Sit up straight. Don't slouch. Pull your shoulders back. Stand up tall. Nearly every teenager has heard these 'momisms'. Anne Johnson, 50, teaches a method that evolves this advice: the Alexander Technique (AT).
It's not that the 'momisms' are wrong per se, it's the way people do these readjustments that needs, well, readjusting. “We need to unlearn the momisms and practice a different series of thoughts, a different process to gain your balance and poise rather than positioning and holding your body,” explained Johnson.
“The term that [Frederick] Alexander used was primary control. It is the essential relationship that governs your whole body - the one between your head, neck, and back. AT teaches how to honor that relationship and to know when you’re distorting it and to let go of that.”
This concept is key to AT: nearly everything we do, from how we deal with stress, to our physical and emotional health, to how we engage with other people, even to how we approach life is influenced by this relationship between the head, neck, and back.
Alexander (1869-1955) made his living performing Shakespeare, until one day he lost his voice. Doctors told him they could find nothing wrong with him, so he took it upon himself to discover what had happened. He positioned mirrors all around himself and watched while he gave speeches. He noticed that he was pulling his head back and down, which distorted the organization of his head, neck, and back. Over the next decade, he developed his now-famous technique, which led to less and less problems with his voice. He also discovered it had additional physical and emotional benefits.
In a nutshell, AT teaches people a process of improving this head-neck-back relationship by recognizing the patterns they’ve learned over their lives to deal with stress - and then unlearning them. Most people have an instinctive physical reaction to stress: they compress their upper bodies, bending their head, neck, and shoulders back and downward.
AT teaches you to recognize this and how to reestablish the natural function of the body. “It’s not about doing something [like the momisms],” Johnson said, “it’s about noticing what you’re already doing and releasing it. It’s not about holding yourself up straight, it’s about returning to a natural balance in this relationship.”
Johnson was first introduced to AT at American University while studying dance and painting. One of her teachers was studying the technique and would practice on Johnson, helping her to sit better while she was sewing outfits at her work-study job. It took nearly 10 years until AT resurfaced in her life. When her mother died, something inside Johnson told her that trying AT would help with her grief.
“I didn’t know it [would help], but I couldn’t think of any other way. I didn’t really understand AT like I do now, but I knew it was a way of helping myself. When I began to allow this connection through my body, my emotional life changed and I actually felt like I had more direction in my life. When I became clearer about the use of my body, I became clearer about my direction in life. It can be a great tool for healing both emotional and physical pain."
She felt better about the loss of her mother, and AT continued to help her through other significant difficulties in her life.. “I had direction [from AT] and I wanted to get more of it,” she said. So in 1992 Johnson began a three-year training program at The Alexander Foundation in Mt. Airy.
Johnson did become a AT teacher, and began offering courses at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree in 1995. She has continued to study, practice, and teach AT, and is now a Member-at-large of the Board of Directors of the American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT).
She also has been instructing students in the benefits of AT for five years at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. Musicians and dancers are one group of people that especially benefit from AT, as it helps them use their body more effectively. Johnson helps them observe how they’re using their body. “Everyone thinks what they’re doing is right. ‘Oh, I’m sitting straight.’ But they’re holding themselves. They’re not breathing, something that is key.”
“It’s so inspiring when I make a connection with someone. It’s thrilling to share what I know with someone so they can live their life better. AT has helped me live more fully. I sing, I’m an artist, I do things that I was afraid to do, because I’m not holding myself back. AT is a tool in my toolbox that I can apply to any challenge. It’ll help me deal with whatever I have to deal with,” she said.
Johnson offers AT classes through the Mt. Airy Learning Tree and privately. For more information, visit her website http://alexandertechphiladelphia.com or the AmSAT website http://www.amsatonline.org/.