What is the Alexander Technique?
It is the re-education of movement for mind and body. This is taught hands on with the pupil directly from the teacher. So it is a shared work between pupil and teacher in the activity. We are learning to move with appropriate tension. It's more about doing less of what is inappropriate rather doing something right. It's about balance and poise in movement. The main thing about the Technique is the combination of mindful movement that is thinking in the activity. This is making the connection between mind and body in action.
How many lessons does it take?
This is a very individual thing, however normally you can start with between 10 to 20 lessons to start to understand the technique and apply it yourself to everyday life. We are talking about changing habitual movement patterns. A habit takes about 20 repetitions to become a habit.
So what are the principles behind this technique?
The head, neck and back relationship is the first principle of the technique. If our head is not balanced freely on the top of the neck then we will be engaging muscles in an unnecessary way to hold the head up, stiffen or pull it back and down. The head needs to be balanced freely on the top of the neck and anything we do to interfere with this natural relationship between will impede upon the natural use of the other body mechanisms. The body mechanism is designed and programmed to balance ourselves. So if we apply inappropriate tension, then our system will respond, counterbalancing by creating tension in another part of the body. This makes it harder to understand exactly where the tension is originating.
This was one of FM Alexander’s first discoveries. Unnecessary tension created by interference at the neck, is counterbalanced by the rest of the spine to accommodate for the interference. The lower down the spine we go, the created tension, is increased in magnitude as the spine increases in size, creating additional tension throughout the entire body.
The second principle is that our faulty sensory perception cannot be relied upon to give us correct feed back about what we are doing. Through years of misuse or accumulated tension in the body. Our sensory mechanism can go wrong and we will not even know it or be aware of it until later when maybe we experience some pain or backache or repetitive strain injury. This is normally the stage when a pupil will look for help.
So what is our sensory mechanism?
It is the messages to the brain from the muscles via the network of muscle spindles contained within our muscle fibres, and vice versa. This is a simple system in its initial creation, however the connection with the brain quickly becomes an increasingly amazing complex system as we grow and develop movement. Each simple movement becomes a neural network or pattern in the brain. Increasingly these networks interconnect to become sequences of movements. These interconnecting patterns quickly become part of an extremely complex system, for every simple movement with the body, such as standing up or sitting down. These patterns quickly become automatic, we no longer have to think about them, allowing us as humans to adapt and change rapidly to changing situations.
So what can go wrong with this?
If I tense a muscle unnecessarily the spindle in the muscle sends a chemical message to the brain to register I have changed the tension in my arm muscle. Now if I do nothing to reduce this tension over time, there is one of two things that can happen. Either the brain stops registering this as a change (it now registers this tension as normal) or it even ignores this message coming from the muscle spindle. Now the muscle is tense, but my brain no longer acknowledges it. If I now contract this muscle even more it can prevent the messages being sent to the brain. Extreme over contraction of the muscle can prevent the muscle spindle from working.
How do we reduce tension?
In Alexander Technique terms it is our habitual response to the stimulation that can cause us to make our own activity such a great feat of endurance or stress that we really feel we have achieved something very great. However this additional stress response created by endgaining normally impairs our performance of the activity. How many fantastic players have failed to win the Wimbledon finals this is perfect example, its frequently a newcomer who wins and why? Because they have the mindset of not wanting to win but just to enjoy the game because they don't expect to win, so there is nothing to lose, they have given up their endgaining. The more experienced player has a lot to lose, this endgaining pressure can cost them the match they so want to win.
In FM's terms its about being in the activity and choosing how we want to do it, not about responding to our usual habitual way of doing things. This is the principle of the conscious freedom of choice, we have a stimulus we can choose to respond to it, or we can in that split second inhibit our habitual response. This gives us a window of opportunity to respond in a different way.
So what can I expect from a lesson?
The teacher will help a pupil to learn new patterns of movement with gentle guidance using the hands and explanations and observation of what is happening in the movement. A balanced state in simple movements made with awareness and a renewed ease is the aim of the lessons. Go to your first lesson with an open mind and see what happens. I can't tell you what your own experience will be as we are all individuals and everyone’s individual experience will be different.