“Continuing Ed” is our regular look at workshops, programs and other methods of exercise and bodywork that can enhance your skills as a Pilates teacher.
By Nicole Rogers
The Alexander Technique is a method for reeducating the mind and body to eliminate unnecessary tension. It focuses on changing unhealthy movement habits in everyday life, creating a more relaxed, enjoyable and energetic experience.
The Alexander Technique is popular with musicians and performers. F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), the creator of the technique, was an Australian Shakespearian actor who suffered from chronic hoarseness. Through intense self-observation and experimentation, he conquered his hoarseness and developed what he called the primary control. According to the American Society for the Alexander Technique, “He named this relationship the primary control because he perceived it as primary in controlling posture, breath and movement.”
People with chronic pain, back problems, arthritis, asthma, repetitive strain and carpal tunnel syndrome have found particular success with the Alexander Technique. The medical community has widely endorsed the method, as well as respected scientists such as Dutch ethologist Nikolaus Tinbergen, who noted Alexander’s discoveries in his 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine acceptance speech. Clinical studies have even proven some of the Alexander Technique’s benefits. Suffice it to say, this is a form of body education that is well established and respected and will be around for a long time.
THE PILATES PERSPECTIVE ON THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
Heather Snyder, a nationally certified Alexander Technique teacher and Pilates instructor and founder of The Graceful Body, a studio in New York, agreed to answer a few questions about the Alexander Technique and how it affects her as a Pilates instructor. She is a graduate of the Manhattan Center for the Alexander Technique, and she received her Pilates certification from Romana Kryzanowska.
Q. How were you introduced to the Alexander Technique?
A. I was introduced to the Alexander Technique after a knee injury. I tried a few different things to help… physical therapy, Feldenkrais, as well as just trying to help it with Pilates exercises. After my very first Alexander Technique lesson I understood that my knee injury was a direct result of how I was misusing my body in everyday activities. I learned that the way I was standing, walking and sitting were all slightly out of alignment and so I was overusing muscles that I shouldn’t have been and under-using muscles that I really needed to use to support my knee.
Q. It’s a pretty involved certification process - what made you want to become a teacher?
A. I decided to train to become a teacher simply because I was blown away by how much the technique helped me and how comprehensive and thorough of a system it was in terms of how it addresses the whole of the self. The benefits reach beyond the physical, into a psycho-physical education for the body. I had to change my way of directing my movements and thinking about my body in order to really learn the technique and shift my movement patterns to healthier ones. The training is 1,600 hours over three years, and it was the most intensely transformational three years of my life.
Q. What makes the Alexander Technique unique, compared to other forms of body reeducation/bodywork, like Feldenkrais, Klein Technique, etc?
A. The Alexander Technique involves consciously choosing and directing movements through awareness and understanding. It is about changing habits in all forms, physical and emotional. Many other techniques address the body first and then hopefully it integrates to the mind into understanding. With the AT, it starts with the mind, with awareness and understanding, and then directs the body into movement. Conscious choosing is the biggest difference.
Q. How has it affected your teaching as a Pilates instructor?
A. My Alexander Technique training has had a huge impact on my Pilates teaching. I look at my clients as an Alexander Technique teacher as well as a Pilates teacher so I am focused on the head, neck and spine relationship, which is a primary focus for Alexander Technique. I look at my clients in a holistic way and not just at certain muscles groups. I focus on the muscles working together to create the whole and address the overall functioning of the alignment. In my teaching, I focus on the most efficient way to do an exercise, with the least amount of tension and the most amount of ease. Then the muscles will work at their best potential.
Before I studied the AT, I used to focus on just getting a client to do the exercise instead of on the quality and efficiency of how the exercise was performed. I find that to be a big problem in the Pilates world. There tends to be too much focus on getting someone to do an exercise and giving them a good workout instead of focusing on the quality of the exercise, making sure there is not unnecessary tension in their movement. For example, I see so many people doing the Hundred with over-tensed necks. This should be an abdominal exercise and the neck should be supporting itself without extra tension. I focus on the client releasing tension in the neck (sometimes by holding their heads in my hands until their abdominals activate). If the abs are weak, the neck will take over, and that defeats the whole purpose of the exercise. So, I focus on the quality of the Hundred, even if their Hundred turns out to be their “twenty” at first.
Q. Any standout success stories?
A. My favorite success story is about Doug. He first came to me about six years ago with very bad lower back pain. After working for two years, his pain was mostly gone and he was an intermediate Pilates client. By that point, I was well into my AT training and asked him if he would be interested in doing 10 minutes of AT work at the end of his Pilates session. He was happy to. I wanted to work on getting more length through his upper spine and getting him to move his head forward and up away from the spine (to reduce compression in his cervical vertebrae) and therefore reduce compression in his lower back. We started doing this work every week and the results were incredible. He understood that the way he was walking, sitting at his desk, just standing was causing compression in his spine and causing his lower back pain. He started focusing on it while he was at home, at work, etc., and was able to make great changes.
The additional focus of the relationship of is head, neck and spine in his everyday life had a huge positive impact. After only a few short sessions of AT, he told me that he felt like we’d had a breakthrough with his back. It was very exciting for both of us. We continued doing 10 minutes of AT after his sessions for the next two years. He was able to work towards advanced Pilates exercises and said he felt the best he had in years.
I have seen great improvements in all my Pilates clients since I’ve started using the Alexander Technique principles in my teaching. They have gained greater understanding of their own bodies’ abilities, and therefore, a deeper understanding of what the Pilates exercises can do for them.
Q. Why should the Pilates community be interested in the Alexander Technique?
A. I believe the Pilates community could greatly benefit from AT. Because the Alexander Technique addresses the way in which all physical movement is performed, it is vitally important when it comes to exercise. If someone is doing Pilates without an awareness of the overall functioning of their body, they can reinforce their harmful habits and, unfortunately, this never allows them to achieve the changes they were hoping for when they started their Pilates program. I think the technique is important for Pilates teachers and students to know about since it addresses fundamental ways in which our bodies should be and could be used for maximum efficiency. AT gives a greater understanding and perspective of how to change harmful patterns. As with my client Doug, this will allow for more freedom and efficiency and empowerment when doing Pilates exercises.
In addition, there are just a few things that I think are of great importance to
get across to your readers:
• The Alexander Technique is an educational method, not a therapy or set of exercises.
• It addresses the overall functioning of movement and teaches a person to become aware of their harmful movement patterns and gives them the tools and ability to change them.
• There is a large focus on the relationship between the head, neck and spine.
GETTING CERTIFIED IN THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
Structure: American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT) trainees attend a teacher-training course for at least three years. Trainees attend classes 15 to 20 hours per week; each day of class ranges from two to four total class hours. The total training is a minimum of 1,600 hours. To assure quality instruction, each Alexander Teaching Training Program maintains a five-to-one student-teacher ratio.
Cost: The certification costs about $20,000 - $27,000 for the three years.
Books: Heather Snyder recommends Body Learning: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique by Michael Gelb
For more information: In the U.S. visit alexandertech.org; internationally, visit ati-net.com.
The website pilatesandalexander.com draws interesting comparisons between the two methods, and you can watch some Alexander Technique videos here:
Nicole Rogers is a Pilates instructor and writer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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