The Alexander Technique
Frederick Matthias Alexander 1869 - 1955
Breathing and posture are only a small part of what the Alexander Technique is about. It is often associated with alternative therapies but although the results in practice can be therapeutic, it is educational. This is because the student is pro-active in his/her learning about how we function as a whole system rather than separating our mind from our body.
F.M. Alexander described the experience of operating in harmony with our whole system as being in touch with our 'primary control'. The primary control is the dynamic relationship between the head and neck and the rest of the body that coordinates the body's mechanisms and movements. Alexander argued that whenever we interfere with this dynamic relationship, there is some dysfunction within us, whether physical, emotional or cognitive because everything works as a whole and we cannot separate ourselves into parts. So the stress of daily life, or getting out of a chair in a certain way or our habitual way of thinking about something can disrupt this delicate system of ours. In Alexander's own words: "You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension".
Muscle tension creates a pattern of coordination in us that, if repeated often enough, forms a habit. The problem with habits is that we don't notice them until, if they are harmful habits, they begin wreak havoc on our overall health and emotional wellbeing. This can include: back pain, sciatica, tendonitis, headaches, insomnia, phobias, lack of self-esteem, fear of 'failing' and many other conditions. By studying this technique you will learn how to avoid falling into bad habits and how to change existing habits to improve your life.
The technique is not a miracle cure but an effective and practical method based on Mr. Alexander's personal research. Today, with advances in neuroscience and technology, it can be proven that our way of thinking and our physical coordination are inextricably linked. This technology didn't exist in the early nineteenth century. Mr. Alexander's work was empirical and although praised by eminent physicians and celebrities, has only recently been studied by the scientific community.
A Short History
F.M. Alexander was born in Tasmania. His promising career as an actor due to his breathing problems and hoarseness whenever he performed. Failing to find any helpful medical treatment Alexander set out to solve the problem for himself. His observations and experiments led him to uncover excess tension in his neck which formed a habitual pattern of tension throughout his body. His significant recovery encouraged him to continue his research and he developed his technique over several years before emigrating to London in 1904. He began training others from 1930 in what became known as the Alexander Technique. He wrote 4 books and set up The Little School in 1924. His reputation grew as many famous authors, Artists, educationalists and physicians learnt the technique and sang its praises. Perhaps the most eminent student was Nikolaas Tinbergen who won the Nobel prize in 1973. He dedicated much of his *acceptance speech to FM Alexander and his work.
It is a technique used successfully by many professional actors, musicians and dancers and is highly praised by the medical profession.
*“Mr. Alexander’s method lays hold of the individual as a whole, as a self-vitalizing agent. He reconditions and re-educates the reflex mechanisms and brings their habits into normal relation with the functioning of the organism as a whole. I regard this method as thoroughly scientific and educationally sound.” - Professor George E. Coghill, award-winning anatomist and physiologist
“Alexander’s work is of first class importance and investigation by the medical profession is imperative.” - British Medical Journal
The table turn is sometimes used in lessons. This is when the student lies down on a massage table and we work together on releasing access tension. I use a light touch and give her verbal directions to have a clear intention on releasing tension in her body without any effort to DO it. There is no goal to obtain as she remains in the present moment with her intention. As she observes physical changes the tendance is to replicate those changes. This doesn’t work ! There is no ‘endgaining’ or competition to be better. No judgement, no comparison, no result based analysis. Very different to how most of us have been brought up and live out lives. Yet as she continues to follow my directions there is a whole coordinated physical response to her thinking. Muscles release, the whole body realigns, blood circulates more freely and the whole system begins to function more efficiently.
After getting off the massage table she experiences her default state, similar to when she was a young child. Centred, grounded and yet feeling light on her feet and yes.. so released and free !
The Little School -Alexander Technique for Children
FM Alexander with his pupils
F.M. Alexander sought to help teach people how to use his technique for themselves and be more independent. He saw his work as educational and with this in mind he set up a teacher training school in London in the 1930’s. Earlier in 1924 he founded The Little School for children helped by two of his assistants, Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker, who had also been trained by Maria Montessori in Italy. He felt most strongly that if children retained their natural way of moving and avoided harmful tension they would have a healthier, happier life. The technique was embedded in the school’s education. Unfortunately with the onset of the second world war the school was moved to USA and was never reestablished in UK.
Over the years the technique has not been attributed much to children until 1994 when Sue Merry was invited to teach children in her local primary school. She developed ways of integrating the Alexander Technique into the school timetable and was so successful that she founded Educare Small School in Kingston upon Thames UK in 1997.She has recently opened training courses for Alexander Technique teachers to take the technique into local primary and secondary schools in UK.
Educational establishments are understandably concerned about improving minds but very often this comes at the expense of the body - as if the two can be separated. In the picture above every single child is sitting in such a way as to invite muscular wear and tear leading to pain and injury in later life.
Besides sitting on unsuitable chairs, children carry heavy schoolbags around that strain their backs and even though wheely bags are now more commonly used, just lifting them up steps or into the car can cause physical damage. On a psychological level, pupils are subject to a lot of unnecessary stress at exams and tests which manifests in the way they hold themselves. As a result many children end up tense and out of touch with themselves. They find it difficult to express themselves through their bodies and often imitate the stereotype ‘cool’ guy or ‘model’ look to feel accepted. As Sue Holladay relates in her book Playing with Posture :…educational minds today " are minds that, are fearsomely intelligent encased in bodies that are able to barely function due to excessive tension".
Fortunately learning is part of our DNA and children learn quickly. These workshops encourage children to learn through their own actions and explorations. Children will explore the differences between being tense, relaxed and released and how these states are connected to their ideas and émotions. I use The Ready List developed by Sue Merry which is an effective way to promote calmness, focus and being in the present moment.
Understanding how little effort it takes to sit or stand also gives a child confidence in their own system and the way they naturally use their bodies. I use bodymapping to clarify where the hips are or the top of the spine, for example, then follow this with specific movements to integrate this knowledge. In this way children will begin to recognise harmful actions and replace them with more constructive ones.
Creativity is encouraged using games and movement so that learning continues to be joyful and fun as well as improving overall health. In addition, by regaining their natural alignment their attention span and learning skills also improve.