Benefits Of The Alexander Technique
For many people, the Alexander Technique is synonymous with improving posture, yet few are aware of exactly, how it works, and even Alexander Technique teachers themselves use differing language and emphasis in their explanation of it. It can sometimes come across as a purely physical technique, whereby we examine the way we sit, stand or move while learning to release muscular tension. At other times the emphasis can be looking at how our mental habits are reflected in the body, and by changing our thinking we change our posture. Yet for me, while it is both of these, it is also a practical philosophy for living, a way of becoming a more conscious human being, a way of finding our true potential. In fact, the Technique can be many different things to different people. All are correct, for these are just facets of the same thing.
What most people would agree upon, however, is that the Alexander Technique imparts an experience – a truly wonderful experience. But how you convey this amazing feeling into words is one of the most difficult problems. How do you convey the taste of a mango or pear to someone who has never tasted that fruit before? It is impossible. My first contact with the Alexander Technique in 1984, when I met my first teacher, Danny Reilly, is a very good example of this. We sat and talked by an open fire for nearly an hour about the subject of the Alexander Technique in great detail, but at the end of the conversation I just thought: ‘What is this man talking about?’ Then he said, ‘I will show you in a practical way if you like.’ Within a few minutes of having the hands-on experience, I began to have a profound experience of expanding gently in space. At the end of half an hour, I felt very light, free and very conscious of the world around me, but I no longer felt like me! The postural habits that I had associated with who I was had been removed. It was a moment that I remember to this day.
The famous actor and comedian John Cleese also found Alexander lessons very useful, reporting: ‘I find the Alexander Technique very helpful in my work. Things happen without you trying. They get to be light and relaxed. You must get an Alexander teacher to show it to you.’ Similarly, the author of very many well-known children’s books, Roald Dahl, said, ‘The Alexander Technique really works. I recommend it enthusiastically to anyone who has neck pains or back pain. I speak from experience.’ But these statements cannot give you the experience; they can only encourage you to learn more and perhaps seek out a teacher who can show you how you can have a first-hand experience of lightness, wholeness and wellbeing.
I have found over the years that the reason why the Alexander Technique is difficult to describe is because it has a chameleon-like nature: the Technique can appear to change depending on the nature of the problem and how one approaches it. For this reason, it would probably be useful first to map out the areas in which the Alexander Technique can be beneficial, before we explain how it works. I have personally found that the Alexander Technique has greatly helped people in the following areas:
- Alleviating pain
- Improving posture
- Preserving health
- Reducing stress
- Enhancing performance
- Helping with personal development
- Increasing enjoyment of the present
This is perhaps the most common reason why people learn the Technique in the first place, as it is well known for helping people who are in pain or discomfort for a wide variety of reasons. Like me (I originally suffered with major back problems and sciatica), many people have sought help elsewhere without success; the Alexander Technique is often the last resort. In many cases pain is simply the body’s alarm system, it is just saying ‘Stop doing this to me’, but the only problem is that we do not know what we are doing to ourselves, and as a consequence we have no idea that there is anything to stop. Marjorie Barlow, Alexander’s niece and one of the first Alexander teachers, put it very simply when she said that the Technique enables you to know what you are doing and empowers you to stop doing whatever it is you are doing at any time you like.
The initial question we need to ask is: how can we identify the harmful things we are doing to ourselves? This is a very difficult thing to do without help, and an Alexander teacher has been trained to notice the harmful habits that we cannot see for ourselves. So, for example, I have seen many people with lower back pain over-arching their backs, thinking that this is improving their posture and will eventually fix their problem. Quite the opposite is true, however, and this tendency of ‘sitting up straight’ can actually make it worse and may even have caused the pain in the first place. Similarly, I’ve seen people with neck problems throwing their heads back with a great deal of force when getting out of a chair, but have no idea that they are doing so. I also come across a lot of people with numerous musculoskeletal problems who think they are standing straight but are actually leaning backwards at a 10 or 15 degree angle, and I’ve seen others who suffer from frequent headaches and migraine, but are totally unaware that they are continually over-tensing their neck muscles. With so much tension around, it is little wonder that so many millions experience lower back pain or neck problems. I can honestly say that if we did to others what we do to ourselves, we could be arrested for grievous bodily harm! Yet many of us don’t know the harm we are causing ourselves.
Some people say that the trouble with the human body is that it does not come with a ‘user manual’. Life might be much simpler if it did. However, young children don’t have a user manual, but they generally move, sit and stand with beautiful poise and balance. Actually, we don’t need a manual – all we need to do is to let go of the unconscious habits that cause so many of the physical problems that we see in society today. A good analogy of this was reported in a newspaper some years ago. An American woman arrived at Heathrow Airport in London from New York. She rented a car because she wanted to visit relatives in Scotland, and proceeded up the M1 motorway. When she got to Edinburgh, she took the car back to the car rental company and complained bitterly that there was something wrong with the car. She reported that the engine was very noisy and the car was very slow, and that it had taken her twice as long as expected to get to Scotland. A mechanic checked the car and could find nothing wrong with it. The woman was dismayed and she tried to show the mechanic what was wrong. At that point it became evident that she had never driven a car with gears – she had always driven a car with an automatic gearbox. So she had put the car into first gear and didn’t realize that she needed to change gears when picking up speed! Of course the car was very noisy and didn’t go very fast! So, there was no problem with the car – the fact was that the driver was not driving the car as it had been designed to be driven. In exactly the same way we do not ‘drive’ ourselves in the way that we were designed to be driven; most of us misuse ourselves for many years before a variety of health problems arise. The power of the Alexander Technique is in revealing this misuse and allowing a person to restore their health for themselves. A person can learn to change harmful habits once they have this new awareness.
In this book, I aim to go some of the way towards helping you to understand how the body is designed to work, so that with the help of the Alexander Technique you will be able to use yourself with more consideration and awareness and thus move through life with greater ease and less pain or discomfort.
In my experience, the second most common reason people come to me is to improve their posture, either because people around them have commented on it or because they themselves have caught sight of their posture in a mirror. They want better deportment, and wish to learn how to sit, stand and move more gracefully and attractively. Poor posture is rife in our society today, and it is rare to meet someone who does not want to improve their posture in some way. I remember seeing a Peanuts cartoon a long time ago that resonated with me. In the cartoon, Peppermint Patty, who is standing very upright, is speaking to Marcie. She says, ‘What kind of a report card is this? I got a D minus for everything! Look at my back, Marcie. It’s straight isn’t it? Doesn’t good posture count for anything?!’ That is a very good question! The answer is yes, it counts for a great deal in this life.
Although Alexander did on occasion use the word ‘posture’ in his writing, he did not like the word because he felt that it implied something static rather than dynamic, and thought that it might encourage habits rather than freedom. Instead, he more usually referred to ‘the use of the self’ or ‘the way we use ourselves’, of which posture was the physical expression of something far bigger than just the shape of the body. Throughout the book we will see that we cannot successfully alter our posture without regard for the way we think and feel. So I wish to make it quite clear that when I use the word ‘posture’, I do so in a wider sense that encompasses our whole being: body, mind, spirit and emotions.
The idea that posture affects health, wellbeing and happiness is an ancient one; many different disciplines have studied, defined and described healthrelated benefits to posture throughout the ages. Good posture has been depicted in the artwork of ancient civilizations and presented in the practice of yoga and the martial arts – disciplines that have been taught down through the ages. Much has been told of posture and its relationship to health and longevity, dating back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. But today, the idea that postural characteristics can be a direct cause of poor health is virtually disregarded in the clinical practice of many physicians. Before improving posture, however, we first need to understand how the postural reflexes work; this will be covered in the next chapter.
By learning the Alexander Technique, you can maintain good health into your old age. There are three examples that I’d like to share with you. The first is of a friend and colleague, Elisabeth Walker. She trained with F M Alexander and became an Alexander teacher in 1947. I first met her in 2000 at an Alexander Technique conference, when she was in her mid-eighties, still travelling the world to give workshops and inspire people. Four years later, at another Alexander Congress, she was seen frequently riding her bike around Oxford at the age of 90. At the same Congress, she took part in a workshop that involved walking on a tightrope. Even today, in her mid-nineties, she is still actively teaching and travelling.
The second example is of a woman who came to me when she was 96. She had had Alexander lessons since the age of 30, and many of her first lessons were with Alexander himself. She was still driving and attending a number of evening classes. Every year she had some lessons from different Alexander teachers, ‘just to keep her hand in’, as she put it. After her first lesson with me, she said, ‘I would like another one, but not next week as I am going on a skiing holiday.’ This woman was still skiing at the age of 96!
“Mr Alexander has done a service to the subject by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psycho-physical man. To take a step is an affair not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the moment – not the least of the head and neck.”
Sir Charles Sherrington, Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, 1932
The third example I would like to give is of George Bernard Shaw. He was 80 and suffering with acute pain due to angina and then over-curvature of the lumbar spine when he arrived for his first lesson with Alexander. It affected him so badly that he could hardly take a step without agony; in fact, he was so frail that he needed help to get up the three steps to Alexander’s teaching rooms. It really seemed that he was on his last legs. Shaw believed that his angina was a direct consequence of sitting for long periods and hunching over his writing desk. He thought that this habit had put enormous pressure onto his heart so it could not work efficiently, and during his lessons he was able to release the tension and give his heart room to function properly. Shaw proved to be the quickest to learn the Technique of all of Alexander’s pupils. In less than three weeks the pain had eased and he was able to walk a mile as well as resume his daily swimming routine. After a course of lessons, he proclaimed himself ‘a new man’ and went on to live another 14 years in excellent health and didn’t die until the age of 94, after he fell off a ladder while pruning his trees. Now if you think about it, you don’t get many 94-year-olds up ladders in the first place, especially when 14 years before they were unable to get up three steps. In private, he gave Alexander the credit for saving his life, and he advised Alexander to hire a man to walk up and down Piccadilly in London carrying a sandwich board that said ‘ALEXANDER CURES ANGINA’ on both sides. He was sure that it would have made Alexander a public success overnight.
After his course of lessons, Shaw is reported to have said to Alexander, ‘I am very grateful to you for restoring me to good health. My angina and back problem are completely cured and I feel like I am moving like a young man again. However, you have left me with one problem that I did not have before; now that I’m three inches taller and two inches wider in the shoulders – none of my suits fit me anymore.’ All through his eighties and early nineties he was known to be ‘very sprightly’, and he continued to lead a very full and active life. In public he declared: ‘Alexander established not only the beginnings of a far reaching science of the apparently involuntary movements we call reflexes, but a technique of correction and self-control which forms a substantial addition to our very slender resources in personal education.’
There are differing opinions in the medical profession as to whether prolonged stress can be a direct cause of illness. Some doctors believe that stress can cause high blood pressure and an increase in the level of harmful fats in the blood, which is a contributory cause of heart disease and hypertension. Others believe that excessive tension over a period of time causes a reduction in the body’s own defence mechanisms, and as a result people under stress are more prone to a wide range of diseases because their resistance has been weakened. Whichever way you look at it, stress is bad for your health, and it may even lead to premature death through strokes or heart disease, or by accidents caused by impaired judgement or performance.
Let’s take the example of the habitual reaction that typically arises when we are running late for an appointment. Many of us respond by tensing the whole body, hunching our shoulders, clenching our teeth or arching our back. As we fear the consequences of being late, we are no longer in conscious control of our actions and may well act irrationally. If we are driving, we may even take unnecessary risks that could threaten our own or other people’s lives. This in turn can make us even more stressed, and a vicious circle ensues. This kind of habitual reaction eventually becomes so ingrained that we maintain excessive muscle tension even when we think we are relaxed.
The fearful responses we experience often originate during our school years, when being late often resulted in some form of ridicule or punishment, and, like Pavlov’s dogs, we still respond in a similar fashion many years later, even when being late for an appointment is of little importance. If this behaviour pattern is allowed to persist over a long period of time, we may end up suffering from one of the many stress-related illnesses. When we are stressed, our posture changes dramatically, and that change may become permanent if we are stressed frequently (as happens all too often). The Alexander Technique can help us to become aware of our current stress levels, as well as helping us to become less stressed.
In fact, the Technique can help you to improve whatever you do. Alexander was once reported to say that even a thief practising his Technique would become a better thief!
There are three main areas where the Technique can improve performance:
- Acting and public speaking
The Alexander Technique has been known to help all kinds of sportsmen and women throughout the world, both at amateur levels and in training for high-pressure competitions. Since the way you use your body can affect your performance, it follows that the more aware you are of your actions, the greater the control you will have of your body. The Alexander Technique has been used effectively in a wide variety of different sports, from swimming to athletics (many professional runners are always looking for new styles of running that are not only more efficient, but also less strenuous). It is also very well known in horse-riding circles because the rider’s posture clearly affects the performance of the horse.
Many sports place huge demands on the body and can lead to injury in the form of twisted ankles, torn ligaments and sometimes even broken bones. Using the Technique to reduce tension in demanding activities can dramatically lessen the risk of injury as well as increase freedom and flexibility. Not only does this help to bring about improvements in performance, but many people also find that their sport becomes more enjoyable. Many forms of training invite the sportsperson to try harder and harder, which can result in extra tension in an already strained muscular system. This can put enormous pressures on the body, and if allowed to persist can interfere with its natural mechanisms and be counter productive. Sometimes, due to pain caused by excessive tension, sportspeople even have to give up their favourite sport altogether. But if and when they are able to give up their old habitual ways of straining, they can be amazed to find that an easier, more flowing style can produce the same, or even better, results – with less effort. Equestrian Sally Swift, author of Centred Riding, used the principles of the Alexander Technique in her teaching and aptly described it as a method of re-educating the mind and body towards greater balance and integration, with special reference to posture and movement.
In all forms of sport, improving posture and the use of the whole self can help to improve general fitness and teach you how to avoid wasting energy. It can also help you to avoid or recover more quickly from an injury. Greg Chappell, the well-known Australian test cricketer, said: ‘The Alexander Technique will benefit anyone whether they are an elite athlete or whether they just wish to live life without the aches and pains that many people suffer and accept as part of life. It is a pity that these techniques are not shown to us all at an early age for I have no doubt that this would alleviate many of the causes of ill health in our communities.’ For his part, Howard Payne, Commonwealth record hammer thrower, who used the Technique to improve his balance, said: ‘Balance is a vital aspect of good hammer throwing and getting the head, neck, spine and pelvis in the correct relationship enables the balance of the throw to come so much more easily. Once the balance is settled there is an enormous improvement in turning speed.’
Many sportsmen and women have used the Technique in improving performance. Daley Thompson won four world records, two Olympic gold medals and three Commonwealth titles and had wins in the World and European Championships. He is considered by many to be the greatest decathlete of all time. Other sportspeople who have found the Technique useful include John McEnroe (tennis), Linford Christie (sprinter) and Jeff Julian (golf).
Musicians all over the world use the Technique to improve their performance. The Alexander Technique has helped many instrumentalists and singers to perform with less stress, more confidence and a reduction in pain or injury. At performance level, many musicians and singers are required to undertake very demanding physical movements. These movements often cause back problems, neck problems, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) – a term used to describe an injury of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems that may be caused by repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression or sustained or awkward positions – and a wide range of undiagnosed health problems that can adversely affect or even threaten their musical career. By helping musicians to improve the way they use themselves while playing any musical instrument or while singing, performers have less risk of injury, and this improves the quality of the music itself.
Improving posture with the Alexander Technique can also dramatically reduce performance nerves and increase the performer’s confidence in a variety of situations. Many of the major acting and music schools, such as Royal College of Music (London), The Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto), DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama (Dublin), The Yehudi Menuhin School (Cobham, UK), Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) (London) and The Juilliard School (New York), regularly have Alexander teachers working with the students to help them become more aware of what they are doing.
Over the years, a great number of prominent musicians and actors have publicly endorsed the Alexander Technique, and their comments on the efficacy of the Technique can be found throughout the book.
3. Acting and public speaking
It was from the field of acting that the Alexander Technique originated. The Technique can offer many benefits in the world of acting and public speaking. By improving the way performers use themselves, their voices will naturally be clearer and more powerful without being forced. Actors can also learn to perceive the habits that get in the way of obtaining their best performance. These habits can include patterns of thought and physical misperceptions that encourage actors and public speakers to use excessive and unnecessary tension and effort. Professional performers can learn to free their breath, which helps them to express strong emotions on stage with effortless poise, and move with grace and ease on and off the stage.
“Mr Alexander’s method lays hold of the individual as a whole, as a self-vitalizing agent. He reconditions and re-educates the reflex mechanisms and brings their habits into normal relation with the functioning of the organism as a whole. I regard this method as thoroughly scientific and educationally sound.”
Professor George E Coghill, anatomist and physiologist, member of National Academy of Sciences
Helping with personal development
The Technique can enable a person to be more aware physically, mentally and emotionally in a variety of situations. A large part of learning the Technique involves learning how we behave in certain situations, and how we react to a wide range of stimuli; but being more conscious of how we go about our daily activities can teach us a lot about ourselves. As we become aware of our personal reactions, we are slowly able to change them for the better. The expression by Mark Twain, ‘If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got.’ is so true. The Technique has been referred to by some as a quiet revolution in self-development. As we will see, the mind, the emotions and the body are intrinsically one entity. It is not just that each affects the other; it is that they are all different facets of the same thing. Alter the body and you will alter the way you think and feel, and vice versa. By learning the Alexander Technique you will be embarking on a journey of self-discovery. You will discover things that will amaze and delight you. It is a humbling experience and one of the first things to realize is how little we really know, despite having more education than ever before. It is not a journey to be rushed, so take your time and savour the process.
Increasing enjoyment of the present
There are many inspiring books about the benefits of living in the present, such as The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and Awareness by Anthony de Mello. By practising the Alexander Technique, you will find a practical way to be really present in this world. Our mind can disappear into the past or shoot off into the future at a moment’s notice, and emotions are always moving like the tides of the oceans, but in reality we are always here and now. When we are able to be present with the mindfulness that is the core of practising the Technique, we are able let go of the past and stop worrying about the future and truly be in the present moment. The present moment contains the magic and wonder that children see and feel every day.
Many people come to me with back pain, neck problems, hip problems, breathing problems and a whole range of other ailments. Once they have started using the Technique, even before their problems have been solved, they start to report that they are sleeping better, feel happier and are more present. In the last years of Alexander’s life, he once said to his niece, Marjorie Barlow, ‘You know something? I am always happy.’ Happiness is the thing that so many of us are chasing but that often becomes more and more elusive as we get older. You can see happiness in people’s posture, and you can also see depression and sadness and unhappiness in their posture too. Change the posture by changing the way you use yourself, and you change the state of mind; change the way you think, and you change your life.