This interview highlights some of the ways in which the teachings of Alexander Technique parallel the principles of psychotherapy theory
Our work with clients inevitably involves issues of the body. While we focus upon neuroses of the mind, physical responses to all manner of situations enter the same arena; we and our clients, to a greater or lesser degree, will be aware of our own and one another’s bodily reactions.
Using our bodies at work, whether in an office or as a psychotherapist, can result in unexpected pain, uneven muscle development, eye strain, wrist strain and, more predictably, neck and lower back pain, the biggest cause of absenteeism in the workplace resulting in massive losses in income each year (College of Medicine, 2011).
Using one’s body as a medium for communication can also cause the development of particular bodily formations. I am thinking not only about body language, but how the body contorts to hide fear, shame, ‘false self’ affects, grief and guilt, for instance. Stanley Keleman, director of the Center for Energetic Studies in Berkeley, California, and an advocate of the Alexander Technique (AT), describes many different embodied conditions that relate to the above affects. He wrote that everything emotional is experienced on a physical level and that this starts in the infant stages with the ‘startle reflex’ in the sympathetic nervous system. Repeated reactions to fear create a limited life force, he states, and the body responds with caution, bracing, rigidity, submission and collapse in corresponding postures which he categorises as being ‘overbound’ or ‘underbound’ (Kingsley, 1998). These postures cause consequential pain that AT can address, bringing about lightness in the use of the body, a gentleness and sensitivity to the strains put upon it, and a new use whereby energy is used more efficiently and with less wear and tear on the joints.
Ilana Machover is well known in London for her work in Alexander Technique. She is an AT teacher and a member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) who first became interested in the use of the body in harmony and movement when she was a girl living in Tel Aviv. Feldenkrais (http://www.feldenkrais.co.uk) was a popular instigator of movement in Israel and Ilana became interested in this and later, having moved to live in London, in Medau Rhythmic Movement (http://www.medau.org.uk) for recreation purposes. She herself was recommended Alexander Technique to address the resulting discomfort when she injured her back in 1976. After just one lesson she realised that this was to become an important part of her life and continued to attend lessons for the next five years. Ilana then trained as an AT teacher and has now taught for nearly 30 years. She runs the Alexander Technique School, Queen’s Park, London where she trains students over nine terms (three years) to become AT teachers. Ilana also trained with the National Childbirth Trust as a childbirth educator, applies AT to pregnancy and birth and has co-authored a book – The Alexander Technique Birth Book – that addresses the technique’s benefits for pregnant mothers.
In this interview Ilana explains the Alexander Technique and I noted several overlaps with psychotherapy theory. For example, troubles with postures begin at a very young age; AT is a learning that is necessarily very slow and relies on changes in consciousness as well as on the body remembering its new teaching; there is an element of neural mirroring in the process of learning AT and it can also bring about emotional release. Moreover, the work can help the pupil to learn to avoid stress and to de-stress. It is with this that I start the interview.
LW: After you have worked with your clients, can you say what effects they have reported to you afterwards? For example, do they feel less stressed?
IM: First, let me please say that I don’t consider the people who come to me for lessons as clients, but as pupils. Yes, many of them feel less stressed and they have often told me of their feeling of general wellbeing. Most of them come to me after some sort of injury and I see a lot of musicians too; they come for help, to learn to use themselves better while playing their instruments. For example, I have recently taught a young cellist who injured herself through poor use of her body while playing her cello.
LW: For those who you see who are not musicians, how do you think their postural habits start?
IM: It starts for all of us, including musicians, when we are very young. For the first few years, a child develops its motoric abilities in the way we are designed to move. In other words, if you look at very young children, they do not interfere with the head-neck-back relationship. The first thing they learn is to balance the head on top of the spine without exerting muscular effort. From lying down, to rolling and then from sitting to crawling to standing and walking, they cannot learn these movements if they interfere with the head-neck-back relationship. At about 3-4 years of age, they start misusing their bodies, pulling the head back and down in movement. I think it is not so simple to say that they do it only because they copy us. It’s to do with how we start to use ourselves as civilised people if you like, as people who live in the 20th and 21st centuries. We have made a comfortable world for ourselves. We don’t have to fend for ourselves in the way for which we are designed. So it is easy for us to start to interfere by using poorly supporting chairs, by sitting for too long and by not moving enough. Our children do not move enough. We are designed to be nomads; we are at our best when we walk. We all live a life for which we are not designed.
There are also a lot of emotional issues: body language; how children respond to us. We form patterns in our movements and we use these most of the time. We have a pattern that we all know about – the startle reflex; this occurs when we are frightened (intake of breath, arms up in defence, body tensed ready for fight or flight).
LW: Like when we get ready to run?
IM: We associate movement with this pattern. We unconsciously note that the startle reflex stimulates us to activity and it is often used unnecessarily. It then becomes difficult to break that habit. So that’s why we call AT re-education. We re-educate ourselves to use our bodies with less tension and more balance and harmony.
LW: That sounds a little like self-psychotherapy. We can re-educate ourselves to think and maybe behave differently.
IM: Through the teaching we change the pattern. It takes time.
LW: I’m interested in what you say about body postures, body language in particular. Stanley Keleman wrote a lot about body posture and how, throughout our lives, certain neurotic states are reflected in our postures. My experience with you over the years has been that you too address our body postures, that you try to get the correct balance; for example, not putting all one’s weight more on one foot than the other, not straining one’s neck to face someone but turning the whole body – so I see another overlap between psychotherapy and AT.
IM: Alexander believed that through teaching people to use themselves better, to find the balance, they would also find an inner peace. It does not work in the same way for all people, but it seems that if they find this inner peace, they are helped emotionally as well as physically. But I do come across some people who can’t find this balance.
LW: When you work with people and help them relax and they become de-stressed, do you ever encounter expressions of emotion? Do your pupils ever cry or laugh for example?
IM: Yes, occasionally they cry. Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes there is a big smile across their face when they realise something has been released. Sometimes it happens after the release of a strongly held tension they didn’t even know they had. If they manage to release, they can become emotional.
LW: Yes, mind and body can’t be separated.
IM: Quite – they can’t be separated.
LW: And AT is also very hands-on isn’t it?
IM: It’s all hands-on.
LW: . I was wondering about that with some people.
IM: In terms of touch?
LW: Yes, your pupils must feel a strong bond with you. You are free with their bodies and it’s very pleasant. Do you ever get reactions to that?
LW: And do they know you are going to touch them?
IM: It’s something that I tell them in the first lesson and I don’t touch straight away. I ask a few questions and ask them whether they have read anything about the Alexander Technique and whether they realise that a lot of touch is involved. I tell them they will learn to understand my hands, probably very quickly, and then I won’t have to use so many words.
LW: It’s an amazing way of communicating through touch.
IM: But you see it’s not an ordinary touch. It’s a touch that involves a lot of skill. The touch transfers something, and it doesn’t only transfer comfort. I am looking for some kind of poise, tone. So if you are very collapsed, you put a skilled hand there to say: ‘There’s no need’. Then my hand guides you to lift you out of this collapse; I’m guiding you out of your habitual zone of comfort.
LW: And you do mirroring too. You work in tandem with your pupils to help them move with more balance and ease on their back and joints.
IM: Yes, that’s right. I use an actual mirror, a looking glass. And I ask my pupil to observe both of us. We may face each other and move together. Or I guide them into very simple movements, where they have to inhibit their old habitual pattern and replace it with simple thoughts that would change the quality of their movement. Sometimes we may stand side-by-side and move together in synchronicity. I have to be their role model in how to work with the technique, so that they can both experience it themselves and at the same time see it in another.
LW: Sometimes you may get a pupil who is very tall and who has always had to stoop to make eye contact?
IM: They don’t have to. Had they been taught AT as a young person, this wouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t necessary.
LW: Equally, short people may have problems craning their necks?
IM: Of course. Short people are often over-tense and tight. There is a lot of stiffness in both.
LW: So do we all have to be of average height?
IM: Not average at all but with good tone. We are not all the same in any way, neither inside nor outside.
LW: And do you treat injured people Ilana, some with severe back injuries?
IM: I do teach them, not always with the same degree of success. Some are helped and others are not. Of course I always ask someone with a severe injury if they have seen a doctor. I can teach them to move better, and then hopefully they can get some relief from pain. The body has a very, very strong ability to heal itself up to a point. It has this great facility to adjust and mend and heal even with serious damage.
Lynda Woodroffe is a member of the Contemporary Psychotherapy editorial board and a practising psychotherapist in North West London.
College of Medicine (2011) www.collegeofmedicine.eu accessed 7 July 2011
Keleman, S (1989) Emotional Anatomy California: Center Press
Kingsley, A (1998) Somatic Emotional Therapy the work of Stanley Keleman www.alexander-technique-london.co.uk accessed 7 July 2011
Machover, I. Drake, A. & Drake, J. (1993) The Alexander Technique Birth Book: A Guide to Better Pregnancy, Natural Birth and Parenthood London: Robinson Publishing. Re-issued 2006 as Pregnancy and Birth the Alexander Way by Mouritz, UK
The Society of Teachers of AT (STAT) www.stat.org.uk