Teaching the Alexander Technique

by Holly Sweeney

If you were to observe an Alexander teacher giving a lesson in the Technique, here are some of the things you would most likely see:

The student would be wearing loose-fitting comfortable clothing which would allow unrestricted movement of all limbs. The teacher may begin the lesson with the student lying down on a massage table. Reclining on the massage table, the student would not have to support him/herself against gravity and may find it easier to release habitually contracted muscles. You would see the teacher gently touching him/her and perhaps supporting and slowly moving his/her limbs, frequently returning to his/her head and neck area to gently touch the student’s musculature as well as to carefully adjust the support beneath the student’s head to the height which best accommodates the curvature of his cervical spine. You would notice that the teacher spoke to the student, keeping him/her informed about what was going on in the lesson and encouraging him/her to express his/her sensory experience in language.

You would also see the teacher working with the student in a variety of everyday activities such as getting in and out of a chair, standing, walking, speaking from a seated or standing position, bending, lifting, and reaching. The teacher would assist the student with light, guiding touch, frequently in the head-neck area. This guidance would facilitate the neuromuscular response of spinal lengthening, allowing him/her to experience the sensation of upright balance with reduced muscular effort. This phenomenon is one of the unique aspects of an Alexander lesson: the teacher actually gives the student the experience of balanced coordination on a sensory level. Again, you would notice that the teacher spoke frequently with the student, giving him/her attention-focusing cues and encouraging him/her to express in language his/her sensory experiences and the reasoning process she was employing to direct his/her coordination.

If the student were more advanced in the study of the Technique, you may see the teacher assisting with an activity that was of particular interest to the student, such as singing, reciting, dancing, swinging a tennis racket, driving, working at a computer, etc. You would notice that the teacher followed the same general procedures: light touch, delicate guidance of the head-neck relationship, attention-focusing cues, and questions which illuminate the student’s sensory experiences and thought processes. With an advanced student, you might notice that the teacher relied more on language than on touch to convey important ideas.

Since the whole intent behind a lesson is to assist the student in learning a more effortless and efficient organization of his whole body during activity, you would not
see the teacher use physical force to manipulate the student. Externally applied forces can elicit unwanted reflexes, such as the “startle response” which would elevate the level of muscular tension throughout the student’s body. Force would also disorganize the student’s coordination by imposing an externally produced shape or position on him.

You would not see the Alexander teacher give the student a set of “prescriptive” exercises. This follows Alexander’s own teaching beliefs about exercises: that there were no magical exercises that could, in and of themselves, help students to improve the quality of their functioning. Alexander saw that his students brought their old habits with them when they performed exercises - just as they did for other activities. If these habits were harmful, exercises served only to reinforce them and further increase the strain on an already over-strained body. You would see the Alexander teacher working with the student who is doing regular exercises to help him/her understand how to bring an improved quality of functioning into performing them.

“Each lesson becomes a living experiment in bringing intelligence into the activities of everyday life” - Michael Gelb (quotation taken from his book Body Learning published by Henry Holt and Co., l987. To learn how to order this and many other books about the Alexander Technique, click here:
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Holly A. Sweeney is an ergonomist and certified Alexander Technique teacher with offices in Montclair, New Jersey and in New York City. She has a M.A. in Ergonomics and Orthopedic Biomechanics and she has been a Researcher and Independent Evaluator at the Occupational and Industrial Orthopedic Center for the Hospital for Joint Diseases n New York City.

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