Learning the Alexander Technique.

Learning the Alexander Technique.

Learning the Alexander Technique.

Health and medicine explained.
June 12 2007 12:01 PM

Unnatural Poise

Learning the Alexander Technique.

Alexander Technique. Click image to expand.
The Alexander Technique

I grew up believing that success in life, or at least a decent report card, hinged on the ability to silence the body, to ignore its twitches and creaks. And so I seldom stretched when my back ached, or stood when my foot fell asleep. At first, I saw no connection between these habits and the shoulder injury I sustained in late 2004.

But even after the worst of my misery passed, my shoulder continued to act up, particularly when I worked at the computer. I whined to an actress friend about these flare-ups, and she suggested I look into the Alexander Technique. Because I set great store by this friend's advice—she had, over the years, introduced me to Gigi wax, Marigold vegetable bouillon, and enzyme stain remover—I contacted her teacher that same afternoon.

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In the late 1890s, F.M. Alexander, then an obscure Tasmanian actor, fell victim to an inexplicable complaint that posed a serious professional hazard: Every time he went onstage, he lost his voice. When no doctor could figure out why his voice kept expiring at the most inconvenient moments, Alexander set about studying himself in mirrors. His observations astonished him. "I saw," he wrote, "that as soon as I started to recite, I tended to pull back the head, depress the larynx and suck in breath through the mouth in such a way as to produce a gasping sound." It was, he decided, the inefficiency of these movements that prevented him from projecting his voice across the theater.

Alexander spent the next decade answering one seemingly straightforward question: Could he speak without yanking back his head? His answer morphed into a broad, evolution-based set of principles that revolutionized the way people thought about movement. (George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, and John Dewey were among his earliest followers.)

Like other animals, Alexander preached, humans are born with what he called "natural poise." But gradually—over years of being shackled to desks and Adirondack chairs and laptops—most of us forget the proper workings of our bodies. Bad habits commence, and chronic pain ensues.

To learn the Alexander Technique, as the method came to be known, you must relearn the most taken-for-granted movements. Sitting. Standing. Walking. Speaking. Example: A good friend of mine, who gave birth to her first child in March, takes Alexander classes to learn how to hold her baby without pain.

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While still popular in the United Kingdom (where Alexander Technique teachers outnumber chiropractors!), the Alexander Technique remains something of a niche market in this country. Actors and singers commonly study it to improve their vocal range, instrumentalists to avoid repetitive-stress injuries. Recognizing these benefits, the Juilliard School requires all students to take Alexander classes.

But among the general population, Alexander still lags far behind alternative therapies like yoga, Pilates, and even tai chi. It's not just that it burns no calories. The real reason, I'd wager, is the almost numinous subtlety of Alexander's teachings. He warned his students against acting outright to correct destructive patterns of movement—by squeezing back their shoulders, say, or lifting their chins.

Since repetition destroys perception, we lose the ability to "feel" what's right for our bodies. So instead of "fixing" our bad habits, Alexander tells us to simply observe them and think about inhibiting them. Sometimes, this involves little more than imagining the lower jaw moving forward and out, or the elbow rotating at three distinct points. This murky teleology lies at the heart of the Alexander Technique's allure—and also of its difficulty.

I readily appreciated Alexander's underlying logic and believed my teacher Julie's suggestion that the root cause of my injury was my height. I sprouted to 6-foot-2 at age 16 and without realizing it spent much of the succeeding years trying to shrink my way into polite society. Finally, after more than a decade of hunching forward, my poor shoulder gave out. (Short people, who tend to pitch their necks backward and up, encounter a different set of problems.)

Alexander Technique. Click image to expand.
The Alexander Technique
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Early on, I kept waiting for specific exercises, rather like the foreign-language drills that had enlivened my school days. Instead, a typical lesson would begin with Julie "adjusting" my spine or shoulder or wrist—whatever ached most that week. She'd shift my body weight forward, or backward, joint by joint. We'd discuss these adjustments at every stage. She'd ask me how I felt, what changes I perceived. Then, when it came time to assess my profile in her full-length mirror, we'd marvel at the dramatic improvements. The second half of the class—my reward—I'd spend lying on the table, passively enjoying Julie's minute manipulations.

While I enjoyed the lessons, Julie's slippery directives and probing Q&As caused me occasional frustration. Why couldn't I just learn the damn thing and be done with it already? Sure, I felt better immediately following the weekly sessions. I floated home upright and supple and balanced. But these sensations inevitably wore off by the next morning, and for the life of me I couldn't re-create them. I wondered if my money might be better spent on massage.

Because even if the benefits of a good massage also faded pretty quickly, at least it didn't wound my self-esteem. I could not say the same for the Alexander Technique. God, but I was bad at it! Those first months, I was sure that only people who inhabited their bodies professionally—pole-vaulters and ballerinas and other such aliens—had any hope of truly assimilating the nebulous theories.

In the end, I stuck with Alexander because my teacher had become an indispensable sort of therapist-figure to me. Just by poking at my jaw, Julie could tell how stressed, or lazy, I'd been over the past week. And, as the months passed, she started to dispense the sort of concrete, instant-gratification guidance I longed for. She helped me set up an ergonomic workspace, and gave me tips for flying long distances without the usual muscular hangover. (The secret: staying on your feet, schmoozing in the flight attendants' cubby.)

Somewhere along the way, without even really registering it, I became an A.T. convert. (See how casually I abbreviate?) Which isn't to say I'm past my ineptitude. I often fear I still can't distinguish between "natural poise" and pernicious habit. But I have learned to slow down, to think before I move. And having accepted that the world will always be a little short for me, I now pad chairs with dictionaries and phone books to elevate my hips above my knees. I never travel, not even on the subway, without a chiropractic chair insert that elicits envious comments from elderly passengers.

I doubtless could've perfected my college Russian in the time I've spent puzzling over the terminus of my spine. But since it took me so many years to screw up my body this thoroughly, it'll probably take me at least as long to straighten it out.