Body, Balanced Bodywork

Alexander Technique helps old muscles learn new tricks.

By Amy Ward Brimmer

March 2005

   
   It’s a holistic movement experience that unifies body and mind—but it’s not yoga. It’s a fitness process that strengthens the body’s core support muscles—but it’s not Pilates. It helps you think more clearly and feel better about yourself—but it’s not psychotherapy. The teacher uses his or her hands to eliminate tension—but it’s not massage. What is it? The bodywork method known as Alexander Technique.

For more than a century, people have been using the Alexander Technique (AT) to change the way they use their bodies to heal a variety of conditions, including neck and back pain, breathing and vocal problems, repetitive stress injuries, even mild depression and panic attacks. Typically taught in one-on-one sessions, AT is a unique hands-on method that solves physical problems at their source, rather than just treating symptoms. Through lessons, students discover how they unknowingly hold patterns of tension that limit movement and needlessly cause pain. AT provides a way to unhook from harmful habits and begin moving through life with more power and freedom.
Technique From an Actor

The Technique was developed in the late 19th century by Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian actor who was plagued by so many vocal problems while performing he eventually lost his voice. After standard medical treatments failed to help him, Alexander began self-observation and found he had excessive muscular tension in his neck while speaking. That led him to an epiphany: When the neck is free of excess tension, the head balances on top of the spine rather than compressing it. Since the spinal column is our core of support and energy, a lengthening spine allows the rest of the body to move freely, and movement becomes less strenuous and more integrated.

Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Alexander thought so, until he tried not to tighten his neck when he spoke. He soon realized that muscular holding patterns are deeply ingrained, and it was necessary to first change how he was thinking before he spoke or moved. In other words, it’s not what we do, but how we do it that makes all the difference.

We all have unconscious movement habits. Most of us use more force than necessary to perform the simplest tasks, such as opening a door or stirring a pot. We become accustomed to our way of sitting, standing and walking, unaware that these postural patterns are the root cause of much of our deep discomfort and pain. As you read this, are you aware of where your head is in relation to your spine? If you’re sitting, how are you sitting? What are your hands and feet doing? Did you choose this alignment of your body parts, or is it just a habit?

Teachers and Students
   Alexander Technique teachers are trained to shine a light on these unconscious habits by observing a student’s posture and movement patterns. They also gather information by “listening” to a student’s body, placing their hands gently on the body in a noninvasive way. At the same time, the teacher gives the student information with her touch, encouraging the release of restrictive tension and guiding the student into a new experience of freedom and ease in movement. Everyday activities such as standing, sitting and walking are explored, usually combined with deep release while lying on a table.

Lessons take place in a low-tech environment without any special equipment. Clothing is not removed, nor is any special type of clothing required—although it is easier to move in loose-fitting clothes than, say, a suit and tie or tight jeans.
The Power to Change

People take AT lessons for many reasons. Herniated disks bothered writer Jean Kuhn, especially after sitting at her computer all day. She tried yoga, acupuncture, physical therapy and chiropractic, all of which provided only temporary relief. She found that, rather than passively receiving treatment, AT lessons gave her the power to change what was happening to her at any given moment.

“To me,” says Kuhn, “AT is about becoming conscious of how I’m holding—or not holding—tension in my body. It seems like I’ll use a muscle and when I’m done with it, I forget to ‘turn it off.’ Throughout the day I will check in with myself to see how I’m doing. If I feel tension anywhere, I can release it as I picture my body aligned and in balance.”

Taking responsibility for personal change may seem daunting at first, but Kuhn found it surprisingly easy. “I don’t have to work as hard at good posture as I thought,” she says. “I can get to a point of balance that is practically effortless. In a way, if I’m working at it, chances are I’m still holding too much.”

Less effort and more efficiency is the heart of AT, one of the reasons it has been embraced by performers and professional training programs throughout the world. Schools such as Julliard, Yale and London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts have a required AT component.

“An actor needs to be able to fluidly transform into another character through movement, voice and emotional expression,” says Kim Jessor, senior teacher at the American Center for the Alexander Technique and an instructor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Acting Program. “The Technique teaches actors how to work without forcing, preventing strain and injury. They learn to conserve and efficiently use their energy, which prepares them for health and longevity in a demanding and often uncertain career. My experience with actors who have studied AT is that they are more responsive to themselves and their fellow actors, capable of greater subtlety, and give more compelling performances.”

But one needn’t be an actor, dancer or musician to benefit from AT lessons. We all have daily tasks to “perform” and when we learn to recognize unconscious mental and physical blocks, we can release them. Letting go of excess tension redistributes energy for everything we do—from household chores to sitting at a computer, from giving a speech to giving birth, from performing on stage to playing on a field.

Proponents of Alexander’s principles can apply them in many ways because AT isn’t a way to augment one’s experience, but instead is a process of elimination. All the harmful habits that interfere with our innate design fall away and movement becomes more efficient, balanced, light and easy. Says Jean Kuhn: “I like to explore and AT lessons allow me to remember what I once knew naturally. It’s as if I were on an archeological dig that uncovers the self I was born with.”

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