What is the Alexander Technique?

The Alexander Technique has been an extremely effective practical educational method for over a century. It helps you to let go of excess tensions, thus improving performance and posture, preventing injuries and alleviating problems. As a result of learning to move in a more efficient and coordinated manner, your breathing, coordination, balance and muscle tone improves.

Recoordinating habitual movement patterns through sitting down and standing up

The Alexander Technique teaches you to use the brain to recoordinate your body. In this way you learn to prevent habitual, unhealthy movement patterns. If, prior to taking a penalty, a football player  thinks,‘Oh no, I’m afraid I won’t score’, the chances of success are less, simply due to the fact that these kind of thoughts cramp the muscles and negatively affect coordination.

The Alexander Technique teaches you to use your thoughts in such a way as to optimise your coordination. It is a mental process that you can put into practice during your everyday activities: while working at the computer, playing sport, playing an instrument, vacuum cleaning or going for a walk.

During the lesson the student learns to recognise and avoid the ingrained, unhealthy habits that have caused or worsened his problems. This process of becoming aware is extremely practical: how do you perform daily activities in the most efficient way?

In this context you will discover that a fine balance between your neck, head and back is essential for the proper functioning of your limbs, breathing and organs. Most people create an excess of muscular tension in their neck and shoulders, for instance, usually without being aware of this. If the neck, head and back are in balance it costs you less effort to be able to function and it is easier to release excess tension.

How does it work?

It all begins in the brain! During an Alexander Technique lesson you recoordinate your movement patterns by means of a simple action: for instance, sitting down on a chair and standing up again. So here goes: you are standing in front of the chair, about to sit down. What next?

By briefly pausing before actually sitting down, you create the option of choice. In this moment you can choose exactly how you wish to perform the movement. You pause, become aware of yourself, notice where you may be holding onto excess tension, release it and then continue the movement with more ease and flow.

The movement is thus directed in a different manner starting from the very first impulse in the brain. In this way you avoid automatically reacting or moving in your former, unhealthy, habitual manner. The Alexander Technique is unique because in this way it deals with the actual root cause of many problems.

As young children, all of us were once able to squat down in this way, naturally and with such ease.

Example: RSI

In the case of someone suffering from RSI, the Alexander Technique looks for the underlying cause of the problem in how the person moves. How he sits behind the computer, uses the mouse, rides his bike, stands up from his chair… in short, the coordination he displays in his everyday life.

RSI is caused by the brain giving inefficient movement commands to the muscles. As a result, many muscles of the arms, shoulders and neck constantly work harder than they need to.

The Alexander Technique aims to reprogramme the brain so that it learns to send better coordinated commands to the muscles. This enables the arm, neck and shoulder muscles to lengthen rather than shorten. In this way blood vessels and nerves gain more space, waste products are more efficiently carried away in the blood and the pain often gradually disappears.

Backpain medical trial

“97% of people with back pain could benefit by learning the Alexander Technique”
– Jack Stern, spinal neurosurgeon

In 2008 a major clinical trial of the effects of AT on chronic back pain was published in the British Medical Journal.  The Dutch Journal of Health (Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde) also reported on this article.

After 24 lessons in Alexander Technique the reported number of days in pain decreased by 85% relative to the control group.

579 subjects participated in the trial divided into 4 groups.  One group took 6 AT lessons, one group took 24 lessons, one group had series of massages, and the control group received standard treatment from a doctor.  In addition, half of the subjects in each group were instructed to walk 1/2 hour per day. The two best results, measured one year after the first lesson:

– 24 AT lessons (both with and without brisk walking) showed by far the best result.  Patients reported just 3 days of pain per month, in comparison with 21 days in the control and the massage groups, an improvement of better than 85%.  Patients also reported a 42% improvement in functioning (measured with the Rolland Morris Disability Score), while no improvement was reported by the control and massage groups.

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We all used to be able to sit perfectly balanced without any effort or tension.

Back to your childhood

This baby sits perfectly balanced without any effort. Unfortunately, many people associate good posture with the creation of excessive muscular tension: ‘Sit up straight, put your shoulders back, tilt your hips and tighten your stomach!’ The problem with this approach is that we can only maintain it for a few minutes before our muscles tire and we find ourselves slouching again.

Fortunately there is another way: through the Alexander Technique you can rediscover how to sit and move with suppleness and ease,  just like when you were a young child. If you sit in a well-balanced way, the fact is that your skeleton does much of the work for free! If you are not in proper balance (whether sitting forcedly upright or with a slouched posture), your muscles have to work very hard just to keep you in that position. We can learn a great deal from young children, just take a look around you…

 

Who was F.M. Alexander?

“…You translate everything, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, into muscular tension…”
– F.M. Alexander

The Alexander Technique was developed about 120 years ago by the Australian actor F.M. Alexander (Australia 1869 – London 1955). While reciting on stage he would become hoarse and eventually he even lost his voice. Doctors were unable to cure his hoarseness, so he decided to observe himself in the hope of pinpointing the cause of his voice loss.

F.M. Alexander in 1910

After long observation he discovered that his hoarseness was caused by the fact that his neck, head and back were not in balance with each other. He tended to overly tense his neck muscles unconsciously, pulling his head back into his neck. This put unnecessary pressure on his vocal chords, blocking their functioning.

He also noticed that many of his unconsciously held ideas added to this excessive tension. For instance, he had always mistakenly assumed that it was helpful to push his toes down hard into the floor while reciting.

Alexander first tried to restore the natural equilibrium between his neck, head and back by actively ‘doing’ the changes that he had in mind. However, every time that he wanted to recite something he noticed that he still tensed his neck excessively, shortening and contracting his back. Eventually he broke this impasse in an unorthodox manner: not by ‘doing’ but by stopping doing what he did not want and only thinking about what he did want.

He discovered that his new approach to coordination and movement not only solved his vocal problems, it also had a considerable effect on his general health, breathing and well-being. He soon noticed that many others had similarly lost their natural functioning of the neck, head and back and he realised that his technique could contribute greatly to health and well-being in general. He began to teach his technique in Melbourne and Sydney and became known as ‘the breathing man’.

In 1904 he moved to London in order to spread knowledge of his technique more widely. He soon gained the support of several pre-eminent physicians, philosophers, scientists, Nobel Prize winners and artists; including A. Huxley, C. Sherrington, J. Dewey, G.B Shaw, N. Tinbergen and R. Magnus. In 1939 he established the first Alexander Technique teacher training course.