A Revolution in Everyday Life: A short explanation of the practice and principles of The Alexander Technique

by Anne Battye

Revolution

At the beginning of the 20th century there were many thinkers looking to change mankind’s habitual, reactive nature. Alfred Korzybski, John Dewey, George Coghill, Aldous Huxley, Charles Sherrington, and William James, to name but a few, used philosophical concepts, semantics, and neuro-physiology––all mental activities––as they tried to understand man’s nature. Only F. Matthias Alexander found a practical way of bringing these ideas back into the body.

He began in a personal and pragmatic manner: As a young actor in the early 1890s Alexander set out to try to find a way to recover his voice, as his throat became hoarse and sore whenever he gave a recitation. All known ways of improving this condition through medicine or remedial voice exercises failed to bring him relief, and he concluded that his hoarseness must be the result of something he was doing to himself.

His doctor could not tell him what he was doing, so Alexander decided to observe himself closely in mirrors to find out precisely what he was doing to injure his throat when he spoke, so that he might be able to cease doing it. He was working from the known––that which he could see himself doing––to the unknown, using his logical reasoning. This was the simple beginning of the long voyage of discovery that led to the practice of the Alexander Technique as we know it today.

First Principles

The manner in which we use ourselves affects the way we function. Watching himself in the mirror, FM Alexander noticed a marked interference in the use of his head and neck. When he wanted to make his voice loud enough to be heard in the back row of the theater, he stiffened his neck, retracted his head, and sucked in air through his mouth, making sound difficult to produce easily and creating soreness in his throat. He tried to stop these curious “extra” impediments directly, but found that the pattern recurred as soon as he started to speak. After many attempts, he realized that he needed to find a way to inhibit the pattern of stiffening. He recognized that he needed to learn to rebalance the head on the neck as he relaxed the neck muscles. Once he had acquired a freer poise of his head, he found that his other problems resolved themselves without his making a huge extra effort. He became aware that once he could prevent his own habitual misuse of himself, it was possible for the “right thing to happen.”

 Alexander described his discovery of this principle as the Primary Control. It is not some magic organ inside us that controls us—what we call the primary control simply is the sum total of the processes that determine the balance of the head on the neck in relation to the whole body. Because the body is always in motion, oscillating slightly even when we are still, our poise is constantly changing but the relationship between the neck, head, and back remains constant. Maintaining conscious awareness of this close association lies at the heart of the practice of the Alexander Technique.

Sensation, “Feeling,” and Direction

It is difficult to “feel” precisely what goes on in the neck and head, and one of Alexander’s great discoveries was that his sensory perception of what he was doing was inaccurate. In other words, what he “felt” was happening was not necessarily so. This discovery horrified him, but he realized that he had to find a way around the problem. He checked himself constantly in the mirror, noticing time and time again that the action he wished to perform was not what he saw was occurring.

Eventually he realized that his sensory perception was distorted by old, unconscious habits. When he tried to use his sensory perception to change his manner of use, he simply failed, because his habitual sensations immediately brought him back to what he had done in the past. “You can’t know a thing by an instrument that’s wrong.”1 He simply had to find a new way of reacting if he wanted to get himself out of the vocal impasse in which he was stuck.

Inhibition

The first revolutionary act is to refuse to respond to a stimulus by simply stopping all reaction. We say “NO” to our immediate habitual response. By refusing to react immediately we may get a glimpse of what we might have done, had we proceeded to try to gain our end directly. As we inhibit our reactive patterns, we have time to consider what might be the most appropriate means of gaining our end.

Aldous Huxley writing in Ends and Means was very excited by this idea, thinking it a truly novel approach to education as it links awareness of problems with the ability to change patterns of behavior. In fact, Huxley says, “So far as I am aware the only system of physical education which fulfills all these conditions (self-reliance, right means of livelihood, free intelligence and the education of the body) is the system developed by F.M. Alexander.”2

Directing

Inhibiting our reaction to a stimulus creates a space between the wish or desire to act and our habitual patterns of behavior. It allows us time to consider what might be an appropriate response. In that moment of time and space between stimulus and reaction, Alexander asks us to give “guiding orders” to release subtle tensions in the neck, head, and back that previously we were not aware of making. Giving these mental orders, when linked with accurate physical manipulation from an Alexander teacher, creates a new pattern of awareness. It sometimes takes a little time to persuade a pupil that thought is as powerful as action and that refusing to act is as positive as doing something.

This is revolutionary––most people when asked to “think” will try to carry out their thought in the way that feels normal to them. To “think” but not to “do” directly is the essence of this work.

Linking thought with experience

During an Alexander lesson, after you have been encouraged to stop reacting to the teacher’s requests, you may be given a series of “guiding orders,” which you will possibly be asked to say aloud. Simultaneously your teacher will guide you into a release of muscle tension through gentle manipulation. This process creates a link between the mental projections and the new, as yet unfamiliar, manner of use. You may be asked to say, or think the words, “Let the neck muscles release, to allow the head to go forwards and upwards to allow the back to lengthen and widen.” Simultaneously, your teacher, using his or her hands, will gently persuade the neck muscles to let go of excess tension, so that the head may move infinitesimally away from the shoulders. Usually this is perceived as an immense relief from discomfort, and most people at this stage will say, “That feels amazing, how can I do it for myself?”

Therein lies the rub, and many hours may be spent in learning that you cannot “do” it, only think it. Much repetition is required to inhibit your automatic reaction and give the “guiding orders” until at some point you may give consent to completing the desired action. Developing an accurate sense of releasing excess muscle tension, linked to the “order” to release it, may take some time, as the usual response is, “Oh, that feels better, let’s try to ‘do’ it again”––thereby losing the means whereby this pattern is set up.

Your Alexander Technique teacher is giving you an experiential, physical meaning to the words, “Let the neck muscles release, so that the head can go forwards and up in such a way that the back may lengthen and widen: hip joints releasing to allow the knees to go forwards and away from each other.” At first just sending these “guiding orders” tends not to mean much; but in time, when reinforced by skillful handling, “thinking them” will recreate an accurate experience, much as we learn to read musical notation accurately by linking the black dots written on a page with pitch, rhythm, and melody. It is important, here, to mention that the teacher also has to be giving the directions to him/herself, thinking a release into his/her own neck head and back. If he/she is not, nothing much will alter in the pupil’s manner of use.

 Alexander practitioners work indirectly, from general principles. We start by reorganizing the neck/head/back relationship (Alexander’s Primary Control) and, once that is established, we learn to maintain its poise as we go into movement. We do not bother too much about the specific reason people may come to us to learn the Alexander Technique; however, as we work on the head/neck/back relationship we may discover a means whereby we can achieve an amelioration of symptoms almost as a by-product of freeing ourselves from habit. The end is not to feel better, but to discover a principle whereby we become more conscious of the forces that lead to misuse. And thus we may learn to prevent ourselves from falling back into old patterns of habit.

Because we work from first principles, we establish a universal means whereby these ideas can be applied to many areas of our life. These remain constant but the manner of applying them differs for each person. The first principle, Inhibition, prevents our habitual reaction and is swiftly followed by Direction, or the “orders of release.” These Primary Orders are inhibitory in conception, underpin all subsequent orders of “volition,” and need to be maintained through the chosen action.

So, to Recap:

Revolution 1. You decide to stop doing whatever it is you might have done or are doing. You will not know what that is until you come to a state of rest. Indeed, you might learn “how to sit quietly in a room!”3 First you give yourself, or are given by your teacher, a stimulus to do something. This can be a quite small movement or something pretty active. Whatever it is, you don’t respond. In that space/time continuum you give your directions to release tension that you, possibly, hadn’t realized you had been making in the musculature of the neck, the head, and the back.

Revolution 2. You continue not to “do” anything until you have given orders to release neck, head, and back tension, many, many times. You go on sending these inhibitory messages until you decide how you are going to perform an action. You then work out how you are going to proceed while maintaining a free neck, head, and back. If all goes well, and you think you can keep the new manner of use going, you can consent to performing the chosen action, or, if not, change the chosen end and start again. Or, indeed, do nothing!

Revolution 3. You do not to try to “feel it out.” Once you begin to trust your sensing mechanism you are back in the old trap of trying to alter something by using a faulty pattern of use pertaining to the past. If your sensory perception got you into trouble in the first place, it is of no use whatever thinking it will help you get yourself out of your muscular muddle. Stop and use your brain to send more appropriate messages to change your pattern of use. Probably it will not feel comfortable or familiar––because it won’t be.

Revolution 4. You do not try to “get it right.” No one ever learned anything new by getting it right, but noticing how we go wrong can be extremely helpful. Then we must learn to stop the wrong “doing” by preventing our immediate reaction, giving our guiding directions and seeing what will happen next. We are going from the known into the unknown, with only our guiding principles to sustain us.

Putting these Principles into Practice

Teaching people to stop “doing” is the most difficult hurdle. We are all reactive beings, and have been drilled from infancy to do what we are told, usually as quickly and thoughtlessly as possible. Nothing can change until this mindset can be altered. FM Alexander used the actions of sitting and standing––which we do habitually many times a day––to point out to his pupils the changes that he required. It is much easier to pay attention while doing something new and difficult than to keep our awareness alive while performing habitual daily actions! So try ordinary, habitual daily tasks such as cleaning your teeth, shaving, putting on makeup, brushing your hair, opening doors, going up and down stairs, and using tools of all descriptions. It is amazing how unaware most of us are about how we go about doing everyday jobs.

The Housewife: Many of my pupils find ordinary household tasks the most difficult to perform, but also the most useful, in which to remember their newfound manner of use. Chopping vegetables, getting saucepans out of a low cupboard, or crockery down from a high shelf are actions that usually we perform unconsciously. Being conscious of what is happening to our neck/head/back relationship makes everything easier. Using utensils––a vacuum cleaner, a duster, a spade, a saw, a lawn mower, or a trowel––also gives us opportunities to practice our Alexandrian awareness by looking to identify patterns of use and discover––or not––different ways of approaching our everyday activities.

The Musician: Singers and instrumentalists have been greatly helped by applying the Technique to their work. Many music colleges employ trained Alexander teachers to help students find the best “use” of the self in relation to their instrument, no matter if they play strings, keyboard, percussion, wind, or brass. Conductors have worked with the Technique to their benefit as well as that of the musicians they are conducting. As always the first step is to encourage students to stop and consider themselves first in relation to the environment before they attempt to play their instrument.

Lawyers and Writers: A sedentary occupation is a recipe for disaster. I have one pupil who spends his time sitting, concentrating, and listening intently for hours at a time. Then he goes for a two-mile walk on weekends. Moving from sitting to fairly active movement can trigger back pain very easily, so a useful exercise is to teach him how to prepare for a change in activity by stopping his immediate reaction to the desire to act and giving space and time to deciding how to move without destroying the central neck-head-back co-ordination.

The Painter/Decorator: Painters, decorators, and builders work in professions where misuse is endemic. Think of painting a ceiling, putting in a corner cupboard, delving behind a toilet to find a leak, lifting floorboards, bricklaying, and carrying heavy sacks of concrete or rubbish for disposal, and you begin to conceive of the problems that arise from these occupations. It is possible to discover many ways that practicing the Alexander Technique can help to maintain a reasonably healthy neck and back. Also many of my builder friends find it helpful to lie down with the head on a book, and return to an Alexander resting state before continuing heavy work.

The Teacher: Teachers have a huge responsibility–– all day long they are in front of children who will imitate any idiosyncrasy to their own detriment and who provide a constant level of stimulus that may be unduly stressful. Teachers may be subject to supervision by those in authority who have little idea of what the situation entails and are only interested in the “End,” by which they mean exam results. What a travesty of Education! How can teachers learn a new way of coping? Returning to a basic resting state of body and mind whenever possible is helpful in preventing the build-up of tension that becomes destructive. That means having the discipline to find and take advantage of opportunities during the day to come back to a neutral resting state.

The Marathon Runner: There is a picture dating from 1908 showing Dorando Pietri, a famous marathon runner, almost dying at the finishing post, his head retracted, chest raised, knees lifted high towards his chest while his back bends backwards as his arms flail.4 How can he reach the finishing post when he is putting all his effort into NOT reaching the finish easily? How different today, when a runner like Mo Farah lets his head lead towards the finish, keeps his back in a lengthening line and kicks up his heels behind him!

The Actor: The Alexander Technique has been taught in drama schools since 1968, giving immense benefit to students. I worked at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) for 16 years helping students learn not only voice production and movement, but also how to deal with life crises such as early fame and being out of work. Keeping a sense of balance when emotional storms arise demands being able to return to a balanced resting state before reaction––useful both on and off the stage. This does not mean the end of spontaneity––true spontaneous reactions are ones that are appropriate to the situation, not knee-jerk reactions that sometimes pass for “spontaneity” or “energy.”

The Therapist: A therapist needs to listen. I have seen therapists at work, noticing that they often lean towards the client, pulling themselves downwards by shortening until they are almost in the same cramped position as the person they’re trying to help. They may slump cross-legged in an effort to appear “casual.” What attitudes are they attempting to convey to their patients? By contracting like this, leaning forwards, almost entering into the client’s mindset, they seem to me to be losing the potential to stand outside of the situation. Surely it is more useful to remain in a neutral state, being able to listen without making judgements while maintaining a conscious manner of use?

The Pregnant Woman: Alexander Technique has been shown to be immensely helpful in pregnancy. Ever-shifting hormonal changes, as well as shifts in balance and weight can commonly lead to backache. I once worked with a very small-boned girl pregnant with twins––each time she had a lesson followed by a scan she discovered that the smaller twin had caught up with his brother, or the bigger one had found some more space, she had no backache, and she delivered almost to term.

The School-Age Child/Teenager: Young people are wonderful to work with. Usually they are extremely receptive to Alexander ideas––they LOVE saying “NO!” And they pick up on the idea that it is possible to think and not try to carry out the thought. They get immediate feedback as they feel more comfortable in themselves, look better, get less tired, and often their schoolwork improves. They have no difficulty in remembering to “give the orders” and rather enjoy finding ways around knotty problems. Above all, they have an opportunity to find a safe place in themselves to come back to, a place where they have more autonomy. Self-confidence grows and the urge to question every statement from their “betters” should be encouraged.

Working on Yourself

There are two sides to the practice of the Alexander Technique: first, the work we do on ourselves and, second, the work we do with others. Continuous work on ourselves is essential! As we become used to not reacting, not rushing in the same old way towards a known end, life becomes more and more interesting. Everything we approach, even the most familiar jobs, becomes an opportunity for practicing these qualities of Inhibition and Direction. Boredom flies out the window; there is simply no time to be bored if you are involved in minutely studying the means whereby you may or may not perform an action. Not being bored wakes us up, and we are much more open to new possibilities of behavior. Alexander Pope (1668–1744) writes, in his poem “Essay on Man:”

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan:
The Proper Study of Mankind is Man.

His thesis is that, without reason, man is subject to extremes of emotional––and muscular––muddle. The concept is not new, but F. M. Alexander gives us a concrete series of practical endeavors with which to practice.

Learning and practicing the Alexander Technique is a life-changing experience. It is extremely simple: The three principles involved––to stop one’s immediate reaction to a stimulus, to give mental “guiding orders” to release muscle tension in the neck, head, and back, while continuing to maintain that release into a chosen activity––are not difficult to learn. However, they are difficult to keep going, particularly when we are faced with enormous stimulation to “feel” things out, form “good habits,” and get things “right!” To me all habits are, by definition, unconscious, therefore we should be wary of them. Consciousness is all!

Working with Others

The second side of the practice of the Alexander Technique is working with others. Some students of the Technique become so interested that they decide they would like to become Alexander Technique teachers, which involves entering a three-year 1600-hour training course approved by one of the internationally recognized Alexander Technique Societies (in the United States, that is AmSAT). Continuous work on ourselves both during and after training is essential if we are to become teachers and work with other people. There is no room here for someone who “wants to help others” without going through the necessary discipline of change in him or herself. In this way, it is rather like psychotherapy training: Nobody would dream of going to a therapist who hadn’t at least begun to sort himself out. As we learn to use this technique to help discover what we don’t have to do, the second aspect becomes apparent; and we may well want to undergo the training to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique. This takes the work to a much deeper and subtler level. It’s not what we “do” with our clients, but how we work and continue to work on ourselves, maintaining our own knowledge and conscious practice while passing on this incredible and wonderful system to others.

Although many people prefer to work in small groups, my preference is to work one-to-one. This way, small nuances become obvious, the environment is a safe one, and there is endless scope for considered and conscious change of habit patterns. The roles of teacher and pupil begin to merge and a truly Socratic dialogue creates the climate for true and mutual learning. And it’s fun!

 

Endnotes

1. “Teaching Aphorisms,” Alexander Journal, Volume 7, Spring 1972, p. 47.

2. Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1937), 223.

3.The full quotation is: “All of man’s misfortunes come from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 1671.

4. Dorando Pietri, Marathon runner, 1908. Illustration in F. Matthias Alexander Articles and Lectures, ed. Jean Fischer, (London: Mouritz, 1995), 165.

 

References

Alexander, F.M. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual.

Alexander, F.M. Man's Supreme Inheritance.

Alexander, F.M. “Teaching Aphorisms” (The Alexander Journal, Vol. 7).

Alexander, F.M. The Universal Constant in Living.

Alexander, F.M. The Use of the Self.

Barlow, Wilfred. 1973. The Alexander Principle. London, UK: Victor Gallancz.; More Talk of Alexander. 1976.

Carey, Sean. 2001. Alexander Technique: The Ground Rules: Marjory Barlow in Conversation with Sean Carey. London, UK: Hite Limited.

Huxley, Aldous. 1937. Ends and Means. London: Chatto & Windus.

Macdonald, Patrick. 1989. The Alexander Technique As I See It. London: Rahula Books.

Pascal, Blaise. 1671. Pensees.

Pope, Sir Alexander. An Essay on Man: Epistle II.

Sherrington, Sir Charles. 1946. The Endeavour of Jean Fernel.  London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1974.

 

Anne Battye had her first Alexander Technique lessons in January 1960 with Dr. Wilfred Barlow, was hooked and then encouraged to join a teacher-training class with his wife, Marjory Mechin Barlow (F.M. Alexander’s niece), who had studied with Alexander in the early 30s. Ever since, Anne has continued to learn and to teach the Technique and still finds it utterly fascinating.

 

© 2014 Anne Battye. All rights reserved.

 

Photograph by Stephen Parker.

 

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