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An Alexander Technique hotspot: C-U is where it’s AT

Central Illinois seems an unlikely place for the Alexander Technique (AT) — an offbeat proprioceptive educational system focused on postural habits, “non-doing,” and mindful reaction to life’s stimuli — to flourish. But, considering the legacy of Joan and Alexander Murray and the Technique’s ease of integration into everything we do as humans, its sustained presence in Champaign-Urbana makes sense.

As a flutist who came to the Technique because of shoulder pain and found my life transformed, I want to highlight its presence in C-U, in celebration of those who teach and practice here, yes, but also as an invitation to the AT-curious — that is, anyone interested in moving better, hurting less, and finding mind-body connection. In a more idealistic sense, I love the possibility that C-U is the way that it is (i.e., communal, artsy, intelligent, open-minded) in part because of the Technique. Go with me here.

I spoke with three AT teachers, all of whom worked with the Murrays: Rose Bronec of Alexander Technique Urbana, the local teacher training program; Wes Howard, a guitarist and AT teacher in Urbana, Bloomington, and Peoria; and my own teacher, Jill Burlingame Tsekouras, Champaign-based flutist and Resident in Musicians Health at Wheaton College. Though the pandemic has been a blow to the heavily in-person dependent AT instruction, all three have maintained their studios through virtual, hybrid, and safe in-person instruction.

An exhaustive overview of C-U’s AT community is wildly beyond this article’s scope, and many teachers and activities are left out. To those unmentioned: I hope you find gratification in these ideas, and I’m eager to connect in the future.

Those unfamiliar can read about the Technique’s foundation by Frederick Matthias Alexander here and about how AT is studied and taught here. Most basically, it’s about how we use our bodies and how we respond to stimuli. Especially popular with performing artists and young to middle-aged adults managing pain or injury, AT is designed for everyone – to improve quality of life and basic functioning. Though it has a record of helping with chronic pain and even saving people from surgery, its benefits far transcend the physical.

For my teacher, Jill Tsekouras (shown above, working with me an a constructive rest position), AT is about how we learn and empathize. It’s a way to reeducate ourselves, to think openly, and to learn about the interaction of body and mind. “As people get more into it,” Tsekouras says, “it becomes more about small habits that might even reflect how we react emotionally to things. You can approach it in a way that is initially just to feel better, but then in the end you can actually become a better person from it, too.”

In Rose Bronec’s view, the Technique “really listens to the person and is trying to help them function better in their daily life.” She sees the technique bringing organization to a person on all levels. “People’s bodies often are disorganized, and the principles of the technique help eliminate — it’s more about eliminating — what is interfering with that. So, it’s not bringing something necessarily new to someone, it’s allowing them to be more of their best selves.” As people learn to do this organization, Bronec says, “they can’t help but change their perspective and their comprehension and they start to see things more truly.”

The fact that the Technique is so applicable to everything we do is both its greatest strength and a setback to its accessibility. AT teachers are used to being a “last resort” for people coping with pain. In general, as Bronec says, “the world doesn’t know about use,” meaning how we use our bodies in daily activities. It’s easier to run the gamut of doctor visits, physical therapy, and exercise programs (crucial avenues to explore, for sure) than it is to confront our own habits and way of engaging with the world. Realistically, no one wants their decision to deal with neck and shoulder pain to morph into a lifestyle overhaul or mental health confrontation. We like our self-improvement clear, quick, and compartmentalized. AT is just not that way. If you’re doing it right, you’re engaging your whole self in the process of transformation.

There is also some confusion about what the Technique even is, and, certainly, many AT instructors are holistic, multi-method movement experts. For example, my teacher is yoga-certified and incorporates Body Mapping, barre, myofascial release, and more into her pedagogy. It all works together. But at its core, the Alexander approach requires us to take responsibility for our movement, our reactions, and our learning, while challenging us to do less — to “give Nature her opportunity,” as FM Alexander himself said.

Wes Howard put it well in our lesson/conversation: “Alexander Technique teachers work with people on such deep issues that people can’t change on their own because it’s their habitual way of being and doing things.” For him, what sets AT apart is the hands-on skill of teachers to create immediate change — “it’s often a mind-blowing experience the first time someone has a lesson, like ‘Oh my gosh, I had no idea I could feel this different!’” And there was an “aha!” moment in my lesson, when Howard helped position me to stand and breathe more easily. Still, the teacher can’t do it all. Howard finds his work most rewarding when students “really start to get into it and make it part of their own lifestyle.”

Joan and Alexander Murray brought the Technique to C-U in 1977 when they joined the University of Illinois faculty, Alex as Professor of Flute and Joan in the Department of Dance. AT was integral to their university work and thrived on campus for many years, especially through Stasia Siena, who taught within the School of Music and still teaches in C-U, and Professor Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, Murray trainee, AT instructor, and co-author of Dance and the Alexander Technique with Luc Vanier. Off campus, the Murrays’ home served as a community AT hub, and their teacher training program, Urbana Center for the Alexander Technique, attracted students from all over the world. In this way, the Murrays’ presence literally made C-U more diverse, more curious, and more interesting.

In 1999, at Joan’s encouragement, Bronec and her husband, Rick Carbaugh, founded their own training program, which they still run out of their Urbana home – Alexander Technique Urbana,  with its provocative slogan “A Quiet Revolution in Personal Development.” Whereas not all states or larger cities in the US have even one training program, C-U boasted two for twenty years! Now C-U has probably greatest percentage of AT teachers per capita in the US.

When I asked Howard about the place of AT in our community, his answer was simple: “If I mention Alexander Technique in Champaign-Urbana I’m less likely to get this blank look on someone’s face, like, ‘What the heck is that?’ There’s a fair number of people walking around who have had Alexander lessons.” And they really are all around us. To barely scratch the surface: Loba Chudak, artist, flutist, writer, business coach, maker of painted silk, stationary, and more sold at the Urbana market. Robin Kearton, founder and director of C4A Community Center for the Arts in Urbana. Kate Kobak, formerly a dancer and AT instructor in New York, now known as Fabrikate, designer and maker of badass bags. Evelyn Shapiro, promotions manager at Champaign Public Library. Gray Sutton, Assistant Grocery Manager at Common Ground. Jonah Weisskopf, rapper, artist, real estate agent (co-op living, anyone?), who shared with me that AT is “a priceless endeavor that asks you to transform yourself for the better over time. It truly makes aging a graceful experiment in balance and sensitivity. It saved me in many ways, and I still practice it in my life every day.”

This is the beauty of the Technique and what I think we experience so potently in Champaign-Urbana’s concentrated AT environment: learning the Technique makes people better, and better people build better community. For Tsekouras, this is about a shared mindset: “To be an AT teacher, you have to be more open-minded because you see everyone’s different experiences and how their body has interpreted those experiences. There are people who still live here but are not actively teaching who are still a huge part of the community, and that mindset comes through.” Bronec agrees that “the technique makes any place a little better” because “it can’t help but influence” the way we act and the decisions we make. In a more lighthearted sense, Howard admits that “Urbana’s kind of an interesting place anyway, you know, it’s full of artists and weird people and smart people… and we’re part of that. We are! It’s kind of amazing.”

In a sense, AT is about the relationship between self- and communal betterment: the space that we learn to make for and within ourselves can translate into space made for others. And this moves society forward — asking questions about how we move within and respond to the world is a gateway to even more critical questions about how the world works, why, and what we can do to make that better.

Top photo by Yannis Tsekouras.

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