This Alexander lesson in the form of a blog post is dedicated to Camara Rhodes, who inspired it by asking the following question:

So I carry a lot of weight on my back (college student.. blegh) my back is starting to hurt a little bit. wasn’t sure if there’s any back stretches to get the kinks out?

(I’ll address my teaching directly to Camara, but I encourage anyone to participate in the learning by reading along and doing the suggested activities and writing assignments on your own.)

Thanks for the great launching question, Camara. It’s perfect as the topic for my first blog lesson because back pain is a nearly universal problem. What differentiates the Alexander Technique  from other ways of addressing your problem is that we’re not going to DO anything in an attempt to ease your pain. So there will be no exercises or stretches or prescribed routines involved in our approach. Rather, we are going to see how focusing your awareness in a particular way can help transform your situation.

A major benefit of this method of dealing with a problem is that what you learn will apply to everything you do. You will have a means of transforming any situation you might find yourself in.

Let’s start with tuning into an aspect of yourself that might be very new to you: the cyclic lengthening and gathering of your spine. In the same way that the tide cycles between flowing in and flowing out, your spine cycles between two phases—one in which the vertebrae move a tiny bit farther apart and one in which they move a tiny bit closer together. It’s like a spring that compresses and releases over and over as you move through your life.

Tune into the cycle in your spine right now. (You may find it easier to tune into just your neck or perhaps the entire spine. Do whichever comes more naturally to you.) See if you can notice when your spine is lengthening and when it is gathering. The phase may shift every few seconds. If you aren’t sure, just guess. It doesn’t even matter whether you are correct in your analysis; the real value is in the tuning in.

Once you are tuned into the cycle (or are at least pretending you are!), walk around the room for a couple of minutes, continuing to pay attention to the cycle. You could also add some simple movements, like lifting your arms or doing some shallow squats. What happens in your spine as you perform these movements?

By the way, there is nothing inherently wrong with either phase of the cycle. Your spine needs to be able to compress and lengthen. When you pay attention to this alternation, you are helping to ensure that your spine doesn’t get STUCK in one phase or the other, which is one way in which problems such as pain start.

ASSIGNMENT 1: During the first day of doing this lesson, aim to bring your awareness to your spinal cycle at least 10 times, while engaged in various activities. In the comments below, write 3-5 sentences about the experience, labeling it “Assignment 1”. (Any aspect of your experience is fair game for the writing, including emotions, discoveries, frustrations, funny observations, questions for further investigation, whatever.)

ASSIGNMENT 2: The next day, you are going to apply this process of awareness of the cycle to the activity that has been giving you trouble: carrying your backpack. Start by tuning into your spinal cycle of lengthening and gathering while standing without your backpack on. When you are tuned in, continue paying attention to the cycle while a) picking up the backpack, b) putting the backpack on, and c) walking around with it on. In the comments below, write 3-5 sentences about the experience, labeling it “Assignment 2”.

ASSIGNMENT 3: A day later, apply the process described in Assignment 2 to any other activity of your choice, breaking it down into steps while maintaining awareness of your spinal cycles. For example, if your activity were playing a scale on your oboe, you might tune into the cycle while a) opening your oboe case, b) putting the instrument together, c) blowing through your reed, etc. In the comments below, write 3-5 sentences about the experience, labeling it “Assignment 3”.

After you have completed all 3 assignments, I will write a response in the comments. (I will respond to anyone who participates, not only to Camara.)

Have fun! Thank you for helping me to develop a new way of teaching for the 21st Century!

20 Comments

  1. Great blog, and great assignments! Thanks.

  2. Amira says:

    Great ideas for exploration. Thanks Michael!

  3. Cordel says:

    First day; Its been pretty incredible tuning into my spine, I almost feel taller when I think of the vertebrae moving away, I also become more hunched? Really noticed it when I was about to go to sleep. Now onto day 2!

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Great, Cordel! Here’s an idea to explore as you continue on to day 2: what is the relationship between your spine’s natural gathering phase and becoming "hunched"?

  4. Cordel says:

    2nd day coming to an end. I’ve noticed I Gather a lot! Paying attention to it has really helped. Also it’s the lengthening also feels like the top part of my torso is a lamp shade resting over the bottom, it feels pretty incredible. The hunching is almost like the lift in the upper mid torso giving me more room so it slouches forward. This is so amazing!

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Wow, Cordel—you are taking this farther than I expected! Now that you are starting to sense a "shape" to your lengthening/gathering patterns, try adding in an awareness of how your upper chest area fits into the whole. You may discover a cycle of widening followed by narrowing. (Eventually, you may notice that every single part of you participates in the ebb and flow cycle.) Have fun with day 3!

  5. Camara Rhodes says:

    Michael, So sorry it’s been awhile! Been crazy these past couple days. Assignment 1:

    I noticed that I typically round my shoulders forward, slouched over. instead of bringing my shoulders and aligning my spin and head straight up. I noticed that my voice has been rather inconsistent lately, curious if that would often has anything to do with the alignment being way off? I noticed my head is rather heavy. My neck hurts. Constantly having to rub my neck out. Not sure if it’s the bed hurting my back. When sitting up straight, I can talk for a longer length of time, without being vocally tired. Curious if my head being DOWN presses on the cords?

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Nice work, Camara. That’s a lot of awareness for one day! I encourage you to continue being curious about the relationship between how your head is balancing on top of your spine and your vocal freedom. Can you observe this relationship in terms of the expanding/contracting cycle as opposed to alignment?

      I have observed in myself that allowing for the cycle leads to good alignment, but that trying to align myself properly often interferes with my cycle. See if your experience matches mine. Have fun with Assignment 2!

  6. Cordel says:

    Day 3: my torso feels like a spring, with this awareness i I can uncompress my torso. It’s so much longer than I thought 3 days ago. My whole torso feels so much wider/deeper like a huge space. This has been beyond what I thought I could experience. Thank you so much, Michael!

    • Michael Hanko says:

      You’re welcome, Cordel! It’s gratifying that you were able to use this lesson format as a springboard into self-discovery. You can continue to explore tuning in to your new awareness in different activities…especially while singing or playing your instrument. Feel free to post further comments here about what you discover.

      And if a particular question arises, please post it on this page: http://www.nycvoiceguru.com/contact/. I just might write a future blog lesson about it!

  7. Emily Jaworski says:

    I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get on board with the assignments but I am stuck. Although I am generally physically aware, I am having a really difficult time making a mind-body connection with my spine. I can perceive my foot or my head, but when I try to connect with my spine, the best I can do is imagine something that exists outside of my self. Also, I have learned that I really want to know what is "right" ha ha. A little voice says how can I feel my spine moving if I don’t know which way it’s "supposed to be" going? I don’t mean to derail the thread but I found these noticings interesting!

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Welcome, Emily! Your comment is not a derailing at all, but an accurate reporting of your experience….and it IS interesting.

      You might try to think of your whole self instead of just your spine and see if that is easier to tune into. The cycle I am describing is a whole-body pattern, so you can tune in wherever you find it easiest. As you are (sitting upright) reading this, imagine your whole body, led by your head, reaching up for the ceiling—not a lot, just enough to feel some sort of energetic shift. Then imagine your head gently coming back towards your torso, moving away from the ceiling. It may help to imagine yourself as a turtle, first extending your head out of your shell, and then pulling back into it. The overall motion is tiny, maybe a few millimeters at most. It’s more of an energetic flow.

      The "little voice" you describe is a kind of background recording that plays whenever we try something new. It craves the safety of the familiar and will discourage you from straying too far from your past experience. You don’t have to heed it! By the way, your spine is not "supposed to" be going in any particular direction, so there is no right or wrong here—it will alternate between both of the subtle patterns I described in the previous paragraph. If you can’t yet feel its natural cycling, try "faking" one by doing the turtle exercise a few times in a row—extend, compress, extend, compress, etc. You could exaggerate the range of motion at first to make it more obvious, then let it get subtler and subtler.

      If you wish, repeat Day 1 and see if anything has shifted for you. It’s a good policy to assume that whatever you feel/notice is correct. (The inner voice will probably tell you that you aren’t feeling the right thing!)

      Thanks for participating!

  8. Emily Jaworski says:

    Assignment 1: wow! Thank you so much for the additional directions. Imagining my whole self moving really worked for me. I carry a lot of tension in my neck, shoulders and upper back, though I can never seem to uncover the source or address the discomfort. I am amazed at how tuning in to the cycle helps me notice freedom in my whole upper body. Already beginning to notice where habits interfere with this freedom. I’ll spend more time with that today for assignment #2.

  9. Emily Jaworski says:

    Assignment #2 has been very interesting. I chose to focus on the two parts of my day when I am the most uncomfortable: driving my car (I have long daily commutes) and sitting at the piano during my students’ lessons. I have learned that I have a tendency toward rigid thinking: right/wrong, extreme to extreme, so it was very interesting to me that I could still move in all my habitual ways, only now including this noticing of constant flexibility and freedom. Though I have known intellectually that there is no right or wrong way to be, this is the first time that I have personally experienced the truth that I can be free in any position.

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Emily, I am moved by the profound discoveries you are making. You pretty much did Assignment #3 already, so I will give you an alternative for your next phase.

      You seem to be tuning in to what I call "continuums" in the body: ranges of possible movement within which no choice is right or wrong, as long as you don’t get stuck in a particular part of the range. I suggest you focus on a particular continuum during an activity (sitting at the piano would be ideal). We’re going to explore the continuum of shoulder position: from completely slumped forward to pulled together in the back.

      While sitting in a chair, notice how your shoulders tend to move as you shift your gaze slowly down to your upper chest. Did you find that as your head moved forward and down, your shoulders rolled a bit forward too? And if you let your gaze float up to the ceiling, do your shoulders open back up as your eyes and head move up? Do both phases several times until you begin to understand the relationship between gaze/head position and shoulder position.

      Now you are going to observe yourself in your chosen activity to discover whether your shoulder choices are honoring the natural relationships you explored in the previous paragraph. Let me know what you discover…or if you need additional clarification. I’m new at explaining these concepts without having you right in front of me in my teaching room!

  10. Emily Jaworski says:

    Oh my goodness, I have learned so much from paying attention to this relationship! Most frequently, my head is in the roll down position, but my shoulders are in a roll up position. Ow! The fascinating thing is that this disconnect is most prominent when I am laying down trying to fall asleep. No wonder I wake up with headaches so often. Now I am giving myself several opportunities a day to go through the whole cycle – From gaze down to gaze up – to wake up my awareness there and allow this relationship to work the way it was designed. Thank you so much, Michael!

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Emily, it has been gratifying to guide you through your process of self-discovery. I am awed at what you were able to teach yourself.

      I would love to write another blog lesson seeded by a question from you. Would you be willing to ask a question to get the process started? You could post it here if you like.

      Thanks for your participation…and your enthusiasm.

  11. Kim says:

    Thank you so much for this generous offering. I finished Day One yesterday and noticed that with all my sitting at a piano bench (I’m a voice teacher) I wind-up "stuck" in the gathering phase. I think that this stuck position, which crunches my cervical spine noticeably also leads to my head jutting forward. All of which I am not consciously aware. When I allow awareness of the cycle, the lengthening phase expands – without my having to do anything. It just happens naturally and the head glides back into position. When I am experiencing the expansion and contraction of the cycle I feel a freedom and openness in my whole body and my mental state.

    I often awaken with lower back pain and stiffness – this morning I took a moment to think of the cycle before I got out of bed and this helped considerably with both the stiffness and the pain.

    Today I’m continuing with heightening my awareness and also with being curious about the times and situations that might lead to my becoming stuck in the gathering phase. Because I am in the beginning stage of being aware that I’m not aware, I’m going to set my yoga/mediation alarm (it’s a lovely Tibetan Gong) to go off periodically so I can check in with my new relationship with my spine.

    • Michael Hanko says:

      Hi Kim! Thanks so much for doing this lesson. I’d love to know how you found out about my blog.

      It sounds as though you have been finding plenty of creative ways to explore your new cycle awareness. As the next step, why don’t you choose a particular activity in which to observe the cycle–it doesn’t necessarily have to be carrying a backpack. To advance the experiment, you might see if you can determine whether the expansive and contractive phases of your cycle are equal in range, energy, tempo. And then notice how you respond to what you notice!

      "See" you after your next comment….

      P.S. I love your Tibetan Gong idea.

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