What It’s Like to Take Lessons in the Alexander Technique
There is never a time in your life when you stop moving. When you stop moving, you are officially dead.
As a baby, you learned to crawl and walk, and, unless you were born with a significant disability, you used a minimum of effort to get anywhere. At the age of two, you were a picture of bodily poise. It was only later, after several years of imitating your father’s walk, your mother’s breathing, or sitting slumped over your school desk for hours, that tension became a habit.
Habits are formed over a lifetime, and movements tend to be habitual. And ways of moving change, many times for the worse, after emotional or physical trauma.
There will always be a few blessed individuals who never lose that fine sense of kinesthetic awareness, regardless of what they sense from their environment. For example, people like Fred Astaire, and Muhammad Ali, in his prime boxing years. These two individuals were the personification of light, incredibly easy movement.
I had the adventure of my life when I learned to release a lot of that typical tension. It’s been about 20 years, but I can still recall as if it were yesterday my first lesson in the Alexander Technique
F. Matthias Alexander
What is the Alexander Technique?
It is a method of neuromuscular reeducation. All of us have habits of movement that were developed over many years, and which contribute greatly to body maladies and physical pain. We are stressed by modern life, and because most of us carry too much tension in our bodies, we react to stimuli in predictable ways.
The goal of a series of lessons in the Alexander Technique is to help our bodies give up some of that familiar tension, thereby improving our performance in any activity of life.
The Alexander Technique was developed during the late 19th century by F. Matthias Alexander (F. M. to his friends), who was a Tasmanian actor. Alexander specialized in one-man recitals, and eventually, to his dismay, he developed serious vocal problems. He consulted physicians and tried various remedies to no avail.
At that point, Alexander decided that the problem with his vocal chords was caused by something he was doing, and so he determined to find out what that was. Without going into details, let’s just say that he observed that he was interfering with the proper relationship between the head, neck, and back. When he was able to inhibit his habitual response just before he uttered a word, he permanently solved his vocal problems. Eventually he developed a system of teaching for his technique.
What It's Not
It’s important to state that the Technique is not about a form of rigid posture -- not about the military bearing we’ve all come to think of as correct – shoulders back, stomach sucked in, legs locked. The Technique is about so much more than how I am standing at any given moment.
Why Take Lessons?
People have various reasons for taking Alexander Technique lessons. Some are musicians like the violinist with neck problems, or perhaps serious athletes like the tennis player who wants to prevent tendinitis. Others are ordinary people not in the performance field who suffer from pain and stress-related illness.
My reasons for taking lessons are fairly unimportant, but I did suffer from some peculiar physical problems, which developed over time. Keep reading. These problems I had are denoted below in the "Alexander Diary" that I kept to track my progress. I am now convinced that a particularly stressful period in my life led to a permanent change in my breathing, a change I could not reverse without help. And the results of the Alexander Technique exceeded my expectations.
Once you have met with a teacher, you hopefully will decide to try a lesson with him/her. Go to your first lesson dressed in very comfortable clothing. Go with an open mind.
The Human Spine
What Happened During My Lessons
During the lesson, the teacher will, using her hands, guide you through simple movements, especially getting in and out of a chair. When you’re seated in the chair, your teacher will say to you, “Now, I want you to think about getting up, but don’t do it.” And she will guide you up out of that chair, and back down again.
During the second half of the lesson, you will typically lie in the semi-supine position on a table, with your head supported on a large book. The reason for the semi-supine position is it gives the student a much better opportunity to let go of tension. Your teacher will take your arms or legs through gentle movements in this position.
Every observation I will report about the lesson is purely subjective, because no two people will experience a lesson in the same way.
While getting out of the chair, I felt a sense of lightness and ease, as if I could do this motion all day.
I was in the moment, and just temporarily, forgot about all my distracting bodily symptoms.
What Happened After a Lesson
But the best part was what occurred after the lesson. My teacher was a faculty member in the fine arts department of a local university. Following the lesson, as I walked down the sidewalks of the campus on that fine spring day, I was amazed that my breathing was so loud – at least to me it sounded loud! Due to the lesson, I was breathing deeply. Also, I felt a little bit taller than before the lesson.
I recall I went home, then for some undetermined reason, I went to a fabric store. I remember feeling an incredible release of creativity about a project I was working on.
The next day I was talking on the phone with my cousin. As I stood at the kitchen bar with the receiver to my ear, I noticed that my chin went down, my head tried to get more level, and my toes kept lifting off the floor, causing my weight to shift back to my heels. This happened a lot whenever I stood still.
The body truly has muscle memory, and once it is shown the absence of tension, it keeps trying to return to that condition. No, better than that, it wants to get back to that state of balance. Frankly, it’s a bit disconcerting! But I did grow accustomed to the fact that when I was thinking the directions – neck free, head forward and up, back lengthen and widen, my body responded.
1981 - the author before Alexander Technique lessons
1992 - the author after 30 Alexander Technique lessons
And, as Lessons Progress
You may be wondering what you do between lessons. Nothing much. With the Alexander Technique, you practice not doing. Your teacher will instruct you to lie on the floor or on an exercise mat for 10 minutes a day with a book under your head. Could anything be more simple?
As lessons go on, some experiences like deep breathing won’t be quite so noticeable, but the nervous system does get confused about what is happening. Because most people have a bad habit of sucking in their abdominals, which creates lots of tension and tightness in that area, it is common to feel that your abdomen is becoming slack and sticking out more. But really it isn’t – your body is beginning to let go of tension, and eventually everything comes into the right alignment. Once you’ve had lessons, you will never again listen to an exercise instructor who tells you to “tighten those abs!”
Another thing you need to be prepared for is that the Alexander Technique works both by positive and negative reinforcement. Positive qualities include deeper breathing, a feeling of relaxed concentration, and general lightness and buoyancy, especially when walking.
The negative aspects are completely unique to each individual. For instance, you may notice that when you laugh at a joke in a staff meeting, you feel a twinge of pain across your tight jaw. As you are beginning to walk with a greater sense of lightness, you may feel a slight pain in your ankle. None of this is bad. It happens because your body is now developing a greater kinesthetic awareness than it had before, and it notices where the tension is.
After the seventh lesson, I was sitting at my desk at work, and suddenly, no doubt due to muscles that were finally ready to release, I noticed one of my symptoms starting to wane quite a bit. At that point, I knew that my nervous system was going to unlearn very successfully some bad habits.
After 30 lessons, I was completely free of two of the three symptoms which had troubled me for two years. (My diary below goes into a little more detail about this). The third symptom is still around to this day, and I have learned to cope with it.
So, Here's My Story...
I kept a journal for the first few months of lessons. You can read my account and get a very reflective and somewhat self-conscious attempt to describe my own experience. Remember, this is pretty subjective for anyone.
February 15, 1992 First Alexander Lesson
Pre-lesson, met with Phyllis and discussed goals. I gave her a run-down on my symptoms, and assured her that I’d been checked over well by physicians two years ago. For two years, I have been dealing with a feeling of light-headedness, a tingling sensation in my feet, and an achy, numb, tingly feeling in my right arm. Phyllis told me to come casual to the first lesson. I arrive at my lesson wearing my favorite jeans and my TCOM T-shirt.
We work on getting in and out of a chair.
We do table work. She says I try to “help” a little, but I’m not bad about it.
I lie on her table with 3 anatomy books under my head, with something under my feet to keep them from slipping. She takes me through some passive stretching, while encouraging me to give up tension. I found out that Phyllis has a background in kinesiology and also that she has taught anatomy. Not to medical students, but maybe in a science program. All Alexander teachers have a skeleton in their office, whether big or small. This is to illustrate some of the principles to their students. Phyllis has a full-size skeleton hanging in her office – a plastic one, of course. You can’t get the real thing anymore.
Phyllis tells me in the coming week to practice the “rest” (semi-supine) position, and to “not do.”
We finish up the lesson. It’s a nice day on the SMU campus, and as I walk down the sidewalk to my car, I have a wonderful feeling of lightness, and I feel about ten feet tall. I seem to be breathing very deeply – I can even hear how deep the inhalation is!
February 15-21, 1992
First week of “not doing”.
I try to duplicate what we learned while lying down and also while standing still. When standing, I have the sensation of leaning backward when I think about the head going forward and up. I have a different equilibrium, it seems, although there is no danger of falling over. While talking on the phone with mom, I notice almost involuntarily, that my toes are leaving the ground and I’m slanting backwards. How did this happen? This is what it “feels” like, anyway – it may not be happening at all. Sometimes, when driving my car, it seems impossible not to let my head come forward. I have just realized that the body has innate wisdom, and just knows how to get to a state of balanced relaxation, if someone can show you the way. After all, I have been at this state before, when I was two years old. I learned the bad habits of movement gradually, while observing my parents and teachers.
I’m thinking, but how much am I doing? Not much else to write about.
I have the light-headed feeling till the morning of February 22. I get up and the light-headedness is gone completely, even through the lesson and into the P.M. I get carried away with a project and don’t think about anything else. The light-headed feeling is back.
February 22, 1992
Phyllis says, the tensions will release slowly. It’s like peeling an onion.
Funny, she seemed like such a petite lady when I first met her. Not now. She seems more my height. I have some new insight – maybe the way we hold our heads distorts our line of vision, making folks appear smaller than they really are. Maybe that’s why people always think I’m much smaller than I really am. Petite, they call me, when I’m really average size.
I ask Phyllis if when I think “Neck free, head forward and up”, if it is really happening. She can’t be sure. Everyone’s nervous system is different. She says the new neural pathways take time to form and my nervous system will receive a lot of confusing messages at first.
After this lesson, I still have the feeling of being taller and breathing with more ease
February 23, 1992
I believe some of my tensions have released after that lesson.
I’m light-headed, but I don’t feel any compulsion to act out my usual nervous mannerisms. I’m pacing less. This is nice. That was my way of releasing tension in the past, maybe.
In the grocery line, standing there waiting for five minutes, I mentally give notice to the technique. Funny, it seems much easier to stand. Don’t most people shift their weight back and forth, from one leg to another? It feels easier, like I’m standing on my two legs on a broad base.
February 25, 1992
I’m still asking myself, “Is the dizziness and numbness tension-related and musculo-skeletal?” That is, which came first? Did the dizziness come about because of excessive tension or was excessive tension produced because of the dizziness? I fervently hope the first alternative is true, but I can’t be sure.
After the Health Promotion committee meeting at work, I’m aware of some tightness in my chest when I take a breath. I doubt I have felt that in the past two years very much. I didn’t know it was there. Phyllis says, that is one of the last areas to release – and it’s where people have the most holding and tension.
Now I’m beginning to be more aware of my lessons while going about every average activity, like washing dishes, taking a shower, and changing the paper on the 109 printer. I’m trying not to care whether the changes take place or not.
February 29, 1992
Today was my third lesson. I told Phyllis I had spent the week waving goodbye to chairs and shoes. My black patent leather 2.5” heels felt particularly bad the day before. They had previously not made me so aware of my back. As well, I sat in my easy chair for only 25 minutes and got a tight back from it. I’m going to avoid that chair for the time being.
I told Phyllis that I had felt tense in two particular situations where I never had felt it before. Right after the Health Promotion committee meeting I felt so much tightness in my chest, plus when I was laughing hard at a joke while at lunch with Sue, I felt quite a bit of tension in my jaw. Fortunately, both feelings were transient. Phyllis says that is a difficulty that many people taking lessons go through, though not everyone. There is an awareness that every student develops over time, and with more lessons. She tells me, “Once you become aware that something you’re doing hurts, believe me, you’ll stop ‘doing it!”
March 3, 1992
Took exercise (aerobics class) at the Activity Center. Directed the whole time in the class (what else was there to do?) I really like the instructor. I quit lifting weights for the time being, at Phyllis’ recommendation. She says it might work against what we are trying to accomplish. It’s nice to be given permission, since I really don’t like strength conditioning anyway.
I felt so much better, the best I’ve felt in that kind of workout in a while. Is there a connection? Am I getting more out of the class because of the new awareness I developed?
Like most things, practice makes perfect. And the Alexander Technique is a skill that you learn. But, it’s a mental skill, not a physical skill!
March 23, 1992
I have now had two Alexander lessons close together. Lessons # 5 and #6 came on March 15 and March 18. I believe doing it this way was very beneficial. I felt good when I got out of my 3/18 lesson and really good for the next day and a half.
I visited Mom and Dad immediately after my last lesson (on Spring Break). Mom said she noticed after I got off the plane that my posture was a little better. I haven’t noticed. I say, leave it to a mother to be able to spot that.
I noted how easy it was to sit forward on my airline seat. Since they wouldn’t bring me a pillow, that’s what I did. The lady sitting beside me must have wondered why I sat that way.
For the most part, I’ve tried to distance myself from the visual part of the technique – perhaps for the good. At times, I would wonder what in the world people were thinking of me as I stood like a statue in one place – arms hanging, feet firmly planted on the ground. But that wasn’t too often.
I told Phyllis my abdomen was a lot more relaxed and I just let it alone because I didn’t know what to do with it. She said that was good – that women carried a lot of tension in that area anyway. I always thought I had to hold my abdomen in, but now I seem oddly detached from what it might look like to do the opposite. She says eventually my abdomen will tighten up anyway as the body lengthened and that I would end up with a longer neck. A longer neck, you say? You have to be kidding. I already have a long neck!
For posterity’s sake, I had mom videotape Lisa and me in the front yard by the swing set. It was hard for me to be objective about my walking and movements. I thought I looked ridiculous and told mom so. I’m as skinny as I’ll ever be, yet I looked pounds heavier on the tape. Plus, it was super windy and the front of my T-shirt was billowing out like I was pregnant or something.
I was thinking recently about how much trouble I’d really had with my head and /or neck – starting with when I hit my head on the door in 1987 and had those muscular contraction headaches for months and months.
At times since I’ve been light-headed (maybe even before), I’ve thought about how I seemed to sacrifice an emotional life for the intellectual. After listening to myself on the tape I sent to a Lex pal, I wondered if sometimes it’s more comfortable for me to intellectualize than to express emotions. I feel emotions, but I somehow think it unwise to express them. Could this be due to the unwillingness to experiment and take risks… to reach out to people?
I have often felt I had a big head. My hat size is as big as dad’s – size 7 ¼. I also wonder if I also felt it “swelled up” with knowledge.
At times, when the lightheadedness was at its worst, I’ve thought there was no possible way I could support my head on my neck – it just felt too heavy to hold up. Therefore I slumped even more. Hunching over my desk, slouching more, holding my head with my hand, etc. etc.
March 28-March 29, 1992
I had been to some kind of exhibition at the convention center. While there, I saw a vendor selling an herbal supplement that I heard about. Thought it might help me, so I bought a bottle.
Took the supplement at night, then woke up around 2:00 AM, writhing in pain from stomach cramps. This new supplement is responsible, I just know it.
In the past, I would just have lay there being miserable, but I have a sudden inspiration. Why not use the skills I’ve already learned in the Alexander Technique? So I shift awareness of how I’m breathing, and in a few seconds, I’m able to let go of some tension. The pain goes away immediately! This is pretty amazing. I am feeling some rumbling in my stomach, but no pain. I go back to sleep. Obviously, I’m not taking the pill again, but I have just been taught a lesson on the practicality of the technique.
May 5, 1992 - PROGRESS!
In March also had a lesson on the 28th. Then, lessons on April 12, 18, and 25. Skipped May 2 and May 9
The first week of April, I started to see some improvement in my physical condition. One day during that week, I was sitting at work at my desk, and I guess something was finally ready to release. At that moment, the sensations in my feet and arm receded. They’re about 50% of what they were! They feel less numb and tingly the vast majority of the time.
Back lengthening and widening has taken my abdomen back some.
It’s been hard to know how to walk – I was walking with my weight shifted back – but my knees, ankles and calves were very stiff. I realized that I was supposed to be bending my knees more – this has helped. It’s gotten easier. Just stand like a baboon and walk like one without bracing the knees back!
After approximately 20 to 30 Alexander lessons, the tingling and funny feeling in my feet and right arm disappeared! It was a gradual thing, but it resolved 100%. It never returned. The lightheaded feeling, on the other hand, persisted.
I have learned a lot now, and I can speculate what happened with my feet and arm. When I originally started experiencing the light-headed feeling, I was very concerned. It was stressful for me, because I did not have a clue what caused it. Going to doctors to make sure nothing was seriously wrong was absolutely necessary, but before I even made my appointment with the neurologist, I started having the tingly feeling in my feet. I believe that this was caused by a permanent shift in breathing patterns, brought on by stress. When you’re not breathing very well, your muscular tension is pretty high, and you get used to that level of tension. You don’t know any better. In addition, because the back is tightened up, you are not able to fully release your leg muscles. In this case, you adduct those muscles, rather than abduct them. You have contracted your leg muscles into your trunk. Once you have the skills of Alexander, you learn to release your leg muscles away from your body. For me, this resulted in normal feeling feet for the first time in 2 years!
Also, it took no time at all for the muscles in my lumbar spine to relax. Instead of having an arch in my back (which is what most people have), I now have a permanently relaxed lower back. If I lie on the floor, there is no longer a gap between my lower back and the ground.
Another thing was that my sacroiliac joint function improved greatly. I would not have known this, but sometime later, a D.O. was examining me during an appointment, and asked me to bend over slowly. They do what is called “gapping the joints” in their examination. He told me that I had normal motion of my sacroiliac – very rare!
The ability to stand is greatly improved, with a feeling of not working to hold myself up. Walking is much improved. Sitting will always be a challenge. Except in the home environment, people usually do not have a lot of control over the chairs they sit in nor the desks at which they do their jobs.
I measured my height before lessons. It was 5’3 ½. After 20 lessons, my height measured at 5’ 4 ½ . I believe you are a little taller after each class, then during the week, you start shrinking down a bit. This is a long process, but eventually you are standing at your full height. Although I was very slender to begin with, some people who are a little heavier actually look 5 pounds thinner after taking a series of lessons, because they are standing up straighter.
I don’t think my speaking has improved that much. This would be advanced work, indeed. I do know now that the speaking is the one thing that distinguishes an experienced Alexander Technique teacher from everyone else. It’s hard to put your finger on, but it is immediately apparent when you first meet them! Their words come out in one long flow, and their breathing is easier than most people’s. Indeed, they do not gasp for breath between phrases. After all, F. M. Alexander developed his teaching technique after experiencing hard to resolve problems with his vocal chords, so it just makes sense.
It is fair to say that one doesn’t know what tension feels like, until you have felt the absence of tension. This can only be modeled in an instructional session with a teacher. It’s the same thing that would happen with a low-salt diet. If your doctor put you on a low sodium diet, and you did it faithfully for 6 months, and then went and ate some Doritos or some cheese crackers with peanut butter, just how salty would those snacks taste? It’s the same principle.
Famous actors who studied the Alexander Technique
- Paul Newman
- Kevin Kline
- William Hurt
- John Cleese
Famous writers who studied with F. M. Alexander
- Aldous Huxley
- George Bernard Shaw
Well-known scientists who studied the Alexander Technique
- Sir Charles Sherrington, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine
- Professor George E. Coghill, Award-winning anatomist and physiologist
What Will Happen if You Take Lessons?
One day, after a series of lessons, you will be able to stand comfortably for long periods of time with equal weight placed on both legs (most people shift their weight uncomfortably from one leg to the other).
One day, even if you’ve become a slacker about your cardio exercise routine, you’ll notice that it takes no effort at all to climb a hill – that’s because you have learned to breathe more deeply and use less effort to reach a goal.
One day, and best of all, the muscles in your lumbar spine will be much more relaxed. In my opinion, this is one of the best reasons to study the Alexander Technique.
The improvements you will experience are certainly not limited to what I just gave you. With time, 20-30 Alexander Technique lessons, and continual self-monitoring and patience, you will gain a skill that will benefit you the rest of your life.
To know when we are wrong is all that we shall ever know in this world. -- F. M. Alexander
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