August 3, 2011

USA: To Relieve Tension, Mind the Spine but Do Not Relax

NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / New York Region / August 3, 2011

EXPERIENCE NECESSARY

To Relieve Tension, Mind the Spine but Do Not Relax

By ROBIN FINN

Michael Ostrow was studying Buddhism at the San Francisco Zen Center, searching for a career that dovetailed with his philosophy degree from Brandeis University, when he began to experience severe back pain during meditation sessions. A fellow student told him about the rejuvenating properties of the Alexander Technique, and after several lessons, he switched from Zen to studying the technique and ultimately trained to teach it. Mr. Ostrow, 55, and his wife, Laurie Kline, 54, a dancer turned Alexander instructor, have run the New York Center for the Alexander Technique near Union Square since 1990. They live in North Bergen, N.J.


Youthful ideals: I lived in New York City until I was 9, when my parents divorced. My father’s a lawyer; he’s 88 and he still works. I moved to Newtown, Conn., with my mother, and when she remarried, we moved to a very remote house on 20 acres in Oxford. My stepfather was a former professor. We had a very philosophical household. I definitely grew up with a different, idealistic way of thinking. I didn’t really know how I was going to relate that and a philosophy degree to a career in the real world. But I feel like I got lucky.

Michael Ostrow runs the New York Center for the Alexander Technique near Union Square in Manhattan. Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Wanderlust: After college I spent a year in France and a year on Cape Cod doing carpentry. I went to San Francisco looking for something more spiritual, and somebody said, “Why don’t you study Buddhism?” I ended up at the San Francisco Zen Center.

Aching back: I studied there for five years, but I began to have trouble with my back. Sitting was not easy for me, which made meditating difficult. I heard the Alexander Technique might enable me to sit without pain, so I took a few lessons. As I began to become more aware of my body, I got intrigued by the practical approach. I felt the technique was a more concrete way of letting the self tune in to the body.


Mr. Ostrow studied Buddhism in San Francisco before training in the Alexander Technique and becoming an instructor in New York.  Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Studying and programming: I studied with Thomas Lemens, and when he went back to New York, I followed him and took the four-and-a-half-year training course to become qualified to teach Alexander Technique. I worked as a computer programmer in the neurology department at Mount Sinai while doing my training.

Improvements: My posture improved. And my piano playing. I trained as a classical pianist when I was younger; my shoulders were always killing me. When I get out of bed in the morning now, at age 55, I don’t have aches and pains.


Don’t relax! In general I find that the word “relax” leads people to collapse and deaden themselves. My rap is that people interfere with their bodies and start gripping up muscles that were designed for movement and using them for support.

The unfurled spine: I put my hands on a student’s head and say things like: “Think of your whole spine, from the base to the top, and let your skull unlock from your spine. Imagine that your neck is your spine. Imagine a stream of water flowing up your spine and supporting your head.”

Technique, not treatment:
I see office workers with neck and shoulder pain. Performers with voice issues. Musicians in pain from the way they hold their instruments. Equestrians. Sometimes I can help people get better at something I can’t even do — though as part of my training, I took riding lessons twice a week. I’ve had success with people with asthma — not that we heal people. We’re giving lessons, not treatment. Our students are not our patients.

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