Expanding Into Life – Differences Between Chiropractic, Physical Therapy, Massage And Alexander Technique

Judy Stern is a Physical Therapist and Alexander Technique teacher in Rye, New York. She talks with Robert Rickover about the connections between Physical Therapy and the Alexander Technique.

Judy: “I spent the first 18 years of my professional life as a physical therapist.”

“As a physical therapist, every patient who came to me became a part of my practice. Over time, there were too many for me to treat on a regular basis. I was great at getting them to feel better but I couldn’t get them to stay well. So as you practice, you develop a huge number of people who depend on your hands and on your skill to feel well.”

“I learned that the Alexander Technique was a way of working with people that allowed them to stay well. It was not about how great I was at taking their pain away but teaching people how to take care of themselves effectively and to manage or even eliminate one’s back pain.”

“For me, it was much healthier for people to get well and to stay well rather than to stay part of my responsibility.”

Robert: “A similar argument could be made for chiropractic and the Alexander Technique and other manual interventions like that.”

Judy: “With manual therapies, you see things that are out of alignment. You know how to put bony joint systems back into alignment but how did they get out of alignment? The way joints move out of their alignment is by the abnormal pull of muscles. Our muscles disorganize our joint structures often, particularly in the spine, where there are 75 places you can change joint alignment. If you realign them but don’t change the muscular tone and don’t teach someone how to stay in alignment, you have to realign often.”

Robert: “The same thing could be said for massage and the Alexander Technique. People may get a massage for their back pain but it doesn’t contain the education of Alexander Technique.”

Judy: “The most powerful tool you can give someone with chronic pain is to give them a tool to manage the pain.”

“Alexander teachers help their students become aware of what they’re doing that might be detrimental to their health by looking at how their head rests on their spine and whether that organization is helpful or harmful, by looking at how they’re standing. Are their legs locked or held? Or are they dynamic and balancing? Looking at the arms and their relationship to the torso. Seeing how people over-use themselves in ways that distort and create pain.”

Robert: “If a student comes to you and you see some dysfunctional patterns, how do you help the student change those patterns?”

Judy: “In Alexander Technique, the participation of the student is essential.”

“I think that 60% of Alexander work is awareness. You can’t change anything until you know what you’re doing. Psychologists say, it’s never what you say, it’s how you say it. I think in Alexander Technique, it’s never what you do but how you do it. To observe the pattern of how you get in and out of a chair, the way you bring a phone to your ear, the way that you work at your computer, the way that you drive your car, are all opportunities for people to observe whether or not they are efficient. Are they applying more pressure than is desired? Enough pressure to create pain?”

Luke: “What’s the difference between how you use your hands as a physical therapist and how you use your hands as an Alexander teacher?”

Judy: “As a physical therapist, I worked hard as many hands as an extension of my body in manipulation, massage, applying resistance. It was a strenuous life.

“In Alexander Technique, I use my hands to guide. They can create a new experience. When the student observes that when they sit, they compress their head on their spine and shorten their spine, my hands would prevent that pulling down. My hands have to work in conjunction with my words.”

“The first lesson is an opportunity to learn what can happen when you apply the Alexander Technique to yourself.”

“When you’re stressed, there’s excess muscle tension. That excess tension often compresses their entire selves. If one can manage those times by enlisting one’s thinking for an expansive response rather than a compressive response, then you are in the business of being your own Alexander teacher.”

“Physical therapy is hard work. Physical therapists tend to take little time for themselves during the day. I remember as a physical therapist being responsible for four people at a time. In most physical therapy environments, the therapist is managing three or four patients simultaneously. There’s not much space to think about oneself and how one is working mechanically.

“When I give talks at physical therapy centers and I ask the therapists if they stop to eat, they say no, they eat on the run. If I ask them if they take any time during the day to think about themselves, their answer will be no. They are quite proud of it. They’re proud of how much they accomplish. But they are often unaware of the toll that that takes. I offer physical therapists the chance to take care of themselves while they are taking care of their patients.”

Robert: “I have a colleague who’s a physical therapist and an Alexander teacher. He pointed out to me that in the field of physical therapy, it’s a young person’s game. There are not a lot of old physical therapists because they get worn out. They injure themselves. There’s a lot of physical labor in that profession. If you’re moving people around, if you’re looking after yourself with Alexander Technique, you’re going to make life easier for you and for your patients’.”

Judy: “One’s working life has to have some way of taking care of yourself. That’s not thought about much in all of the medical professions. F.M. Alexander said that medical professionals don’t care of themselves well. He was right.”

“In today’s health world, we’re moving towards the idea that the individual is responsible for his health. Waiting till one is ill and then entering the medical world is probably a backwards way of thinking about how to live. Alexander Technique is one of many ways one can maintain one’s health while living an active life. Alexander is an approach to living. If we can become more aware of doing things that hurt us, and stopping to observe that, and using Alexander principles, learning to expand into life rather than to compress into life, we will all be healthier.”

“We are all aware of how we are when we live in reaction rather than in response. I find it helpful to not be reactive but to respond thoughtfully.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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