Amira was interviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla for the national edition of Backstage for the article “Keeping Up with Alexander”
Keeping Up With Alexander
The mind-body therapy is growing in popularity but remains especially effective for performers.
By Lisa Jo Sagolla
July 1, 2010
It was a fateful night in 1888 when Frederick Matthias Alexander experienced the actor’s ultimate nightmare. Having garnered a reputation for stirring Shakespeare recitations—a popular form of theatrical entertainment during that era—the Australian actor completely lost his voice in the middle of a performance. He had been having severe vocal difficulties for a while and was getting nothing more than temporary relief from conventional medical treatments. So the day after that fiasco, out of personal necessity, Alexander embarked on the prolonged period of self-study out of which emerged the groundbreaking technique that bears his name.
Though he began by observing what he was doing with his body and how it interfered with his speech, he eventually branched out into exploring all kinds of movement habits that prohibit the optimal use of one’s body. Alexander’s discoveries resulted in a technique of physical re-education that helps people identify and eliminate tension habits so as to allow for the natural efficiency of both movement and voice.
The benefits of the Alexander technique are widely known to actors, singers, and dancers, yet unlike yoga and other forms of body-mind therapy, it has never enjoyed widespread popularity with the general public. That is, until now. Back Stage recently spoke with Alexander technique teachers in New York and Los Angeles and learned that the work has become of interest to scientists, is being applied to chronic-pain patients, and has been adopted by a diverse group of practitioners who are realizing that it can assist in everything from Alpine skiing to brain surgery.
“The Alexander community is really excited right now about the increasing number of neuroscientists who are starting to look at how the Alexander technique fits in with neurology,” says Amira Glaser, a private Alexander instructor based in New York. “At the most recent international congress of Alexander teachers, which met in Switzerland last summer, there were so many panels focusing on the science and neuroanatomy of the technique—really looking at what’s happening in the brain when we do the Alexander work.”
The technique’s basic concepts of awareness and inhibition, and its use of imagery and thought processes to change physical behaviors, are clearly rooted in the connections between the mind and body. However, Alexander had no medical training, and the validity of his work has been based largely on intuition and anecdotal evidence. But now a growing body of scientific research is showing how well-aligned the Alexander technique is with solid neurological principles.
“Because the Alexander technique is not about what we do but about how we do it, it combines really well with other fields of expertise,” says Glaser, who is currently in a graduate program studying East Asian medicine. “What I’ve been noticing lately is a lot of little offshoots of the technique, being developed by people who are combining Alexander with other kinds of work outside of the performing arts. For example, there’s a man based in New Zealand who has been working with the Alexander technique and eyesight and has had amazing results in restoring people’s natural vision.”
The Art of Breathing
But Glaser identifies the work of Jessica Wolf as the new Alexander application most relevant to performing artists. A faculty member and head of the Alexander program at the Yale School of Drama, Wolf has developed The Art of Breathing, a program for instructors already certified to teach Alexander.
“It looks at the breathing mechanism, how we use the breath in our bodies and voice, through an Alexander technique–based lens,” explains Glaser, who has taken Wolf’s course and is now applying those teachings to her own work. “What I have discovered in just the last six to eight months with my students is that when you can access that freedom of the breath, you are accessing yourself at a much deeper level. And for performers, to be able to access your emotions that deeply and then be able to communicate with them, that is ultimately what we’re striving to do. Sometimes it’s a little scary to feel all of that, but it is very powerful. It is no coincidence that in the early phases of his investigations, Alexander called his work ‘the art of breathing.’ ”
Aside from actors, the other major population Glaser teaches is people in chronic pain. “Though the technique has traditionally been known among performers,” she says, “nowadays I’m getting more referrals and calls from people with chronic back pain and neck pain—people who either don’t want to have surgery or whom surgery can’t help. I think they are the largest growing population that’s studying the technique.”
Glaser has found that the new breathing work she has added to her teaching is especially beneficial for this population. “Particularly for upper back, shoulder, and neck pain,” she says. “Because the lungs are housed in the back of our bodies, when the breath starts to move more freely, it seems to really help people open up that shoulder and neck area.” She also points out that interest in Alexander work is spreading in the medical community: “For example, there is a program at a hospital in New York that is exploring all kinds of alternative modes in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease patients, and one of the things they are trying is Alexander technique.”
Glaser sees the increased application of Alexander to various health problems as part of a general trend of “people wanting to get more in charge of their own health.” Because it requires concentrated study, Alexander work “is not for people who want a quick fix,” she emphasizes, “but for people who really want to engage in the process of their own wellness.”
Though she had been exposed to the Alexander technique as an undergraduate performing-arts student at Sarah Lawrence College, what really fueled Glaser’s desire to teach the work was a personal experience with back pain. “One day while I was traveling abroad, I threw my back out,” she says. “I was in a remote area of France, and I didn’t speak any French, so I used what I knew of Alexander technique to help me get through the pain and to heal. I really felt like I knew what to do and how not to aggravate it. It was that experience that got me excited about the idea of becoming an Alexander teacher.”
read the rest of the article here.