Alexander's story

Alexander was born into a farming family in Tasmania in 1869. A studious and delicate child, he found a way of earning as a reciter of dramatic monologues. He particularly loved Shakespeare.

He developed his Technique in the late decades of the 19th century when he found himself suffering from voice problems which threatened his career. Using careful self-examination he worked out that his hoarseness came from habits he had developed of over-tightening himself, especially in his neck, when he was reciting.

Curing himself was not easy. Determination not to tighten the neck, as anyone can check for themselves, invariably leads to tightening it. Alexander used an arrangement of mirrors and painstakingly figured out how to stop himself tightening.

There was such an improvement in his voice that fellow actors started coming to him with their own voice problems. He eventually found he could best explain himself by gently using his hands to guide people away from their bad habits.

It soon became clear that getting rid of excess tension, especially in the neck area, brought other benefits. People found their breathing improving and problems such as bronchitis and asthma being eased.

Others found their sleep improved, others that digestive problems vanished; others that they felt less depressed. Excessive muscular tension can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

Doctors began to send their patients to Alexander. In 1904 he came to London with letters of introduction to some prominent members of the medical profession. He set up practice and soon acquired a distinguished clientele.

Over the years, his famous pupils included George Bernard Shaw, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Stafford and Lady Isobel Cripps, John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, and Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India.

Lytton, to take one example, had been suffering from headaches, muscular pains and stomach problems but he returned to his duties in India completely reinvigorated by a course of lessons with Alexander.

In 1931 Alexander opened a school in London to train teachers in his Technique. He also continued in private practice, sharing his time between London and the USA. He died in 1955 just ten weeks short of his eighty-seventh birthday.

Most people who have heard of the Alexander Technique associate it with posture. My conversations with people about the Technique often begin: "Must sit up straight when I'm talking to you."

Other people say: "I've heard it's a bit like yoga" or "I do Pilates for my bad back; is it similar?" or "Can it fix my neck-ache?" Others are dismissive: "I don't believe in paying too much attention to my aches and pains, I just exercise them off in the gym."

Whatever the starting point, I find it useful to take the discussion forward by suggesting we think of young healthy children. The grace, balance, and energy they show in the way they move and play is our genetic inheritance. It is the way we can and should be.

Then, as we grow up, we learn to misuse ourselves. We slump, we slouch, we exercise the wrong muscles. With the passing years come the aches, the pains and the loss of our original freedom and agility.

The Alexander Technique is about learning how to stop misusing ourselves; it is about recovering our natural endowment. The good thing is that if we can stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing gradually happens.

Our abilities to walk, run, stand, or sit gracefully are not lost, they are just buried. In some of us they are buried pretty deeply beneath decades of misuse. It can take a while to uncover them; unlearning bad habits is usually more difficult than acquiring them. But no matter what our age or our physical state we can improve the way we use ourselves. It is never too late.

Alexander lessons

Alexander teachers are trained to spot the ways in which we misuse ourselves. The aim of an Alexander lesson is to start you on the journey of restoring your proper way of using yourself.

The procedures in an Alexander lesson are simple; the equipment even more so. The Alexander teacher's room has a chair, an ordinary kitchen chair is all that is required. It also has a physiotherapist's couch. Alexander teachers usually call it a table because all that is needed is a table long enough and strong enough for you to lie upon. Clothing should be loose and women should wear trousers or a long skirt.

Lessons involve some gentle hand-contact by the teacher. If the idea of this makes you uneasy, discuss it with the teacher before you start. There is no undressing apart from taking off the shoes. Lessons never involve force or touching of "private" areas of the body.

The teacher will ask you to stand, and by hand and voice will gently adjust you into allowing standing to happen more freely. This can reveal a great deal about how we distort ourselves and the amount of unnecessary effort we put into the ordinary business of standing.

The Alexander teacher than asks you to sit into the chair. This is a deceptively simple process but because it employs the major joints in the body - the ankles, knees, hips and the head on the top of the spine - it reveals a great deal about our general standard of muscular use. If any of these joints is not working properly, especially that between the head and the neck, it is immediately obvious.

Usually, the teacher then gets you to lie on your back on the table with your knees up and a couple of paperback books under your head to support it. This rests the joints, allows the spinal disks to expand, and creates a state of restful awareness of what is going on the body. The Alexander teacher judiciously assists the process of bringing you into a state of relaxed awareness of yourself.

This is an Alexander lesson. In scientific terms it is creating the conditions under which the body's reflex system can carry out its work effectively.

The process is extremely gentle but is considerably more demanding than it may initially appear. It calls for clearly focused attention and a willingness to think about how you are using yourself. It is called a lesson because it is not about what the teacher does to you but how well you are able to learn about the ways in which you are misusing yourself.

How does this help me?

Does it actually matter if I misuse myself and stand in a scrunched-up or lobsided way? There are surely more important things than getting in and out of chair in a particular way.

The answer is that yes it does matter. All the time we are standing or sitting in a distorted way we are interfering with essential processes like breathing and blood circulation. We are twisting and straining our joints. We also training our muscles into these distorted patterns of using ourselves so that we take them into everything we do, whether it is using a computer, working in the kitchen, watching TV, going jogging, or exercising in the gym.

The Alexander Technique is not a therapy to be applied to specific medical conditions. But pains in the neck, shoulder and back; tension headaches; difficulties with voice and breathing; creaking knees and hips are all accompanied by misuse of the muscular system. Even the gravest medical conditions are best treated in people who are breathing easily and using their bodies properly.

This is why the Alexander Technique is so beneficial. After a series of lessons, people generally find themselves moving more freely and easily. Once we start using ourselves properly the body's own restorative powers are released. Lessons can sometimes bring about profound physiological, and even psychological, changes as the body rediscovers its proper shape and equilibrium.

Karin and Conrad Brown, two young AT teachers who now run a teaching practice in Estonia, describe the wide range of benefits they personally experienced from the AT in the "about us" on their website (here).  Karin suffered such severe  neck and shoulder pain as a music student that she had to give up playing the piano.  It was only when she discovered the AT that she found a way back into her career.  Conrad first encountered the AT as a sixteen year-old when it improved his table-tennis.  He came back to it later under the guidance of Walter Carrington, experiencing increasingly  profound and beneficial effects.  

Not an easy option

In recent conversations I have gained the impression that many people think the Alexander Technique is an easy option. It does not involve exercise programmes, physiotherapy, medication or any such interventions.

Perhaps this is why it is easy to underestimate the Alexander Technique and assume it is a soft option. In fact, the contrary is nearer the truth. The Alexander Technique demands a far higher level of mental engagement and intellectual commitment than many people realise. 

It is, of course, pleasant to place oneself in the skilled hands of Alexander Technique teacher and experience the sense of freedom and release from muscular tension that this can bring.  But if this were all, it would miss the major point of having Alexander Technique lessons.

The Alexander Technique is about changing the way we use ourselves physically and mentally.  It is about taking control of ourselves in a profound manner.  It is about becoming aware of how we are allowing damaging habits of mind and muscle to interfere with our proper use of ourselves.  Above all, it is about learning how to stop this misuse of ourselves.

The Alexander Technique requires us to become increasingly aware of ourselves and to use this awareness to take responsibility for ourselves. It offers no hiding place and is as demanding as we allow it to be.  When we are prepared to seek its depths they turn out to be profound and unexpectedly rich.  It is far from the easy option it is sometimes thought to be.