CHRISTIE TAYLOR

Silent Stress Relief

How the Alexander Technique opens a path to better living

January 2006

 

 

 

 

Classical singer Catherine Langberg took her first Alexander Technique (AT) lesson while attending Boston University’s opera program. She learned that releasing tension in her lower back made her voice clearer and stronger. When her AT teacher gently placed her hands on Langberg’s lower back, Langberg became more aware of how that area automatically tightened when she was singing.
Then her teacher taught her ways to keep the tightening response in check. Now she is consciously able to let go of tension whether she is preparing for
a performance or driving in traffic.

“The biggest thing the technique teaches you is an awareness of your body,” Langberg says.

Corinna Trabucco, a member of the American Society of the Alexander Technique (AmSAT) who teaches near Boston, agrees. “If I were to give the Technique a one-word definition, it would be ‘consciousness’.”

The Origins
Frederick Matthias Alexander was an Australian actor, who, in the late 1900s, suffered from chronic laryngitis. When conventional medical treatments failed to help, Alexander began experimenting with self-diagnosis, including a careful analysis of his movements. Concluding that certain physical habits were scuttling his ability to perform and speak, he began a long process of experimental body work, which resulted in the full restoration of his voice. The methods he used paid particular attention to the relationship between the head, neck and spine. After seeing such dramatic improvement in his own condition, he shared his discovery with others.

Quickly embraced by actors, dancers and singers, AT has increasingly been recognized by doctors and other health practitioners.

What to Expect
AT offers more than just a quick fix for an aching back or hoarse voice. It can make everything from driving in traffic to playing the violin more enjoyable.

Students take lessons to feel relaxed and energized by allowing a teacher to help them release tension. They may arrive at a lesson stressed out from a day’s activities and feeling as if his or her body is as heavy as a bag of sand. During a lesson, the teacher shows the student how and where to release tension through gentle hands-on guidance until the student feels physically and mentally lighter—as if the bag of sand has been emptied.

A typical lesson lasts 30–45 minutes and begins with simple activities such as walking, sitting and standing, then progresses to loosening the head, neck and spine. Different from massage and other therapies, AT teaches people to be aware of posture and movements and helps identify physical patterns that may cause muscle tension and chronic pain.

Typical AT lessons usually involve table work. Students often lie clothed on a table while the teacher gently moves the head, arms and legs into freer positions. While doing this, the teacher suggests different movements and postures for releasing tension, rather than rubbing and kneading the tension out.

By practicing everyday activities under the teacher’s guidance, students learn techniques that can help them alleviate their own problems. Often using a mirror, the teacher can help students identify good and bad movement patterns, and show them how these patterns relate to physical symptoms they’re experiencing. Then, students begin practicing better ways of moving. For instance, if someone walks with hunched shoulders, that body habit, whether it comes from a hard day’s work or years of sitting at a computer, can be changed through AT lessons—ultimately resulting in a healthier alignment and less physical pain. One counter-movement might be basic “monkey squats”—bending the knees and hips (sinking down 2–4 inches), and allowing the head and body to tilt slightly forward—loosening up the head, neck and spine, thereby relieving tension.

Individually tailored lessons teach ways to physically handle stressors, whether internal or external. Students learn to be aware of movements as instinctive as the defense reflex—tensing the shoulders and tightening the chest—and they can practice ways of relaxing these movements.

Robert Easthope, a San Jose, California-based furniture refinisher, began experiencing back problems in his early 20s. In 2002, he discovered AT and started weekly lessons. Within a few months of practicing AT’s conscious ways of moving, his back pain eased. Now he takes a lesson every two weeks and draws on AT principles throughout the day. Easthope says he finds the idea of stopping at different moments to notice what he’s doing particularly helpful, creating a greater awareness of his own movements.

Over time, studying the Alexander Technique is like solving a puzzle; each lesson provides valuable clues about how to perform more effectively in specific situations. For instance, people who are nervous about public speaking can learn to stay calm in front of an audience. When their stress levels soar, they may focus on calming images—such as letting their ribcage fill with air like a balloon, or letting their feet sink into the floor like tree roots—to stay focused. Someone else might use AT to become aware of not overworking a nagging shoulder. In fact, people embrace AT for reasons as varied as the solutions they find.

Finding an Instructor
Many teachers come to the technique after positive experiences with it themselves. AmSAT’s website, www.alexandertech.org, provides an excellent starting point for finding an instructor. As the largest professional organization of board-certified AT teachers in the United States, AmSAT’s worldwide membership totals 2,500 with more than 600 teachers practicing in this country. Would-be instructors must complete an approved training course of 1,600 hours during a minimum of three years.

“A common misperception is that a student has to find a teacher who specializes in a certain area,” says Patricia Gallup, former chair of AmSAT and current liaison with its 15 internationally affiliated societies. “A performance violinist, let’s say, might think she needs to find a teacher who specializes in musicians. But teachers can apply AT to any activity—a person doesn’t need to be a practiced violinist to teach AT to someone who plays the violin.”

Finding the right teacher depends on communication and chemistry, and a good teacher will explain their background and certification before the lesson begins, Trabucco says. Teachers should be very clear about their intention during the lesson, with hands-on work accompanied by verbal feedback that clarifies what’s going on and why.

Group lessons are often available through a college or adult learning center. These offer good introductions to AT, but individual lessons are the best way to identify specific problems and come up with tailored solutions, Gallup adds.

Rates for individual lessons vary depending on a teacher’s experience and which part of the country he or she practices in, with 40-minute lessons generally averaging between $50–$80. Ask about package rates, shared lessons and discounts for students, artists and seniors. Sometimes, advanced trainees may teach a course (supervised by a certified instructor) at a reduced rate, but for the best results, find a teacher who has completed those 1,600 hours.

Most teachers suggest a foundation of between 15 and 30 lessons before students are knowledgeable and skilled enough to discontinue lessons and apply the technique in their daily lives, Gallup says. More than six lessons usually are necessary to begin to notice a lasting change.

While some students study for only a few lessons, others continue for years. Although lasting change depends on devoting time to its principles, for those willing to make that investment, the Alexander Technique offers a path to making life feel stress-free.

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