Born in Tasmania in 1869, Frederick Matthias Alexander was a bit ahead of his time. He discovered, through careful self observation, that our thoughts and our physical state are inextricably linked. His life’s work then became clear; teaching people to understand and use this knowledge to improve their lives
As a young actor struggling with vocal problems, he realized that it was his learned habitual way of reciting on stage that was injuring his voice, not simply the act of reciting. Once he was able to undo his habit of over-stiffening and tightening in his body, not only did his free clear voice return without the need for added exercises or treatments, but his overall movement was easier, lighter and more fluid. Un-doing his habit freed him to move in a way that was more natural. He reasoned that improving how we move and even how we respond to life’s various challenges requires attention to the whole of us, beginning with our thought, and that improving our awareness is vital to positive change.
F. M., as he was known throughout his life, taught countless students in London and the US until his death in 1955. His work was held in high regard by the leading scientists and physicians of his day, and continues to be taught in private practices, hospitals, pain clinics and schools of the performing arts worldwide.
Anyone can benefit from lessons in the Alexander Technique. Performers and athletes have long known the benefits of the Technique for improving their performance, but the same benefits that performers have known about for over a century can be experienced while carrying out daily activities, such as sitting at the computer, driving, lifting and carrying, and any number of hobbies and interests.
Traditionally, the Alexander Technique has been taught in-person through a series of individual or group lessons. Individual lessons offer the student an experience that is tailored to their interests. Group lessons allow for interaction, observation and discussion between students. Groups can also provide performers with an opportunity to try new things in a situation that is closer to performance.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, many Alexander Technique teachers have moved their practices online. This works because Alexander Technique teachers are trained to observe subtle movement and to verbally guide students in improved coordination. Working with a teacher online also helps students clarify and strengthen their own thinking and observation in activity. These skills are at the heart of the Alexander Technique. There are benefits to all of these ways of working.
There is no set number of lessons, as each student is unique and has different interests and goals. One way to approach lessons is to think about it in the same way that one would approach learning any new skill, such as tennis or music. Time and experience lead to deeper understanding.
I recommend that students initially try a few lessons to see if the Alexander Technique is for them. After that, it is advisable to take lessons once or twice a week for at least several months, and to follow the teacher’s recommendations for work on oneself between lessons. More frequent lessons early on can jump-start a student’s understanding and progress.
Some students who initially come for a particular reason such as chronic pain or to improve posture find that the positive effects of lessons carry over into other aspects of life, and will continue their study in that context, or take a break and return to lessons at another time with new goals and interests.
A typical in-person lesson is 45 minutes in length, and may include table work, chair work, everyday movements such as walking and bending, and skilled activities of the student’s interest. Table work provides an opportunity for “active rest”, a way of giving your mind and body a chance to unwind. While wearing comfortable clothing and lying on a padded table, fully awake and alert, your head, arms, and legs are guided into easy movement and improved range of motion.
In upright work you will be guided into sitting and standing, walking, bending, becoming more aware of how you carry out these simple activities every day. Easy movement activities and stretches are also incorporated into the lessons to facilitate an improvement in flexibility and range of motion.
In application to a skilled activity, anything from playing an instrument to yoga poses, dance moves, to a golf swing, the teacher will observe and guide you in ways to make what you are doing feel easier and more natural.
Rather than learning a set of exercises, students learn to become more aware of how they do whatever they do during their day.
Online learning can include most of the activities that in-person lessons do, only without the teacher’s physical presence and hands-on guidance.
Modern life leads us to infuse much of our daily activity with excess effort, and then collapse from the exhaustion. The challenge for most adults is to learn to use less effort. Stop for a moment as you are reading this. How comfortable are you? How much of your attention is on what you are doing, and how much is elsewhere? Are you holding your breath? Are there ways in which you may be using more effort than should be required to sit and read?
There are no specific exercises to do between lessons. A teacher will show you ways to improve your awareness, calm your thinking, give your body a chance to rest and renew energy, and practice learned skills in a new and easier way. Activities can include: constructive resting positions, easy movements and stretches to improve flexibility, attention to body mechanics, ways to approach projects and activities that bring more attention to how you are carrying them out.
F. M. Alexander observed that the “means whereby” we do the things we do is more likely to lead to a successful outcome than focusing purely on the end result. Modern culture seems to emphasize the opposite, a focus on the end while ignoring the process. We can begin to feel as though doing something well must involve a great deal more effort than it actually does. For these reasons, learning to do less can be at once a relief, a delight, a challenge, a new and intriguing physical and mental experience, and a completely fresh perspective.
Though there are some similarities on the surface to other modalities, in an Alexander lesson, the emphasis is on improving the awareness and coordination between thinking and activity. Our thoughts affect us physically all the time, yet the connection between how we think and how we move is often left up to chance. Approaching an activity with a new guiding thought feels different. Imagine learning to ride a bike as a child. Seeing and following the road ahead of you sets up a different coordination than if you focused on your feet or on your hands on the handle bars. Problems like tension, chronic pain, injury and poor performance can be improved by changing how we think about how we move.
Many students and teachers of the Alexander Technique also practice movement arts such as yoga and tai chi, and the added understanding gained through practice of the Alexander Technique enhances their progress and enjoyment.
The aim of the Alexander Technique is to bring about a better overall awareness and coordination. While this may lead to a reduction in pain and stress, Alexander Technique teachers do not diagnose, cure, or treat specific symptoms. I recommend that all students with injury or pain be seen by a medical doctor to determine the cause of their symptoms prior to beginning lessons.