Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique is a means of improving posture and use of the body (and frequently speech) by essentially learning techniques to use one's body and mind together. Effectively this means freeing posture, removing unnecessary tension and 'redirecting' the body to work better. It takes its name from F. Matthias Alexander, a former Shakespearean recitalist, who devised it in the late 19th century. It is often considered the "grandfather" of other somatic processes such as the Feldenkrais, Rolfing, Hellerwork, etc.

What it is

Alexander Technique isn't a set of exercises. It's not even a set of mental exercises, although both physical and mental exercises might be used at the discretion of the tutor. Instead it's an attempt to retrain the mind - to make it fully aware of what the body is doing and, therein, sustitute better body movemenents and/or mannerisms which ideally involve no muscle tension and as little 'energy' as possible ('energy' in the sense of 'effort').

The technique teaches how thinking becomes response. It's possible to learn to insert a new choice before reaction happens. This is taught by observing one's own mannerisms while moving. Sitting down is a good example - how do you sit down? What happens to your back and neck? Why does this happen? Once the student is made aware, after substantial practice and effort he is able to stop ingrained movements and actions, and substitute better ones. Typically this happens in a Road To Damascus-type moment of realisation when the Technique suddenly begins to make sense.

The kinesthetic sense is often the most "taken for granted" and habitually ingrained sense. Freeing habitual responses of thought is taught by freeing the physical movements that express intention. In hands-on lessons (literally - the tutor will use his/her hands to make the student aware of his/her movements and body), Alexander Technique's' signature feelings of sustained ease, increased freedom of movement and unexpected poise becomes a shared fact, marked by the teacher and appreciated by the student simultaneously.

Some of the principles

Many of the principles of the technique are unique concepts. For instance, during repetition, our senses tend to habitually adapt to the continuous muscle messages sent by the brain. This Sensory Adaptation makes perceptual sensations disappear. This also means that a willingness to welcome what is unfamiliar is required to allow something new to occur.

Another unique concept is a specialized use of the word Inhibition. Many Alexander teachers believe this concept to be the foundation of Alexander Technique. Without denial or catharsis, it is possible to learn to recognize and prevent a habitual patterned reaction and choose differently. With practice, a habit can be inhibited. The means taught to subvert habits vary with each Alexander teacher's experience. Sidestepping, stalling, tricking, boring the old habitual reaction - anything is fair game so the old habit can disengage, leaving the freedom to try something new.

The most original principle discovered is called Direction or Primary Control. Its long term importance in physical functionality is just recently being scientifically studied as movement gait research. F.M. Alexander discovered that a very slight head motion leads all physical movement, acting as a steering wheel or a key to unlock the rest of the body that must follow the headís lead. Pay attention to the quality, sequence, timing and direction of balancing the head at the neck and the ability to respond with every other part of the body improves.

Toddlers possess this delicacy of balance. Perhaps 5% of adults still retain their unspoiled sense of balance in Western culture. Learning during activity what Alexander teachers term Forward & Up or Head Leads, Body Follows is most often only experienced by moving with the help of a teacher. The temporary effect of Alexander lessons can feel very unusual. Lightness, fluidity, and many unusual metaphors illustrating effortlessness are common descriptions. With training, attention can expand to encompass both one's goal and one's own chosen means of movement.

How long it takes to learn

The objective of individual or group lessons is for the student to do the Alexander Technique for themselves. Progress is unlimited, but commonly slow; often taking a significant commitment of months, even years of discipline. Speed of learning seems to depend on motivation to shed outdated habits. People have found the motivations of choice are the core of identity beyond habit. But in practice, insistent habits seem to have their own sense of self-preservation which fears their lack of necessity. Of course, some teachers help the surrendering process go easier. Sampling a number of teachers is advisable.

Who uses it

Since the Alexander Technique improves perception & ease, it has broad applications. It is taught in performance schools of dance, acting, circus, music and some Olympic sports. It's also useful remedially; to obtain full recovery, to stop stuttering, to unlearn and avoid Repetitive Stress Injury, and improve ergonomics. Its principles are also useful in psychology, creative thinking, learning theory and philosophy of coaching.

How It Works

The Alexander technique is essentially a de-education process learned by subtracting previously assumed necessary effort. It can be practiced during any activity, involving any sort of motion. The original intent was to apply the scientific method to carrying out intention and enhancing the means of doing so. The object was to make the advantages of experimentation deliberately repeatable, and to continue improvement indefinitely.

Some of the steps

Carrying out intentions fully into physical action was the challenge. In keeping with the sensory adaptation principle, customary kinesthetic orientation and preparation that "feels right" is repeatedly discovered to be unnecessary. A basic activity is to identify and suspend the goal, stopping habitual interference so a more instinctive capacity to respond will reassert itself. Ease or Ė a sense of what is termed Do-less-ness - is used as the measure of success. With success from experimentation, motivation increases to tolerate and make discoveries from what never stops feeling unfamiliar and unpredictable.

Expected results

Depending on the causes of limitation, structural posture may or may not improve, but freedom of movement and most often economy of motion should always improve during the lesson with a teacher. An Alexander teacher provides these experiences by demonstrating with themselves and modeling. A pupilís motion would be guided hands-on by the teacher, usually with a very light touch, while making subtle indications of Direction timing and coaching that the student then follows. To take improvements away from the lesson, the dedication of attentive experimentation is required on the part of the learner.

Why learn with a teacher

F.M. Alexander and his brother A.R. Alexander often stressed that The Technique could not be learned without the active cognitive participation of a student or even the active cognitive help of a suitably qualified instructor, deceptive self-awareness being a significant principle of Sensory Adaptation. Most Alexander teachers today agree, but F.M. and A.R. did it first alone, so it is theoretically possible to learn without a teacher, but very rare. In the United Kingdom, Alexander Technique teachers are in the process of being included in the Alternative medicine of the National health system. This, in spite of the fact Alexander teachers regard their livelihood as being educational rather than curative in nature.

Where It Came From

Discoverer F.M. Alexander, was a Shakespearean orator who developed problems losing his voice. The problem occurred as soon as he tried to speak onstage, but he later observed the same response pattern in his common speaking style, to a lesser effect. Careful observation with multiple mirrors revealed that he needlessly stiffened his body in order to recite or speak. His technique was based on successfully finding his way past his loss of voice, and putting his discoveries into practice on himself. Many Alexander teachers are of the opinion that using a vocal medium, emulating the founder, most rapidly accelerates the benefits of this discipline.

Teaching today

Now, Alexander Technique has the lifetime dedication from only a few thousand teachers world-wide, taking over three years of full-time training to join professional organizations which require many refresher workshops. Only a few who were trained by the founder are still living. Most teachers in the field are of the professional opinion that no informative substitution exists for a block of twenty to forty lessons; words do not suffice to describe the Alexander Technique, it must be experienced.

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