Since September I have been attending a school for Alexander Technique as a full-time trainee, that is, for 4 mornings a week. A big commitment in my precious Manhattan timetable! Have you heard of AT? Ever been in a group, or had ‘hands on’ experience of an AT lesson? It is often musicians, actors, and dancers who have had some AT lessons, and in fact I was sent to my first teacher 10 years ago when I was training as a choral conductor.
I am training under the marvellous Tom Vasiliades, at the ATCPD on West 38th Street, so a 20 minute bike ride from home. You may remember that I have had serious back problems for years, and last April I had another episode of acute pain with a herniated disc - my fifth episode. I had lots of physio and chiropractic treatment, and did lots and lots of exercises, but I continued to have frequent sharp, strong pain and I couldn’t help anticipating (and fearing) that if I pursued only the route of trying to strengthen something or the other, without changing the way I actually used my body – how I moved, how I protected the painful bits, how I relaxed the tight tight bits – I would not find a long term and life-restoring solution to my long term and life-robbing problem.
Physio tends to look at individual muscle strength and usually (in my experience) does not look at how you use the rest of your body while activating one area: in my case, for example, I have been trying to strengthen the gluts on one side but no one has commented on my neck and shoulders tightening, that my right quads were constantly tightened, or that my diaphragm and ribs were fixed. (In fact many glut exercises asked me to use my arms for support, which, because of shoulder pain means I have to hold my whole body tight in order to do the little leg raise they want of me). But all of these pull on the spine and twist my body. So you can see that I might be attracted by an alternative method that teaches as its foundation freedom of movement by the release of excessive and unnecessary tension.
Alexander Technique is extraordinary and, yes, for me already, life-changing. It is based on the idea that our unconscious, habitual tensions and movement patterns prevent the free movement, or the ‘good use’, of our bodies, and that it is possible to unlearn tension and learn the conscious good use of ourselves. The trouble is that we don’t understand how much we are pulling ourselves into contortions (it’s easy to identify a chin that juts forward, a foot that twists in as you walk, a slumping back, raised shoulders, tight calves/thighs/diaphragm/neck … but this is only the gross external evidence of ‘misuse’: our tension patterns go deep into all the muscles of the body and into all our activities, including those we think of as ‘mental’ or ‘emotional’). We think that these habits are just how it is and has to be: from how we learned to walk or hold ourselves up in so-called good posture, or protect some painful area by tensing another muscle group. AT teaches conscious release (inhibition), which allows the body to do its own rebalancing, and conscious control (directionI), which leaves us freeeeeee to move and in rest. And the essential method of teaching is through the hands of the teacher who, because of his own good use and extraordinary sensitivity and skill, can sense the tensions throughout the pupil’s body and guide the movements by touch, alongside simultaneous verbal instruction.
One of the fundamental principles is that we are a psycho-physical unity; no one part of the body (or even of our self) can be helped if we are not also paying attention to the whole, and ‘the whole’ is an indivisibility of body and mind. It is fascinatingly simple that the first focus area, or so-called ‘primary control’, is the head and neck relationship, and Alexander claims that if we get that right first, we will be able to release the back into length and width, the limbs out and away from the torso, and then manage every movement or activity with more elasticity and freedom.
And it is working! It is a really really slow process – unlearning all my years of body habits and relearning the new freedom is not likely to an overnight wonder, nor even a few months of hard work – but bit by bit my body really is changing. AT is really gentle and surprisingly powerful. I am standing and sitting tall, as people keep commenting; I have lost the previously constant stiffness in my hips, and my neck pain is nearly completely gone. I have started to untwist a scoliotic spine and the muscles that pull it round, pull my right hip forward, pull from the hips into the leg and down to the feet, unbalance the left leg, twist my right shoulder forward, tilt my pelvis forward, throw my upper back back, shorten my neck (an overall observation gives a pretty glum picture) … the shifts in my pelvic area have been peculiar and profound. It can be pretty emotional too: as bits release physically it seems that emotional things unravel too, and at times even long-buried memories are uncovered. Most peculiar and most wonderful!
I am considering continuing with training in London from the autumn. This might be exactly the life-saver that I need, so that I don’t have to continue to live with the near-constant pain that I suffered most of last year. Isn’t that great? If you are intrigued, and even if you are puzzled (which you might well be), go have an individual lesson – experiencing AT in your own body is the only way to begin to get a sense of what it means. Let me know what happens!