Origin Of The Alexander Technique

The story of Frederick Matthias Alexander is a truly remarkable one by any standards. He was born in Australia on 20 January 1869, the eldest of the eight children of John and Betsy Alexander. He was of mixed Scottish and Irish descent. He grew up near the small town of Wynyard, situated on the northwest coast of the island of Tasmania. So our story starts at a time when there was no electricity, no telephones and no computers. Horses and walking were the main forms of transport, and self-sufficiency was a way of life.

The early years

Alexander was born prematurely, and from the start he was a very sickly child, suffering from respiratory problems. Due to his frail health, he was taken out of school at an early age and tutored in the evenings by the local schoolteacher. Even as a young boy he was very inquisitive and was in some ways difficult to teach, and he used to ask his teacher how he could be certain that the information he was being taught was correct. During the day he helped his father look after horses, and I am sure that the sensitivity in his hands that was later to play such a crucial part in his teaching of the Technique to others was partly due to that.

As he got older, Alexander’s health gradually improved, and by the time he was 17, financial pressures within the family had forced him to leave the outdoor life of which he had become so fond, to work in the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company. During this time he taught himself to play the violin and took part in some amateur dramatics. At the age of 20 he had saved £500 (a small fortune in those days) and travelled to Melbourne, where he stayed with his uncle, James Pearce, and passed the next three months spending his hard-earned savings on going to the theatre and concerts and visiting art galleries. At the end of this period, Alexander had firmly decided to train to be an actor and reciter.

The young actor

Alexander stayed on in Melbourne and took on various jobs, working for an estate agent, in a department store and even as a tea-taster for a tea merchant to finance his training, which he did in the evenings and at weekends. It was not long before he gained a fine reputation as a first-class reciter, and he went on to form his own theatre company specializing in one-man Shakespeare recitals. As he became increasingly successful, Alexander began to accept more and more engagements, his audiences got bigger, and consequently so did the halls in which he performed. With no microphones, this put more and more strain on his voice. After a while, the strain began to show, as he regularly became hoarse in the middle of his performances. He approached a variety of people, including doctors and voice trainers, who gave him medication and exercises, but nothing seemed to make any difference. In fact, the situation deteriorated still further, until on one occasion Alexander could barely finish his recital.

He became more and more anxious as he realized that his entire career was in jeopardy. Increasingly desperate, he approached his doctor again, even though previous treatment had not worked. After a fresh examination of Alexander’s throat, the doctor was convinced that the vocal cords had merely been overstrained and prescribed complete rest of his voice for two weeks, promising that this would give Alexander a solution to his problem. Determined to try anything, Alexander used his voice as little as possible for the two-week period preceding his next important engagement. He found that the hoarseness in his voice slowly disappeared.

At the beginning of the performance, Alexander was delighted to find that his voice was crystal clear; in fact, it was better than it had been for a long time. His delight soon turned into huge disappointment, however, when halfway through his performance the hoarseness returned and the condition continued to deteriorate until by the end of the evening he could hardly speak.

The next day he returned to his doctor to report what had happened. The doctor felt that his recommendation had had some effect and advised him to continue with the treatment. What transpired next proved to be at the very heart of the Alexander Technique.

Early experiments

Alexander refused any further treatment, arguing that after two weeks of following the doctor’s instructions implicitly, his problem had returned within an hour. He reasoned with the doctor that if his voice was perfect when he started the recital, and yet was in a terrible state by the time he had finished, it must have been something that he was doing while performing that was causing the problem. The doctor thought carefully and agreed that this must be the case. ‘Can you tell me, then, what it was that caused the trouble?’ Alexander asked. The doctor honestly admitted that he could not. To which Alexander replied, ‘Very well. If that is so, I must try and find out for myself.’

Alexander left the surgery very determined to find a solution to his curious problem. This took him on a journey of discovery that not only gave him the answer to his question, but also ultimately led to a profound new understanding of how human beings are designed to move and how the body and mind and the emotions are inseparable. He came to realize that many people grossly interfere with their own natural movement and that this contributes to much of mankind’s suffering in our modern civilization. Alexander’s findings were greatly underestimated at the time, but it can be argued that his discovery was one of the greatest of the 20th century.

You may now be thinking that you have no problem with your own voice – perhaps you have a different problem, so how can the Technique help you? Alexander’s logic can be applied to practically any ailment we have. For example, if someone has no back pain before they do the gardening, yet has back pain after doing the gardening, then it must follow that they are putting their body under undue stress while digging or weeding and that this is the underlying cause of the problem. It does not matter what physical ailment you are suffering from, and what activity might bring it on; there is always an underlying cause, and when that is addressed, the pain or discomfort will gradually disappear.

The first clues

As you will see, Alexander’s story is like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Alexander’s genius was his insight that he could be causing his own problems himself without realizing it. Through his tenacity he came to prove it, and to cure himself. How many people do you know with back or neck problems who have ever had the thought that they may be causing the problem themselves? Alexander had only two clues to follow up when he started his investigations:

  1. The act of reciting on stage brought about the hoarseness that caused him to lose his voice.
  2. When speaking in a normal manner, the hoarseness in his voice disappeared.

Following simple, logical steps, Alexander deduced that if ordinary speaking did not cause him to lose his voice, while reciting did, there must be something different about what he did while speaking normally and what he did when reciting. If he could find out what that difference was, he might be able to change the way in which he was using his voice when reciting, which would then solve his problem. He used a mirror to observe himself both when speaking in his normal voice and again when reciting, in the hope that he could discern some differences between the two. He watched carefully, but could see nothing wrong or unnatural while speaking normally. It was when he began to recite that he noticed several actions that were different:

  1. He tended to pull his head back and down onto his spine with a certain amount of force.
  2. He simultaneously depressed his larynx (the cavity in the throat where the vocal cords are situated).
  3. He also began to suck air in through his mouth, which produced a gasping sound.

Up until this point, Alexander had been completely unaware of these habits, and when he returned to his normal speaking voice he realized that the same tendencies were also present but to a lesser extent, which was why they had previously gone undetected.

So Alexander’s first discovery was: Interference with the physiological mechanisms often occurs habitually and unconsciously.

After this breakthrough, he returned to the mirror with new enthusiasm and recited over and over again to see if he could find any more clues, and soon noticed that the three tendencies became accentuated when he was reading passages in which unusual demands were made on his voice. This confirmed his earlier suspicion that there was a causal link between the way in which he recited and the strain on his voice.

A maze of questions

The next stumbling block that Alexander encountered was that he was unsure of the root cause of these damaging tendencies. He found himself lost in a maze of questions:

  1. Was it the sucking in of the air while breathing that caused the pulling back of the head and the depressing of the larynx?

or

  1. Was it the pulling back of the head that caused the depressing of the larynx and the sucking in of the air?

or

  1. Was it the depressing of the larynx that caused the sucking in of the air and the pulling back of the head?

After further experimentation, he realized that he could not directly prevent the sucking in of the air while breathing or the depression of the larynx, but he could to some extent prevent the pulling back of the head by releasing muscular tension. When he did this he also noticed that it indirectly improved the state of the larynx and the breathing. At this point Alexander wrote in his journal: ‘The importance of this discovery cannot be over-estimated, for through it I was led on to the further discovery of the primary control of the working of all the mechanisms of the human organism, and this marked the first important stage of my investigation.’

Alexander’s second discovery was: The existence of the Primary Control, which organizes balance and coordination throughout the rest of the body.

Alexander referred to the dynamic relationship between the head, neck and back as the ‘Primary Control’ and discovered that it governed the workings of all the body’s mechanisms and made the control of the complex human being relatively simple. Freedom of movement requires the Primary Control to be allowed to work without any restriction so that the head can lead a movement and the rest of the body follows.

Alexander carried on with his experiments and soon found that when he prevented himself from pulling his head back and down onto his spine the hoarseness in his voice decreased. He returned to his doctor and after further examination it was found that there had been a considerable improvement in the general condition of his throat and vocal cords. He now had positive proof that the manner in which he was reciting was causing him to lose his voice, and he was encouraged to think that changing the way in which he performed would eventually lead to an eradication of his problem.

Alexander’s third discovery was: The way in which a person uses themself will invariably affect their various functions.

Unreliable sensory appreciation

Encouraged with the idea that he was at last getting to the heart of the matter, Alexander continued experimenting to see if he could achieve further improvement in the state of his vocal cords. He had observed a tendency to pull his head back, so in an attempt to correct this, he deliberately put his head forward. However, he was very surprised to find that this depressed the larynx just as much. To help him unravel this mystery, he added two further mirrors, one on each side of the original one. When he observed himself again in the mirrors, he could see clearly that he was still pulling his head back and down onto his spine as before, despite his intentions. Alexander realized that he was doing the exact opposite of what he thought he was doing. He had just made his next discovery:

The existence of faulty sensory appreciation

In other words, he could no longer rely on his sensory feeling alone to tell him accurately what he was or was not doing. At first he thought that this was his own personal idiosyncrasy, but later on, when he started to teach his technique to others, he realized that faulty sensory appreciation was practically universal. Feeling disillusioned, yet unable to give up his quest, Alexander persevered and began to notice that his habit of pulling his head back and down was causing not only the depression of his larynx but also various tensions and stresses throughout his entire body. He saw that he was also lifting his chest, arching his back, throwing his pelvis forward, overtightening his leg muscles and even gripping the floor with his feet. The way he was holding his head was affecting his entire posture and balance. Alexander’s next realization was:

The body does not function as a collection of separate independent parts, but as a whole unit, with every part affecting every other part.

Alexander remembered that during his training he had been taught to ‘take hold of the floor’ with his feet by one of his recital tutors. He had obeyed by tensing his feet and toes, believing that his teacher obviously knew better than he did. Many of us will remember being told to sit or stand in a certain way in order to correct poor posture. Even if we achieve what we think is being asked of us, in reality we may well make the situation worse instead of better. We are under the illusion that other people know what good posture is, when in fact most do not. It dawned on Alexander that the tightening of all the muscles in his legs and feet was part of the same habit that was causing him to tighten his neck muscles. The action of ‘taking hold of the floor’ with his feet had over the years become such an ingrained habit that he was completely unaware that he was doing it. He found it almost impossible to recite without all his habits being present, and whatever he did to try to change the way he recited simply increased the tension, which made things worse. Alexander’s next discovery was:

A given stimulus produces the same reaction over and over again, which, if it goes unchecked, turns into habitual behaviour. This habitual reaction will eventually feel normal and natural to us.

Alexander now found himself in an impossible situation, because he needed to know what he was actually doing, but he was unable to rely on his sensory feeling kinaesthetic sense, to give him this information, because he had already found out from previous experience that it was untrustworthy.

Finding The Right Path

This led Alexander to the question of how he consciously directed himself while reciting, and he realized that he never gave any thought to how he moved, but simply moved in a way that was habitual because this felt ‘right’ to him. Earlier I mentioned how Alexander discovered that trying to correct bad habits by deliberate action, such as pulling the head back, resulted in even more tension. So Alexander tried a different strategy: he experimented with just thinking of his head going forward and realized that he merely had to think of the directions in order to bring about a change. The meaning of the word ‘direction’, as Alexander used it, is consciously to give a mental order to yourself, so that you will respond to what you ask rather than working by habit alone: for example, when a person realizes that their shoulders are hunched, they think of releasing the tension and their shoulders become more relaxed. A more detailed explanation of this concept can be found later on in this book.

When Alexander had practised his directions for long enough, he decided to return to the mirrors and try out his new findings during the action of reciting. To his dismay, he found that he still failed far more often than he succeeded, yet he was sure that he was getting closer to finding an answer to his problem. He began to believe that it was his own personal shortcoming that prevented him from achieving his objectives. He looked around for all possible causes of failure. After a while he saw that he was giving his directions successfully right up to the time of reciting, but was then reverting immediately to his old habitual use of himself, pulling his head back and causing tension throughout the body. He realized that he had been so goal-oriented when it came to reciting that any attempts to ‘get it right’ had resulted in tension in his neck muscles: the tendency to become too focused on a goal, without considering the process required to achieve it. Alexander termed this attitude ‘end-gaining’, and his next challenge was to find a way to become less fixated on his goal.

Alexander decided to try giving himself a space between the stimulus to speak and the action of reciting, and he termed this course of action ‘inhibition’. By giving himself this time and using his directions, he was able to notice and change the ingrained habit of pulling his head back. The principles and techniques that he conceived, which primarily consist of awareness, eradication of harmful habits and free choice, are what form the basis of what we know today as the Alexander Technique. Through diligent practice he was able not only to free himself from the harmful habits that had jeopardized his career, but also to cure himself of the recurring breathing problems that had afflicted him since birth.

Summary of Alexander’s discoveries

  1. Interference with our physiological mechanisms (poor posture) often occurs habitually and unconsciously.
  2. The existence Primary Control, which organizes balance and coordination throughout the rest of oneself.
  3. The way in which we use ourselves will invariably affect all of our various functions.
  4. The existence of faulty sensory appreciation.
  5. The body does not function as a collection of separate independent parts but as a whole unit with every part affecting every other part.
  6. A given stimulus produces the same reaction over and over again, which, if it goes unchecked, turns into habitual behaviour. This habitual reaction will feel normal and natural to us.
  7. Directing – to change a habit that involves muscular tension, we need to just think of what we want the muscle to do rather than actually changing it by using even more tension.
  8. Inhibiting – to refuse to react to any stimulus in our automatic habitual way.
  9. Eliminating ‘end-gaining’ – by inhibiting and directing, we can pay attention to how we perform an action and not be only thinking about the end result.
  10. The mind, body and emotions are not separate entities, but act in unity with each other.
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