What did Alexander discover – and why is it important?

This is an attempt to put into lay language what can sometimes seem overly complex.

What did Alexander discover – and why is it important?

When we consider what we pay attention to, from the minutiae of our daily lives to the big picture of the world around us, it is extraordinary how much we take for granted the continued smooth running of our bodies and minds, on which all else depends. The work we do, the food we eat, the attitudes we have, all contribute to, or detract from, our health; but our primary influence – the way we do what we do – remains outside most peoples’ awareness and control. This is what the Alexander Technique seeks to address.

F. Matthias Alexander was a reciter who had made a considerable effort to train himself optimally for the purposes of performing. He carried his body and projected his voice as he had been taught by experts in the field; but he found his vocal health and general presence faltering.

Over a period of years, he studied himself, using mirrors to gain an objective viewpoint of his actions, and contrasting this with what he felt subjectively.

He discovered a discrepancy between what he believed he was doing and what he was actually doing. In specific terms, his kinesthetic sense told him his carriage – not least the carriage of his head – was as he intended; while his eyes looking into a mirror told him a quite different story.

His discovery that he was not doing what he intended, and also that what he intended was not necessarily for the best, began a train of investigation that culminated with him becoming a teacher of ‘use’ (pronounced as in ‘useful’). By this, he meant the way people ‘used’ their minds and bodies in everyday life.

For Alexander, the mind and the body were indivisible. He believed the way people thought lay at the heart of the way they acted, and that the way they acted was the primary cause of their physical ills. He reached this conclusion after experimenting with changing his own patterns of thought and noting the subsequent changes in his physical habits.

This led to his conviction that the way we think in response to a stimulus largely determines whether we contract or release into movement, and whether we are impulsive or considered in our actions. His claim of mind/body indivisibility was far reaching for a turn of the century rural Australian who had no background in medical science; but today it seems little more than common sense.

So, how do we apply Alexander’s discoveries to our present day lives?

Most of us will be familiar with seeing ourselves in a mirror or shop front, not particularly liking the way we are, and making a few adjustments before going on our way. Next time we come across our reflection, we discover the changes we made have not lasted, and that we have reverted to type. We may make the same minor changes again, before moving on.

The odds are, we will have any number of habits of carriage and use we are unaware of; others we are familiar with but that we mistakenly believe are useful; others that may be the result of something once deliberately cultivated but long since forgotten; and still others that are fully intended but that we fail to recognise are not being accurately carried out.

These discrepancies may lead to nothing more severe that the occasional ‘twinge’, or moment of unease, or they can lead to our becoming totally incapacitated. Nobody can say what the effects of ‘poor use’ will be; but it certainly will not be for the good. What is certain is that we cannot expect to be aware of the way we really are until we see ourselves from an objective standpoint. We would be selling ourselves short if, once we understand the degree of harm we have inadvertently been doing to ourselves, we failed to act.

For anyone who wants to change their ‘use’ for the better, some sort of re-education of their kinaesthetic sense is essential. The reason for this is simple. However much we may desire change, and however aware we may become of what needs changing, because we have a mistaken sense of the way we are, any corrections we make will be suspect. We will almost certainly replace one set of poor habits with another.

Alexander devised a teaching method, the Alexander Technique, specifically designed to recalibrate the kinaesthetic sense, and to bring it into line with our conscious intention. For anyone who would like to know more about the way they function in everyday life, Alexander Technique lessons are an eye opener.

Some insight can be gained by self study which, when persisted with, can be extremely rewarding. Generally, though, because the way we feel is not the way we are, being guided by our existing sense of ourselves is fraught with problems of reliability.

The major benefit of learning the principles of Alexander work is that doing so enables us to uncover whatever it is we are doing to ourselves that is harmful and to stop doing it. This is different for each of us, but there are certain common areas of imbalance. The way we hold our heads, the way we flex our spines, the way we swing our arms and legs, all contribute to the way we are, as a whole.

Learning, first, how we are, enables us to gain insight into the differences between this and the way we believe we are. It can be disconcerting to realise how far the two are apart! Understanding, , how we ideally might be, and experiencing this at the hands of a teacher, enables us to recognise that change is always an option.

Eventually, with some Alexander training, we can have true choice, perhaps for the first time in our adult lives. We can, of course chose to continue as we are, even though, kinaesthetically, we now understand this is not ideal for us; but we can also choose to make a change, knowing our recalibrated kinaesthetic sense is sufficiently reliable to enable us to recognise good from bad, or better from worse.

Without this knowledge – that we are not necessarily as we seem – and the kinaesthetic appreciation gained from lessons – that we are more out of balance than we know – we will be unable to change anything with any degree of lasting accuracy. This is because, until we know what harm we are doing ourselves, we will not be able to stop doing it.

Even the most glaring (in retrospect) habits cannot be stopped until we recognise them for what they are. To do that requires an objective view of ourselves, which cannot be provided by our existing kinaesthetic sense. What we feel ourselves doing will almost certainly not be what we are doing. A teacher (or a mirror, or video) provides this objective view, which enables us to learn to stop doing what is harmful, while establishing a more reliable kinaesthetic sense in order not to revert to type afterwards.

An often asked question is why something as important to human survival as our internal sense of ourselves, which determines every move we make, should ever ‘go wrong’. The only satisfactory answer is that the complex lives we lead as adults require more learned behaviour than we evolved to cope with. When something occurs that places a greater demand on us than our existing habits can deal with, unless we consciously attend to the way we react (which we will have done when the habits were originally learned, in early life, but are unlikely to do now) we run the risk of overdoing our response, without knowing we are doing so.

When this largely unconscious process is repeated sufficiently often, we run the further risk of an existing, appropriate habit pattern being gradually overlaid with a new, less appropriate one. This new habit then becomes the norm; until it, too, is superceded. Over time, we will move from an overall position of ‘good use’, with a repertoire of smooth running habit patterns that are appropriate for the tasks at hand, to one of ‘poor use’, where – increasingly – less appropriate habit patterns are utilised to service our day to day needs.

This is the conundrum that lessons in the Technique are designed to circumvent.

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