Subtle Alexander Technique helps retrain those with back pain

The Providence Journal – Providence, R.I.
Author: Tom Meade
Date: Dec 6, 2010
Section: Lifebeat

There were days when Fred Flanagan could not get out of bed because his back pain was so severe. Then a 56-year-old carpenter, Flanagan missed many days of work.

His wife, Kay, an artist, was suffering the pains of repetitive strain, he remembered. She had tried a host of treatments, and nothing had worked. Almost as a final resort, she tried the Alexander Technique with Mara Sokolsky of Providence.

Seven months later, Kay Flanagan had learned how to avoid repetitive strain, her pain disappeared, and her posture had improved, Fred Flanagan recalled.

He made an appointment with Sokolsky.

“The Alexander Technique teaches how to unlearn habitual patterns that cause unnecessary tension in everything we do,” according to the American Society for The Alexander Technique (AmSAT). “It’s used by people of all ages and abilities to enhance the performance of every activity and relieve the pain and stress caused by everyday misuse of the body.”

A New York City native, Sokolsky discovered the Alexander technique as a girl. “I had chronic back pain as an adolescent,” she said. “I had scoliosis… and I was basically comfortable lying on my back with my knees up, but you can’t do that all the time. I wasn’t in excruciating pain, but I always had a lower back ache.

“My mother had a similar kind of back, so, together, we went to see a chiropractor. The chiropractor would crack my back, and for three days, I felt great. Then, I wouldn’t feel so great again. At one point I asked, ‘How long will I have to keep seeing you?’ and he answered, ‘You? With your back, for the rest of your life ….’

“Then, my mother met someone at a party — I think she was a violinist — who said, ‘You must try my Alexander teacher.’ ”

The Alexander Technique is well known among musicians, dancers and other performers whose work is repetitive. Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor, created the technique.

“I was 14 when I had my first Alexander lesson,” Sokolsky said, “but I never practiced anything the teacher said so I didn’t progress very much. Then I went off to college … and I decided to write a paper about the Alexander Technique. … I got a C on the paper because, I think, the teacher thought the subject was too weird, and that made me more determined to learn more about the Alexander Technique.”

Sokolsky earned her bachelor’s degree and soon found herself in London, studying to become an Alexander Technique teacher. Three years later, she was ready to go to work.

What does she do?

“Oy, that’s the hardest thing to describe,” she said. “I’d rather give someone an Alexander lesson.

“We get people to function the best they can with what they have.

“I am not a healer. I am a teacher. I don’t treat. I teach. I teach with my hands and my instructions to think differently about how people carry themselves and how they go about their daily business.

“It is so subtle,” Fred Flanagan said. “It feels like she is doing nothing to you. …I went six or seven times, and I was going to stop. Then, at the end of one session, I had a profound emotional experience, and it stunned me. Something got loosened up, I thought. Something happened.

“I continued going to Mara for almost two years … and I never had back pain again.”

Flanagan, now 66 years old and an active wind surfer, recently returned to Sokolsky for help recovering from a body-surfing accident when a wave jammed his head into the sand.

“It isn’t for everybody at $60 a lesson,” he said. “But for my wife and me, it’s probably the most helpful kind of therapy we’ve ever had. …You learn how to carry your body in another way, and it makes you feel so much better.”

Comments are closed.