What is the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique educates a student on how to organize their body for the most efficient use of themselves for any task. The Technique shows the student how to tune themselves for the most optimal relationship between their head, torso, and limbs, in gravity, so that they will be able to move dynamically in their environment. In addition the Technique shows the student how, if they have detrimental habitual movement patterns, to be able to not use those patterns, and instead move into a more efficient coordination of all the parts of their body, and then accomplish the task with that new optimal organization.
One of the main principles of the Technique is that movement is a function of the entire body. This means that even with the smallest movement, every part of the body is activated to coordinate with that movement. What we see in modern life is that we often think that a movement, whether it is a jaw or finger movement, happens by itself. Usually when this occurs the rest of the body stiffens to manage the balance changes of the movement. But when we look at vertebrate movement in evolution we see millions of years of every part of the body participating in the movements of every other part.
Another principle of the Technique is that all movement is better with a long spine. This is because a long spine has always been a component of sending the head forwards towards food, and finding food has been the primary reason for movement. Now that we have vertical spines, we orient the spine upwards into length. This enables coordinated movement. Conversely a shortened spine is always associated with less effective and uncoordinated movement.
But now as modern humans we find ourselves in a world with chairs, cars, phones, and computers, and most of our activities appearing low in front of us. As our awareness goes downward we tend to follow that awareness with our bodies and spines losing the benefits of a long spine. We give very little attention to the length of our spines as well to allowing our whole body to participate in our daily movements. Consequently we tend to find solutions to being in gravity that are static, collapsed, and braced.
The Alexander Teacher guides the student back into a dynamic relationship of the head to the torso and limbs in standing to allow for a more suspended and mobile relationship with gravity. While guiding the student the teacher explains the process for the student to be able to make the changes for themselves. This enables the student to have a choice, and why the Alexander Technique is an educational technique. As we are often making postural and mental decisions unconsciously in relationship to the stimuli of life, a goal is to become aware of our postural decisions, and if they are detrimental, to be able to change them to more efficient choices.
The guidance the Alexander Teacher gives is without force and follows the ways that the student’s body has evolved to expand. Understanding of how the body lengthens and widens requires the student to expand their awareness, to notice the reasons they might have excess tension, and how to direct themselves back to a more efficient organization of themselves. If the student is too collapsed, the teacher will emphasize an increase of muscle activity to come upright into a dynamic suspension of the skeleton. If the student is carrying more tension than needed to be upright, then the Teacher will recommend a lessening of tension to bring the student back to a posture of dynamic mobility.
Once a dynamic suspended neutral organization is achieved, then the student can explore going into movements while being aware of any tendency to collapse, become stiff, or to lean backwards. Having a more efficient mobile relationship of all the parts of the body allows for large patterns of coordination coming through the nervous system to move the body more accurately and effectively. If some areas are too stiff or too collapsed they cannot participate effectively with the movements of coordination.
With studying the Alexander Technique many of the complaints of students that are the result of inefficient organizations of themselves are relieved. But at the same time the possibilities of effective movement are increased as well, so that the student discovers a new ability to achieve optimal performance, whether it is in using the voice, the hands, or any activity.
The Alexander Technique is about two things:
1. It is about maximizing the relationships of our body and mind to a high degree of efficiency to allow us to have the best possible quality at any moment, and
2. Being able to change our detrimental habitual patterns.
The Alexander Technique as a tool for changing ourselves when we want or need to, can be divided into three parts:
Because most of our activities are unconscious, there is a potential to have inefficient habits of moving and internal relationing (head relationship to torso and to limbs). Usually we are using too much effort (excess muscle tension) to maintain awkward postures and to accomplish activities.
We first have to know what we are doing so that we can stop it. Hence we must become more aware of what we are doing. We unfortunately get used to ourselves and after a while, when there are constant sensations, we cease to notice them. Thus it is helpful to develop a subtler sense of our selves.
Awareness vs. Pain
1. When there is pain, we want to go away from it.
2. Since tension can dampen awareness, we often use tension as a way of masking discomfort.
3. If we ignore pain, it might go away. But if we don't change the causes of it, it can come back with greater strength later on.
4. Pain is a call for awareness so that we will know to stop hurting ourselves.
5. It is helpful to develop a subtle relationship to our sensations. Not only will they help us move more efficiently but also we will be able to move with pleasure.
6. Awareness works best when it is gentle, easy, enjoyable and delicate.
Inhibition is Alexander's name for a decision to not begin a detrimental activity. It can also be a ceasing of a detrimental activity. This is a natural skill of stopping.
Our Brains work with inhibition. Our brains are suggesting all kinds of movements all the time, but through inhibition, we only allow into action the movements we want to happen. One theory for consciousness is that by using inhibition, we are able to stop and refine inefficient movements.
Awareness actually works as a kind on inhibitor. Our muscles do not like to remain in excess tension. So as we become gently aware of them, they tend to naturally drop off excess pressure. The exception to this is when the muscles are engaged in an inefficient postural activity where you will fall down if you ease the muscles. Hence it is helpful to be in our best balance.
Before we can allow something new to happen, we must first stop, or not begin, what we have already been habitually doing.
2 Types of Inhibition:
1. Inhibition of a habitual reaction to a stimulus
This is noticing what we tend to do when habitually performing an act. If we notice that our reaction to a stimulus to act is disagreeable, we can then stop before acting unconsciously.
2. Inhibition of an already present excess tension
This is noticing muscle tension that we are already engaged in. Through a teacher’s help and gentle awareness we can allow the muscle, the muscle group, or the whole muscular system, to ease to a more appropriate state.
Alexander’s directions are reminders to notice the relationship between the head, torso, and limbs. The more uncompressed and coordinated these parts are with each other, the more efficiently we move and function.
When we cease to over contract, our bodies expand back out to their full stature and integrated relationship. This is because we have inherent postural automatic responses, which guide us into coordination and uprightness. These directions are a reminder to allow our bodies to return to a natural state of organization.
When we are in this natural state of organization, our bodies can respond to subtler patterns of coordination and balance that are transmitted out of the brain.
Alexander described these reminders as:
1. Allowing the neck to be free
2. Allowing the head to be forward and up, (not pulled back and down; head free to move).
3. Allowing the torso to be lengthened and widened, (not shortened and narrowed) all the way to the finger tips.
4. Allowing the legs to be oriented forward (knees not locked backwards) and lengthening away, all the way to the heels and toes.
We can use these 4 directions as a way of noticing what we are doing (hence back to awareness). Is our neck free? Is our head pulled back and down? Etc.
If these directions seem vague, strange, or stiff, it is because we try to do them in the ways we have always done things. This is one of the places where an Alexander Teacher is very helpful to show what is exactly meant by these words. Most likely it is not what you may have expected.
Awareness, Inhibition, and Direction in an Activity
1. Be aware. Pick an activity such as picking up a cup.
2. Notice your first reaction to accomplish that activity. Is it static or disagreeable?
3. Tell yourself to pause, so that you give yourself time to not become static and allow a different reaction to happen.
4. Check Alexander's directions. Allow them to happen.
5. See what new movement arises when you move inside of your new spacious, less compressive organization.
Use the usually habitual time of approaching an activity as a time to tune in and notice what you are doing with your whole self.
When you are changing a movement pattern, remember to see that change in relationship to your whole self.
If this all seems a little awkward, that is because you may be reading this without the benefit of working with an Alexander Technique Teacher. A teacher is extremely helpful in showing us what we are actually doing, showing where we can improve, and helping us find our own natural coordination.