(Photo by Gina de la Chesnaye)
I came to Yoga in my mid-twenties suffering from anxiety and the effects of stress as a result of my job. I was working at the time as an assistant in the acting department at a boutique talent agency in New York. My work environment was aggressive and competitive. At the end of my work week I would find myself exhausted and depressed as a result of the amount I was required to achieve in my work day and the hostile attitude of many of the people I was working for. I was permanently stuck in “startle” mode and my health was beginning to suffer as a result. In addition to depression, I was suffering from attacks of anger and anxiety.
It may be hard to imagine now, but at that time in the mid-nineties, there was not much Yoga around. The idea that problems such as those I was suffering from could be dealt with in ways other than medication and psychotherapy was not as widespread as it is now. My attempts at self-care began with a seated meditation practice for two years, but it was not until I began to take group Yoga classes that I started to feel an improvement in my overall wellbeing.
Playing with Flow, Going Deep with Form
The first Yoga classes that I took were at the Jivamukti Yoga Center in the East Village, where they teach a vigorous practice, one pose flowing into the next, each movement synchronized with the breath. It was great to move and to breathe, but although the practice brought my mind and body together, it did so at a cost to my nervous system. I would find myself shaking at the end of class, even after final relaxation.
After four years at Jivamukti, I began to study Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, a classical form that originated in India from which the Western Jivamukti Yoga was loosely derived. During that time my knee was seriously injured by one of the top teachers of the style in the country when he gave me a poorly-judged adjustment. My attempts to rehab my knee led me to another form of Yoga from India, Iyengar Yoga. Iyengar Yoga is very much a classical form of Yoga in much the same way that ballet is a classical form of dance. It has a systematized body of knowledge taught in a very specific way. In this mostly non-flowing style, poses are held longer and attention is brought to the minutia of alignment and technique. I thrived in the style so much that I became inspired to teach it.
Ultimately, the physical and mental rigidity of the system turned me away from the classical form of Iyengar Yoga to find a new teacher, himself a direct student of Mr. Iyengar, who has a more inquisitive and compassionate take, by the name of Donald Moyer. (Donald is the author of wonderful book: “Yoga: Awakening the Inner Body,” one of the few intermediate to advanced books about yoga out there. It is essential reading for the serious yoga practitioner and teacher.) I stopped studying at the New York Iyengar Yoga Institute and began to take regular study trips to the Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, where Donald is based.
Discovering a New Way with The Alexander Technique
It was during this period of immersion in and then moving away from Iyengar Yoga that I encountered the Alexander Technique through my friend and yoga practice partner, Kristen Davis. Kristen trained to be an Alexander Technique teacher almost two decades ago with Christine Batten and Troupe Matthews. For the past decade, she and I have been meeting every week to practice Yoga together. Without really understanding what the Alexander Technique as a whole was, I was heavily influenced by the fundamental principles that Kristen would bring up as we practiced. Our work together gave me a sense of what Yoga could be: lighter, freer, less dogmatic, more expansive.
I finally began to study the Alexander Technique formally with Jessica Wolf, one of Kristen’s teachers. She brought Jessica in to her Yoga studio to teach a workshop in what she has come to call “The Art of Breathing,” her signature fusion of the Alexander Technique with the breath work of Carl Stough. I loved the work. I had reached a point in my Yoga practice where I was suffering from a great amount of pain in my back. My right sacroiliac joint is hyper-mobile, and has given me many problems over the years. In the past it would frequently fall out of alignment, giving me sciatica and back spasms, and I would need to see a chiropractor on a fairly regular basis. I eventually learned to manage it with my Yoga practice, figuring out what to do to ease it back into place with Yoga poses, and needing to go to the chiropractor only occasionally, perhaps once or twice a year.
Once I reached my forties, however, my situation changed. My mid-back became structurally unsound and all sorts of Yoga poses would put it into spasm. I had to limit my Yoga practice to only the most basic of poses. I tried every possible avenue that was available to me to heal it. I even had x-rays taken, only to show that my back had nothing structurally wrong with it. It became clear to me that the problem was deeper than just a hyper-mobile sacroiliac joint and an unstable lumbar-thoracic joint. It was then that I started seeing Jessica Wolf as regularly as I could, in search of a deeper understanding of what I was doing wrong.
Challenges on the Path
I wish I could say that I took to the Technique like a fish to water, that after a few lessons my life was transformed. Sadly, this was not the case at all. The Alexander Technique is based on the notion that, in order to overcome the habit patterns that narrow us, compress us, and put strain on our systems, we cannot rely on our kinesthetic (or “felt”) sense. To do so is to further entrench the habits that have caused us problems in the first place. In order to make a significant and lasting change, we must rely on a different way of thinking, moving and being, one which includes expanded awareness, mindfulness and a focus on process rather than results, referred to as “non-doing.”
I had much trouble coming to terms with many of the principles of the Technique. I had a well-developed kinesthetic (feeling) sense which I had learned to heavily rely on, and I had no practical concept of non-doing. I was really good at concentration and whittling my awareness down to a single point, which has the unfortunate side-effect of stiffening and hardening one’s system as a whole. I was not so great at expanding the field of my awareness and allowing my system to expand with it. Thus, my lessons became like the raging sea beating up against a cliff-face as I was working in a way that was much more muscular and energetic than needed. I would overwork in the Technique even to the point of mental exhaustion and anxiety. Whatever release I was able to experience under Jessica’s hands I am sure I undid a moment later by trying too hard to free my neck and feel for the result.
Help From An Unexpected Quarter
The one reprieve I had from all that unnecessary hard working was studying Body-Mind Centering and embodied anatomy with Amy Matthews at the Breathing Project. I came to her as a direct result of my lessons with Jessica. Both Jessica and Amy are trained in Laban/Bartenieff work and are Certified Movement Analysts. Jessica would occasionally use Bartenieff Fundamentals in our lessons together and I became fascinated by them as a form in themselves. When I looked for someone else who was using them in their work, I found Amy.
I took a very different attitude towards the classes with Amy compared with my Alexander work. Without consciously intending to, I placed a lot of weight on the Alexander work. This was Important Stuff and needed to be Taken Seriously. From the very beginning, the classes I took with Amy I placed outside all of that. In my mind they were just for me. I absolved myself of any responsibility of having to integrate what I learned into any other part of my life. Even though I might have flirted with the idea, I had no intention of ever taking the Body-Mind Centering training. As a result those classes became a refuge where I could explore without success or failure entering into the mix. I learned much about myself and the Alexander Technique from this seemingly compartmentalized experience.
Seeing the Light
After three years of studying the Technique with Jessica, I acted as a supervisory student for one of her Art of Breathing trainings. Jessica had been encouraging me to train as an Alexander Technique teacher for a while, and I had always put it off as a thing that would be nice to do in the future, but something that I was not ready for. I walked out of her training session knowing without a doubt that training to be an Alexander Technique teacher was something I needed to make a priority. Six months later I enrolled in the three-year training program at the American Center for the Alexander Technique (ACAT).
My time in the training at ACAT was a process of repeatedly butting up against my issues, making my situation a lot worse by trying too hard. My misunderstanding of the work built to a point that in class my back would become so painful that I could barely concentrate. The irony of this was that it was only happening in class. Outside of class, my Yoga practice began to free itself up and I was able to move and teach with more ease than I had ever known before.
Going into my sixth term, it took an act of faith in the process to make a change. If doing the Alexander Technique in the way that I understood it (observing habit patterns that come up in my system, consciously letting them go, and then deliberately projecting a wish for a new, freer relationship between my head, neck and back) was giving me so much trouble, then obviously I was doing it wrong. I resolved, then, not to “do” the Alexander Technique at all in class. I listened to my teachers, I paid attention, I did what was asked of me, but whenever I felt myself “doing,” I stopped myself, even if it meant being slumped and collapsed. And it worked. It took the full ten weeks of term for a shift to occur, but it did eventually make a difference. I discovered thinking in activity, just thinking without meddling, properly for the first time. From that point on, things started to change for me.
It took me nineteen years of dedicated study with Yoga, Body-Mind Centering and the Alexander Technique to glimpse an understanding of the way mind and body are part of a whole and how each can influence the other constructively, rather than habitually. I learnt much that was good and helpful from Yoga. Yoga gave me many of the pieces of the puzzle, but it did not help me put the pieces together to find the solution.
In Modern Yoga, as largely taught and practiced in the West today, the mind dominates the body, riding its sensations and pushing it to reshape itself with forceful breathing and muscular action. Sometimes this works, in the hands of a skilled teacher or a mindful practitioner. But this forceful approach overrides the intelligence of the body, instead of releasing patterns of interference that allow for the innate intelligence of the body to reassert itself. Instead of going back to the fundamental relationships and reflexes which allowed us to be so free and easy when we were toddlers, we pile on imposition after imposition. We run around fixing all the small problems without fixing the underlying issues that created all the other problems in the first place.
The Alexander Technique helped me put the pieces together and to unravel all the damaging patterns that had brought my Yoga practice to a standstill. Now, approaching the age of 47, I am stronger, more flexible, and have more endurance than I ever did in my thirties. I am calmer and more resilient, and now have an inkling of the inner peace for which Yoga strives. And, perhaps most importantly, the Alexander Technique has given me the tools to deal with all the issues that a middle-aged body and mind have to deal with. The Alexander Technique has revealed to me a whole new way of working, one that has brought mind, emotion and body into a balanced whole and has enabled me to find lightness, strength and integration that seemed so close with Yoga, but had always been just out of reach.
Looking to the Future
In December of 2013 I graduated from ACAT and became certified to teach the Technique. As I turn my attention to integrating all that I have learned into my Yoga teaching, I have come to see the misconceptions about the nature and relationship of the mind and body that are inherent in the traditional way of practicing Yoga. By using the fundamental principles of the Alexander Technique, I hope to unpack those misconceptions for my students and help them find the balanced whole of mind, body and being for themselves without the unfortunate and unproductive side-trips into confusion, compression and injury.