Adventures in Fitness Self-Discovery with the Alexander Technique:
One Students Experience
by Jack Walters
Several years ago I watched a man kill himself in the name of fitness. I was living on Manhattans lower West Side at the time and, morning and evening, I couldnt fail to notice the grueling exercise program of one of my neighbors. Throughout nine months of a bone-chilling New York winter, a regenerating spring and a hot, sultry summer, he jogged through city streets, congested with people, cars and pollutants. I heard from his wife that he had suffered a mild heart attack two years before, and after recovering decided to exercise regularly. He had read somewhere that jogging would keep him fit.
What fascinated me most about his exercise regimen was how uncomfortable he looked. Almost running, rather than jogging, his movements has a frantic and desperate quality to them. His head was pulled tightly back on his neck and his shoulders were raised, as though he carried an enormous burden. His fists were clenched rigidly at each side, and he always wore a painful expression on his face.
It was one morning during the second winter of his program that he collapsed while jogging and died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital - he had suffered a massive coronary.
These are the opening paragraphs of a book I had borrowed from a neighbor in the summer of 1992. After I read them, I was so shaken I had to stop reading and put the book aside for a few minutes.
It was a perfect description of me!
I too had suffered a mild heart attack a few years earlier and had decided to jog regularly to keep fit. I was almost 50 years old and the truth was I hated jogging and never felt at all comfortable doing it. I always felt a lot of additional tension in my body when I jogged and I had noticed that many of the other joggers I passed seemed to have that same tense quality in their bodies.
The book, Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique, was an introduction to a century-old method of learning how to release stress and enhance body awareness. It was not something I had ever heard of before, but as I read on in the book, it made perfect sense to me. I think someone once called the Alexander Technique applied common sense and thats exactly what it seemed to be: a common sense approach to the whole question of how one organizes ones body in order to perform daily activities of any sort, including fitness activities like jogging or swimming or weight-training.
I found a teacher in my city and started taking lessons. At first the teaching process seemed, well, a little slow; I guess I was hoping for some very dramatic changes right away. But I did notice that I felt a lot easier in my body and continued taking regular lessons (twice a week) for about three weeks.
The teaching consisted of my doing some very simple activities like sitting, standing and walking while the teacher guided my head, neck and body into what seemed like a slightly different pattern. It did seem to make the activities a little easier to do, but as I said, nothing very dramatic.
She also did some table work during which time I lay down on a massage table and she made gentle adjustments in my neck, arms, shoulders and legs. It was after those sessions that I noticed what seemed like greater overall ease in my body.
Then one day, after about 3 weeks, my teacher had me go out on the sidewalk in front of her house and do some jogging up and down the block while she watched me. Then she very gently guided my head into a different orientation and asked me to jog with that new orientation.
I could hardly believe what happened next! It felt as though I was floating through space. Jogging had always been a very heavy, effortful, experience for me and now suddenly I was moving along with, seemingly, almost no effort on my part! If I was looking for a dramatic effect from the lessons, this was surely it.
My teacher explained that most people, when they do vigorous activities like jogging or running, tend to exaggerate their worst habits of movement. In my case - and Ive since discovered its quite common - I tended to tighten my neck and pull my head down into my back whenever I began a new activity.
Sometimes that pattern was very subtle, for example when I walked at a normal pace. But sometimes it was quite pronounced and that was certainly the case when I jogged. So when she helped me to change that pattern, the results seemed quite earth-shaking to me.
I continued taking lessons for another couple of months, eventually reducing the frequency to once a week and then to once every other week. I think the jogging lesson was sort of a breakthrough lesson for me because from then on I was much more aware of the effects of lessons.
I still go back for lessons from time to time but for the most part Ive learned to make the changes by myself. For me, learning how to make improvements on my own is one of the most appealing aspects of the Alexander Technique. Practitioners of the Alexander Technique refer to themselves as teachers and in my experience thats an accurate description.
I still jog regularly, but now its become an enjoyable part of my daily routine. In retrospect, I think the main reason I disliked it so much before was the heaviness and stiffness of my running - and the Technique allows me to run without those negative qualities. In truth, I dont think I would have continued my jogging program if I had not learned to jog with greater ease and lightness.
Ive done a lot of thinking and reading about the Alexander Technique and Im convinced it is one of the most valuable tools available for anyone who wants to improve the quality of their physical functioning. And not just for athletic activities. I spend a fair amount of time at a computer and keyboard at work and applying the Technique to myself while doing that had helped me avoid the stiff neck and shoulders I used to get.
Ive also done a lot of observing of other people. One thing lessons in the Alexander Technique does is make you much more aware of how other people carry themselves and how they move. What Ive seen convinces me that a great many people suffer from all sorts of physical ailments -back pain, stiff shoulders, repetitive strain injury etc. - because of the poor ways in which their organize their bodies.
Sometimes, I suggest to my friends and colleagues that they investigate the Alexander Technique but I find that sometimes they dont really think they can change their own patterns. Ive always had a bad back. is the kind of thing I'll hear. Even some of those people who have noticed a big difference in me seem unwilling to try it for themselves.
However I am very gratified that a number of people I know have done some reading about the Technique and several have taken lessons and been very pleased with the results. My hope in writing this and posting it on the internet is that it will lead more people to this wonderful method of self-improvement.
So, if youre reading this and can identify with anything Ive written, I urge you to learn a little more about the Alexander Technique.
Resources: On the Internet, there are several excellent websites that provide a great deal of introductory information. My personal favorite is The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique at http://www.alexandertechnique.com That site also has a bookstore where you can order books about the Alexander Technique.
My friend Will Jakes, who has kindly allowed me to post this as part of his website has an wonderful article about posture and the Alexander Technique at http://www.angelfire.com/fm/alextech/index.htm
My two favorite Alexander Technique books are Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique by Robert Rickover (thats the book that got me started) and How to Learn the Alexander Technique by Barbara Conable. You can order both of these at the web sites bookstore and you can find more information about Fitness Without Stress at http://stresseducation.com