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The Alexander Technique teaches how to recognize and overcome habituated limitations within a person's manner of movement and thinking. The first and most common limitation addressed is unnecessary muscular tension.
The Alexander Technique is usually learned from an Alexander Technique teacher in one-to-one sessions by an Alexander student, using specialized hand contact and verbal instructions. Alexander Technique is also taught in groups, often using short individual lessons in turn as examples to the rest of the class.
The name denotes both the educational methods taught by Alexander teachers and the individual method practiced by teachers and students of the technique. It takes its name from F. Matthias Alexander (1869–1955), a former Shakespearean recitalist, who first observed and formulated its principles during 1890 – 1900.
Alexander was a Shakespearean orator who developed problems with his voice. Careful observation with multiple mirrors revealed that he needlessly stiffened his whole body in a particular habitual pattern in preparation to recite or speak. It took ten years of self-observation to successfully apply his original discoveries to solve his voice problem. Eventually, he fashioned a "Technique" to teach others and pass on his experiences. Alexander regarded the empirical scientific method to be the foundation of his work. He used self-observation and reasoning to make effortless the physical acts of every-day movement: sitting, standing, walking, using the hands and speaking. He designed his methods to make experimentation and training deliberately repeatable, and to learn in a way that would allow continuing improvement from any starting point.
F.M. Alexander trained teachers of his technique from 1931 until 1955 in London, UK and from 1941 to 1943 in Massachusetts, USA, together with his brother, A.R. Alexander (1874–1947), who continued with the training of teachers in the USA until 1945. His works continues today in a lineage that has expanded from many lifetime dedications to his ideas. During his lifetime, F.M. Alexander gained considerable support for his work from many contemporaries including John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, and scientists Raymond Dart, George E. Coghill, Charles Sherrington, and Nikolaas Tinbergen.
The Alexander Technique educates the student's sense of kinesthesia or proprioception. This sense is used to internally calibrate one's own bodily location, weight and to judge the effort necessary for moving. The Alexander Technique also educates how to more fully carry intent into action with reasoning and constructive thinking techniques. These may demand a re-evaluation of the priority and value of motives that drove the goal-setting of past habits that the student must resolve. All Alexander teachers advocate the value of effortlessness and practical structure.
Alexander Technique teachers believe that humans have a built-in proprioceptive blind spot; people become habituated to whatever they repeat. Repetitious circumstances lead people to create habits as they adapt and learn. These habits are both deliberate and non-deliberate responses that include physical movement patterns, coping and learning strategies. The advantage of adapting is that behavior and learning becomes simplified; it becomes possible to meet a given stimulus or interpretation of circumstances with a ready-made reaction. As a person adds one habit onto another, the disadvantage is they may train themselves to also repeat unintentional side effects - the tension, over-compensation and cumulative stress that the Alexander Technique addresses.
Adapting has a further serious drawback: habits disappear sensation. Using the habit decreases the importance of paying attention to perceptual differences. Also, sensory systems can flood from accommodating too many contradicting habits and intentions. From disuse or flooding, perceptual sensitivity shuts down and eventually becomes dull and untrustworthy, just as skin becomes numb if the same spot is rubbed. Loss of perceptual awareness encourages mistaken interpretations for the need to choose a particular response. In a panic, all opposing habits can fire off at once, pulling in all directions, sometimes without the person noticing it has happened.
Because habits are designed to disappear to become innate, people will commonly experience no sensation of doing a successfully automated habit. Forgetting what they have trained themselves to now do 'without thinking', this drawback encourages people to feel convinced that whatever effort or ways they now use to move to respond is customary and necessary, even when it is far from normal.
How our kinesthetic sense becomes untrustworthy from adapting to needless overcompensating is built into many innocent situations. People form habits that are driven by goals that seem useful at the time. For instance, if a person often carries a bag on their forearm, he will later find himself holding up his arm when the bag is not on it. Misunderstanding a teacher's directions, a student may repeat what the teacher knows is unnecessary, but the teacher forgivingly allows the mistake to go by when he should not. So the student may unknowingly adopt useless or later problematic mannerisms. If someone is afraid while learning, adapting can mean he will most likely continue doing the skill fearfully. If someone has healed from a temporary injury, a habit of wincing in anticipation of pain can be automatically continued indefinitely, even though pain has healed. Due to rapid growth, teenagers often move their own bodies based on inaccurate assumptions of their size and structure. A rapidly growing tall 13 year old may think 'I'm too tall' and stoop to shorten themselves.
According to Alexander teachers, few adults in Western culture retain their ability to move freely without needless self-imposed interference. Given an unceasing cumulative demand that unnecessarily stresses the body’s structural design, the price as adults grow older can range from feelings of stress and resignation to very real physical problems, due to movement limitations that could be changed. According to those who teach Alexander Technique, most of the time, giving up a certain activity isn't necessary if a learner is ready to free specific habits that work against the body's structural design.
As a technique addressing the entirety of a person's activity, the Alexander Technique aims to benefit people of all sorts. Its proponents, including many well known actors, musicians and educators believe that its practice results in improved awareness, objectivity and the connection between body and mind, ease of movement, improved balance, stamina and less muscular tension. Additionally, those who practice it often report that it gives them an enhanced ability to clarify their thinking, observations and the ability to choose new responses. Proponents further see the technique as a way to use less effort for movement and thus perform more efficiently, feel easier, look more graceful and free themselves from unintentional self-imposed limitations.
It is applied both remedially and in the areas of performing arts and sports. It is taught in performance schools of dance, acting, circus, music, voice and some Olympic sports. Since Alexander Technique is suitable for those at any fitness level, it is also used as remedial movement education to complete recovery and provide pain management. The Alexander Technique is regarded as a movement form incorporated into NIA (Neuromuscular Integrative Action). Alexander Technique is a first-hand experience of the reality of body/mind unity. Its principles apply to movement, psychology, creative thinking, learning theory and styles of coaching, training and effective communication for teachers and directors.
Although the Alexander Technique is considered by those in its field to be primarily educational - taught in a student/teacher relationship as compared to being a treatment regimen between client and practitioner - it is regarded by the United Kingdom National Health Service to offer an alternative and complementary management for many medical complaints. A partial list is: back problems, unlearning and avoiding Repetitive Strain Injury, improving ergonomics, stuttering, speech training and voice loss, mobility for those with Parkinson's disease, posture or balance problems, or to complete recovery from injury as an adjunct to Physical therapy.
AT has also been known to help performers with getting past the plateau effect (despite trying, no improvement,) performance anxiety, getting beyond a supposed "lack of talent" and to sharpen discrimination and description ability. It has also helped people control unwanted reactions, phobias and depression.
Of course, applications are very subjective and personal by nature; many testimonies exist on the Internet. See STAT link below for scientific studies. Note that Alexander Technique is regarded to be a helpful adjunct to traditional medical treatment regimens and not as a substitute for them.
Students often describe the immediate effect of an Alexander lesson as both being unusual, and also strangely familiar. During hands-on lessons, pupils have reported an immediate feeling of a "state of grace," despite their inability to evoke or sustain this state by themselves. Other reported experiences include hearing their own voice sounding different, feeling lighter or having a temporary disorientation of where their body is located spatially.
Though most students experience these perceptual paradoxes as feeling good, students are often admonished by teachers to regard their sensations as not worth trying to repeat. Students learn to avoid end-gaining, meaning, to resist going directly for results using one’s habit. Instead students are to allow themselves the room to use the deliberate new processes of experimenting proscribed by the Technique, called means whereby. For this reason students must continue practice of AT without expectation or reinforcement of feeling themselves changing, because their senses may not yet be awake enough to register the crucial subtle adjustments. Improved sensitivity can be trained or reawakened by sustained practice, but this takes patience. The learner may at different times still paradoxically experience both states; the unusual sensory effects described above during a progressive leap ahead; and a sense of nothing happening when gradual progress is, in fact, taking place.
Evidence of change is sought in verifiable outside feedback; using a mirror; by noting, comparing, or describing differences of the relative location of one's eyes, balance or weight changes; a change in the sound of one's voice or the effects on one’s objectives, props or environment. Alexander teachers have been educated to perceive, observe and articulate very subtle but crucial differences influencing motion. They offer this education and feedback to their students. Students learn to change small crucial differences that influence long-term effects if repeated over time.
Depending on the causes of limitations, structural posture may or may not improve, but freedom of motion should always improve during the lesson with a teacher. To take improvements away from the class, the dedication of later remembering to attentively experiment is required on the part of the learner. A willingness to experiment is key to gaining continuing results.
Effective under what circumstances
Remembering to use Alexander Technique to get its benefits is required, but not a special practice activity; merely an experimental, thinking moment while doing any other action. Of course, the longer these moments of awareness can be sustained, the greater the effect over time. Alexander Technique can be practiced while doing any other activity. Practice at any time while awake will result in its benefits. Curiosity, a willingness to experiment and recognition of gradual improvement are the attitudes that most effectively bring attention to the continuous possible choices of response that momentarily arise. Practice should be unnoticed by others due to the fact that it's an internal process of personal sensory experience.
Unlike many similar self-improvement regimens, the Alexander Technique is not a series of exercises. Rather, it teaches inter-related principles for human response, such as directions, which are the governing characteristics of how people can use their own bodies easier to perform their objectives. Which motions, actions and criteria someone might apply for an activity that could benefit from practice will range from the most simple and mundane motions to the most strenuously demanding physical challenges.
Alexander Technique may not be effective for everyone. It requires the student to work at a somewhat paradoxical goal that is, at first, based on the teacher's (or classmates') perception of success. Habits are often tied to self-image, emotions and cultural assumptions. The student must be willing and able to challenge the validity and criteria of their assumptions, judgments and motives. Because of this, the road of learning can be rocky. It's difficult to change that which cannot be perceived.
In rare occasions, undoing habits may trigger possibly unpleasant "unresolved" emotions that originally justified the habitual remedies, perhaps requiring additional professional help. Some ingrained habit patterns seem to have a sense of self-preservation that objects to its possible lack of importance.
There can be a time during mid-learning when the student can't yet reliably sustain the new ways of moving he prefers. What used to feel comfortable instead becomes experienced as an unpleasantly heavy, pressured sagging sensation. It's a stage where every posture the student can assume seems to have something wrong with it. Often the student constantly notices other people around them are always stiff and slumping. It seems that once the door to perception is open, there is no going back to unselfconsciousness. If the student feels he cannot continue lessons at this point, perhaps sampling a number of teachers from different teaching styles is advisable rather than quitting altogether.
Alexander Technique will not solve structural problems such as arthritis or alter bone structure. However, many adult students have reported a gaining up to an inch in height after a few months of regular lessons.
Proof the Alexander Technique works has only been verified in rare previous and current scientific research, notably that of Frank Pierce Jones. His scholarly articles are collected in the book Frank Pierce Jones: Collected Writings on the Alexander Technique, Boston (Alexander Technique Archives, Inc.), 1998. Results in neuroscience and current movement gait lab research on the effects and function of body motion are promising. (See STAT links below.) Meanwhile, UK medical communities recognize the effectiveness of the Technique, though is still often classified as pseudo-scientific in other countries.
Progress in learning is unlimited. Most teachers consider twenty to forty lessons to be required before the new principles can be applied to specific activities by the student. Speed of learning seems to depend on the motivation to shed outdated habits, and the persistence of the learner to confront the power of their own habits with resolve, clear thinking and new responses. During daily lessons in a workshop environment, a rare fast learner can gain rapid functionality in a matter of a few weeks. The fastest learners are often people who are motivated by gaining freedom from chronic pain, or someone recovering from injury who can now again devote themselves to a beloved art or skill. The reason Alexander Technique takes so long to learn is because the kinesthetic sense is often the most "taken for granted" and habitually ingrained. The student is often without words for the qualities in themselves that are changing.
Learning and Teaching
Teachers train “pupils” in a personalized, living anatomy lesson. Most use a specialized hands-on technique of guided modeling to show what they mean. Even if only briefly for group classes, movement is guided with very light, one-on-one hand contact, usually about the student's head, neck and back. The value of effortlessness is advocated. Coaching the substitution of more appropriate, specific ways to detour limitations are also suggested. As anyone knows who has tried substitution strategies against a habit, there are often more complex paradoxes involved, because habits can be tricky. Alexander Technique addresses these concerns, tailoring how to establish personally constructive experimentation uniquely for each student.
Most commonly at the beginning of lessons, teachers may suggest activities that are routine, such as walking or sitting. For part of the lesson, some teachers have learners lie on a table, so the student can experience the principles in action without having to pay attention to maintaining balance, called table work. Working on oneself while lying semi-supine with knees up is taught to be used while taking a break during the student's workday. Depending on the student's purposes, the teacher might later suggest simulating a particularly stressful situation for using Alexander Technique under pressure, such as acting, public speaking, shouting or other demanding performance.
Teaching methods vary; all have in common guided discovery of easier, more positive ways to carry intention into physical action and how to recognize and prevent outdated habits from derailing intended results. To begin lessons, there is no prerequisite level of fitness or movement ability. Alexander Technique is most often taught in private lessons. Group, shared lessons and workshops are recently becoming more common - especially as an adjunct to a specialized art, sport or skill and as required curriculum in music & drama colleges.
Because the Alexander Technique can be taught and practiced during any activity, some teachers leave the choice of activity up to the student. Many Alexander teachers also have additional specialties; such as teaching children in grade school, Repetitive strain injury or pain management. Some teach Alexander Technique with an additional professional skill, such as being a speech or physical therapist or yoga teacher. AT may also be included as an adjunct to improve a sport, as in horsemanship, running or golf. However, the Alexander teacher does not need to be trained in the specific skill, sport or activity for its benefits to be experienced.
Training for being a teacher of Alexander Technique involves more than 1600+ hours of classes over at least a three-year period. Teacher trainees must qualify to graduate; attendance is not a guarantee of becoming a teacher. Trainees are evaluated for the presence of a signature of effortlessness and freedom in themselves and the quality of their touch. Alexander Technique's unexpected poise should be an immediate shared fact for both teacher and student in every hands-on Alexander lesson. After qualifying, most professional teaching associations require continuing development courses.
The UK professional Alexander teaching organizations and some trained by them believe the public should beware of inadequately trained impostors, because there are no laws that require legal certification of AT teachers. The necessary skill to teach is impossible to "fake" - a fact obviously witnessed by those with the professional skill to see it in action but not by the general public. Regardless of what other body science or holistic therapy experience someone who claims Alexander Technique knowledge may have, if he has not qualified at a professional teacher-training course in an establishment approved by a recognized professional AT organization, he is not a certified professional Alexander teacher. Professional organizations generally advise checking references of any teacher you might consider studying with.
The Importance Attached To Learning From An Alexander Teacher
F.M. Alexander and his brother A.R. Alexander often stressed that The Technique could not be acquired without the active cognitive participation of a student and the help of a suitably qualified instructor trained in the hands-on technique, deceptive self awareness being the significant effect of sensory adaptation. Most Alexander teachers today agree, but F.M. and A.R. did it first alone. So theoretically it is possible to learn without a teacher, although some properly trained help obviates many common pitfalls.
Alexander Technique is difficult to describe and teach in words because it requires description of subjective kinesthetic sensations and momentary situations, as well as the ability to perceive them. Most people have little conscious awareness of kinesthetic sensation and not much to say if asked to describe what happens as they move. The possibility of moving in an easier way most often emerges as a surprise from underneath a learner's current sensory ability to command it on purpose. It is needlessly difficult to attempt to learn to apply the Alexander Technique for oneself simply by reading about it.
Most Alexander teachers are of the professional opinion that twenty to forty individual lessons are required to learn to use the Technique for yourself. Other teachers believe that group workshops are at least as effective as individual lessons, because camaraderie is supportive, and group teaching usually involves some individual hands-on "turns" directly with the teacher as the class watches. A few teachers believe it is entirely possible to learn and continue to experiment with the basic principles on one's own. Everyone in the field, including other students, agree that having at least a few one-to-one sessions with a trained teacher is useful to appreciate how AT works and to get the benefits it offers.
Availability of Alexander teachers is limited, except in the United Kingdom, where the profession is in the process of being included in the Complementary and alternative medicine of the UK National Health Service. Only a handful of teachers who were personally trained by the founder are still living. Alexander Technique has the lifetime dedication from less than five thousand teachers worldwide, usually grouped in associated professional societies.
Alexander teachers differ in teaching style. Differences in teaching approaches evolved as various teachers originated what they believed constituted more effective teaching. Usually, a style of teaching is not just an imitation of training methods, but integrates many such personal lifetime discoveries. It's rare that a teacher can or will articulate the deliberate reasoning behind their teaching variations. Traditionalists believe that spending time on general intellectual concepts may encourage their student's misuse. These teachers may dodge discussions of principles until the student can have the conversation without their old habits of speaking.
Many of the principles of Alexander Technique are unique concepts. As has been mentioned previously, human senses are built to adapt to continuous messages sent by the brain. Repetition makes perceptual sensation disappear. Keeping muscles contracted when they don't need to be used compares to leaving the kitchen light on continuously because it so often needs to be on - which is a waste of energy. This principle was originally called debauchery. It was later referred to as sensory adaptation by behavioral scientists. To unlearn these habits, a prerequisite seems to be a willingness to welcome experimentation and unfamiliarity; what is new feels strange.
Another unique concept is a specialized use of the word Inhibition. Many Alexander teachers believe this concept to be the foundation of Alexander Technique. It is possible to learn to recognize and prevent a habitual patterned reaction and choose differently. As a carnivore stalking prey inhibits its natural urges in order to choose a deliberate leap for an effective attack, an unwanted habitual urge can be deliberately and strategically inhibited. Suggested practical means to effectively subvert a particular unwanted habit vary with each Alexander teacher's experience. Sidestepping, stalling, tricking, boring the old habitual solution - anything is fair game to get the old habit to disengage or entirely prevent it, leaving the freedom to try something different, something easier.
A stiffening of the neck in a startle response, head down and back narrowed was discovered by Alexander to be the source of his self-imposed limitations. To address these indirectly rather than fight them, he originated an action called Direction which is an ingredient of his principle of Primary Control. People who direct themselves visualize movement and mentally guide the flow of using force through their body. Rather than gunning the motor and muscling their way through an activity, people who direct use their mind to guide or envision their own coordinated dynamic expansion while moving. By doing so, the body's reflexive coordination seems to spontaneously recover from habit to gracefully handle the action by lengthening as if by itself.
The more inclusive principle of Primary Control shows the head's lightest initiation of moving is its structural balancing act, cradled at the top of the spine. By integrating attention, using direction and refusing habit, the whole body can follow any of the smallest initiation of motion with its own easiest qualities of movement. To the extent the learner can also pay attention to what they are doing, their suspended goal improves. Occasionally the result is a significant practical insight about the suspended goal, as refreshed senses give new sensory information.
The Alexander Technique principles say that it is possible to learn to insert a new choice before a habitual reaction takes over, but how is this actually done? The principles may be put together in any sequence, not necessarily in this order. What follows is an example lesson.
First, choosing some sort of movement to practice with is required. Sitting down or walking is a commonly selected activity. The teacher prompts the student how to observe him or herself during action. Students are asked to describe without value judgments and are encouraged to avoid being self-chastising. Habits are not demonized.
A basic activity is to identify and stop habitual interference so a freer capacity to respond can reassert itself. Toward leaving out habit, the goal of the chosen action or motion is temporarily suspended, so motivation for immediate results does not encourage the habit to jump in to helpfully answer the urge to respond. Intercepting unnecessary habits might also be made easier by creating an arbitrary beginning moment of intentional choice.
Once a sample activity is observed and described, the teacher and student craft experiments to avoid habitual interference, usually by slowing down reaction time. In keeping with the sensory adaptation principle, customary kinesthetic orientation and preparation assumed necessary is repeatedly noted to be unnecessary. The teacher shows how the head, neck and back together can lengthen to increase capacity for freedom of movement. The teacher may use their hands as "training wheels" to help the student perceive exactly when their habit is interfering - often during movement preparation. Teachers bring a student's attention to pivotal timing issues and specific qualities of motion that influences freedom. Teachers may experiment alongside students; modeling the process they would prefer the student to emulate.
Sometimes the effect of this prevention of habit feels immediately strange or disorienting to the student. The teacher steadies and encourages the student to resist a need to go back down into the familiar habit and to tolerate additional unfamiliarity for longer periods of time.
A sensation termed Do-less-ness may be used as the new measure of success. Just as often seeking any results is also suspended, because the ability to sense subtle perceptual differences may have become dulled from sensory adaptation. Usually, this is all that is required to be practiced in the lesson. Sometimes habits are trickier and remedies to detour habit are crafted and used. Some of these strategies are directly prescribed by F.M. Alexander's historic examples, but many may be invented on the spot.
Now that the student's senses are not being dampened by habit, a discovery about the suspended objective of the activity may emerge at this time. These discoveries are noted and integrated into repeated experimentation to make them more reliable. It is important that this observing of results comes after doing the preventing and moving, not before; otherwise the unwanted habits can take back control.
When additional results are desired, a similar process of questioning, experimenting and observing possible results is again used (or the principles recombined in another order, tailored for a student's needs. Some students need to suspend expectation of results entirely.) After repeated successes from much experimentation, hopefully a learner's tolerance for unfamiliarity increases. Using this Alexander Technique process never stops feeling surprising.
Alexander Technique Profession Organizations
- STAT Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique (Oldest founding organization world-wide with the most members)
- ATI Alexander Teachers International
- AmSAT American Society for the Alexander Technique
- CANSTAT The Canadian Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique
- ISATT Irish Society Alexander Technique Teachers
- PAAT Professional Association of Alexander Teachers - contains a variety of cogent articles
Alexander Technique Teacher Training Courses
- VSAT The Vancouver School of the Alexander Technique co-founded by Gabriella Minnes Brandes and Marta Hunter, offers 3-year minimum teacher training course recognized by CanSTAT
- SLAT Saint Louis Center for the Alexander Technique teacher training course.
- Performance School Teacher training school in Seattle, WA with a study guide of
- Alexander Technique Studio (Wandsworth, London). Run by Karen Wentworth who trained 1973-77 with Walter and Dilys Carrington at the Constructive Teaching Centre.
- Alexander Technique Centre Ireland established three year teacher training course recognised by the Irish Society of Alexander Technique teachers.
Specific Alexander teacher and educational sites
- Alexander Technique Simplified Franis Engel's site, the origin of this definition
- Andover Educators - A site with resources for learning AT through a complementary original idea known as Body Mapping
- ergonomics.org Ergonomics, Posture and the Alexander Technique
- physicaltherapy.org Information about the Alexander Technique of special interest to physical therapists
- Primary Control wiki definition of "Direction" by Joan Arnold, Hope Gillerman, Terry Zimmerer
- AT & Pilates Exploration of the relationships between the Alexander Technique and the Pilates Method
- Everyday guide An everyday guide to habit and backache written by an AT student.
- Forward and up A student's blog documenting her Alexander lessons over years of study.
- Articles Articles on how the Alexander Technique can help actors, musicians, pregnant women and those suffering with stress
- STAT on AT research Scientific research On AT from a UK largest profession organization, STAT.
- www.alexandertechnique.com Inclusive site with comprehensive information for locating an Alexander teacher worldwide
- AT Forum An Alexander Technique Forum for all levels of experience
- useoftheself.org Learning the Alexander Technique in Buckinghamshire, UKde:Alexander-Technikfi:Alexander-tekniikka
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