The lithe lady beside me is trying to undo a lifetime of bad muscular habits. Her name is Padmini Menon and she has the softest touch I have experienced. Her voice, too, is sing-song, like a lullaby, as we stand in her small study in Indiranagar, Bengaluru. Menon, 61, has her hands on the back of my head and is attempting, just through her touch, to do two seemingly contradictory things: to release and lengthen my body.
Over the course of half an hour, Menon’s hand touches my neck a lot. She coaxes my back and neck into “releasing”, as she describes it. She asks me to lie on a flat, hard bed in a “semi-supine” position. This, I would learn, is a great way to retrain the body, and one that is beloved of Alexander Technique (henceforth to be called AT) practitioners. It is called a “position of mechanical advantage”. What you do is lie flat, place a couple of books under your head, bend your legs so your knees point at the ceiling and place your folded hands on your belly. And then you consciously, if quietly, tell your body to release itself and work with gravity.
Menon, who has been practising AT since 2008, makes me lie down, sit on a chair and then stand. That is pretty much all we do during the course of the three sessions. But God, as Mies van der Rohe said, is in the details. How you sit, how you stand, how you walk, it all matters. Once, Menon holds my hand in hers and stands motionless. What are you doing, I ask.
“I am easing my body so that it will influence your body to ease yours,” she replies. “Your body listens to my words, but intuitively, it responds to my touch,” she says.
Proprioception, which is the ability of our body to detect movement in others, is a huge concept in body-related practices. It is proprioception that allows our nerve endings to know that someone is coming up from behind us. It is this sense that Menon uses when she works on me; and sadly, it is a sense that we are losing, given our heightened reliance on our eyes for all information.
Menon teaches me that thoughts can influence our body. Yes, we know that, but this works minute to minute. How do I make my neck release, I ask her. You just ask for release in your mind and wait for your body to do the work, Menon replies.
“Mind-body connection” isn’t a new concept, but it is having its 15 minutes of fame these days, given what neuroscience is digging up. Somatic practices, or techniques that deal with the body, are trending all over the world right now. Call it the post-yoga, post-Pilates generation. These are men and women who are looking into “primal” movements that imitate how our ancestors walked across pastures. Some espouse crawling like our simian ancestors did. Some eschew shoes for barefoot running. They look into the Feldenkrais, Alexander, and Rolfing: techniques, named after their founders who wanted to correct structural alignments in the body and liberate it from a lifetime of bad habits.
The Alexander Technique, among the older ones on this list, has a long line of supporters: George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, Hollywood actors like William Hurt and at least two Nobel-prize-winning scientists. One of them, a Dutch biologist, Nikolaas Tinbergen, used part of his 1973 Nobel-prize winning speech to praise the technique.
Today, teachers worldwide pass on its techniques to interested students.
Developed by F. Matthias Alexander in 1894, the AT is based on three seemingly simple instructions that are designed to improve posture, reduce spinal compression, backache and knee pain. Here are the three tenets: When you sit or stand, lead with the crown of your head. This will cause your spine to elongate and cause “spaciousness” in your back, thus relaxing it. I am simplifying, of course, but head-leading forms the core of this technique.
Bengaluru is home to India’s only certified AT teacher: Menon. It is also home to the Shoonya—Center for Art and Somatic Practices which invites somatic practitioners from across the world to teach. As luck would have it, when I began exploring AT, I learnt that Robin John Simmons, who has taught and practised the technique for over 40 years, was in town. Based in Zurich, Simmons is visiting India to conduct AT workshops and individual sessions for interested parties.
The technique appeals to me because it is a learnable skill, one that you can carry forward into your daily life and one that doesn’t require specialized equipment. Ergo, my presence in front of Simmons, a bird-like man who moves like a dancer. Like Menon, Simmons has a wonderfully calming touch and observes me intently in Shoonya’s light-filled studio.
Simmons begins with my head. He tells me that the beginning of my spine is at the same line as the bottom of my nose. How the head rests on top of the spine is key to good posture. For many of us, the head hangs forward or back, thus forcing the neck and spine to deal with its weight of about 4.5kg. Simmons touches my neck and gently pushes up my head. He tells me to rise and guides my head to lead. This happens in a strange way. You actually need to look down as you get up from the chair so that the crown of your head is the first to move.
“Alexander Technique is about the use of the self and the self includes everything,” says Simmons. “The way you use your body is an expression of your character, your mood at the moment, and of your actions,”
Simmons says two categories of people take to the technique immediately: musicians and horse riders. “Musicians realize very quickly how much their playing improves after some classes. And for horse riders, the horse tells them right away how much better they are sitting on the animal.”
My own feeling after my time with Simmons is envy. The man is 71 years old. He sits on the floor, stands, walks, and is on the move all day long—giving individual sessions back to back. That takes stamina, and good posture. He is an expert in not just the AT, but also Tai chi, Nordic walking and the Dart Procedures, each of which requires a separate piece. Doesn’t he get tired doing all this kneeling and getting up, sitting and bending, I ask. No, he replies, his brown eyes twinkling. This is because the AT teaches you to use your body optimally.
“Most often, any motion engages unnecessary muscle groups due to conditioned responses picked up through various experiences: through repeated motions, injuries, emotional trauma, etc.,” says Thommen Ollapally, founder of Shoonya. “For example, if your elbow is not resting on something while using a mouse, your deltoid is under mild but constant strain. Over months/years of use, it becomes very prone to injury. Somatic practices help efficient utilization of the body.”
What the AT did for me was both subtle and continuous. Once you dip your feet into the world of somatic practices, your attention to your body becomes continuous. You pay attention to how you sit, stand and breathe. This continuous subliminal attention not only improves your posture and reduces pain, it also makes you realize how intertwined our minds and bodies are. It is the essence of that amazing somatic practice that we perfected in this civilization 3,000 years ago. I refer, of course, to yoga.