Joan Arnold is a New York-based teacher of yoga and of Alexander Technique.
Joan tells interviewer Robert Rickover: “Alexander Technique is a way to move more easily. We can use it to refine our movements in daily life and in our yoga.”
“Yoga takes us to the limits of our flexibility and strength. Alexander can help you do that with less injury, more ease, and more enjoyment.”
During my first few weeks of yoga in 2009, I did permanent damage to the ligaments in my feet. It took about $1500 worth of physical therapy for me to lose the pain and the swelling. After that, I did my yoga much more gently and stopped pushing myself to keep up. But it is hard to do that in a yoga class. There’s just so much stimulus to keep up with the teacher and everyone else that it is hard to focus on your use.
After class, many people asked me what I did for a living. I’d mention I was training to teach Alexander Technique. What’s that? It is a way to move more easily and to have better use of yourself. But isn’t that what yoga does? No, not in my view. Somebody with interfering tension patterns is as likely to take these patterns out of his yoga class as to bring them in. If you tend to tip your head back every time you get in and out of a chair, I don’t think any amount of yoga will change that. If you tend to tighten your face and grip with your feet when you speak publicly, I’m not sure yoga will help you release these interfering compression patterns.
Robert Rickover: “Yoga comes out of a tradition where people had more flexibility.”
In cultures where they have little furniture, people have almost no back problems. Living in a culture where the use of the chair is normal, however, is a recipe for all sorts of physical ills.
Joan: “This is not based on research but my gazing on pictures of ayanga and some practicioners in India, it may be that that ethnicity has longer ligaments. They live in more heat than we do. That might have led to a preference for extreme flexibility.”
Robert went to India 35 years ago. “You see people spending a lot of their day in a deep squat, their feet flat on the ground. It’s almost the default non-standing position. You don’t see a lot of chairs. The average Westerner is going to have trouble doing that.”
Joan: “Free hip joints — if there is one — are a fountain of youth. Yoga and Alexander Technique can help you with that. A lot of people spend time sitting at desks in front of the computer… Our culture is oriented to sitting in chairs and in cars [which diminishes hip flexibility].”
“Alexander Technique offers a way to do things. It helps you to manage your body as you move. It’s not a separate thing to do. It’s a thing to incorporate into anything.”
Robert: “You’d want your yoga instructor to move gracefully because you are going to pick up cues from that.”
Joan: “There may be [yoga teachers] who perform postures beautifully who do not take the time to observe their students.”
“Some people are pushed by their yoga teachers and are injured. Sometimes the teacher get sued. Usually the student will just manage the injury and not tell the teacher.”
“When you go to a class, the first thing to look for is whether or not the teacher is looking at the students.”
“If [a teacher] comes over and puts his hands on you, and there’s the slightest discomfort, say something right away. Do not wait.”
“One of the most frequent complaints of my students is that there is not enough warm-up and the class moves too quickly for you to see how to do the movement correctly. Look for a class with the right pacing, careful observation, helpful feedback from the teacher, without any aggressive hands-on instruction. Graceful light hands-on instruction can make a difference… Gentle guidance that encourages the body to shift at its own pace.”
Robert: “When I started teaching 30 years ago, I would run into people who had been to a yoga class and had been forced into some pretty odd positions.”
Joan: “Pleasure is one of the things that Alexander Technique can bring to a yoga class. When you understand poses more easily, when your breath is easier, when you can flow more comfortably from one pose to another, it’s just more fun. It feels better. Your body feels more resilient.”
Robert: “If it’s not easy and fun, chances are you on the wrong track.”