What Is The Alexander Technique?
You have only to observe the natural grace and poise of a young child, compared to the slouched and tense shoulders of the parents, to realise how much damage has been done over years of sitting and standing poorly, lifting incorrectly and tensing up with anxiety or self-consciousness. The Alexander Technique is essentially a programme of re-education which draws attention to ‘patterns of misuse’ in daily life, in particular how you hold your head.
The basic principle is that the most efficient use of the skeleton will keep the body erect and enable it to more freely. The relationship between the head and the spine is considered particularly important because when the head is balanced on top of the spine, a natural oppositional force in the torso encourages the spine to lengthen rather than compress. And this is believed to reduce physical tension, increase levels of energy, control pain and improve function.
The Technique was devised and developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869 -1955) an Australian actor (successful in Shakespearean parts) who lost his voice and experienced breathing problems – a drawback for someone in his profession. By observing himself in mirror, Alexander observed he had the habit of stiffening his whole body whenever he got ready to speak or recite. His therapeutic plan was based on a number of principles of what he called ‘The Use of the Self’ – new strategies to eliminate the habitual tension in the neck and upper torso. Using self-observation to correct his posture, Alexander found that both his voice and breathing problems were resolved.
It took him 10 years to perfect what became known, after his death in 1955, as the Alexander Technique . During his life, other actors flocked to learn from him, and after a move to America, he wrote several books explaining his methods and established what has become an international system of physical education and guidance to improve posture which in turn improves physical performance and wellbeing.
Many celebrated actors, singers and sportspersons utilise The Alexander Technique to overcome injuries or enhance their performance. Writer Aldous Huxley and playwright George Bernard Shaw were notable advocates of the system.
What To Expect
The basic idea is to encourage you to replace your habitual stress patterns with more efficient and relaxing ways of using your body. Alexander Technique is generally taught on a one-to-one basis by a qualified Alexander teacher. At a first session, the teacher will focus on how you stand, sit and move in order to assess your individual needs.
Learning the Alexander Technique, requires the active participant of each individual student in their own learning process and it’s a commitment to change some long standing habits of movement.
With a very gentle and light, hands-on approach, the teacher learns how you move, and helps you find ease and balance in simple movements and everyday activities such as sitting, standing, walking and bending. In this way, your whole body is re-educated and relearns how to stand at rest and to move, so that your posture becomes realigned.
Other exercises include the movement of getting in and out of a chair, allowing the head to lead, (as though drawn upwards by a helium balloon), without tensing the body, as your teacher takes you up and out of the chair and again drawing you back down into it. This is repeated often.
The lesson will often include some work done in semi-supine position with legs bent, allowing the opportunity to use conscious mental ‘Direction’. Learning the Alexander Technique means learning the basic principles and the vocabulary Alexander developed to express insights (such as ‘the Whispered Ah’, and ‘Endgaining’).
To explain what he meant by ‘direction’, Alexander said, ‘There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a thing as a right direction’. To explain his holistic viewpoint, he said, ‘You translate everything, whether physical or mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.’ To explain the principle of not interfering with natural poise, he said: ‘If you stop doing the wrong thing the right thing will do itself’.
In utilising the technique, the values of freedom, efficiency and patience are requisite; students are led to change previous habits and unthinking, unhealthy routines.
The Alexander teacher provides verbal coaching while monitoring, guiding and preventing unnecessary habits at source with special hands-on assistance to show what is meant by:-
End-gaining –“ the universal habit of focusing on the end result while losing sight and often at the expense of the process.”
Inhibition – “moment of conscious awareness of a choice to interrupt, stop or entirely prevent an unnecessary habitual “misuse” – allowing freer range of motion”
Primary Control – “key head, neck and spinal relationship. The body’s responses are determined by qualities of head and eye movement at inception of head motion”
Whispered Ah – term used to explain the need ‘to subtract unnecessary effort from use of voice”.
During the session, your teacher will help you get the experience of relaxation and freedom, and you will be asked to be aware of three suggestions, to:
- Allow the neck to be free in order to
- Allow the head to move forward and up in order to
- Allow the whole of the back to lengthen and widen
It is recommended that you work intensely with one or two sessions per week for the first few months, until you have mastered the techniques for yourself.
Effects and Benefits
Alexander Technique helps regain freedom of movement in order to undo established bad and damaging postural habits. It has a wide range of beneficial effects.
To alleviate pain and weakness, as a result of poor posture and repetitive physical demands, when walking, sitting or standing by improving pain management for chronic disabilities or rehabilitation following surgery or an injury.
Advocates claim it is an effective treatment for chronic or recurring back pain.
Correct alignment of all aspects of vocal cords and tract through consciously increasing the air flow is claimed to help people suffering with respiratory problems, asthma, tuberculosis and panic attacks.
It helps to overcome habits that have become harmful over time, restricting breathing, bad postural attitudes that have limited freedom of movement and shorten stature.
Alexander Technique can be profoundly calming in stressful situations and can help to organise the perception of the choices available to us in our daily activities.
Coming from a theatrical background Alexander was able to tailor his techniques to his profession; these has also been enthusiastically adopted by many in the performing arts, since they help to increase stamina, clarity of perception and the managing of stage fright.
Alexander Technique works to release and relearn/re-educate habitual movement causing excess tension in the body, which in turn sets off a whole variety of unpleasant symptoms.
It is suggested that Alexander Technique in conjunction with psychotherapy can assist people with disabilities, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, panic attacks, stuttering, and chronic pain because of its effectiveness in stress management.
Fascinating Facts about Alexander Technique
- The Alexander Technique only became known as such after Alexander’s death in 1955.
- Although an Australian, Alexander spent most of his life in England and USA. He lived in London between 1931 and 1955, although he moved to Massachusetts USA in the Second World War, where he continued his work.
- The English novelist Aldous Huxley, who came to Alexander for lessons, was influenced by him and his technique to the extent he included him as a character in the pacifist themed novel Eyeless in Gaza.
- The American Philosopher and Educator John Dewey became impressed with the Alexander Technique after his headaches, neck pains, blurred vision and stress symptoms dramatically improved when he used Alexander’s exercises to correct his neck posture. Alexander personally taught Dewey who wrote the introduction to Alexander’s 1923 book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual.
- Numerous authors including George Bernard Shaw, actors, Paul Newman, Pierce Brosnan and musicians Paul McCartney and Sir Colin Davies have all been Alexander students.
- ‘It has helped me to undo knots, unblock energy and deal with almost paralysing stage fright,’ said actor William Hurt.
- The average head weighs between 12 – 15 lbs which is a considerable weight to be sitting on top of one’s neck; we owe it to ourselves to align our bodies and allow our movements to be as free as possible for good strong, pain-free posture.
- Advocates of the Alexander Technique include the Duchess of York and Sting.
- The technique is suitable for people of all ages and levels of physical fitness. When he was 78, Alexander himself had a severe stroke and lost the use of his left arm and leg, but using the techniques he had pioneered, he regained the use of all his faculties and lived for a further 8 years.
Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT)
This is the largest and oldest professional society of teachers of the Alexander Technique (The Alexander Technique has been taught for over one hundred years). In 1958, (STAT) was founded in the UK by teachers who were trained personally by FM Alexander. The organization aims to ensure the highest standards of teacher training and professional practice.
It has nearly 800 members in UK and 12 affiliated societies in other STAT countries. To qualify and use the letters M.S.T.A.T., Alexander teachers must have completed a three-year full-time study on one of 15 approved courses.
Professional Association of Alexander Teachers (PAAT)
The Professional Association of Alexander Teachers is a group of Teachers who aim to teach the Alexander Technique to the highest standards. Alexander Teachers who train with PAAT attend a four-year training course. The PAAT Training Course was founded by Brian Door in 1979. Brian Door qualified from Walter Carrington’s Training Course who was himself trained by Alexander and continued to work closely with him until his death.