The Alexander Technique helps people to become more mindful in their bodies so that they can approach activities with skill, confidence, and comfort. It makes it easier to learn new things, improve on how you go about your day to day activities, and do the things you love to do with less strain and pain.
Sometimes having confidence that we will be able change habits that seem to be ingrained (like our posture) can be challenging. Many of my clients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s arrive for their first lesson and ask me if it’s really possible to improve their posture or if they are just too old.
Enter Mary Russell, a client who took a series of lessons with me a couple of years ago. Within the first few minutes of meeting her, I knew that she would catch on quickly. She essentially said, “I’m almost 80, I have scoliosis, I’m not in pain and I don’t want to be, and I’m planning on starting a yoga practice”. She saw her age as a good reason to improve her body awareness and change her postural habits, not a barrier. She was motivated and it seemed perfectly natural to her that with some work and attention she could change long-ingrained habits. The combination of her mindset and motivation were very encouraging.
I recently interviewed Mary about her experience taking Alexander Technique lessons and how she’s been using what she learned since to help with her yoga practice and other aspects of her life.
Lindsay: How about we start by talking about your yoga practice and why you first took Alexander Technique lessons?
Mary: I think you have to go back to my age because when I was approaching 80. I thought, I’ve been doing regular yoga for years. Yes, I’m fine, but it really hasn’t made me feel that much better except I’m flexible, so what can I do?…and I realized I have to pay more attention to what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. So I go to the “yellow pages” and these days it’s Google. I find this teacher in midtown and decided that I would start Alexander lessons because I had done it once before at the 92nd Street Y and it was difficult. It was extremely difficult…thinking of your body as you were moving and being conscious of it. I thought I’d try it again, but this time not a group lesson. Instead I would go individual and that’s how I came upon you and I think I went three months straight, a basic package for 3 months, and it was not easy until I figured out that if I listened to you and paid attention to what I was doing without a terrible amount of effort, my whole body went up and my head actually went up too and I think the added benefit to being in a room with you and having you put your hands on my back…and you saying “Think up”, “Think tall”, and then you would say, “I can feel it, I can feel it in your spine…and that gave me an enormous sense of confidence.
Lindsay: And you started the yoga after the Alexander lessons, right?
Mary: I started the yoga after. And the first day I got into the Iyengar lesson (they had it in levels, so I was in level one, basic)…the instructor went into, “Now, put your mind into where your body is going to go.” That was a basic premise of Iyengar Yoga…attention, intention, be conscious of what your doing as much as you can because it’s not easy. The Alexander lessons gave me the mindset for it and it’s not just an artificial mindset, I mean I really got it. And if you really get it, then you’re not home free, but at least you’re over that hump.
Lindsay: Can you explain what you mean by “really get it”?
Mary: Yeah, you’re mind and your body have to mesh like clasped hands, so that when you are standing up, for example, you’re thinking about it. I mean some of standing up is routine, but you’re training your body, it’s a kinesthetic training, so you’re training your body so that after awhile, your body is doing it and then you’re not thinking about it. It’s happening. But before that can happen, you have to have the mindset to want to do it because you know it’s going to work. You need the motivation…
Lindsay: And what did you find difficult about it? You said that it wasn’t easy.
Mary: I have the attention span of a gnat. You know, something’s bothering you….makes sounds of a gnat flying around. It’s too easy to go off in the great beyond. At the same time I was reading some of the Buddhist teachings, so that was fitting into it too, how you really just come back to what you’re doing, you don’t let it distract you and then you really get into mindfulness, but really it’s just about paying attention to what you’re doing rather than what you’re going to be doing next or what you did before.
Lindsay: So being present.
Mary: Being present, but you know another thing…I was thinking about this…It has something to do with a greater acceptance of your body. Too often we grow up, or I grew up either starving my body, making it do something, work 12 hours, don’t get enough sleep. It was almost like my body was “them” and “me” was trying to make it go along with what I wanted to do and this might be too esoteric, but I don’t think so.
Mary: The Alexander started on and the Iyengar has pushed me along to a greater acceptance of who I am physically, what my limitations are. I’m in a yoga class with 20, 30, 40 year-olds…a whole wide range of ages. I can’t do half of the things that some of them can do, but it doesn’t matter because I’m pushing myself to some extent to do more and usually when you get to be older, say 70 or 80, people are saying “can I help you?” Can I hold the chair for you? It also helps you get out of that mindset that people can put you in.
Lindsay: Would you say that Alexander has helped make this Yoga class more accessible?
Mary: The Alexander Technique helped me learn my body more and be more neutral about what it can do instead of admonishing all the time. I think the Alexander Technique was part of a broader approach for me, but the basic premise that I took away from my practice with you was really that the mind came together with the body. There was a motivation. I could see and I could feel the difference, plus I walked better.
Lindsay: Do you feel like when you’re getting instructions in the yoga class that it’s easier to sense that you’re following instructions accurately because of your experience with the Alexander Technique.
Mary: Absolutely, absolutely.
Lindsay: And do you feel that it’s easier to do things without too much effort or the wrong type of effort?
Mary: This is just where I am now. I’ve been putting in a considerable amount of attention into incorporating more lightness and ease into my yoga practice rather than grunt. The other thing that I like, Lindsay, is the fact this technique isn't the type of thing where you say...“Do this and it works and you’re home free.”...It’s the process more than anything. It’s just something you keep working on.
Lindsay: I think some people find that idea of something being process-oriented disappointing or daunting because they think they’ll “never get it”.
Mary: I think it’s more about some principles that you take with you and apply. And you could take some of the concepts of the Alexander Technique and apply it to life. I’ll never forget when you sent out one picture in one of your blogs. It was of a woman on a computer, bent over with her neck craned on the phone and now I notice people who do that and then you had a picture of a friend at a conference looking at a phone and it was perfect, perfect position. It’s really being conscious of your body and putting it at ease and if you’re like this (demonstrates slumping), you’re not at ease.
Lindsay: And are you aware if you are at ease as you go about your day? Like let’s say you’re making lunch or walking down the street.
Mary: It’s on my mind, but it’s not 100% what I’m thinking about. When I’m chopping something for dinner, I think that I’m leaning on one hip and I have scoliosis and I’m conscious of that. In 2014 when I began gardening in Carl Schurz Park, I was a wreck. And it did not help that my zone was on a hill. So it was not just bending but bending at an angle. Three years later, a big difference. I attribute it to my daily practice which incorporates both Alexander and Iyengar techniques.
Lindsay: So you’re able to have it as a kind of background awareness.
Mary: It’s a background awareness
Lindsay: Which is what I hope people get out of it. I don’t want them to have to think really hard all the time.
Mary: I think in the beginning, it is hard because it’s a different way of paying attention. I just think it pays off. But there’s nothing in life that’s a one-stop, go on a diet and you assume the perfect body type for ever and every. Something happens…you eat too much, you get pregnant. Life is still hard, but it makes it easier…
Lindsay: Keeping your balance…
Mary: That’s very good cause that’s principally what it helps you do, and if you live long enough, life throws you off balance a lot.
Lindsay: So it’s not about holding a perfect position all the time. It’s about being able to bounce back and find your center.
Mary: And think about it…our little world is always moving…we’re not in a stationary environment. Things are moving. What’s the most constant thing in life?…change.
Lindsay: We’re just finishing up. Anything you’d like to add?
Mary: I think aerobics and pilates are wonderful for you at certain times of your life, but the whole principle for me as your body moves on is paying attention to what it’s saying to you, respecting it, and being mindful of it.