What is the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique was something I always wanted to experience firsthand. As a holistic health care advocate I like to learn about alternative healing protocols that have merit and the Alexander Technique enjoys a wonderful reputation in that regard. But not many people seem to know about it.
What is the Alexander Technique suggested for?
The Alexander Technique is often suggested for:
- Relief from pain
- Relief from stress
- Improved balance
- More poise & grace
- Ease of movement & coordination
- An integration of body, mind & spirit
- Tools for self-care
- Increased flexibility & energy
What is the Alexander Technique?
“The Alexander Technique is an educational process that helps us to be more comfortable in our bodies and to move with more ease. In a larger sense, it is a method that can help us to become aware of and change all of our habits that cause undue stress in our lives. We begin with simple changes in the habitual ways in which we hold our bodies and move through space. Through practice and experience, the process can then be applied to all areas of our lives.”
–Sydney Laurel Harris
Who created the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique was discovered and developed by F. Matthias Alexander (1869 – 1955) who was an Australian actor.
F. M. Alexander developed severe laryngitis in the prime of his career. When voice teachers and physicians were not able to provide effective, long-term solutions, he began to study himself. He believed that he must be “doing” something to cause his difficulties and then determined that he was in fact “doing” something: he was unconsciously habitually pulling his head back and down onto his spine, causing a contraction of his whole torso and creating excess tension on his larynx which led to his laryngitis. The Technique is the process he used to become aware of and correct the “misuse” of himself to cure his vocal issues.
The implications of the work turned out to be far greater than solving laryngitis. In the beginning, he shared his technique with fellow actors who had similar vocal and breathing troubles. It was soon clear that many other ailments (physical and emotional) resolved through Alexander’s technique and he began to receive referrals from physicians as well as his colleagues. Alexander departed Australia in 1904 for England, where he eventually taught his technique to such notables as George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, John Dewey and Raymond Dart.
Initially, F. M. trained his brother A. R. Alexander to help him teach the Technique, but he did not open a formal teacher training course until 1931. Today, standard teacher training encompasses a required 1600 hours of training over a minimum three year course of training. Presently, there are training centers and Alexander Technique teachers all over the world.
Additionally, F. M. Alexander wrote and published 4 books: The Universal Constant in Living, The Use of the Self, Conscious Constructive Control of the Individual, and Man’s Supreme Inheritance*
I had heard about the Alexander Technique for years and had always wanted to learn more, but it seems things happen right when they are supposed to happen. So when a friend of mine told me of her tremendous success with some issue that she had been dealing with, I was more intrigued than ever.
My friend directed me to the perfect person to meet with firsthand to see AT in action and, lucky for me, the person she connected me to was Sydney Laurel Harris. I was incredibly impressed with her background and training and immediately booked an introductory appointment with her. And I found we had much in common!
Sydney came to the Alexander Technique, like F.M. Alexander himself, as an actor. For me, having been in the film business as an actress, I found it quite wonderful that both she and I had been drawn to the alternative healing arts. I could see that perhaps we both had learned to walk and carry ourselves in ways that were not conducive to healing and supporting our own frames properly. I learned from Sydney that there is so much to learn about the habitual holding patterns we humans get ourselves into through our posture and how emotional issues cause us to carry ourselves in ways that can produce alignment problems and cause painful conditions.
Sydney is a very approachable person and quite experienced in The Alexander Technique as she is a founding member of the Alexander Training Institute of Los Angeles and also a faculty member. She was an assistant trainer at the Alexander Training Institute of San Francisco from 1977 to 1984.
The fact that Sydney has taught the technique in private practice and in a number of academic and public settings since 1977, including two pain clinics meant that she was certainly inured to any issues that I might have. It was to my benefit that I was in the hands of a true expert and highly skilled Alexander teacher.
I was so impressed with AT, that after just this first session, I wanted to share this protocol in my blog in case it may be of help to others who may be suffering with something, physical or emotional that AT might resonate with. Sydney’s website is a wonderful starting off place and for those in her geographical area you have a great opportunity to work with her personally.
Sydney is a wonderful teacher who is quite used to conducting semi-private groups and private lessons. I think it is imperative to meet with a practitioner in person for an introductory session to get the “feel” of this technique firsthand as it is difficult to verbalize. So much of it involves new kinesthetic sensations as you are guided through everyday movements. Developing accurate kinesthetic awareness takes time and practice. Most people will want to continue with a series of AT sessions firsthand as words do not do it justice.
This YouTube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GbwzqT9piU&feature=player_embedded will give you a brief introduction to the Alexander Technique
Good teachers constantly learn new things, have new insights and grow through their own experience. Sydney shared with me that over the years her work with the Alexander Technique has been powerfully enhanced by her training and experience in additional psychological, developmental and human potential/spiritual realms. These include Family Systems Therapy, Resources for Infant Educators (RIE), Energy Balancing, Peak Potentials and Sensory Awareness. She explained to me that the body is the messenger and that it is a medium that can be used to gain deeper understanding of feelings and thoughts. By learning to tune into your body and its messages, you uncover hidden patterns that have contributed to pain, discomfort and/or blocks. I felt this immediately, but could see that if I read it in a book or article I would have never understood it. I actually needed Sydney’s hands to teach it to my body in the proper AT method.
Alexander Technique in a Class Setting
If you can imagine something as elegant as simply re-learning how to stand up, sit down, lie down, by delicately moving your head to lead your movement, then move on to more complex issues such as working at your computer, making business presentations, playing a musical instrument, performing sports activities, then you can glimpse at what AT feels like. It is effortless when you have it demonstrated to you personally and even in your first session you will experience a profound impact on the way your body ultimately supports you through its myriad of subconscious body functions. You leave each session feeling confident in your own body.
At Training for Piano Student by Sydney Laurel Harris
AT is very helpful to people from all walks of life, not just in those situations I mention above but in all professions, for all ages, who just in the normal course of living their lives experience discomfort, especially chronic pain.
Study on Back Pain and the Alexander Technique
“It’s supportive to know good science validates something that so many of Sydney’s AT clients have experienced over the last 35 years: the Alexander Technique helps to eliminate and prevent back pain. For example, three years ago the “BMJ” (formerly the “British Medical Journal”) published a study that demonstrated the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique (“AT”) for back pain.
While it may seem mysterious to some, it’s really common sense that the Alexander Technique alleviates back pain. We may appear to be relaxed when slumped over the computer keyboard or when slouching in front of a classroom or at the kitchen counter. But, in fact, these behaviors are chronically straining muscles and putting enormous pressure on our backs. The same thing is true if we “try” to do the opposite, eg. by holding ourselves upright in a stiff posture. Most of the time the resulting “posture” isn’t “up right” at all, but rather sending us backwards instead of curving forward. Chronically holding ourselves in any position creates excess tension, ie., uses muscles in a way that wears us “down.” The resulting downward pressure then narrows joints making them less flexible. It also crowds organs and nerve channels.”
–excerpted from AlexanderUSA Newsletter
Can Dancers benefit from AT?
AT can be very helpful for dancers. My favorite dance is Argentine Tango so I am always interested in ways to avoid injury, move more efficiently and be able to share some things for dancers to help them prevent injury. I can clearly see that AT is a wonderful technique for dancers to study and incorporate into their daily lives.
In Sydney’s recent newsletter, which you can sign up for at her website, she shared some insights that she recently gained by attending a workshop given by Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, an Alexander Technique (AT) teacher and dance professor at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana. Drawing on her background in dance and her work with AT teachers Alex and Joan Murray using the “Raymond Dart procedures.” Rebecca led Sydney’s group in an enlightening exploration of the movements of the spine, elucidating primary and secondary curves as well as the spirals of the human musculature.
She explained to me that her training has been quite clear about the fact that there is often the misperception that spinal curves should be eliminated in order to have good posture. We’re often told, as actors, models or students to “Stand up straight!” and “Sit up straight!” I think we can all hear those words resounding in our memory banks. AT teachers are interested in their students creating lightness and efficiency in movement that can lead to the student discovering the full potential of their movements. I think we can all relate to that. And as I recall the beauty of the lightness of the AT touch in our introductory session I could see that this technique never used force or any type of rigid movements. It was all very fluid and light. This is very helpful information for dancers.
What about other strenuous exercise routines, such as running?
A few weeks after Sydney studied with Rebecca on AT for dance, she and her husband participated in an AT running workshop with Malcolm Balk, an AT teacher, running trainer, and author.
In their fourth workshop of the year with Malcolm, Sydney shared with me that she found it amazing what a difference a year of commitment to AT and running can make. She and her husband watched running videos that their teacher Malcolm had made of them, and they could clearly see that there were big differences from similar videos he made a year previously. Her husband’s run pattern initially had significant up and down motion, a very common occurrence for long distance runners. Malcolm shared with them that, “if you push up one inch more than necessary at the end of the marathon you’ve also climbed the Empire state building!” That really hit home with Sydney!
A year later, her husband’s run pattern now had very little up and down motion and his stride was much shorter, eliminating “braking” that occurs when the feet land in front of the body instead of directly under the body. This meant that significant wasted effort and energy had been eliminated in his running pattern over that year all thanks to the efficiency of movement taught in the Alexander Technique sessions.
In Sydney’s first taped run from this recent workshop, Malcolm pointed out to her that her feet still landed just a little bit ahead of her body. But not to worry, she was so excited about how different her own running looked overall from the previous videos that she almost missed the rest of the tips her teacher was offering her! Malcolm said, “she now looked much more like a runner,” whereas before she looked as if she was “doing ballet on hot coals.” The insight she carried home from this workshop was recognizing the difference between analyzing her run in her own head versus staying connected with her whole body while running; in fact, to run more from the center of her body.
Many runners who are not trained in AT can be seen pulling their heads back and down and a kind of leading with the chin movement, which has the effect of directing the runners energy backwards. When one is taught AT it can be “reminded” to send the head forward and up, which will look completely different, and much more “natural” as if the runner was “born to run.”
AT running workshops provide real knowledge for helping to improve running. I would encourage anyone who wishes to take up running to work with an AT practitioner to avoid injury, and gain better fitness.
We have only touched upon a few of the activities that AT can benefit. You can learn more here.