Alexander-Technique

Sirpa Tapaninen

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Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique is a simple method that can be used to improve our primary body-mind control. As we learn the technique we learn to notice if in our daily use of our self we unconsciously prevent ourselves from functioning as lightly and as efficiently as we could. This always includes disturbing the natural balance between the head, neck and the back. As we shorten our neck we automatically pull our head back thus shortening and narrowing our whole back. This causes headache, back pain and restricted joint mobility in the whole system. It also prevents us from breathing fully and efficiently. As we learn the Alexander Technique, we learn to stop shortening our neck. As a result we start using ourselves as lightly and effortlessly as we did during the first three years of our life.

You can learn the Technique in private lessons and in courses of various length. The teacher puts her hands on you and guides your movement lightly showing you when and how you restrict your natural movement by causing extra strain on your neck and back, your breathing, your intestines and your joints. In the lessons, time and again, you get an experience of how light moving and being could be if only you stopped shortening your neck and thus shrinking the whole your body. After repeating this experience several times you learn to stop harmful body use.

The Technique is scientifically based on western physiology and anatomy. The nervous system of all vertebrate mammals functions more or less similarily. Every stimulus (eg someone calling your name) is followed by the whole nervous system calming down for 0,02 seconds. This phenomena is called inhibition. During inhibition the nervous system goes into a coordinated and coherent state which enables our whole system to react to any stimulus in the most efficient way.

The Alexander Technique helps us to strengthen the inhibitory function of our nervous system and to utilise it in our everyday lives. This makes us less prone to run around reacting with a tense neck to every possible stimulus life happens to throw upon us.

HOW DOES THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE AFFECT US

The most usual feeling after an Alexander lesson is lightness and ease in both moving and being. Breathing flows easily and smoothly, voice is clear. When breathing expands as a result of the lesson many pupils experience a change in their voice while speaking or singing. Pain and discomfort while moving – walking, running, squatting, sitting down, doing excersice –which is caused by the way we unconsciously use ourselves is eased.

As our inhibitory function strengthens we do not rush around reacting to stimulae of all sorts and flavours. We learn to choose which stimulae is worth reacting to at all and we learn to choose our reactions better. Pupils with some experience of the technique describe themselves as calmer and more concentrated than they were before learning the Technique.

THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE AND SPORTS

A common side effect of the Technique for athletes is a remarkable improvement of balance. As we stop interfering with our natural balance and posture mechanisms we’ll find it easier to utilise the gravity in order to stay upright. A typical result is an improvement in balance.

The Alexander Technique can be used to either accept or defeat fear. A typically scary activity may be horse riding where the fear can be caused by being in a tall place on the saddle or by a big powerful animal. Downhill skiers may be scared of steep hills. The Technique helps to accept fear. It also teaches you to consciously control the undoing of a startle reaction that is common to all vertebrate mammals: neck shortens, shoulders get raised, adrenaline increases in blood circulation followed by flight, fight or freeze. As we learn to undo the physical startle reflex the feeling of fear will also ease and gradually vanish.

The Alexander technique could be described as a kind of cost-efficiency method. F.M. Alexander noted that while applying the Technique into our everyday life use we end up achieving more with less effort. A common feature for adults is to try too hard when less would do. Trying too hard causes unnecessary muscular tension ad shortening in our voluntary musculature. The Technique teaches people to use themselves with less effort.

Inhibition provides people working with animals with a tool for a better connection to animals. Horse riders describe how their seat as well as their reign connection to the horse has improved after learning the Technique.

THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE AND MUSICIANS

A common reason for musicians to come to Alexander lessons is constant neck-, head- and back pain. During the lessons musicians learn how much extra work they carry out just to hold their instruments and to play: they react to playing by shortening their necks and pulling their heads back and down in relation to their backs. This causes them to shrink which is followed by their lungs and intestines being tight in the body. After learning to release their neck musicians find that they can play without pain or extra effort.

To the surprise of many the sound of an instrument changes as a result of the Alexander work. This is because the musician her/ himself is the primary instrument that should be ”played correctly”. The technique helps musicians to stop squeezing their instruments, cramping their hands, stiffen their wrists and relate to their instrument as if it was something heavier than it actually is. It is easy to recognize the musicians who have taken Alexander lessons when you observe several musicians play. The ones with some Alexander experience support their instruments with ease.

Inhibition helps musicians with correct timing, also while playing together with others. Musicians describe how common inhibition produces a state where all can sense when to start and what the others will do next.

THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE TO MEDICINE AND THERAPIES

The technique may in some circumstances feel rather therapeutic but it is not therapy, nor does it intend to compete with therapies. The same applies to medicine. The Alexander Technique is simply a learning process that can benefit anyone, including doctors and therapists. The technique can benefit many people when used to support medicine or therapy: e.g. a physiotherapist can heal facett joint lock/ dysfunction but an Alexander teacher can teach the treated patient to use her/ himself so that the condition is less likely to re-occur.

An English research paper published in October 2008 verified the technique’s effectiveness in easing long term back pain when combined to medicine and conventional therapies. See www.bmj...

THE HISTORY OF THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE

The Alexander technique was developed by an Australian actor Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955). Alexander was a receiter specialized in Shakespeare. As a young man he started suffering from hoarseness and breathlessness while reciting and often if he carried on reciting he lost his voice altogether. He sought for help amongst doctors and therapists but the best advice he got was to rest his voice. This helped but only until he got on stage and started reciting again.

Disappointed with all the professionals who couldn’t help him Alexander decided to help himself. He reasoned it must be something he does to himself on stage because his voice only disappears on stage. He surrounded himself by mirrors so that he could observe himself from all directions. First he spoke normally, looked at himself and noticed nothing. However, when he started reciting he noticed that he stiffened his neck, pulled his head back, hollowed his back, inhaled artificially and in so doing he interfered with his breathing so that he couldn’t speak for long.

This was followed by a long period of time when Alexander observed his use and posture. He noticed that it was no use to try and force the head back on the spine because instead of solving the problem i.e. shortened neck he only doubled the problem by shortening the front of the neck. All Alexander could do was to leave his head and neck be and do nothing. When this happened, the head automatically found its proper place on top of the spine. Alexander found that all vertebrate mammals have automatic posture and balance mechanisms that only function if we leave ourselves alone and stop interfering with them. This realisation led Alexander to gradually learn to leave his neck and head be which resulted into his voice problems disappearing.

In early 19th century Alexander moved first to Sidney then to London where he taught the Alexander technique until the 1st world war started. He lived in New York during the war teaching. Between the two world wars he taught in both London and New York. He had several famous admirers, including Nicholas Timbergen, Aldous Huxley, Georg Bernard Shaw and John Dewey who also wrote the prology in his second book The Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (1923). F.M. Alexander started training Alexander teachers in 1930.

The technique gradually spread world wide, from England and the United States to Europe and South Africa. The technique was brought to Finland by English Dick Gilbert (1935-2008) in 1980’s. He lived and taught in Finland between 1990-1999. There are now 24 Alexander teachers in Finland.