‘Finding ease in our bodies’: Missy Barnes teaches Alexander Technique to help people re-learn how to move
By Katie Scarvey
Missy Barnes says that she had a lifetime of knee pain from dancing. A doctor told her that her knee issues were something she was born with, and that she would probably need surgery.
Now, at age 43, she can bend her knees without pain.
She attributes that not to surgery but to something called the Alexander Technique, which helps people re-educate themselves about how to move.
Barnes, a member of the theatre faculty at Catawba College, learned that she was habitually locking her knees and pulling up on her quadriceps muscles. The Alexander Technique helped her become conscious that she was “gripping” too much with her legs. She subsequently changed her habit and her pain has been dramatically alleviated.
Barnes recently gave a workshop at the Looking Glass Artist Collective to introduce the Alexander Technique, which she describes as a “system of psycho-physical re-education,” which helps people relearn “the natural grace with which each of us is born.”
It’s not difficult to realize why people have problems with posture. Long hours spent at a computer can lead to bad postural habits that can affect us in ways we may not be conscious of.
Barnes wants to help people change their movement habits in everyday activities in order to rid their bodies of stress, tension and pain.
Ideally, the techniques can help alleviate back pain or promote rehabilitation after accidents. They can also help performers improve their ability to play musical instruments or sing and can help athletic performance as well.
The technique is done through a combination of verbal instructions and light guiding touch to help people move in more efficient ways.
Barnes has been studying the Alexander Technique, as well as other body mapping techniques, since 1998.
It has to do with “how you think about the way you use your body,” she says.
“It’s about feeling ourselves in space.”
The first formulator of the Alexander Technique was F.M. Alexander, an Australian actor who did one-man shows, performing things like Shakespeare monologues.
He would often lose his voice, Barnes said ó which was a problem, since he made his living performing.
He began to study himself in the mirror and realized that when he was performing, he was throwing his head back. That was compressing his head down on his spine, which was affecting his breathing and voice.
He began to correct this problem, and went on to work with actors who had heard about the success he’d had (Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw are two famous students).
Many of his techniques are simply about finding “ease” in the body, Barnes said.
She went on to talk about something called body mapping, which is making people aware of how their bodies actually work.
William Conable, who taught cello at Ohio State University, was a pioneer in body mapping. Conable observed that students move according to how they think their bodies are put together rather than how they are actually structured.
When students become more aware of how their bodies are constructed, their playing becomes more efficient and expressive, Conable discovered.
Barnes showed workshop participants how to move their heads in a more efficient way.
“Move with your nose,” she said. “The head leads, the body follows.”
Workshop participants agreed that thinking about the tip of the nose as they moved their heads made the motion seem smoother, more graceful, more efficient.
“We put all this effort into our muscles that we don’t need to,” she said.
Participants also learned that they didn’t really know where all the joints were in their fingers or where their hips actually were, even though they thought they did.
The easy relationship of head/neck/torso is key to freedom in movement, Barnes says.
Students are taught how to inhibit habitual reactions and discover better ways to perform even the most simple of tasks such as walking, standing or sitting.
Barnes helped her workshop participants become aware of how they stood up.
“We work really hard to get out of a chair, and we don’t have to,” Barnes said.
She also demonstrated a technique that she uses called “constructive rest,” which is done lying on the floor, knees up, head resting on enough books to keep it parallel to the floor.
“Think about releasing into the floor and relating to the floor,” Barnes said.
It can be difficult for people to correct their own posture without help, so Alexander instructors such as Barnes physically guide their students toward moving more efficiently, although Barnes says that many instructors are moving away from the hands-on technique.
“I love this work,” says Barnes, who incorporates the techniques into her Catawba classes.
She says she frequently hears comments such as, “I feel so much lighter.”
It’s gratifying to her, she says, to see students making healthy adjustments in the way they move.
Learning the techniques and simply being conscious of their own actions “really impacts some students in the long-term,” she says. They “realize how much behavior is a choice and a habit.”
Barnes is one of two Alexander technique instructors locally. The other is Dayna Anderson, who is also a member of the theatre department at Catawba College.
If you would like more information, call Missy Barnes at 704-637-4430.
Dayna Anderson can be reached at 704-633-0679 or 704-637-4489.
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