Deeper Sleep with the Alexander Technique

Sleep preparation activity

Here are instructions for practicing the Alexander Technique interpretation of constructive rest. Daily practice in combination with Alexander Lessons can help alleviate common sleep problems including stiffness, insomnia, discomfort and the duo of jaw clenching and teeth grinding.

If you’re practicing on the floor, use soft cover book(s), magazines, or even a folded towel to support your head. If you’re practicing in bed, use a firm pillow that supports your neck and head. Don’t lie on a bare floor. It’s too hard and cold. Rest on a rug, yoga mat, folded blanket, etc.

Adjust the stack of books or pillows to allow your forehead to be very slightly (maybe a few centimeters) higher than your chin. Check to make sure that the front of the throat does not feel compressed. If it does, your head is too high. Height is determined by several factors including the thickness of your shoulders, the shape of your neck, and the degree of muscular tension in the neck.

The optimal amount of time to practice is 17 minutes. Supposedly, this is the amount of time for the intervertebral discs to re-hydrate; although I’ve never seen a study reference to support this statement. Nevertheless, 15-20 minutes is about the amount of time that most people need to unwind ingrained holding patterns and experience spinal length. If you can practice for 15-20 min that's great, but often this is not possible in the beginning. Stay as long as you reasonably can without getting anxious. Even 5 minutes at first is helpful.

The optimal time of day to practice for sleep enhancement is before bed and then first thing in the morning.

Position: Eyes open. Lie on your back, head supported by a book or firm pillow, feet in line with the hip sockets, knees apart and pointing to the ceiling. Alternately, use a thick pillow to support the knees. Let your hands rest easily on your belly, chest or hips.

Alternate between thinking the following Alexander directions and observing your body and your mind state, keep your eyes open. Experiment with placing about 75% of your awareness on the external world and about 25% on your body.

If you don't have time to set aside to practice before sleep, you can still benefit from mentally reviewing the Alexander directions as you drift into sleep.

Alexander Directions

  1. Let my jaw, lips, tongue, eyes and forehead melt
  2. To let my neck be free
  3. To let my head balance forward and up
  4. To let my back lengthen and widen
  5. To let my knees direct forward from the hips and ankles and away from each other
  6. To let my shoulders widen to the sides

Note: Directions are a sequential set of instructions that help to lengthen the spine, free up the breath, and create mental and physical ease. Directing is the process of thinking, wishing, ordering, projecting or seeing the above series of movements. Although directing may cause physical change, it is important to try not to “do” the directions. Directing is a mental process. Physical changes may occur as a result of directing, but the main focus is the thought. Finally, the sequence of directions is important, since the optimal physical pattern can only occur with the initial freedom of the neck and head.

If you have a problem with clenching and grinding, see if you can catch yourself starting to clench as you begin to unwind during constructive rest or as you drift into sleep. This is a very important moment and takes quite a lot of practice to notice. Alexander Lessons can dramatically heighten your awareness of your body, and can help you to prevent clenching in the daytime and grinding at night. Once you are able to notice the beginning stages of clenching and grinding as you slip into sleep, you have the opportunity to retrain the habit. This approach has worked for both myself and for my students.

*Starting with the face is not part of the Alexander cannon, but makes sense for sleep preparation.

Recommended sleep positions

For side sleeping, I find it's best to have a firm thick pillow to keep the underneath shoulder from collapsing. If the pillow is too high, your head will be pushed upwards, and visa versa if it is too low. The pillow should not be so hard that it is uncomfortable, or so soft that your head sags downward. To keep the top shoulder and armpit open, place a small pillow under your upper arm. Check to make sure you are not squeezing your armpit or tightening your shoulder, merely rest your upper arm on the top pillow. To keep the lower back wide and open, place a pillow between your knees.

For stomach sleeping, do not use a pillow under your head; this increases torque on the neck. Instead, bend one knee, and place a medium firm pillow under your stomach and hip on the bent knee side. This reduces torque on the neck and spine, and should also aid breathing.

For back sleeping, you can use a pillow under your head and neck, and one or two under your knees. Again, the pillow should support the head and neck in a neutral alignment so that the head and neck are not angled forward or backwards. This is probably the best sleep position from an ergonomic standpoint, and I recommend students start here and think Alexander Directions in preparation for sleep. However, this position feels too open and unprotected for most people to sleep in. From a psychological standpoint, I think that most people feel best when they are curled a bit inward in sleep. The question then becomes, how to curl without over tensing or over collapsing.

An Alexander teacher can help you to get maximum length and joint ease in both recommended sleep positions and the positions we are going to fall into in real life.