What makes the Alexander Technique unique?

Photograph of lots of oranges plus one grapefruit
Image courtesy of Kh-Ali-Li

Sometimes when I’m giving a first Alexander lesson, people say things like ‘Oh, it’s a bit like mindfulness isn’t it?’ What makes something unique is often not one specific thing but the sum of all of its different aspects. That is certainly true of the Alexander Technique.

As a method for behavioural change, the Alexander Technique has some parallels with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), and for physiological change, with biofeedback. On the other hand, as a means of building ‘inner’ strength it has some similarities with pilates. Yet again, in the calm, peaceful mind, poise and free flowing movement that it enables, it may resemble T’ai Chi or Qi Gong. The fact that there are parallels between the Alexander Technique and such diverse disciplines may be something in itself that is intriguing.

The Alexander Technique is a very practical method for life-long skills in self-care and self-development. While FM Alexander developed his method more than 100 years ago, his insights into the complexities of the human condition and its potentialities remain ground-breaking. One way of beginning to understand the Alexander Technique is to think about the underlying principles that embody Alexander’s life’s work. So, here I attempt to bring together his set of principles in a way that encompasses his insights and resultant practice. Taken all together as a whole, these principles constitute the uniqueness of the Alexander Technique. Just to note that, in the present day, FM Alexander’s own terminology can appear somewhat archaic, so I’ve put such terminology in italics – however, the actual meaning is as relevant as ever.

Firstly, how did the Alexander Technique come about? FM Alexander developed his method in order to solve a problem that was threatening his career as an actor, as he kept losing his voice. Over time he came to understand that what was causing his problem was himself (albeit totally inadvertently) but also, after much practical exploration, he discovered how to remedy it. A later revelation was that neither the root cause of his issues, nor how to resolve them, were specific to him but instead were universal in nature to most people.

Alexander’s first insight was that the way in which we do anything and everything in life (think, move, sit, breathe etc – in its totality we could call this the way we use ourselves) has a profound effect, for good or ill, on our long-term health and well-being (Use affects functioning).

So, if the way in which we use ourselves is causing problems for us, then we might well want to change that. However, in order to achieve significant and sustained change, we first need to overcome our tendency to over-focus on our immediate goal, usually trying really hard to get there in what seems to be the most direct way possible (Endgaining). We tend not to give much thought to how we might actually best achieve our goal, but this is what the Alexander Technique gives us, as we learn how to recognise and lessen our usual endgaining attitude, becoming more present, purposeful and mindful of ourselves as we carry out our intentions, achieving our goals (Means whereby).

A second barrier to making empowering change is our dominant tendency, at any and every time, to be overly guided by our senses or feelings (our Sensory appreciation). To rely predominantly on our perceptions of ourselves and the world would probably have been a brilliant strategy in our evolutionary/pre-industrialisation past. However, we are now living in a world that is much more complex than the one that we evolved for. This makes it really hard to make sense of the myriad sense/feeling information that floods our brains second by second, being able to keep track in a meaningful way, so that we can look after ourselves while simultaneously doing everything we need to do in life. Something has to give – it’s not easy to pay attention to everything all the same time. So, we develop habits or, in other words, automatic ways of doing things that shouldn’t need too much (if any) intellectual input. However, what this translates to in practice is that what feels right to us in any moment becomes simply our habitual way of thinking/being/doing, and then continues to ‘feel right’ for ever more. Although this may generally have served us really well in the past, it is no longer the case in the post-industrial world that we find ourselves in. So, unfortunately, because of the way in which we have adapted ourselves to the rather artificial environment that we have created, our habitual way of doing (carrying out any activity), of being (e.g. our posture), or of thinking (e.g. ‘I should…’, or ‘what if…’), often involves unnecessary mental, and physical over-activity such as effort and tension, combined with sub-optimal coordination, balance and postural support (if we always ‘over-do’ we don’t need to be aware because we can be sure that the effort will suffice).  

Faced with these challenges of how we tend to operate in the world, FM Alexander was hugely prescient in realising that our mind and body are not just linked but inseparable (Psychophysical unity). All thoughts, beliefs and preconceptions will play out in the physical self in, for example, the quality of movement, the degree of muscle tension, breathing and posture. Our thinking is powerful! Similarly, our ‘physical state’ impacts directly on our thoughts and emotions. This is the source of our ‘downfall’ but also the route to our ‘salvation’.

Alexander first found a solution to his own voice and breathing issues, but the universality of his discovery means that the principal route to addressing any human problem is always the same – it’s primarily to improve the overall working of the whole self (Psychophysical unity again). What Alexander discovered is that, central to this overall working is an integrated, dynamic relationship between a person’s head and spine (Primary control). Well-coordinated movement is characterised by such a relationship and it can often be observed in young children, many talented sportspeople, in animals, and also in adults who have grown up in non-industrialised cultures in which people spend less time being sedentary and performing repetitive tasks.

FM Alexander discovered how to harness the power of our thinking skills to bring about the change that we desire. He discovered that, with practice, we can stop and prevent our usual, automatic/habitual reaction to any stimulus (Inhibition). This gives us choice over whether and how we want to respond, moment by moment in our everyday life. On a more general level it involves gradually quietening our whole neuro-muscular system – our whole self.

Hand in hand with this skill of inhibition, he realised how we can usefully bring conscious awareness and attention to our embodied self, including how and where we are in relation to our surroundings (Direction). Directions are thoughts that are largely spatial in nature and aim to promote an enlivened postural support system and balanced, coordinated movement. The awareness of our embodied presence is integral to enhancing a sense of self and tends to lead to a calmer state of being.

Taken all together as a whole, these principles are what render the Alexander Technique unique. So yes, it’s possible to perceive elements of the principles in other disciplines: for example, Inhibition in mindfulness, and Direction in idiokinesis as well as in practices such as T’ai Chi. However, combined together they constitute something magical, empowering, transformative and unique.   

I believe there are two additional features that contribute to the uniqueness of the Alexander Technique. One is the distinctive way in which it is usually taught, with a highly specialised gentle, hands-on contact, combined with dialogue and spoken guidance. The sense of ease, lightness, and wellbeing that people usually feel after a lesson, is enabled largely by the unique character of guidance, acceptance and care that is communicated through the hands. An Alexander teacher builds each lesson around conveying and employing the principles described above, and in a way that is most meaningful and helpful to the individual student at the time.

The second additional feature contributing to the uniqueness of the Alexander Technique is its nature – it is not an activity or exercise to fit into your weekly schedule. Instead, it is a powerful approach that you can choose to use wherever you want, in any activity or aspect of life – and whenever you want, up to each and every second of every day. It is so fundamental to our responsiveness, agency, movement coordination and balance that you can choose to use it for literally anything – to enhance your yoga or T’ai Chi practice, to plan your week ahead, to sit at your desk more comfortably, or get you through that visit to the dentist!

Do get in touch if you would like to find out more about the extraordinary thing that is the Alexander Technique.