What is the AT?
An Australian actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander at the beginning of his career, noticed a problem with his voice. Despite many visits to doctors no one could identify the cause and help him with his recurrent hoarseness and later with the loss of voice. Alexander came to the conclusion that he must be doing something wrong with his body when performing which causes the problem. By observing himself in mirrors for several months, he discovered that the manner in which he used his head and neck while performing was the likely cause of the problem.
One of the first observations was that he was pulling back his head, depressing his larynx and sucking in air. A very interesting discovery was that the bad habits showed not only when he was playing but also (although to a much lesser extent) in everyday speaking. Alexander noticed that most people engage in the same ‘misuse’, especially in movement. After much persistent application and observation he managed to gain control of his harmful habits, at first temporarily and then completely. This was accompanied with the healing of his voice problems.
A very important discovery was his bodily sensations were not always accurate, in that whatever is habitual feels in some way comfortable and changing the habit can feel uncomfortable, even ‘wrong’. If we always carry a bag on our right shoulder, it feels a bit odd when we put the bag on the left shoulder. If a silly change of a side could be so uncomfortable, how peculiar the change of our posture must be?
Although at first the Alexander Technique became popular in the performing arts environment and lots of people associate it with that environment, it has long since gone beyond that. The Technique is for everybody, irrespective of age or style of being, people with backache, neck ache or with migraines, people with bad posture and breathing problems. For people whose work environment requires a repetitive activity of the body for several hours, such as dentists, office workers and labourers. It is for people who use their bodies in more demanding ways, e.g. athletes, musicians, dancers, etc. If you do not belong in any of these groups, it does not mean that it is not for you. This technique teaches us responsibility for our own health, ability to listen and to understand our body.
Mental and physical health are closely linked. As a teacher of the Alexander Technique I agree with that absolutely. Not only because F.M Alexander said so, but because I have had my own experiences that prove it. Therefore, as a teacher, I work on the ‘whole’ person, not only on the body or selected parts.
The Alexander Technique is based on maintaining a coordinated relationship between the head, the neck and the back (Alexander called this the primary control). To facilitate the task, the teacher during the lesson repeatedly returns to the following basic instructions:
1. Let your neck be free
2. Let your head go forward and up
3. Let your back lengthen and widen
(The directions, “to let the neck be free, to allow the head go forward and up, so that the back can lengthen and widen”)
Note that the word that is used is ‘let’. There is no word indicating that you need to do something specific. In this technique, the idea is to ‘do nothing in the way of distorting the body’ (non-doing). This may sound strange, but despite appearances this is a very demanding task, as most of us do not know how much we are doing in a given moment. The technique is to help us see and consciously choose which activities we want to do and how to do them.
By using these conscious thought processes continuously we can fully use our body, without the stress and pain. Recognition of stress, which leads us to tensions, helps reduce or offset pain. In addition, our body learns to live more freely, with in consequence, lower levels of fatigue, easier breathing and improved quality of life. This psychophysical re-education, conscious use of the body and getting rid of negative habits and tensions that cause uncontrolled activities is the Alexander Technique.
There are many benefits of working with Alexander Technique. The main ones are:
• The dispersal of unnecessary tension, and thus overcoming pain in muscles and joints
• Improved posture
• More economical use of one’s body to improve the quality of life
• Breathing freely
• Learning how to use feet and legs to reduce the strain on the back
• Achieving lightness and movement coordination
• Better coping with stress
The Alexander Technique may be very helpful for conditions such as sciatica, asthma and other respiratory ailments, as well as some neurological problems. People come to classes because they suffer from back pain, tensions in arms, problems with posture and stiff joints. It is important to remember this technique is not a ‘miracle technique’. This is a technique where we look at the problem and together with the teacher we try to find solutions. The student, by giving new directions to his thought, seeks to better coordinate his spine, chest, arms, legs… There is also a strengthening by building the legs into pillars that are the foundation of the whole organism, which ease the tension on the spine.
I could write a lot about this technique, but this is something you need to experience, because only experience allows us to understand this method. Even the directions of thought are often carried out in a bad way. Without help it is also very hard to see our bad habits or tendencies.
The Alexander Technique is known almost all over the world. Many famous and successful people who took lessons include George Bernard Shaw, Judi Dench, Hilary Swank, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Jamie Lee Curtis, Paul Newman, Robin Williams, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Sting, Victoria Beckham and many others. It is worth mentioning that Nikolaas Tinbergen, when receiving the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, devoted half of his speech to bring listeners to the Alexander Technique.