Gabrielle Czaja: “Our job is to set up the conditions so your body can do what it knows how to do, which is heal”

Movement — Create a regular movement ritual or routine. That’s crucial for mental well-being. It does not have to be rigorous fitness. Walking, cycling to work, dancing, yoga, gentle stretching — anything that increases your heart rate and enhances your turn-over of breath will clear your mind and energize you. A movement or fitness ritual anchors your body and […]

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Movement — Create a regular movement ritual or routine. That’s crucial for mental well-being. It does not have to be rigorous fitness. Walking, cycling to work, dancing, yoga, gentle stretching — anything that increases your heart rate and enhances your turn-over of breath will clear your mind and energize you. A movement or fitness ritual anchors your body and mind, anchors your day, and regulates your vital systems. It is something that you’ll look forward to, that your body will look forward to and want to count on.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Gabrielle Czaja, PT.

Gabrielle Czaja, PT is an award-winning physical therapy and healing practitioner in Washington, D.C. skilled at combining the art and science of physical therapy with the Alexander Technique, a body-learning method that enables her clients to work in partnership with their bodies. Gabrielle’s practice is based on her fundamental belief that the body is a vehicle for full enjoyment in each and every moment, while also being a powerful anchor and refuge that offers support and grounding during times of stress. She earned a BA in Biology from Bucknell University, an MPT in Physical Therapy from Hahnemann University, is a certified teacher in the Alexander Technique, and has over 30 years of experience. You can visit her website at

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I really feel like being a physical therapist and an Alexander Technique teacher is a calling. It certainly is for me.

I grew up surrounded by the values of education and service. My parents valued education for education’s sake, my father with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and my mother with an M.S.W. in psychiatric social work. I always knew I would go to graduate school and practice in a profession that required my intellect and my passion.

My parents, as Boy Scout leader and Girl Scout leader, modeled community service. They consistently volunteered in other capacities too, as did I. Our experiences in service to others taught me to value the uniqueness of each individual. I developed a particular desire to help people who were in pain.

In high school I found a library book called So You Want To Be a Physical Therapist. This one book in a series on many professions stood out to me. I just liked the sound of it because it was about helping people solve problems with their bodies. From that point on, that profession was always in the back of my mind.

I spent my college years studying science and tuning my body for high performance as a competitive long-distance runner. Biology and chemistry gave me the scientific book learning of the human body, and being an athlete gave me the in-body experience of how the human body moves and functions. In fact, I was awarded the best senior female athlete, and many years later I was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at Bucknell University, my alma mater.

Graduate school for physical therapy (PT) was a dream come true for me. In the 1980s it was exceptionally competitive to get into PT school. There were less than 10 graduate programs in the country. I’d been accepted into Hahnemann University, which has since become part of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Then early in my career as a physical therapist, I sustained an injury and became a patient like those I was trained to treat. I was lucky enough to have access to excellent medical care, and yet I still struggled to heal. At this same time, I saw the same problem in some of my patients. I was trying to help them recover from complex pain issues and return to their full lives, restored and whole. Perhaps I was idealistic as a new professional, but I was frustrated with the emphasis in the 1990s on teaching people how to live with pain rather than recover and move beyond pain. A colleague suggested I try the Alexander Technique to help me address my own injury. On the first day of an introductory workshop, I committed to train as an Alexander teacher. I understood immediately it was a missing link for both myself and my patients. Alexander Technique is body-mind education that is unique in how it helps us enjoy improved postural support, recover from injuries, improve our breathing, and promote a level of self-efficacy applicable in all areas of our lives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I consider my PT degree program the beginning of my career. A few specific experiences with professors have stuck with me all these years and have profoundly shaped how I work with my patients.

Two particular experiences with Dr. Mary Watkins, Professor of PT, served as bookends to my graduate school experience. She took an interest in learning about me as a person from my first interview for the program and never lost sight of the whole me through graduation. In the interview she looked beyond the transcripts and recommendations and asked me questions that drew out my story and revealed my character. She sensed something in me that was worth taking a chance on. By my final examination review, she knew me and was confident in her assessment. She affirmed my worth as a professional and sent me out into the world with my graduate degree in hand.

Somewhere in the middle between those bookends I had an epiphany when another professor taught the crucial lesson that Dr. Watkins obviously knew. His name was Dr. Zarro from the medical school who taught us PT students some basic treatment and doctoring content. He made a profound and lasting impression on me when he said: “If you let the person tell their story, they will tell you what’s wrong with them.” You have to hear someone’s story to help them heal.

Those moments were in the late 1980s. In recalling those moments now, I’m reliving them as though they were yesterday. Those moments inspired and enlightened me. They affirmed my core values. I’ve always held the stories of those moments in my heart. Their impact on me expresses itself continuously as I work with my clients. I listen to their stories. I learn about them as people, beyond their symptoms and pains. I believe I was always that kind of a person even before I got to school. That’s why I was attracted to the profession of physical therapy. That’s why Dr. Watkins and Hahnemann University wanted me. Until telling you this story now, I didn’t fully appreciate the arc of how all these experiences have come full circle to embrace me and affirm my life’s work.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

This question kind of stumps me because of the field I’m in. If I make a mistake with a patient, it’s not funny. Patients seeking physical therapy are in pain.

People are often attracted to my practice because when they’ve gone to other practitioners, either their physical ailments haven’t gotten better or they even felt worse. That’s not to say their other therapist made a mistake. Not every exercise or program works for every person. The key is for the physical therapist to customize the treatment for the patient, which can only be done if the therapist hears about what the patient feels.

When I ask these patients, “Well, did you talk to your PT about it?” they typically they say “no.” They sense they can talk with me and that I’ll listen. I ask questions that go beyond the obvious symptoms. As I learned in PT school, I listen for their stories. I’ve learned to end every session by asking my patients, “Was this helpful? If something doesn’t feel right, please tell me. We can create a different path to your wellness.” That openness is essential.

Sometimes the perceived mistakes of a PT are simply the limitations of PT itself. I saw those limitations in the early years of my career, and so I pursued certification in the Alexander Technique (AT). The pairing of PT and AT provides the opportunity for optimum recovery from injury in order to return to one’s best life. Physical therapy treatment tends to focus on the point of pain. Alexander Technique is movement re-education for the best functioning of our whole self. With both, we learn that what is happening in the injured area fits in to how we move as a whole person. These two disciplines together offer a complete approach to human development, human movement, and human function.

Everyone’s body has different strengths and vulnerabilities. In treatment, the approach is to fix something that’s broken. I have never come from that place. With the Alexander Technique, we start on the foundation of the strengths. One of my Gabrielle-isms is “Our job is to set up the conditions so your body can do what it knows how to do, which is heal.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

John O’Neill, at the time the primary physical therapist for Penn State and all its athletic teams, was probably the most important person in my life to get me started in my profession.

During my years between college and graduate PT school, I volunteered as a physical therapy aide for John. When beginning to build his private practice he discovered that his administrative assistant was stealing from him. She had control of the checkbook and was writing checks to herself. He immediately fired her and made me the office manager. So there I was, running the office, handling all the administrative work, putting people in whirlpools, demonstrating exercises. I was doing everything except the clinical physical therapy work. John was an extraordinary role-model in how he connected with his patients and helped them achieve their goals. It was an amazing experience for me, learning how to start and run a private practice even before I got to PT school.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Volunteer. It’s my pure and simple advice.

I’ve discovered when I volunteer, I learn about people in ways I can bring back into my clinical practice. Volunteering helps me appreciate the privileges that I have. It teaches me humility. In a deeply spiritual sense, volunteering is like the foot washing service in the Episcopal and other Christian churches. It strengthens my commitment to an attitude of service.

Volunteering helps you avoid burnout because it gets you moving into the greater sphere of the community. You’ll feel more connected. You’ll find that for all the giving you do, you actually receive a lot in return. The saying is so true that when you give back to your community, you feel better.

If you can, volunteer outside your PT specialty. Whether it’s a food kitchen, a senior center, or within a faith community, getting out of your normal day-to-day activities switches your brain to a new track. You’ll learn something new and get a fresh perspective. For example, I’ve been an active member of my church for many years and I have also volunteered with a non-profit organization that mentors youth and builds community through cycling.

If you’re not ready to do something totally different, consider volunteering your PT services in a different setting. When I was in physical therapy school, I spent my summer break as a PT aide on the White River Indian reservation in Arizona. The adventure of the new place and people with different customs was not only educational but also rejuvenating.

Volunteering offers us the opportunity to live the mandate to love one another. It’s a powerful reminder of what really matters in life. I think no matter how committed we are to our craft, no matter how good we are at our craft, we can never go wrong by returning to the basics of why we started our practice in the first place. Every physical therapist went to PT school because they want to help people. Being connected to that purpose is the best way I know of to thrive and avoid burnout.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

To be a good leader, first and foremost create the foundation of a psychologically and emotionally safe place. People will organically be inspired to excel and be good team players. When they feel supported and safe — safe to learn, safe to take risks and offer new ideas, safe to make mistakes, safe to concentrate, workers maximize their potential. This is the bedrock of a successful organization.

A safe environment requires boundaries — not just mental and emotional ones, but also physical boundaries.

Looking at physical boundaries, consider how in the 1990s open workspaces were thought to facilitate collaboration and communication. Imagine yourself in one of those low-walled cubicles, or even no cubicle at all. You don’t necessarily feel at ease. You don’t have the opportunity to concentrate. You don’t have the opportunity to learn and work at your pace and in your style. You’re feeling “on” all the time. That’s not the way to foster communication. It’s superficial. As a good leader, foster communication by creating a space where people feel comfortable.

I’m concerned about the shift to telework right now and what the pandemic is doing to expectations about the workplace. I’m concerned not only about the isolation, but also about the burden that people have now, working from home in rooms that are also their bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms, and dining rooms. They don’t have the right ergonomic set up. In many homes, individual family members don’t have a dedicated work/school space in which to concentrate, they don’t have the privacy to perform their best. There’s no marked beginning and end to the workday. In the early days of the pandemic, one of my clients shared with me what her daughter said to her: “You’re not working from home, Mom. You’re at home, trying to work.”

Some people enjoy telework and have always worked from home or have often exercised the option to do so. Right now, and in the foreseeable future, working and schooling from home are the only options for many people. I don’t think we really know yet what the long term impact will be on our health and well-being. Certainly, after more than 6 months, people are feeling the stress of being isolated from co-workers and attached to screens all day in less than ideal working and learning conditions. Currently we have to accommodate this unusual situation in order to stay sane and get through the day.

Unfortunately, we are burying the chaos in our bodies. The lack of boundaries can increase people’s stress levels and even precipitate anxiety and depression. It affects their relationships with their families, their friends, and themselves. And of course, it affects their work performance.

If you want to be a good leader and inspire people to excel at their craft, create an atmosphere with good boundaries. Set boundaries for yourself to lead by example. Encourage and insist upon boundaries for others. Give people permission to turn their phones off and their computers off at the end of a workday and when they’re on vacation. It’s an idealistic vision of leadership, but I think it’s more possible than what people may think.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

I believe that mental wellness has its source in feeling at home in one’s body, being fit and healthy, and enjoying movement. This takes practice.

We have busy schedules, families to tend to, projects to complete, and limits to our energy. We need to choose to care for ourselves. I suggest you create wellness rituals in your lives so you can function at your best through these daily demands. Even more important, these rituals build a reservoir of health that you can draw on when extra stressful situations and even emergencies arise. Here are the 5 things you should include in your wellness rituals:

Movement — Create a regular movement ritual or routine. That’s crucial for mental well-being. It does not have to be rigorous fitness. Walking, cycling to work, dancing, yoga, gentle stretching — anything that increases your heart rate and enhances your turn-over of breath will clear your mind and energize you. A movement or fitness ritual anchors your body and mind, anchors your day, and regulates your vital systems. It is something that you’ll look forward to, that your body will look forward to and want to count on.

Develop a habit of embodied movement. That’s when you are aware of yourself as you move through space, not only when performing fitness or recreational activities, but more importantly in everyday movements.

The Alexander Technique is an excellent means for learning how to be simultaneously engaged in the world and in touch with your body, whether walking, standing, or even sitting to eat, work and learn. We learn to marry what we’re thinking and what we’re sensing with what’s happening in our bodies. With Alexander Technique, you learn how to improve your postural awareness, breathe better, and enjoy a sense of ease, coordination, and power.

Water — Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink water. By then, you’re already dehydrated. We perform at our best when we are properly hydrated. We move better, we think better. While the amount you need varies by your weight, age, and activity levels, a good starting point is to drink half your body weight in ounces of water daily.

Sleep — You’ll find you sleep better when you are well hydrated and move your body on a regular basis. Good sleep creates a positive cycle. You want to get up after a good night’s sleep and start your day. You have the energy to move. You have a positive outlook on life.

Time outdoors — You don’t have to go on arduous outdoor adventures like wilderness hiking or mountain climbing. Simply take time to be in nature and notice the beauty around you. Sense yourself as part of something greater. The article in Greater Good Magazine “How Being in Nature Can Spur Personal Growth” speaks of three different studies that report on the positive impacts of being out of doors, even briefly! In one study, adults aged 60–90 who went for brief walks weekly with special instructions to be aware of their experience of awe demonstrated a higher sense of social connection and positive emotions than the control group who walked the same amount but with no instructions about awe.

Community engagement — I come back to the value of volunteering. Give it a try. It gets you out of your routine and stimulates different parts of your brain, which is needed to be mentally healthy. One of my favorite memories is working at my church’s rummage sale. The first time I did this, someone came to me at the check-out counter to purchase a dress I had donated. I still recall, more than 25 years later, how thrilled I was because it had been a favorite dress of mine, and here I got to meet the person who wanted it. Even today, this experience still provides joy and energy; I get a bit of a brain boost remembering this satisfying experience.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

One gentleman who has been an Alexander Technique student of mine for many years recently retired. He is now healthier and more in touch with his body than he was when he was younger. He’s as mentally agile running a nonprofit now as he was during his career in high-powered institutions. What is really wonderful is that when I first met him, he had a difficult time learning how to do a simple stretch or exercise. With Alexander Technique lessons, he is aware of his body, is more adept at having good postural control and learns exercises more easily. He’s my poster child for retirees: moving, volunteering, and enjoying life.

If you’re just starting retirement, consider taking a series of Alexander Technique lessons. It is an easy, safe way to get connected with your body, especially if fitness and movement have not been part of your life. A lesson is a joyful experience; you’ll feel lighter and more at ease with yourself. My students, especially those who are retired, speak of how good it feels to experience a sense of wholeness from within themselves. When you feel that deep connection with your physical self, your mind clears and it becomes easier to discern the path to the next chapter in your life!

How about teens and pre-teens? Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre-teens to optimize their mental wellness?

Pre-teens and teens often don’t feel like they have much control over their lives. It’s a tumultuous time, easily stirring up physical, mental, and emotional distress and confusion. Here are my recommendations:

Provide them with Alexander Technique lessons.

  • Alexander Technique is a bridge between well-being and learning how to learn. (Judith Kleinman, Alexander in Education pioneer). It helps pre-teens and teens understand that how they sit, stand, walk, and think has an impact on their long-term fitness and ability to manage stress. It equips them to be more effective and successful in academics, athletics, and the performing arts. Learning how to not be distracted by body/mind tension in a learning environment is invaluable. In her book, “Alexander in Secondary and Tertiary Schools” Judith explains that Alexander principles invite the opportunity to experience “…full stature and a confident approach to life and learning”, and that a teen learns how to “cope more easily with their fears and the ups and downs that life throws at all of us.”
  • Teenagers have always struggled with posture, and the increase in sitting in front of a computer all day without the normal movement afforded in a school building makes life radically more challenging now. AT private lessons or in a classroom or online class is the most effective means for learning good postural awareness. This is key to mental functioning. If they’re sitting hunched over, their breathing is compromised and their brains aren’t getting optimal oxygen. When they learn to be embodied, they can check themselves: “Do I have the best possible postural support to read, write, think, and perform to the best of my ability?” Pre-teens and teens are also on their phones constantly with their heads and shoulders bent over their devices. This is an important activity for them (even more so now that they have less contact with their friends), and so they need a method for using their devices without harming themselves. An added benefit of Alexander principles is that because kids are developing their skill set with an Alexander teacher, the tension between parents and their children about posture disappears.
  • Embodied movement provides all youth and young adults with a sense of agency and helps them maximize their full potential as happy, mature individuals. What could be more important in human development? The principles of Alexander Technique teach us how to manage ourselves in the moment. During the time when brain development is humming along and the self-awareness part of the brain is not yet fully developed, learning Alexander principles as a young person offers an invaluable life-skill: self-awareness of the whole self, not just a cognitive strategy that is only brain-based. This means they can manage stress more easily, enjoy a sense of agency and confidence in complex social situations, and handle test and performance anxiety. This skillset is especially helpful for kids who are not athletically inclined.

Get the kids outside!

  • As detailed in Greater Good Magazine article “Six Ways Nature Helps Children Learn,” there are many benefits from spending time in the great outdoors: improved attention, stress relief, enhanced self-discipline, increased engagement, creativity and social connections. Their physical fitness may improve, even if they’re not running round, playing sports, or going for long hikes. Think about what happens in your body when you go outside after being in the office or house all day. A spontaneous release of your breath happens, especially on a beautiful spring or autumn day. This is your respiratory system letting go of stale air that builds up from long-term sitting and focusing. Getting the kids outside is especially important now with virtual schooling from home and no designated recess time. While they’re focusing in a smaller physical space than a classroom and spending more time on a small computer screen, their bodies and minds are trying to function with a narrow field of attention. This smaller field increases tension in their bodies and impairs their breathing and thinking. Going outside expands their field of attention and releases stress.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

I go back to So, You Want To Be a Physical Therapist that I studied for my high school book report. One of the things that impressed me about that book was the problem solving aspect of physical therapy. The symptoms for back pain or a shoulder injury can be consistent, however the art of healing has its source in how those symptoms occur in each unique individual. My job is to apply my understanding of the person and scientific expertise to craft a strategy for helping this unique person recover. My innate sense of this was exciting to me, even as a teenager. Physical therapy seemed to have the perfect balance of science and people. I also liked that this profession is a hands-on practice. I’d always loved to tinker with my bicycle. In high school I liked shop class. I like building things and using my hands. This book showed me how PT is a blend of helping people, thinking on my feet, using my hands, and being challenged to solve complex puzzles in the human body.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want every child in America to have Alexander Technique lessons from the moment they begin their formal schooling. For the first five years of our lives, we learn and grow with our bodies. As infants, we explore our world by putting things in our mouths and crawling around. As we continue to develop, we like running around and being at the playground on swings and slides. I still recall my amazement watching my niece and nephew in their early lives; they played for 12–14 hours a day! They were learning. When formal schooling begins, there is classroom time and recess time. This metacommunicates that our bodies are separate from academics. Alexander Technique teaches us how to learn, and that embodied learning is the basis for success in all spheres of life.

Why am I so passionate about this? Our bodies are the containers for our souls, and we need to take care of them. I think if we learn from an early age how to be embodied, we enjoy a greater sense of agency in our lives. This goes back to what I was saying earlier. When we feel at home in our bodies, we feel safe to learn, grow and mature into our fullest selves. We know how to handle difficulties. We can take in joy and participate in the joyful things around us with our whole selves.

Several pioneers in the UK have successfully established Alexander Technique as a key component in the basic curricula of primary, secondary and university and graduate-level education. While there are a few schools with Alexander principles integrated in primary and secondary curricula, the US more typically teaches Alexander Technique only at the university level, and only in the performing arts departments.

If every child has an opportunity to learn the principles of the Alexander Technique, that would be such a profound change in every single person’s wellbeing. It would make personal development and growing up so much easier. Regardless of raging hormones, the pandemic, divisive politics, or other difficulties, everyone would have a way of taking a few moments any time of day to pause and say, “Okay, here I am. There’s my breathing. There are my feet on the floor. Here I am in my body. I don’t like what’s going on, but I have a means whereby I can manage myself in this moment. And that’s good. I’m anchored.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” (William Bruce Cameron, Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking, 1963.)

For me, this statement speaks to celebrating the uniqueness of each individual. I believe the body is the story of a person’s life. I teach my clients to become embodied — aware of and respectful of their bodies. I listen to their stories. That’s how I help them heal and maximize their potential. A body is as unique and unquantifiable as the whole person it contains. The person’s individual story and potential is what counts.

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