What is the Alexander Technique?

by Frank M. Sheldon

Slings and Arrows

It is the end of the day and you feel tense and tired. Or maybe you can not seem to get past a certain point in trying to improve the quality of a skill. Or maybe you are even in pain.

You try the recommended solutions for these problems, but they do not seem to work completely or even at all. You are not ready, however, to just resign yourself to living with it. You believe that there must be some way to free yourself from the after effects of daily stress as well as the occasional "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" that hit you
directly where you feel it: in your body.

But, how to begin?

First, some background...

We Become the Shape of Our Habits

We are all subject to stress in our daily life. Conditions of chronic pain and dysfunction can develop because of this stress as a results of habits:

* Habits in how we move and do things
* Habits in how we hold and protect ourselves
* Habits in how we react to the demands of life

Habits are automatic. While some may be useful, there are many that come into play even if they are no longer appropriate to our present circumstances. In their wake, they leave excess tension and collapse. Not only can our physical state be affected, but also our perceptions, our thinking, our emotions: our entire sense of being.

The Way We Try to Solve the Problem is the Problem

Significantly, we often no longer experience this class of habits directly--if we ever did--but only their effects. They have become so entrenched that they dominate almost everything that we do...

...including our efforts to change them!

As time goes by, these habits limit our ability to be as spontaneous and responsive as we know we really could be.

A common example of this is when we have to get up and speak before a group of people. Many of us suddenly find ourselves nervous, perhaps even trembling. There is a queasy feeling in our stomach. We can not find a place for our now sweating hands and stand there feeling awkward.

We look uncomfortable and ill at ease, and our voice sounds strained. We may not even be able to organize our thoughts clearly and stumble over words. Later, we are disappointed that we could not say what we really knew and wanted to say.

If we truly wish to change, it makes sense to "begin at the beginning," yet we hardly ever do this. Again, the reason is that this part of the chain of causes is usually invisible to us. Still, if there is any hope, it lies at the source of the causes of our habits and their unwanted consequences.

The Alexander Technique

With the guidance of a certified Alexander teacher, you do start at the beginning. You become aware of old habits of holding, tightening and collapsing. You acquire a knowledge of the fundamental principles of human co-ordination, gained directly from experience. What's more, you learn how to "undo" these old patterns at their origin, with an indirect, but specific approach that is both learnable and safe.

Gradually, a reaction-free state is established, from which you can reliably act, whether you are at rest or engaged in activity. Movements become more harmonious, light and vital. You have more choice over your responses, instead of reacting by unconscious habit alone. It then becomes possible to reconcile the need we all have to meet our obligations in the world with our wish for freedom.

A Lesson, Rather than a Treatment

In an Alexander lesson, the teacher works with the whole body, including the nervous system, so that the attention of the student is actively engaged. This is important, as it supports the aim of being able to learn to take care of oneself.

In some ways, an Alexander Teacher operates like a coach giving constant direction and feedback. The teacher does this with his or her hands by direct contact, as well as with the voice. This allows for a much clearer sense of what is actually going on with the student. All Alexander teachers train for at least three years to foster a specifically non-invasive use of the hands. It is essential to learn how to release any unnecessary tension without force. Students can then be guided through simple movements with clear direction and, in the process, they move out of their old habits of holding and collapse and into a more fully integrated tonal balance.

Although there is often a therapeutic element in the Alexander Technique--even a strong one--in a way it is incidental to the real purpose. Simply put, the aim is to cultivate a quality of attention that allows us to respond in the way most apt for every unique moment,
whether it is lifting a shopping bag out of the car or dancing a Tango. With even partial success, problems often begin to resolve themselves, simply because we are no longer unconsciously causing them with unnecessary effort.

More specifically, ome of the things we work on are learning how to keep the head and neck free in relation to the back and the rest of the body, while doing any kind of activity. Maybe you have noticed yourself clenching your teeth or hitting your keyboard too hard, leaving you with a tight neck and aching
shoulders. Being able to freely use any part of the body, without undue involvement with other parts is a specific goal of the Alexander Technique.

It is also crucial to allow the movement of the breath to be deep and free, especially during activities that we find demanding, but not to try to force this in any way. For example, the suffering public speaker mentioned before was almost certainly interfering with his breath in
some way. When we learn to leave both our neck and breath free, we will be able to ride on top of the wave of energy that can come with the special kind of pressure involved in public performance, instead of letting it wash over us as anxiety and dysfunction.

Although Every One is Unique...

Students generally fall into several broad and overlapping categories:

* Specific pain or dysfunction: neck and back pain, speech problems, the various repetitive motion syndromes and other injuries.

* General tension and stress issues: tight neck and shoulders after work, nervousness around strangers and so on.

* Performance related problems: a block in the improvement of a skill or just being out of tune or off the mark in some way.

This last group includes musicians, actors, athletes, speakers as well as all people who depend on presenting themselves effectively in public.

In addition, people with serious conditions such as asthma, polio or rheumatoid arthritis have found the Technique valuable as part of their strategy for continuing to live a fulfilling life. Of course, many people fall into more than one category, and some come just for the
enjoyment of the work itself.

Is This for You?

The lessons are educational in nature and are done in normal street clothes, although slacks and looser fitting apparel work best. Like many worthwhile endeavors, there is effort of a subtle kind required, yet most people find the work enjoyable and look forward to their sessions. If you have even a minimal capacity to direct your own attention and the desire, you can learn the Alexander Technique. You will proceed safely at your own pace and apply this unique and powerful method to any activity or situation in your own life that you wish. How far you want to go is always up to you.

Frank Sheldon completed his training at the School of Alexander Studies in London in 1978 and now lives and teaches in Seattle.

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