What is the Alexander Technique?
by Nick Mellor
I first got RSI in 1992 while working as technical editor for a computer magazine, and my healing didn't really start to take off until I started having Alexander lessons as a private pupil in 1999. I've just started my third year of teacher training in the Alexander Technique. (Click here to read an accound of my RSI experiences)
The Alexander Technique is about supremely practical and simple experiences, first at the hands of a trained teacher, then on your own, using the techniques you have learnt in lessons. To understand what I'm saying, I recommend having a few lessons. I know what this sounds like, a marketing ploy, but the Alexander Technique is a very subtle, and in many ways a very non-verbal or pre-verbal thing. It operates on all sorts of levels, conscious and unconscious. I simply can't explain it as well as a teacher would, using not just words, but touch and in-the-moment feedback.
If one-to-one lessons are beyond your resources, there are numerous introductory courses in the Technique on offer from Further Education and Music colleges. But to give yourself the best chance of lasting therapeutic benefit from your Alexander lessons, I strongly recommend one-to-one work, and quite a lot of it.
YES, BUT WHAT IS IT?!
Put simply, but glibly, the Alexander Technique is about changing your manner of reaction.
WHY A TEACHER? WHY CAN'T I JUST CHANGE MY OWN MANNER OF REACTION?
It's the nature of habit to be largely unconscious. We don't have to think about the miraculous and complex coordination involved in walking, or driving a car from A to B. Our nervous system simply takes over after a while, and all it needs is the guidance of conscious motivation-- where do I want to go? What do I want to do? Who do I want to see? What do I need?
Then, too, many patterns aren't under conscious control, and the only means of ridding yourself of them are indirect and subtle. It is possible, in principle, to practise the Alexander Technique on your own, but to get the most out of it you really will benefit from a teacher's feedback, at least at first.
Most pupils are so deeply unaware of their own habitual responses that it is necessary, or desirable at least, to have someone help them explore their own patterns. Alexander explored his own patterns using systems of mirrors, other peoples' observations of himself, and his own observations of other people. It took him a long, long time, years in fact, to get where a teacher can get you in a few lessons. The difference between this lengthy and difficult experience of Alexander's, and going for lessons, are partly to do with this profound difficulty we have observing ourselves. The other major difference is "hands-on" work from the teacher, where the teacher can communicate not just verbally, but show you your way of working on a much deeper level through touch.
As a teacher trainee, and as a pupil, you would typically expect "hands-on" work. Alexandrian hands-on work is non-threatening, non-judgmental touch, not manipulation as commonly understood, and nearly impossible to do without training. Alexander teachers use their "hands", or rather, through touch, the feedback from their own nervous systems, to tell them what is happening in their pupil, and reflect this feedback to the pupil, both through their hands, and verbally. To do this, your own nervous system needs be as quiet and coherent as humanly possible. The nervous systems of most RSI sufferers are a mess.
The experience of hands-on varies from one person to another. It can be uncannily like having your mind read, or a powerful sense of the world suddenly changing shape in front of you, or feeling suddenly able to make choices about things like muscle tension that you thought were an unchangeable fact of life. Others, including me, don't know what they feel.
Life is movement, and Alexander teachers work with movement: the raw material is usually simple everyday activities like sitting, writing, walking, but you can take any activity to a teacher (for example, playing a musical instrument) and use it as a means of investigating your overall patterns.
Once you have become (more) aware of your habits, you have a choice about whether to follow them, or to choose against them. There is no possibility of choosing against a habit you aren't aware you have, and in many cases it isn't easy to choose against a habit you are aware of, like raising your shoulders and pulling in your head when under stress. A friend of mine, having her first lesson a few months ago, said she suddenly had control over tension in her back muscles. She could notice they were tense, and let them go. Most of us with RSI do not have this level of conscious control without some initial help from an Alexander Teacher or similar.
Most people rarely, if ever, take the contra-habitual fork in the road, or sit at the fork and simply notice what's around them. In many ways they simply can't: they have become habit-bound and self-limiting.
The Technique is about *un*doing what you've learned, not learning some new, "better" pattern. This is not a technique about "good" habits, but about allowing the self-generation of new, natural ones which are not any one person's intellectual or moral idea of what is "good". That is the real power behind the Alexander Technique: the ability of the powerful, largely unconscious human self find dynamic creative solutions to as-yet-unknown and unknowable problems. With the Alexander Technique you aren't learning a new way of doing things so much as how to get out of the way of things that want to happen anyway.
As an Information Technology teacher, I have a pupil who is learning to type, and had a fascinating experience with him the other day. He has had three lessons on typing, and his fingers know where the keys are, and happily go in the right direction for the next key...but just as they get near the key, he suddenly starts doubting, he interferes with this "knowledge" his fingers already have. The finger would waver and stop. He'd falter and flounder, start looking at the keyboard for help. Unnoticed by him, I watched, fascinated and appalled as the instinctive pattern that had been building itself without any help, suddenly overridden by inappropriate doubt, and in their place he put the slow, laborious, inaccurate, unnatural process of searching out a key by scanning the keyboard with his eyes. It was a classic case of interference with what wants to happen, a perfect example of what the Alexander Technique is all about preventing.
Two major concepts in the Alexander Technique:
1.) The head-neck-back relationship.
Sometimes called the "primary control". Our main aim as Alexander teachers is to get this fundamental pattern working properly, i.e. without blockage, as a unit, with freedom, strength, length, flexibility and spontaneity.
The head-neck-back is to be understood as stretching from the crown of the head to the base of the spine, and to include also the pelvis. If it is working properly, difficulties throughout the body very frequently clear up without any medical intervention, as they have in my case. But patterns of reaction are always individual. Statistical principles are not always easy to apply, and consistent results for a particular ailment can't be guaranteed, although there are some fairly consistent patterns with many intractable ailments. The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique has links to articles and websites about the Technique, including its application to various medical conditions.
As with all educational processes, you can only see where it takes you, and you can't easily guess in advance where that is. It is the excitement and frustration of the educational approach: you're moving into unknown territory.
It is important to see the Technique as a tool for self-exploration, and not to insist on "cure". "Cure" is not what it's there for. In fact, if you get yourself a little bit free of the desperate need to cure yourself as soon as possible, cure very often begins to "do itself". The desperate need for relief often becomes an obstacle to healing, and a "pain cycle" is born, where your attempts to avoid pain maintains the condition that causes the pain. Your body is tense, so you hurt. You hurt, so you tense up more. So you hurt more.
Your body, given the chance to adapt and heal unhindered, simply does so without fuss. The human body is a very efficient self-healing mechanism, but it does need to be left alone to do the job. This doesn't necessarily mean rest, more "non-interference". Interfering with ourselves is a hard habit to interrupt, even when we're at rest: even, in fact, when we're asleep.
Human healing mechanisms rely in part on movement. For example, the return of blood to the heart and lungs is aided by the action of active (but not chronically tense) muscles relaxing and contracting around veins, including particularly the arches of the feet, and the Illiopsoas muscle group in the pelvis, hips and lower back.
Muscles can only pull, never push. When you move your arm, the muscles on one side of your arm are inhibited (switched off) while the others are excited (switched on) and the imbalance between the switched-on muscles and the switched-off ones is what moves the arm. The inhibition, the switching off of the antagonistic muscles facing away from the movement, is as important to the movement as the excitation of the muscles actually moving the arm.
On a very basic level, any sufferer can sense the evidence that it is this process of inhibition and excitation that has got out of balance for many RSI sufferers: chronic tension. The muscles are chronically tense, and this means muscular inhibition can't work properly, creating a drag on all arm movements, even when the arm is still. All day and even, in the later stages, all through the night, generating huge, unsustainable wear and tear on all the muscles of the arm. If this wear and tear is maintained, it can overwhelm natural healing processes. But if muscular inhibition can be got to work better again, it is frequently the case that no specific treatment is necessary at all. It may even be obvious to readers that this is so, without further evidence.
What you will feel as muscular inhibition begins to work better is an extraordinary lightness and ease about all your movements.
It will become clear that Alexandrian inhibition is not the Freudian sort at all-- in fact the very opposite. It is about the conscious making of choices, and an acute awareness that body state influences decision-making at all levels. Inhibition is a powerful concept for the conscious management of habit, and has close correlates in the structure of the nervous system (see above). Rather than addressing "bad" habits by cultivating better ones (like the various postural approaches you see advocated for RSI patients) you stop your first reaction and allow yourself to choose consciously whether to go with a habit, to do something else, or to do nothing at all. A habit is only "bad" in the sense that you can't choose against it, as you can't choose against chronic muscle tension.
"Stopping" is not slowing down. One of my teachers described it once as "stop in consciousness, not in time." It is rather like the way musicians create time in fast, difficult passages, and an Alexander teacher can in fact help a musician to achieve this taking of time in difficult, exacting, fast-moving coordinations.
The distinction between suppressing and "stopping", in this sense, is subtle verbally, but there is all the difference in terms of experience, health and flow of movement and thought. When you suppress a habit, you simply overlay new bahaviours on old, and if these are muscular behaviours, you soon set up unnatural, mutually antagonistic, chronic tensions, and begin to build in the possibility of injury. Your attempts to prevent re-injury really can themselves injure you, as they did me: "sitting up straight" just generated more injury in a different place for my already-injured back.
The real power of Alexandrian inhibition stems from its close connection with the head-neck-back relationship, the primary control, specifically the startle reflexes that manifest particularly strongly at the head-neck joint and in the Illiopsoas muscle group in the lower back, pelvis and hips.
In case it's not clear from what I've written before, the Alexander Technique is not a golden bullet for your specific symptoms. There is no golden bullet for RSI, and no teacher, nor any of our governing bodies, would go near claiming the Technique to to be a golden bullet for any one condition. As mentioned before, it depends greatly on the individual and their patterns what the results will be. In particular, being a taught technique, the Alexander Technique depends on the pupil for patience, humour, commitment and perseverance. If you let yourself have these (we all have them if we let ourselves) you're in for a fascinating time full of surprises and self-discovery, and can expect greatly improved well-being, vitality and enjoyment of life, and the sudden absence of numerous "conditions" and discomforts you had begun to take for granted. But as one well-known teacher, Marjorie Barlow, put it: "I tell pupils the Alexander Technique is like a sticking plaster: it can't work unless you apply it."
I realise that it is easier to be patient, humorous, committed and persevering when you have daily expert feedback and a very supportive atmosphere, and I have both. But equally the work is extremely powerful and liberating, and one of the things it liberates is potential you didn't know you had. It can show you, against everything you are beginning to believe about your limitations as an RSI sufferer, how amazing you (still) are, and how much of your present exhaustion and injury is because your patterns of reaction insist on fighting the healthy search for solutions your body and mind are constantly involved in. As your ideas change, as soon as your arms stop fighting your back, and each other, a major source of cumulative injury in both backs and arms is removed, and natural healing processes can start to work unhindered.
The Alexander Technique is a taught technique for learning about and extending your patterns of reaction on all levels, physical, mental and emotional. It applies equally to arthritis, creative writing, sports performance, public speaking, horse-riding, decision-making, or recovering from a stroke or an RSI-- it applies, in short, to life and living. This is reflected in the title of books on the Technique: A Skill for Life (a good introductory book), Curiosity Recaptured, Body Learning, Freedom to Change, The Universal Constant in Living (Alexander's own-- not easy reading.)
The Technique is often wrongly believed to be a system for good posture, and on the basis of this ignorant pigeon-holing it is too often written off as being of no or little interest or application by many people who, had they understood its real implications, have much to gain from it, but who understandably don't wish to be taught old-style deportment.
It regularly falls between stools, and is shoe-horned into ill-fitting categories by all and sundry, not least by the medical community and the alternative medicine movement. But the truth is there isn't really a suitable place-holder for it in the present culture. It is not medical, because it has nothing whatever to do with the medical model of diagnosis to be followed by specific remedy.
Though it has therapeutic effects, it is not a therapy, but an educational process. It is not education in the standard sense, because it involves tactile feedback, and teaches you not facts, but how to learn about yourself, for yourself, using principles of openness, expansion and non-reactivity, in a very simple, practical way. It starts complex, because your manner of use interferes, and if anything gradually gets simpler and simpler. It has things in common with psychotherapy, but it doesn't analyse your childhood.
It was invented not by a brilliant academic or a religious or new-age luminary, but by a Tasmanian farmer-turned-actor with a career-threatening voice problem to solve. A problem which he solved for himself, the medical profession having failed him, by persistence, self-reliance and sheer, home-grown genius. The kind of genius that has a farm gate close itself with what was to hand: something heavy that was lying around and a piece of string. Ingenuity, simplicity, being able to see familiar things in a new way.
I wish the medical community, for one, would pay far more attention to this very important work. "Manner of reaction" is an extremely important layer of human functioning, and can't meaningfully be ignored by any comprehensive system of health. The medical profession is largely ignorant of this aspect of healthy and efficient human functioning: our health services are woefully inadequate in the area of prevention, and no wonder, when so little is known about manner of reaction.
Although it is not a traditional medical approach, the Alexander Technique has much to offer preventive medicine. It is always better to prevent than to treat after the event, as many of us RSI sufferers realise and regret. The Technique is a very effective preventive measure for digestive problems, breathing difficulties like asthma, allergies, accidents, injuries, joint problems, circulation problems, Chronic Fatigue and post-viral syndromes, and "bad" stress. It often corrects, or rather, permits the natural correction of, minor physical impairments without surgery or orthotics, and greatly helps those more impaired to explore their vast, often unsuspected and unrecognised potential. Recognising potential is often all it takes to "improve" beyond all measure.
The Technique is a simple, beautiful, comprehensive, organic approach to self-limiting, self-damaging bahaviours on the one hand, and poor self-image, self-determination and self-assertion on the other. It encourages the native, quiescent alertness that got the human race through millions of years of daily survival, and which modern life tends to discourage or distort. It connects us with our environment and each other. It makes us far less easy to manipulate, and helps us to understand ourselves better. This inevitably means we are more able to access compassion for others and ourselves, and to cope with difficult circumstances, including injury, with resilience, humour and creativity. It feeds into our relationships with other people as much as our own bodies, since how well we understand other people is a function of how well we understand ourselves.
Nick Mellor was in the PC industry, the voluntary sector and the public sector for eight years as a technical editor, teacher and programmer, leaving to write full-time in 1996. His difficulties with RSI brought him to the Alexander Technique, briefly in 1996, then again in 1999, at which point he decided to train at NETCAT, the Northern England Teaching College for the F.M. Alexander Technique in Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK.
After graduation from NETCAT, he hopes to work with a wide range of application areas for the Technique, including creative writing, musical performance, public speaking, sports performance, efficient compensation for the effects of brain damage and physical impairment, Shock/Trauma and, as a result of his own experiences, Repetitive Strain Injuries. More than anything, he is interested in improving the range and quality of life choices available to his future pupils.
He fell-walks and plays Squash, and is a keen amateur pianist from a family of musicians.
He holds a B.Sc.(Hons) in Computer Science and an M.A. in Linguistics, both from the University of Leeds.
A comprehensive source of information about the Alexander Technique can be found at:
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique