What is the Alexander Technique?

An Alexander Technique definition:

Unconscious, harmful patterns of movement and strain, greatly impact how we function in our day-to-day lives.  They effect our health and fitness, and are often responsible for pain in the back, neck and other parts of the body, as well as poor posture.

The Alexander Technique reveals these movement patterns and strain in ourselves so that we may replace them with conscious, efficient movement and healthy muscle tone.

The technique treats the body and the mind holistically; no part is treated in seclusion from the whole.

How:

The power of habit is not only apparent in addicts: It is also seen in the unconscious, ‘sleepwalking’ ways people move in their everyday lives.

Alexander Technique lessons wake you up.   You become aware of the grip of habit and its detrimental effect on your health.  As you free yourself from habitual movement patterns, your body and mind respond positively to the change and your pain drops.

Simple, everyday objects are incorporated into lessons in which you refine the way you sit, walk and move objects.

Tip: consider the sessions as lessons in which you learn something, not a therapy where something is done to you.  The AT is a complement to traditional and alternative medicines.

Thoughts on definitions:

Ever since I became interested in the AT, I€™ve struggled to find a satisfactory and succinct definition for what is now my livelihood.  I€™ve even taken woeful pride in belonging to a profession so exclusive and mysterious that it baffles categorization.

Of course there are definitions but they€™re more confusing than clarifying. Wikipedia, says €œAlexander Technique teaches the ability to improve physical postural habits, particularly those that have become ingrained or are conditioned responses.”  There is (at least) one problem with this definition: FM Alexander always stressed that the AT is not just about physical improvement; the mental & physical parts of the self cannot be divided.

Other definitions describe the benefits of the AT, but skirt the issue of how these benefits are gained.   There are also pamphlets that describe the benefits of the technique for specific groups, e.g. horseback riders or musicians.

Aldous Huxley, fan of the Alexander Technique

You€™d assume, and you€™d be wrong, that FM€™s books would be the place to turn to for the definition of his eponymous technique.  But FM€™s books are a notoriously difficult read (Aldous Huxley offered to rewrite them–an offer FM indignantly turned down), and after wading through innumerable prefaces, introductions, footnotes & appreciations, you€™ll come to something like this in Man€™s Supreme Inheritance: €œMy method is to make an examination and then to apply tests to discover the real cause or causes–namely, the erroneous preconceived ideas–and to find out what minimum of control is left, and therefrom to develop a healthy condition of the whole organism by a simple and practical procedure which step by step effects the desired physical and mental changes.€  A more concise definition is on the dust jacket: €œThe AT is a method for developing conscious use of oneself in all activities of living€.

FM himself warns €œbe careful of the printed matter: you may not read it as it is written down€.  He wasn€™t really interested in giving a short, simple description of the technique; he would have found it inadequate and he was not a man to compromise.  FM would have agreed with journalist Sydney J. Harris that €œany philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.€

In line with €˜non-doing€™, a sacred tenet of the AT, FM is more likely to describe what things are not, than what they are.  He wants you to engage with the ideas and come to your own hard-won understanding.  It€™s a practical understanding that must be put into practice in your life in order to understand the technique.  In other words, the technique is to be practiced not just defined.

Note that I do not say don€™t read FM€™s books. I think they€™re great, many difficult things are. And he has many wise and wonderfully pithy aphorisms, e.g. €œDon€™t come to me unless, when I tell you you are wrong, you make up your mind to smile and be pleased€. But the books are not for everyone and if you€™re really interested in the technique, a good place to start is Walter Carrington€™s €˜Thinking Aloud€™.

When I do need to define the AT to others, I have two choices.  The first is for those (e.g. reporters, border guards, and judges) who need a description that they can neatly file in their heads (he€™s a glorified physical therapist): €œThe AT is used in the performing arts and healthcare.  Clients learn to move with less tension and more efficiency.€  True but incomplete.

The second definition is more comprehensive: €œThe AT takes unconscious harmful patterns of movement and tension and brings them into the light of consciousness so that the client is able to recognize and eliminate these patterns and restore optimal, unstrained, functioning.€ Austere but accurate.

Ultimately (and this is a bit of a cheat) the AT is experiential–you can€™t really know what it is until you€™ve tried it.

Afterthought

Half a year later, I came across Frank Pierce Jones,*  and in his ‘Collected Writings on the Alexander Technique’ he has a very good and fairly brief definition of the technique: “a means for teaching the child or adult an improved use of himself as a whole. The pupil is shown what he is unconsciously doing that interferes with his best performance of any activity. As he comes to recognize his wrong, habitual reaction, he learns how consciously to prevent it, and thus provides himself with a control that makes for the greatest efficiency possible at any stage of his development. It is a control that he will be able to use in whatever he is doing or learning, whether arithmetic or tennis, since his chief instrument in any activity is the same, namely himself.” 

But he goes on to note the same snag:  The definition “is bound to be either meaningless or misleading, since, after all, it is nothing but words…The experience, unfortunately, can be conveyed only by lessons in the technique.”

*Frank Pierce Jones was an American professor who took lessons with FM and his brother for his health.  He became, to put it mildly, an enthusiast, and undertook a 26-year scientific investigation into the technique.