Alexander Technique Wiki

Based on a paper by Halvard Heggdal

Originator FM Alexander tea 0

FM Alexander applying a position of mechanical advantage to him and his student.


The “monkey”-position is what Alexander described as a “position of mechanical advantage”.

The concept of mechanical advantage has its origins in the early days of the technique. In “The Theory and Practice of a New Method of Respiratory Re-Education” (1907) Alexander writes about his method:

“There is such immediate improvement in the pose of the body and poise of the chest (...) that a valuable mechanical advantage is secured in the respiratory movements, and this is gradually improved by the practice until the habit becomes established, and the law of gravity appertaining to the human body is duly obeyed.” (Articles and Lectures p. 64, MSI p. 207)

In “Re-Education of the Kinæsthetic Systems” (1908) the word “position” has been added:

“... the teacher must himself place the pupils in a position of mechanical advantage, from which the pupil, by the mere mental rehearsal of orders which the teacher will dictate, can ensure the posture specifically correct for himself, ...”. (A&L p. 82)

Alexander goes then on to describe the position of mechanical advantage of leaning back against a book (or books) placed against the back of a chair.

In a “Supplement to Re-Education of the Kinæsthetic Systems” (1910, A&L p.103) two other procedures are described, “Chair Exercise (Standing)”, which is hands on the back of a chair, and “Door Exercise (Standing)”, letting the pelvis being partly supported by a door while leaning forward. None of the procedures involves bending the knees which must have come later. The 1910 edition of Man's Supreme Inheritance contained “The Doctrines of Antagonistic Action and Mechanical Advantage”:

“In the process of creating a co-ordination one psycho-physical factor provides a position of rigidity by means of which the moving parts are held to the mode in which their function is carried on.
This psycho-physical factor also constitutes a steady and firm condition which enables the Directive Agent of the sphere of consciousness to discriminate the action to the Kinæsthetic and motion agents which it must maintain without any interference or discontinuity.
The whole condition which thus obtains is herein termed 'antagonistic action', and the attitude of rigidity essential as a factor in the process is called the position of mechanical advantage” (MSI 1996 appendix A ii) p. 118, A&L p. 289)

Purpose and Meaning[]

The usefulness of a position of mechanical advantage is that it facilitates «antagonistic action», which in turn gives the pupil experience of a new and improved use, contrasting the old and habitual use:

«The position of mechanical advantage, which may or may not be a normal position, is the position which gives the teacher the opportunity to bring about quickly with his own hands a co-ordinated condition in the subject. Such co-ordination gives to the pupil an experience of proper use of a part or parts, in the imperfect use of which may be found the primary cause of defects present.» (MSI p. 118 )

The position «may or may not be a normal position», and an «abnormal» position gives added value:

«The placing of the pupil in what would ordinarily be considered an abnormal position (of mechanical advantage) affords the teacher an opportunity to establish the mental and physical guiding principles which enable the pupil after a short time to repeat the co-ordination with the same perfection in a normal position.» (MSI p. 119)

Leaning back in the chair could be what Alexander labeled an «abnormal» position. I've corresponded with Alexander teachers who categorically say that leaning back in a chair is wrong, and who don't see the point of Alexander's procedure. Such teachers are completely ignorant of the importance of the principle of «antagonistic action».

“Antagonistic action” is essential for understanding the position of mechanical advantage. The term was first used by Alexander in “Introduction to a New Method of Respiratory Vocal Re-Education» as early as 1906 and so predates the concept of position of mechanical advantage:

“In a future work I hope to deal more fully with the scientific aspect of practical respiratory re-education. At present I simply state the great principle to be antagonistic action, perfect employment of which is the forerunner of that control which ensures the correct use of the muscular system of the thorax in its fullest sense as the primary motive power in the respiratory act, also adequate muscular development, non-interference with the larynx and nasal dilation.” (A&L p. 43)

It is interesting to note that when Alexander uses the phrases 'antagonistic action' and 'position of mechanical advantage' it is in connection with breathing. His main concern is to improve breathing.

«... a mechanical advantage is essential to the proper expansion of the thorax for the intake of air, it is equally essential to the controlling power during the expiration; ... (The Theory and Practice of a New Method, A&L p. 61, MSI p. 205)

It is not a coincidence that leaning back in the chair is the example first given by Alexander of a position of mechanical advantage, and the example he gives several times. By leaning back against a support, the support on the upper back means that the ribs can release to do their job, at the same time, the head can release away from the spine. The opposition built into the basic directions is emphasized. The head goes forward and up in opposition to the back lengthening and widening. In the process the breathing improves.

The «abnormal» position of leaning back challenges the balance of the body and indirectly forces integration of the muscular system, if the person is able to direct. John Nicholls said during my training that taking the pupil back in the chair can act as a test of that persons ability to direct. The tendency would be otherwise to collaps or stiffen.
With a hand lightly on the upper back of the pupil and taking him/her slightly back on the sitting bones you can get some of the same effect as leaning back in the chair. You can see Alexander doing that in a film clip, one hand placed on the upper back, the other on top of the pupil's head.

In the Shadow of The Primary Control[]

Alexander's work gradually evolved from 'natural elocution' to 'vocal and respiratory re-education' to 'respiratory re-education' and to 're-education of the kinæsthetic systems'. All along, breathing and 'thoracic mobility' was a recurring theme. He writes about «pose of the body and poise of the chest» (Articles and Lectures p. 64, MSI p. 207). The head was to go forward and up, but only as part of the co-ordination, it was not the controlling factor.

This changed from about 1925 after Alexander learnt about Rudolf Magnus and his work on head-neck reflexes. In the following period the «position of mechanical advantage» and «antagonistic action» was overshadowed by «The Primary Control». Referring to Magnus in a lecture given in 1925, he is reported to have said:

«The direction of the head and neck being of primary importance, he found, as I found, that if we get the right direction from this primary control, the control of the rest of the organism is a simple matter.» (From «An Unrecognised Principle in Human Behaviour», A&L p. 148)

There was still the relativity of parts, «a certain use of the head and neck in relation to the use of the rest of the body» (UoS 1932/ 1985 p. 65), but the emphasis had changed. Over the years there was a shift to a broader definition of the primary control. In the first edition of The Use of the Self, Alexander says this about the primary control:

«... in short, that to lengthen I must put my head forward and up. As is shewn by what follows, this proved to be the primary control of my use in all my activities» (UoS 1932/ 1985 p.30)

In a later edition he changed this into:

«... in short, that to lengthen I must put my head forward and up. The experiences which followed my awareness of this were forerunners of a recognition of that relativity in the use of the head, neck, and other parts which proved to be a primary control of the general use of the self.» (UoS 1946 p. 9. The current Gollancz edition is a re-print of the first edition.)

Today most teachers will include the principles of mechanical advantage and antagonistic action in their concept of the primary control. But still, the 'head-neck-back relationship' makes it tempting to make short-cut definitions like «the head leads and the body follows». Such definitions have their uses, but instead of the concept of total co-ordination it might give the impression of top-heavy, ungrounded, one-directional use - what John Nicholls describes as a «noddy version» of the Alexander Technique. This is probably the reason why you now and then see people who don't know the history of the Alexander technique criticising Alexander for not dealing with the force of gravity, contact with the ground and/or use of the legs. Quite unjustified in my opinion. One could blame him for not explaining everything specifically. But it is really all there, in the position of mechanical advantage and antagonistic action.

The Birth of the Monkey[]

It is difficult to tell when Alexander began using the position we call 'monkey'. It could very well be one of a number of positions Alexander is referring to in MSI:

«The position thus secured is one of a number which I employ and which for want of a better name I refer to as a position of 'mechanical advantage'.» (MSI p. 118 footnote)

My impression is that in the earlier days he preferred positions that involved contact with an external object (normally a chair), and one might speculate that it was the training of teachers that brought the monkey position into more frequent use. But Alexander must have realised its usefulness for doing hands-on work well before that time. The earliest recorded use I've found for monkey in a lesson is from Marjory Barlow who had her first lessons round about 1932. She recalls:

«Then he'd maybe get you up and put you into a monkey, sometimes, when he'd got you into a good monkey, he'd just say «Now go on letting your knees go», and ease you gently to the chair like that.» (An Examined Life, p. 27)

It was his teacher trainees that coined the term 'monkey'. Lulie Westfeldt writes about the first training course:

«The student might be in various positions at the beginning of a lesson: sitting, standing, or lying; or he might be in what we called the 'monkey position' where the knees were forward and apart and the torso inclined forward. (FM Alexander, the Man and His Work p. 35)

A Living Species[]

Monkey is part of the natural and healthy use of ourselves and is a valuable element in teaching, learning and applying the Alexander Technique. And through the monkey the principles of mechanical advantage and antagonistic action lives on.

Today the 'monkey' is often used synonymously with 'position of mechanical advantage', and for some teachers it might even be the only position of mechanical advantage that they know of. For any serious teacher of the Technique I think it is vital to understand positions of mechanical advantage and antagonistic action. I also think it is important to know about the origins of the concepts and especially its relationship with breathing. This not only gives a deeper understanding of the monkey position, but even a deeper understanding of the Alexander Technique itself.