What Is The Alexander Technique?
You may be Surprised…
Although many people have thought of the Alexander Technique as something that people ‘do’, it is actually more about undoing.
It is about a way of thinking that can bring about major changes in your body.
By thinking in specific ways, it will help your body to loosen, release, lengthen and move differently, without you trying to do it directly.
The idea of thinking without doing is new to most of us. Stay with it and follow me for a while and you will reap the lifetime benefits in health, poise, serenity and achievement that are available from this Rolls Royce of a technique.
A definition of the technique
So from the previous page and from above,
a starting definition of the Alexander Technique would be:
A way of thinking that can return us to our natural inbuilt
and freedom and ease of movement.
It is easier to answer “What is the Alexander Technique?” if we look at the nature of poise and how tension disturbs it.
How does a swan keep its head up with such poise and glide with such grace?
How can a cobra raise and rear its head, as if it is just floating, and yet it can strike with such speed and accuracy?
A giraffe is the tallest animal on the earth, yet it carries its head with ease and grace, virtually all day long.
And the little Meerkat can stand erect on its hind legs holding its head alert. Yet although this animal is usually on all fours, it can stand with a poise that would be the envy of many two legged humans.
In fact, many humans, especially in western culture seem to lack poise.
True, most of us are lucky enough not to be as stooped as the Hunch Back of Notre Dame. However, some people are bent and bowed, others seem rather tense, and some are making great efforts at standing “properly” but are anything but loose.
Occasionally we come across someone who seems to be able to stand and move with an effortless, easy, natural poise. However, most of us, although not noticeably tense or obviously distorted, do not seem to have that loose, graceful yet vibrant buoyancy and coordination.
People in many of the so-called primitive tribal cultures, especially in nomadic tribes, seem to have a perfect suppleness and alignment. In many parts of the world, people are able to carry up to their own weight on top of their head. They rise up into the weight, align themselves perfectly and then seem to walk as if there were virtually no effort involved.
So how is it that these animals and these rare humans, have this poise and coordination that so many of us so called ‘Civilised’ humans do not? They have not had Alexander lessons. Nor did anyone teach them to walk around with a book on their head. No one taught the gazelle how to leap with such ease and grace. No one told the cat how to always land on all fours. And no one gave postural advice to the Meerkat: “head up, tummy in” etc.
The fact is that poise and coordination are natural for these animals. The ability to hold their head up as if effortlessly is automatic. It is not only natural to all these animals but is also built in to us human beings and it can be seen in those of us who are more naturally living and have not been interfered with.
So what is it that prevents us from enjoying our natural poise and coordination? The answer is tension! The thing to realise here is that tension:
Pulls us out of our natural alignment,
Tightens our joints and stiffens our movement and
Alters our natural movement patterns.
Now many people may be thinking to themselves, “but I’m not tense, I’m quite a relaxed person.” This may be true for some people; however most people do not realise how much tension they actually are holding. Nor do they realise that background tension masks itself. It causes a slight anaesthesia, makes us less sensitive to physical sensations. Therefore our background tension makes it so that we are less sensitive to tension, so we don’t feel it!
Surprisingly, by the time most of us can actually feel tension, it is often quite extreme. So when most people relax, they only relax down to a plateau level of tension, which continues interfering with their poise and disturbing there movement patterns.
It is like when I had crossed the Rocky Mountains in the U. S. A. and arrived in Denver City, Colorado. Apart from a few mild slopes, Denver is a fairly level city. The surprise comes when you start to walk up one of these mild slopes. Very soon you feel tired and breathless. The reason?
You look one way; the land seems flat as far as you can see, as the Great Plains stretch out to the east of you.
You look the other way, the Rocky Mountains tower above you immediately to the west.
You feel as if you must be at sea level, and yet you are at the high end of a vast tilted plateau that takes nearly 2,000 miles to gently slope down to the eastern coast.
You are actually a mile high! Denver is called “mile high city”! And unless you are used to altitudes, your blood is not capable of carrying enough oxygen for you to do anything particularly energetic.
It is actually fair to say, that even when they are sleeping, most people do not let go of their background tension completely.
One way of thinking about our natural poise and coordination and how it is affected by tension is to think in terms of fingers.
Hold out your little finger and move it around. This represents the lightness and delicateness of your natural poise and coordination. If nothing is getting in its way, it can align and move your body likely and easily. Even if you are not a small person, it should be possible for you to stand up from sitting and move around as if it is effortless.
Now hold out your second or ring finger and lay it on top of your little finger. As you now move your little finger around it has to drag your larger second finger around with it. It is as if your second finger is like a layer of tension imposed on the lightness of coordination represented by your little finger. It takes a lot more effort to get the same amount of movement.
Now, your natural coordination does not like dragging tension around and tends not to bother trying. After all, it’s not its job! So at this stage we start “putting in an extra effort”. We use our will power to “make us do” what our natural coordination is no longer doing for us. We use effort to overcome the tension that is slowing us down and restricting us like a straight jacket and pulling us out of alignment.
This extra effort is like adding your middle finger on top of your second finger and using it to push the other two around, trying to make the movement the same as if it were your natural coordination, moving you lightly, smoothly and easily. However, this is now being done with much more effort and is never the same movement pattern as is produced by your natural coordination.
As the old Burl Ives song goes:
I knew an old lady who swallowed a fly
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly …
See Burl Ives on Youtube And now she is about to swallow the horse!
Because the alignment and movement patterns are not the same when we are “putting in an effort”, some of us have tried correcting the alignment and the movement. This is where most postural training comes in, “head up, chin in, shoulders back, chest out, tummy in.”
This is a bit like trying to shut the door after the horse has bolted! This kind of posture is never light, easy or natural. It takes constant effort and attention to maintain and causes even more tension than just “putting in an effort”. In fact, the command in the armed forces to stand to attention could just as easily be interpreted as At-Tension.
This further layer of compensation and interference is like adding a forth finger on top of the middle finger and using it to modify the movement of the middle finger to try to make it as if it were just as if the little finger was moving lightly. It is an extra layer of interference, effort and tension.
“But what about people who are just slumped?” I hear someone say, “Aren’t they completely relaxed?”
The answer to this is almost certainly No.
What has probably happened is that their natural coordination moved them around loosely and lightly until gradually increasing background tension started interfering with it.
(For most people in Western culture the tension and interference seems to start at about age 3 and gradually increases from there on.)
In the early stages, these people “make an effort” and may have even tried to compensate and try to maintain good posture and coordination. However, after a while the effort got tiresome for them, and they gave up. The background tension is still there preventing them from supporting themselves well and moving with grace and ease, but they cannot be bothered to make the effort to move themselves despite this.
Worse than this, when they are sitting, because they are not supporting their spine properly, it tends to stretch ligaments and puts them in danger of slipping a disc. And when they stand or walk, they put extra strains on various parts of their bodies through lack of proper poise and support.
While they are slumped, it is as if they only have the background tension of their second finger lying on top of the poise of their little finger, without the effort of the third finger or the compensation of the forth. If they were able to remove the layer of tension, their natural coordination would start to work automatically again. Occasionally it needs a little encouragement to be reassured that it can now move the person around without being restricted and interfered with, but as soon as it realises it has its freedom again, it will pick the person up again, lightly, naturally and easily.
Fuller definition of the technique
So a fuller definition of the technique would be:
A way of thinking
that can remove the layers of unconscious habitual interference, effort and tension
in order to allow your natural poise, buoyancy and coordination to function again freely.