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For your Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health & Well-being - October 2002

The Alexander Technique
Colin Egan

Robert walked into my office on a Monday morning. He informed me that he was having severe back pain and was due to go into the hospital for a disc operation. I looked at him closely as I began to take a medical history. He was mid thirties, a successful executive, and looked quite robust. I noted his posture: chin raised so that the back of the neck was compressed, back arched so that the chest was pushed forward and upwards and an overall over-tension of the musculature. I asked him to stand and sit a few times which caused him to flinch with the pain in his back. I noted how this everyday action caused compression of his spine and a severe arching of his back. It was obvious that the stress on his back had, over time, damaged the discs between the vertebrae and this was causing the severe pain. Robert’s condition was complicated by accidents from his competitive skiing, loss of some tissue from his lower right leg, knee damage and the most significant factor, arthritis damage to the left hip that had severely restricted movement. It seemed the arthritis was not active at this time, but when it had been Robert had avoided flexing his hip and was now in the habit of flexing his back instead.

I explained how our ingrained habits can affect us adversely even though we are quite unaware of them. I began to adjust his standing posture, lengthening the back of his neck so that his chin dropped and his eyes were looking straight forward and encouraging his back to lengthen so that the overarching was reduced, relieving the pressure on the vertebral discs. “I feel really weird” he said. I explained that when we use certain habits for any length of time, they feel “right” to us and anything different feels strange and even “wrong”. The conditioning we undergo starts in childhood. Habits are established and continue into adult life, gradually taking their toll on our well-being.

Encouraging Robert to maintain the adjustments I had made, I asked him to bend his knees and hips, so that he lowered into a chair. He was surprised by how much easier it seemed from the way he did it himself. I then moved him forward in the chair, asking him to bend in the hips as much as the arthritis would allow, while maintaining the adjustments I had made to his posture. This would seem simple but is actually very hard for most clients. As soon as he began the forward movement, he thrust his chest forward, compressed the back of the neck, tensed his legs and tried to get up using the same habit he had demonstrated when I was observing him and causing the same pain.

If we are to change any habit pattern, we must first stop doing what we habitually do and allow something different to take place. This “something different” is what we were born with, and have discarded and forgotten. My function is to persuade a client to “trash” the harmful programs he or she have been using and re-establish the original. The way to do this is to set up the appropriate conditions and refuse to do anything that will disturb them as we go into action. We must trust that, if conditions are right the result is taken care of.

After 3 or 4 attempts, I was able to persuade Robert to move in the chair in a way that did not stiffen his neck, hollow his back or tense his hips, and he rose from the chair in an effortless way. He was amazed at just how easy it was and significantly he had felt no back pain.

Robert’s severe back problems seem far removed from the 1890’s when a young actor named Fredrick Mathias Alexander walked on stage in Melbourne, Australia and began a recitation of Shakespeare. After a few stanzas he began to lose his voice, audibly sucking in air and becoming so hoarse that he had to abandon the performance. This was not the first time, and the young man from Tasmania who had dreamed of a career as a great actor found his dream shattered. He sought the advice of various doctors who, despite throat sprays and other medications, failed to solve the problem. Only one thing seemed to help: resting or not using his voice, but as soon as he used it again the problem returned. Then a light bulb went on in Alexander’s mind. There seems to be nothing intrinsically wrong with my voice, he reckoned, but maybe there is something wrong with the way I try to use it. Thus began several years of self observation and search that resulted in the solution to his voice problem and the discovery of the principles that are now taught in the Alexander Technique. These can be applied to many physical conditions as well as a range of those termed pyschosomatic. The most important principle, revolutionary for the early 1900’s, was mind/body unity. We are psycho-physical beings, Alexander declared, so it is not enough to treat a physical problem, we must also examine the mental habits of thought, belief and choice, thus bringing a better tuned awareness to our every action. Alexander successfully taught his approach in Australia and moved to London in about 1910, where he published four books helping to heal many prominent people such as George Bernard Shaw. He set up a Teacher Training so that others could learn his method and there are now teachers and training coursed throughout the world. A certified teacher must have completed a 3 year, 1600 hour training with a school approved by the National Organization. The American Society of Alexander Teachers (AmSat) is the U.S. body.

Robert completed a course of sessions with me, avoiding the expense of back surgery and returned to his athletic pursuits, calling me to say he had won a downhill ski race. Prior to seeing me he had tried several things to alleviate his pain. They provided a short term effect but did not get to the root cause. It was only when he brought to recognition of the part his psychophysical habit were playing that he was able to change the conditions that were impeding the natural health of the body and adopt those that would allow the healing process to be successful.

Ideally the Alexander principles should be learned as a preventative measure, before our habits manifest as physical discomfort. It is helpful at improving performance and avoiding injury in many activities. It is taught at many drama and music schools, such as Julliard and many well known performers have benefited from it.
Can the Alexander principles help you? Relieving yourself of the burden of debilitating habits will enable you to experience your life in a new way, free of stress and tension which brings about lightness, grace and well being.

Colin Egan M.Ed. is 20 year, internationally certified practitioner of the Alexander Method. He trained for 3 years in England with former assistant to F.M. Alexander, the founder of the method. He has taught in England, Colorado and now resides in Moab. He is dedicated to helping everyone to realize their true potential.

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