Swimming and the Alexander Technique

by Ian Cross

I have enjoyed regular Alexander lessons for the last three years. I believe the Alexander technique is changing my life significantly. The reason that I need the technique is the same reason I have such difficulty with it. I have grown up as an uncoordinated end-gainer known for my inability to stop and think before acting. Before I discovered the Alexander Technique I was unaware of any principle which could show me clearly the uselessness of my habitual behaviour. In this paper I will describe some of the ways the Alexander Technique is helping me to change.

Misconceptions about physical fitness and eradicating gross misuse

In my early twenties I became interested in triathlon. I had discovered swimming and wanted a reason to develop my skill. With triathlon, a competitive sport, I lost something I had found in swimming -escape from abstract thinking through free, relaxed, repetitive movement and deep, rhythmic aquatic breathing. I read magazine articles about achieving your fastest time; why you need strong abdominal muscles; why you should stretch; the benefits of interval training; mind over matter.

To compensate for my lack of natural running technique, I pushed myself harder and felt frustrated that my times did not come down. It never occurred to me that there might be a difference between fitness and health. End-gaining triathletes take it as read that they are doing something that is healthy and their aim becomes getting faster. Injuries are common and emphasis tends to be on cure rather than prevention. There is no sense of embarrassment in the injured person. Injuries are seen as a sign of being a serious athlete. The only cause of injury that is widely acknowledged is over-training - not resting enough. The concept of misuse of the self is virtually unknown in the world of sport. During my triathlon days, not only did I train too hard, I was unaware of the way in which I used my body as a whole as I moved.

There was one area of the body, however, that I felt I should give some attention to. I believed in the importance of a "straight back". My older brother advocated an erect posture and I tried to imitate him. I developed the habit of sticking my chest out, straightening my neck and narrowing my back. I would do this whenever I caught myself slouching.

"The belief is very generally held that if only we are told what to do in order to correct a wrong way of doing something, we can do it, and that if we feel we are doing it, all is well." (F. M. Alexander, Use of the Self).

By my mid- twenties I had nagging lumbar back pain. One morning I awoke unable to move my neck. A physiotherapist gave me some exercises to strengthen the flaccid muscles of my lower back and advocated deep massage with the thumbs of the tight and knotted muscles around the lumbar vertebrae. She also recommended an exercise which involved pulling the chin in. I can't remember the reasoning behind this one! For five years I had been misusing my body to the point of damage. No one including myself had recognised this. Certainly my ideas about physical fitness had done me more harm than good.

This gross misuse, resulting from misconceptions about physical fitness and posture has now I believe been eradicated by three years of Alexander lessons. I am of course still lacking in co-ordination and I am still an end-gainer. I find it difficult to stop - abstract thinking, worrying, talking, doing - but I know more and more where I am going wrong and believe I am less likely to enter a path which is obviously not sensible for me. During Alexander lessons I have experienced focused attention to my own activity, being in the here and now, breathing, with a head, neck and back moving as one piece.

As soon as I started having Alexander lessons, I found I was able to apply what I was learning to swimming in a very obvious way. I have needed and still need Steven Shaw and my diploma colleagues to help me to learn how I can move more freely through the water, keeping the integrity of the head, neck and back. But before I met Steven, I had already experienced some success in changing my approach to swimming. This involved giving up counting laps and timing myself, paying more attention to movement through the water than how many metres I was swimming, and enjoying the time and space to experiment, to float and glide and play.

Saying "No!" to the 9 to 5 / Swimming without Stress

My job as a careers adviser primarily involved communication - discussion with colleagues, meetings, and interviewing people about their futures. In a job like this, unwanted stimuli are being received all day, too many for my nervous system to cope with. Many of my colleagues felt themselves to be under stress at work. I found this the most difficult stage on which to apply the principles of the Alexander technique. I had hoped that the technique would help me to cope with a stressful job, and to some extent it did. But the experience of being energised during Alexander lessons by what John Dewey describes as "thinking in activity" made me more aware of how sapped of energy I was at the end of a working day. I realised that I needed to remove from my life the overall stimulus of my job.

Walter Carrington said, in a talk given in May 1972: "Alexander people are always talking about controlling reaction but in my submission the technique is not so much about controlling reaction as knowing how to avoid stimuli arising that produce the reactions that we don't want. Inhibition and the whole basis of the technique is really a matter of trying to control stimuli. See the stimuli are not presented or get out of the way. It is nonsense to pretend that most of us are really capable of withholding or changing reactions to powerful stimuli. If the stimulus is strong enough, then our reactions are predictable. Try to avoid things which will cause your neck to stiffen."

Belief in the principle of the Alexander technique gave me the courage to give up my job and devote myself to teaching people to overcome fear and habit in water. I am now living a life I want to live, doing something I believe in and enjoy. I know that my experience with the Alexander technique and my awareness of gross misuse in swimmers makes me a better swimming teacher. I can encourage swimmers whole-heartedly that the process of learning is more important than the result, that there is more to being in the water than swimming and that they have to learn to regain their feet from a floating position before they can learn breast- stroke!

In taking control of my lifestyle I have at least created general conditions which make the challenge of applying the principles of the Alexander technique more possible. Without my experience of the Alexander technique, I may not have recognised the need for this major change.


Alexander points out that the stumbling block to a pupil's progress is his idea that "as long as he grasps 'intellectually' the principle underlying the means whereby procedure and subscribes to it fully in theory, he will have little difficulty in working to it practically."

I talk about the Alexander technique a lot and enjoy my lessons but how much of an impact is it having on my daily life? How much easier am I to live with?

Sometimes I am able to enjoy being with my children while helping them to tie their shoelaces or getting them strapped into the car. This is because I will tell myself to take time over the task and give some attention to my directions. On other occasions I will just want to get it done and command them to be quiet or stop wriggling. But I know this behaviour is wrong and I know why. The means to dispose of this wrong behaviour are at my disposal. And I am not changing my old behaviour purely for the sake of my children. I am changing it for the benefit of myself.

More and more, every day, I know when I am going wrong. As I write this by hand, or type it, if I get excited about the sentence I am writing, my feet will come off the floor and wrap around the bar of the chair. I will be drawn to the paper/ key-board, pull my head down sideways/ collapse my neck, cave in at the ribs and slump into the chair. But I am able to stop this. A few months ago, I was not. I am also able to recognise what I am doing wrong without being judgmental with myself or making too much of an effort to be right. I no longer try to "do" forward and up and give myself a headache. Instead, I can give myself a moment's attention, know where I want to go, and I often notice a change in my breathing as some expansion takes place in my ribs. This is a pleasant sign that I have achieved a result without directly striving for it, without end-gaining.

So maybe I am gradually improving with my Alexander work. Alexander says that by following the procedures of inhibition and direction during lessons, "a gradual improvement will be brought about in the pupil's sensory appreciation, so that he will become more and more aware of faults in his habitual manner of using himself; correspondingly, as with this increasing awareness the manner of his use of himself improves, his sensory appreciation will further improve and in time constitute a standard within the self by means of which he will become increasingly aware both of faults and improvement, not only in the manner of his use but also in the standard of his functioning generally."

This sentence gives me great encouragement but I know I have a long way to go.



The Use of the Self, Alexander, F M,

Quotation from Walter Carrington is taken from the journal of the School for the F M Alexander Technique (Denmark), January 1989.


"Swimming without Stress" instructors Ian Cross and his wife Cheryl Cross are both qualified teachers of the Shaw Method of Swimming in Oxfordshire, England and are enthusiastic about the potential health benefits of being in water. They have taught hundreds of adults and children to swim. Click here to visit their website. Email: cross.swim@ntlworld.com

Teachers of the Shaw Method of Swimming, based on the principles of the Alexander Technique, deal with fundamental ways in which most swimmers go wrong. Typical examples are compressing the spine by pulling the head back, especially when swimming with the head out of the water, and failing to breathe properly.

To learn more about the Alexander Technique, click here:

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique