander developed this technique to resolve his own problem of becoming hoarse and losing his voice when speaking on stage.
Initially he went to doctors for treatment but nothing worked except rest. After resting, his voice was great again; however, it quickly became hoarse when speaking. He recognized that it must be how he was using himself while speaking that caused the hoarseness. He understood that “use” was not just a physical pattern, but a mental and emotional way of being. “Use” included beliefs, expectations and feelings. After working on himself, he developed the educational process known as the Alexander Technique that helps people improve the way they move, breathe and react to the situations of life.
The benefits of this approach has been documented in a large randomized controlled trial of one-on-one Alexander Technique lessons which showed that it significantly reduced chronic low back pain and the benefits persisted a year after treatment (Little, et al, 2008). Back pain as well as shoulder and neck pain often is often related to stress and how we misuse ourselves. When experiencing discomfort, we quickly tend to blame our physical structure and assume that the back pain is due to identifiable structural pathology identified by X-ray or MRI assessments. However, similar structural pathologies are often present in people who do not experience pain and the MRI findings correlate poorly with the experience of discomfort (Deyo & Weinstein, 2001; Svanbergsson et al., 2017). More likely, the causes and solutions involve how we use ourselves (e.g., how we stand, move, or respond to stress). A functional approach may include teaching awareness of the triggers that precede neck and back tension, skills to prevent the tensing of those muscles not needed for task performance, resolving psychosocial stress and improving the ergonomic factors that contribute to working in a stressed position (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020). Conceptually, how we are use ourselves (thoughts, emotions, and body) affects and transforms our physical structure and then our physical structure constrains how we use ourselves.
Watch the video with Alexander Teacher, Elyse Shafarman, who describes the Alexander Technique and guides you through practices that you can use immediately to optimize your health while sitting and moving.
See also the following posts:
Alexander, F.M. (2001). The Use of the Self. London: Orion Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Use-Self-F-M-Alexander/dp/0752843915
Alexander technique. (2022). National Health Service. Retrieved 19 April, 2022/. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alexander-technique/
Deyo, R.A. & Weinstein, J.N. (2001). Low back pain. N Engl J Med., 344(5),363-70. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200102013440508
Hamel, K.A., Ross, C., Schultz, B., O’Neill, M., & Anderson, D.I. (2016). Older adult Alexander Technique practitioners walk differently than healthy age-matched controls. J Body Mov Ther. 20(4), 751-760. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2016.04.009
Klein, S. D., Bayard, C., & Wolf, U. (2014). The Alexander Technique and musicians: a systematic review of controlled trials. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 14, 414. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6882-14-414
Little, P. Lewith, W G., Webley, F., Evans, M., …(2008). Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. BMJ, 337:a884. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a884
MacPherson, H., Tilbrook, H., Richmond, S., Woodman, J., Ballard, K., Atkin, K., Bland, M., et al. (2015). Alexander Technique Lessons or Acupuncture Sessions for Persons With Chronic Neck Pain: A Randomized Trial. Ann Intern Med, 163(9), 653-62. https://doi.org/10.7326/M15-0667
Preece, S.J., Jones, R.K., Brown, C.A. et al. (2016). Reductions in co-contraction following neuromuscular re-education in people with knee osteoarthritis. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 17, 372. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-016-1209-2
Stallibrass, C., Sissons, P., & Chalmers. C. (2002). Randomized controlled trial of the Alexander technique for idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. Clin Rehabil, 16(7), 695-708. https://doi.org/10.1191/0269215502cr544oa
Svanbergsson, G., Ingvarsson, T., & Arnardóttir RH. (2017). [MRI for diagnosis of low back pain: Usability, association with symptoms and influence on treatment]. Laeknabladid, 103(1):17-22. Icelandic. https://doi.org/10.17992/lbl.2017.01.116
Tuomilehto, J., Lindström, J., Eriksson, J.G., Valle, T.T., Hämäläinen, H., Ilanne-Parikka, P., Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S., Laakso, M., Louheranta, A., Rastas, M., et al. (2001). Prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus by changes in lifestyle among subjects with impaired glucose tolerance. N. Engl. J. Med., 344, 1343–1350. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJM200105033441801
Uusitupa, Mm, Khan, T.A., Viguiliouk, E., Kahleova, H., Rivellese, A.A., Hermansen, K., Pfeiffer, A., Thanopoulou, A., Salas-Salvadó, J., Schwab, U., & Sievenpiper. J.L. (2019). Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes by Lifestyle Changes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 11(11)2611. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112611
This blog has been reprinted from: Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback, 45 (2), 36-41.
When I sat collapsed looking down, negative memories flooded me and I found it difficult to shift and think of positive memories. While sitting erect, I found it easier to think of positive memories. -Student participant
The link between posture and mood is embedded in idiomatic phrases such as walking tall, standing proud, and an upstanding citizen, versus collapsed, defeated, or in a slump–Language suggests that posture and mood/emotions are connected. Slumped posture is commonly observed in depression (Canales et al., 2010; Michalak et al., 2009) and adapting an upright posture increases positive affect, reduces fatigue, and increases energy in people with mild to moderate depression (Wilkes et al., 2017; Peper & Lin, 2012).
This blog describes in detail our research study that demonstrated how posture affects memory recall (Peper et al, 2017). Our findings may explain why depression is increasing the more people use cell phones. More importantly, learning posture awareness and siting more upright at home and in the office may be an effective somatic self-healing strategy to increase positive affect and decrease depression.
Most psychotherapies tend to focus on the mind component of the body-mind relationship. On the other hand, exercise and posture focus on the body component of the mind/emotion/body relationship. Physical activity in general has been demonstrated to improve mood and exercise has been successfully used to treat depression with lower recidivism rates than pharmaceuticals such as sertraline (Zoloft) (Babyak et al., 2000). Although the role of exercise as a treatment strategy for depression has been accepted, the role of posture is not commonly included in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) or biofeedback or neurofeedback therapy.
The link between posture, emotions and cognition to counter symptoms of depression and low energy have been suggested by Wilkes et al. (2017) and Peper and Lin (2012), . Peper and Lin (2012) demonstrated that if people tried skipping rather than walking in a slouched posture, subjective energy after the exercise was significantly higher. Among the participants who had reported the highest level of depression during the last two years, there was a significant decrease of subjective energy when they walked in slouched position as compared to those who reported a low level of depression. Earlier, Wilson and Peper (2004) demonstrated that in a collapsed posture, students more easily accessed hopeless, powerless, defeated and other negative memories as compared to memories accessed in an upright position. More recently, Tsai, Peper, and Lin (2016) showed that when participants sat in a collapsed position, evoking positive thoughts required more “brain activation” (i.e. greater mental effort) compared to that required when walking in an upright position.
Even hormone levels also appear to change in a collapsed posture (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010). For example, two minutes of standing in a collapsed position significantly decreased testosterone and increased cortisol as compared to a ‘power posture,’ which significantly increased testosterone and decreased cortisol while standing. As Professor Amy Cuddy pointed out in herTechnology, Entertainment and Design (TED) talk, “By changing posture, you not only present yourself differently to the world around you, you actually change your hormones” (Cuddy, 2012). Although there appears to be controversy about the results of this study, the overall findings match mammalian behavior of dominance and submission. From my perspective, the concepts underlying Cuddy’s TED talk are correct and are reconfirmed in our research on the effect of posture. For more detail about the controversy, see the article by Susan Dominusin in the New York Times, “When the revolution came for Amy Cuddy,”, and Amy Cuddy’s response (Dominus, 2017;Singal and Dahl, 2016).
The purpose of our study is to expand on our observations with more than 3,000 students and workshop participants. We observed that body posture and position affects recall of emotional memory. Moreover, a history of self-described depression appears to affect the recall of either positive or negative memories.
Subjects: 216 college students (65 males; 142 females; 9 undeclared), average age: 24.6 years (SD = 7.6) participated in a regularly planned classroom demonstration regarding the relationship between posture and mood. As an evaluation of a classroom activity, this report of findings was exempted from Institutional Review Board oversight.
While sitting in a class, students filled out a short, anonymous questionnaire, which asked them to rate their history of depression over the last two years, their level of depression and energy at this moment, and how easy it was for them to change their moods and energy level (on a scale from 1–10). The students also rated the extent they became emotionally absorbed or “captured” by their positive or negative memory recall. Half of the students were asked to rate how they sat in front of their computer, tablet, or mobile device on a scale from 1 (sitting upright) to 10 (completely slouched).
Two different sitting postures were clearly defined for participants: slouched/collapsed and erect/upright as shown in Figure 1. To assume the collapsed position, they were asked to slouch and look down while slightly rounding the back. For the erect position, they were asked to sit upright with a slight arch in their back, while looking upward.
Figure 1. Sitting in a collapsed position and upright position (photo by Jana Asenbrennerova). Reprinted by permission from Gorter and Peper (2011).
After experiencing both postures, half the students sat in the collapsed position while the other half sat in the upright position. While in this position, they were asked to recall/evoke as many hopeless, helpless, powerless, or defeated memories as possible, one after the other, for 30 seconds.
After 30 seconds they were reminded to keep their same position and let go of thinking negative memories. They were then asked to recall/evoke only positive, optimistic, or empowering memories for 30 seconds.
They were then asked to switch positions. Those who were collapsed switched to sitting erect, and those who were erect switched to sitting collapsed. Then they were again asked to recall/evoke as many hopeless, helpless, powerless, or defeated memories as possible one after the other for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds they were reminded to keep their same position and again let go of thinking of negative memories. They were then asked to recall/evoke only positive, optimistic, or empowering memories for 30 seconds, while still retaining the second posture.
They then rated their subjective experience in recalling negative or positive memories and the degree to which they were absorbed or captured by the memories in each position, and in which position it was easier to recall positive or negative experiences.
86% of the participants reported that it was easier to recall/access negative memories in the collapsed position than in the erect position, which was significantly different as determined by one-way ANOVA (F(1,430)=110.193, p < 0.01) and 87% of participants reported that it was easier to recall/access positive images in the erect position than in the collapsed position, which was significantly different as determined by one-way ANOVA (F(1,430)=173.861, p < 0.01) as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Percent of respondents who reported that it was easier to recall positive or negative memories in an upright or slouched posture.
The difficulty or ease of recalling negative or positive memories varied depending on position as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. The relative subjective rating in the ease or difficulty of recalling negative and positive memories in collapsed and upright positions.
The participants with a high level of depression over the last two years (top 23% of participants who scored 7 or higher on the scale of 1–10) reported that it was significantly more difficult to change their mood from negative to positive (t(110) = 4.08, p < 0.01) than was reported by those with a low level of depression (lowest 29% of the participants who scored 3 or less on the scale of 1–10). It was significantly easier for more depressed students to recall/evoke negative memories in the collapsed posture (t(109) = 2.55, p = 0.01) and in the upright posture (t(110) = 2.41, p ≦0.05 he) and no significant difference in recalling positive memories in either posture, as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. Differences is in memory access for participants with a history of least or most depression.
For all participants, there was a significant correlation (r = 0.4) between subjective energy level and ease with which they could change from negative to positive mood. There were no significance differences for gender in all measures except that males reported a significantly higher energy level than females (M = 5.5, SD = 3.0 and M = 4.7, SD = 3.8, respectively; t(203) = 2.78, p < 0.01).
A subset of students also had rated their posture when sitting in front of a computer or using a digital device (tablet or cell phone) on a scale from 1 (upright) to 10 (completely slouched). The students with the highest levels of depression over the last two years reporting slouching significantly more than those with the lowest level of depression over the last two years (M = 6.4, SD = 3.5 and M = 4.6, SD = 2.6; t(46) = 3.5, p < 0.01).
There were no other order effects except of accessing fewer negative memories in the collapsed posture after accessing positive memories in the erect posture (t(159)=2.7, p < 0.01). Approximately half of the students who also rated being “captured” by their positive or negative memories were significantly more captured by the negative memories in the collapsed posture than in the erect posture (t(197) = 6.8, p < 0.01) and were significantly more captured by positive memories in the erect posture than the collapsed posture (t(197) = 7.6, p < 0.01), as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Subjective rating of being captured by negative and positive memories depending upon position.
Posture significantly influenced access to negative and positive memory recall and confirms the report by Wilson and Peper (2004). The collapsed/slouched position was associated with significantly easier access to negative memories. This is a useful clinical observation because ruminating on negative memories tends to decrease subjective energy and increase depressive feelings (Michi et al., 2015). When working with clients to change their cognition, especially in the treatment of depression, the posture may affect the outcome. Thus, therapists should consider posture retraining as a clinical intervention. This would include teaching clients to change their posture in the office and at home as a strategy to optimize access to positive memories and thereby reduce access or fixation on negative memories. Thus if one is in a negative mood, then slouching could maintain this negative mood while changing body posture to an erect posture, would make it easier to shift moods.
Physiologically, an erect body posture allows participants to breathe more diaphragmatically because the diaphragm has more space for descent. It is easier for participants to learn slower breathing and increased heart rate variability while sitting erect as compared to collapsed, as shown in Figure 6 (Mason et al., 2017).
Figure 6. Effect of posture on respiratory breathing pattern and heart rate variability.
The collapsed position also tends to increase neck and shoulder symptoms This position is often observed in people who work at the computer or are constantly looking at their cell phone—a position sometimes labeled as the i-Neck.
Implication for therapy
In most biofeedback and neurofeedback training sessions, posture is not assessed and clients sit in a comfortable chair, which automatically causes a slouched position. Similarly, at home, most clients sit on an easy chair or couch, which lets them slouch as they watch TV or surf the web. Finally, most people slouch when looking at their cellphone, tablet, or the computer screen (Guan et al., 2016). They usually only become aware of slouching when they experience neck, shoulder, or back discomfort.
Clients and therapists are usually not aware that a slouched posture may decrease the client’s energy level and increase the prevalence of a negative mood. Thus, we recommend that therapists incorporate posture awareness and training to optimize access to positive imagery and increase energy.
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Canales, J. Z., Cordas, T. A., Fiquer, J. T., Cavalcante, A. F., & Moreno, R. A. (2010). Posture and body image in individuals with major depressive disorder: A controlled study. Revista brasileira de psiquiatria, 32(4), 375–380.
Guan, X., Fan, G., Chen, Z., Zeng, Y., Zhang, H., Hu, A., … He, S. (2016). Gender difference in mobile phone use and the impact of digital device exposure on neck posture. Ergonomics, 59(11), 1453–1461.
Mason, L., Joy, M., Peper, E., & Harvey, R, A. (2017). Posture Matters. Poster presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Chicago, IL March, 2017. Abstract published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 42(2), 148.
Michalak, J., Troje, N. F., Fischer, J., Vollmar, P., Heidenreich, T., & Schulte, D. (2009). Embodiment of sadness and depression: Gait patterns associated with dysphoric mood. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(5), 580–587.
Michl, L. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Shepherd, K., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2013). Rumination as a mechanism linking stressful life events to symptoms of depression and anxiety: Longitudinal evidence in early adolescents and adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(2), 339.
Wilkes, C., Kydd, R., Sagar, M., & Broadbent, E. (2017). Upright posture improves affect and fatigue in people with depressive symptoms. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 54, 143–149.
We thank Frank Andrasik for his constructive comments.