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The Alexander Technique steps off the stage to bring pain relief to the masses

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Julie Brundage helps David Koffman relax his shoulder

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Julie Brundage demonstrates the Alexander Technique with David Koffman

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Instructor Julie Brundage helps David Koffman let go of muscle tension and bad posture habits

David Koffman has spent most of his 34 years as a student, hunched over a desk piled high with books or curled over a keyboard, one hand on the mouse. Over time, the historian and PhD candidate from Brooklyn developed the same bad posture common to desk jockeys and computer users everywhere, with the same physical complaints--chronic neck pain and backaches.

Physical therapy didn’t help. Then a couple of fellow academics recommended the Alexander Technique, a centuries-old method that teaches movement with awareness, more fluidity and less stress. After four months of lessons, Koffman is still at his desk researching and writing, but he is more conscious of his posture. The result is less pain and muscle tension.

“My body has made its own corrections,” Koffman said. “There’s still some pain, it’s not totally gone. But I understand that I still have some more work to do.”

The Alexander Technique, developed in the 19th century by an Australian actor, Frederick Alexander, to combat his chronic laryngitis, was once the exclusive province of stage performers. Actors, vocalists, musicians and dancers sought training in the technique to move more freely, combat stress, and improve their performances. Today, however, with a growing number of instructors in 42 states, the Alexander Technique is beginning to go mainstream. Office workers, graduate students, busy parents and arthritic retirees alike are seeking out teachers to learn how to undo years of bad body habits.

Proponents say the Alexander Technique has helped them fight the pain and muscle tightness hampering their favorite activities, be it gardening or tennis. But it takes time to learn and the instruction, which is not covered by insurance, can be costly. Nevertheless, some medical professionals recommend the technique as a lower-cost alternative to back surgery.

In a typical lesson, the instructor uses words and gentle hands to focus students' attention on long-time habits and teach them new ways of moving to correct poor posture and release built-up muscle tension. Through repetition, students eventually let go of bad habits and replace them with more efficient, freer motions.

Julie Brundage, 36, a native of Irmo, S.C., gives private lessons to about 15 students out of a tiny studio in midtown Manhattan. On this particular afternoon, Koffman perches on a chair next to a wall of mirrors, his head up, eyes forward, feet flat on the floor. Brundage is addressing Koffman’s complaints of wrist pain. She kneels beside him and gently places one hand on his upper arm and another on his wrist.

“You’re releasing out your shoulder,” Brundage instructs, as she carefully pulls Koffman’s arm away from his body. “Now, drop the top of your shoulder here, widen across the chest, and drop the elbow. There!” Koffman’s shoulder relaxes and his arm appears to lengthen.

“That gives you a little more rotation,” said Brundage. “How does that feel?” “Better,” said Koffman. “More relaxed.”

“It’s not about getting it right, about getting it perfectly,” Brundage said after the lesson. “It’s about being able to imagine it softer, freer, more expansive than before. And you only have to get as soft, free and expansive as you feel like taking the time and energy to do.”

As the demand for lessons has spread beyond the performing arts world, so has the number of teachers certified by the American Society for the Alexander Technique. According to AmSAT spokeswoman Dana Ben-Yehuda, there were about 600 instructors in the U. S. in 2003; there are almost a thousand today.

Ben-Yehuda, an instructor in the San Francisco Bay area for six years, says only about half of her current students are stage performers. The rest are people concerned about poor posture, muscle stress, or lack of coordination or balance. They found out about the technique through word of mouth or the Web. The most common complaint is pain, either from repetitive motion injuries or from aging.

“It’s helpful for people who have arthritis, because you’re taking pressure off of your joints,” she said. “You learn to have a natural ease of movement rather than always compressing into your joints, tightening as you move.”

Arthritis pain drew 63-year-old Mary Giesen of Minneapolis to the Alexander Technique. She recently retired from teaching at a Montessori school, she says, because her aching knees would no longer allow her to get down on the floor with her young students. The Alexander Technique has helped ease the pain, and it has changed the way she thinks about movement.

“You’re supposed to be light and free and easy about it, but sometimes the mind and the intellect keep that from happening,” Giesen said. As she has become more aware of her movements, she says, she has learned to think less and trust her body more.

Giesen’s instructor, Lisa First, has been studying the Alexander Technique since she was 17 and is in her 16th year of teaching. In addition to retirees, she teaches people with chronic illnesses like multiple sclerosis and workers tied to their computers.

First enjoys seeing her students progress in the technique to the point where they can practice on their own.

“I’m really interested in my students learning to become independent with the work,” said, noting with a laugh that she is essentially training people to be free of her.

But proficiency in the technique takes time. According to the AmSAT Website, it can take up to 30 lessons before a student is able to practice on his own. And the lessons are not cheap. According to First, a private session ranges from $60 to $120 for 45 minutes, depending on the city and the experience level of the instructor. Moreover, those are out-of-pocket costs—insurance plans generally won’t cover the lessons because the Alexander Technique is considered education, rather than a medical treatment.

While the medical community at large has not embraced the Alexander Technique, some physicians recommend it for certain ailments, such as sciatica and balance problems due to inner ear disorders. Dr. John H. Austin, a radiologist and professor at Columbia University in New York City, says it is a cost-effective way to manage back pain, compared with surgery.

Most doctors don’t know about the technique, Austin says, because there has been relatively little written about it in the scientific literature. Austin, who co-authored one study showing that Alexander Technique training enhanced respiratory muscular function, says more research studies would bring attention to the method.

A long-time practitioner himself, Austin calls the technique “profound education.”

“How we use our musculo-skeletal system is done by habit,” Austin said. “And once it’s a habit, you don’t have any sense of options. The Alexander Technique teaches you what your habits are and what your options are, to use your body in different ways.”

Despite the financial and time commitment the Alexander Technique requires, practitioners such as Koffman keep coming back.

“It’s not a quick fix, it’s really far, far from it,” Koffman said. “It’s reconstructing something that’s kind of fundamental, like the way you walk, the way you sit, the way you stand. Things that you think are just the way you do it. But you know when you’re doing it the relaxed way.”

E-mail: dlm2142@columbia.edu