The Roots of Body Dialogue: The Alexander Technique

I had never heard of the Alexander Technique until June Ekman, who taught children’s theater at Sarah Lawrence, took us to New York City to meet her  Alexander Technique teacher Judith Liebowitz. It was 1970, I was 20 years old. I had decided that I could no longer be a performing artist or dancer with all the physical and emotional obstacles that kept getting in my way. Having studied at the Martha Graham school for almost a decade, I had lost the ease and joy of being in my body and dancing spontaneously. Going into dance classes felt like a trial by fire. I was plagued by self-doubt and self loathing. I would never be good enough, I thought, to be the performer I wanted to be. I was Addicted to Perfection and my mind was preoccupied with self-defeating negative thinking. No matter how hard I tried, I was in a battle with my body, my weight, and wanting approval from all my teachers. Going to dance class was no longer a solace or a refuge. By 20 years old, I had lost all hope of being a performer and decided to find modalities that worked with the body that allowed me to get joy and pleasure again from moving. I found Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, and improvisation with a teacher from Europe named Katya Delakova. She understood how destroyed I was by the regular dance classes in the dance department at Sarah Lawrence. She offered her classes through the Phys-Ed department and understood my passion for movement and music. I felt welcomed in her “Phys-Ed” class. The other place where I felt I could express my creativity was the children’s theater which was more like physical theater than traditional stage acting. So when June Ekman took us to her teacher in the Alexander Technique, I was doubtful that she could help me. I figured she was just another dance teacher that was going to try to make me into something I was not. Instead, after she worked with me for 20 minutes, putting her hand on my neck, spine, and head, I remarkably went from being breathless and rigid to finding my center of gravity and my torso in a completely different alignment from what I knew as a modern dancer. Her hands were so gentle and her directions were so clear. She told me what to think and how to find ease in a body that was chronically in pain and repeatedly in conflict with it felt like being a dancer. Judy gently put her hands on my sternum and helped me to release that pushing forward posture of the ballet dancer and simultaneously she gave me a gentle length in the back of my skull to help me locate what it felt like for my torso to be over my legs. When she took off her hands, I was at a loss to what miracle she had created within me, but I knew in that moment, if it took me the rest of my life, I was going to understand what she just gave me in twenty minutes. She gave me a new reference point for how I could feel in my body and my mind. 

When I was in the hands of my Alexander teachers, particularly when we were on the table, I viscerally felt a rebalancing of my Nervous system. I didn’t know then what I know now of the relationship of the vagal system to breathing and to the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. In 1979, the field of somatic education was just beginning. How was my teacher able to get these results by simply balancing my head on my spine and giving up that chronic tension in my neck, torso, and legs? The tension in my body was so constant that as soon as she released my contracted muscles, I felt both totally free and at the same time pulled back to my old patterns. It wasn’t a quick fix. 

F.M. Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique, studied his own body for 10 years in the mirror in Tasmania. He was born in 1869 and died in 1955. His method to achieve a reeducation of the body required him to work hands-on with his students and by working in this very practical manner, he developed certain theories that allowed students to relearn basic activities such as sitting in a chair, walking, and moving through space by orienting the mind and the body simultaneously. He did not consider the Alexander Technique a body work technique. He believed that if we used our mind to direct the energy of the body by telling the neck to be free so that the head could balance on top of the spine, this could allow a coordination of the whole torso so that the organic posture that we knew as children could be re-membered and reclaimed. 

Alexander understood that education needed to be more than just delivering information. Although he was a Westerner from Tasmania, he was discovering through his hands what the Eastern traditions knew for thousands of years, which is the unification of body, soul and breath. Although his work was not taught as a spiritual practice, his findings were in alignment with Eastern wisdom. He understood that in the West we were living in a split between the mind and the body. 

I embarked on a decade of Alexander lessons with teachers all over Manhattan, until finally in 1979, having just given birth two months ago to my first child, I enrolled in classes to become an Alexander Technique teacher at the American Center for the Alexander Technique. With each session, I got a little closer to understanding the mystery of how alignment and using the head to balance the spine could be achieved. With each session, I tasted what ease and lack of obstacles in my body felt like. And in the language of the Alexander Technique, I had an understanding of what he called “the means whereby” you achieve conscious control over your body rather than habitual control. 

When I had that experience the first time, a huge recognition of what I had lost in all my years of dance training, and what I longed to reclaim overtook my entire emotional being. It was as if someone handed me back a piece of my life that I had lost. It was not simple to give up all the habits of holding, pushing, tightening muscles to achieve the dancer’s body. All I wanted was to feel that ease and freedom that I found after each session. Week after week, I’d go to my teachers and allow them, both on the table and in the chair, to guide me out of the rigidity that was blocking my flow into an organization that I experienced as a child from my early life in Maine. I recognized that these teachers were guiding me in a direction that I was not able to do for myself. So I diligently showed up each week, believing that if I continued to apply the principles of the Alexander Technique to my mind and my body, I could recreate the ease, joy, and playfulness that I knew as a child. 

Somehow, in my pursuit of being a performer and trying so hard to be what I thought others wanted me to be, I lost who I was. Even when I was introduced to dance techniques that were connected to this flow, because my body had become so distorted through my weekly studies at the Martha Graham school, I couldn’t sustain or trust the movements of more lyrical choreography like Jose Limon or even my Afro-Carribean teachers. 

The one piece that seemed missing in my Alexander training was what to do with the emotions that would come up as a result of reconnecting to the old Janice. There was no room in the Alexander Technique sessions to make sense of the grief, shame, despair that often would arise in these miracles of movement and release. I never felt despair in the sessions, but three days later when the magic would wear off and I didn’t know how to apply F.M. Alexander’s directions to my habitual patterns in my nervous system, I realized that I needed to continue to look for help with the parts of my body/mind/psyche that were still being controlled by the trauma of my early childhood.

It took me over a decade of study and then teaching the Alexander Technique to understand what was missing. Being a diligent student and practitioner, I continued to search to find how to integrate this newfound freedom that often blocked me from finding the ease on my own without the help and guidance of a teacher. So even though I was doing Tai Chi, yoga, and other forms of body work systems, I continually was asking myself, how do I work and successfully deal with the trauma that is still in my nervous system and in the tissue of my body? 

Although the Alexander Technique was not a complete solution, it offered me a reference point and a daily reset as I continued to investigate tools to help me deal with my early childhood trauma and patterns of fear that resulted in constriction.

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