Alexander Technique: Lessons, not Treatments


Learning how to move effectively, without pain or discomfort in ordinary activities and, for some, in activities requiring greater effort, is a skill many need to learn—or relearn—after stress, bad habits, or compensation for injury make us less effective at using our bodies. Alexander Technique teachers say this method offers a mind-body connection well beyond the physical benefits of movement awareness their students acquire.

The techniques originated in the late 1890s with actor Frederick Alexander, who experienced episodes of hoarseness and breathing problems, which impeded his career. Physicians were unable to help unravel his problem and suggested resting his voice. When this also didn’t help, Alexander wondered aloud whether he was causing his own difficulties. Probably, one doctor agreed. Turning the focus of his observation on his habits of moving, he noticed tension and posture negatively impacting his vocal strength—and also that changing these habitual ways of moving was not easy. Eventually, he shared what he learned with his fellow actors, and from there evolved his technique to help others.

“I was in a bad way myself,” said Alexander Technique teacher Marty Hjortshoj. When she read a book on Alexander Technique she received as a gift, the principles and techniques made sense to her, but it wasn’t until she worked first-hand with a teacher that she was able to implement them. She went on to take teacher training workshops to be able to teach others.

Without Alexander Technique, “I feel I would not be in as good a shape as I am today,” she said. “Things started to change fairly quickly, and as I stayed with it longer, the changes have increased. I learned I could make a conscious choice. If I notice my neck is getting sore and my shoulders are tight, I could move differently and get myself out of pain. It isn’t a cure-all for things but addresses using our bodies more efficiently. If we want to sing better, work with our horse better, sit at our desk better, and not be a wreck at the end of the day, [then] wonder if there’s a way to be a little more comfortable in our bodies.”

A demanding schedule as a performing dancer led Mona Sulzman, an Alexander Teacher, to the techniques. “I was the oldest person in the company, and I felt I was on the verge of getting injured,” she said. “Two of the people in the company were taking Alexander lessons so I started as well. I felt I needed to figure out how to approach my life with intelligence, and Alexander technique taught me self-awareness and a different way of thinking about movement. One of teachers began a training program, and I was blown away by the effect that a touch could have. She felt I was gifted in this and encouraged me to train. When I became a mother I wanted to be engaged in movement but not traveling, so I became an Alexander teacher—and I’ve been doing this almost 30 years.”

Sulzman said the techniques helped her personally in many ways, like when she began singing professionally after a hiatus of almost 20 years. “It’s not just a physical process. It’s embodied knowledge and teaches you to stop yourself before you react to a stimulus. It’s helped me to become less reactive, helped with relationships.

“The main reason I continue to do this, not only is it great for me, I love knowing that I am helping people prevent unnecessary suffering,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to see someone begin to have or renew self-confidence to see people walk out of the studio with so much less pain and stress in their lives. I teach people how to avoid doing themselves in, compressing the spine, restricting their breathing. There are principles of observing oneself and thinking in activity. We learn to release into activity, which helps attention and focus.”

Although many students of the Alexander Technique are drawn to it by physical discomfort or pain, often lower back pain, Alexander Technique practitioners emphasize they’re offering lessons—not treatments—to students, not patients.

Sulzman also points out though that Alexander Technique can relieve, even eliminate pain caused by inappropriate postural habits that compress the spine and/or restrict respiration, this happens through education, requiring the student’s active participation.

Eugenia Wacker-Hoeflin teaches Alexander Technique in the Department of Theatre Arts at Ithaca College. Hers are group classes of theatre students. Many of them came into classes with ideas about movement that hampered their ability to move freely. After an introductory workshop she attended, she continued to study Alexander Technique and within a few years qualified as a teacher.

“Oftentimes people say Alexander is about posture, but it’s about being flexible and moveable, not only the physical but also the emotional,” she said. “It’s a self-awareness process. Between the stimulus to do something and the action, that’s the space, where there’s a choice. We can notice how we may interfere with our inherent ease of movement. We hang on to tensions we don’t need, and part of the process is to recognize that.”

In class sessions, Alexander teachers work with all ages of students from young children to the elderly. “He always felt this was a beginning,” Wacker-Hoeflin said of Alexander. “It’s a self-awareness process, but he preferred to call it ‘the work.’ He said, ‘This is your work. This is for you to learn and understand. This is for you to take in and make it part of your own.’”

Ithaca Times Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 12:00 am

By Karen Gadiel

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