By Rachel Dent

Along my thirty-year career path I created a $100 million dollar business, a great deal of stress for myself, and discovered the Alexander Technique.

My goal was to retire early, so that I could realize my passion for teaching English. I was commuting a minimum of two hours a day from the peaceful small suburban town of Novato in Marin County all the way upstream and across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Berkeley and back again. I was happily involved in training for marathons. I ran about 8 of them over a period of about six years. Some were in stunning locations like Big Sur on the California coast or in Napa along the Silverado trail. I combined my love of travel with a couple of others like the New York Marathon and the Moscow International Peace Marathon.  Just before I had to end my love of running I began enjoying Cajun dancing and learning to play the violin. During the last eight years in my job, I took some serious falls on my back and became very familiar with chronic pain.

I drove to work in the mornings massaging my neck and shoulders, and returned home each night ready to cry from the lower back and hamstring pain that grew inflamed each day. I visited a long list of medical practitioners including some I had never heard of before like a physiatrist and an osteopath. I tried acupuncture and was also tested by a neurologist. I was scared off by offers of tests involving needles along my spine and lifelong anti-seizure medication that would make me forgetful.  Finally, after feeling like a hypochondriac in search of a diagnosis and a cure, I was referred to a teacher of the  Alexander Technique (AT) and a new path opened up for me.

I knew almost nothing about the Alexander Technique. I had seen it referenced in fitness magazine articles and more recently in music publications. It was my chronic Alexander pain and desire to continue playing the violin that motivated me to try  “lessons” at the Alexander Education Center (TAEC) in Berkeley.

Matthias Alexander, the Technique’s creator, was a Shakespearean actor who suffered from acute chronic hoarseness only when he was acting. When doctors could not “cure” him, he realized it had to be something to do with the way he was using himself when he acted. He used a mirror to observe his own habits. Through the process he learned that his body and mind operated as one, as the “self”. Every action was attached to a thought — including everyday actions like standing up, driving, typing.

John Baron, the Alexander Technique teacher, had a studio in Sausalito. It was not
exactly on my route to work. I had to take time off of work every Thursday morning
for my lessons. John turned out to be extremely well qualified. He had trained in London 20 years ago and had worked with a variety of people including opera singers in Italy, symphony performers and corporate office people like myself. John gave me an introductory lesson that immediately made me aware of the unnecessary amount of tension that I created in my neck when sitting and standing.

Nearly all  of my lessons involved stand-to-sit and sit-to-stand activity because it is a common
everyday activity. The lessons varied depending on what I was getting out of the previous lessons or how I might be doing when I walked into the studio.

John, as an Alexander teacher, was amazingly observant of how I was standing or walking or talking with or without undue tension. The most incredible part of the experience, especially in the early lessons, was the table work. I would lie on my back while John rearranged my arms, legs, neck and torso while discouraging any muscular engagement or reaction during this part of the session. When I got up, I would feel like I had grown taller. It was such a wonderful feeling of ease in my body that when I went out to get into my car I really did not want to shorten myself to get into it.


For the first six months, I continued to understand very little about the technique, but my neck and shoulder pain was disappearing.  I felt a sense of lengthening and a new hope for control over my pain. As I began to understand more about the technique, I became fascinated with this profound and yet commonsense approach to helping me heal myself. Alexander is a self-care technique, but one well worth the investment in time spent with a teacher. That teacher can shorten the route to helping you discover the cause of your pain. (One of the most recent reports showing the technique’s effectiveness appeared in December in the British Medical Journal.)

Matthias Alexander had taken nine painstaking years to solve his own problems. I suspected myself as the creator of my own pain as well – at least with my neck and shoulders. Years earlier, a massage therapist had suggested to me many times to “stop wearing my shoulders as earrings.”Like Alexander, I understood that I was doing this but could not stop it. The lessons now taught me to “notice” when I was tightening my neck and how to inhibit this “reaction.” I noticed my neck tightening when I was driving, brushing my teeth, upset at work, playing the violin…. an endless habit in my life and all of it unnecessary to the tasks. The thought to do an activity sets of a subconscious habitual reaction.

Now, I was learning to first notice the reaction to the thought, to inhibit the reaction and to do something that was right, though at first it felt wrong to me. If this sounds complex it is because human beings are complex: The technique is simple.

Some of my friends accused me of falling for a scam, because the lessons were not cheap and because the technique is so difficult to define without personally experiencing the lessons and results yourself.

Alexander teachers, in fact, make very poor scam artists. In general, most do not aggressively market themselves or the technique, because they do not want to lesson the standards or the integrity of this 120-year old discovery.

Also, the Alexander Technique cannot be taught unless a person is motivated and open-minded. As with any new subject, you can only teach those who earnestly want to learn. I actually had to tell my teacher I wanted to come back for more lessons.

Besides this lack of coercion, I was also attracted to the technique by its terminology. Many of the therapists I had experienced in the past had encouraged me with words like “do this, don’t do that” especially when it came to my posture. Alexander teachers tell you to “LET your neck be free to LET your head go forward and up”. What a novel and simple idea! It makes so much sense to me. As I began to read and explore the technique more, I said this more often: It makes so much sense.

If you ask a student who is learning to be an Alexander teacher why she is pursuing her certification she will often tell you the same: “because it makes so much sense.” Today, I am about to start my fifth term learning to be an Alexander Technique teacher.

Yes, I have quit my job to become a teacher. This is a major life change — going from being a grocery buyer to being an Alexander teacher, as well as one of  English as Second Language.  The school has been an amazing experience and a long-term investment in myself.

It takes three years to become an Alexander teacher. Being in the school has given me encouragement for the self-reflection that I need to do to make the transition from a long and completely different path. I am “letting” myself let go of my old life and “letting” myself look at new possibilities. Am I cured of all my chronic pain? No. Now, I have hope and I am better able to take care of my “self.”

I am playing violin more than ever, and I feel ten years younger.

Rachel Dent lives and teaches in Novato, California, where she’s  lived most of her life. Born and raised by a single mother, Rachel took six months off from college to see if there was anyplace else better to live;  she became homesick in Dallas, Texas and returned home to finish her B.A. in English. Teaching jobs were scarce when she graduated so she went into business. At Grocery Outlet, a unique grocery chain, Dent created her own department within the stores becoming the first successful female buyer at the company.

During her thirty years as a buyer, Dent  pursued many outside activities knowing that what she did for a living was definitely not who she is. She eventually ran eight marathons, traveled all over the world, took up the fiddle and learned many types of dancing, including her now-beloved Cajun dance.  Sixteen years ago, she moved Marin County, where she now  lives with her two cats, Buddy and Whoopi.

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  • Rachel Dent March 10, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Thanks so much to all of you who read and sent such great comments on my first attempt at writing for public perusal.
    Thank you to Chris L. and Julia for setting me up for this. And Geoff – I’m so happy to hear from you in India. Be well.
    Rachel

    Reply
  • Julia Kay February 26, 2009 at 1:05 am

    Thank you Rachel for an engaging, well-written essay! Even though I already knew some of the material, I enjoyed learning more about you and how you got involved with the Alexander Technique!

    Reply
  • Geooff February 26, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Great writing Rachel! Thanks for sharing. Come work in India when you are done!!!!
    Geoff

    Reply
  • Giora Pinkas February 25, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Hi Rachel,
    Your aricale is clear, thoughtful and well written.
    Congratulations!
    Giora
    (i have a few comments which I’ll share with you in person).

    Reply
  • martin goldman February 25, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    An inspiring story. Well lived and well told!

    Reply
  • Robert Rickover February 23, 2009 at 9:35 am

    This is a wonderful tribute to the author, her teacher and to the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique.
    My website at http://alexandertechnique.com provides a comprehensive information guide to the Alexander Technique for readers who would like to learn more about it.

    Reply