Settling into Harmony

This morning I received a post about the celebration of F.M. Alexander’s 150th birthday. I enjoyed the photos of teachers working together in Australia and the ease with which  they sat, stood and inclined towards each other.  Just looking at their photo helped me to feel more space in my self.  Whenever I come across a description of Alexander work  that captures the quality of this work that has become my lifelong practice, I want to share it.  My hope is that others will better understand what the Alexander Technique has to offer us in our everyday lives.

‘… the key to his success was when he changed his negative thinking.  “You have to go ‘I’m going to invite my head to be in a different relationship with my spine so that everything changes. His body expanded, his breath improved, his voice came back so I think the real essence is that positive thinking, that we need to redefine our activities in the positive and give our body gentle guidance.”’                        Penny McDonald, Alexander Teacher


Alexander teacher Janette Costin began learning the method 32 years ago and found it helped her overcome chronic pain in her neck and back.  She said modern technology and    habits were narrowing and constricting the body for many people.


“A lot of it comes down to how we respond to all the different stimuli in our life… whether that be a physical or emotional response and that will begin a habit that isn’t particularly useful to us.


“So it really is interrupting our natural coordination and our breathing coordination in particular that then can set up a bit of anxiety in our system and [Alexander Technique] is a really lovely way to settle things into some harmony. It’s wonderful.”

Harmful Posture Over Time Feels Normal

Why our social media habits are a pain in the neck

US surgeons seeing increase in patients with neck and upper back pain likely to be related to poor posture when using mobile phones

Report in ‘The Spine Journal’ says today’s children may need surgery by the time they reach their late 20s if they do not curb their social media use

Here’s a game to play the next time you are stuck in a queue. Try to spot somebody not looking down at their phone. Then ignore that person and examine the others. You don’t need to be a doctor to recognise that most of them will be holding their necks at a strange angle that makes them look almost like giraffes as they push their heads forward.

This awkward positioning would not be a problem were it not that our heads are rather heavy, weighing 4.5kg (10lbs) on average, and our necks are not particularly muscly.

We are designed to hold our heads upright. When we push our heads forward, whether to look down at the phone in our hands or forward to focus on a computer screen, neck strain is increased. The farther forward we push our heads, the more strain is put on the spine.

A recent report in The Spine Journal, the official publication of the North American Spine Society, says surgeons there are seeing an increase in patients with neck and upper back pain which is likely to be related to poor posture when using mobile phones. It even has a name: tech neck. The neck naturally curves backwards, but surgeons are seeing that curve reversed, giving patients disc or alignment problems. The authors of the report are concerned that today’s children may need surgery by the time they reach their late 20s if they do not curb their social media use.

Bad posture can contribute to a bulging disc due to degeneration of the cervical spine, or cervical radiculopathy where a nerve leaving the neck is pinched.

Most people carry the head too far forward, according to Frank Kennedy, an Alexander technique practitioner in Mount Merrion, Co Dublin. “This knocks the body out of kilter and has a big impact on posture. It imposes wear and tear on the joints and can make you look an inch or two shorter than your natural height,” he says.

“We need to expand our awareness of how we move,” he says. “Look at the screen with your eyes, rather than locking onto it. Concentrate with your mind, rather than jutting your head forward.”

Our tendency to be reactive does not help, he adds. “We jump up at everything from a text message to a door bell. Overreaction triggers tension pathways in the body. If we can create a gap between stimulus and response, then we can learn to stop tension. You don’t have to wait for the weekend or for a holiday to relax. We look for relaxation in each action.”

Part of the difficulty in helping people to change is that harmful posture over time feels normal

When under pressure, we tend to hold our breath. “Holding the breath sends the wrong signal to the brain,” says Kennedy. “We can learn to relax, breathe and send a message to feel at ease.”

Rose Costello is a journalist, fitness instructor and health coach who works one-to-one and in groups with people looking to get healthy. See

A Beautiful Description of the Alexander Technique

I apologize for not crediting the person who wrote this description of the Alexander Technique, that says so many things that I want to say every time someone asks me to describe this work and why one should study it. I will add the credit as soon as I relocate it:


“We are designed for movement.  Inherent in our design is an incredible capacity for ease, flexibility, power and expressiveness, whether we are dancing, hammering a nail, working at a computer, singing, or simply walking.  All too often we unknowingly interfere with this design, replacing energy, delight and grace with effort, tension and fatigue.  The Alexander Technique gives you a choice…allowing you to regain natural poise and balance within any activity.”

Personal Experience with Alexander lessons

I have been working on my Alexander Technique practice with Jill Guillermo-Togawa for over fifteen years. I first came to A.T. because I had persistent lower back pain that seemed inconsistent with my age and physical fitness level. I was looking for a way to more mindfully inhabit my structure, and see if I could reorganize my physical habits, thereby decreasing the discomfort in my lower back. Jill’s patient, intuitive, insightful guidance helped me to become more aware of how I was using–or, really overusing my structure, and unintentionally causing myself discomfort. I have been pain-free in my lower back ever since those first few sessions with Jill. 

 Her ability to explain the concepts and guide the student into her/his own awareness is remarkable.

Creating Ease

Every act of refusal is also an act of assent.  Every time we say no to consumer culture, we say yes to something more beautiful and sustaining.  Life is not something we go through or that happens to us; it’s something we create by our decisions.

Kathleen Dean Moore    If Your House Is On Fire

Studying the Alexander Technique, we learn that the most profound changes often happen when we stop trying.

A deep bow to Frank Ottiwell

frank1Frank Ottiwell was the main teacher who trained me to be a teacher of the Alexander Technique.  After I graduated more than 27 years ago, Frank continued to be my teacher, and also became a treasured mentor, ‘uncle’ to my daughter, and a friend who I was in awe of and admired and loved wholeheartedly.  I mourn his passing in August of this year, just past his 86th birthday.  I know how much i will miss being able to hear his voice, receive his warm and funny messages of his life, and his words that always encouraged me in my own life as teacher, artist and parent.

When I found out that Frank had died a few days ago, the sense of loss was so profound.  As I continued to think of him I found myself thinking of all that i had learned from him through his direct teaching and more importantly through his example.  Because I feel i owe so much of what i know as a teacher to Frank, it seemed the best way to honor and pay tribute to him might be to share some of Frank’s understanding of the Alexander Technique here.

From the opening address to the Alexander General Meeting June 11, 2009

It is interesting to have learned that when my computer appears to have gone haywire and I turn it off for a moment or two, when I turn it on again it has sorted itself out and is working just fine. The computer in my brain seems to respond to the same treatment—as Alexander discovered many years ago before the age of technology.

(on working with a teacher)   for me—the transformation happened in a couple of moments. I found it exhilarating and deeply satisfying as time after time she helped me to feel like the person I always wanted to be. I gradually learned not to judge or second-guess the amount of time stopping should take. My brain/nervous system knows when the time is enough. The solution starts to do itself and a total-pattern movement begins—a movement which is not looked for, a movement which is a surprise every time, but that on reflection is the most natural and appropriate thing to have happen.                                      

from an interview with Alexander Teacher Pamela Blanc

I keep being drawn back to the simplicity, the specifics and the discipline of the Technique—to the fascination of solving the puzzle over and over, and to finding the freedom to do it within the form. Alexander gave us all the clues, but in the end we still have to decipher the clues and solve the puzzle ourselves. The process continues to fascinate me—and to thrill me in those moments when it all comes together. Those thrilling moments are fewer than I would wish for, but when they come they seem to have been worth all the thought and waiting that has gone into them. I do regularly give thanks to FM, both for my working life and for keeping me silver in my golden years.

Frank continued his practice of the Alexander Technique until the end of his life.  He gave an interview to Alexander Teacher Ruth Rootberg on September 19, 2012

I was a very poor young acting student, with hardly the money for food or rent, let alone lessons.  But I did keep going back, and before long I somehow found the money for two or three lessons a week.  There was something that felt ‘right’ to me.  I must have been getting something that appealed to me at a very deep level.

I was immediately taken with the whole idea of non-doing.  At first I think I really took to the ideas behind the Technique, as opposed to getting what Forward and Up were.  That came along, but in the beginning , it was obviously a very deep feeling of, I don’t know – Life?  Yes, I think so.  The ideas of non-doing, wholeness and indirection struck an immediate chord with me, even though I had never heard of them before. 

i find that when I ask rather than tell, something ‘inside’ hears me and knows what I mean better than I do.  I don’t precisely know how to free my neck.  The most effective thought for me these days, when I feel tightness or holding ANYWHERE is: I wish I weren’t holding my neck so much.  I guess for me these days, it is all manner of inhibiting that keeps me going.

Each moment and action seems new when I am letting the action happen – letting it do itself and not controlling it directly.  Over the years I experienced many times, with a teacher, that if the Primary Control was finely tuned and active, whatever action I was intending would start by itself.  

So the gifts are endless.

And one of the things I’m glad about is I’m having this experience with the Technique, which is giving me a fascinating life.  I am never bored.  

How does Alexander help computer use?

The challenges of computer work:
You sit at your computer each day, eyes on the screen, hand on the mouse. You’re deeply absorbed in your work or pressured to meet a deadline. For hours, you barely move at all. Late in the day you feel so compressed and tense you wish someone would put you in traction. Maybe your elbow starts to tingle, pain shoots through your forearm or your fingers go numb. Perhaps you ignore the symptoms, just to get the work done.

If you are a computer user, you can benefit enormously by understanding and applying the principles of the Alexander Technique. As a proven method of self care, you can use the Technique to avoid or recover from these common problems:

o repetitive strain injuries
o persistent fatigue
o chronic tension
o perpetual neck, back & hip pain
o migraine and tension headaches
o stress-related disorders

Ergonomics and posture:
The computer revolution has radically changed office life. Rather than walking to the copier or stopping in a co-worker’s office to chat, you fax, phone and e-mail. The technology does much more while you do less. Surprisingly, this is not restful. With what were supposed to be labor-saving devices, more people now work longer hours without the small refreshments of whole body movement. As much of the work force sits all day pushing little buttons, nearly 65 million Americans are on their way to developing the physical symptoms of work-related stress.

Many employees and companies now know that a good chair, proper desk height and a well-placed keyboard can reduce strain. But external adjustments do not necessarily change how you use your body. You can have top of the line ergonomic equipment and still slump in your seat and compress your spine with every keystroke. Over time, such habits lead to symptoms that can damage joints and muscles and limit your capacity to perform on the job. The most important determining factor in back problems and repetitive strain is how you move your body while working.

From chronic tension to repetitive strain:
It’s amazing to think that a minute action like clicking a mouse can lead to the agonizing, debilitating symptoms of repetitive strain injury. But it doesn’t have to. Wherever your symptoms may be — wrist, forearm, hand, shoulders or back — the source of your problem is most likely the way you manage your entire body. If you curve over your desk, chin reaching toward the screen, hunch your shoulders, cradle a phone tightly on your neck or tense your arm as you type, you are unconsciously compressing your joints — from the neck through your spine to your hands.

Joint compression and inflammation narrow the channel of small bones in the hand and wrist — the carpal tunnel — through which nerve impulses travel. When those impulses can’t get through, the hand weakens, undermining fine motor coordination. This could prevent you from doing simple tasks, like picking up a quarter or opening a jar. Tingling, pain or weakness are not to be ignored. They are your body’s way of waving a red flag, demanding attention.

Listening to your body’s signals:
Your senses give you feedback about what your body needs, whether it’s a break, a fuller breath or more ease. Many people tend to ignore that feedback, and literally lose themselves in work. An Alexander Technique teacher helps you sharpen your sensory awareness. S/he is expert in observing the movement habits that cause strain, and guides you to shift them. By observing the way you sit and perform repeated motions, s/he helps you see what you’re doing and how you can improve it. By changing your movement pattern, you can avoid worsening symptoms. Attuning to your body’s signals and refining postural coordination are skills you develop in Alexander Technique lessons.

A long term solution:
The first approach to try in resolving computer-related body problems, the Technique is cost-efficient and non-invasive, with no adverse side effects. Medication or surgery, though sometimes necessary, address the symptoms of back pain, shoulder problems, repetitive strain or carpal tunnel syndrome. The Alexander Technique addresses the cause — your movement style — and gives you the ability to change it.

Because the Alexander Technique is a holistic approach, it soothes your entire system. With it, you use your body and mind more efficiently, improving your concentration and endurance. That makes you more effective on the job, and much more comfortable at the end of the day.

copyright: Joan Arnold and Hope Gillerman

“Keeping and Losing” our Balance as we age

I have spoken with a number of women over 65, who are concerned about losing their balance.  Who are concerned about falling and who feel they are less in balance than they used to be.  Walking, an activity that many of us enjoy or use to get from one place to another, is the act of falling and catching ourselves, over and over and over.

So, if we are afraid to fall then the simple activity of walking can lose its enjoyment and become a cause of stress.   When applying the Alexander Technique you are walking with all your parts of your body working together, allowing your joints to move with as much flexibility as is possible for you.   As you fall into the next step you have the sense that you will be there to catch yourself.

When we can walk where and when we want, we can maintain a sense of independence and freedom that is valuable as we grow older. We may also experience the joy and delight we walked with when we were very young.

“If you are …

“If you are sad, anxious, or lonely, you may think

you need to fix or change something in your mind.

If your shoulders are tight, if your back aches, you

may think you just need a doctor to help fix that

area of your body.

But, the key to happiness is being fully integrated

In body and mind, they are two manifestations

Of the same thing.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The quote by Thich Nhat Hanh describes the essence of the Alexander Technique simply and beautifully.