Alexander Technique: “giving Nature her opportunity”

Why might you try the Alexander Technique?

Those that have come across the Alexander Technique often say it’s ‘something to do with posture’. However, it’s actually something deeper: a pro-active way of dealing with the stresses and strains of everyday life.
So why might you try the Alexander Technique? Its effects can be both transformational and empowering. Studies show that it impacts on everything from back pain and muscle tension to freer movement, improved mood, confidence, performance and (yes) posture.
Read more from our guest blogger, Henry George (Bristol-based Alexander Technique teacher) about this Integrative Healthcare tool.
Challenging beliefs about posture

‘Pull your shoulders back!’
‘Sit up straight!’
‘Work on your core!’

These are often the kind of messages people hear about how to improve their posture. And yet each of these messages contradict what scientists actually know about how posture works.

Firstly, our postural system is so automatic that instructions to voluntarily hold positions are not going to fundamentally change it. For example, you may have had the experience of trying to ‘do’ good posture only to return to a slump seconds later.

Secondly, it is unhelpful to think of good posture as fundamentally about position. For example, two people could be in the same position, and yet one could be holding it freely and lightly, and the other could be wracked with tension.

Finally, we should be sceptical of the idea that the ‘core’ needs to be strengthened for good posture. This is because most of the time posture requires very low levels of muscle activity: typically between 2 and 5 per cent of the maximum.

The Alexander Technique as a preventive solution

The Alexander Technique understands posture very differently to most disciplines. It is a preventive educational method, and so is a key tool in the Integrative Medicine toolbox. And although it was developed over a hundred years ago, it is remarkably in tune with the latest scientific research.

At its heart is a simple idea: if you can unlearn the habits which cause you harmful tension, you’ll rediscover your natural poise. Essentially, the Technique helps us become skilled at preventing harmful habits interfering in our postural system.

The result is greater ease and freedom in everyday tasks, and enhanced skill in more challenging activities like music-making, sports or public speaking.

Clinical trials show how beneficial the Alexander Technique is for people with back and neck pain, and for people with Parkinson’s disease.

People are also often pleasantly surprised how the Alexander Technique impacts on aspects of their lives unrelated to the physical pain they may have first presented with. In fact, many people come for lessons not to deal with pain but for self-development.

Emotional and Psychological benefits of the Alexander Technique

Imagine being able to reduce or eliminate the habits that cause you muscle pain and tension. Imagine also that you had become aware for the first time of your reactions to life’s stresses, and how you can prevent them: for example, by giving yourself choice over whether you tighten your shoulders, collapse your torso, clench your jaw or hold your breath.

These are the kind of freedoms which the Alexander Technique offers, and it is no surprise that people who learn it notice emotional benefits. One explanation is that reduced negative emotions are related to reduced muscle tension, and that states such as being calm and confident are related to other more ‘open’ postural patterns. This is in line with the Technique’s core principle of mind-body unity.

The Alexander Technique also has other psychological benefits. People experience a more holistic sense of self, better relationships and a greater sense of control over their lives when they are able to deal with unconscious and unhelpful habit patterns.

Origins of the Alexander Technique

Remarkably, the Alexander Technique originated over a hundred years ago when an Australian actor, FM Alexander, was facing career-ending vocal problems. After receiving little help from the medical profession, he set about trying to discover whether his own habits were causing the issue.

Working with his brother, Alexander devised a hands-on method for preventing tension patterns interfering in people’s overall functioning.

One of the Technique’s cornerstones is the idea of non-doing. This involves pausing to prevent habitual reactions and allow release and rebalancing instead. This is why Alexander once described his work as “giving Nature her opportunity” and he is often quoted as saying “the right thing does itself”.

What to expect in an Alexander Technique lesson

People tend to come to their first Alexander Technique lesson with limited awareness of how they move and function in everyday life. The reasons are myriad, but stress is certainly one factor. Under stress, we tend to narrow both our attention and our physical selves down to the task at hand, and don’t focus on how we’re doing something. This means that our awareness of our whole self in relation to what we’re doing can get neglected.

The job of the Alexander Technique teacher is to help people recognize their restrictive habitual patterns of thought and behaviour. Teachers have a skilled use of their hands which can give people a profound, embodied experience of themselves that is beyond their habits.

This experience of coordinating well as a whole person is the start of the fascinating process of learning the Alexander Technique. Over time, the client (sometimes referred to as a student) is able to link up their experiences in lessons with a new way of thinking.

In other words, clients can retrain their nervous systems to proactively embody freedom and ease in themselves without the need for the teacher’s hands-on guidance.

Although people can feel quite different after even a single lesson, the Alexander Technique is a skill and takes time to learn. Most teachers would therefore recommend a set of at least six lessons to begin to apply the Technique for themselves.

A modern scientific theory for the Alexander Technique

Recently, a group of scientists proposed a new model of the Alexander Technique based on the available evidence. This model suggested that improvements to postural tone and body schema give rise to the benefits of the Technique already alluded to.

Postural tone is the ongoing muscular activity that supports us against gravity and other forces. There is evidence that the Alexander Technique helps postural tone become more adaptable and distributed differently throughout the body.

Body schema is the brain’s map of one’s body parts in space. The theory suggests that the Alexander Technique fine-tunes that map.

This research is brought to life in the two minute animated video below.

Further information and finding a teacher

If the Alexander Technique sounds like something you’d like to try, then you can find a qualified Alexander Technique teacher near you through the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique website.

Further reading:

Science of Posture
Emotional and psychological benefits of the Alexander Technique
Research into the Alexander Technique

About the author

Henry George is an Alexander Technique teacher based in Bristol. He oversaw the production of the animated science video of the Alexander Technique on behalf of the FM Alexander Trust.