What is the Alexander Technique?
Outside of the performing arts, where it has had a strong influence for many years, the Alexander Technique is not so well known, certainly not as well-known as Yoga. Developed by F. M. Alexander over a hundred years ago, the Technique is a method of kinesthetic re-education that will help you identify patterns of poor use of the body and mind and release them into a better, more organized way of using yourself in everything you do.
Alexander developed his Technique as he tried to heal himself of vocal problems that were threatening to end his career as a professional actor. When he was only in his twenties, he began to suffer from hoarseness to the point where he was even losing his voice altogether. The only advice that doctors had for him was to rest his voice, which he would do. Once his voice had recovered, however, he would soon get hoarse again. This led him to presume the cause of his problems was not an infection of some form, but something that he was doing to himself. He set up mirrors in his room so that he could observe himself and set out to find a solution.
Along the way he made several important discoveries, which became the fundamental principles of his Technique.
The Five Principles of the Alexander Technique
1. Recognition of the force of habit Alexander discovered that the force of habit is so strongly rooted within us as human beings as a method of functioning in the everyday world that we spend our lives on automatic much of the time. We allow habits that we built up years ago that may no longer be appropriate for our ongoing health and wellbeing to guide us instead of conscious discernment. As a result, these habits become further and further ingrained every time we repeat them, making them that much harder to get rid of.
2. Recognition of faulty sensory appreciation Part of the problem of reinforcing habits comes from our relationship to our kinesthetic sense, our bodily “feeling” sense, which readjusts to whatever the habit is. We do what we do over and over again—sit in a chair, walk up the stairs, run on a treadmill—always the same way because it “feels right.” As long as we rely on that sense of what “feels right,” we are destined to repeat the mistakes we’ve been making over and over again. To make a change we must be prepared to “feel wrong.”
3. The Primary Control of the head-neck-back relationship Alexander discovered that the poise of the head on the top of the spine is essential to the proper functioning of our whole system. If the muscles of your neck are free enough that your head can balance on the top of your spine and not be held in place, if your back can be long and wide and not compressed, then your postural balance will be optimal and your entire system will be disposed to function more efficiently and with less effort. The problem is that this poise can be easily and continually disturbed. When this happens, the weight of your head, which can be as much as 10 pounds, is pressing down on the top of your spine causing compression and over-work. This can have many negative side effects, impacting the breath, the spine, the organs, and even the nervous system.
4. Inhibition and Non-Doing Alexander was many years ahead of his time in terms of his physiological observations. In his explorations he observed that it was possible to mentally inhibit muscular tension as it began, creating more freedom in the entire body. The word inhibition has many negative connotations in this post-Freud day and age, but he meant the word in the neurological sense. What he observed was that it was possible to become aware of the build-up of activity in the motor control systems of the body and to dissipate that build-up. Some 50 years later, neuroscientist Benjamin Libet conducted experiments along similar lines that showed Alexander’s findings to be true.
Building on this concept of inhibition, Alexander found that it was possible to move in such a way as to consciously withhold consent from undesired habit patterns kicking in. The key to this was to assume what he called a mental attitude of “non-doing.” Rather than focusing on the intended goal, whatever that might be—picking up a suitcase, jumping into a swimming pool, playing an instrument—he would instead focus on the means whereby he would attain that goal, carefully inhibiting responses that constricted and compressed him and reinforced the habit patterns that were causing him to lose his voice.
5. Sending Directions The final part of the puzzle was the way in which we relate to our bodies. Normally we rely on muscle memory and on what feels right. Generally speaking, we only wake up and pay attention to ourselves when something feels wrong. When we are consciously trying to “do something right,” we rely on verification from our unreliable feeling sense. Much of this comes from a misunderstanding of the relationship between the mind and the body. In some fundamental way, we operate under the incorrect assumption that the mind and body are separate and that the body, left to its own devices, will operate improperly. If we are to get it to do the right thing, we believe we need to focus our attention on it and feel around and make sure that it does what we want.
Alexander realized that the mind and the body are part of a single whole. The way we think affects the body directly. It is this forceful imposing of our minds on our bodies that gets us into trouble. In fact, it only takes the lightest of suggestions to get our bodies to work differently, as long as we do not rely on our kinesthetic sense.
Alexander discovered that a person can communicate with their body by sending mental directions using their visual and spatial senses instead. One can even communicate with the body on the level of intention, if that intention is clear enough and sustained over a period of time.
The Work of a Lifetime Distilled to Only a Few Lessons
It took Alexander about nine years to figure all this out. By the end of his process he had made a lasting change to himself, curing himself of his vocal problems. He devoted the rest of his life to refining his technique and teaching it to others. Whereas, at first, Alexander used to teach his students verbally, he soon figured out how to use his hands according to his principles of inhibition and non-doing to support his students and bring about the neurological changes necessary to fully benefit from the Technique in a much shorter time than it took him to develop it. Eventually, in the 1930s, he began to train others to teach. He continued to work until his death at the age of 86 in 1955.
A 2006 study conducted in the United Kingdom by the British Medical Journal revealed the immediacy and the power of the Technique. The study found that people who had experienced around 21 days of chronic back pain in a given four week period had that reduced by 10 days after only six lessons, and by 18 days after 24 lessons. All of this comes not as a result of heavy-handed therapies or invasive procedures, but from a changing of the way a person thinks and relates to their body. It is a simple technique to learn for a lifetime of health and wellbeing.