BY JACKIE HOUCHIN
When I heard that the “Alexander Technique” could help people with back pain, I was eager to learn more. Due to an injury earlier this year, I suffer from chronic low back pain (sciatica) that is sometimes quite intense. I’ve tried all the usual remedies: painkillers, chiropractic, exercise, massage/heat therapy, even the dreaded needles of acupuncture. Relief was limited and short term.
“It’s not a magic bullet,” was the first thing I learned from Debby Jay, a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique for over twenty years, when we met in her Valley Village studio. I’ll admit my initial reaction was disappointment. I’d hoped for a quick fix. Debby assured me that many people find the Alexander lessons ultimately more helpful than the usual back pain treatments.
The next thing I noticed is that the sessions are called lessons, not treatments. “The Alexander Technique is about being in touch with your body,” she explained, “sensing it, checking to see how it is doing, and giving it directions. The lessons engage your whole self, body and mind. It’s something you learn and practice until it becomes a part of your everyday life.”
“The lessons teach you to replace patterns of tension or slouching with easy uprightness and an ability to move more freely. It’s a very enjoyable process,” she added. “I think you’ll like it a lot.”
I had come for a lesson and was ready to get started. Debby suggested I wear comfortable clothes that were easy to move around in. I also completed a brief form describing my lifestyle, activities, and areas of discomfort, which would help in her evaluation. (The private lessons are tailored to individual needs.)
After a friendly greeting and a moment or two chatting, Debby asked me to sit, stand and walk in my normal manner, while she observed. (It’s hard not to suck in your tummy and hold your body extra erect while she does this.) Then she told me to stand in what I thought was a relaxed, correctly upright position, while she “read” my posture.
(Note: the lessons are “hands-on.” Debby will ask your permission to gently touch or lay her hands on areas where she sees a problem and to make gentle adjustments. It is in no way painful or offensive.)
For me, it was a feathery touch with her knuckle at my jaw line and upper neck to gently correct the position of my head. Then a palm touch (like a hand in an oven mitt) lightly resting on my upper chest and back to sense my breathing and the muscle tension in my shoulder and arms.
Debby suggested I “soften” my chest muscles, and when I did, my shoulders (which I didn’t realize I was holding up) relaxed down. “I feel like I’m slouching,” I said. But she told me I’d soon see for myself that I wasn’t.
Next she gently clasped my wrists between thumb and forefinger and gave a little wiggle to make sure my arms were swinging free. Then, with gentle pressure at the side of my hips she asked that I let my tailbone sink downward, and to feel my heels on the floor. With a soft touch on the top of my head, she advised, “Think of the crown of your head floating upward.”
“Feel your vertebra decompressing, like this.” She held up her hand, fingers slowly splaying apart. “We’re looking for a resiliency and springiness in your spine. It’s how we are meant to move.” When I said I felt taller, she told me that after lessons people often felt lighter and were measurably taller.
When she brought the full-length mirror in front of me, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I looked easily upright, relaxed, not slouching in the least.
To practice that position without reverting back to my former “uptightness,” she had me walk the length of the room and back, her hands resting lightly on my back and at my chin. I felt comfortable, loose, and yes…springy.
Next, Debby had me lay supine on a table while she tested the strength and resilience in my arm and leg muscles, instructing me to “sense” my limbs right to the tips of toes and fingers. She had me tense and relax my muscles, then find the neutral zone, being aware of how each felt.
Later she explained the three “branches” or steps in the Alexander Technique which sound and are simple, but take practice to fully learn and embody.
- Awareness: Be aware of your body, how you are holding it: tense, rigid (the old view of good posture) or slouching, slumping (weighed down).
- Pause: Once aware of what your body is doing, don’t jump to correct it (you’ll often over-correct) but pause and consider why you are rigid or slumped, etc.
- Directions: Give your body instructions. Let go of tension, soften muscles, breathe differently. Allow your crown to float upward, your spine to decompress. Let it curve naturally instead of slouching.
These subtle skills are learned over time from certified teachers like Debby Jay.
I was amazed to learn that people study the Alexander Technique for other reasons beside pain relief. Musicians are prime candidates for occupation injuries due to repetitive movements. Through the Technique they can unlearn bad habits of tension, strain and compression. For that reason, it’s taught in major music schools such as Juilliard, and the Royal Academy of Music.
(F. M. Alexander developed the Technique over a century ago, after repeated strain on his vocal cords threatened to end his career as a performer. Through listening to his body and learning how to relax and breathe, he found he could project with less effort and more volume and clarity.)
Conductors, dentists, computer users, and equestrians can also learn to keep repetitive movements and poor posture from developing into painful disabilities. Business people, attorneys, teachers and others in high stress occupations can learn how to prevent headaches, neck and shoulder pain, as well as depression and anxiety.
The Alexander Technique also addresses breathing and digestive problems, and can help people increase their energy and feel relaxed and restored.
Not a magic bullet? Well, maybe not, but the Alexander Technique does teach us how to best use our bodies to gain general flexibility, balance and bearing; avoid or reduce unnecessary stress and pain; and help relieve the depression and anxiety that often accompanies chronic pain.
And once learned (and practiced) the benefits are long lasting.
Debby Jay recommends ten lessons to begin with, spaced one week apart, in order to learn the basics and how to practice the technique every day. Then, depending on the person, occupation, or injury, more lessons can be scheduled. A refresher lesson or “tune-up” might be desired later. The basic cost of a private lesson is $90.00, but Debby will consider individual circumstances.
A good way to see if you can benefit from the Alexander Technique is to experience a lesson for yourself. For the month of November, there will be no charge for the first lesson if the student will make a donation of $25 or more to Tree People, a nonprofit environmental organization who “helps nature heal our cities” through trees. Learn more at www.treepeople.org
For an appointment, contact Debby Jay at (818) 763-1192 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Jackie Houchin is a freelance theater reviewer, covering plays, musicals and readings for the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. She also reviews books for several mystery magazines and writes articles for a local biweekly newspaper. www.jackiehouchin.com