Remarkable Success of a Flawed yet Upright Man
by Wendy Champagne
With no training but immense perseverance, Frederick Alexander devised a unique approach to posture.
The life of Frederick Matthias Alexander - F.M. to his friends - is a classic Australian story: an enlightened young man (from Tasmania) has a bright idea, travels to England to seek his fortune, succeeds ... and never returns.
Alexander died almost half a century ago, and developed his world-famous technique for resolving destructive postural habits (the Alexander Technique) more than a century ago, yet it is only now that someone has published a comprehensive biography.
Historian and author Michael Bloch has attempted to capture Alexander's personality and his career path in F.M. - The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander: Founder of the Alexander Technique..
A drama-student friend of Bloch's recommended the technique to him when he was in his late 30s and suffering with recurring colds, allergies and digestive troubles.
Bloch describes it as a form of mental training that helps people to overcome postural habits, but which has health benefits that go beyond posture.
Michael Shearshell, the head of the Australian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, calls it a "brilliant educative process" designed to create postural integrity.
"I do no wish to exaggerate," Bloch says in the introduction to his book. "And I cannot claim that the Alexander Technique has provided the answer to all my problems, yet it has added a new dimension to my life by giving me an awareness of, and an ability to control those aspects of posture, which potentially interfere with efficient functioning and good health."
Today, the Alexander Technique is routinely taught in drama schools and practised across Europe and the United States. It is less pervasive in its birthplace, although London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art does include the technique in its first- and second-year syllabus.
Bloch believes the lack of willing Alexander biographers may in part be due to the challenge of dealing with the man's "flawed" nature.
The darkest part of Alexander's psyche was probably spawned in remote north-west Tasmania, where he was born in 1869, the first of 10 children, to John and Betsy Alexander. His father was a blacksmith, a dour, religious man, and all his grandparents were convicts. His mother was a proficient housekeeper and FM was her favourite son.
"All his life he tended to be touchy, suspicious, proprietorial, quarrelsome and ungenerous in money matters," says Bloch.
The Alexander Technique is not for the dilettante. Re-educating the body by developing "conscious control" takes time and requires patience and discipline. The American educator and philosopher John Dewey, who was sold on the process, described it as a system that deals with "causes, not cures".
A fundamental part of the technique is learning the correct way to sit down and get up from a chair, because those two acts "encompassed everything important about the postural mechanism".
If Alexander were alive today he would probably have copyrighted his technique, started a foundation, franchised the teaching and created spin-off products. In fact, despite the urging of some of his most high-profile students - Aldous Huxley, Lord Lytton, George Bernard Shaw and Dewey among them - Alexander didn't even start a formal school until he was 60. Until his death in 1955 he remained suspicious of interlopers and obstinate about keeping his method"pure".
What the technique lacked in mass appeal Alexander made up for in personal style. He was always impeccably dressed - pin-striped suit, spats, a monocle, fob watch and silver-topped cane - with an actor's sense of theatrics. "He appeared the epitome of an Edwardian gentleman," said one of his closest disciples, Walter Carrington.
Alexander was also a bon vivant. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as the health guru Jack Kellogg, he did not consider purging as a way to good health. He enjoyed rich food, wine and after-dinner cigars.
He wrote numerous books, notably The Use of Self, outlining his technique. Others such as the Re-education of the Kinaesthetic Systems Concerned with the Development of Robust Physical Well-Being were, like the title, verbose and difficult to fathom.
As a young man, Alexander had dreamed of making it on the "mainland" as an actor. He saved wages from his job as a clerk with a tin mining company and went to Melbourne where he took up a now long-forgotten profession: recitation.
He attained some good reviews but after a few years he developed a "hoarseness" that persisted during performance. Many actors use mirrors to develop technique; Alexander kept a mirror vigil after his voice started failing and noticed that he made various movements with his neck and shoulders during speech - one of which he called "pulling back", which depressed the larynx.
Over the next couple of years, with customary determination, he devoted himself to studying his posture and thus began the Alexander Technique.
The technique took a giant leap forward under the mentorship of a Sydney physician, Dr W.J. Stuart McKay, and so did the profile of its progenitor.
Nevertheless, Alexander was still broke and when he sailed for London in June 1904, he left behind a string of debts, including a large one to The Sydney Morning Herald for advertising.
"What is remarkable," says Bloch, "is that, without knowing a soul when he arrived [in London], it took less than four months before one of the leading ear, nose and throat specialists was giving unqualified approval to an untrained and unknown practitioner, endorsing his methods and virtually treating him as an equal."
This pattern of influence continued through Alexander's long and busy life until 1955, when he died in London aged 86. His technique, while not so widely accepted as yoga, remains popular, perhaps increasingly so, as millions of desk-bound, keyboard-tapping workers search for ways to deal with the aches and pains of their sedentary lives.
(Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 16, 2004)
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