F M Alexander’s Story
In order to understand how the Alexander Technique works, it is useful to look at the process that F M Alexander himself went through in developing it. It is worth noting that he did not set out to create some new discipline or technique, rather he was forced into finding a solution to a very specific problem.
Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869 to 1955) was a popular reciter with a one man touring show, mostly of humorous stories and passages from Shakespeare, which he took around Australia and New Zealand.
Unfortunately, he started having voice problems while he was giving recitals.
His Doctors recommended that he rest his voice, which he did and the problem went away – until he recited again. So he reasoned from this that
“It was something I was doing –
in using my voice
that was the cause of the trouble.”
(The Use of the Self (UOS) F. M. Alexander.
Ch 1 ‘The evolution of a technique’ Par 9.)
His Doctors agreed with his conclusion but were unable to tell him what he might be doing that caused his problems. So Alexander started studying himself in mirrors, setting them up so he could see himself from various angles.
After observing himself merely talking for some time, he then noticed that whenever he went to actually recite, that he pulled his head backwards and distorted his larynx or ‘voice box’. This seemed to be the cause of his voice problems.
He then noticed that he was pulling his head back a lot of the time even when he was not reciting, only usually less so. In fact he found that he pulled it back whenever he was about to do anything demanding.
So obviously he tried to correct this by putting his head forward. This worked to some degree, but after an initial improvement, his voice problems returned. So he went back to the mirrors. Here he noticed several things:
He found that when he tried to put his head forward, it would go forward and down, which still depressed his larynx. So he tried to make it go forward and up.
He gradually also noticed that he was lifting his chest, arching and narrowing his back and standing in an awkward way whenever he went to recite. So he realised the problem was far deeper than he originally realised.
If he did not continually observe himself, he found that his head was often not in the position he thought it was. In fact quite often when he thought he had put his head forward, it had actually gone back again.
It actually felt it had gone forward, it felt right, even though he could see it had gone back. And when he actually got it to go forward, it felt wrong. So he began to understand that he could not rely on his feelings to know when it was in the desired relationship or position.
The Primary Control
Alexander found that pulling his head back was associated with the arching and narrowing of his back and his awkward way of standing. If he could improve his head position, he could also improve all these.
In fact there are reflexes which mean that the position and movement of your head, via your neck, in relation to your body can control the alignment and movement of the rest of your body. A teacher will use this in order to stand you effortlessly from a chair and to walk you around without you having to think about it.
He also recognised that it was not just pulling his head back that was causing problems, but that he was also stiffening his neck in the process. This caused stiffness in the rest of his body.
So he realised that in order not only to resolve his voice problems, but also the tensions and distortions in the rest of his body, he first had to be able to loosen his neck and to control the movement and relative position of his head.
This control of his head and neck he called “the ‘primary control’ of my use in all activities.” (UOS Ch 1)
Just because Alexander called the way he controlled his head and neck the ‘primary control’ does not mean that nothing can precede it, as one of my teachers mistakenly claimed. How we gain control of this relationship is down to thinking and to be truly successful, we need to go deeper than traditional Alexander Technique to achieve it.
Incidentally, because he had voice problems, Alexander observed the parts that produced his voice and therefore noticed the movements of his head, neck and larynx. It seems he might never have discovered the importance of the relationship between his head, neck and body if his main problem had been somewhere else in his body. Therefore, as this relationship is at the core of the technique, he would probably never have developed the technique!
Because of the stiffness and tension of his neck, ‘Forcing it forward’ did not work very well for Alexander. It would have involved extra effort to overcome the effort and tension of pulling it backwards in the first place. This is why his head so often went back when he thought it was forward. He therefore had to ‘Inhibit’ his desire to ‘put’ his head forward and up or to deliberately realign his body.
Later on, he realised that his desire to recite, or to do or achieve just about anything was undermining him and triggering his old patterns. He therefore had to stop himself or ‘Inhibit’ himself from wanting to do any of them until he got himself into an optimum condition to be able to do them.
In order to get his head to realign more reliably without extra tension or effort, he found it was more effective to ‘Direct’ his head in the right directions, rather than trying to put it there directly.
‘Directing’ for Alexander meant ‘thinking’ of or ‘wanting’ his head to go forward and up without any actual attempt to move it or make it go there.
In effect this meant that the thoughts involved in the habit of pulling it back were superseded by the thoughts of his head going forward and up. This would tend to release the muscles that were pulling it back and it would stimulate the muscles involved in the poise of his head that would send it upward.
It is this ‘Thinking of the condition’ that we want that brings about the postural changes in the technique. There can be no forcing – it only leads to extra effort and tension. We have to patiently wait for the subtler processes of thinking to have their effect.
In time, Alexander came up with a series of ‘directions’ which when he thought them frequently enough, tended to keep him both in a relatively relaxed condition and in good alignment.
End gaining and The means whereby
He realised that his desire to do or achieve something was undermining him. He was trying to achieve his objective directly in his old habitual way, without considering the best way and without following that way through. He called this ‘End Gaining’.
Once he had inhibited, he needed to find a new way of achieving his end without triggering his old habitual responses. He would call this new way his ‘Means Whereby’
By inhibiting his desire to actually move his head to realign it and by only directing it instead, it tended more and more to align itself appropriately. However, this alignment still felt unfamiliar and ‘wrong’, whereas the pulled back position felt ‘right’!
In time he came to understand that he must give up relying on his feeling sensations and just trust his process of simply thinking of the alignment and condition he wanted, whether it felt right or not.
He had in fact developed a reasoned system. As he put it in The Use of the Self:
“I must cease to rely on the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order
(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;
(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;
(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.”
Hence the ‘Means Whereby’ implied the reliable reasoned way of achieving what he wanted
When he was trying to achieve his objective directly in his old habitual way, without considering the best way and without following that way through. He called this ‘End Gaining’.
The Fresh Decision
Alexander found that he could get his head into a better position while he was not reciting, but as soon as he went to recite, or do anything that triggered the response, he found that he automatically pulled his head back again. He found it was virtually impossible to prevent this.
He discovered that whenever he decided to do something and he committed himself to do it, it automatically triggered off his old habitual ways, both of
preparing for it by pulling his head back
and of doing it in this old habitual way.
So he came up with a cunning plan:
He decided that when for instance, he intended to recite; instead of any direct preparation for reciting he would ensure that he was in an optimum condition.
First he would give his sequence of directions over and over – often many times – without any attempt at doing them directly, so that gradually the right conditions would come about of their own accord.
Once he believed he had achieved these conditions he would still do nothing directly towards his end (e.g. reciting). He would continue to project his directions and while he continued this he would
Make a fresh decision – either to
Continue projecting his directions
but still do nothing else – or
Continue projecting his directions
And go ahead and do something different to what he had originally intended –
(especially if conditions had changed and something different was now appropriate) – or
Continue projecting his directions
and go ahead and recite after all.
He effectively decided before hand
Not to commit himself
To any one specific action,
But to just project his directions (without doing them) in sequence, over and over, without knowing what his final activity would be.
This brought about a condition in him which was appropriate for just about any and every situation or activity.
Because he made a fresh decision while already in this optimum uncommitted condition, he tended to flow freely and naturally into whatever activity he had finally chosen, without time or need for any of his original habitual preparations.
Therefore he performed whatever it was with a minimum of muscular tension and with the minimum distortion of his head, neck or body.
This way he was able not only to free himself completely of his voice problems, but also finally clear up his other longstanding postural, breathing and health problems.
Alexander had a problem: he was losing his voice in recitals.
He analysed his conditions of use and found:
He was pulling his head back,
Raising his chest and shortening and narrowing his back.
That the alignment of his head and neck
and the quality of his neck
determined the alignment, movement and quality of his body and
His feeling sensations were misleading when he wanted to correct his misalignments.
He reasoned out that he could not eliminate his problems by directly realigning himself, but that he had to use a thinking process that was more effective in the long run in gradually reducing the problem conditions and bringing about good alignment without tension.
He put this reasoned ‘means whereby’ into effect by:
Refusing to do anything directly to change his alignment or condition (his use of himself),
Refusing to rely on his feelings to know if he was in the right alignment,
Putting aside his desire to achieve his eventual aim or end for the moment
And instead to think of the conditions of his head, neck and body for long enough that he could be reasonably sure he had established them.
Once he was confident he had achieved the right conditions,
He would make a fresh decision:
To do nothing other than continue to think of the right conditions, or
Do something else (while still thinking of the conditions) or
Actually recite or do whatever he had intended in the first place – and still continue to think of the right conditions.
This got around his old faulty preparation for his task and set him up to be able to flow into any task once he was in a good enough condition.