In a couple of weeks, I'll be assisting Malcolm Balk, Canadian Alexander Technique teacher and running coach extraordinaire. He's put the two together and developed The Art of Running and is the author of Master the Art of Running: Raise Your Performance with the Alexander Technique. When I first encountered his work by attending a workshop, I thought I'd just get some tips for my students who run, but have since taken up running myself. Malcolm travels all over the US, Canada, and Europe teaching The Art of Running. I interviewed one of my Alexander Technique students, Oona Short, who participated in his last workshop in NYC last Fall. She took the workshop because she didn't like running, but wanted to see what there was to like about it. Competitive, casual, and beginning runners alike can benefit from this workshops. Click here for more info on the workshop and to sign up and check out my conversation with Oona below.
LN: Tell me what you told me about seeing the photo of yourself running that was taken during the last workshop and that now appears on the flyer for the current session.
OS: I was very excited to see the photo because it’s the first time I thought that I was showing good form! I knew I’d done it in class, but I thought that as soon as I started to run, I would probably revert to some prior incarnation--especially because there was a goal in sight and a lot of beginning runners like me think that’s the time to stick out your chin and go for it.
Not only did the picture make me happy, but at the end of the session, Malcolm said to me “You have the potential to be a very good runner.” I never thought of myself as being any kind of runner-- even though I thought I was was capable of doing any other sport or physical activity. The difference was that all those other activities seemed to be in a separate category from actual life. You shoot hoops, hit a ball with a bat, hit a ball with a tennis racket-- whereas running is an exaggerated version of what you do everyday. You walk faster and faster until you’re running. I associated it in my life with running for a bus with heavy bags in your hands, or while wearing a backpack. It seemed pretty stressful and I didn’t understand why anybody would do it for fun. I understood endorphins, I understood getting a good feeling from an aerobics class…but running? I just couldn’t get it. Part of that was because my “use” wasn’t good.
LN: Can you talk about that?
OS: My neck had just about atrophied after years of reading and writing. I’m a writer, so I spent a lot of time just looking down at texts. I also had a structural problem in my back, which made it pretty immobile. The percussiveness, the repetitiveness of running-- at least the way I did it--it hurt! But I didn’t know the way my feet were supposed to come down, I didn’t know how to use my arms. I realized that people trained to be good runners, but that it was just to learn how to go faster and faster. And I just wrote it off as something I’d never do...that it was something for other people, but not for me.
LN: But you took the Art of Running workshop last October, so there was a reason. You were curious about something.
OS: Well, one reason was that my partner likes to run and I thought at least one of us should go. Then I thought, well, if he and I both go, it’d be an experience we could share. I was also feeling more confident about how I was using my body because of the Alexander Technique classes I’d been taking and I read Malcolm’s book, which I liked. So I thought that maybe I would give this a try. I live in a neighborhood where there is plenty of space and running tracks. Plus, running is something that you don’t need to get a lot of equipment for, you don’t need to assemble a team, it doesn’t cost a whole lot. And also I wanted to try something new! I’d learned from my Alexander classes how to do other things without injuring myself, so I thought maybe there’s a chance that I can run without feeling my back kind of disassembling. It used to feel like the vertebrae were stacked loosely, one on top of the next, and if I jarred them too much, the whole thing would fall apart.
LN: Something that people say to me since I’ve been coordinating these workshops is something like, “well, I’m kind of interested, but I’m not really a runner.” That’s one reason why I wanted to interview you, because you weren’t running at all beforehand and your were sort of confused as to why people would like doing it, but there was something that you wanted to figure out. You wanted to figure out what the enjoyment was and you started to get that feeling. So, I do encourage people who already run and competitively run to take this workshop, but I also encourage beginners, more casual runners, or people who even think that they don’t like running to take it. It seems like it’s something we just do. Even if you don’t run for sport, you probably run for the bus and I think that people can think that the way they run is just the way they run and that’s how running feels and to feel a change in something quite habitual and to be able to move at that speed and feel really free is quite an amazing thing. I think it’s an experience that can change your perspective in life, not just how you’re moving your arms and your legs.
OS: It’s funny you should say that because the sense of freedom was really pronounced. I was dealing with a shoulder problem for a few months prior to the workshop and off and on there were various aches and pains. But when I was running in the workshop, nothing hurt! The clanking and banging in my shoulder wasn’t there. Nothing bothered me! Isn't it nice to say that? “Nothing is bothering me!”It was very, very liberating. I didn’t feel like I had to worry about what I was doing. I just did it.
But in terms of encouraging people who are intermediate or advanced runners-- everybody can benefit. My friend who’s run a couple of marathons wants to take the workshop because she’s read Malcolm’s book and says that the Alexander Technique approach is not something you would hear from a non-Alexander-trained running coach.What was amazing about the workshop was that all these ideas I had about running being stressful and me not being able to do it vanished pretty quickly! It’s very hard to enjoy something that you aren’t doing right. If you’re making it as hard for yourself as you possibly can, it isn’t going to feel very good, and of course you’re not going to do it again. But after the first circuit we made around the little fountain in the park, I thought, “this feels good!” And I got very excited. It’s very exciting to get enjoyment out of something that is there for you, that can be there for you for years to come, that’s good for you, that you learned how to do properly and aren’t kind of making up as you go along. Whenever I had studied any sport, tennis, whatever, I’d always wanted to work with a coach first, take a few introductory lessons, because I didn’t want to waste a lot of time with trial and error. I’d never thought of doing that with running, but here I saw, ok, I don’t have to try and figure this out all by myself. I’d probably get it wrong anyway and Malcolm is very sensible. It’s all very logical.
LN: How has your running gone since the workshop?
OS: Well, it feels good! I’m not sure if I’m doing it exactly the way I was doing it in the workshop, but it certainly is an improvement over anything I’ve done before. And even when I’m walking, I do the arm movements that I learned.
LN: I’ve noticed that it’s led to a change in how you hold yourself in general, being in my class every week, particularly since that workshop. You’ve been taking Alexander lessons and classes for 2.5 years now?
LN: But I think there was a leap after the workshop. Do you agree?
OS: Yes, I think it’s funny-- you know there’s a Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” It just seemed to be that all of the team that I needed [of teachers] was appearing. My chiropractor has always been very helpful,has encouraged me to take Alexander, has raved about what you’ve done with the Alexander work. And he often says, “Lindsay’s taken what I’ve started and brought it to a whole other level.” And here comes Malcolm and to supply more of the pieces that I needed to have. I was taking something I’d learned and applying it to my everyday life and then to something new [running]. I’m aware that I don’t have to be doing it the old way.
LN: Even if you’ve had a lot of training and coaching there’s still quite a bit you can learn.
OS: Yes, you pick up the Alexander principles and if you’re already a runner and you’ve had some blockages or injuries and you can’t figure out why, Alexander can help you unblock. For example ,you might be thinking all along that the problem is about your hips or your knees, but maybe it’s more about your neck. Maybe people don’t give enough thought to their necks. You walk around, you have a pain in your knee, and you don’t think about your neck, but everything is connected, as we’ve come to find out.
LN: Yes, if the neck is tight, it’s like pulling the weight of a bowling ball (your head) down into your spine, affecting your whole body. When you study the Alexander Technique, you learn that how you use your body filters into all things. Something that people can really get from The Art of Running workshops is that they can see how the habits they develop doing day-to-day things, like sitting for a long time and using the computer, for example, can in turn affect other things they do, such as running and people can start noticing, “Ah, if I work on how I sit at my desk, that’s going to help my running.”
OS: I was watching the Knicks game last night--why, I don’t know. The almost never win. Their coach gave them their little pep talk before the fourth quarter and I think afterwards he felt he’d misspoken, but I thought was he said was great. He told the players they lose because they don’t believe that they can win and their energy flags. He said, “Remember, your body is part of your mind.” I think that most people think that your mind is part of your body, that your body holds your mind--but the coach is saying that it’s the mind that’s the all-encompassing container for your body. The way you hold yourself is how you think about yourself.
Click here for more info on the workshop .