Written by Bob Quinn, DAOM, LAc
It must be eleven years ago now since I first took a lesson in the Alexander Technique (AT). It’s hard to believe that much time has gone by. I have benefited in so many ways, and yet it is still difficult to describe exactly what the technique is and how all this change occurred.
When I first explored this technique I had only a hazy idea about what to expect. I read a little in advance, but that was not much help. You see, AT is pretty hard to capture in language. I will attempt to explain why I think that is so, but first let me share what has changed from all those years of regular lessons.
Chronic low-grade back pain had been a feature of my life experience for many years. I first hurt my back when I was 17, and it has been on and off since then. That is no longer the case. Now it is rare that I experience any discomfort at all in my low back, even though I am a regular runner and lead an active life in general. In fact AT has been scientifically researched to see if it is of benefit in the treatment of chronic low back pain, and it performed quite well.
I have been a runner since 1973 when I first joined the track team at my high school. I am now 62. For most of those intervening years I have been out on the roads and trails logging mile after mile. That is a lot of wear and tear. I have injured hips, ankles, and my back many times. Since I started to take AT lessons though I have not injured myself running. That is quite an improvement!
There is one other interesting result of the AT lessons: I was never a good hill runner, no matter how much I trained on hills, they would always kill me, and other runners in road races would pass me on hills like I was standing still. At one point, perhaps after 7 years of AT lessons, I ran up Mt. Tabor in Portland, and it was effortless (relatively, that is). For the first time in my life I could run hills. What had changed?
Here we come at the difficulty of capturing in language what the AT does for a person. What had changed was “my use of self.” What this means is that my overall organization had come into a more efficient relationship with gravity. My “parts” were cooperating in a new way, a much more efficient way. I had had no sense that my “organization” was faulty, by the way, and this is something that F.M. Alexander wrote a good deal about. In fact my “sensory appreciation” (a good turn of a phrase I think) was wrong; my sensory feedback mechanism had broken down from years of chronic muscle tension. I was not getting accurate information from my nervous system.
This is more common than one might think. We see it in acupuncture and bodywork all the time. Someone’s neck will be tilted to one side or the torso will be twisted in some obvious way, and the patient will have no sense of this whatsoever. Fascinating!
F.M. Alexander was a pioneer in a field that did not really yet exist. Was he a bodyworker? No, not really, though at a point in an AT lesson one is on a table and one’s body does get moved around a bit. Some have described AT as the science of poise. That is not bad as far as descriptions go. Many actors and musicians swear by AT lessons and how it has helped them in their careers. F.M. Alexander was after making his students aware of the habitual patterns they had gotten themselves into. He taught a way to say “no” to these habits, thereby offering a new degree of freedom and improved function.
Lauri Elizabeth is the AT teacher at the Onkodo Clinic, and it is she who has helped me with AT lessons all these years. She is also an acupuncturist trained in a number of styles, including Toyohari, one of the most refined and gentle styles practiced. She is adept at this style, I think, in large part due to her years of AT training and practice. AT gave her hands a sensitivity that others in the Toyohari training did not have.
I encourage all to explore the Alexander Technique. I have focused on my running in this blog, but there is so much more to it than that. It opens up many insights when we start to bring our habit patterns into view to work with. We end up changing for the better in both overt and subtler ways.
Photo by Bettie Newell Photography @sirensongcreative