Alexander the Great

by Brian on July 18, 2008

in Just For Fun,Only in Israel

For the last several months, I’ve been seeing a lovely Chilean woman named Anchela. Now before you get all up in arms, it’s purely platonic. Anchela is my Alexander Technique therapist.

As part of the tikkun for my new office chair (see my previous post here), I’ve started a regimen to address my aching back. Developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander at the end of the 19th Century, the technique aims to improve posture and relieve back pain by recognizing and overcoming “reactive, habitual limitations in movement and thinking.”

Alexander was a Shakespearean orator who developed problems with losing his voice. After doctors told him there was no physical cause, he observed himself in the mirror where he realized he was needlessly stiffening his whole body in preparation to recite or speak. He noted that other individuals experiencing voice problems would tighten the muscles of the upper torso, especially the neck; he suggested that this pattern of tensing would rotate the head backwards and downwards in relationship to the spine and disrupt efficient overall body alignment. It took 8 years for Alexander to solve his own voice problems. He then applied his technique to a variety of posture and back related problems.

Alexander was as interested in changes in perception as he was in physical treatment. My sessions with Anchela include both bodywork done while lying on a table and instructions on how to stand up and sit down.

My Alexander Technique lessons come under the umbrella of Maccabi Tivi, the alternative health care branch of our local HMO. Set in a dank downtown Jerusalem mall, the Macabi Tivi office is a sanctuary, a breath of incense-scented air, flickering candles and soft Windham Hills-tinged music piped in through the ubiquitous stereo that permeates the entire space. The center offers acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, herbs, nutrition consulting and more. And it’s cheap. 10 sessions with Anchela cost me a little over $200.

The Alexander Technique stresses “lengthening” the body. The exercises and treatment are all about stretching and developing better posture. Lying on the table, Anchela pulls at my feet, dangles my arms and swivels my neck. It’s like a massage but gentler. And all the while we talk.

I have learned over the months that Anchela met her Israeli husband while he was backpacking in South America and followed him here. She doesn’t have the kindest words for post-army Israelis on tiyul. “They don’t stop and see the scenery,” Anchela told me one time. “It’s like they’re always rushing to get to the top of a mountain so they can plant the Israeli flag there and then rush back down again.”

I also learned that Anchela lives in the suburb of Modi’in, has a 17 year old son who studies at the Omaniyot arts school in Jerusalem, a 12 year old daughter who just celebrated her bat mitzvah, and that she doesn’t like snow (now there’s something we have in common). And that Anchela is Spanish for Angela.

That’s what’s great about going to the doctor in Israel. It’s so casual, much more so than in North America. In addition to our personal chats, Anchela comes dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. The waiting area is scattered with chairs in no particular order. Anastasia, the Russian-born staffer at the front desk has a caustic wit and heaven forbid you should be late.

There’s also something about the medical experience in Israel that emphasizes how much of a melting pot this part of the world is. A Chilean therapist treating an immigrant from California taking direction from a tough Russian, that’s got to account for something.

Anchela and I speak in English – her Hebrew is fluent, mine not so (but getting there). Even so, I don’t always understand what she’s saying. “Keep your hips loose. Don’t fall into your chest. Keep your neck back and your head up,” she says encouragingly. How do you keep your neck back and your head up at the same time? It’s like walking and chewing gum. Chevy Chase used to make fun of Gerald Ford on Saturday Night Live that way. I nod and pretend I understand what she’s talking about.

During our last visit, I was distracted by some issues at work. I had to think up a response for a software development problem we were having at the company. Lying on the table, I was more taciturn than usual when Anchela burst out, “You’re doing great. Better than ever!”

I told her my mind was elsewhere. “Maybe that’s what you need,” she said. “Now let your arms be free, no resistance, just let them hang.” I complied with a little more gusto, having received such high praise.

Next week will be my last session with Anchela. I’ve used up the annual allotment of treatments that the HMO provides. Am I cured? Not quite, though my back no longer aches and my chair has become more friend than foe.

I’ll miss Anchela. I’ll miss our chats and her soft voice, but most of all I’ll miss my new friend.

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