F M Alexander, who founded the Alexander Technique, was born 150 years ago this year. But who was he and what are the key ideas behind his work?
Observing himself in the mirror
Born in 1869, he was an Australian actor and reciter. As a young man he developed voice problems when appearing on stage. Medical specialists were of little help and he came close to giving up his performing career. So he started to look for his own solution by observing himself in the mirror.
He began to see that he used too much tension in his head and neck when he recited. But it also seemed to be part of a wider pattern throughout his body. By stopping what he usually did, he discovered a new and easier way to speak and breathe. The difficulties with his voice disappeared and his health and general functioning improved. He was able to return to acting and began to teach other people his methods.
Teaching in London
In 1904 he moved to London where he established a thriving teaching practice. Many eminent medical, literary and society names came to work with him. He taught in the USA at various stages, published four books and opened a small school based on his principles. In 1931 he set up the first three-year training course for teachers in what is now the Alexander Technique. Despite a stroke in 1947 he was able to recover and continued teaching until his death in 1955 at the age of 86.
Use, habit and awareness
Over time F M Alexander developed a number of principles which formed the bedrock of his technique. A key one is the idea of use – what we do constantly in all our activities. We each have an individual, usually habitual, pattern of how we use ourselves. This affects how we move, breathe, react, think and function. Our use can support or hinder us in daily activities, but it’s not fixed and can change. It was Alexander’s ‘misuse’ that caused his voice problem. “My doing was my undoing” he said.
As Alexander realised from looking in the mirror, what we think we do is often different from reality. So becoming more aware of our use is important, as well as paying attention to how we act, rather than going straight for what we want to do.
Head, neck and back working together
Central to improving our use is another key principle – what Alexander came to call the primary control. This is the dynamic relationship between the head, neck and back. When it’s working well we have a lengthened, rather than compressed, spine, with our head moving freely on top. As a result we have a postural freedom with fluid and integrated movement.
But before we begin to move or do anything we need to learn to pause. This brief moment of stopping – known by Alexander as inhibition – gives us time to prevent our automatic reactions from taking over. Then by using thinking to direct our head, neck and back, we begin to find a new way of moving that involves less muscular effort.
Alexander made no distinction between body and mind. He saw them working as one integrated unit – the self. So thinking and movement are inseparable and any change flows through the whole of us.
Photo: Diana Watson Monument Australia website
A practical technique with wide applications
F M Alexander was the grandchild of convicts who were deported to Tasmania. As a premature baby he only just survived his early months of life in a frontier town, and found school difficult. But he lived in a time and place where self-reliance, observation, practical skills and common sense were valued. Working with and observing animals, particularly horses, was part and parcel of life.
So it’s no surprise he was able to come up with his own solution to his voice problem and then develop it as a practical technique with wider applications. On his death in 1955 it wasn’t obvious what his long-term legacy would be. But the ‘fundamental facts about functional human movement’ commemorated on the plaque above near his birthplace have stood the test of time.
I’m taking a break from this blog for a while as I complete the final term of my training. But I look forward to continuing the Alexander story in a different way when I return.
Fear of falling affects all of us at times, specially in winter. But reacting by tensing up is not the answer as it alters our balance, affecting stability and making us more likely to fall. This was clear when I visited two of London’s pop-up ice rinks over the Christmas holidays.
Anxious skaters were hesitant and stiff, intent only on keeping upright. As they tensed, their weight shifted. This put them off balance and they became more unstable. By contrast confident skaters moved in a fluid and poised way. They were more springy and supple, allowing their balance to look after itself. They had energy and time to take in their surroundings, which in turn helped with stability.
Fluid and effortless movement
At Somerset House the most skilful skaters were the ice marshals, easy to spot in fluorescent jackets. They were everywhere at once, swooping in whenever a skater took a tumble. They floated round, upright and alert, eyes taking in their surroundings. For them skating on ice seemed as natural as walking on grass.
At the Tower of London one skater stood out for her easy flowing style. She skated forwards and backwards with equal grace, turning and stopping to let her two less confident friends catch up. Like the ice marshals, she looked up and out, aware of her position on the ice and the space around her. And bending at the hips, knees and ankles she used her body’s natural spirals to skate round, shifting her weight onto each leg with fluid co-ordination.
Children falling without fear
The Polar Bear Club was in a separate space reserved for under-8s. Here there was falling but no fear. Every minute, it seemed, children collapsed on to the ice. But by holding on to the weighted bears they stood right back up and continued to skate.
Falling was part of the experience and the fun. No-one tensed up or got hurt and the adults encouraged and assisted. As Olympic ice dance champion Christopher Dean put it “The Christmas pop-ups are a really good taster. Especially for kids, who don’t tend to see the fear in it that adults can.”
Tensing up affects balance and stability
Back at the main rink the disco beat urged skaters round. But fear of falling made it hard for some even to step onto the ice. Then, once on the rink, some clung to the side, easing round by hand. “Keep your glove on, Emily!” yelled a protective but unhelpful dad, as Emily tensed her shoulders and gripped the barrier.
Fear of falling is not just a problem when we skate. Cycling on muddy ground recently I noticed that I tensed my legs the minute I moved off the path and onto the mud. As soon as I let go of the tension I felt more balanced and in control of my bike. It can also be a common response to ageing, pain, post-op recovery or just moving on an unfamiliar surface like ice or mud. What was clear as I watched the skaters was that tensing up to guard against a fall only made a tumble more likely.
Details of a small pilot study showing the positive effects of the Alexander Technique on older people with a fear of falling.
I’ve bought a skeleton. He was hiding behind four gilded ornamental pineapples in a dingy corner of a local auction house. His plastic bones were hanging in the right order, he was moveable and, like most anatomical skeletons, male. (Female versions are rare and cost an arm and a leg). He was silent but we had an instant connection.
Making a bid
Browsing in an auction house was tricky, like a game of three-dimensional poker. I was a novice, so took my cue from others. It seemed communal yet competitive, sociable but filled with low cunning. Some bidders gave off an air of unconcern, as if out for a Sunday stroll. Others honed in at once on their target, chatting in hushed tones to decide on a price.
There was only one skeleton in the sale and others might want him. How much was he worth to me? I knew I’d find him useful, but didn’t mind if he went elsewhere. Best to treat it like a game where the outcome didn’t matter. So I studied a telescope, a yellow diving helmet and a silent pair of peacocks hoping to throw rivals off the musty scent of sternum and femur. Then I made a nonchalant foray into pineapple corner to settle on my bid.
Internal body map
When I started having Alexander lessons my internal body map was, at best, sketchy. I hadn’t paid much attention to skeletal structure since school biology lessons with Mr Brodie. Where my bones and joints were, what they did or how they moved was not important knowledge. Or so I thought.
But without a body map I had no sense of what was possible and moved in a more compressed and restricted way than I needed to. With Alexander work my body map has become more accurate. My movement is now more in harmony with my joints and internal structure rather than ignoring or working against them. Seeing a life-size skeleton during Alexander lessons and training has been part of this process. Without doubt the plastic figure behind the pineapples could be of use.
Looking after my skeleton
My auction house strategies were successful. No-one else bid, and I secured the skeleton at a modest price. “He’s a good dancer” laughed the receptionist. “We’ve enjoyed having him around”. So the next challenge was to escort him home.
He blinked as we emerged into the sunlight and paused, uncertain. We set off uphill. An arm (his) fell off. I stopped, picked it up and carried on. A black cab came to a sudden halt as I wheeled him on creaking castors over the zebra crossing.
Crowds parted as we continued and two waiters at a pavement cafe laid down steaming spaghetti meatballs for a quick selfie. We made stately progress onward to my front door and I invited him in.
I’ve repaired his arm and re-aligned his hip joints. He’s definitely not just for Christmas. Both he and my own skeleton are for life. I need to take care of both of us now.
Written in Term 8 of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher.
Don’t try this at home. Palindrome 2003 by William Cobbing (Wellcome Collection)
As a child, six nearly seven, I arrived in the UK by sea from another continent. King Neptune dipped me under water as I crossed the equator for the first time. Each evening the adults dined and danced in formal dress while I slept beneath the porthole. Every morning a cabin attendant in a starched white jacket woke us with a tray of tea and crisp biscuits.
Flying fish leapt from the waves and dolphins followed our wake. We stopped in the Canary Islands where I bought an embroidered postcard of a Spanish flamenco dancer. Vibrant silk thread sparkled on the flounces of her skirt and I held her close like a talisman.
After two weeks at sea a tug hooted as it brought us in to dock. We waited on shore while a crane lifted our battered Vauxhall Velox from the hold and laid it like a toy on the quayside. My father turned the key in the ignition and we drove north for a new life. Our possessions, crammed into splintering tea chests in the hold, followed on. And I clutched my Spanish postcard.
Learning to dance
Within months I was dancing the Dashing White Sergeant and saw snow for the first time. My mother wrote a weekly letter home on crinkly airmail paper and learned how to make shortbread. At Christmas my father, the youngest of seven and back after many years abroad, led the singsong as his siblings gathered round the piano.
Beyond Time by Chiharu Shiota, Yorkshire Sculpture Park 2018
So I became Scottish and British and European, speaking new languages and adapting to the rhythms and steps of countries not my own. Finally I settled in London, at home in a city with a tidal river where everyone comes from somewhere else.
Many years have passed since that tug guided us in and I stepped onto dry land to dance to adulthood. I wish I’d found the Alexander Technique earlier, then maybe my passage through life would have been more expansive and comfortable. But these past few years I’ve returned to sea on a different kind of voyage. I’m again far from my embarkation point and heading for unknown territory. Somewhere beyond the equator my old choreography melted into the deep and something smoother and more graceful took its place.
Dancing to a new rhythm
Now as I approach the shore, I reach for a flamenco talisman again. But I no longer need to hold on. My internal silken threads have untangled. Like the act of breathing, an exchange has taken place out at sea and what was outside has come within.
The landing point is still a way off but I hear its music through the mist. That rhythm is infectious and my feet are tapping. Soon I’ll leave my sea legs behind and be ready to join the dance.
Written in Term 8 of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher
Vitality and poise are two key benefits I’ve had from learning the Alexander Technique. I hadn’t expected this (though I’m sure my teachers did). I’d gone for greater mobility and relief from back pain. Both duly arrived as my head, neck and back began to work together in a more integrated way. Now other rewards have started to come through. One is that I’m more self-possessed with a greater zest for life.
Expanding and breathing
I’m more aware of vitality and poise in the world at large too, and found both on a recent visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park . Here monumental pieces – stone, bronze, iron, wood, even string – animated the landscape. Many were of the human figure or about movement, almost alive yet with an inner stillness. Despite their size I felt they could easily come to life and swap places after closing time.
Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore
The Family of Man by Barbara Hepworth
I puzzled over what was different here from any other gallery. Barbara Hepworth, born in nearby Wakefield, gave me some clues. She wrote of sculpture as “something still and yet having movement, so very quiet and yet with a real vitality”. But being outdoors was also important:
“I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe.”
Playful vitality and mindful poise
Visitors too seemed more energetic, lively and engaged than in many indoor spaces. No tired ‘museum feet’ here. Instead some had hiking poles and set off briskly round the lake trails. Family groups argued about the best routes. And round every sculpture people gathered in twos and threes. They discussed, chatted, wondered what it was all about or just enjoyed the cracking Yorkshire view.
Later I picked up two of the park leaflets. One of them – 50 Ways to Play – suggested you “play with our art and nature to lift your spirits, enjoy your day and test all your senses”. The second listed Well-being events, including sessions called Still Looking and Room to Breathe. These encouraged you to “think deeply, move mindfully and connect with nature” while engaging with art and with others. I discovered the park has an Art and Well-being Coordinator who is herself an artist interested in walking and mindfulness.
Expect the unexpected
All in all it was a satisfying place to visit. It encouraged visitors to discover a playful vitality in themselves, while moving through the sculptures and landscape with mindful poise. My trip to Yorkshire was to see the sculptures. But like my experience with the Alexander Technique, what I found when I got there was deeper, more interesting and worth going back for.
Written during Term 8 of my Alexander Technique teacher training.
Network by Thomas J Price
One and Other by Antony Gormley
Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink
Wilsis by Jaume Plensa
Large Two Forms by Henry Moore
Luggage, like people, comes in all shapes and sizes. It takes care and thought to maintain good body use and alignment as you carry it. The Alexander Technique has helped me during many train journeys this summer so I spent a morning at London’s Kings Cross station to see how other travellers handle their baggage while on the move.
Coping with different kinds of luggage
It was like stepping onto a bustling film set as random extras streamed through from all sides. Taking refuge on the balcony I saw silent dramas playing out below. A tired musician eased his instrument slowly to the floor beside a bulky case and backpack. Three businessmen claimed floor space with legs wide and baggage at arms’ length. A men’s sports team in sponsored tracksuits milled round kitbags, laughing and sharing phones. “Cycling, skateboarding and roller-skating are not permitted on the station concourse” boomed the loudspeaker.
Straining, twisting and tensing
Many travellers, I could see, were carrying vast amounts of luggage. In fact they struggled to cope, yet somehow expected to manage it all. Some carried bags lightly and evenly balanced. Many more had them hitched on one shoulder, tensing and twisting. There were some with backpacks tucked snugly high up. Others had left the straps loose and the weight low, risking strain as the bags dragged them down.
Support from spine and feet
I noticed my own habitual patterns of body use repeated on the station floor. For many years I stood with the weight dropped into one hip, pressing down more on one side of my body. At the time it seemed comfortable and normal. In reality my spine and feet were not fully supporting me. I was twisting and distorting myself, leading to long-term back pain.
Some passengers stood with feet crossed over at the knee or ankle. But they quickly shifted position as discomfort set in. Several leaned forwards or sideways onto suitcase handles rather than supporting their own weight.
Phones a distraction
Almost every hand held a phone as people passed the time online. Some glanced up occasionally to check on their train, others had eyes only for the screen. Then, as I took photos, I heard a thud next to me. A precious backpack had slipped off my neighbour’s shoulders to the ground. He walked away, unaware, still filming on his phone.
Thinking more about body use
Since learning the Alexander Technique I’ve had relief from back pain and can manage travel and luggage better. So now I pack less, allow more time and think differently about how I move. I pay more attention to my length, width and breathing. I understand the cumulative impact on the whole body of compressing or twisting any one part. In addition my feet make more equal contact with the floor, I stop more often and I’m less worried about arriving on time.
Change of focus
Overall my focus has changed so I think more about my own body use, even with a train to catch. This summer I’ve had to contend with disrupted journeys. Lightning took out a signal box, a tractor and tree collided beside the line and timetable changes ushered in mass cancellations. Mostly I’ve still reached my destination. Almost certainly I’ve arrived lighter, calmer and with less strain than before.
Written in Term 8 of my Alexander Teacher training