D  e  s  e  r  t     E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e     April 2005

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Back into Balance

The Alexander Technique helps adults rediscover the natural movements and posture that children—and great athletes and dancers—intuitively understand.

By Tim McKnight

More than 120 years ago, a successful young Shakespearean actor in Sydney, Australia, lost his voice during a series of performances. Doctors were at a loss, so the young actor, with no knowledge of medicine or physiology but nevertheless facing the end of his career, took it upon himself to investigate and understand the problem.

Some 100 years later, a young woman working in a London animation studio was also facing a career-ending problem: the many hours sitting over a drawing table had begun to take their toll on her back. Years of visits to a variety of health practitioners failed to provide more than temporary relief.

Finally, she enlisted the help of another kind of expert, who helped her to recognize the habitual, often unconscious, ways she tensed herself while drawing. Following a series of sessions, the animation artist was pleasantly surprised to discover much more than an improved back. She found that she no longer needed to wear reading glasses, and her chronic digestion difficulties had begun to clear up.

The Australian actor, Frederick Mathias Alexander, developed a method known as the Alexander Technique, which has helped countless people around the world with back, neck and shoulder pain, breathing problems, loss of mobility due to injury and aging, and a host of other ailments as diverse as migraines, asthma and carpal tunnel syndrome. The most visible results are improvements in posture and body mechanics. People often report that their movement in general feels lighter, freer and more enjoyable.

"I have experienced bilateral neck and jaw discomfort, occasionally so severe as to be disabling, for over 10 years," says Mary Kay Kohles-Baker, a registered nurse. "After four months of Alexander Technique sessions, I have experienced almost complete freedom from discomfort."

Actors, musicians and athletes use the Alexander Technique to enhance performance, prevent injury and even open up their creativity. This is why it is taught at the world's great performing arts schools, including Julliard and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

"As a former dancer and current musician, I have benefited tremendously from the Alexander Technique," says Sidney Lenit, a pianist and teacher. "Where practicing piano caused backache and tendonitis before, I now go to the piano and use the technique to make my back feel better."

The animation artist, Wendy Cantor, was so intrigued by this approach that she trained to be an Alexander Technique teacher, completing the three-year course in London. So she did end up changing careers, but happily it was by choice. That was almost 10 years ago. She now lives in Grant County, where she continues to offer the Alexander Technique to others.

"Problems like chronic back pain that seem unsolvable are so prevalent," she says. "I get a lot of satisfaction from helping people by showing them how their problems can come from the way they go about their daily activities, and how to turn that around."

So what is it that Alexander discovered? Though not a scientist by training, motivated to find a solution to his voice problem, he soon became one. Conducting a series of experiments on himself, he rehearsed in front of an arrangement of mirrors that allowed him to observe the way he tensed the various muscles involved in speaking.

He noticed when he started to recite that his neck muscles tightened, pulling his head back and down, compressing onto his spine and depressing his larynx. When the neck muscles did not overwork, he discovered, his head balanced lightly at the top of the spine. He saw that the relationship between the head and spine is of utmost importance, and how we manage that relationship has ramifications throughout the rest of the body.

Clearly, what Alexander was on to went far beyond his speech problem. Over a number of years, his rigorous, methodical approach and keen sense of observation led to fundamental understandings about the way we use our bodies. Patterns of unconscious tension can, he discovered, influence everything from mundane movements like bending down to pick something up to specialized activities like bowing a violin.

Have you ever caught yourself holding your breath when doing something difficult or new? If swimming isn't the activity in question, holding your breath probably isn't helping you. Or when doing something with your hands, like brushing your teeth, you might notice that other parts of your body tense up.

The Alexander Technique addresses the way these tendencies can creep into our everyday lives and lead to a variety of problems. But where do these tendencies come from? There is no one answer, but the causes are probably both physical and emotional. Many believe the roots are to be found in certain features of life in modern, industrialized countries. We slump over desks, collapse in chairs, and tensely key into our computers in our attempts to adapt to the landscape of our technological age. Then there is all the stress modern life can bring, including the pressure to succeed, which can start at a young age.

Somewhere in our push to accomplish and keep track of so much, we "forgot" how to use our bodies the way they were intended. Akin to using the wrong tool for a job around the house, using ourselves badly can be inefficient and even harmful.

Parents with small children bend down countless times each day to attend to their little ones, and this can lead to a sore back. That's because most adults bend from the waist, using their spine as if it were a joint—but it isn't. Ironically, the example they need to follow is right in front of them: Toddlers have it right.

If you watch a two-year old reach down to pick up a toy, she relies on her knees, hips and ankles—which are joints. These are the body's hinges, and they are intended for just such a movement. The head is balanced on top of the spine, and the back is comfortably straight. This alignment naturally tends towards lengthening rather compression. We were all like this once, but somewhere along the way we lost it.

So how can we regain that?

The Alexander Technique, rather than a treatment, is an educational process that is taught in one-on-one lessons of between a half-hour and 45 minutes. Guided through a series of simple movements, the student learns to observe and change habits that interfere with our innate poise, which in fact we have never really lost. Even people who might seem to be permanently formed by a lifetime of harmful posture habits can change—because habits can change.

Louise Cole, age 78, says, "I have been walking one hour daily for 18 years. I was afraid I would have to quit because I felt like I was carrying a heavy load. I learned from the Alexander Technique how to stand tall and get rid of that burden. I feel in control."

So how does it work?

Lessons begin with improvement of posture, which is more complex than just standing or sitting up straight. It could be described as how we support and balance our bodies against the ever-present pull of gravity. From Alexander's own observations, since confirmed by scientific research, we have natural postural reflexes to organize this support and balance. Activity requires much less effort than we think, provided we have the necessary degree of "relaxation in activity" to allow those reflexes to work freely.

Next, the object is to eliminate tension, and then to establish a conscious, healthy command of the muscles. This is where the real benefits of the Alexander Technique are reaped. When Arthur Rubenstein plays piano, when Fred Astaire dances, or when Michael Jordan plays basketball, they all have one thing in common: They make it look easy. Alexander discovered that this is not only the result of natural talent but can also be learned.

"After years of slumping and shortening your body, it seems natural," says Cantor. "I hope for my students that they will reach a point where it will not feel pleasant to collapse."

Ed Avak, who has been teaching the Alexander Technique in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 25 years, compares the work to that of a piano teacher, giving instructions in the correct use of the arms, hands and shoulders. "We can only show you how to do it—you have to practice it," he says.

"We never approach a problem with the idea of trying to cure someone's asthma or improve their digestion, but these changes can take place as the pupil learns to use his body correctly," Avak adds. "Our task is to show the pupil to what extent he is creating his own problem and to teach him the means by which he can work on it himself constructively.

"The Technique won't make everyone into Fred Astaires, but that's the direction we are moving in."

Tim McKnight is a freelance writer. Wendy Cantor is a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. She can be contacted at wcantor@earthlink.net, 536-9946.

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