Physical fitness is the motivation for many who practice yoga and Pilates, but these popular exercises are also considered movement therapies, techniques that offer pain relief, improved flexibility, better coordination, stress reduction and more. Many Western movement therapies, such as Alexander technique and Pilates, were developed by dancers and choreographers interested in prevention of or recovering from an injury. Eastern movement therapies, such as yoga and qi gong, have their origins in spiritual and self-defense practices and became healing therapies. You don’t have to be a dancer or a monk, however, to reap the myriad benefits of movement therapy. If you suffer from chronic pain, or just want to experience more flexibility, balance and calm, find a technique that “moves” you, do an Internet search for practitioners in your area and give it a try.
The focus in this practice is posture, controlled movement patterns and the release of tension. The Alexander technique is primarily taught in one-on-one sessions, during which you are fully clothed. Your instructor will observe how you stand, walk and sit, and he may gently place his hands on areas such as your neck, shoulders or back to better understand how you’re moving. Then, he will re-position you and give you visual cues to help release muscle tension and enable you to move with more ease.
Changing harmful movement habits can improve posture and decrease pain and tension. This therapy is particularly helpful if you suffer from chronic pain. A study in the British Medical Journal, for example, found that six sessions of Alexander technique lowered pain scores in people with back pain. It’s also a popular therapy with performers and public speakers who find it can improve vocal projection and voice quality.
Similar to the Alexander technique, Feldenkrais focuses on improving how you execute everyday movements. It has been shown to improve balance, flexibility and coordination and may also help ease pain. Feldenkrais is based on the very same process of sensorimotor exploration that children go through while learning to crawl, walk, run and balance. You’ll learn to enhance communication between your brain and nervous system and the muscles in your body to fine-tune how you move. In classes or one-on-one sessions, your instructor will verbally guide you through a series of movements while you’re lying on the floor. Some hands-on work is done by the instructor in private sessions (you’re fully clothed), but the focus is on being more mentally aware of how your body moves.
Tai Chi and Qi Gong
First in China and now throughout the world, millions of people practice these movement therapies to promote self-healing and wellness. Through slow, flowing meditations-in-motion—the poses look like a combination of yoga, dance moves and martial arts stances—you’ll focus on mastering your breath to encourage a strong flow of energy (or qi) throughout the body. Both gentle, calming disciplines, tai chi and qi gong fully integrate your mind, body and spirit in their practices. Both have been shown to improve balance, lower blood pressure and promote stress reduction, and are also associated with a reduction in chronic pain.
Trager practitioners believe that life experiences like being in a car accident, suffering an injury or living with chronic pain create patterns in your brain and body that inhibit movement or make it painful. In one study, Trager also decreased the severity of pain in headache sufferers.
Trager stimulates the body and encourages overall health through gentle manipulations designed to pinpoint and undo these deep-seated physical and mental patterns. While you lie on a table, your practitioner will move your body in natural, rhythmic motions like swinging, stretching and shaking. The gentle movement should feel effortless and pleasurable, not painful, and lull you into a state of deep relaxation. A daily, home practice of specific movements reinforces the sessions and helps you rediscover the joy of movement.
Watsu and Ai Chi
Bathing in healing waters, a centuries-old therapy, is enjoying a surge of popularity, as several movement and treatment systems have moved into the pools. Watsu combines dance and shiatsu massage in a warm pool; ai chi is an aquatic form of tai chi. For people with joint problems, back pain, arthritis or other limitations that make movement difficult, these types of therapies are particularly effective since movement in the water is easier and puts less strain on the body. Some studies suggest that immersion in water has a tonic effect on the whole body and particularly benefits the circulatory and lymphatic systems and kidney function.