While working as reciter of Shakespeare, Frederick Matthias Alexander faced the challenge of losing his voice on stage. He codified his effective solutions to this challenge into what later came to be termed "Alexander Technique" but when he was alive, he called it merely "The Work." His solutions to restoring his voice were later found by his proponents to have broad applications in multiple areas of self improvement.
Required to solve his problems was undoing the misunderstood instructions of his voice teachers that he had misguidedly practiced. He used empirical methods of self introspection and multiple mirrors to establish the facts of his experiments. He noticed a disparity between what he intended his body should be able to do and what was, in fact, happening.
In his book "The Use of The Self" FM Alexander describes the phases of his own thinking and experiences, along with his misconceptions while exploring ways to express his discoveries and new ideas at the time, such as psycho-physical unity. He discovered many traps on his path; his book guides the reader through all of the phases of his learning process.
FM Alexander began teaching his work in 1894 in Melbourne at the age of 25, moved in 1904 to London, where he worked until his death in 1955. In 1931 he established a course for teachers of his Technique. He continued to teach until shortly before his death in 1955.
In 1958, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique was founded in London. STAT aims at ensuring a high standard of teaching and professional conduct by a three year full time training program for teachers.
There are numerous ways to describe the main principles of the Alexander Technique, and depending on the individual background of a teacher one might or might not use Alexander speak to explain its concepts.
Although language plays an important role in learning/teaching the Alexander Technique, a specific vocabulary doesn't need to be learned. I met quite some teachers now who avoid the words inhibition, direction and primary control as best as possible. The hands of a teacher can do a lot of talking, and it depends on the student's goals whether or not Alexander speak helps or hinders the learning process.
Awareness of one's internal state and external circumstances determines the number of choices in any given moment. As long as we don't know that we pull our shoulders back, and if we do so habitually, we perceive our position in space as upright, so that an entire pattern of misuse (typically we counterbalanced pulled back shoulders by pushing the pelvis forward, and by bracing hips, knees and/oor ankles) feels normal. FM Alexander calls this faulty sensory appreciation.
Alexander Technique can help us to regain and refine our sense of proprioception - a process with no end. Only through awareness we can identify patterns of use and stop applying them.
Our active overuse of parts of the body can cause pain and injury. Once we identified what we do with our body needlessly, we can start inhibiting this behaviour. However, as we usually don't know what stimuli trigger certain pattern of misuse, students initially learn inhibition under guidance of a teacher with a low amount of stimuli doing chair work or table work.
Inhibition does not mean freezing the body, just stopping the execution of a habitual reaction.
So we sit in front of the computer, and manage to inhibit the habit to curl our thoracic spine and collapse the front of our torso. What next? Direction. Instead of following the habit to move in specific pattern, we can organise our movement by intention. The primary control, the relation between head, neck and back, comes, as the name suggests, first. Depending on the level of proprioception we add more specific directions to certain body parts (which usually just apply for specific activities). We direct our body anyway, we just haven't learned to use our anti-gravity reflex properly.
Alexander Technique teacher help the student in finding out the most useful set of directions for specific activities (eg cycling, playing an instrument, singing, working). The primary control precedes always any specific direction. (At some point students of AT layer directions rather than giving them sequentially.)
By using awareness we identify excessive muscular effort, inhibition unveils the constellations of stimuli that activate and gives us the option to act in more than our habitual ways. Direction transcends specific problems by organising the body in accordance with gravity.
Ideally, we would decide for any activity about the most efficient way of doing it, but realistically we discover new ways of doing things wrong all along the way. Giving consent means to stick with a plan to execute a certain activity, and potentially observing the results.
The Alexander Technique is not a therapy, rather a set of tools to improve performance and reduce superfluous effort in any activity. However, it can help to alleviate pain caused by permanent misuse or after accidents, and improved mental clarity might even help with psychological problems. Several mental or physical problems still should be treated by other professions than AT teachers, so there's no need to feel disappointed if your teacher refers you to another specialist.
Alexander made two fundamental discoveries:
- The relationship between head and body changes in anticipation and during every other movement. Once the head moves, the body follows. The changing relationship can either make the movement easier, or require more effort.
- The conscious mind can change the way we habitually use our body.
Alexander Technique bases on scientific principles, so it can and has been scientifically researched. It took Alexander several decades to make this essential discoveries, and developed his own way of teaching. However, he stressed the importance of an individual approach to each student, and the same applies to teachers nowadays: They will have idiosyncratic approaches to teach the technique.
Quantum mechanics was in its infancy when Alexander started teaching, and its importance for the functions of our brain yet to discover. The Alexander Technique uses the neuroplasticity of the brain to change habitual pattern, long before the technology and science provided tools and concepts to confirm this amazing mind brain interaction. The attention needed to monitor bodily processes come very close to the buddhist principle of mindfulness, and William James insights won by introspection about the importance of intention and attention for consciousness and shaping of the mind are reflected in AT as well.
We don't know everything about the human mind-body interaction, and most likely never will. AT gives a tool to explore this interaction, which has the potential to create a brighter presence and future.