What Is It?
The Alexander technique is a method of movement and alignment that teaches people to use their bodies more efficiently. It helps individuals improve their posture, let go of muscle tension, and move with greater ease. The goal of this technique is to eradicate such poor habits as slouching and tensing (which can lead to pain, decreased mobility, and other health problems) and replace them with good postural habits.
The originator of this technique was Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian actor who suffered bouts of hoarseness on stage. When medications and rest failed to help him, Alexander found his career in jeopardy. Using mirrors, he observed that the way he lowered his head and tensed his neck muscles when he recited his lines was restricting his vocal cords. He realized these habits were so ingrained that they had probably become second nature to him. He worked hard to correct his posture, and found that when he did so his voice was restored. Based on this personal success, Alexander created his eponymous technique around 1896 and published his first book about it, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, around 1910.
Alexander was so successful that other actors and artists, George Bernard Shaw among them, sought his help. Eventually he stopped acting and created a formal program to promote his method. Today the Alexander technique is taught all over the world. Many performing arts schools incorporate Alexander’s precepts into their curricula, and athletes also use it to help prevent injury. In addition, people suffering from back problems and other types of chronic pain have turned to Alexander’s methods to ease their discomfort and to improve postural habits.
How Does It Work?
The philosophy behind the Alexander technique is that the correct relationship between the head, neck, and spine is critical to good health. Proponents of the technique call this three-way relationship “primary control” because they believe it is key to maintaining proper posture, breath, and movement.
An incorrect position of the head in relation to the neck and spine, for example, can create muscle tension and cause pain. Once a person’s head, neck, and spine are brought into proper alignment, however, the rest of the body should “fall into place.” Not only can muscle tension and pain be reduced, according to Alexander practitioners, but some bodily functions, such as breathing and movement, may become easier and more natural as well.
What You Can Expect
You can learn the Alexander technique privately or as part of a group. At a lesson, which lasts about 45 minutes, the instructor will observe the way you walk, stand, sit, lie, and bend. (You should wear loose clothing so you won’t feel restricted.) You will be coached to relax your neck muscles so your head balances freely on top of your neck and allows your back to lengthen.
Through verbal instruction and gentle touch, the instructor will then teach you to improve your posture during a variety of everyday activities, such as sitting at a desk and talking on the phone. A poor habit, such as cradling the phone between your head and shoulder (which can put your neck out of alignment) will be replaced with a good habit, such as sitting upright with your shoulders straight while holding the phone to your ear.
Instructors, who are encouraged to be nonjudgmental and supportive, typically recommend one-on-one tutoring to tailor the Alexander technique more fully to your personal activities. If you are a dancer, for example, the instructor may work with you on improving your dance movements; if you are a tennis player, the teacher may coach you on maintaining proper form while you play.
The instructors then encourage you to apply what you have learned to events in your daily life. Gradually–sometimes with as few as six to eight lessons–students can begin to use their bodies more effectively.
Better body awareness and posture, improved coordination, decreased tension, and more efficient movement have all been credited to the Alexander technique. In addition, for many it improves overall physical and mental health.
People suffering from chronic neck and back pain, and other painful conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, report finding relief after learning the Alexander technique. Also, the technique may help stress-related problems such as migraines and anxiety attacks.
It is important to note that there have been very few science-based studies evaluating the Alexander technique, and therapeutic claims are primarily anecdotal.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Look for an instructor who is certified by the American Society for the Alexander Technique (AmSAT). To earn this certification, instructors must complete at least three years of training in the technique. You can find Chicago certified Alexander Technique instructors here.
When taught by a qualified instructor, the Alexander technique is safe for everyone, even pregnant women. In fact, many pregnant women report that the technique helps them adjust to the changes their bodies are going through and relieve some of the pressure their growing bellies are putting on their spines.