By Joan Arnold
The Alexander Technique is an intelligent way to solve body problems. Many people are mystified by their own back pain, excess tension or lack of coordination. They often see problems in their joints or muscles as structural, unchangeable. As an Alexander teacher, I hear clients say things like, “I’ve always walked like a duck,” or “My posture is just like my father’s.” But, as they learn the Technique, they are surprised that they really can make lasting changes in the way they walk, their degree of muscular tension or the shape of their posture. They learn how dynamic and changeable the body really is. They find that, by learning the Technique, they can improve their overall movement and achieve optimal health for both body and mind.
We all have unconscious movement habits. Without realizing it, we put undue pressure on ourselves. We use more force than we need to lift a coffee pot or a weight bar. We slouch as we sit, unaware that our way of doing things gives our bodies a certain look. We blame body problems on activities — carpal tunnel syndrome on computer work, tennis elbow on tennis. But often it is how we do something that creates the problem, not the activity itself.
An Alexander Technique teacher helps you see what in your movement style contributes to your recurring difficulties — whether it’s a bad back, neck and shoulder pain, restricted breathing, perpetual exhaustion or limitations in performing a task or sport. Analyzing your whole movement pattern — not just your symptom — the teacher alerts you to habits of compression in your characteristic way of sitting, standing and walking. He or she then guides you — with words and a gentle, encouraging touch — to move in a freer, more integrated way.
The Technique’s basic idea is that when the neck muscles do not overwork, the head balances lightly at the top of spine. The relationship between the head and the spine is of utmost importance. How we manage that relationship has ramifications throughout the rest of the body. As the boss — good or bad — sets the tone for an organization, the head / spine relationship — compressed or free — determines the quality of the body’s overall coordination. Our neuromuscular system is designed to work in concert with gravity. Delicate poise of the head sparks the body’s anti-gravity response: a natural oppositional force in the torso that easily guides us upward and invites the spine to lengthen, rather than compress, as we move. Instead of slouching or holding ourselves in a rigid posture, we can learn to mobilize this support system and use it wherever we go — in the car, at the computer, in the gym.
Young children have this natural poise. If you watch a toddler in action, you will see an erect spine, free joints and a large head balancing easily on a little neck. A healthy child walks and plays with regal posture. Barring birth defects, we all began that way. But over the years, we often lose that spontaneity and ease.
Using the Alexander Technique, you can learn to strip away harmful habits, heighten your self-awareness, and use your thought process to restore your original poise. In a way, you are learning something that, deep down, your body already knows. With the Alexander Technique, you come to understand much more about how your body works, and how to make it work for you. You can tap more of your internal resources, and begin on a path to enhancing your comfort and pleasure in all your activities.
Joan Arnold, certified teacher of the Alexander Technique, has a private practice in New York City. She has performed and taught dance, yoga and exercise for 25 years and has presented the Alexander Technique at fitness clubs, spas, colleges, drama schools and on television. Her work was featured in the November ’97 issue of Esquire. Also a writer for national magazines since 1987, she has written for Self, Health, Fitness and Shape magazines and has been a contributing editor and columnist for New York Woman and New Woman.