After one Alexander session, it felt like someone had poured a full canister of oil into my neck. After two sessions, I felt 20 years of neck tension fade away and I felt my chest naturally expand. I used to wrap myself around my instrument for years and when your head is inside the music, it’s like an anesthetic, you don’t feel the discomfort but the technique helped me to become aware of how I had been causing myself problems.
For many people, the Alexander Technique is synonymous with improving posture, yet few are aware of exactly, how it works, and even Alexander Technique teachers themselves use differing language and emphasis in their explanation of it. It can sometimes come across as a purely physical technique, whereby we examine the way we sit, stand or move while learning to release muscular tension. At other times the emphasis can be looking at how our mental habits are reflected in the body, and by changing our thinking we change our posture. Yet for me, while it is both of these, it is also a practical philosophy for living, a way of becoming a more conscious human being, a way of finding our true potential. In fact, the Technique can be many different things to different people. All are correct, for these are just facets of the same thing. Practical experience What most people would agree upon, however, is that the Alexander Technique imparts an experience – a truly wonderful experience. But how you convey this amazing feeling into words is one of the most difficult problems. How do you convey the taste of a mango or pear to someone who has never tasted that fruit before? It is impossible. My first contact with the Alexander Technique in 1984, when I met my first teacher, Danny Reilly, is a very good example of this. We sat and talked by an open fire for nearly an hour about the subject of the Alexander Technique in great detail, but at the end of the conversation I just thought: ‘What is this man talking about?’ Then he said, ‘I will show you in a practical way if you like.’ Within a few minutes of having the hands-on experience, I began to have a profound experience of expanding gently in space. At the end of half an hour, I felt very light, free and very conscious of the world around me, but I no longer felt like me! The postural habits that I had associated with who I was had been removed. It was a moment that I remember to this day. The famous actor and comedian John Cleese also found Alexander lessons very useful, reporting: ‘I find the Alexander Technique very helpful in my work. Things happen without you trying. They get to be light and relaxed. You must get an Alexander teacher to show it to you.’ Similarly, the author of very many well-known children’s books, Roald Dahl, said, ‘The Alexander Technique really works. I recommend it enthusiastically to anyone who has neck pains or back pain. I speak from experience.’ But these statements cannot give you the experience; they can only encourage you to learn more and perhaps seek out a teacher who can show you how you can have a first-hand experience of lightness, wholeness and wellbeing.
The Origin of the Technique This story of perceptiveness, of intelligence, and of persistence shown by a man without any medical training, is one of the true epics of medical research and practice.
remarkable one by any standards. He was born in Australia on 20 January 1869, the eldest of the eight children of John and Betsy Alexander. He was of mixed Scottish and Irish descent. He grew up near the small town of Wynyard, situated on the northwest coast of the island of Tasmania. So our story starts at a time when there was no electricity, no telephones and no computers. Horses and walking were the main forms of transport, and self-sufficiency was a way of life. The early years Alexander was born prematurely, and from the start he was a very sickly child, suffering from respiratory problems. Due to his frail health, he was taken out of school at an early age and tutored in the evenings by the local schoolteacher. Even as a young boy he was very inquisitive and was in some ways difficult to teach, and he used to ask his teacher how he could be certain that the information he was being taught was correct. During the day he helped his father look after horses, and I am sure that the sensitivity in his hands that was later to play such a crucial part in his teaching of the Technique to others was partly due to that. As he got older, Alexander’s health gradually improved, and by the time he was 17, financial pressures within the family had forced him to leave the outdoor life of which he had become so fond, to work in the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company. During this time he taught himself to play the violin school at an early age and tutored in the evenings by the local schoolteacher. Even as a young boy he was very inquisitive and was in some ways difficult to teach, and he used to ask his teacher how he could be certain that the information he was being taught was correct. During the day he helped his father look after horses, and I am sure that the sensitivity in his hands that was later to play such a crucial part in his teaching of the Technique to others was partly due to that. As he got older, Alexander’s health gradually improved, and by the time he was 17, financial pressures within the family had forced him to leave the outdoor life of which he had become so fond, to work in the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company. During this time he taught himself to play the violin and took part in some amateur dramatics. At the age of 20 he had saved £500 (a small fortune in those days) and travelled to Melbourne, where he stayed with his uncle, James Pearce, and passed the next three months spending his hard-earned savings on going to the theatre and concerts and visiting art galleries. At the end of this period, Alexander had firmly decided to train to be an actor and reciter. The young actor Alexander stayed on in Melbourne and took on various jobs, working for an estate agent, in a department store and even as a tea-taster for a teamerchant to finance his training, which he did in the evenings and at weekends. It was not long before he gained a fine reputation as a first-class reciter, and he went on to form his own theatre company specializing in one-man Shakespeare recitals. As he became increasingly successful, Alexander began to accept more and more engagements, his audiences got bigger, and consequently so did the halls in which he performed. With no microphones, this put more and more strain on his voice. After a while, the strain began to show, as he regularly became hoarse in the middle of his performances. He approached a variety of people, including doctors and voice trainers, who gave him medication and exercises, but nothing seemed to make any difference. In fact, the situation deteriorated still further, until on one occasion
Alexander could barely finish his recital. He became more and more anxious as he realized that his entire career was in jeopardy. Increasingly desperate, he approached his doctor again, even though previous treatment had not worked. After a fresh examination of Alexander’s throat, the doctor was convinced that the vocal cords had merely been overstrained and prescribed complete rest of his voice for two weeks, promising that this would give Alexander a solution to his problem. Determined to try anything, Alexander used his voice as little as possible for the two-week period preceding his next important engagement. He found that the hoarseness in his voice slowly disappeared. At the beginning of the performance, Alexander was delighted to find that his voice was crystal clear;
in fact, it was better than it had been for a long time. His delight soon turned into huge disappointment, however, when halfway through his performance the hoarseness returned and the condition continued to deteriorate until by the end of the evening he could hardly speak.
Frederick Matthias Alexander The next day he returned to his doctor to report what had happened. The doctor felt that his recommendation had had some effect and advised him to continue with the treatment. What transpired next proved to be at the very heart of the Alexander Technique. Early experiments Alexander refused any further treatment, arguing that after two weeks of following the doctor’s instructions implicitly, his problem had returned within an hour. He reasoned with the doctor that if his voice was perfect when he started the recital, and yet was in a terrible state by the time he had finished,it must have been something that he was doing while performing that was causing the problem. The doctor thought carefully and agreed that this must be the case. ‘Can you tell me, then, what it was that caused the trouble?’ Alexander asked. The doctor honestly admitted that he could not. To which Alexander replied, ‘Very well. If that is so, I must try and find out for myself.’ Alexander left the surgery very determined to find a solution to his curious problem. This took him on a journey of discovery that not only gave him the answer to his question, but also ultimately led to a profound new understanding of how human beings are designed to move and how the body and mind and the emotions are inseparable. He came to realize that many people grossly interfere with their own
it must have been something that he was doing while performing that was causing the problem. The doctor thought carefully and agreed that this must be the case. ‘Can you tell me, then, what it was that caused the trouble?’ Alexander asked. The doctor honestly admitted that he could not. To which Alexander replied, ‘Very well. If that is so, I must try and find out for myself.’ Alexander left the surgery very determined to find a solution to his curious problem. This took him on a journey of discovery that not only gave him the answer to his question, but also ultimately led to a profound new understanding of how human beings are designed to move and how the body and mind and the emotions are inseparable. He came to realize that many people grossly interfere with their own natural movement and that this contributes to much of mankind’s suffering in our modern civilization. Alexander’s findings were greatly underestimated at the time, but it can be argued that his discovery was one of the greatest of the 20th century. You may now be thinking that you have no problem with your own voice – perhaps you have a different problem, so how can the Technique help you? Alexander’s logic can be applied to practically any ailment we have. For example, if someone has no back pain before they do the gardening, yet has back pain after doing the gardening, then it must follow that they are putting their body under undue stress while digging or weeding and that this is the underlying cause of the problem. It does not matter what physical ailment you are suffering from, and what activity might bring it on; there is always an underlying cause, and when that is addressed, the pain or discomfort will gradually disappear. The first clues As you will see, Alexander’s story is like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Alexander’s genius was his insight that he could be causing his own problems himself without realizing it. Through his tenacity he came to prove it, and to cure himself. How many people do you know with back or neck problems who have ever had the thought that they may be causing the problem themselves? Alexander had only two clues to follow up when he started his investigations: 1. The act of reciting on stage brought about the hoarseness that caused him to lose his voice. 2. When speaking in a normal manner, the hoarseness in his voice disappeared. Following simple, logical steps, Alexander deduced that if ordinary speaking did not cause him to lose his voice, while reciting did, there must be something different about what he did while speaking normally and what he did when reciting. If he could find out what that difference was, he might be able to changethe way in which he was using his voice when reciting, which would then solve his problem. He used a mirror to observe himself both when speaking in his normal voice and again when reciting, in the hope that he could discern some differences between the two. He watched carefully, but could see nothing wrong or unnatural while speaking normally. It was when he began to recite that he noticed several actions that were different: 1. He tended to pull his head back and down onto his spine with a certain amount of force. 2. He simultaneously depressed his larynx (the cavity in the throat where the vocal cords are situated).
- He also began to suck air in through his mouth, which produced a gasping sound. Up until this point, Alexander had been completely unaware of these habits, and when he returned to his normal speaking voice he realized that the same tendencies were also present but to a lesser extent, which was why they had previously gone undetected. So Alexander’s first discovery was: Interference with the physiological mechanisms often occurs habitually and unconsciously. After this breakthrough, he returned to the mirror with new enthusiasm and recited over and over again
- to see if he could find any more clues, and soon noticed that the three tendencies became accentuated when he was reading passages in which unusual demands were made on his voice. This confirmed his earlier suspicion that there was a causal link between the way in which he recited and the strain on his voice. A maze of questions The next stumbling block that Alexander encountered was that he was unsure of the root cause of these damaging tendencies. He found himself lost in a maze of questions: 1. Was it the sucking in of the air while breathing that caused the pulling back of the head and the depressing of the larynx? or 2. Was it the pulling back of the head that caused the depressing of the larynx and the sucking in of the air? or 3. Was it the depressing of the larynx that caused the sucking in of the air and the pulling back of the head? After further experimentation, he realized that he could not directly prevent the sucking in of the air while breathing or the depression of the larynx, but he could to some extent prevent the pulling back of the head by releasing muscular tension. When he did this he also noticed that it indirectly improved the state of the larynx and the breathing. At this point, Alexander wrote in his journal: ‘The importance of this discovery cannot be over-estimated, for through it I was led on to the further discovery of the primary control of the working of all the mechanisms of the human organism, and this marked the first important stage of my investigation.’ Alexander’s second discovery was: The existence of the Primary Control, which organizes balance and coordination throughout the rest of the body.
Alexander referred to the dynamic relationship between the head, neck and back as the ‘Primary Control’ and discovered that it governed the workings of all the body’s mechanisms and made the control of the complex human being relatively simple. Freedom of movement requires the Primary Control to be allowed to work without any restriction so that the head can lead a movement and the rest of the body follows. Alexander carried on with his experiments and soon found that when he prevented himself from pulling his head back and down onto his spine the hoarseness in his voice decreased. He returned to his doctor and after further examination it was found that there had been a considerable improvement in the general condition of his throat and vocal cords. He now had positive proof that the manner in which he was reciting was causing him to lose his voice, and he was encouraged to think that changing the way in which he performed would eventually lead to an eradication of his problem. Alexander’s third discovery was: The way in which a person uses themselve will invariably affect their various functions. Unreliable sensory appreciation Encouraged with the idea that he was at last getting to the heart of the matter, Alexander continued
experimenting to see if he could achieve further improvement in the state of his vocal cords. He had observed a tendency to pull his head back, so in an attempt to correct this, he deliberately put his head forward. However, he was very surprised to find that this depressed the larynx just as much. To help him unravel this mystery, he added two further mirrors, one on each side of the original one. When he observed himself again in the mirrors, he could see clearly that he was still pulling his head back and down onto his spine as before, despite his intentions. Alexander realized that he was doing the exact opposite of what he thought he was doing. He had just made his next discovery: The existence of faulty sensory In other words, he could no longer rely on his sensory feeling alone to tell him accurately what he was or was not doing. At first he thought that this was his own personal idiosyncrasy, but later on, when he started to teach his technique to others, he realized that faulty sensory appreciation was practically universal. Feeling disillusioned, yet unable to give up his quest, Alexander persevered and began to notice that his habit of pulling his head back and down was causing not only the depression of his larynx but also various tensions and stresses throughout his entire body. He saw that he was also lifting his chest, arching his back, throwing his pelvis forward, overtightening his leg
muscles and even gripping the floor with his feet. The way he was holding his head was affecting his entire posture and balance. Alexander’s next realization was: The body does not function as a collection of separate independent parts, but as a whole unit, with every part affecting every other part. Alexander remembered that during his training he had been taught to ‘take hold of the floor’ with his feet by one of his recital tutors. He had obeyed by tensing his feet and toes, believing that his teacher obviously knew better than he did. Many of us will remember being told to sit or stand in a certain way in
order to correct poor posture. Even if we achieve what we think is being asked of us, in reality we may well make the situation worse instead of better. We are under the illusion that other people know what good posture is, when in fact most do not. It dawned on Alexander that the tightening of all the muscles in his legs and feet was part of the same habit that was causing him to tighten his neck muscles. The action of ‘taking hold of the floor’ with his feet had over the years become such an ingrained habit that he was completely unaware that he was doing it. He found it almost impossible to recite without all his habits being present, and whatever he did to try to change the way he recited simply increased the tension, which made things worse. Alexander’s next discovery
This led Alexander to the question of how he consciously directed himself while reciting, and he realized that he never gave any thought to how he moved, but simply moved in a way that was habitual because this felt ‘right’ to him. Earlier I mentioned how Alexander discovered that trying to correct bad habits by deliberate action, such as pulling the head back, resulted in even more tension. So Alexander tried a different strategy: he experimented with just thinking of his head going forward and realized that he merely had to think of the directions in order to bring about a change. The meaning of the word ‘direction’, as Alexander used it, is consciously to give a mental order to yourself, so that you will respond to what you ask rather than working by habit alone: for
example, when a person realizes that their shoulders are hunched, they think of releasing the tension and their shoulders become more relaxed. A more detailed explanation of this concept can be found later on in this book. When Alexander had practised his directions for long enough, he decided to return to the mirrors and try out his new findings during the action of reciting. To his dismay, he found that he still failed far more often than he succeeded, yet he was sure that he was getting closer to finding an answer to his problem. He began to believe that it was his own personal shortcoming that prevented him from achieving his objectives. He looked around for all possible causes of failure. After a while he saw that he was giving his
directions, he was able to notice and change the ingrained habit of pulling his head back. The principles and techniques that he conceived, which primarily consist of awareness, eradication of harmful habits and free choice, are what form the basis of what we know today as the Alexander Technique. Through diligent practice he was able not only to free himself from the harmful habits that had jeopardized his career, but also to cure himself of the recurring breathing problems that had afflicted him since birth. Summary of Alexander’s discoveries 1. Interference with our physiological
mechanisms (poor posture) often occurs habitually and unconsciously. 2. The existence Primary Control, which organizes balance and coordination throughout the rest of oneself. 3. The way in which we use ourselves will invariably affect all of our various functions. 4. The existence of faulty sensory appreciation. 5. The body does not function as a collection of separate independent parts but as a whole unit with every part affecting every other part. 6. A given stimulus produces the same reaction over and over again, which, if it goes unchecked, turns into habitual behaviour. This habitual
reaction will feel normal and natural to us. 7. Directing – to change a habit that involves muscular tension, we need to just think of what we want the muscle to do rather than actually changing it by using even more tension. 8. Inhibiting – to refuse to react to any stimulus in our automatic habitual way. 9. Eliminating ‘end-gaining’ – by inhibiting and directing, we can pay attention to how we perform an action and not be only thinking about the end result. 10. The mind, body and emotions are not separate entities, but act in unity with each other.
The Development of the Technique What you thought before has led to every choice you have made, and this adds up to you at this moment. If you want to change who you are physically, mentally, and spiritually, you will have to change what you think.
After his success in solving his own voice problem, Alexander abandoned his acting career and started to work with fellow actors, many of whom were suffering from similar problems. He was successful where others had failed, and the news spread like wildfire about the ‘miracle healer’ who had cured himself and others of a variety of ailments. Australian doctors began referring some of their patients to Alexander, and he began to gain a reputation for helping to cure many conditions previously considered incurable. He used the gentle guidance of his hands, as well as verbal instructions, to convey this new knowledge, which many people found preferable to medication or manipulation, which often had harmful side effects.
He helped more and more people to change the harmful habits that were at the root of their illnesses and began to recruit other members of his family to help him with his work, in particular his brother, Albert Redden Alexander. Some of the Australian medical profession were so convinced about the importance of Alexander’s discovery for the whole of humanity that they thought Alexander should go to London to present his work to a much wider audience. A group of them, led by Dr J W Stewart McKay, a prominent Sydney surgeon, persuaded Alexander of this. So in the spring of 1904, Alexander set sail for London with letters of recommendation from several distinguished doctors and prepared himself to give lectures and speeches about his discovery of the Primary Control. Unfortunately, however, Alexander did not receive the welcome that he or the Australian doctors had expected. In London he was seen as a threat to the medical advances that were happening at the time. Stories of the ‘incurables’ regaining their health and stamina at Alexander’s hands only made the doctors sceptical or even hostile. Rumours went around about Alexander’s ‘strange hypnotic powers’ and his ‘peculiar personal magnetism’, and many people were led to believe that he could produce temporary cures that lasted only while under Alexander’s influence. The London doctors were very afraid that the honour and dignity of their distinguished profession would be threatened by a person with no qualifications.
After all, Alexander had never been inside a university let alone a medical school. Unfortunately for a great many people, this irrational attitude by many in the medical profession remained for all of Alexander’s lifetime. Despite this enormous setback, Alexander went about setting up a practice, first in Victoria Street, then later at 16 Ashley Place in Central London. Gradually, as in Australia, word got out that there was a man who could help with a wide variety of often undiagnosed illnesses when no one else could. A few open-minded doctors and specialists began sending some of their patients to Alexander as a last resort when they were not responding to orthodox medical treatments. Other people approached Alexander of their own volition, because they had been told that they were incurable by the medical profession. The problems that these people presented were extremely varied and included back pain, neck problems, chronic fatigue, flat feet, voice or throat problems, nervous exhaustion, headaches, migraine, scoliosis, kyphosis, lordosis, lack of vitality, angina, rheumatism, arthritis, sleeplessness, depression, bad memory, legs of different lengths, stuttering, tennis elbow, indigestion, constipation, general unhappiness and many more. A case history I would like to relate the story of one of Alexander’s cases to give you an idea of how he worked. An
American woman known as Mrs Buchanan arrived in London in 1952 for what she called her ‘final consultations’, for her health had rapidly and seriously deteriorated. She had failed to recover from a recent illness and had gradually become more and more disabled. Before contracting the illness, she had always been full of energy, her appearance slender and upright, with a clear and bright complexion. Now, her head was pulled down into her shoulders, she had grown stout and round-shouldered; her skin had the look of old parchment and she could not stand without the aid of her stick. She had not walked normally for months, always dragging an ailing leg behind her. When she no longer had the energy to put on a brave face, she looked as though she was wearing a ‘death mask’. She visited doctor after doctor, specialist after specialist, and faithfully followed their advice, taking all medication prescribed. The net result was, however, that she had slowly and steadily become sicker and sicker. She travelled to London as a final attempt to find a solution to her awful predicament. After more examinations and treatments over the course of three or four months in London hospitals, she overheard by chance her name being mentioned by one consultant to another. He was saying, ‘Poor soul! You agree with me that there isn’t a hope.’ At that point, she lost all confidence in the doctors, yet did not want to hurt their feelings as she realized that they were doing their best to help her. So she made up some excuse that she needed to return home urgently for family reasons. However, between the time that she had booked her passage and the travel date, a good friend of hers, Louise Morgan, convinced her to try to see Alexander just once before travelling home. She agreed, and within a short time she was hobbling into Alexander’s teaching room for the first time, stick in hand, and was lowered gently and carefully into a chair. ‘Well, here I am’, she announced as cheerfully as possible. ‘And only just in time’, replied Alexander. ‘My dear lady, you are quite the worst case of harmful use of yourself I have seen in my fifty-six years of teaching.’ ‘My dear sir,’ she quickly retorted, ‘that is not a very complimentary thing to say to a lady.’ Very gently and kindly.