Alexander Technique - What is it?
by Janet Wright
The Alexander Technique is a way of becoming more aware of your balance and how you move. It's based on the premise that most people have bad postural habits that, over time, stop us using our bodies as easily and comfortably as we should be able to. Wrongly used muscles contract and pull down, giving rise to the classic sign of bad use: head tipped back at the start of any movement, especially sitting down or standing up. As well as the long-term damage to joints and cramped internal organs, poor posture causes a lot of tension, most commonly felt as chronic backache or stiff shoulders. It's also linked with respiratory ailments: people develop round shoulders from hunching protectively around their painful chests as they cough and wheeze, which in turn restricts their airways still further.
Frederick Matthias Alexander believed modern living gives rise to our bad postural habits: shoulders raised and stiffened by stress, neck poked forward over desk work, tired bodies slumped into saggy armchairs. Soon we've lost all sense of how we really are, so that what feels natural (because it's habitual) is wildly out of line. That's why it's very hard to correct our own posture without expert help.
The Alexander Technique aims to re-educate each body into moving more easily - relearning the natural grace all children have till they go to school and start slouching over desks.
It's based on what Alexander teachers call 'good use of the body' - allowing the spine to regain its natural curves, holding the head effortlessly in the easiest position and distributing weight evenly over your feet. The bonus is that you look taller and feel two stone lighter.
It's a hands-on teaching method, though you don't undress; after three years' full-time training Alexander teachers can 'read' people's muscles through layers of clothes with their fingertips. To start with, you and the teacher observe your stance and movements for some time, and the first shock is seeing how asymmetrical you are when you think you're standing up straight. Then you're gently moved into a healthier position when you're sitting, standing and lying down.
As part of the relearning process, you stop and think before plunging into an habitual move, then make the movement mindfully. It feels odd to practise getting up or walking with someone's hand lightly holding the back of your neck, and even odder for the first few days when you keep making conscious efforts to do it the way you've learnt. If you're used to standing with your pelvis jutting further forward than your toes, for example, you feel as though you're going to fall over backwards when you tuck your tailbone in and bring your weight nearer a point above your heels. But your legs, no longer struggling to hold you at a slant, now carry you effortlessly. You may be noticeably taller. Walking upstairs feels like levitating. The idea is that this soon becomes second nature.
And the homework couldn't be easier: for 20 minutes a day you lie on your back on the floor, with just enough books under your head to keep your neck parallel to the floor (so you can swallow comfortably), knees raised and hands on abdomen. Keep your mind on the Alexander mantra: 'Let the neck be free so the head can move forwards and upwards and the back can lengthen and widen.'
When should you use the Alexander Technique?
Most obvious benefits are with back or joint pain, fatigue and respiratory problems. It's also widely used by actors, musicians and athletes to improve their performance. Since there are no risks involved, it's worth anyone's while trying it out.
Published studies verify the benefits of the Alexander Technique for singing, playing musical instruments, athletics, stress management, respiratory efficiency and pain relief as well as balance and posture. A study of two matched groups of students at the the British Royal College of Music, reported in the Procedures of the Royal Society of Medicine, found that the Alexander group improved their singing and acting skills as well as their posture. FP Jones reported in the Journal of Psychology that improvements in singers' voices after an Alexander course are measurable by spectral analysis an well as audibly. Holistic Medicine reports that a group of chronic pain sufferers rated it the most effective of 13 activities on a pain management course.
Round about the turn of the century, a young Australian actor called Frederick Matthias Alexander lost his voice, but only when he was on stage doing his one-man Shakespeare recitals. Doctors couldn't find anything the matter and conventional therapies didn't help. Alexander realised he must be doing something wrong, so he rigged up three mirrors to study himself rehearsing. He saw that, in lifting his head heroically as he recited, he was tipping it back, constricting his larynx and incidentally crushing his spinal discs. Yet he would have sworn he'd been holding his head high. Once he'd realised how out of touch people are with what they're actually doing, Alexander spent the rest of his life working on his technique - in perfect voice.
None. It's painless and non-invasive. But let your teacher know if you have anaemia, low blood pressure or anything else that could make you lose your balance, so they don't bring you up quickly from a lying position.
This article first appeared in the UK magazine Health and Fitness.
Janet Wright is a qualified freelance journalist with 20 years experience. She specialises in health topics - particularly self-help, evidence-based medicine and the body-mind link - and is based in London, England. She may be reached by Email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her internet site may be found at: http://www.freelance-journalist.co.uk/
For more information about the Alexander Technique, including how to find an Alexander Teacher in your area, click here: The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique