The Matrix of Back Pain


by Brett Hershey

Recent photos by Stephane Hamel, Letanguerrant photography


I was an all-state lacrosse player in high school. An all-American squash player in college. I won my age group in several triathlons.

Yet, I remember knowing something was wrong with my body, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I could sense the imbalance in my back, unequal weight distribution in my legs. I felt better in motion, yet was uncomfortable sitting or standing for moderate amounts of time. I would fidget, shifting around in attempt to find a better position to hold my body.

I felt like Neo in the Matrix. Everything appeared fine, but I lived with this deep, nagging sense that something was off.

I lived with this growing unease in my body, until I  ‘pulled’ or ‘sprained’ my back several times. These sudden, painful episodes were debilitating. I would have to lie in bed for half a day and then move gingerly for a few days after. The acute pain would go away, but the increased tension and fear didn’t.

Here’s a painful look back:

Brettolduse     Brettolduse2

A friend told me “You just need to relax.” I certainly wanted to, but I didn’t how to do that. I tried massage, chiropractic care, acupuncture, etc. which provided short-term relief, but the discomfort and pain would return within days, if not hours.  As my suffering  increased, finding a cure became a quest.

When I met my first Alexander Technique instructor (Ari Gil) in San Diego, it was like Neo facing the choice between taking the blue pill or red pill. The blue pill was continuing with treating symptoms , thus remaining in the “illusion of ignorance.” While starting the Alexander Technique journey was facing the “truth of reality.”

I found it challenging and humbling, because it elucidated all my negative habitual ways of not only standing and moving, but also of thinking and essentially ‘being.’ I felt like I was basically failing as a human being (I couldn’t  stand for 5 mins or take a 2 hour car trip, etc. without major suffering). Alexander Technique was like the owner’s manual for the human body and mind that I should have read growing up. At 26, I had to undo fifteen to twenty years of bad, mostly subconscious, habits. I was embarking on a long process.

Furthermore, Ari pointed out that it was largely my fault. He asked why I had come to see him and I said that my back was killing me. He said, “I bet your back isn’t killing you, but rather, that you are killing your back.” It was like hitting your thumb with a hammer with no one around to scapegoat.

And I was a slow learner. I didn’t ‘get it’ right away. Fortunately, however, I experienced instant relief during Ari’s “table work” as well as when I learned how to do Constructive Rest on my own. Able to actually do something about it, the anxiety of my back pain began to subside.

As the lessons continued, I learned how to take the relaxation, or good use of myself that I experienced in the table turn, recreate it in my own constructive rest, and then apply it to increasingly complicated human activities, such as sitting, standing, walking, sports, dance, etc.

I should note that it’s impossible to condense the hands-on Alexander experience into a few written words, but there were basically 4 steps:

1) Body Mapping – understanding how the body is designed to function by learning where the joints were actually located in the body, how they worked and required good relationship between the parts, especially that the head needs to be released off the top of the spine.  I was shocked at how many misconceptions I had!

2) Awareness 0f how I was habitually misusing myself, or ostensibly by not using the joints  as designed, as well as where I was carrying excess tension and collapse. This is how the body is designed to work; this is how you are using it. See why you are in so much pain?

3) Inhibition – Either stopping the activity that was causing the misuse, or if possible, stopping/diminishing the misuses as I was doing an activity. In the latter’s case, Ari’s hands would follow me and often  prevent me from misusing myself.

4) Direction – I would then think of  how I wanted to organize my body, and from where I wanted to move (the joints). Again, Ari’s hands would gently show me this organization. We would then attempt the activity again, carrying in this new organization.

Although there wasn’t one epic epiphany like Neo had in the Wachawski Brothers’ blockbuster, I was able to increasingly see the matrix of my back pain through a series of a-ha moments, at first facilitated by Ari and other teachers, and then more and more on my own . After six months of study, I knew how to ‘cure’ my back pain; it was only a question of vigilance and time to shine the light of Alexander Technique on my psychophysical habits.

I thought I would only take lessons until my back pain subsided. Yet, once it did, I continued lessons with Ari as I became fascinated with how Alexander Technique not only decreased discomfort, pain, suffering, but It increased movement or performance quality of any human activity, from brushing teeth to portraying Richard III. The more I dissolved the excess tension and sure-up collapse, the better I moved. I  In other words, life became easier.

Some recent pics:

_DSC5090    IMG_2502

I embarked on becoming a teacher so that I could go deeper and deeper into F.M. Alexander’s incredible discoveries. At first it was narcissistic, but when I saw the same transformative effect on others, I knew I had found my calling.


Alexander Technique is by no means a quick fix. It’s a journey that requires vigilance of self-inquiry. Yet, when we begin to understand the matrix of how we function, a new way of pain-free, exquisite movement opens that was once unavailable.