by Roisin Golding

Of all the misconceptions I have laboured under, those concerning the nature of the Alexander technique have endured longest. I knew the Alexander technique was concerned with posture. I remember once sitting on a tube train in London when a couple of air hostesses got on and sat opposite me. They looked as though propped up by a rod iron. This, together with their uniforms, blue painted eyes and rouged cheeks, made them look like dolls on a stand. Their posture looked so unnatural and uncomfortable that I thought they must have been taught to sit like that and I imagined that they had Alexander lessons.

Hence this became a therapy I resisted trying.

I had thought it was a technique, like how to sit and stand correctly, or even how to find a comfortable position to sleep in. I mean how difficult is that? I don't remember having trouble with this when I was young. But gradually, with age, different parts of my body began experimenting with ludicrous and farcical positions in my final, desperate attempts to relax at the end of a day. I've slept with pillows under my knees, my tummy, several at different angles and heights under my head and neck, yet still my lower back feels as though it's completing a circle, my arm as if I were lying on some diagonal-stretch torture rack, and my jaw is all but dislocated by the pressure exerted on its opposite cheek. It is indeed miraculous that I ever fall asleep.

Needless to say, I was ready to take some lessons. The teacher, Diana Readhead, asked me to sit down and stand up while she watched my movements. I mentally prepared myself for some pretty active sessions in upper-leg work-outs.

"Did you notice the tension in your neck while you sat down and again on rising?"

No. I had been blissfully unaware.

Thankfully, my first erroneous notion was quashed. For the Alexander technique is not so much about technique of movement as it is about awareness of movement. As I was about to discover, they are lessons in becoming conscious of how we use our bodies in simple everyday activities. I was asked to lie on the therapist's couch. Instead of a pillow she placed three paperbacks under my head. (Ah! That's one I hadn't tried while attempting to sleep.)

I lay there with her hands gently stroking my neck, awaiting instructions. "Do you feel the tension there?" she asked again. "Who, me?" Was I tense? I did remember that every time I drive through London my neck stiffens so much that, if I suddenly had to brake, it would probably snap in two. "It does get stiff sometimes," I offered.

She repositioned herself by my legs and held the back of my knee. At last an instruction. "I want you to relax your knee and open out the tendons." Sounded like a paradox. I really concentrated. She was most encouraging. "Excellent. Well done. Do you feel how that relaxes your hip and your lower back?" I did, once she pointed it out.

She moved to my calf muscle. "I want you to mentally stretch out your muscle. Don't move it, but mentally lengthen it while keeping your knee relaxed." She remarked on the concentrated look on my face. Perplexed, I would have said. "Fantastic, you're doing that really well." How on earth could she know? "Just another little stretch, but keep your knee relaxed. This will keep your back free and supple."

"Actually, I feel it all the way up to my upper back. It feels more relaxed and open," I remarked. She nodded in agreement. "And I notice that every time I open my knee or stretch my leg, my neck tenses and it pulls back."

Well, you would have thought I was a genius. The praise lavished on me was worth any amount of money. Apparently it was exactly the premise Mr. Frederick M. Alexander based his technique on. He discovered it himself as an actor when, in 1897, after repeatedly losing his voice, he studied himself in the mirror. What he noticed was that his every voluntary movement elicited an unconscious pulling back and down of his head and neck.

My teacher continued, with stretches to my ankles, my arms and shoulders, all the time bringing awareness to these simple mindful, almost non-movements.

But what was I meant to be learning? Where's the technique, I still wondered. It was, she explained, in learning to move in an entirely different way. With consciousness. At first, she explained, it slows us down as we learn to hesitate before completing a task. But yet we complete the task with more freedom and more efficiency as energy is released from tense muscle groups.

That evening I cycled out to the theatre. I felt free as a bird in flight. Almost no effort was put into wheeling down the road, my shoulders and hips were relaxed, my back and neck lengthened. And I'm sure I bore no resemblance to those air hostesses on the tube-train.

Copyright Roisin Golding
Previously distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate 1998-2000

Roisin Golding, B.Ac. MBAcC, is a practising acupuncturist working in London, England. She has written extensively on alternative medicine for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. For articles on a range of alternative therapies visit her website, Acupuncture Works UK

For more information about the Alexander Technique, click here:

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique