Afternoon sunlight filters in through a window to a classroom where several students lie still on the floor. They’ve all been in the same position for 15 minutes.
The students are participating in constructive rest – an exercise in the music course Introduction to Alexander technique. Junior Teresa Dabback said constructive rest has been her favorite lesson of the semester.
“It requires the freeing of activities. It’s really relaxing,” Dabback said. “You record the instructions that you mentally give your body, but you aren’t allowed to do anything. It teaches you the difference between doing something and thinking about doing something.”
The exercise is supposed to teach students how to bring awareness to their bodies, even in activities as simple as lying down. The class’ professor, Anne Johnson, said awareness is a crucial part of the Alexander technique, which is used to prevent or aid in the recovery of injuries caused by unnecessary stress during everyday activities.
Though Johnson said she believes everyone can benefit from the Alexander technique, the majority of students who enroll in the course are musicians.
“A lot of musicians have repetitive movements that can cause them to injure themselves,” Johnson said. “[Musicians] have to practice for hours and hours and hours. The Alexander technique helps you learn the balance between work and rest so you’re not using every bit of energy to do one thing.”
The Alexander technique is named after Frederick Matthias Alexander, a Shakespearean actor who frequently suffered voice loss while performing. Alexander realized this was an effect of his unconscious habit of contracting his neck and back muscles on stage.
After his discovery, Alexander set out to increase awareness of the issue, resulting in the creation of a way of becoming conscious of any unnecessary physical or mental tensions that interfere with performing any sort of task.
“[The Alexander technique] helps facilitate recovery and reduces pain and tension,” Johnson said. “It improves your performance and your skills, whether you’re an office worker or a performer. It helps you do things more efficiently.”
Dabback, a film major and gymnast, said the class is useful to her every day.
“You really focus on how to take care of yourself,” Dabback said. “You learn how to not get in the way of what your body can naturally do. It’s about movement and posture and thinking differently and letting go of tension.”
Johnson works to improve students’ awareness of their bodies through various exercises and movements. Because the class is relatively small, she often works one-on-one with students in front of the class to highlight common postural habits.
“They can see that they have a choice in their actions,” Johnson said. “They walk up and down the stairs and determine how much tension they put in their neck, or even just to sit in a chair. It’s amazing when you stop and look at something you do every day and realize how much unnecessary tension you create to do it.”
Johnson said many students enroll in Introduction to Alexander Technique because they frequently overexert themselves. She said some students who enroll in the class have various injuries.
“People come in and have numb fingers and pain in their wrists and elbows and shoulders,” she said. “They come in with a lot of fear about not being able to do what they love, so that fear adds to the stress.”
Mental habits are often what hinder a student’s body and ability to perform, Johnson said.
“If there’s fear involved, there’s going to be unnecessary tension,” Johnson said. “How you use your thoughts and how you use your body determines the quality of your body.”
Toward the end of the semester, students are given the opportunity to demonstrate what they learned by playing instruments in class. Johnson said the benefits of the Alexander technique are notable during performance.
“When you’re using too much muscular energy and tightening to express music and play your part, the sound of the instrument changes” Johnson said. “You really are learning how to use the most efficient amount of energy to do what you’re doing, [The Alexander technique] is a tool that helps you be alive in this world in an engaging, satisfying, rich way.”
Claire Sasko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.