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The Alexander technique is a somatic method for improving physical and mental functioning. Excessive tension, which Frederick Alexander, the originator, recognized as both physical and mental, restricts movement and creates pressure in the joints, the spine, the breathing mechanism, and other organs. The goal of the technique is to restore freedom and expression to the body and clear thinking to the mind.
Because the Alexander technique helps students improve overall functioning, both mental and physical, it offers a wide range of benefits. Nikolaas Tinbergen, in his 1973 Nobel lecture, hailed the "striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures, and the refined skill of playing a musical instrument." He went on to quote a list of other conditions helped by the Alexander technique: "rheumatism, including various forms of arthritis, then respiratory troubles, and even potentially lethal asthma; following in their wake, circulation defects, which may lead to high blood pressure and also to some dangerous heart conditions; gastrointestinal disorders of many types, various gynecological conditions, sexual failures, migraines and depressive states."
Literature in the 1980s and 1990s went on to include improvements in back pain, chronic pain, postural problems, repetitive strain injury, benefits during pregnancy and childbirth, help in applying physical therapy and rehabilitative exercises, improvements in strain caused by computer use, improvements in the posture and performance of school children, and improvements in vocal and dramatic performance among the benefits offered by the technique.
Frederick Matthias Alexander was born in 1869 in Tasmania, Australia. He became an actor and Shakespearean reciter, and early in his career he began to suffer from strain on his vocal chords. He sought medical attention for chronic hoarseness, but after treatment with a recommended prescription and extensive periods of rest, his problem persisted.
Alexander realized that his hoarseness began about an hour into a dramatic performance and reasoned that it was something he did in the process of reciting that caused him to lose his voice. Returning to his medical doctor, Alexander told him of his observation. When the doctor admitted that he didn't know what Alexander was doing to injure his vocal chords, Alexander decided to try and find out for himself.
Thus began a decade of self-observation and discovery. Using as many as three mirrors to observe himself in the act of reciting, normal speaking, and later standing, walking, and sitting, Alexander managed to improve his coordination and to overcome his vocal problems. One of his most startling discoveries was that in order to change the way he used his body he had to change the way he was thinking, redirecting his thoughts in such a way that he did not produce unnecessary tension when he attempted speech or movement. After making this discovery at the end of the nineteenth century, Alexander became a pioneer in body-mind medicine.
At first, performers and dancers sought guidance from Alexander to overcome physical complaints and to improve the expression and spontaneity of their performances. Soon a great number of people sought help from his teaching for a variety of physical and mental disorders.
The Alexander technique is primarily taught one-on-one in private lessons. Introductory workshops or workshops for special applications of the technique (e.g., workshops for musicians) are also common. Private lessons range from a half-hour to an hour in length, and are taught in a series. The number of lessons varies according to the severity of the student's difficulties with coordination or to the extent of the student's interest in pursuing the improvements made possible by continued study. The cost of lessons ranges from $40-80 per hour. Insurance coverage is not widely available, but discounts are available for participants in some complementary care insurance plans. Pre-tax Flexible Spending Accounts for health care cover Alexander technique lessons if they are prescribed by a physician.
In lessons teachers guide students through simple movements (while students are dressed in comfortable clothing) and use their hands to help students identify and stop destructive patterns of tension. Tensing arises from mental processes as well as physical, so discussions of personal reactions or behavior are likely to arise in the course of a lesson.
The technique helps students move with ease and improved coordination. At the beginning of a movement (the lessons are a series of movements), most people pull back their heads, raise their shoulders toward their ears, over-arch their lower backs, tighten their legs, and otherwise produce excessive tension in their bodies. Alexander referred to this as misuse of the body.
At any point in a movement, proper use can be established. If the neck muscles are not over-tensed, the head will carry slightly forward of the spine, simply because it is heavier in the front. When the head is out of balance in the forward direction, it sets off a series of stretch reflexes in the extensor muscles of the back. It is skillful use of these reflexes, along with reflex activity in the feet and legs, the arms and hands, the breathing mechanism, and other parts of the body, that lessons in the technique aim to develop.
Alexander found that optimal functioning of the body was very hard to maintain, even for the short period of time it took to complete a single movement. People, especially adults, have very strong tension habits associated with movement. Chronic misuse of the muscles is common. It may be caused by slouching in front of televisions or video monitors, too much sitting or driving and too little walking, or by tension associated with past traumas and injuries. Stiffening the neck after a whiplash injury or favoring a broken or sprained leg long after it has healed are examples of habitual tension caused by injury.
The first thing a teacher of the Alexander technique does is to increase a student's sensory awareness of this excessive habitual tension, particularly that in the neck and spine. Next the student is taught to inhibit the tension. If the student prepares to sit down, for example, he will tense his muscles in his habitual way. If he is asked to put aside the intention to sit and instead to free his neck and allow less constriction in his muscles, he can begin to change his tense habitual response to sitting.
Direction — Bringing about the free balance of the head on the spine and the resulting release of the erector muscles of the back and legs which establish improved coordination.
Habit — Referring to the particular set of physical and mental tensions present in any individual.
Inhibition — Referring to the moment in an Alexander lesson when the student refrains from beginning a movement in order to avoid tensing of the muscles.
Sensory awareness — Bringing attention to the sensations of tension and/or release in the muscles.
By leaving the head resting on the spine in its natural free balance, by keeping eyes open and focused, not held in a tense stare, by allowing the shoulders to release, the knees to unlock and the back to lengthen and widen, a student greatly reduces strain. In Alexander lessons students learn to direct themselves this way in activity and become skilled in fluid, coordinated movement.
The focus of the Alexander technique is educational. Teachers use their hands simply to gently guide students in movement. Therefore, both contraindications and potential physiological side effects are kept to a minimum. No forceful treatment of soft tissue or bony structure is attempted, so damage to tissues, even in the case of errors in teaching, is unlikely.
As students' sensory awareness develops in the course of Alexander lessons, they become more acutely aware of chronic tension patterns. As students learn to release excessive tension in their muscles and to sustain this release in daily activity, they may experience tightness or soreness in the connective tissue. This is caused by the connective tissue adapting to the lengthened and released muscles and the expanded range of movement in the joints.
Occasionally students may get light-headed during a lesson as contracted muscles release and effect the circulatory or respiratory functioning.
Forceful contraction of muscles and rigid postures often indicate suppression of emotion. As muscles release during or after an Alexander lesson, students may experience strong surges of emotion or sudden changes in mood. In some cases, somatic memories surface, bringing to consciousness past injury or trauma. This can cause extreme anxiety, and referrals may be made by the teacher for counseling.
Research and general acceptance
Alexander became well known among the intellectual, artistic, and medical communities in London, England, during the first half of the twentieth century. Among Alexander's supporters were John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, Bernard Shaw, and renowned scientists Raymond Dart, G.E. Coghill, Charles Sherrington, and Nikolaas Tinbergen.
Researchers continue to study the effects and applications of the technique in the fields of education, preventive medicine, and rehabilitation. The Alexander technique has proven an effective treatment for reducing stress, for improving posture and performance in schoolchildren, for relieving chronic pain, and for improving psychological functioning. The technique has been found to be as effective as beta-blocker medications in controlling stress responses in professional musicians, to enhance respiratory function in normal adults, and to mediate the effects of scoliosis in adolescents and adults.
Dimon, Theodore. THE UNDIVIDED SELF: Alexander Technique and the Control of Stress. North Atlantic Books: 1999.
Alexander Technique International, 1692 Massachusetts Ave., 3rd Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA. (888) 321-0856. Fax: 617-497-2615. firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.ati-net.com.
Alexander Technique Resource Guide. (Includes list of teachers) AmSAT Books. (800) 473-0620 or (804) 295-2840.
Alexander techniqueA technique which consists of improving posture in all physical activities—e.g., standing sitting, walking, and working in various positions; central to success in the method is achieving “primary control” over one’s posture and movement of the vertebral column.
Alexander technique may be useful for
• Chronic conditions—Asthma, depression, headaches, low back pain, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers;
• Skill development—Improving the performance of athletes, as used in sprinting and in tennis, and of those in the performing arts, such as actors, dancers and musicians;
• Personal development—Improving the self-image, sense of self-worth, and instilling a sense of self-responsibility.
Alexander techniqueA method of therapy for various physical and psychological disorders said to be caused by faulty posture. The pupils is taught how to break habits of slouching and adopt a new and better bearing, thereby, it is claimed, being relieved of such problems as insomnia, lethargy and chronic ill health.
Alexander,Frederick Matthias, Australian elocutionist, 1869-1955.
Alexander technique - used to develop kinesthetic sense of normal movements and posture.