Developed by F.M Alexander, the Alexander technique is a new way to examine common problems of posture, breathing and movement. By consciously focusing on and correcting ingrained habits, many individuals have improved their breath control, presence and overall health.
Born in 1869 in Australia, Frederick Matthias Alexander left his administrative job in the mining industry to study theater. Upon completing his studies, Alexander found work in the arts, specializing in Shakespearean theater. A skilled orator, Alexander performed frequently onstage. However throughout his professional career, he also experience reoccurring bouts of straining or losing his voice. Visits to multiple physicians could find no physical reason for the loss of his voice, so Alexander began his own self examination and research.
As a classically trained orator, Alexander had studied posture, voice modulation and stage presence extensively. In his mind, while onstage, he maintained optimal control of his body and voice. Thus, he was greatly confused by his inability to maintain his vocal health.
Self Examination and Research
Alexander was determined to get to the root cause of his problem. To this end, he set up a group of mirrors, in front of which he stood while rehearsing his lines for upcoming performances. Through continuous intense scrutiny, Alexander discovered that when he actually went to recite, his body behaved differently than he expected, despite all of his formal training.
In his minds eye Alexander was erect, with his torso and neck perfectly aligned to aid in proper posture and vocal projection. However, quite the opposite was the case. Alexander discovered that upon reciting, his neck, head and back were very much out of alignment. Alexander had made the first step in discovering that the alignment of his head and neck in relation to his spine and the rest of his body had a profound affect on his overall health and ability to perform. What would follow would be an intensive and exhaustive study of how tension, alignment and bad posture habits affect not only the voice, but a range of other body parts and professional disciplines.
Alexander felt that his discovery could benefit people in the performing arts, as well as individuals in all walks of life. To that end, he set about refining and testing his technique in the early 1890s to be sure that it was replicable. In 1894, once he had a tried and tested system, he returned to the Sydney, Australia and set about instructing others in the methods he had developed.
The Alexander technique is not taught as a rigid set of exercises, but more so as a method to facilitate the examination of ones habitual bodily movements and expose any areas of tension and misalignment. There are however core prompts that aid in this discovery.
Initially Alexander worked directly with individuals who could benefit from his technique. However, in 1931, he also began to formally train and certify instructors in the Alexander Technique. Some of his first trained instructors included Dr Wilfred Barlow, Patrick Macdonald and Majorie Barlow.
As an instructor of the technique, each teacher uses his own innate powers of observation and intuition to adapt the technique to the needs of the pupil or patient. A fluid methodology, the Alexander Technique allows for discovery and adaptation to the individuals specific circumstances.
Alexander Technique Certification
Certification in the Alexander Technique can be attained by individuals who are committed to its ideals. The Alexander Teacher Training School in London facilitates an in-depth program which includes over 1600 hours of instruction over a three year period. The curriculum is very hands on, and students work on live subjects during class.
Also part of the training is extensive review of the numerous writings of Alexander and discussions on various case studies that support his theories. Students also study holistic health, psychophysical unity, anatomy and patient counseling techniques. Participants graduate equipped to utilize the Alexander Technique to address a host of mind/body issues.
During the early 1900s, Alexander worked with many stage personalities and his technique grew in popularity. He eventually relocated to London in 1904 to further disseminate his message to the world. He counted many well known actors and performers as his students and in 1910, wrote the first of many books to explain his technique in detail. His published works include:
Since its inception, the Alexander Technique has aided individuals in all walks of life in correcting issues resulting from poor posture and tension in the body. Here some of the fields in which the Alexander Technique has been effective.
The rigors of dancing on a professional level are extremely taxing on the body. Strains, breaks and other injuries are common and can be devastating to a dancer’s career. The Alexander Technique addresses some of the common mistakes dancers make that lead to injuries.
Dance is in essence the outward expression of intricate muscular manipulation. In formal dance, very specific patterns of muscular coordination and tension are required in order to achieve the desire dance moves. The Alexander technique, with its focus on the correlation of mind, muscles and movement is an excellent foundation for all dancers to master.
Often called the “technique under all techniques”, Alexander’s principles allow the dancer to embody fluid movement which causes less strain on the body. The performer is focused more on the flow and ebb of the movement itself, how it feels, and employing all sensory preceptors, rather than mechanically going through a routine. Many dancers have experienced freer range of motion, less body tension and overall better performances when employing the technique. There are three specific areas in which Alexander developed philosophies and practices which aid the student:
“The Means Whereby”- This focuses on the way an individual moves, what muscle groups are employed, and comfort and synchronicity of movement from one step to the next. The aim is not to perform a particular dance move perfectly, but to perform it in a fluid, relaxed and aware manner. Becoming conscious of the actual movements at all times, dancers are able to fine tune their technique to be less abrasive on the body and more of a beautiful expression of mind and body working in perfect harmony.
“Inhibition”- The human body responds naturally to stimuli. However the reactions are often habitual and counterproductive. The inhibition principle stresses the importance of recognizing and questioning ingrained responses to external stimuli. In essence, the dancer pauses to evaluate the response and chooses an alternative, if one is better suited. By inhibiting automatic responses, over time bad habits are purged and replaced by more conscious, natural movements, greatly reducing tension and strain.
“Direction”- Once you have become aware of your movements and have identified harmful habitual patterns, it is now time to correct them. This process is called Direction. In this phase, you consciously project the correct response to the stimuli which your body previously responded negatively to. This is done in a number of ways, including mental conditioning, verbal cues and hands on correction by a trained Alexander Technique instructor. Over time, the new directions will become ingrained in the subconscious mind and become the new habitual response, thereby correcting the previous misuse of the body.
A skilled actor is a versatile chameleon, able to shift into various characters and scenes with ease. Although many study the art of acting in great detail, achieving the level of fluidity to deliver a memorable performance is not as easy as one would imagine.
Young actors in particular, focus more on the process of acting, striving to master the mechanics of a good performance. However, with the right skill set, a memorable performance is effortless. The Alexander technique provides the actor with the tools to turn a mediocre performance into a stellar one based on the principles of primary control.
Primary control describes the relation of the head and neck to the rest of the body. When the head is reflexively pulled back and down, the neck is compressed and the shoulders are also out of alignment. This not only impedes the voice and restricts spontaneous movement, but it also restricts the creative force which is critical to a fluid, convincing performance.
Great actors are able to allow their creative energy to flow freely throughout the body and tune into internal and external stimuli to deliver a timely and effective performance and respond to cues on a dime. The Alexander Technique aids actors in removing the tension from their primary control and allows them to use the body as a keen instrument. The results are the flawless performances that have been delivered by some of the great actors of our time.
Musicians benefit greatly from the Alexander technique. Playing an instrument requires a rigid set of movements in a precise order to bring forth a particular note or arrangement. In the case of bow instruments, such as the violin or the cello, the musician must hold his arm aloft and execute tiny repetitive motions over a prolonged period of time. Pianist also must maintain a rigid stance, in their sitting position and the position of their arms and fingers above the keys.
Musicians of all types suffer from repetitive motion injuries which hamper their performance or even prematurely end their careers. The Alexander Technique allows musicians to identify the habitual patters that lead to strain and send their body new directional cues. By employing new habits, there is more relaxation, a deeper connection to their performance and overall better stature and stage presence.
Along with the benefits for individuals in the arts, the Alexander Technique facilitates relief and healing of a number of bodily ailments.
Back Pain Relief
Elimination of back pain is one of the most prominent benefits of the Alexander Technique. By becoming aware of habitual habits that promote misalignment of the spine, one can work to eliminate the cause of chronic back pain.
In a study conducted by the British Medical Journal, 579 patients were given various forms of therapy for chronic and reoccurring back pain. One group was given regular care, while another was given access to massage therapy and the third and fourth groups were given lessons in the Alexander Technique, each for different lengths of time.
The results were overwhelmingly in favor of the Alexander Technique. Of the various test groups, the ones that received lessons in the Alexander technique showed improvement in symptoms even a year later. Also interesting to note: the group that received 6 lessons in the technique experienced 72% of the relief of the group that was given 24 lessons. This shows how effective the technique is once an individual is introduced to the concept.
Arthritis is an inflammatory response in the joints of the body. The joints are separated by cartilage, which cushions movement and prevents the bones from grinding together, which would be extremely damaging. The outer layer of this cartilage does get slightly rubbed away with normal movement, but it very quickly regenerates itself. In the case of most types of arthritis, incorrect alignment, movements and weight bearing cause the joints to grind together more than normal. Also, because of the constant pressure, the cartilage is unable to regenerate quickly enough, leading to permanent damage.
When arthritis sufferers develop a familiarity with the Alexander technique, they learn how to shift their weight so that it is distributed more evenly throughout the body. Realigning the body and restoring balance and harmony eliminates excess grating of the bones and allows the cartilage to replenish itself, thus eliminating the symptoms of arthritis.
Sufferers of fibromyalgia have also found relief in the Alexander technique. From a holistic perspective, fibromyalia is the body’s reaction to years or misalignment and muscular tension, which finally culminates in ongoing chronic pain.
When you use your spine and muscles incorrectly, it causes these areas to become overworked and tense. Over a period of years, the muscles become so filled with tension, that they become stuck in a clenched, painful state. This is the continuous chronic pain that fibromyalgia sufferers complain of. By learning to identify the pain triggers and release stored tension, you can free yourself from the constant pain.
Repetitive Strain Injuries
Injuries such as Carpel Tunnel Syndrome are on the rise, especially in office and factory settings. Our society has moved from one that worked largely out of doors, to one that sits at desks and work stations for long periods of time repetitively conducting the same tasks. This has caused our natural fluidity to be replaced with robot-like movements and muscle groups that are chronically misused.
The focus on ergonomics has benefited sufferers of repetitive strain injuries, but it is not a complete solution. The focus should not be solely on your surroundings, but begin and center in the individual and his use of his body. Someone who consistently sits with a slouch for hours at a time or with their hands perched over a keyboard is bound to suffer from muscle tension, which can cause many problems over time. The Alexander technique promotes recognition of these harmful habits and with awareness the opportunity to correct them. Many individuals have been completely cured of repetitive strain injuries by embodying Alexander’s principles.
Asthma sufferers experience the feeling of constricting bronchial tubes and the panicked feeling of not being able to breath. This is usually only relieved by the aid of an inhaler or other medication, but the Alexander Technique has a different view of asthma.
Instead of it being the reality that the airways are physically constricting, Alexander purports that the individual experiences an initial feeling of trapped air which can often come from poor posture, neck alignment and breath control. This in itself is not enough to induce the symptoms that often paralyze asthma sufferers. Alexander believes that it is the reaction of fear and panic at the thought of not being able to draw breath that creates a psychosomatic reality of constricted airways. In essence the individual’s reaction to the initial sensation causes the resultant symptoms and constriction.
An asthma sufferer who is learned in the Alexander technique would be able to recognize that initial sensation of breathlessness and reprogram their response to that stimulus. By remaining clam and in control of their reaction, the panic and constriction of a full blown asthma attack can easily be avoided. Instead of succumbing to panic, you are able to consciously release the stale air and draw deep cleansing breaths. The mind and body is then spared the trauma of a traditional asthma attack. This has worked for numerous asthma sufferers and poignantly illustrates the mind/body connection that the Alexander Technique is built upon.
Benefits to Sports
The Alexander Technique is a beneficial philosophy when applied to sports as well. The body is an intricate mechanism that follows certain rules of form and function. By tuning into the body’s natural patterns of movement and eliminating misuse, athletes can not only avoid injury but increase their athletic ability, endurance and overall stamina. Sports that are characteristically hard on the joints, such as running, gymnastics and other high impact sports can especially benefit from employing the Alexander Technique. Athletes have experienced marked improvement in their performance in the following sports:
Benefits for the Elderly
Traditional theory says that as a person ages, they become less stable, their bones become compressed and they actually seem to shrink. While this is often the case, it is more due to a lifelong practice of incorrect posture and body misuse.
According to Alexander, it is possible to lengthen the body through implementation of conscious body use. By directing your body to avoid slouching postures and other forms of misuse, it is possible to avoid the broken and hunched appearance often associated with old age. In fact, many of the ailments associated with growing old such as osteoporosis, arthritis and cardiovascular disorders can be alleviated by using the Alexander Technique. Elders who have embodied its principles report vastly better health in comparison to their peers and less frequent injuries and falls.
Pregnancy and Childbirth
Pregnancy is a time of great transition in a woman’s body. She is experiencing hormonal changes as well as numerous physical changes. As her body ripens, a woman often becomes unsteady on her feet, her center of gravity shifts and added weight causes sometimes extreme discomfort. The principles of the Alexander Technique can aid pregnant women in a number of ways.
The underlying principle of the Alexander technique is to observe bodily alignment in relation to internal and external stimuli. As a woman’s body shifts through the stages of pregnancy the technique guides her through making adjustments to her posture, breathing and activities that are right for that particular phase. The beauty of the Alexander Technique is that it is adaptable to any situation and can be used in all phases of pregnancy and even through labor and delivery. Learning to work with the pregnant body instead of against it is an invaluable tool for any pregnant woman.
As the Alexander Technique became more widely disseminated, the previously held beliefs of separation of the mind and body were challenged. Alexander espoused the theory that mind and body are intricately interwoven and what the mind projects is reflected in the physical state. Alexander taught that to develop a keen awareness of this connection is the door to unlocking the roadblocks to both physical and mental wellbeing.
Alexander is not the first to make the mind/body connection, but he did revive this theory in the West. The same philosophy is found in Zen Buddhism, the practice of yoga and many other eastern disciplines. For centuries, this cosmic law has allowed for unsurpassed physical, emotional and spiritual growth. Alexander effectively served as the ambassador of this principle for a new generation and his works have continued to influence and aid individuals today.
Medicine World. The Origin of the Alexander Technique: http://medicineworld.org/alternative/alexandertechnique/originof.html
Alexander Technique Bookshop: http://www.alexandertechnique.com/bookshop/alexander/
Pregnancy.org. Pregnancy and Childbirth with the Alexander Technique:http://www.pregnancy.org/article/pregnancy-and-childbirth-alexander-technique
Encyclopedia of Australian Science. Alexander, Frederick Matthias (1869 – 1955): http://www.eoas.info/biogs/P000993b.htm
The Alexander Teacher Training School: http://www.alexanderteacher.co.uk/
TheAlexanderTechnique.com. The Alexander Technique: Its Role in Dancing: http://www.alexandertechnique.com/articles/dance/
TheAlexanderTechnique.com. The Alexander Technique and the Actor http://www.alexandertechnique.com/articles/acting/
TheAlexanderTechnique.com. Alexander Technique and Aging Well: http://www.alexandertechnique.com/articles/aging/
The British Medical Journal. Randomised Controlled Trial of Alexander Technique Lessons, Exercise, and Massage (ATEAM) for Chronic and Recurrent Back Pain:
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