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Self Awareness of Movement

Today there are over 3,000 Alexander Technique teachers throughout the world, with training centres and national professional societies. As the medical community and the general population are finding increasing benefits in low-tech, personal preventive and educative approaches to healthcare, the Alexander Technique offers a great variety of potential help to individuals in private, institutional and corporate settings.

Origins

F.M: Alexander (Australia, 1869-1956) was an orator and also a Shakespearean actor who, at a critical time in his career, developed a chronic loss of voice in performance. Palliative recommendations from physicians and voice specialists, including extended vocal rest, were to result in a brief recovery between performances, but upon returning to the stage Alexander's vocal loss recurred.

Persistence and a decade long process of self observation with the aid of mirrors led to him developing what today is known as the Alexander Technique. Alexander succeeded in identifying previously unconscious, habitual patterns of head movement, nect tension, back compression and forceful breathing, which together had the effect of causing a lack of sufficient breath support for his voice, and destructuve pressure on his vocal apparatus.

More important to his own learning and eventual teaching, he operationalised a means of breaking the habitual cycle of destructive response patterns set in motion by the stimulus to speak and perform. In doing so, ALexander was able not only to regain the use of his voice in performance, but also his vocal quality was much improved.

The improvement in his voice corresponded with a dramatic, evident change in his physical stature and respiratory function; in less tension and more balance throughout his body; and an unanticipated improvement in his general physical health. Over a period of years, ALexander developed his teaching and he performed less, as first performing artists, and later medical patients, with various respiratory and physical ailments found their way to him for vocal, breathing and physical or movement re-education.

Balance & Posture

Successful integration of movement function demands balance. As vertebrate animals, we are designed to move in such a way that the head leads our movement along the spine, and the body follows. This movement is an upward, vital direction in response to gravity, distinct from our movement in space, which is often horizontal (for example, walking or running along the horizontal surface of the ground).

In animals, the head leading horizontal movement is clearly evident. Any animal searching out its prey, for example, can be clearly seen to orient its movement by the head, where the primary organs of sight, smell and sound are located. Watch the intensity of a cheetah in motion and you can see clearly that the head is leading, the spine is following, and it almost seems as if the legs are merely catching up. Conversely, to restrict movement, we pull back on the reins. This pulls the head back, directing forces in the animal's body into the opposite direction from the one in which the horse is moving.

In most instances, the balance of our head to our spine is innate. Most healthy newborns explore and maintain this balance developmentally as they grow. Over time, under constant stress and maladaptive accommodation to our environment, we tend to lose this delicate balance.

Balanced, Dynamic Posture

The Alexander Technique focuses on restoring a balanced, dynamic posture, or coordination of the head and the spine. While posture is frequently thought of as a position in which to sit or stand, a dynamic posture is one that maintains a balanced relationship between the head, neck, and torso in movement, continually changing in response to the demands of activity, yet maintaining and underlying integrity or principle. This is characterised by:

  • A perceptible and altered relatioinship of the head to the neck and back
  • A corresponding activation of deep postural antigravity muscular specifically
  • A re-balancing of the generalised tonus of the external musculature
  • An increased length along the spine
  • Freedom and mobility of the joints
  • >Ease and increased flexibility of movement

This organisation creates a pattern of efficient muscular distribution of effot and a natural upright buoyancy that is characteristic of children and animals. As animals, we too are designed to move with freedom, vitality and balance. Distortion of this dynamic postural condition leads to stress, wear and tear.

How it Works

The Alexander Technique is a process of learning, or re-learning balance. The process of re-education is neuro-muscular, referring to the central nervous system which includes the brain. This system serves to transmit signals through the spinal cord and nerves to the musculature for balance and movement. It also serves transmission in the opposite direction, sending sensory-motor information from muscles and joints back to the brain in an ingoing feedback loop.

These signals are a form of thought, although we do not usually think of them that way. Virtually every action we take as human beings, if the thought is in any way expresed, is expressed through movement. To simplyfy, some examples would be movement of the respiratory and vocal apparatus, lips, tongue and jaw for singing or speech, movement of the arms and hand to conduct, write, etc.

While any potential students may initially come to the Alexander Technique for relief of physical (or physchological) symptoms or problems, the teacher's job is to teach, not necessarily treat or diagnose which are beyond the scope of an Alexander teacher's practice and training. Observation and assessment of patterns of malcoordination and, in particular, postural response are what are addressed. Students learn to stop doing things that get them into physical trouble and excessive stress. Learning occurs in several stages:

  • Insight:
    Initially students gain greater and greater conscious insight into habits of unnecessary tension, poor posture, ineffective thinking, shallow breathing, stress and fear patterns that get in their way and can lead to physical (or psychological) distress, pressure, pain and malfunction - "dis-ease", or under performance.
  • Control:
  • With insight comes control. A critical component of the lessons is experiencing the immediacy and results of clear, directed thought and intention. We can have clear intentions to do something, as well as not to do something. For example, a student may recognise a tendancy to tighten her neck, collapse her torso and compress her spine when she stands up or sits down (slumps). This can exert enormous pressure and strain on the spine, joints, and musculature. She can equally make a decision not to do that.

This sounds easier than it is when dealing with internal movement patterns in the musculature (or deeply held emotional patterns), and often may require confronting perception and belief systems. This is why an Alexander Technique is so crucial. The teacher is there to assist in the process, through the means of sophisticated sensory guidance with the hands, as well as providing verbal or demonstrative instructional guidance and feedback.

The student must resist the temptation to do what is very familiar. When successful, the student will do something else, and that "something else" is almost always easier and freer, less stressful and more mechanically efficient.

Throught movement repetition, over time, new neuromotor patterns replace less useful ones, and gradually the student's general sense of self and overall standard of functioning improves. While experience of relief and freedom may come early under a teacher's guidance, it is in a later stage of learning that symptoms of "dis-ease" tend to either disappear or diminish dramatically, as fundamental habit patterns have changed.

Most likely, the aggravating, contributing behaviour has been eliminiated - or is no longer a dominant response. The student's whole system has changed its internal environment by means of improved respiration and circulation, reduced spinal and joint pressure, improved neuromuscular control and postural tone, more even distribution of effort, all of which may allow healing to occur and prevent recurrence of functionally-related health problems.

The technique is taught against a backdrop of our own internal sense of feeling and motion - our kinesthetic sense. How accurate our sense perception is (which Alexander maintianed was not very well developed) - how "in touch" we are with our bodies, and how "present", or aware we are - will, to a great extent, influence the course of lessons and speed of learning.

The Lesson

The purpose of a lesson is to facilitate the student's learning about the coordination of the head, neck and back as a basis for all movement, and the inseperability of the human being into parts, whether they be a "mind" and a "body", a "leg" and an "arm", a "psychological", "emotional", "intellectual" or "physical".

The technique recognises the body/mind as one. Every activity engages the entire system. There may be greater or lesser emphasis on a specific dimension of the person, on specific muscle groups, perhaps, but the whole person is engaged. It is a tenet of the technique that every part of the self affects the whole. Like Plato before him, Alexander was insisitent that the distinction between body and mind was a false one, and that the scientific tendency towards reductionism was not only flase, but dangerous to the well being of the individual.

>To the initial observer or student, a typical lesson of 30 to 45 minutes is likely to appear as a form of sophisticated postural adjustment, and a process of learning how to sit, stand and walk correctly under the teacher's guidance. Movement guidance includes touch - a sophisticated use of the teacher's hands and verbal instruction. Some work is also usually done lying down, giving the student the opportunity to undo tension patterns associated with supporting the structure upright, while the teacher may be moving limbs and encouraging lengthening of the spine.

Member Comment

Kath Potts wrote to us to let us know how helpful she found Alexander Technique, her comments are below.

Just wanted to say how interesting I found your website as I have been suffering with scoliosis (more so since giving birth when I was 35 – I am 55 now). Your site looks amazing and I will need a lot of time to take it all in!

Just to say though in the last few months I have started the Alexander Technique and find it very beneficial for my problems (lower lumber scoliosis – minor, not even classified as a degree) and resultant cervical spondylosis due to bad posture.

I have to say that after six months of treatment (once a week at first, and then latterly three weeks apart) my neck is almost free and I can turn much further on the “painful” side – something I had not realised until my teacher pointed it out to me! My neck is definitely more free and my back strength has much improved. As I have always been mindful of the affects of exercise on my back, I have practised yoga for the last ten years (on and off) and also taken up pilates which I find much more beneficial. Both the Alexander Technique and Pilates seem to work hand-in-hand for me, and I now have much more pain-free time and ease of movement.

My advice to anyone out there contemplating a solution for scoliotic back pain is to investigate the Alexander Technique as it will definitely make a difference. Also, keeping your back mobile and eating healthily will help.