The Alexander technique is a somatic method for improving physical and mental functioning. Excessive tension, which Frederick Alexander, the originator, recognized as both physical and mental, restricts movement and creates pressure in the joints, the spine, the breathing mechanism, and other organs. The goal of the technique is to restore freedom and expression to the body and clear thinking to the mind.
Frederick Matthias Alexander was born in 1869 in Tasmania, Australia. He became an actor and Shakespearean reciter, and early in his career he began to suffer from strain on his vocal chords. He sought medical attention for chronic hoarseness, but after treatment with a recommended prescription and extensive periods of rest, his problem persisted.
Alexander realized that his hoarseness began about an hour into a dramatic performance and reasoned that it was something he did in the process of reciting that caused him to lose his voice. Returning to his medical doctor, Alexander told him of his observation. When the doctor admitted that he didn't know what Alexander was doing to injure his vocal chords, Alexander decided to try and find out for himself.
Thus began a decade of self-observation and discovery. Using as many as three mirrors to observe himself in the act of reciting, normal speaking, and later standing, walking, and sitting, Alexander managed to improve his coordination and to overcome his vocal problems. One of his most startling discoveries was that in order to change the way he used his body he had to change the way he was thinking, redirecting his thoughts in such a way that he did not produce unnecessary tension when he attempted speech or movement. After making this discovery at the end of the nineteenth century, Alexander became a pioneer in body-mind medicine.
At first, performers and dancers sought guidance from Alexander to overcome physical complaints and to
Because the Alexander technique helps students improve overall functioning, both mental and physical, it offers a wide range of benefits. Nikolaas Tinbergen, in his 1973 Nobel lecture, hailed the "striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures, and the refined skill of playing a musical instrument." He went on to quote a list of other conditions helped by the Alexander technique: "rheumatism, including various forms of arthritis, then respiratory troubles, and even potentially lethal asthma; following in their wake, circulation defects, which may lead to high blood pressure and also to some dangerous heart conditions; gastrointestinal disorders of many types, various gynecological conditions, sexual failures, migraines and depressive states."
Literature in the 1980s and 1990s went on to include improvements in back pain, chronic pain, postural problems, repetitive strain injury, benefits during pregnancy and childbirth, help in applying physical therapy and rehabilitative exercises, improvements in strain caused by computer use, improvements in the posture and performance of school children, and improvements in vocal and dramatic performance among the benefits offered by the technique.
The Alexander technique is primarily taught one-onone in private lessons. Introductory workshops or workshops for special applications of the technique (e.g., workshops for musicians) are also common. Private lessons range from a half-hour to an hour in length, and are taught in a series. The number of lessons varies according to the severity of the student's difficulties with coordination or to the extent of the student's interest in pursuing the improvements made possible by continued study. The cost of lessons ranges from $40-80 per hour. Insurance coverage is not widely available, but discounts are available for participants in some complementary care insurance plans. Pre-tax Flexible Spending Accounts for health care cover Alexander technique lessons if they are prescribed by a physician.
In lessons teachers guide students through simple movements (while students are dressed in comfortable clothing) and use their hands to help students identify and stop destructive patterns of tension. Tensing arises from mental processes as well as physical, so discussions of personal reactions or behavior are likely to arise in the course of a lesson.
The technique helps students move with ease and improved coordination. At the beginning of a movement (the lessons are a series of movements), most people pull back their heads, raise their shoulders toward their ears, over-arch their lower backs, tighten their legs, and otherwise produce excessive tension in their bodies. Alexander referred to this as misuse of the body.
FREDERICK MATTHIAS ALEXANDER 1869–1955
Frederick Matthias (F.M.) Alexander was born in Australia where he began a career as a young actor. While leading the theater life, he developed chronic laryngitis. While tragic for a stage career, his lingering ailment would lead to his discovery of the Alexander Technique, which would ultimately help people around the world rid their bodies of tension and stress.
At the age of 19, Alexander became frustrated with a medical practitioner's inability to treat his hoarseness and was determined to find the cause of his malady. Although lacking any medical training, Alexander began to meticulously observe his manner of coordination while speaking and reciting with the use of strategically placed mirrors. After following this method of study for 10 years, Alexander concluded that modern society was causing individuals to severely misuse the human system of locomotion, thus resulting in the dysfunction of other systems of the body. His experiments and technique laid the groundwork in the early 1900s for good habits of coordination or the proper use of the neuromuscular system.
Alexander left Australia for London in 1904. The popularity of the Alexander Technique led him to work with intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley. Alexander also taught extensively throughout the United States.
As of 1995, The Alexander Technique is taught in 26 countries, and there are nine affiliated societies overseeing a profession of approximately 2,000 teachers of the technique. Alexander's technique continues to have a profound impact on the training of musicians, actors, and dancers from around the world.
Beth A. Kapes
At any point in a movement, proper use can be established. If the neck muscles are not over-tensed, the head will carry slightly forward of the spine, simply because it is heavier in the front. When the head is out of balance in the forward direction, it sets off a series of stretch reflexes in the extensor muscles of the back. It is
Alexander found that optimal functioning of the body was very hard to maintain, even for the short period of time it took to complete a single movement. People, especially adults, have very strong tension habits associated with movement. Chronic misuse of the muscles is common. It may be caused by slouching in front of televisions or video monitors, too much sitting or driving and too little walking, or by tension associated with past traumas and injuries. Stiffening the neck after a whiplash injury or favoring a broken or sprained leg long after it has healed are examples of habitual tension caused by injury.
The first thing a teacher of the Alexander technique does is to increase a student's sensory awareness of this excessive habitual tension, particularly that in the neck and spine. Next the student is taught to inhibit the tension. If the student prepares to sit down, for example, he will tense his muscles in his habitual way. If he is asked to put aside the intention to sit and instead to free his neck and allow less constriction in his muscles, he can begin to change his tense habitual response to sitting.
By leaving the head resting on the spine in its natural free balance, by keeping eyes open and focused, not held in a tense stare, by allowing the shoulders to release, the knees to unlock and the back to lengthen and widen, a student greatly reduces strain. In Alexander lessons students learn to direct themselves this way in activity and become skilled in fluid, coordinated movement.
The focus of the Alexander technique is educational. Teachers use their hands simply to gently guide students in movement. Therefore, both contraindications and potential physiological side effects are kept to a minimum. No forceful treatment of soft tissue or bony structure is attempted, so damage to tissues, even in the case of errors in teaching, is unlikely.
As students' sensory awareness develops in the course of Alexander lessons, they become more acutely aware of chronic tension patterns. As students learn to release excessive tension in their muscles and to sustain this release in daily activity, they may experience tightness or soreness in the connective tissue. This is caused by the connective tissue adapting to the lengthened and released muscles and the expanded range of movement in the joints.
Occasionally students may get light-headed during a lesson as contracted muscles release and effect the circulatory or respiratory functioning.
Forceful contraction of muscles and rigid postures often indicate suppression of emotion. As muscles release during or after an Alexander lesson, students may experience strong surges of emotion or sudden changes in mood. In some cases, somatic memories surface, bringing to consciousness past injury or trauma. This can cause extreme anxiety, and referrals may be made by the teacher for counseling.
Research & general acceptance
Alexander became well known among the intellectual, artistic, and medical communities in London, England during the first half of the twentieth century. Among Alexander's supporters were John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Shaw, and renowned scientists Raymond Dart, G.E. Coghill, Charles Sherrington, and Nikolaas Tinbergen.
Researchers continue to study the effects and applications of the technique in the fields of education, preventive medicine, and rehabilitation. The Alexander technique has proven an effective treatment for reducing stress, for improving posture and performance in school-children, for relieving chronic pain, and for improving psychological functioning. The technique has been found to be as effective as beta-blocker medications in controlling stress responses in professional musicians, to enhance respiratory function in normal adults, and to mediate the effects of scoliosis in adolescents and adults.
Training & certification
Before his death in 1955, F.M. Alexander formed the Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) in London, England. The Society is responsible for upholding the standards for teachers of the technique. In the late 1980s, due to rapid growth of the Alexander teaching profession, STAT authorized replication of its certification body in many countries worldwide.
The American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT) oversees the profession in the United States. Teachers are board certified according STAT standards. They must receive 1600 hours of training over three years at an AmSAT approved training program. Alexander Technique International (ATI), a second organization for teachers in the United States, has varied standards for teacher certification.
Caplan, Deborah. Back Trouble - A new approach to prevention and recovery based on the Alexander Technique. Triad Communications: 1987.
Dimon, Theodore. THE UNDIVIDED SELF: Alexander Technique and the Control of Stress. North Atlantic Books: 1999.
Jones, Frank Pierce. Freedom To Change - The Development and Science of the Alexander Technique. Mouritz: 1997, imported (First published 1976 as Body Awareness in Action.)
Stern, Judith C. "The Alexander Technique: An Approach to Pain Control." Lifeline (Summer 1992).
Tinbergen, Nikolaas. "Ethology and Stress Diseases." England Science 185 (1974):20-27.
American Society for the Alexander Technique, 401 East Market Street (P.O. Box 835) Charlottesville, VA 22902 USA. (800) 473-0620; or (804) 295-2840. Fax: 804-295-3947. firstname.lastname@example.org. <http://www.alexandertech.org.>
Alexander Technique International, 1692 Massachusetts Ave., 3rd Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA. (888) 321-0856. Fax: 617-497-2615. email@example.com. <http://www.ati-net.com.>
Alexander Technique Resource Guide. (includes list of teachers) AmSAT Books, (800) 473-0620 or (804) 295-2840.
Nielsen, Michael. "A Study of Stress Amongst Professional Musicians." STAT Books London, 1994.
Reiser, Samuel. "Stress Reduction and Optimal Psychological Functioning." Lecture given at Sixth International Montreaus Congress on Stress, 1994.
Sandra Bain Cushman