After enduring herniated discs in his back that didn’t respond to physical therapy, David Barnes was referred to a practitioner of an approach called the Alexander Technique.
Barnes, 48, of New York City, was skeptical at first, saying, “I’m not one of these people who have miraculous physical or spiritual experiences in my life.” But he says only four sessions eliminated the chronic pain he’d had for months. Barnes, who is studying for a PhD, continues to take lessons for long-term maintenance and because he feels “elongated and expansive” after a lesson.
Indiana Chalsen, 49, a piano teacher and pianist from North Billerica, Massachusetts, believes that the Alexander Technique has led to increased awareness. “The biggest changes for me were a sensation of opening,” she says.
Barnes, Chalsen and others who have embraced the Alexander Technique have found myriad benefits in minimizing muscle tension through the approach. In addition to fostering better posture, relieving muscle tension can reduce or eliminate discomforts such as back, neck and shoulder pain.
The Alexander Technique, invented by Australian actor Frederick Alexander in the 1890s, goes beyond treating the symptom. It teaches students to recognize poor postural habits and replace them with proper ones through hands-on instruction. This helps them learn how to release unneeded tension, especially in the head, neck and spine. The results, proponents say, include spinal pressure relief, increased alignment and a sense of expansiveness.
Using verbal cues and physical touch, Alexander Technique instructors guide students through new movement patterns that restore a sense of integrity and grace to their bodies. Students learn to consciously coordinate their posture and breathing while performing fundamental movements, such as sitting and standing, in more natural ways.
“The importance of doing all these really basic things is that you’re actually retraining your kinesthetic sense of what’s going on in your body,” said Lindsay Newitter, spokesperson for the American Society of the Alexander Technique (AmSAT) and an AmSAT-certified teacher who was drawn to the practice after spending years in a back brace. “For most people, it’s actually skewed. It’s thrown off, so we’re not actually sensing how we’re holding ourselves.”
Alexander Technique students report a sense of expansion, rather than compression, which makes graceful movement effortless.
Jill Geiger, an AmSAT-certified teacher, noticed these changes herself as a student. “I started noticing early on in the lessons that I was sitting up straight and I hadn’t thought about it at all, and it was just perfectly comfortable. I used to fidget a lot when I was sitting; I was just constantly moving around, which wasn’t a problem for me, but I noticed after I had taken some lessons that I just wasn’t doing that because I was perfectly comfortable.”
Moving Towards Freedom
Although many people seek out Alexander Technique classes to reduce back pain and neck strain, improvements in maintaining proper posture has made the technique popular among musicians, actors, dancers and athletes who wish to free up energy to better concentrate on their sport or art.
And because it improves head and neck alignment, the Alexander Technique is particularly useful for actors or singers who rely on vocal flexibility.
In fact, the technique started when Frederick Alexander, a Shakespearean orator in Australia, was struggling with losing his voice. “The doctors would tell him he was medically fine. He realized it was something he was doing with his body that was causing this, so he painstakingly observed himself,” Newitter explains.
Alexander noticed he was pushing his chin forward when he spoke, which created pressure from his skull onto his spine. He began to experiment with ways to interfere with that pattern while still using his voice. Realizing that his head, neck, back and limbs affected his voice helped him incorporate new movement patterns that brought his voice back. He then gradually developed a refined hands-on technique to show people kinesthetically what he had learned.
The Alexander Technique begins with a focus on the head and neck. Because the head weighs ten to twelve pounds, it is difficult to relieve the pressure it places on the spine if it is not properly aligned. This is a big part of the claim Alexander Technique proponents make for its use in treating back pain.
Because the Alexander Technique is taught as an educational process, the goal is to internalize the benefits, learning how to maintain proper alignment without kinesthetic guidance or verbal cues. Students typically take weekly lessons for about six months to a year, though instruction time varies with each individual.
A 2008 study in the BMJ showed that 24 Alexander Technique lessons taken over a year reduced back pain from 21 days a month to just three days a month. These benefits continued after study participants stopped taking lessons.
When she first started practicing the Alexander Technique, Newitter found its effects to extend beyond the physical benefits she experienced. “I became more aware of myself in space. I became more confident. I became more comfortable in my body [and therefore more] comfortable in myself. It was a really amazing thing for me,” she says.