Jessie Cadle | Staff Writer
I’ve always been taught to sit up straight, pull my shoulders back and keep my chin up. Today, I’ve been informed those adages of my childhood are nothing more than myths.
The human spine is curved and one should not force it to stand or sit pin straight. Instead, one should learn to help the body resume its natural posture — inherent since birth — that gives the body the length and width it deserves tension-free, said Gwen Ellison, a teacher and practitioner of the Alexander Technique for the past 28 years.
Ellison, who has a studio for the Alexander Technique in New York City, teaches Alexander Technique classes to the conservatory actors of Chautauqua Theater Company. The students meet with her one-on-one in the mornings before rehearsals, and they learn the Alexander Technique: how to move in a way that releases tension in the body and allows the body to move in a more efficient manner by breathing and directional thinking.
Through the classes, the students detect habits that harm the body and work to relieve tension, restore length and deepen breath.
Today, Aug. 9, Ellison has agreed to give me a private lesson. I’m lying on a covered, cushioned table with three-quarters of an inch of book under my head to support it. And so the real lesson begins.
I have to admit, I’ve never heard of the Alexander Technique, and when I show up to her office in workout clothes, I have no idea what will happen. Ellison, reassuring and thoughtful, begins by talking me through the history of the technique.
Alexander, an Australian born in 1869, was an actor who lost his voice. When doctors couldn’t explain the occurrence, he began to study the way his body moved. He discovered that when breathing, he pulled his head back and contracted his neck which restricted breath and the connection to his vocal chords.
“When the neck muscles are free, the head goes forward and up and comes into balance. When the head goes up, the spine lengthens, and the back begins to widen, and that supports respiration,” Ellison said.
The head — the heaviest part of the body — is supported by the most delicate bones, so pressure must be released from those bones to give the body balance, she said. Once Alexander healed himself, students from all walks of life — but primarily performers — sought his aid in improving respiration.
“Everyone on the planet is getting pulled down (by gravity) … and they don’t know it, because it’s so normal, it’s so habitual,” Ellison said. “You lose length and lose width. In Alexander lessons, we learn it’s about becoming aware of your habit.”
The technique continues today to help students learn to move better within their bodies to increase respiration and overall health. For Ellison, an actor, singer and childhood asthmatic, the technique dramatically decreased her asthma symptoms and has helped her to become a healthier individual.
She transitioned from pursuing acting to teaching the Alexander Technique in 1984, and enjoys helping people to detect their unhealthy habits — from slouching to tensing their bodies — and to discover their “original or primary function,” which is the way the body naturally works.
She works with many students at the Yale School of Drama and Bard College Conservatory of Music, and she meets with performers during the rehearsal process of on-and off-Broadway productions. I feel I’m in good hands.
Once she has explained the basics, I’m instructed to lie down on the flat table — she tells me a floor can be used—as she brings me pictures of the body and the spine.
The spine, which naturally curves, cannot be forced into becoming straight, and as one lies horizontally, the gravitational pull allows the body to decompress. The technique is called “constructive rest.”
She suggests everyone engage in constructive rest 10 minutes per day to help restore the body’s natural length. In Alexander classes, it’s not about doing, it’s about undoing. It’s about thinking through the body and guiding the body through thought.
She asks me to direct my thoughts to the base of my spine and move along the curves of my back all the way up to where my spine ends — not, as I had assumed, at the base of the head, but rather between the ears. By thinking to myself, “release the neck,” I’m allowing the head to move forward, the back to widen and the limbs to release from the body. It’s like a giant sigh that begins at the base of the spine.
When one pushes the shoulders back and down, as I had often been taught as a child, the spine is unable to support itself, because the body is locked and is prone to spasm, which my lower back often does. Instead, she instructs me to breathe and to start by releasing the neck, and then, going one limb at a time, she instructs me to think, “up and away.”
She starts with one leg then the other; I directionally think, “up and away” as she helps by carefully pulling each limb that direction. In this way, each limb relaxes to its fullest capacity. It feels as if each has received a long massage, like each limb is lighter than before.
She moves from the legs to my arms and finally to my head. Then she pulls my legs so that they are bent and helps pull my spine down from the base of my spine allowing it to lengthen, making my back feel longer.
And I, surprising my suspicious self, feel lighter, like I’ve released a pent up sigh or finished a long run. It’s peaceful.
When I’m finally helped to a seated position, my arms are tingling.
Ellison explains it’s because the oxygen circulation has increased through the lengthening of the spine and the increase of the breath from the diaphragm.
Next, she helps me walk around the room, aiding me to open up my hips and allowing my knees to fold with each step, instead of locking out.
The goal of each exercise is to allow the self to be more natural in the movements, to release tension and breathe. Other than the students she teaches at Chautauqua and elsewhere, many who have chronic pain or illness come to Ellison’s studio in New York City for private weekly sessions.
With them, as she would do with me if our session continued, she begins with exercises lying down, before moving to seated and moving exercises. Each session is tailored to the needs of the person in the room.
And as I leave Ellison’s class, I feel I’m standing taller, not because my spine is straightened, but because I’m moving within a more natural version of myself.
Update: This story corrects an error in the print version that identified Alexander as Ellison.