Do you find yourself habitually slumped in your seat, spine curled, shoulders collapsed inwards, neck jutting out? Or maybe it’s not so extreme, but perhaps you find yourself reflexively tensing your shoulders and neck when you’re worried about a looming deadline or personal matter. On the other hand, maybe you’re just heavy-handed and apply undue strength to simple tasks such as filling the kettle, stirring your tea, or taking out the trash. These are common postural habits that can rest below our conscious awareness and, over time, can cause aches, pains, and visible shifts in the body’s outward appearance.
The body is an interconnected and interdependent set of limbs. Impact in one area ripples throughout the system and affects the others. Most of us begin this life with an unobstructed flow in our body structure and have a natural poise. However, we collect unconscious patterns of movement as we take repetitive actions that can take us out of balance. The Alexander Technique is a learned method of unlearning harmful habits through self-awareness and the gentle postural guidance of a teacher to bring you back into your body’s optimal functionality.
The Alexander Technique was developed in Tasmania in the 1890s by Frederick Matthias Alexander, after whom it was named. Alexander was an enthusiastic Shakespearean orator who lost his voice from straining to project during performances without amplification. His attending physicians could not locate a physical cause, so the performer took to his own self-study. Using mirrors to observe himself reciting, he found that he was habitually contracting and straining his neck in preparation for his recitations. He reasoned that these behaviors disrupted his regular breathing and vocal processes, which led to the loss of his voice. Alexander corrected this habitual postural pattern through experimentation, and his voice returned. With this was born the beginnings of what would become known as the Alexander Technique.
Alexander drew influence from neo-Lamarckian thinkers (e.g., Herbert Spencer), placing his work into a broader vision of humankind’s evolution towards greater consciousness. He also found inspiration from William James and Charles Sherringtonin in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. Many notable figures have used the Alexander Technique, such as the American philosopher and educator John Dewey, English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, and Nobel Prize winner Nikolaas Tinbergen who, amongst others, claim success with the method.
Since their emergence, Alexander’s ideas have influenced other creators in the mind-body improvement field. The Alexander Technique is utilized extensively at performing arts schools worldwide, including Juilliard School and the Royal College of Music. Moreover, it has been studied by actors, athletes, and musicians to strengthen performance for over a century.
The Alexander Technique is a mind-body approach to restoring the body to its optimal balance and poise. It is a method of unlearning harmful unconscious habits, heightening self-awareness, and using the intelligence of the mind. It can be applied to people of all ages and abilities and can enhance performance in any activity.
As children (except for those born with congenital disabilities), we have natural balance and posture, and we are capable of unrestricted, free-flowing movement. Observe children as they run, play, dance, and move, and you will see the way their form is typically uninhibited. This same fluidity of movement is available to us as adults; however, it often diminishes with older age. The Alexander Technique helps to return you to your natural state of occupying and utilizing the body.
Most people have unconscious habits of movement. We engage in unconscious behaviors every day that, over time, add up to create a habit of movement that can have harmful repercussions on the body. Perhaps we have a way of holding and typing on our cell phones, entering and exiting the car, slouching on the couch, or worrying about deadlines. When repeated over time, these behaviors can affect our body, both in appearance and experience. It’s less about the activity and more about how we perform the activity. For example, repetitive strain injury (RSI) isn’t caused by using the computer but is often a result of one’s posture and way of interacting with the computer.
Perhaps the person is unaware of what is causing their lack of coordination, excess tension, or back pain. They may feel that their issue is structural and, therefore, unchangeable (e.g., “I’ve always walked this way”). However, when working with an Alexander teacher, the seeker is shown just how dynamic the body actually is. Slight adjustments to posture can have a radical effect on the entire body system.
The Alexander Technique is a holistic method whereby the teacher observes and addresses the entire body system for treatment. A person may come to the Alexander Technique with complaints of restricted breathing, circulatory issues, mobility impairment, back/neck/shoulder pain, chronic fatigue, or limitations in performance-based activities (e.g., sports, acting, music, day-to-day tasks). The teacher will not focus on the specific problem area(s). Instead, they will observe how the entire body moves in various postures to identify which muscles unconsciously tighten, stress the system, and compromise the natural balance.
Alexander was influenced by the reflex models of posture proposed by physiologist Rudolf Magnus and neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington in the 1920s. Their work produced the neurophysiological mechanisms used to explain the Alexander Technique from that point forward; that is, in order to restore posture to its optimal state, one must unlearn unhelpful habits.
The basic premise of the Alexander Technique rests on the physiology of the spine, neck, and head, which Alexander referred to as “the primary control.” The head can rest gently and lightly on the top of the spine when the neck muscles are not overworked. This premise is fundamental because the quality of this relationship between head and spine has ramifications for the rest of the system. For example, think about how it feels when you spend too much time looking down at your phone or computer. That feeling of strain in the neck muscles, when repeated over time, can shift the functionality of the spinal system. In addition, the neuromuscular system works with gravity, so when the head is gently poised and in alignment, the body’s anti-gravity response kicks in, which invites the spine to lengthen rather than compress as we move.
Teachers of this technique guide their clients into self-awareness of how they use their bodies. They teach them to undo the unhelpful habitual movements, tension, and reactions that interfere with healthy coordination. A new awareness of how to rest in optimal alignment is learned. The seeker is taught skills to implement themselves through self-practice long after receiving sessions.
The Alexander Technique and Low Back Pain
In 2008, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported on a study of the effects of The Alexander Technique as a treatment for back pain. Five hundred and seventy-nine (579) patients with chronic or recurrent low back pain participated under the care of 30 teachers from different practices spread across the UK. After 12 months, those who had received no intervention reported pain over 21 days in the last month. Those who had received six Alexander Technique lessons improved that number by ten days (i.e., almost halving that amount to 11 days of reported pain in a month). Another group took 24 Alexander Technique lessons and improved upon that number by an additional 18 days ( i.e., only three days of pain in a month). These results show the Alexander Technique’s positive impact in treating low back pain.
Full study here:
Alexander Technique and Parkinson’s Disease
A randomized controlled trial was conducted in 2002 to use the Alexander Technique in treating idiopathic Parkinson’s disease. Ninety-three (93) people with the confirmed diagnosis were treated in three groups. One group received no intervention, one group received 24 sessions of massage, and one group received 24 Alexander Technique lessons. The results of this study supported the use of the Alexander Technique to treat Parkinson’s disease and that it can lead to sustained benefits.
Full study here:
There are a few potential drawbacks to the Alexander Technique. First, as with learning any new skill, it takes time. Depending on the student’s speed and capacity for learning this body-mind method, learning the Alexander Technique could be a lengthy process of many sessions. Motivation is certainly required as the effects of learning the Technique will be significantly amplified and integrated through home practice. Conversely, lack of motivation and commitment can impede results. Also, it should be noted that since this modality is body-oriented, potential trauma or emotions may be released when unhelpful habitual movement is un-learned if this holding pattern was formed as a deeper coping mechanism. In these instances, professionals in other fields may be helpful.
Seekers can expect an Alexander Technique lesson to last 30–60 minutes. The number of lessons taken will vary based on the seeker’s personal goals. People will often take between 20 and 40 lessons over several months and then come back for a refresher down the line. The Technique is not physically demanding, and no special attire is required (although you may prefer to wear loose, comfortable clothing).
The teacher will use their hands, gently placing them on the neck, back, shoulders, etc. This will supplement the visual information they are obtaining through observation. The use of hands is to gather information and convey information to you, guiding you to release tension.
Teachers vary in how they structure their lessons. Some will give you an introductory understanding of your nervous, muscular, and skeletal systems in the first sessions before implementing the Alexander Technique. Others will start by focusing on practical application to provide some immediate physical relief.
Your teacher will guide you through basic movements, such as sitting down, standing up, and walking to enhance self-awareness of movement. Some teachers may also work with a broader spectrum of applications.
Lessons are often one-on-one, but some teachers offer group lessons or online video lessons, which have been proven effective despite the absence of hands-on work.
Here are a few personal experiences shared by Seekers who have used the Alexander Technique:
In searching for a guide, you will want to find a skilled professional certified in teaching the Alexander Technique. Several different societies approve training programs, such as the Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT), the American Society for the Alexander Technique (amSAT), and Alexander Technique International (ATI), along with affiliated societies. The general instruction requires completing 1,600 hours of training over a minimum of three years.
Here are a few personal experiences shared by Guides who practice the Alexander Technique:
Alexandertechnique.co.uk. 2021. Home | The Definitive Guide to the Alexander Technique. [online] Available at: <https://alexandertechnique.co.uk/> [Accessed 10 February 2021].
Arnold, J., 2021. Alexander Technique. [online] Alexandertechnique.com. Available at: <https://www.alexandertechnique.com/articles2/arnoldat/> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
McCann, Andrew, 2021. Alexandertechniquescience.com. 2021. A Short History of AT – Alexander Technique Science. [online] Available at: <https://www.alexandertechniquescience.com/a-short-history-of-at/> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
Naturalpoise.com. 2021. History of The Alexander Technique. [online] Available at: <http://www.naturalpoise.com/history.html> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique. 2021. What happens during an Alexander Technique Lesson or Class?. [online] Available at: <https://alexandertechnique.com/lesson/> [Accessed 10 February 2021].
En.wikipedia.org. 2021. Alexander Technique. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Technique> [Accessed 5 February 2021].
Alexander Technique British Medical Journal Back Pain Study. [Video]. YouTube. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coVXuDjHrfM&feature=player_embedded> Published 27 March 2010. [Accessed 10 February 2021].
Alexander Technique – Mayo Clinic. [Video]. YouTube. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=niFdH63McSA> Published 24 August 2010. [Accessed 10 February 2021].