F. Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian actor and teacher. He originally developed the Alexander Technique as a method of vocal training for singers and actors in the 1890s. While Alexander was developing his method of voice training, he realized that the basis for all successful vocal education was an efficiently and naturally functioning respiratory mechanism. So, in teaching voice, Alexander focused primarily on helping the breathing mechanism to function more effectively. Because of his focus on “reeducating” the breathing mechanism, some of Alexander's students, who had come to him for vocal training, found that their respiratory difficulties also improved. These improvements were recognized by medical doctors who began referring their patients with respiratory ailments to Alexander for help. In this way, F.M. Alexander's technique of vocal training developed into a technique he termed “respiratory re-education.”
Alexander had also made the discovery that breathing and vocalization are part and parcel of how the body functions as a whole. Habitual breathing and vocal patterns are parts of habitual patterns of general coordination. In fact, many problems we see as involving just one particular part of the body, e.g. lower back pain and “RSI,” are often symptoms of larger habitual patterns of malcoordination.
Just as people had found Alexander's “vocal” technique helped them with their breathing problems, so a number of his students found his method of respiratory re-education helped them with other physical difficulties. Basically, Alexander had evolved a method for learning how to consciously change maladaptive habits of coordination. (Coordination includes movement, posture, breathing, and tension patterns.) He had come to the understanding that the mind and body function as an integrated entity, a rather unusual realization for that time.
Alexander found that habits, whether “physical” habits or “mental” habits, are all psychophysical in nature. He observed that how we think about our activities determines how we coordinate ourselves to do those activities, and, equally, how long-held habits of excessive tension and inefficient coordination affect how we feel and think. In a relatively short period of time, Alexander evolved his technique from a method of vocal training into a method of breathing reeducation and then into a comprehensive technique of psychophysical reeducation. His technique deals with the psychophysical coordination of the whole person, or what he termed more concisely as “the use of the self.”
F. Matthias Alexander
Though the child or adult may eventually sense that something is wrong with his movement, posture, or other aspects of his functioning, his senses involved in coordination (proprioception) have become so altered by his habits that he finds he can't rely on these senses when he tries to make changes and improvements. The on-going interference of his habits may be causing him excessive and constant stress but the child or adult finds it difficult to “stop” his habits because they feel familiar and “right” to him.
In the following two photos of children, the older child has established habits that interfere with his natural coordination and cause him to slouch and use excessive tension as he holds a phone. His habits feel familiar and “right” to him. In contrast, the younger child's natural use has not been interfered with by habits. Notice her naturally lengthened back and neck as she easily bends forward to hold of the block.
Try to breathe from high up in your chest or from low down in your abdomen. Try walking or moving your arms while you breathe in one of these ways. Do you walk or move your arms differently when you change your breathing? Or make a conscious effort to change the way you walk or the way you hold your neck, or try clenching your arms: Do these efforts affect your breathing or your voice? What if these were habitual efforts—efforts which you made all the time but you were unaware that you were making them? We do make habitual excessive efforts most of the time, but we are generally unaware of making them. Excessive stress in one part of the body is usually part of a larger pattern of habitual malcoordination.
Changing chronic-tension habits that interfere with healthy functioning can be difficult without an effective method to guide the process. The Alexander Technique is such a method: it provides a unique means to restore the effortless and natural movement, breathing, and posture that we enjoyed as young children. It teaches a practical and remarkably effective process for choosing healthier responses to the stresses of daily life, thereby revitalizing the innate sense of easy and efficient coordination that is our birthright.
To schedule an Alexander Technique lesson or to find out more about the Alexander Technique, contact the Alexander Technique Center.: Emaiil firstname.lastname@example.org; Phone: 703-821-2920. Our website also has much more information; please see the index link at the top of this page.
Recommended Reading: The Alexander Technique: Freedom in Thought and Action by Tasha Miller and David Langstroth. The first chapter is available for a free download from Alexander Technique Atlantic. Audio download is available from cdbaby. Nous Publishing, 2007. ISBN 9780973978629.
© 1995, 1999, 2004, 2009, 2013, 2015 Marian Goldberg
Alexander Technique: The Insiders’ Guide
Website maintained by Marian Goldberg
Alexander Technique Center of Washington, DC
“Between the three of us [Tinbergen, wife, and daughter], we already notice with growing amazement, very striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures, and also in such a refined skill as playing a stringed instrument.” –Scientist Nikolaas Tinbergen discussing the Alexander Technique in his Nobel Prize Address in Physiology/Medicine