Friday, October 22, 2010


The Monday evening homeward trek after work is different for me this fall. I am getting home later, stopping off to spend 45 minutes at an Alexander Technique session with Heidi Matter. She’s improving my posture. She’s teaching me how to figure out where my body parts are, and how I might reposition them to get relief from the pain that has been my unwelcome companion for far too long now.
Heidi’s methods are low-pressure, low-impact, low-risk. There are no extravagant promises of miraculous cures. There’s nothing to buy except her time. She stands me up and uses gentle touches at the base of my skull to position my head somewhere directly above the centre of my feet. She sets me to thinking about my head and soon I am stepping forward, propelled by my upper body. She sits me down and rocks me into a standing position. She lays me down and invites my hip and shoulder muscles to let go. “You don’t have to do anything,” she says. And so I don’t do much. My job is to follow the direction from her gentle movements.
You might seek out an Alexander teacher if you wanted to project your voice better, or sing with less strain, or stand and walk with more grace. You might seek an Alexander teacher if—like me—you had back pain. There’s nothing you have to do except show up, and how often you do that is totally optional. Like me, you might find some definite help in it, something you haven’t found elsewhere. But you probably wouldn’t seek an Alexander teacher, because you wouldn’t know you were looking for one.
There are Alexander teachers all over the world. The first was Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor who lost his voice and eventually regained it by teaching himself to reduce muscle tension. He taught his strategies to others and died in 1955. I discovered the Alexander Technique at the 2010 conference of the National Storytelling Network in Los Angeles. I went to a session on voice projection without knowing what I was going to and was amazed to find that I had accidentally stumbled upon the posture training I had been looking for. When the workshop ended I boldly walked to the front of the room and approached the teacher in a manner I knew to be totally inappropriate.
“I have back pain,” I said. “It hurts right here. Doctors and physiotherapists keep telling me to improve my posture, but when I ask them how, they don’t seem to have any suggestions that help me. They say to stand straight and I don’t think I even know whether I’m standing straight.”
“Okay,” she said calmly, as if we were the only people in the room and no other session was about to start. “Just bend your knees a little, and now lean forward a bit.” She had placed a hand on my lower back and was gently pressing forward. “Now,” she said, “we are going to move your head.” Two firm but gentle fingers were now lifting and pushing at the base of my skull.
The position she put me in was definitely unfamiliar, yet stable. “You haven’t been using some of these muscles for a while,” she said. Maybe not. The pain inflicted on my leg by my compressed disks after three days of conference sitting was not entirely gone, but I could feel the difference and it was good. David said maybe we should book time off work so I could take training in Los Angeles.
“I’ve never heard of Edmonton,” she said when we told her where we came from. “But if you look on the Internet, you might find a teacher there.” That’s how we found Heidi.
Heidi is one of three certified Alexander teachers in Edmonton. She works six hours a week, and those hours are not entirely full. I find that surprising, knowing how much she has helped me, knowing also how many Edmontonians are tortured by chronic back pain. “Why are you not busier?” I ask Heidi.
“The Alexander Technique is not well known here,” she says. That—I’ll say—is an understatement. But here’s the really surprising thing. Doctors and physiotherapists don’t seem much interested in learning about it either. It’s not that they know about it and think it’s bad, it’s just that they are indifferent, dismissive when I mention it.
I visit a doctor who has worked steadily and earnestly with my back pain for five long years. He has prescribed medications and changed them in favour of others that promised a better result. He has sent me to physio, and recommended that I find a new therapist when I was clearly not benefiting from the therapy. We’ve traced the deterioration through x-rays, bone scans and MRI. We’ve discussed the risks and benefits of surgery. He’s a good man, concerned and committed to making things better. I approach him knowing how happy he will be.
“I’ve found a good thing last summer,” I tell him in early October. “It’s the Alexander Technique. It’s posture training. I’d say it’s helped more than any of the physiotherapy I’ve had. It actually makes me feel better and not worse.”
I am excited to share this information, hoping he will recommend it to others, or at least think about doing so. But if he does, it will surprise me, because he doesn’t ask me any questions, doesn’t take any phone numbers down. “The name sounds familiar,” he says, moving on.
Back in Heidi’s office I say, “I’m well now, but Thanksgiving was the worst pain day I’ve had in a long time. It all started the day before with doing everything I know I shouldn’t do. I slept late and didn’t give myself time for a morning walk. Then I went to church and sat on the piano bench for far too long. Piano playing in the morning is a really hard thing. Then, without taking time for a walk, I got into the car for a three hour trip.”
As I continue on with my list of wrongs, Heidi is positioning a wooden chair in the middle of the floor and sitting me on it. “How high is the piano bench?” she asks, adjusting to the right height with a cushion. She positions a book under my foot where the sustain pedal would be and tells me to raise my arms and pretend to play. As if on cue, piano music replaces the flute solo that was drifting softly from the speaker in the wall.
As I hunch forward playing my imaginary piano she gently presses on my back, positions my shoulders, and touches the base of my skull, suggesting the direction my body ought to lean the next time I am feeling the pain when I play the piano.
“You think I’m going to remember all this and play the right notes too?” I ask her.
She says, “You don’t have to remember it. There’s nothing you have to do. You just let everything lengthen.” From experience with other things she has taught me I know what will happen. I’ll be sitting on the bench and feeling the pain, and then my body will remember Heidi’s small pressures and start to move in the directions she would have been giving if she were in the room.
Oh so relieved to have found such a low-tech, simple and practical approach, I tell David that I’m going to make Heidi famous. The only problem is, I really don’t know how. After all, here I am, a hope counsellor who hasn’t yet figured out how to make hope counselling interesting to doctors and physiotherapists, even though it costs very little and helps people a lot. When I figure out how, Heidi and I might both be rich.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's not just in Edmonton that Alexander Technique is woefully unknown. I live in New York City; Alexander Technique got me out of chronic pain (neck and head) when nothing else did - doctors, medication, PT, yoga, massage - and yet I had the same experience with doctors just not wanting to hear about it. I will be checking back on your blog to see if you come up with any strategies for spreading the word, and to learn more about Hope Counseling.

All the best, Karen