Babies and small children don’t need the Alexander Technique – they are naturally poised, straight-backed, their heads, necks and spines in perfect alignment, and moving freely and easily, whether they are walking, sitting, running or playing.
In some cultures, this continues into adulthood: throughout Africa and Asia, native women walk long distances daily carrying heavy water pots and other loads on their heads, frequently in extreme temperatures, up and down hills, often over difficult terrain, yet showing little signs of fatigue. Their posture is upright, they are perfectly balanced, heads erect, moving gracefully and seemingly effortlessly – of course they don’t know it, but they too are in fact employing the basic elements of the Alexander Technique.
But in the Western world, as children grow older, most of them will develop bad habits in the way they perform everyday actions: they sit hunched over a desk or slouching at a computer, straining when lifting objects, and later tensing to grip the steering wheel of a car, or even bending to pick up a fallen tissue, and stooping, heads thrust forward, as they walk or even while waiting for a train, and probably breathing inefficiently. And, the older they get, the more this behaviour intensifies and becomes ingrained, until it becomes literally second nature.
Maintaining bad posture and muscular tension is hard work: the human head alone weighs four or five kilos, say ten or twelve pounds. That’s the weight of a bucket of water, or a heavy bag of shopping. It’s nearly a stone, and represents about 8% of the average whole body mass, and if it’s carried awkwardly, instead of being balanced naturally on neck and spine, a lot of wasted effort is being used, sixteen hours a day, every day And that’s just the head, never mind the rest of the body!
The practical application of the Alexander Technique is to help unlearn the bad postural and other habits acquired over the years, and to rectify the causes of many ailments, including back pain, repetitive strain injury (RSI), neck pain, and stress, and their harmful consequences to general health and well-being.
It teaches that by exercising primary control via the head, neck and spine, an individual can direct his or her actions to not only rectify specific disorders, but to open up new possibilities affecting their entire existence.
The Legacy of F. Matthias Alexander
Throughout history, simple observation and experimentation have led to discoveries with far-reaching consequences and benefits: Archimedes lowering himself into his bath causing the water to rise until it overflowed, resulting ultimately in the law of specific gravity and the general science of hydrostatics; and Isaac Newton observing an apple falling to the ground, leading him to the understanding that gravity was the force of attraction between two objects, are examples that immediately spring to mind.
And it was such observation and experimentation that led F. Matthias Alexander to develop the technique that ultimately bore his name.
He was born in Australia in 1869, and moved to London in 1904. He was an aspiring actor and Shakespearian orator, who inexplicably experienced a form of chronic laryngitis while on stage. Doctors could find no apparent reason for the condition, and he set about trying to find the cause himself.
He used mirrors to try to see what was happening when he orated, and found that he was pulling his head back and down, introducing tension in the neck and compressing the spine. From this discovery, he was able to cure the problem, but he also realised that it had extensive implications: that by changing the way one thought about actions and activities, so too could the actions and activities themselves be changed. He had in fact discovered that both physical and mental habits are an integrated entity – they are psychophysical phenomena, which can be directed to improve coordination and performance.
Alexander and others went on to develop the technique to the point where an individual can improve awareness and consciously guide virtually every action and activity to achieve often startling improvements in posture and performance. It is now practised world-wide, with many hundreds of teachers bringing benefits to thousands of people in all walks of life.
It is perhaps most widely known as a method of relieving stress and ailments such as back pains, but it is equally recognised in many professions, including the performing arts: just a few actors who have benefited from the technique are John Cleese; William Hurt; Derek Jacobi; Kevin Kline; Joanna Lumley; Alec McCowan CBE; Paul Newman; Keanu Reeves plus many others, as well as musicians, singers, and sports men and women*.
One of Alexander’s students was the educational philosopher John Dewey. He was among the many writers and philosophers who came to appreciate the benefits of the technique: George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and Nobel Prize winner, wrote: “Alexander established not only the beginnings of a far reaching science of the apparently involuntary movements that we call reflexes, but a technique of correction and self control which forms a substantial addition to our very slender resources in personal education,” and the writer Aldous Huxley said: “It gives us all the things we have been looking for in a system of physical education: relief from strain due to maladjustment, and consequent improvement in physical and mental health, increased consciousness of the physical means employed to gain the ends proposed by the will and, along with this, a general heightening of consciousness at all levels.”
But Dewey went on to study the technique for over 35 years, and came to the conclusion that it should be incorporated into the educational system, so impressed was he by its benefits to the individual as a whole. And Charles Sherrington, the Nobel laureate in physiology, stated of Alexander's work, "Mr. Alexander has done a service to the subject by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psychophysical man."
These and others have elevated the technique to a level where it can become in effect a way of life, affecting every action by increased consciousness and awareness, and enabling the individual to truly take charge of his or her actions and activities.
How effective is it? Well, if you Google ‘Alexander Technique testimonials’, you’ll come up with about 126,000 results – and the overwhelming majority of these relate to many more than a single accolade.
And to find out more about the technique in all its forms and applications, not only is there a wealth of information on the internet – a good place to start is The Society of Teachers of The Alexander Technique at www.stat.org.uk - but scores, if not hundreds of books have been written on the subject, which can easily be found at www.amazon.co.uk or at Guildford Library.
* John Hunter has written many articles and lectures on both the Alexander Technique itself and also how it benefits musicians - they can be found at www.alextech.demon.co.uk/wac202.htm
Lessons for Alexander Technique
"I had been thinking of taking lessons in the Alexander Technique for some time.
My work as a solicitor is spent almost entirely at a desk, staring at a computer for long hours. Although my work is sedentary, it also manages to be highly stressful at times.
My anxiety levels were rising to alarming levels and I was exhausted when I dragged myself home each afternoon. Getting up in the morning, I gritted my teeth to push myself through another day.
Living inside my body felt like dragging around a sack of aches and pains, but I took these for granted simply as the price of getting older. When I got up in the morning, I was so stiff, I could hardly move. I felt grumpy and bad tempered all the time.
Unlike many who turn to the Alexander Technique, I was lucky enough not to have any serious back problems, but niggling injuries over the years were building up. I assumed that life was just like this, and that it would only get worse.
Something needed to be done. I had tried the gym, but got bored and felt worse. I enjoyed both Pilates and yoga but felt that there was still a piece of the jigsaw missing. These gave me more responsive control of my body, but I did not know what I was meant to be doing with that control. A perceptive friend of mine told me that I was tall, but that I managed to conceal it well. I knew that I was several inches taller than I thought I was.
I had heard about the Alexander Technique as a student. Outside my work, I perform as a classical musician, and many singers and keyboard players had spoken with religious zeal about the benefits that they had derived from the Technique. As I read more about the Technique, I began to see how it might help you, say, to sing better or ski better, but much of the explanation seemed obscure. How could relaxing your neck help you to become a calmer, freer, more confident person? How could some breathing exercises developed by a self-taught Australian actor in the 1890s open your personality? How could ‘inhibition’ be a good thing? Why on earth should I spend hours practicing standing up and sitting down? I was perfectly good at these already. Clearly, it was complete bunkum and my interest was put on hold.
Many years later I had some swimming lessons from an Alexander teacher. He described his discovery of the Technique as releasing the brakes on his life, brakes which he did not realise even existed. Whilst I still found it hard to understand the principle of the Technique, his confident and upright bearing – without the slightest trace of rigidity – was beyond argument. He had got something, an aura about him, and I wanted it as well.
The final step came when, as a 50th birthday present to myself, I had a music lesson with a leading teacher. Not more than half the lesson was spent on musical interpretation; at least as much time was spent on her observing and noting the excessive degree in which I allowed my neck, shoulders and arms to interfere with my playing. ‘Keep the neck out of it!’ she encouraged me.
The time had come, and I started lessons with Linda a few months ago.
Lessons with Linda are always relaxing physically, but challenging on another level. When invited to place my feet shoulder width apart, I realised that I had no idea how wide my shoulders were. With the subtlest of movements, she released my arms that suddenly felt six feet long. I felt that I could stretch out and touch both walls of the room. My body felt new and different, but Linda is a confident, good – humoured and reassuring guide.
At first, the process seemed mysterious – it still does – but the benefits cannot be denied. After only the first lesson, I felt myself floating down the road, feeling taller than I had ever felt before. My legs felt light and free and seemed to walking of their own accord without my having to put in the slightest effort, whereas beforehand, I had forced them to walk every inch of the way. What on earth was going on? Released energy started to bubble up inside me and I laughed out loud on the station platform. People must have thought I was very odd.
After only a week or two, I noticed that I could get out of bed in the morning with all my stiffness, aches and pains having disappeared.
I began to realise how much tension I had been holding in my feet, my legs and my ankles. I realised that I had not trusted my body to carry me through life. I had regarded it, at best, as a donkey that I would have to beat every step of the way, rather than a beautifully articulated mechanism that, left to its own devices, would breathe and move smoothly, needing only a fraction of the energy that I was expending on it.
I noticed how much more energy I had. I was able to take a more balanced view of life. Challenges at work that seemed overwhelming suddenly seemed manageable. A difficult relationship became easier, even enjoyable. I would get up in the morning, not just feeling supple, but actually looking forward to the day. I had lived more than 50 years inside my body, but only now was I starting to learn how to use it properly. By contrast, I knew much more about how to use the computer I stared at hour after hour, even though that is a far less sophisticated machine.
Each week I appreciate more of the richness of the Alexander Technique. I look forward to each lesson with Linda as deeper and deeper knots, both physical and emotional, slip and release. There is a long way to go but every step is enjoyable."