The Alexander Technique is a study of freeing response that is taught by studying one’s own mannerisms of posture. F. Matthias Alexander (1869–1955). He observed and formulated its principles during 1890 – 1900. Alexander, was a Shakespearean orator who developed problems losing his voice. Careful observation with multiple mirrors revealed that he needlessly stiffened his whole body in a particular pattern in preparation to recite or speak. He also noticed the same pattern in his everyday speaking style. It took ten years of self-observation to successfully apply his original discoveries to solve his voice problem. Eventually, he fashioned a “Technique” to teach others to pass on his experience. His work continues today, extending a lineage that has expanded from many extraordinary lifetime dedications.
F.M. Alexander trained teachers of his Technique from 1931 until 1955. The Technique is often considered to be the beginning of later somatic methods, such as Rolfing, Heller work, etc.
What it is
Alexander Technique is an educational discipline practiced to prevent the physical decline caused by habituated mannerisms. Learning it trains sensory discrimination, empirical psychophysical self-observation and experimentation ability, along with ease of movement. The medium of study is one’s own sense of kinesthesia or proprioception, which is the sense used to internally calibrate one’s own bodily location, weight and to judge the effort necessary for moving. The founder’s original intent was to apply the scientific method to more completely carry intention into factual action. His objective was to make experimentation and training deliberately repeatable, and to learn in a way that would allow indefinite improvement.
The needs it addresses
Alexander Technique is a practice for body/mind unity available for people of all ages. Learning about moving easier with conscious awareness is a basic operating manual for life. People often ignorantly move themselves how they guess their bodies are constructed, unnecessarily stressing their body prematurely. Without knowing how to observe themselves to pleasurably continue learning, people instead cultivate inflexibility and resistance to change. Over time, the price of this ignorant and increasing inflexibility can be pain, boredom and reduced capacity of the body.
Alexander Technique teachers believe that humans have a built-in proprioceptive blind spot, because people design habits to adapt to repetition. Adapting is mostly a learning advantage, but has a serious drawback. The drawback is that habits disappear as they adapt to run in the background, allowing new adjustment to a constant level of familiar excitement. The advantage is additional habits can be added onto previously designed habits. The disadvantage means people can forget what habits they have designed because they can no longer sense they are doing those previously learned habits. Also, there is usually no provision made for stopping habits, even if a habit is originally intended to be temporary. Our sensory system becomes flooded from accommodating too many contradicting habits. From these habitual contradicting mannerisms, our natural sensitive capacity for calibrating motion becomes dull and untrustworthy.
How our kinesthetic sense becomes untrustworthy from adapting to needless overcompensating is built into many innocent situations. For instance, if person often carries a purse on their forearm, they will later find themselves holding up their arm when the purse is not on it. A child imitates the twisted posture of an admired grown-up. A self-taught student may unknowingly adopt useless and later problematic mannerisms. Misunderstanding a teacher’s directions, a student may repeat what the teacher knows is unnecessary, but the teacher allows the mistake to go by because the student is trying to learn. If someone is afraid while learning, adapting can mean they will most likely continue doing the skill mixed with fear reactions. If someone has healed from a temporary injury, a subtle wincing in anticipation of pain can be automatically continued indefinitely, even though pain is gone.
Who can benefit from it
Since the Alexander Technique improves perception, ease of movement and offers self-knowledge, it has broad applications. It is taught in performance schools of dance, acting, circus, music, voice and some Olympic sports. It’s used as remedial movement education to complete recovery and provide pain management. When used continuously, it is regarded by some to be a spiritual discipline because it has a person seeking for thoughtful ways to express their own guiding values in the most ordinary of mannerisms. Its principles apply to psychology, creative thinking, learning theory and the styles of coaching, training and directing.
This technique can help with many problems like: back problems, unlearning and avoiding Repetitive Strain Injury, improving ergonomics, stuttering, speech training and voice loss, mobility for those with Parkinson’s disease, posture problems, or incomplete recovery from injury. It is also been known to help performers with getting past the plateau effect (despite trying, no improvement,) performance anxiety, getting beyond a supposed “lack of talent” and to sharpen perception. It’s also helped people control unwanted reactions, phobias and depression.
The effect of Alexander lessons can feel very unusual, but also strangely familiar, because most people as toddlers once possessed effortless balance. During hands-on lessons, most pupils will sense an immediate improvement, despite the student’s inability to evoke or sustain this state alone. Suddenly having a differently sounding voice, feeling lighter or temporary disorientation are common effects when habitual pressure is gone, described as “a little nothing that makes a big difference.” These special effects seem to happen because the proprioceptive sensory system suddenly recognizes a surprising paradox.
Though most students experience these perceptual paradoxes as feeling good, students are often admonished to ignore them. Students learn to try to avoid end-gaining, meaning, to resist going directly for results habitually and instead allow themselves the room to use the deliberate processes prescribed by the Technique. This is because at various times during the learning process, an untrustworthy proprioceptive sense cannot discern if very gradual differences of improvement are happening or not. For this reason students must continue practice without expectation or reinforcement of feeling themselves changing, because their senses may not yet be sensitive enough to register subtle improvement. Improved sensitivity can be trained or reawakened by sustained practice. Yet the learner may at different times still paradoxically experience both states; the sensory effects described above during a progressive leap ahead; and a sense of nothing happening when gradual progress is, in fact, taking place.
Depending on the causes of limitation, structural posture may or may not improve, but freedom of motion should always improve during the lesson with a teacher. The Technique has a signature of effortlessness. Its unexpected poise should be an immediate shared fact for both teacher and student in every hands-on Alexander lesson. To take improvements away from the lesson, the dedication of later remembering to attentively experiment is required on the part of the learner. A willingness to experiment is key to gaining continuing results.
Teachers train students in a personalized, living anatomy lesson. Most use a specialized hands-on technique of guided modeling to show what they mean. Even if only briefly for group classes, movement is guided by one-on-one light hand contact, usually about the student’s head, neck and back. The value of effortlessness is advocated. Coaching the substitution of more appropriate, specific ways to detour limitations are also suggested. As anyone knows who has tried substitution strategies against a habit, there are often more complex paradoxes involved, because habits can be tricky. Alexander Technique addresses these concerns, tailoring how to establish personally constructive experimentation uniquely for each student.
Most commonly at the beginning of lessons, teachers may suggest activities that are routine, such as walking or sitting. For part of the lesson, some teachers have learners lie on a table, so the student can experience the principles in action without having to pay attention to maintaining balance, called table work.Working on oneself while lying semi-supine with knees up is taught to be used while taking a break during the student’s workday. Depending on the student’s purposes, the teacher might later suggest simulating a particularly stressful situation for using Alexander Technique under pressure, such as acting, public speaking, shouting or staging a contest.
Teaching methods vary; all have in common guided discovery of easier, more positive ways to carry intention into physical action and how to recognize and prevent outdated habits from derailing intended results. To begin lessons, there is no prerequisite level of fitness or movement ability. Alexander Technique is most often taught in private lessons. Group, shared lessons and workshops are recently becoming more common – especially as an adjunct to a specialized art, sport or skill and as required curriculum in music & drama colleges. Because Alexander Technique can be taught and practiced during any activity, some teachers leave the choice of activity up to the student.
When it can be used
Remembering to use Alexander Technique to get its benefits is required, but not in an extra practice hour – merely an experimental, thinking moment. Curiosity, a willingness to experiment and recognition of gradual improvement are the attitudes that most effectively bring attention to the continuous possible choices of response that are within any moment. Unlike many similar self-improvement regimens, the Alexander Technique is not exercises. It can be momentarily employed at any time while awake to get its benefits, usually unnoticed by others.
Necessary learning time
Progress is unlimited, but commonly slow; often taking a significant commitment of months, even years. There are only improvements, there are no masters, all Alexander teachers consider themselves advanced students of the art. Most teachers think twenty to forty lessons to be required for learning to use it. Each lesson teaches something tangible and practical. Speed of learning seems to depend on the motivation to shed outdated habits, and the persistence of the learner to confront the power of their own habits with resolve, clear thinking and new responses. During daily lessons in a workshop environment, a rare fast learner can gain rapid functionality in a matter of a few weeks. The fastest learners are often people who are motivated by gaining freedom from chronic pain, or someone recovering from injury who can now again devote themselves to a beloved art or skill. The reason Alexander Technique takes so long to learn is because the kinesthetic sense is often the most “taken for granted” and habitually ingrained. It is difficult to get rid of what cannot yet be perceived.
Training for being a teacher of Alexander Technique involves more than 1600+ hours of classes over at least a three year period. Teacher trainees must qualify to graduate; attendance is not a guarantee of becoming a teacher. After qualifying, most professional teaching associations require continuing development courses.
The main disadvantage of the Alexander technique is that this technique is very hard to learn. Habits are often tied to self-image, emotions, a cultural foundation of assumptions and self-questionable judgment. Ingrained habits seem to have a sense of self-preservation that acts as if habits fear their possible lack of importance. After facing and surpassing many of their own insistent habits, long term learners of Alexander Technique often discover that what is motivating their new choices has now become their new core of identity, instead of habit. Of course, some Alexander teachers help the surrendering process go easier. Sampling a number of teachers from different teaching styles is advisable.
Many of the principles of Alexander Technique are unique concepts. As has been mentioned previously, human senses are built to adapt to continuous messages sent by the brain. Repetition makes perceptual sensation disappear. Keeping muscles contracted when they don’t need to be used is a waste of energy. This principle was originally called debauchery by Alexander himself. It was later referred to as sensory adaptation by behavioral scientists. To unlearn these habits, a prerequisite seems to be a willingness to welcome experimentation and unfamiliarity.
Another unique concept is a specialized use of the word Inhibition. Many Alexander teachers believe this concept to be the foundation of Alexander Technique. Without denial or catharsis, it is possible to learn to recognize and prevent a habitual patterned reaction and choose differently. With practice and without denial, a habit can be deliberately inhibited. Suggested practical means to effectively subvert a particular unwanted habit vary with each Alexander teacher’s experience. Sidestepping, stalling, tricking, boring the old habitual solution – anything is fair game to get the old habit to disengage, leaving the freedom to try something different, something easier.
The most original principle discovered is called Direction or Primary Control. A stiffened startle response pattern of the neck, head and back is shown to be the source of self-imposed limitations. Alexander discovered that a very slight head motion leads all physical movement. The head’s lightest initiation of motion can act as a steering wheel or a key to unlock the rest of the body’s capacity for powerful and efficient use of effort. Expand attention to the head’s initiation of movement and allow the body to follow with the easiest qualities of motion, while paying attention to sequence, timing and direction – and the ability to respond to an objective will improve.
Principles used together
The Alexander Technique principles say that it is possible to learn to insert a new choice before a habitual reaction takes over, but how is this actually possible? The principles may be put together in any sequence, not necessarily in this order. What follows is an example lesson.
First, choosing some sort of movement is required. Sitting down or walking is a commonly selected activity. The student is prompted by the teacher to observe themselves while moving. Students are asked to describe without value judgments or emotional reactions, and are encouraged to avoid being self-chastising. Habits are not all bad.
A basic activity is to identify and stop habitual interference so a freer capacity to respond can reassert itself. Toward leaving out habit, the goal of the chosen action or motion is temporarily suspended, so motivation for immediate results does not encourage the habit to jump in to helpfully answer the urge to respond. Intercepting unnecessary habits might also be made easier by creating an arbitrary beginning moment of intentional choice.
Once a sample activity is observed and described, the teacher and student craft experiments to avoid habitual interference, usually by slowing down reaction time. In keeping with the sensory adaptation principle, customary kinesthetic orientation and preparation assumed necessary is repeatedly noted to be unnecessary. The teacher shows how the head, neck and back together can lengthen to increase capacity for freedom of movement. The teacher may use their hands as “training wheels” to help the student perceive exactly when their habit is interfering – often during movement preparation. Teachers bring a student’s attention to pivotal timing issues and specific qualities of motion that influences improvement. Teachers may experiment alongside the student, modeling the process they prefer the student to emulate.
Sometimes the effect of this prevention of habit feels immediately strange or disorienting to the student. The teacher steadies and encourages the student to resist a need to go back down into the familiar habit and to tolerate additional unfamiliarity for longer periods of time. A sensation termed Do-less-ness may be used as the new measure of success. Yet, just as often seeking any results is also suspended, because the ability to sense subtle perceptual differences may have become dulled from sensory adaptation.
Usually, this is all that is required to be practiced in the lesson. Sometimes habits are trickier and remedies to detour habit are crafted and used. Some of these strategies are directly proscribed by F.M. Alexander’s historic examples, but many may be invented on the spot.
Now that the student’s senses are not being dampened by habit, a discovery about the suspended objective of the activity may emerge at this time. These discoveries are noted and integrated into repeated experimentation to make them more reliable. It is important that this observing of results comes after doing the preventing and moving, not before; otherwise the unwanted habits can take back control.
When additional results are desired, a similar process of questioning, experimenting and observing possible results is again used (or the principles recombined in another order, tailored for a student’s needs. Some students need to suspend expectation of results entirely.) After repeated successes from much experimentation, hopefully a learner’s tolerance for unfamiliarity increases. Using this process never stops feeling surprising.