Monday, September 27, 2010

The Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique is a method that works to change (movement) habits in our everyday activities. It is a simple and practical method for improving ease and freedom of movement, balance, support and coordination. The technique teaches the use of the appropriate amount of effort for a particular activity, giving you more energy for all your activities. It is not a series of treatments or exercises, but rather a reeducation of the mind and body. The Alexander Technique is a method which helps a person discover a new balance in the body by releasing unnecessary tension. It can be applied to sitting, lying down, standing, walking, lifting, and other daily activities..."
- This description is from "Changing The Way You Work: The Alexander Technique"

LESSON ONE: I walked in to the studio and met Rachel. She is a petite young woman with big brown eyes, dark brown curly hair and glowing skin. If I had to describe her in one word it would be “graceful”. I am not surprised when I later read that she has an MFA in dance from NYU.

She had me sit on a small stool in front of a full length mirror. She told me we were going to focus on letting the chair do the work of holding me up instead of my upper body.

I stood and looked sideways into the mirror. Rachel asked me to focus on softening my knees forward . She said “ Don’t push them forward- just think instead about softening. I had never realized that I push my knees back when I stand. She placed her hand lightly on the back of my neck as I did this. I felt my neck muscles loosen as I let the tension in my knees release.

Then Rachel had me lay down on her table. She picked my right arm up with her hands and asked me to relax and let her take the weight of my arm. She must have noticed the confused look on my face because she said, “I know it sounds weird, it’s not every day someone offers to hold your arm for you.” I closed my eyes. Rachel asked me to keep my eyes open and stay present. “Take this opportunity to let your arm do less.”

She slowly moved my arm out to the side. I noticed my breathing became fuller. Rachel explained that when the spine is compressed it affects the diaphragm and we don’t breathe as fully. She had me imagine I was separating my pelvis from my legs. I felt my spine lengthen.

LESSON TWO: focused on my breath. I lay on the table as Rachel showed me where my rib cage was. She explained that the diaphragm moves up and down with each inhale and exhale, inside of your the rib cage, and is what causes the rib cage to move as you breathe.

Rachel had me relax my left leg into the table. With my right leg, however, I had trouble. She asked me to think about my rib cage and torso filling up with air. Suddenly my leg let go of its tension.


I seemed to notice more pain after sitting for a long period of time so Rachel worked with me on sitting. She had a wooden chair with a full length mirror besides it. She placed her hand lightly on the back of my neck and told me to sit. Right as I began the motion she said, “Stop.” My neck had tensed immediately as I was beginning the motion to sit, as if I needed the tiny superficial neck muscles to help me get into the chair. She said, “Sit again but this time let your neck do less.” I focused on letting my lower body let me sit. “Good.”

I sat still in the chair for a moment. “Really let the chair support you.” I realized I was letting my upper body hold me up instead of sitting back on my sit bones. I fell back slightly into the chair. “Good.”

Next came time to get up from the chair. I began to stand and realized I was tightening my neck muscles unnecessarily again. I stopped and sat back down. I stood again letting my legs propel me forward and up. My neck made the same forward and up motion instead of just tensing upward. “Very good. You are becoming more aware of your habits.”


Every week Rachel asked me if I had noticed anything from the week before.
I returned from my vacation for my fourth Alexander lesson. She asked me how I was feeling. “Amazing.” I paused, “but of course I was relaxed and not sitting at a desk all day long.” Rachel reminded me that this could serve as a reminder of how important it was to get up from my desk and take breaks to keep the “blood flowing”.

She had me stand as she placed her hand on the back of my neck. I told her I’d been focusing on letting the chair support me when sitting and letting my knees soften when standing. She had me sit and said she could notice I was holding less tension in my upper body. My body mirrored how I felt; relaxed.

Rachel had me practice sitting. She told me to let me knees come forward when sitting like two headlights shining on the wall ahead of me. She asked me what I noticed when I sat down. “My sit bones! I feel them – its weird!” She had me practice rolling forward in front of my sit bones and backwards in back of my sit bones. By rolling them forward, rolling them back, and then coming back exactly in the middle of these two positions-you suddenly find your sit bones.

We did some work on the table. She extended my leg and took its weight in her hand. She moved my leg toward my upper body and then away . She told me to notice where my leg was connected to my hip joint. She placed my leg back on the table and placed her hands on my hip joints, poking her finger. “This is where they are.” This gave me an awareness of where my joint where and where I should be bending from.

LESSON FIVE and SIX: I came back for lesson 5 two days later since Rachel would be leaving on vacation soon. She asked me how I was. I told her that although I had been glued to my desk doing spreadsheets for two days straight I felt good. She pulled a chair out and had me write something on a piece of paper. I wrote, “Alexander lessons”. She said, “Keep writing.” I wrote my name and then on the line below, the date. I put the pen down. “What did you notice?”. I had realized there was a sensation of tension going down the right side of my neck while I was writing that I had never realized before.

Next she had me sit in the chair and “think about doing less”. I imagined my head floating upwards and my feet melting into the ground. She placed her hand on my low back. “Now let your back release into my hands.” Then she put her hands on my hips and pressed down. My sit bones found the chair. “Now try to write again.” I picked up the pen and wrote the same words. “What did you notice?” I noticed my neck muscles weren’t so tense. She pulled my right arm out to the side, similar to what she did on the table. “Let your elbow do less.” I let my right elbow fall limp.” Was I really always holding my elbow that tight?”


Rachel had me walk across the room. Next she had me walk again, but she time she crouched down and followed behind me , lightly pushing the back of my knees forward as I walked. Then she stood still and had me walk again myself. “What did you notice”. I noticed that my walking was suddenly easier, lighter. It was almost as if my knees were now propelling me forward effortlessly.

LESSON EIGHT: I stood in front of the wall. Rachel asked me to place my right hand up against it, then my left. She asked what I noticed. I said I noticed the movement was coming from my shoulder. She then asked me to let her move my arm. She took my fingers in her hand and moved my arm from my fingers. She asked me to stop holding my elbow. I let it fall limp.

Next I moved my arms up to the wall myself, this time leading with my fingers. As I released the unnecessary tension in my arms, everything else seemed to fall into place. My knees softened, my feet sunk into the floor, and my head moved forward and up.

LESSON NINE: Rachel worked with me on sitting. I stood in front of a chair as if I was going to sit down. She put her hand on the back of my neck and had me think “forward and up”. She moved her hands down to over my stomach. She said to stop tightening. I let my stomach go. I let go of the idea of always tucking my tummy in to look thinner. She put her hands on my knees. She asked me to think of my knees softening. Then with her hands on my feet, she asked me to think of sinking my heels into the floor. This is one of the instances I had to learn to think in two directions at once; up with my head and down with my heels. I looked over at the mirror next to me. Perfect form.

Rachel had me take a walk across the room. I thought the same thoughts I had worked on in standing “forward and up with the head and down with the feet.” I swore I felt my spine lengthen as I walked. I turned and looked down for a second. When I turned my eyes back upwards I saw Rachel watching me. She told me to keep my eyes up so my energy could flow upward.


Rachel had me stand in front of a wooden stool. She asked me not to think about lifting but to think about my directions (“Forward” and up with my head and neck and “down” with my feet). Then she had me come forward as if I was going to lift. My knees came straight forward. My body folded, my back and head coming forward as Rachel kept her hand on the back of my neck. I went to place my hands on the stool. “Stop. The moment you placed your hands on the stool you tensed up.” She had me repeat the motion, this time pausing before lifting the stool and thinking of my directions, then lifting the stool. I realized that this time I didn’t tense my neck. I used my legs to push me up to standing, still holding the stool in front of my body. I repeated the steps to place the stool back down again.

Through the Alexander Method I learned that it mattered less about WHAT I did and more about HOW I did it. I learned to do my daily tasks more effectively. By learning to use our bodies optimally we can reduce unnecessary tension, and in turn reduce unnecessary pain.

For more information about the Alexander Method check out this article:
Alexander Method article

Recommended Readings:

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