Inviting Ease with the Alexander Technique
By Wendy Kagan - July 2017
To have a body is to experience physical pain one day: There is no getting around that pesky inevitability. The longer we have our bodies, the greater the chances are that aches and pains will begin to inhabit our limbs and joints like unwelcome guests. Blame it on wear and tear. Blame it on entropy. Blame it in on the curses and blessings of having a physical body.
For Katiellen Madden of High Falls, the time came two years ago when she could no longer manage the neck pain that had dogged her for a good part of her adult life... [S]he found Alexander Technique instructor Allyna Steinberg, who teaches private and group lessons in Manhattan and Stone Ridge. Steinberg met with her for one-on-one sessions, gently guiding Madden through ways to realign her body and release tension in her neck. "After the first session, my range of motion increased dramatically and a lot of the pain was gone," she marvels. Through subtle tweaks to her everyday movements, and the occasional hands-on adjustment from Steinberg, she was teaching her body to let go of old patterns and to move as it was meant to do. "After less than six sessions with Allyna, I wasn't having any more pain in my neck at all." Without popping an Advil, she was able to sleep through the night, and she enjoyed the bonus effect of feeling more relaxed in general. "I'm not a great student," she demurs. "I just really love the process and I love the results. I keep telling my friends all about it."
A Movement Modality with Ripple Effects
If there's one thing you might have noticed about the Alexander Technique—a century-old practice that teaches people to release muscular tension and adverse habits of movement and thinking—it's that those who have benefited from the method are downright evangelical about it. Research studies to prove (or disprove) its effectiveness are not robust, although a systematic review of 18 clinical trials, published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice in 2012, found strong evidence that the Alexander Technique can relieve chronic back pain, moderate evidence that it helps with Parkinson's-associated disability, and preliminary evidence that it may be effective for general chronic pain, posture, speech impediments, respiratory function, and improvements in balance for the elderly. Many of the technique's most ardent fans are performing artists and musicians; its Australian founder, Fredrick Matthias Alexander, was a Shakespearean actor himself.
A little over 100 years ago, Alexander developed the technique as a way to cure himself of a problem that was ruining his career: He kept losing his voice onstage. With no medical reason for his intermittent voiceless episodes, Alexander found that he could get his speech back by recognizing and releasing habitual reactions in his movements, and eventually in his thoughts as well. Using multiple mirrors (Alexander was a patient man), he observed himself speaking and noticed a habit of drawing his head back and down when he spoke. He recognized this as a startle response, common in most animals when faced with negative stimuli. Through practice, Alexander learned to release that startle response, inviting his neck to be free and his head to balance in alignment with his spine. In the process he freed his voice to emerge full-throttle on the stage. In essence, he developed a mind-body healing modality before such an approach came into vogue. Today, with mind-body therapies everywhere, the Alexander Technique is having its moment in the sun.
The kind of positional change that Alexander explored is not about forcing the body to do something new, which only creates more tension. Rather, it's "an invitation or a wish for the body," explains Steinberg. "You're focusing on the ease of your neck and your whole body, and the relationship of the skull on top of the spine. So you're focusing on good posture and good alignment throughout your body. The Alexander Technique offers a very integrative approach to movement. The idea is to invite peak performance by moving with awareness of the whole body."
Like Madden, Steinberg also came to the practice seeking relief from constant pain. When she was in graduate school for public health in 2000, she developed a debilitating repetitive strain injury; the culprit was a bad computer workstation. Typing had become so painful that she was looking into voice recognition software to write her papers. Then she discovered the Alexander Technique. After taking private lessons twice a week over the course of a few months, the pain lessened and eventually resolved completely. "It was something I continued to do on occasion, even after my pain went away, because it felt so good and my posture improved," she says. "People would comment on it, which was exciting. I also felt less anxious." After she returned to the Alexander Technique a few years later to solve a new problem—foot pain that couldn't be managed with orthotics—Steinberg delved more deeply into the method and trained to become a teacher.
"I hear from a lot of people that they come to the Alexander Technique for one thing, and then they discover a lot of unexpected benefits. So they stick with it," she says. The same was true for herself: One bonus was that the Alexander Technique helped her with a new passion: salsa dancing. "My body could start to move in that whole-body Cuban [motion] way, so it allowed me to be a much better dancer." Steinberg even credits the practice for helping her blossom at her day job in public health. "I got a promotion at work, and I think that's partly due to the change in my posture, presence, and vocal clarity. It also helps you regulate your emotions, so you come across as more confident."
Letting Go as a Path to Health
... Recently, Madden had been driving back and forth to Connecticut to care for her dying mother, and her neck pain suddenly returned. Remembering the tools that Steinberg had given her, she was able to release the caught tension in her neck. "I focus on relaxing the front of my neck whenever I start feeling stressed or am in a potentially conflicting situation," she says. Not only did her neck pain resolve quickly, but she was able to handle a difficult situation with greater presence and ease.
Read full article here.
Mindfully check in with the Alexander Technique
By Donna Cohn Viertel - November 2016
Allyna B. Steinberg, MPH, MAmSAT... help[s] her community get through the stresses in life for better well-being through her work.
“At 15, my Uncle died from a preventable health condition and I pledged to make a difference promoting health in my high school and beyond,” explained Steinberg on why she chose a career in health care. “His death taught me how precious our health is and how complicated it can be to find the care and healing we need.”
But it was actually Steinberg's own health that led her to the Alexander Technique. “It gave me my life back,” she said. “I once suffered from severe neck, shoulder and arm pain that developed from stress and a bad computer workstation. Nothing I tried, including doctors in osteopathy and neurology, pain medicine, physical and occupational therapy, chiropractic, Feldenkrais method, acupuncture, and cranial-sacral massage, relieved my pain,” she explained. “In fact, it kept getting worse. Finally, I learned about the Alexander Technique from an Orthopedist at Mount Sinai Hospital. The Alexander Technique cured me of this pain and that is not all.”
Steinberg explained, “You come to the Alexander Technique for one reason, and you stick with it because of the “bonus” benefits. My posture improved. I felt less anxious. My hobbies, such as yoga, hiking, and salsa/swing dancing, became easier. I learned self-care tools that I could use to tackle new emotional situations and physical activities. Incorporating the Technique into my life, I was watching my body get better instead of worrying about it getting worse with age. And, other people noticed too, commenting on my posture and positive presence.”
Steinberg has over 15 years of experience studying the Alexander Technique and completed a 1,600 hour teacher training at the Balance Arts Center in New York City. She also holds a Master of Public Health degree and has been supporting youth and families for over 20 years.
“In an Alexander Technique class, we look at the body’s design, how students are moving and what students can let go in order to rediscover our natural coordination,” she explained. “Students leave with tools to use in their daily life for noticing and releasing habits of moving and thinking that are not serving them. My teaching includes hands-on guidance. My students often feel more ease in their body and mind after just one class.”
On the first Sunday of the month, Steinberg teaches an hour long group class at MaMA called Alexander Technique Mindful Movement. “We explore movements on the floor and standing that can be adapted to most ability levels. I offer ways for you to use your attention while moving to notice and release habits of muscular tension that are interfering with ease and flexibility.”
Steinberg also teaches other group classes and Mindful Movement Hikes by request. “It can be a lot of fun to learn the Alexander Technique while directly applying it to your favorite activities.” She added that businesses, organizations and other groups can benefit from hosting a class to support self-care or to explore how the Technique could help their clients/patients.
By appointment, her private lessons include hands-on guidance during activities such as sitting, walking or exercises, and time on a massage table.
"I began taking Alexander Technique private lessons with Allyna to help alleviate my chronic neck pain,” said Katiellen Madden of High Falls, Women’s Studio Workshop Board Member. “She taught me ways to position my body to ease the strain on my neck. My range of motion has increased and sleep is easier. I do not need Advil for neck pain anymore and the headaches that I used to get from the tension on my neck no longer exist."
“It's a great feeling, watching my students make positive self-discoveries about movement options not available to them before,” she said.
And what advice does Steinberg have for us, as we approach this holiday season?
“Get curious about how your senses help your holiday cheer,” she encouraged. “This seems obvious when you’re enjoying holiday sights, smells and tastes. But what about during the holiday stress? We tend to narrow our focus during challenging situations, emotional and physical. So, take an Alexander Technique tip to the rescue: When you’re feeling stressed, check in with yourself about whether you’re seeing, smelling, tasting, and hearing what’s around you. Also, notice your whole body in three dimensions between your head and toes, back and front, left and right sides. When you mindfully check in with our senses, you open your focus, the body relaxes, and your holiday cheer is restored.”