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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher in Melbourne, Australia

Specialist in working with musicians, RSI, posture re-education, neck, back and chronic pain management. 

Articles on Alexander Technique in life - by Jeremy Woolhouse

Monthly blog articles by Jeremy Woolhouse.  Alexander Technique for daily life, music performance, specialised activities, pain relief and management.

Sleep Well

Jeremy Woolhouse

Alexander Technique process is centred around thought.  Whilst we are asleep, most of us have no conscious voluntary thought, so the way Alexander Technique might influence the quality of sleep is indirect.  Many students comment on improvements in sleep associated with lessons, so it is worthwhile considering just how we can change sleep habits.

Alexander Technique may improve sleep

Sleeping poorly

Poor sleep has such a detrimental effect on life.  With low energy just staying upright can be exhausting, being focused is tiring, and grumpiness pervades.  When one wakes refreshed, staying mindful, energised and coordinated during the day is easier.  Naturally one’s disposition is also more buoyant.

There is much about sleeping which may seem to be beyond our ability to change.  It is in our interest to pay attention to factors we might be able to influence.  Alexander Technique can initiate small changes which improves sleep.  

Daytime tension sets the tone for the night

During the day, our bodies have a degree of muscle tone which is a baseline for all activity.  It is a default setting, or habitual level of tone from which we operate.  At an optimal level, this tone keeps joints stable, the body upright and animated.  

Habitual patterns of mis-use interfere with this.  We may have some excess tone (resulting in tightness and restricted movement), or some tone deficiency (resulting in slumping and heaviness).  

We may also have too much tone in one area, and too little elsewhere.  The tone changes may be task specific, or triggered by stress or emotion.  

Whatever degree of tension we have as our default during the day will set the tone for muscle activity during sleep.  Thus as one improves on efficiency during the day, the quality of sleep may also improve.

Our dreams also show that our overnight activity is reflective of our daytime activity.  The more one is invested in something during the day, the more that theme manifests in our dreams.

The more we engage in constructive thinking during the day, the better our potential to co-ordinate well overnight.

Preparation for sleep

The ‘constructive rest’ practice known as Semi-Supine (lying on the floor with head on books and knees up) is an excellent way to release accumulated excess tensions.  Practiced before going to bed, it ensures the body gets the message there is no longer work required of it.

The firm surface of the floor gives sensation which is vital to the process.  Also, the firm floor helps keep the context of semi-supine as a conscious practice.  There is a critical distinction between this procedure and lying in bed.

In bed, one may continue to use very similar directions, or even lie in the same shape, but the context is different.  On the floor, eyes are open and one is very engaged in a process.  When using similar thinking lying in bed, one can have eyes close and let go of the mindful context to permit sleep.

Whether or not one uses the Semi-Supine practice prior, the process of observation, inhibition and direction is useful as a preparation for sleep.  Having a clear intention for the quality of sleep may also impact.

There are people who can intend to wake at a certain time, then do so without the aid of an alarm clock.  This suggests our bodies can respond to intention whilst asleep.  

We also have all learnt to wake ourselves when we need to go to the toilet during the night.  Somehow, we are able to choose to respond to sensation even though asleep.

The processes involved are not well understood.  Alexander Technique practice does show that forming a clear intention creates an indirect whole body response.  It follows that this process might be active overnight as well.

Sleeping ergonomics

The position in which we place ourselves at the time of going to sleep is a factor which can make for ease or discomfort.  Curling up in a ball may have some comforting associations, but may also promote contraction through abdominal area and neck.  Sprawling may seem relaxing, but lead to torsion on the lower spine.

Lying on the front causes significant twist on the neck and does not support the abdominal contents, putting pressure on both the upper and lower spine.  Lying on the back is preferable, but may make breathing less easeful, and the legs out may put pressure on the lower back.

For these reasons, sleeping on the side seems to be universally recommended as providing optimum support for sleeping.

The alignment which we use in Semi-Supine is quite neutral.  Turn this on the side, and we have a map of neutral poise.  Directing for openness and integration will help to keep this constructive.

In keeping with our intention for neutral poise, pillow height will be most constructive if it neither lets the head drop low, or pushes it up.  A mirror, camera device or partner may be able to help check if there is a neutral alignment of the spine at the neck.

This is also the key concern in choosing a mattress.  Too firm will have the centre thoracic sink between the wider parts of the pelvis and shoulders.  Too soft will have the heavier shoulder and pelvis area sink again compromising alignment.  

Too firm will also mean more pressure, and therefore more rolling, which may disturb sleep.  Too soft may make rolling laborious and lead to convoluted positions.

A mattress with positive support will allow for the mid torso to remain supported whilst keeping neutrality of spinal alignment.

Some people find a spacer placed between the knees helps keep a positive shape, or helps keep balance.  The slightly wider leg position may keep the hip joints open.  It can stabilise the pelvis and avoid pressure on the lower back.

Being concerned about where your arm rests is likely to frustrate sleep.  If one is coordinated throughout the whole, the arm can move freely from the torso and rest in various positions.  We need to allow enough mobility for the arm to release, but only within the context of overall expansion.  If the arms are resting in positive relationship to the torso, the shoulders will be free, not collapsed or pulled around the chest.

Such ergonomic aids are entirely individual.  They will suit some and not others.  Finding what support is most constructive is something that must be practiced individually.  Children need quite different supports as their proportions are significantly different.

Waking and resetting

Changing sleeping position, or sleeping habits can be a long term project.  One can set up a balanced sleeping position and just fail to fall asleep.  Persistence will prevail however, and one can learn to fall asleep in a new position.

One may well move back to the old position during the night, but by correcting whenever able, eventually the new arrangement will likely become familiar and self sustaining.   

When making a revision of position, the same Alexander Technique principles apply as when we do so upright.  A clear intention for the improvement of primary control gives a clear context for where the body should move to, and for the manner of movement.  

As with all our Alexander Technique instruction, we are concerned primarily with initiating an improvement in quality.  We know that some postures are more conducive to this, so we can move to bring bodies into alignment with the co-ordination of head-neck-back.

This prevents us from searching endlessly for ‘the best position’ as we have a yardstick for what is functional and what is not.  If it improves the ease of accessing primary control, then it is positive.  If it makes maintaining primary control difficult, this is undesirable.  If it has no influence of primary control, then it doesn’t matter one way or the other.

At the very least, improving the quality improves any position - even one with some discomforts.  This may be useful to bear in mind if one is camping or travelling and sleeping on less than ideal surfaces.

In cases where one is waking during the night to pain and discomfort, there is clear need for change before returning to sleep.  Simply rolling over and ‘trying to sleep’ is unlikely to change the conditions giving rise to discomfort.  

Some clear thinking is invaluable.  It may also be constructive to get out of bed and lie on the floor to do Semi Supine.  This interrupts the pattern which has been manifesting.  It gives the body very different stimulus, and provides a context for clear thinking.  Returning to bed again with clear intention improves the chance of easeful sleep for the remainder of the night.

see also: guide to semi-supine practice

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