By Jenny Daisley
F Mathias Alexander (1869 – 1955) was motivated to develop his way of working to improve mind and body co-ordination by his own respiratory and vocal problems. As a child he was not expected to live. As a youth he was educated at home because he was too ill to attend school. When he became a reciter on the Victorian stage he frequently lost his voice. He tried everything that was suggested by medical and other practitioners of the day, even re-maining totally silent for two weeks, but to no avail. Then he began a seven year long, detailed study of what he was doing with his body which prevented his voice from flowing. And so he discovered and developed the technique which bears his name. It is a technique to be learned, not a therapy to be given. Its practitioners are teachers and those who seek to find out more about it are pupils. But often the process of re-education leads to a cure of some ailments.
Who seeks Alexander lessons?
The majority of pupils (about 65-70 per cent) come because they have pain of one sort or another, most frequently back, neck or shoulder pain. These pupils usually also report stress and tension.
The next main group (about 25 per cent) are those who perform: actors, musicians, dancers, athletes and sports enthusiasts, both amateur and professional. The remainder are people who feel that they need some boost to help them take steps in their development as individuals, to take more charge of their lives in some way. The Alexander Technique aims to help people to rid themselves of habits in the way in which they use their bodies which may be harmful to health and well-being.
What is the Alexander Technique and how does it work?
In Alexander lessons we are working mainly with the kinaesthetic sense. The experienced cook knows the ‘right’ thickness of a batter, the nurse knows the tightness of a bandage, the driver knows the pressure on the pedals to achieve a certain result. In one way in Alexander work we are helping people to be more economical in the effort that they put into doing things. To begin to achieve this, pupils first have to observe how they do things now, decide which activities they might do in a better way and try to put the new and better way into effect.
Without moving, observe how you are reading this passage now.
Let’s assume that you are sitting. Notice first of all how your body is balanced. Is the weight evenly distributed or is it more on one sitting bone (ischial tuberosity) than on the other?
Where are your feet? Do they support your legs? Are they tucked under the chair or round each other? Do you notice any pressure points? What about your back? Is it curving laterally as you perhaps rest an elbow somewhere? Does it curve quite a bit in the upper spine as you read? If you note your observations you are almost certain to discover some ways in which you are using your body right now, which conflict with its design.
People often sit slouched with pressure on the coccyx, slanting to one side, causing the muscles of one side to work much harder, with excess of pressure on crossed legs cutting off the blood supply or nervous system. Now move (if you have resisted the temptation) and sit in what you would consider to be a more balanced way. Stay there for a few moments as you read and see how it feels.
Consider any piece of machinery or equipment, if it is used badly or not for the purpose for which it was designed, it is likely to suffer excessive wear and tear. It is the same with our bodies. If they are not used as designed, they wear in the wrong places. But most of us were not taught about the design of our own bodies.
If we can use our bodies in the way in which they are designed we will find that we make less effort. Once we have retrained ourselves, the wear and tear on muscles, ligaments, bones, joints, etc will be reduced. But it is difficult to change old habits! Old habits are comfortable and feel ‘right’.
Try another experiment. Fold your arms in whatever way you normally do. Now look at them. Which hand comes upwards into the crook of your elbow? Now fold them the opposite way. What happens? For a few people it is easy, but most have to stop and think and when it is done in the opposite way, it feels ‘odd’, ‘uncomfortablc’ or ‘not right’. So here we see two barriers that people meet in themselves when they try to do something differently. They have to stop the old habit, which is ingrained and automatic, and replace it with something which is conscious and makes better use of the structure of the body.
Alexander used the word inhibition to describe the stopping part of the process and he devised a set of basic instructions to enable the new movement to be made with the best possible use of the body and mind. He eliminated the use of the word ‘right’ in this sense, because of the dangers of trying to achieve for example a ‘correct’ way to sit down. Once people thought that they could do it ‘correctly’ they would give up trying to improve.
Let us suppose, for example, that you decide to change the way in which you bend to pick things up. First you have to remember each time that you bend that you are not going to do it in your old automatic way. You have to stop or inhibit. Then you have to have a clear and accurate picture of the new way. This is where Alexander’s set of instructions, ‘directions’ he called them, come in. They enable you to free your joints and release your muscles in such a way as to make the movement flow accurately according to your intention and with economy of effort. To begin with it is difficult to trust your sensory awareness, it is so used to the old patterns. That is where the Alexander teacher comes in. at your experiment. How are you sitting now? Have you reverted back a bit to your old pattcrn? Are you feeling a strain staying in a new pattern? (release it if this is so). Did you forget what was happening in your body as you concentrated on what you were reading?
What happens in the Alexander lesson?
Alexander teachers are trained by means of a three year, full time course at a registered training centre. This training is governed by the professional association, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique.
The teachers use their hands in a very gentle way to assist the pupil in releasing excess muscle tension. Learning the directions of freeing joints and lengthening and widening the body is encouraged through the teachers’ hands and conversation. Some parts of the lesson may be conducted lying down on a table so that the teacher is able to effect greater release in areas where it is needed. It is advisable for pupils to wear loose and comfortable clothing during the lesson.
The main part of the lesson is concerned with re-educating the kinaesthetic awareness and applying this to how the pupil undertakes day-to-day activities, such as walking, standing, sitting, bending, picking up and carrying, sitting at a desk, or playing an instrument, if this is appropriate. Pupils learn the basic principles of stopping old habits, getting a new intention clear and directing their bodies to achieve the movement in the best possible way. Attention is constantly paid to the relationship between the head, neck and back, as it is in this area that most people today have too much tension, affecting blood supply and the nervous system.
To begin with, the work feels strange. For most people it is pleasantly relaxing and after a lesson they say they feel ‘calmer’, ‘as if my body is lighter’, ‘more able to move easily’. In the first lessons the strangeness relates to the new ways in which the body is poised and moving. If you were to decide to brush your teeth with your toothbrush in the opposite hand, it would take quite a few days for you to remember to do it each time and probably several weeks to become as proficient with the opposite hand. And so it is over a course of lessons (average 25-30 lessons) that pupils begin to develop greater sensory awareness and a new confidence in their kinaesthetic ability. Gradually the teacher becomes less the teacher and more the helper or catalyst for the pupils, as the pupils learn to apply the Alexander Technique increasingly in their daily lives.
For most people the unhelpful body habit patterns begin to be visible from age three or four onwards. So it is years of habits that the Alexander work is trying to change. Once people learn the basic principles it is a lifetime’s work developing them and applying them to more and more situations and with greater subtlety, referring back to a teacher only for the occasional ‘top up’ or refresher.
Can the Alexander Technique cure people?
It sets out to re-educate. As new ways of using the body become established, various parts of the body gain a greater freedom. Breathing, circulation, digestion and elimination are improved, with the resultant benefits. Applying the principles to the way we use our thinking and feelings as well as to what we do may also contribute considerably to our state of well-being. Some Alexander teachers will help pupils to explore the technique in relation to thinking and feelings. For most of us ill health at some points in our lives is normal — we can expect it. Working in an Alexander way gives us a way of coping with our reaction to the situation.