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Alexander Technique History

Updated on January 7, 2018

Frederick Matthias Alexander was an Australian, born in 1869. As a young man, his promising career as an actor was jeopardised by vocal problems.

Determined to help himself, Alexander began a process of research and experimentation that lasted a number of years. He would observe himself in mirrors as he recited, to see what he was doing that damaged his voice. What he saw was a habit of tightening his neck and compressing his larynx. This degree of tension also interfered with his breathing. He came to realise that this pattern was also present when he went about ordinary activities. With time, Alexander managed to prevent his problems from recurring, by learning to control his habitual response to the stimulus of speaking. Instead, he focused his thoughts on simply keeping his neck relaxed.

The groundbreaking discovery Alexander made was this; by releasing tension in his neck, he allowed his “righting reflex” against gravity to operate naturally. When he stopped pulling his head back and down, his back lengthened and his torso widened. He found he could balance on his feet without gripping and was better coordinated in movement. His breathing and speaking improved greatly.

Alexander’s graceful bearing and resonant voice inspired other performers to seek his help. In 1904, he left Australia for London to continue teaching his work, which had evolved to include hands-on guidance as well as verbal instruction. In London, medical professionals began referring people to him and supporting his ideas. He also gained influence among eminent people such as educator John Dewey, and writers George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley. In 1931, Alexander established a training school for teachers of his method. He died in 1955, aged 86.

The Alexander Technique has continued to evolve, and is now taught worldwide. Alexander’s legacy includes four books. The best known is “The Use of the Self”, which describes his understanding that the whole person, the “Self”, is not a mechanical assemblage of parts, but a psycho-physical unity. His insights foreshadowed the discoveries of contemporary neuroscience, which confirm the indivisible link between mind and body and the harmful effects of stress on the immune system.

How to learn the Alexander Technique?

Individual lessons
The technique is taught over a series of lessons between a teacher and a student. The lessons - which usually last 30 to 45 minutes - will focus on helping you “Use your Self” in a more attentive and intelligent way. Basic activities, such as walking, standing and sitting, bending and lifting, breathing and speaking, are explored. You will learn to observe when you are using excessive effort to perform such activities, and to accomplish them in a more balanced, coordinated manner. Once you have a good understanding of the basics, your teacher can help you apply your new “way of going” to specific activities that you do in your work and recreation time.

Duration of study varies, and will depend on your personal needs and intentions. To enjoy lasting benefits, consider taking regular lessons (once a week or more) over at least four to six months.

During a lesson, students remain dressed throughout. Some lessons may take place on a therapy table or lying on the floor, so wear comfortable clothing. After the initial lessons, you will learn to internalise the teacher’s cues, or “directions”, to release tension and deploy your energy more effectively, first under the teacher’s guidance and then progressively on your own.

Group courses
The Alexander Technique is sometimes taught in small groups. Group work is an excellent way to learn about the technique by observing, exploring and sharing experiences with others. However, it is advisable to complement this with individual lessons designed specifically for you, to help you make more subtle discoveries about yourself, and to refine your movement skills further.

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