What is the Alexander Technique?

Attempting to write this fills me with the same dread that arises when meeting a stranger. After the initial hellos and the names bit, the conversation goes something like this:

Fred: What do you do?

Don: (taking a deep breath, knowing what inevitably will follow.) I teach the Alexander Technique.

Fred: Oh!, what’s that?

(Now this would be the salesman’s perfect opportunity, a potential client asking to know more!, but unfortunately I am no salesman.)

Don: (heart sinking into boots) Um, Er. It’s… a set of principles which, if learned and applied consistently in your everyday life leads to improvements in your general health and appearance, for example improved breathing, stronger back, better posture, more energy.

Fred: (looking glazed ) Which team do you support?

Recognising that this does not help anyone, least of all me, I tried role playing with a colleague, in order to do better.

Penny: What do you do?

Don: I’m a Teacher of the Alexander Technique.

Penny: What’s that?

Don: Many people think of it as a therapy or a complimentary medicine, but it is really a re-education process where a teacher helps you to stop and notice harmful habits of movement in every day life, and then to apply appropriate thoughts under the teacher’s verbal and physical guidance to perform the movement in a lighter, more poised and less strenuous manner.

This re-education in the way you use yourself leads to an improved functioning of your entire body together with an improvement in health and well-being and a better quality of life. For example, I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or M.E. and it helped me to completely overcome it, as well as providing me with a new direction in life.

Don: What do you do, Penny?

Penny: I’m a brain surgeon.

Obviously there is still room for improvement, and I will continually be striving for this. The difficulties are several.

How can I adequately convey a practical experience by verbal description alone?

My audience will always want to pigeonhole or associate the new with the known, and they just do not have anything that comes close to the Alexander Technique, with the possible exception of the Feldenkrais Method, and that no doubt has its own difficulties for explanation.

My stranger doesn’t really want all this, she just wants to know two things, sufficient information to plug a hole in her knowledge and what benefit could it bring to her.

So, to address the problem from another direction, I may take the stranger’s position:

Vic: What do you do?

Don: I teach the Alexander Technique.

Vic: What’s that?

Don: Rather than launch into a complicated description, let’s tackle it another way. What physical problems do you have, such as bad back, breathing difficulties, headaches, exhaustion, restricted movement of joints, anything else?

Vic: I do have repeated problems with my back, I have to lift heavy weights in my work, and I do everything right, you know, lift with the legs, keep your back straight, don’t twist and all that, but still every now and then I’m out of action for a spell.

Don: Yes, that must be very painful and frustrating. Let me give you an idea of how the Alexander Technique could help you… Pick something well within your capabilities to lift, and I will put my hands on you and follow your movement while you do it, and then lift again with me guiding and directing you in your own instructions… Here we go… What did you notice.

Vic: I found that the second time your hand was seeming to push my head forwards and away from my tail bone, and that the whole process was much slower but easier.

Don: Yes, we all tend to pull our heads back and down whenever we move, but it’s especially important during lifting. The usual instructions of keep your back “straight” are correct of course, but they literally do not go far enough. The back could be considered to extend right up to the crown of the head and down to the tailbone, so “straight back” should include all of it. Not only this, but the back should not actually be straight: it needs its sweeping curves for it to act as an efficient shock absorber. Better to say not to bend the back: in other words leave it alone as a spring with a tendency to lengthen.

Also we are told to lift with the legs. What we want our effort to do is to lift the load plus some of our own body, but what we actually do is put a great deal of undue tension into our bodies (even holding our breath) and then use some of our muscles to both lift the weight and to overcome the inappropriately tense muscles. We need to combat this by thinking of releasing those muscles and thinking of freedom in the hip, knee, ankle and head to neck joints.

Now I will point out how the Technique relates to what we have just been doing.. Why have you gone bright red? Oh yes , we’d better have you put the load down! STOP!, think of freedom in the neck, to let the head go forward and up… Yes, like this.. to let the back (ALL of it) lengthen (be as true as possible to its natural curve) to let the hip joints be free (so as not to drag the pelvis and lower spine with the legs as they bend) to let the knees go freely forward and away over the free ankles and toes… Now allow it to happen, and the load goes down while you continue the thoughts.

Vic: But where does the Technique come in?

Don: Alexander discovered that a proper free and poised relationship of the head to neck atop a lengthening spine (primary control in his parlance) was key to what he called good use of the self (mind and body) resulting in improved functioning of the self. However, in order to get it working, he had to first be aware of the probability of poor use when about to move, then stop, then apply thought, then move (or maybe stop again in order to fool his ingrained habit). It does become second nature after a while, but initially it can be quite a slow process. We all have a lifetime of poor habits built up to unlearn and re-educate. That’s quite a bit about me, tell me about your work, Vic.

Vic: I’m an Alexander Teacher! When I said “What’s that?” I just meant I hadn’t heard you, but I was enjoying the work so much I didn’t like to stop you!

The End.