The Alexander technique, named after Frederick Matthias Alexander, teaches people how to stop using unnecessary levels of muscular and mental tension during their everyday activities. It is an educational process rather than a relaxation technique or form of exercise. The Alexander technique has been shown to be helpful for back pain and Parkinson's. There is insufficient evidence to determine if it has any effect in asthma. Practitioners say that such problems are often caused by repeated misuse of the body over a long period of time, for example, by standing or sitting with one's weight unevenly distributed, holding one's head incorrectly, or walking or running inefficiently. The purpose of the Alexander technique is to help people unlearn maladaptive physical habits and return to a balanced state of rest and poise in which the body is well-aligned.
The technique is named after actor Frederick Matthias Alexander, who developed its principles in the 1890s as a personal tool to alleviate breathing problems and hoarseness during public speaking. He credited the technique with allowing him to pursue his passion for Shakespearean acting.
Alexander was a Shakespearean orator who developed voice loss during his performances. After doctors found no physical cause, Alexander reasoned that he was doing something to himself while speaking to cause his problem. His self-observation in multiple mirrors revealed that he was contracting his whole body prior to phonation in preparation for all verbal response. He developed the hypothesis that this habitual pattern of pulling the head backwards and downwards needlessly disrupted the normal working of the total postural, breathing and vocal mechanisms. After experimenting to develop his ability to stop the unnecessary and habitual contracting in his neck, he found that his problem with recurrent voice loss was resolved. While on a recital tour in New Zealand (1895) he began to realise the wider significance of head carriage for overall physical functioning. Further, Alexander observed that many individuals commonly tightened the musculature of the upper torso as he had done, in anticipation of many other activities besides speech.
Alexander believed his work could be applied to improve individual health and well being. He further refined his technique of self-observation and re-training to teach his discoveries to others. He explained his reasoning in four books published in 1918, 1923, 1931 (1932 in the UK) and 1942. He also trained teachers to teach his work from 1930 until his death in 1955. Teacher training was interrupted during World War II between 1941 and 1943, when Alexander accompanied children and teachers of the Little School to Stow, Massachusetts to join his brother. A.R. Alexander also taught his brother's technique.
Famous people who have studied the Alexander Technique include writers Aldous Huxley, Robertson Davies and Roald Dahl, playwright George Bernard Shaw, actors Judi Dench, Hilary Swank, Sir Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons, Suzanna Hamilton, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Jamie Lee Curtis, Paul Newman, Mary Steenburgen, Robin Williams and Patti Lupone, musicians Paul McCartney, Madonna, Yehudi Menuhin and Sting, and Nobel Prize winner for medicine and physiology Nikolaas Tinbergen.
Alexander's approach emphasizes the use of freedom to choose beyond conditioning in every action. The technique is applied dynamically to everyday movements, as well as actions selected by students.
Because of a change in balance, actions such as sitting, squatting, lunging or walking are often selected by the teacher. Other actions may be selected by the student, tailored to their interests or work activities such as hobbies, computer use, lifting, driving or performance in acting, sports, speech or music. Alexander teachers often use themselves as examples. They demonstrate, explain, and analyze a student's moment to moment responses as well as using mirrors, video feedback or classmate observations. Guided modeling with light hand contact is the primary tool for detecting and guiding the way past unnecessary effort. Suggestions for improvements are often student-specific.
Exercise as a teaching tool is deliberately omitted because of a common mistaken assumption that there exists a "correct" position. There are only two specific exercises practiced separately; the first is lying semi-supine; resting in this way uses "mechanical advantage" as a means of releasing cumulative muscular tension. It's also a specific time to practice Alexander's principle of conscious "directing" without "doing." The second exercise is the "Whispered Ah," which is used to coordinate and free breathing & vocal production.
Freedom, efficiency and patience are the prescribed values. Proscribed are unnecessary effort, self-limiting habits as well as mistaken perceptual assumptions. Students are led to change their largely automatic routines that are interpreted by the teacher to currently or cumulatively be physically limiting, inefficient or not in keeping with anatomical structure. The Alexander teacher provides verbal coaching while monitoring, guiding and preventing unnecessary habits at their source with a specialized hands-on assistance. This specialized hands-on requires Alexander teachers to demonstrate on themselves the improved physical coordination they are communicating to the student.
Alexander developed terminology to describe his methods, outlined in his four books that explain the sometimes paradoxical experience of learning and substituting new improvements.
- Constructive Conscious Control
- Alexander insisted on the need for strategic reasoning because kinesthetic sensory awareness is a relative sense, not a truthful indicator of factual bodily relationship in space. The current postural attitude is sensed internally as customarily normal, however inefficient. Alexander's term, "debauched sensory appreciation" describes how the repetition of a circumstance encourages habit design as a person adapts to circumstances or builds skills. Once trained and forgotten, completed habits may be activated without feedback sensations that these habits are in effect, just by thinking about them. Short-sighted habits that have become harmfully exaggerated over time, such as restricted breathing or other habitually assumed adaptations to past circumstances, will stop after learning to perceive and prevent them.
- Another example is the term "end-gaining". This term means to focus on a goal so as to lose sight of the "means-whereby" the goal could be most appropriately achieved. According to Alexander teachers, "end-gaining" increases the likelihood of selecting older or multiple conflicting coping strategies. End-gaining is usually carried out because an imperative priority of impatience or frustration justifies it.
- In the Alexander technique lexicon, the principle of "inhibition" is considered by teachers to be the most important to gaining improved "use." F.M. Alexander's selection of this word pre-dates the modern meaning of the word originated by Sigmund Freud. Inhibition describes a moment of conscious awareness of a choice to interrupt, stop or entirely prevent an unnecessary habitual "misuse". As unnecessary habits are prevented or interrupted, a freer capacity and range of motion resumes, experienced by the student as a state of "non-doing" or "allowing."
- Primary control
- This innate coordination that emerges is also described more specifically as "Primary Control". This is a key head, neck and spinal relationship. The body's responses are determined by the qualities of head and eye movement at the inception of head motion. What expands the qualities of further bodily response is a very subtle nod forward to counteract a common backward startle pattern, coupled with an upward movement of the head away from the body that lengthens the spine. Students gradually learn to include their whole body toward their new means of initiating motion.
- To continue to select and reinforce the often less dominant "good use", it is recommended to repeatedly suggest, by thinking to oneself, a tailored series of "Orders" or "Directions." "Giving Directions" is the term for thinking and projecting an anatomically ideal map of how one's body may be used effortlessly. "Directing" is suggestively thought, rather than willfully accomplished, because the physical responses to "Directing" often occur underneath one's ability to perceive. As freedom of expression or movement is the objective, the most appropriate responses cannot be anticipated, but are observed and chosen in the moment.
- Psycho-physical unity
- Global concepts such as "Psycho-physical Unity" and "Use" describe how thinking strategies and attention work together during preparation for action. They connote the general sequence of how intention joins together with execution to directly affect the perception of events and the outcome of intended results.
According to Alexander Technique instructor Michael J. Gelb, people tend to study the Alexander Technique either to rid themselves of pain, to increase their performance abilities, or for reasons of personal development and transformation.
As an example among performance-art applications, the Alexander technique is used and taught by classically trained vocal coaches and musicians. Its advocates claim that it allows for the free alignment of all aspects of the vocal tract by consciously increasing air-flow, allowing improved vocal technique and tone. Because the technique has allegedly been used to improve breathing and stamina in general, advocates also claim that athletes, people with asthma, tuberculosis, and panic attacks have also found improvements. The technique has been used by actors to reduce stage fright and to increase spontaneity. By improving stress-management, the technique can be an adjunct to psychotherapy for people with disabilities, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, panic attacks, stuttering, and chronic pain.
The Alexander Technique is most commonly taught privately in a series of 10 to 40 private lessons which may last from 30 minutes to an hour. Students are often performers, such as actors, dancers, musicians, athletes and public speakers, or people who work on computers, or who are in frequent pain for other reasons. Instructors observe their students, then show them how to hold themselves and move with better poise and less strain. Sessions include chair work and table work, often in front of a mirror, during which the instructor and the student will stand, sit and lie down, moving efficiently while maintaining a correct relationship between the head, neck and spine.
To qualify as a teacher of Alexander Technique, instructors are required to complete at least 1,600 hours, spanning at least three years, of supervised teacher training. The result must be satisfactory to qualified peers to gain membership in professional societies.
A 2002 randomized controlled UK university study of 93 people with clinically confirmed idiopathic Parkinson's disease found that participants who received Alexander Technique lessons reported sustained improvements in their physical functioning, as well as reporting themselves to be less depressed and to have improved attitudes towards themselves.
A 1997 study published by The Gerontological Society of America concluded that Alexander Technique instruction shows signs of helping to improve balance and increase functional reach in women over the age of 65.
A systematic 2003 review of controlled clinical trials related to the Alexander Technique found two reputable studies suggesting the Alexander Technique is effective in reducing the disability of patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and improving pain behaviour and disability in patients with back pain, and concluded that the evidence supporting the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique is encouraging but not convincing.
A factorial randomized trial of 579 UK patients with chronic or recurrent low back pain, reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that patients who received Alexander Technique lessons reported afterwards having less back pain and significant improvement in their quality of life. The study concluded that one-on-one lessons in the Alexander Technique from registered teachers have long term benefits for patients with chronic back pain, and that six lessons followed by exercise prescription were nearly as effective as 24 lessons.
A 1996 Tel Aviv hospital study of 67 patients with back pain of more than three months duration found patients benefited from a multidisciplinary approach to treatment that included back schooling, psychological intervention, and treatment by acupuncture, chiropractic, the Alexander Technique and a pain specialist.
In 2001, an article by four doctors in Kidney International, the official journal of the International Society of Nephrology, noted that although to date there had been no controlled studies performed in patients with autosomal-dominant polycystic kidney disease with refractory pain, their personal observation in isolated cases indicated that the Alexander Technique helped relieve patients' pain, particularly when accompanied with whirlpool treatments and massage therapy.
In 2004 Maher cataloged Alexander Technique under "Miscellaneous unevaluated treatments", stating that "Other common treatments, such as Pilates therapy, Feldenkrais therapy, Alexander technique and craniosacral therapy also are yet to be evaluated for the treatment of chronic LBP".
The American philosopher and educator John Dewey became impressed with the Alexander technique after his headaches, neck pains, blurred vision, and stress symptoms largely improved during the time he used Alexander's advice to change his posture. In 1923, Dewey wrote the introduction to Alexander's Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual.
Aldous Huxley had transformative lessons with Alexander, and continued doing so with other teachers after moving to the US. He rated Alexander's work highly enough to base the character of the doctor who saves the protagonist in 'Eyeless in Gaza' (an experimental form of autobiographical work) on F.M. Alexander, putting many of his phrases into the character's mouth. Huxley's work 'The Art Of Seeing' also discusses his views on the technique.
Sir Stafford Cripps, George Bernard Shaw, Henry Irving and other stage grandees, Lord Lytton and other eminent people of the era also wrote positive appreciations of his work after taking lessons with Alexander.
Since Alexander's work in the field came at the start of the 20th century, his ideas influenced many originators in the field of mind-body improvement. Fritz Perls, who originated Gestalt therapy, credited Alexander as an inspiration for his psychological work. The Feldenkrais Method and the Mitzvah Technique were both influenced by the Alexander technique, in the form of study previous to the originators founding their own disciplines.
- Feldenkrais Method
- Mitzvah Technique
- Posture release imagery
- Semi-supine position
- Squatting position
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