By Dr. Shirley Duckworth-Oates MSTAT. MATI, MBCA
The Alexander Technique today could possibly be termed as a form of postural re-education.
I don’t think any Alexander Teacher is happy with the word ‘posture’ but it is used to describe what we do all the time! Good movement is graceful and poised.
Poise is an optimal state of balance throughout a movement.
It will also be efficient, elegant and command a certain presence. It is not static – which the term posture implies. This is because it requires a certain awareness.
Don Weed (also a Chiropractor and Teacher of the Alexander Technique) described it beautifully when he wrote that the Alexander Technique could be described in three words: ‘Fred Estaire dancing’ (Weed, 1990).
History of the Alexander Technique
The Alexander Technique is over a hundred years old – innovated by a Tasmanian, Frederick Matthias Alexander in the early 1890s. He was a recitalist and actor who suffered from chronic voice problems which his doctor was unable to help him with. Eventually he ‘cured’ his voice problem by means of disciplined and persistent self-observation. Over a period of 8 to 10 years of working alone with the aid of mirrors, Alexander learned to recognize the cause of his voice problem.
What he discovered was a habit he adopted (a movement similar to the ‘startle reflex’) when reciting (and later he realized he did this less obviously in his general usage). We now know that under stress we exaggerate our habits of misuse. He also noted that these faulty habits which he originally thought was unique to himself could be found in most people. Every acting academy and music conservatoire in the UK employs an Alexander Teacher.
The Technique was coveted by the arts long before it became established as a health art. Alexander came to London in l904 and he died in London in l955. The first school in the world for teaching the Alexander Technique opened in London in the l930s. In my opinion the Alexander Technique is about developing self awareness to the point where you can, with the help of a teacher, discover your own personal habits of misuse
Neurologically, patterns of misuse are acquired by repetition over a period of time. Genuine changes in the way we use ourselves and behave have to begin with discovering what we are doing to ourselves (self awareness) and learning to stop these habits of misuse (which Alexander Teachers called ‘inhibition’).. Alexander had a wonderful way with words. He would say: ‘If you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing will happen’ and my favourite is: ‘Everyone wants to be right but no-one stops to consider if their idea of right is right!’
How does the Alexander Technique work?
The way the Technique differs from other health forms is that we do not ‘do something’ to make a correction – we just learn to stop interfering negatively with our own musculoskeletal system – which is the cause of misuse. To ‘undo’ habits of a lifetime requires incremental teaching – which is why we call ourselves ‘teachers’ and we give ‘lessons’.
The principles are based on learning to direct our attention to what we are doing, by practicing being in the present moment. The problem is that we tend to think of the end result of a task or a movement quite automatically because in our culture to be able to do things quickly and be highly productive are admired. With our high-speed lives we tend measure a successful day by the amount of things we have done rather than consider the manner we are attending to a particular task. Quality in movement can only occur when we are mindful of what we are doing on a moment to moment basis. Alexander blamed the corruption of our way of being (and reduction in life quality) on goal-orientated thinking and speed of life (and that was over a hundred years ago!)…
There is much more I could write about the Alexander Technique – it is a discipline which over time becomes something much more than improving our ‘posture’ – but an ‘internal’ art and a skill for life. It requires a new way of thinking. When I studied for my Masters degree in Consciousness Studies I became more and more aware of its psychological significance and the profound effect is has on our entire body-mind. The body and the mind are intrinsically connected and co-dependent on each other as neurones from the brain extend down into the spinal cord and travel into every muscle of the body. Agility of mind and body can only be achieved by thinking about what we are doing with ourselves in the present moment so that each moment creates a beneficial outcome and ultimately a positive final result.
The Alexander Technique is purely a secular art form. However, once we step onto the road of self-awareness we may change in many ways. In our fast-moving, multi-tasking world, bringing awareness through movement into our lives can be extraordinarily therapeutic and provides us with an opportunity to enter into the present moment.
One day the Buddha was approached by an elderly grandmother. She explained she would very much like to live a spiritual life but that she was too old and infirm and too consumed with household duties to set aside long periods for meditation.
The Buddha replied: ‘Respected grandmother, every time you draw water from the well for you and your family, remain aware of every single act, movement and motion of your hands. As you are carrying home the water jug atop your head, be aware of every step of your feet; as you do your chores, maintain continuous mindfulness and awareness every single instant, moment after moment, and you to will become a master of meditation.’ (Walsh, l999).
How to find an Alexander Teacher
Alexander Teachers are as different to each other as people are in any profession, so choose your Alexander Teacher well. The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (http://www.stat.org.uk) provides a register of Alexander Teachers in the UK who have completed a three year training course - with a minimum of 1600 hours of training. Find the one you feel an affinity with – and they may not be the nearest. Speak to them on the telephone before you decide to make an appointment.
All contact therapies are very personal so you must feel comfortable with them. Wear loose comfortable clothing to enable you to bend and move without restrictions. Make one appointment before deciding on a series of lessons – which you would need (and I would suggest an absolute minimum of ten lessons). Many students however carry on for years after their initial course of lessons (with occasional top-ups) because of the therapeutic gains and sense of wellbeing they derive from this work. Aldous Huxley had lessons for more than two decades. My very first student still visits me occasionally and he is a shining example of the Alexander Technique in action ?.
Walsh R. (1999) Essential Spirituality, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York.
Weed, D. (1990) What you Think is What you Get, 1445 Publications, Langnau, Switzerland.
Shirley Duckworth-Oates has been a remedial masseuse and a Teacher of the Alexander Technique for more than twenty years. She has taught the Alexander Technique individually and in groups in Switzerland and the UK. She was a senior lecturer at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester for nine years before leaving to study for a degree in Chiropractic. She also holds a degrees in Healthcare and Welfare and a Masters Degree in Consciousness Studies and Transpersonal Psychology. She currently works from her home in Manchester. She is divorced and has a grown up daughter.
Shirley Duckworth Oates, MSTAT, MATI, MBCA,
BSc.(Hons) Healthcare; MSc.(Psych.); BSc.(Hons) Chiro
Doctor of Chiropractic and Teacher of the Alexander Technique
Please email Dr.Shirley or add comments below.