Because of the reputation it has for improving general functioning and well-being, the Alexander Technique is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a 'therapy'. It is often lumped in with other alternative or complementary disciplines and regarded as a form of treatment for specific illnesses and complaints. It is important to understand that it is not treatment and that if you approach it on that basis you will not derive maximum benefit from lessons.
The Alexander Technique addresses the widespread problem of habitual misuse. Because Alexander was ahead of his time and his discoveries are only now being taken seriously, most people, including many health and sports professionals, have no idea that they are misusing themselves and therefore have little idea of the degree to which their misuse directly affects their general functioning.
The Alexander Technique gives us a means of dismantling this habitual misuse and restoring optimal use of our neuro-muscular-skeletal systems and the postural mechanisms which operate them. The benefits to the entire Self - including mental, emotional and physical functioning - which come with an improved use of oneself cannot be overestimated.
Many people with chronic back pain, headaches, joint problems and neck and shoulder trouble, amongst other things, are interested in the Alexander Technique because they have heard that it 'cures' these conditions. Unfortunately – perhaps ironically – because these complaints tend to disappear as one's use improves, the Technique is seen as just another form of treatment for physical complaints.
Almost 100 years ago, Alexander carefully considered what to call his method. He chose the word ‘technique’ - 'a technique of psycho-physical re-education' - rather than therapy, because he did not want people coming to him as passive patients expecting him to rid them of their physical problems. As he saw it, many physical problems were a consequence of the larger problem of misuse. Misuse inevitably leads to backache and poor posture but it also damages less tangible things such as joy and enthusiasm for life that are so important for our wellbeing and development.
When the emphasis is on fighting physical complaints, the offending parts are isolated, and attempts are made to fix them as quickly as possible with local intervention - some form of manipulation or medication. What needs to be understood is that this approach will not alter the conditions which produced the problem. Unless one's use is improved and changed, the condition will return. What is needed for a person to heal is a change in his overall condition.
That is where the Alexander Technique is unlike any other approach. It will rebuild your 'use' and restore optimal functioning of your postural mechanisms. The faulty conditions which produced the problems in the first place will gradually recede. But such changes do not come about overnight. They require time and your participation. Once you to learn to recognize the unconscious habits that have led to malcoordination and malfunctioning of your postural mechanisms, you will discover possibilities of ease in movement that you never knew were possible. The painful physical conditions caused by your misuse will leave you.
Most people can make basic changes in about 20 lessons, which should be taken over a period of some months. Ideally the first half of these lessons should be taken at short intervals to keep up momentum, reinforce learning and to prevent the old bad habits from creeping back. Later they can be taken with larger intervals of time between as you learn to manage your own progress. It is useful to consider the occasional refresher lesson after the initial course is completed. When you consider that most of us have been developing our bad habits for decades, it is remarkable how willing our bodies are to change and re-organise posturally in a very short time, given the right stimulus.
A course of Alexander lessons spread over a year is relatively inexpensive and investment in prevention considerably reduces the cost of healthcare.
If music students were to have the benefit of Alexander work during their training, as is now commonplace in Europe and America, repetitive strain injury would not be such a common occurrence and the students' confidence and skill would improve significantly. The same applies to sports men and women and the increasing number of people sitting at computers for long periods.
There is no obligation to sign up for a full course of lessons. You can take a few to test the method for yourself but you should consider having at least ten lessons before you assess what it is doing for you. Most people notice some improvement immediately; but the deeper changes and benefits come about more gradually as the lessons build on one another. It is this re-educative process which leads to transformation through learning. It is important, therefore, to step beyond the notion of paying for a 'quick fix' and to see Alexander Technique lessons as an investment you are making in your future.
The benefit of instruction
The idea may be effective as a marketing strategy, but have you ever heard anyone play piano after their sixth lesson? In reality nothing is learned that quickly - except perhaps how to bake a cake. Yet even a chef would say that the cookery class shows you the basic techniques, but from that point on it's a matter of practise, a matter of baking the same Victoria sponge a few thousand times before you'll be performing reliably in the kitchen.
Learning tennis can also be described in a half dozen moves equivalent to the methods of baking. The ball may be sent across the court by a forehand, a backhand, a serve, a volley or a lob. But only a facile assessment by means of those prevalent reductions called "competencies" would be so daft as to pronounce the pupil a tennis player after a brief course of lessons encompassing the moves. Nor would we recommend that after being shown the procedures, the apprentice should simply continue practising. Building the skill of ball placement needs guided rehearsals over many years. Wimbledon pros retain their trainers. And if Ian Thorpe needs a coach to guide him through the water, then we can all use a pair of good Alexander Technique hands to continuously refresh our manner of use.
The procedures for learning the Alexander Technique are as brief and simple in outline as those for baking or tennis. If in cake-making we say step one is: "First grease your tin," then "First free your neck" would be the equivalent when our object is improved co-ordination. The remaining half dozen steps in AT are as plain, but they are learned more gradually as the pupil changes his or her habitual way of moving. You can go to cookery class and learn the basic techniques in a week or two, and thereafter hone your skills over dinners and tea parties on your own. But learning how to change the way you move requires more monitoring.
Because your kinaesthesia - your muscle sense that makes you aware of how much tension you are using - is desensitized by over-use, it is not possible to assess by means of your proprioception - the sense that tells you where the parts of your body are in relation to one another - the ways in which you are pulling yourself out of shape, and how you must set about rectifying things. In theory it is possible to learn the Alexander Technique on one's own because, after all, F M Alexander did. But people who imagine they can re-educate their use without a teacher, have not recognised the genius of the man. He himself commented that, although it took him ten years to discover how to make the necessary changes for his larynx to function normally again, it would not take his pupils so long to heal themselves because they would have the benefit of his hands to guide them.
More than a sum of parts
Alexander Technique is taken up in the same way as you might take up a musical instrument or a sport. You may read about its provenance and its history; peruse manuals of theory and related subjects such as human anatomy and the mechanics of animal movement; you observe the movement of others, and you have regular lessons to develop better ways of moving yourself. If you are young and fit, you may want to train to a level of good use appropriate for teaching others.
Partly because it deals with movement as a whole; and partly because, like tennis, its procedures are few, the Alexander Technique may appear to deliver less than, for instance learning piano, which is richer in elements that build technique - scales, chords, arpeggios, rhythm - while its intellectual aspects encompass the studies of harmony, phrasing, touch and other stylistic features. But anyone who practises an art or a sport discovers that the number of its parts does not reflect the experience of its sum. More doesn't always mean more. Feeling the thrill when the ball unites with that part of the racquet from where only the wish is needed for precise placement of the ball; or being carried along when the music seems to play itself, are experiences arrived at equally whether the medium is complex or simple. The study of mathematics and the practise of meditation can both deliver bliss. In the same way that tennis at championship level has evolved into something rather more than patting a ball over a net, the skill of sitting and standing in accordance with the structural design of the human body transforms into a wonderful lightness of being.
All trainings need teachers, instructors, guides or coaches. Because the Alexander Technique is taught in a less-familiar way, we will correlate what we can with instruction in baking, sport and art. As the burnt sponge cake emerges from your oven, the experienced cook can point out where you went wrong and give tips for your next attempt. It's a straightforward business of making alterations in the assemblage of ingredients, quantities, consistencies of mixture, temperatures and baking times. Similarly, the tennis coach will analyse the movements you are making with your limbs and eyes that determine ball placement, and with what force and spin. Advice is then given verbally which it is up to you to interpret and follow.
The piano teacher also observes hand and arm movements while he listens to the sounds you produce, and introduces you to aspects of musicality that are building the new language of your developing ear.
A different way of teaching
The Alexander Technique teacher does some of the same things, that is, she observes with her eyes what movements you are making. But mainly she feels with her hands what you are doing. The process is not in fact so localised, but rather her hands act as the terminals of a neurological circuitry between your body and hers that helps her to recognise with her more finely tuned apparatus what is going on in yours. Different distributions of muscle tension give characteristic patterns of strain or ease. When muscle fibres contract, pulses of energy are given off. Relaxed muscle is quieter. Recognising the best mix of quiet and noisy muscle in a body is the equivalent of recognising from experience the optimum consistency for a cake mix, or the qualities that render a sonata more musical.
Using her hands to bring your attention to different parts of yourself, the teacher guides your musculature towards a new consistency. She uses some verbal instruction, but mostly she is showing you with her hands where you are holding where you shouldn't be and where you are not holding where you should.
The tension mix is felt by the teacher's whole body which in turn counteracts the wrong pulls with messages from her own better balance. Like many things that are evident in life nobody really knows quite how it works. But experience confirms that when the hands of a body that is opening out - or, in Alexander language, one that is "going up" - are placed on the muscular wrapping of someone who is shortening and narrowing, they stimulate it to release and open out. The experience can feel much like relaxing but without collapsing into a sagging shape. It would seem to be a sort of recognition response similar to the one that spreads smiles or yawns through a group. A good pair of Alexander-trained hands gives you a feeling of load shedding. Lengthening and widening gives you an experience from where you can discover what you habitually do that pulls you down. You learn how to tune in to your body so you can collect more reliable information from your proprioceptive and kinaesthetic senses. The teacher's aim in tuning in to her pupil's body is the same as that of the tennis player who is acquiring the fine co-ordination that will hit the ball plumb in the middle of her racquet every time.
Just as playing a piano or tennis might look easy, it looks and feels as though the Alexander teacher isn't doing much. You may watch her lift somebody's leg and remember the feeling of your own leg having lengthened when she did that to you. But you cannot just l pull a leg and be doing the same thing at all. It looks simple , but the teacher is doing other things with her own body that have accumulated from her experience - the things that give a sum of parts that has become something other than the mere contact of her hands. Try drawing a violin bow across strings and you'll realise there's a bit more to playing the instrument than at first appears. To elicit a beautiful sound from dragging taut horsehair across catgut fibres, or to be opening your shape while bringing your hands together on a body sandwiched between them, takes lots of lessons and years of practise.
Practise is feeling and finding, and above all, paying attention. Its aim in Alexander Technique is to elicit and sustain the improved co-ordination in all situations.
Of course all learning is with a view to eventually shedding one's instructor, but that may be later rather than sooner, as the restoration of your proprioceptive and kinaesthetic senses to more reliable function along with the growth of a strong back take persistence over time.
One step at a time…
You would shy of asking your teacher to show you how to play a Rachmaninov concerto on your first piano lesson - or even after six. You would understand that years need to be spent working up the necessary skill to do that. Yet we expect to be able to do something as intricate and demanding as sitting down and standing up when the neuromuscular mechanisms for effecting this constantly-performed movement are in very bad condition. In teaching the Alexander Technique we use this seemingly-simple movement because it is, on the contrary, complex and it requires a high degree of balance and strength in the postural musculature for harm-free execution. It is the movement most frequently performed by the able-bodied in everyday life. Maintaining good use while moving within the vertical plane, for instance in walking, is a relatively simple accomplishment. But the serious business in human movement lies in learning to maintain length while lowering the body groundwards.
How long will it take you to learn to sit well? Can we be guaranteed to emerge as accomplished musicians from our piano lessons? However liberally descriptive the prospectus of the course of study we embark upon, we can never know the answer to this. Just how we come upon our “eureka” moments cannot be known before the fact, and will be arrived at in the learner's own time.
Learning good co-ordination may not appear to deliver as generously in satisfaction as learning to play a musical instrument or to cook well. But use of the self is the skill that all others depend on when maximum performance and minimal damage is the goal. Its rewards are therefore infinite. As with learning anything, you will swim around in a sea of incomprehension, enjoying the process most of the time, but also sometimes feeling frustrated and bored while gradually accumulating understanding, and slowly lightening like a perfect Victoria sponge!
© Christine Ackers 2007. All Rights Reserved.
02 9331 7563 www.ate.org.au
Drawing made from a photograph of F M Alexander with a group of his pupils circa 1945 in America.