By David McCain

Alexander Technique is a subtle movement that opens joints and energy pathways. It gently extends the spine and leads to a feeling of ease and lightness. It is just a little movement that starts with the head and reduces physical stress throughout the body. Properly speaking it is a dynamic relationship of the head and neck in which the head moves freely from the neck. "The head leads and body follows." This simple statement encompasses the core principle of the Alexander Technique. The movement results in a feeling of ease, increased moving efficiency and greater mental clarity.

As simple as the process is, the application of Alexander Technique has profound effects. Releasing tension is very important in health and general well being. If the head doesn't move freely, that is if the head instead presses on the neck and spine, then a host of stressful problems in the body will likely result. Constant pressure and stress over a lifetime can create many chronic problems.

Alexander Technique is a movement, not an exercise. Moreover it can be applied readily to any activity. Nearly everyone can benefit from Alexander Technique. A new student will undergo movement re-education. This entails learning new postures and body movements that can be applied to ordinary activities at home and work. For instance, our natural capacity allows us to sit and work at a computer all day in a relaxed and easy manner. But many people get tired and drained after a short time. With the movement re-education of Alexander Technique the activities involved (sitting, typing, looking at the screen, etc.) are carefully considered. Specific stresses and tensions are examined. Then the teacher suggests new movements that follow the core principle of Alexander Technique. The student can expect that this approach and its new movements will take some time to fully integrate into daily life.

Traditionally the greatest numbers of students have come from the performing arts. Because the Technique promotes a refined sense of projection and environmental awareness as well as ease of movement, performers use it to gain optimal performance. Recently practitioners of Yoga, Tai Chi, Reiki, massage, and other healing arts have discovered the benefits of Alexander Technique. For these arts the Technique is most useful in promoting energy flow.

F. Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) was a young professional actor in his native Australia, when he starting having trouble by frequently losing his voice on stage. Physicians couldn't help him, so he studied himself and his movements using mirrors. He found that as he started to speak he made a movement of his head that increased pressure on his neck and vocal mechanism. This could be corrected with proper movement or proper "use of the self" as Alexander put it. Alexander recognized the importance of thinking in the process, and often spoke of the psychophysical self rather than the body.

F. M. Alexander also found that he could teach his discovery. First he taught his brother, A. R. Alexander. Then both of them moved to London, and they began teaching. There they had many students including some influential people. Both brothers also spent several years teaching in America. Eventually F. M. set up a teacher-training program in London. There are now many different training programs through out the world. Typically these training programs require several years of almost daily study to become a teacher.

A teacher is necessary in learning the Technique in the context of F. M. Alexander's understanding. The freedom and ease of movement of the type described by Alexander is a natural thing that everybody has experienced from time to time (especially as a child), but knowing how to achieve and maintain the movement of freedom is problematic for most people. An Alexander teacher guides with hands and verbal instruction. The standard approach is a one-hour individual lesson on a weekly basis for perhaps ten weeks in a beginning course. Group lessons can also be useful, especially for discussion and observation of the process in others. The model of practice is that of lesson, teacher and student. It is something the student learns for himself or herself as opposed to getting a treatment. By becoming conscious through words and kinesthetic feeling of the Alexander principle the student can apply the principle to any activity.

Although the natural movement of Alexander Technique is basically simple, the student will likely encounter some challenges in application. This is particularly true as the student encounters unconscious habits of movement, which are usually very tenacious. Practically everyone unconsciously develops habits of holding and stressful movement. Alexander Technique speaks of "use" and "misuse" of the body. When we follow the natural course of the body's movement, we gain proper use of the body. But if we follow old, habitual patterns of movement that produce unnecessary stress, we misuse the body. Gripping the steering wheel too tightly while driving is one example of misuse. Lifting a heavy box without proper body alignment is another.

Most movement habits usually have a much more subtle aspect than the above examples of misuse. Habitual patterns of breathing, for instance, contain many examples of misuse. Simple breathing at rest is probably something many people have never paid much attention to, yet it is actually accomplished with a great deal of movement. Many separate parts of the body must coordinate for the most effective breathing. Even seemingly lessor parts are important in breathing.

For example, the collarbone, which connects the breastbone and the shoulder joint, has several more significant movement functions besides breathing, yet it must move freely for optimal breathing. A common habit is holding the collarbone in a rather fixed or rigid position. The collarbone (or clavicle) has a rather unusual spiral shape, and the student who learns to move it freely must start with awareness of its basic movement then learn how to free up the movement for himself or herself. Finally, it is necessary to integrate the movement of the collarbone with movement of the whole body. Alexander Technique always considers the whole body, whole self. Thus movement re-education works to integrate specific parts and movements into the functions of the whole.

A curious aspect of freeing the head in movement is that it is entirely momentary. Typically an Alexander student will want to hold on to the wonderful new feeling, but this is impossible. Once freed the head immediately settles back into restriction. Learning Alexander Technique means learning to be very aware every moment and finding freedom moment by moment. If you think about it, this is not just a curious aspect, but a profound understanding of life. Living authentically in the moment is one of the greatest challenges all of us face.

I want to finish with an account of a young artist who came to me for fifteen lessons of Alexander Technique. The artist worked with oil paints on large canvasses, and he liked to paint far into the night with passion and abandon. The problem with this activity was that he got very tired just as his painting was reaching a peak of expression. Lack of sleep was not a problem, but his hand and arm got very tense, his breath became labored, and his back hurt badly. Of course we worked with many basic activities, such as breathing, standing and walking. But he readily took to two aspects of Alexander work – the mechanics of easier hand and finger movements and the opening of energy pathways. He played the guitar, so this activity was very useful for learning better use of the hands and fingers. He was also interested in energy flow, and with help he discovered the subtle movements that greatly open energy flow. Overall his change was remarkable, and I remember the first time he excitedly told me of how he painted all night with amazing creative energy and never got tired.