Alexander the Great

April 1, 2000
We are often perfectionists, and we forget that we are human beings, susceptible to injury. We tend to sacrifice our bodies to adjust to the patient`s needs. Work injuries abound in hygiene, yet the subject is considered taboo by many.

Reader shares details about her discovery of the Alexander technique

Peg de Reus, RDH

We are often perfectionists, and we forget that we are human beings, susceptible to injury. We tend to sacrifice our bodies to adjust to the patient`s needs. Work injuries abound in hygiene, yet the subject is considered taboo by many.

As mentioned in the article, "Painful Inspiration," in the November 1999 issue of RDH, the Alexander technique helped Carol Coady become aware of her dysfunctional neuromuscular and postural habits. By incorporating the principles of the Alexander technique into her life and work, she was able to function again without pain.

I want to share my personal experience during my first lessons in the Alexander technique. I first became aware of the Alexander technique almost three years ago when an instructor who thought that hygienists could benefit from the technique approached me. I was impressed with the simple concepts, but I did not follow up and take lessons. It was not until I read Coady`s article that I finally made an appointment. That telephone call was one of the more insightful things I have done for my career in a long, long while.

My instructor, Naomi, is a quiet, gentle woman in her early sixties. She has been an Alexander instructor for several years. She completed 1,600 hours of training over a three-year period to receive her certificate. Pain had been her constant companion for 29 years after a 1967 injury. Pain, along with the accompanying fatigue and depression, had robbed her of many of the things she cherished in life. Thankfully, Naomi has rebounded and now teaches and practices the principles of the Alexander technique daily.

Naomi teaches in the living room of her sparsely furnished apartment - a massage table against one wall and mirrors on the opposite wall. Her teaching tools are simple: a mirror, a chair, the table, her soft voice, and gentle hands.

The first lesson began with the two of us looking into the mirror (observation is an important tool for an Alexander instructor). Her stance was very much different than mine, although I was trying my best to stand up straight. She asked me to keep my knees and ankles free and relaxed, weight evenly distributed on my feet. Then she instructed me to "broaden" my body through relaxation. She gently touched areas in my back and shoulders. She wanted me to relax and widen, and my body responded to her voice and touch.

She then put her hands on both sides of my head and directed my head over my spine. A common mistake is to not keep the head balanced over the spine, taxing the muscles of the back and neck by suspending the head in front of the spine. She asked me to walk while she guided my head with her hands, keeping my head free and relaxed. This felt odd at first, since it was a whole new way of moving. But as the lesson progressed, I was able to relax and trust her instruction.

The "table" was next. This relaxation technique can be practiced during a lesson and at home. Naomi instructed me to lie on my back on the massage table, knees slightly bent and with my hands resting on my stomach. She wanted me to "melt" into the table, to lengthen my spine and widen my body. With the gentle guidance of her touch and voice, I began to feel my muscles relax. After a few minutes of "the table," I was more relaxed than I am after a massage. She encouraged me to practice this technique daily. With each lesson, she said we would have a session with "the table."

My homework for the week was to stand relaxed, with my spine lengthened and my back releasing into width, evenly distributing my weight, and balancing my head over my spine. It is a concept full of healthy, beneficial movements, and I could not help but think that many hygienists could use the technique while at work and at home.

My second lesson started with me sitting in a chair. Naomi emphasized the importance of allowing the whole torso to remain "soft" as I breathed with my head balanced over my spine. I made sure that my shoulders were wide, with the image of my spine lengthened. I was instructed to bend at the hip with my head leading. I was reminded not to tighten my muscles and to let the hip joint do the job. Sound simple? This was work! The type-A personality in me struggled to accomplish the task, but my body did not cooperate. I found it took a lot of concentration.

Naomi sensed my frustration, and then demonstrated what she wanted me to do. I copied her movement. Tailoring the lesson to meet the student`s needs is central to the training.

The combination of verbal instruction and the instructor`s hands clarify the explanations. Students are shown how to consciously direct themselves in a new way. It takes time to become aware of where the body is in space, to make minor adjustments, and to relax. It takes dedication and determination to change dysfunctional postural habits. The benefits come when student learn to apply the principles of the technique in their daily lives.

The cost of each lesson varies from $30 to $60. It is suggested that six lessons be the absolute minimum for training. Instruction over a period of months is also encouraged, as are refresher courses.

Instructors can be found literally all over the world. The American Society for the Alexander Technique (AMSAT) has a toll-free number, (800) 473-0620, for general information about the technique.

Be mindful that this is not a technique learned just by reading research. It is best learned through individual or group instruction. It is not a treatment, but a lesson, and it provides a foundation for health.

Peg de Reus, RDH, practices in Sacramento, Calif. She can be contacted at her e-mail address: [email protected].