Aging Well with the Alexander Technique

by Robert Rickover

Along with the steady increase in life expectancy has come a growing interest in “quality of life” issues for older adults. It’s one thing to live into your 80s and 90s, but quite another to be able to function well during those advanced years. Quite a bit of attention is now being focused on physical and mental exercises, proper nutrition and the like for older adults.

But what is often left out of the equation is attention to way older people use their bodies - not just what activities they do, but how well they do them. All too often, harmful habits of posture and movement that may have become an inconvenience in one’s 40s and 50s become serious impediments to physical functioning in later years. Learning how to release these harmful habits is precisely what the Alexander Technique is all about.

I used to live a block from a large medical office building where, each morning as I walked by, older patients would emerge from cars and cabs. Many of these patients moved very, very stiffly. Some had necks that were so tight that they could not even turn their head from side to side.

From my teaching experience, I know that most of them felt no discomfort in their neck. The messages from their neck muscles to their brain had long ago been shut down - an efficient procedure one’s body adapts if there no longer seems any possibility that the person will take appropriate remedial action.

What my older students often do notice is that they tend to have shortness of breath, restricted movement ability and poor balance. Those are usually the reasons they’ve decided to take Alexander Technique lessons. But they were generally unaware, before taking lessons, of the actual cause of many of these problems - the general tightness in their bodies, particularly in their necks.

In my own teaching experience, I’ve found that older adults are often able to make dramatic changes in these patterns, despite their long-standing nature. I believe that’s mainly because the ones who explore methods like the Alexander Technique are often highly motivated to improve their functioning.

In this regard it’s interesting to note that some of F. Matthias Alexander’s students (Alexander was the originator of the Technique) were middle aged and older when they first started taking lessons. George Bernard Shaw as 86 and Professor John Dewey, America’s most famous philosopher and educator, was in his late 50s. Alexander himself was 86 when he died, and he had been actively teaching until a few days before his death. My own primary teacher, the late Marjorie Barstow, was teaching workshops around the word well into her 90s.

In Alexander’s fourth and final book, “The Universal Constant in Living”, he includes a letter written to his brother, A. R. Alexander, in 1941 by Dr. Millard Smith of Boston. A. R. Alexander had been teaching the Technique in Boston for several years and Dr. Smith wrote about one of Alexander’s students, a “Mr. A.” who was a patient and friend of the doctor and who had recently died.

Here is an excerpt from Doctor Smith’s letter: “When I first saw (Mr. A.) in 1931, shortly before he became your pupil, he showed a very disabling degree of hypertrophic arthritis of the spine. While it is my belief that most arthritic joints chronically affected should be mobilized, I felt very dubious about carrying out mobilization measures in is case after seeing the marked hypertrophic changes in the x-ray of his spine. The usual course in such a situation at that age is increasing disability, and comfort can be given only be the use of orthopaedic appliance that lead to further fixation. There is no question but what he had reached a turning point in his life’s physical activities and I am sure that there is no known medical procedure that would have resulted in the remarkable rehabilitation that he had shown progressively during the past seven or eight years. He has had a steadily increasing well-being and interest in living, especially during the past two years...From the medical standpoint he has really shown a reveresal of the aging process and his performance has been quite contrary to what one would have predicted for him nine years ago. His blood pressure has been lower, and he has lost angina symptoms that he had nine years ago. X-rays of his spine have been taken periodically and they sowed a slight diminution, rather than an increase as would be expected, the the hypertrophic process. His work with you has made it possible for him to live a very active, normal and happy life...”

I’m sure most teachers of the Alexander Technique can report similar improvements in their older students. As one of my own students once remarked to me: “The Alexander Technique is not the Fountain of Youth. But it’s pretty damn close!


Resources: “Alexander Technique and Aging Well” and “Growing Older With Grace” provide addlitional information on this topic.

Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique Web Site.

Click here to go to The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique