In an age of laptop computers and sedentary living, it seems that few are able to escape back and neck pain. Mountain View resident Dana Ben-Yehuda says the solution is often a 120-year-old practice called the Alexander Technique.
Working from her home studio, Ben-Yehuda has been teaching the Alexander Technique for 10 years, helping people master their own posture and balance to stand, sit, move and dance with uncommon ease. She's one of 800 or so teachers of the Alexander Technique in the U.S. and a few dozen on the Peninsula who have undergone 1,600 hours of training.
Ben-Yehuda learned the Alexander Technique initially as an actress and dancer but said she later found it invaluable in treating her own arthritis as it relieves muscle tension and pressure on joints.
In the case of retired cabinet maker Bob Easthope, it took sessions once a week for a year to treat his back pain, which would cause spasms so bad that he couldn't work. He says his posture isn't perfect now, but he's no longer in pain. And he ascribes it to an empowering awareness of his posture.
"When I'm walking down University Avenue in Palo Alto, I'll look over in the windows and see how I'm standing," Easthope said. "Sometimes I'll catch myself in my old position."
Ben-Yehuda tells her students to "just think up" so that the better posture they've learned kicks in. In his first lesson, Easthope said Ben-Yehuda "put me in the right position and it just didn't feel right at all. If you are used to standing incorrectly then that just becomes the norm."
And it turns out that bad posture is the norm for a lot of people, especially in Silicon Valley. Ben-Yehuda says many of her students have back pain from sitting at computers all day. Laptop computers are major culprit, she says, encouraging people to hunch over.
While it has yet to go mainstream in the U.S., the Alexander Technique has long been popular in Britain. In the U.S. it's more prevalent among dancers, musicians and actors to improve performance and reduce pain. Benefits from the Alexander Technique have been confirmed in several studies, including a 2008 study published in the British Medical Journal, which found that 24 lessons "taught by registered teachers provides long-term benefits for patients with chronic or recurrent low back pain." Even a year later, patients reported 86 percent fewer "days in pain" after the sessions, according to the study.
The technique was developed beginning in the 1890s by Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian orator and actor who, through determined trial and error in front of a mirror, figured out that his posture, and the way he threw his head back, was the reason he was losing his voice during performances. He became a guru of posture and balance sought out by people all over the world. He often diagnosed them at a glance, and lifted them out of unconscious habits through repeated lessons, as Ben-Yehuda does today.
"Alexander established not only the beginnings of a far-reaching science of the apparently involuntary movement we call reflexes, but a technique of correction and self control which forms a substantial addition to our very slender resources in personal education," wrote the playwright George Bernard Shaw, a student of Alexander's who suffered after years of hunching over a typewriter.
Mountain View resident Sharon Gourdji had similar problems after working on her doctoral dissertation, sitting at a desk for 80 hours a week. She's been seeing Ben-Yehuda for the last three months to treat lower back pain and numbness in her arms, which she says is mostly gone now.
"I have a tendency to look down," Gourdji said. Her lessons with Ben-Yehuda taught her that when she holds her head up "everything falls into alignment. When you hold your head up and your shoulders don't round forward, then your lower back will naturally go underneath the rest of your body."
The relationship between the head, neck and spine is key, Ben-Yehuda says, and holding your head wrong can put as much as 20 extra pounds of stress on your spine and back muscles.
"As your body is relieved of the weight of the head, the back will tend to open," Ben-Yehuda says. People can actually become wider and taller, creating a change in presence that others notice. Ben-Yehuda often instructs her students in allowing their shoulders to drop, as stress causes them to become hunched. Other lessons might involve proper alignment of the hips, which are frequently too far forward, she says.
As part of her lessons, Ben-Yehuda instructs students in "constructive rest." It involves laying on a thinly padded firm surface, such as a carpeted floor, with knees up in a semi-supine position to allow the back to lay flat. Laying in a bed doesn't work because it's too soft and it's hard to tell where your body is in space, Ben-Yehuda says.
"It's not like a massage, but it kind of is," Easthope said of the constructive rest, which involves Ben-Yehuda moving the arms, legs, shoulders and head to promote relaxation. "I would feel really relaxed when I left there."
Making a change in posture is not as simple as it sounds, Ben-Yehuda says, and would require tremendous effort if a teacher isn't involved.
"It's like a gradual thing, you just don't do it instantly," Easthope said. "I don't think anyone is going to get anywhere if they only go for a month or something like that."
For those inclined to dance, Ben-Yehuda is teaching an introductory workshop on the Alexander Technique for dancers on Sept. 22 at the Cheryl Burke Dance Studio from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Cost is $25. More on the event is at cherylburkedance.com. Ben-Yehuda's website is at alexandertechniquestudio.org.