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The Alexander Technique is about conscious identification and consciously stopping inefficient, restrictive habits so that the organism can develop naturally.
Use of the Self
As you read this page, you may ask yourself: “Am I aware of how I'm sitting at the computer? Where are the contact points of my body and the seat pad? How much force is used by my fingers to operate the keyboard? Are only my eyes moving when I read or does my head move too? Is there tension in my back, my shoulders, my legs or my jaw? How do I focus on this activity? How do I breathe?
Do I try to change my internal and external posture based on these perceptions, and how do I do it? Does this change bring me any relief or additional strain? How do I feel with this?“
These are the questions handled by the Alexander Technique. The way we use and utilize our bodies in everyday situations is referred to as "Use of the Self". Any object or device comes with certain basic equipment.
The effective use of this object is derived from this basic version. Similarly, the effective use of the self of us people is determined by our biological and mental basic equipment. If we use ourselves in accordance with our natural basic equipment we speak of “good use of the self" - the aim of any Alexander Technique work.
A good use of the self must not be misunderstood as taking an optimal static posture in a specific situation. Use of the self refers to the man in his wholeness as a physical being, but also to his thoughts, perceptions, emotions and impulses. Since these phenomena change from moment to moment, the concept of the "Use of the Self" also accounts for the processuality and the dynamics of life.
Use of the Self and Function
“The use of the self determines the function", that is what we say in the Alexander Technique. In other words, a poor use of the self exercises in the course of our lives an ongoing negative influence on us and therefore reduces our overall level of functioning. In mild cases, we simply keep more tension in our bodies than necessary and our mental and physical coordination and capacity is reduced accordingly. If the negative impact of a poor use of the self, however, continues over a longer period of time, typical civilization problems, such as back and joint pain, arthritis, headaches, constant fatigue, breathing difficulties or depression, may emerge.
Our back hurts not because our muscles are not strong enough, but because we use our body in a certain way - whether sitting at the desk, when washing dishes, walking, playing an instrument or in sports. Training, gymnastics or swimming do not necessarily eliminate the back pain, because the use of the self remains unchanged.
It's about doing things in a different way, regardless of what we do. A slim African woman with little muscle power can sometimes regularly carry heavy loads over long distances without getting back pain, because the way she does this is determined by a high quality of physical and mental coordination.
A good use of the self has a constant positive influence on our functioning. The pressure on bones, joints, muscles and organs is reduced to a minimum. The neuro-muscular system works well coordinated and efficiently. The body is characterized by dynamic balance, alertness, relaxation, vitality and high learning ability. The Alexander Technique promotes good use of the self, with the means of "inhibition" and "directions" above all.
Our use of the self is largely determined by habits. In the course of our lives we developed the habit of walking, to reach for an object or to get up from a chair in a very specific way. We may have the habit of being constantly in a hurry, and being often afraid can be a bad habit.
Our habits make us automatically respond to the demands of life. Everyone has experienced countless times that it is very difficult to give up a bad habit. Something draws us always back to the old habit like a rubber band.
Why? Because the old feels right and our sensory appreciation signals that there is no better way.
Change often tries to directly introduce new behaviour patterns and ignores that the old ways do not "disappear" at the same time. The new is, so to say, laid over the old, and both form up to a condition that is often more complex, more tense and more inappropriate than the old.
The Alexander Technique is therefore first and foremost all about discarding reactions which we have recognized as inapt. This is known as "inhibition". Inhibition is not repression. Inhibition is the conscious identification and stopping of inefficient, limiting habit patterns so that the body can develop naturally.
A small practical example: For most people, getting up from a chair is connected to tension in the legs, which corresponds to a multiple of the necessary. Although the Alexander Technique teacher points this out to the student, this behaviour cannot be prevented in most cases, because the habit of doing the old (straining the legs when standing up), is so big. The teacher does not show the students initially a new technique that allows another form of getting up from the chair. The teacher rather encourages the student to abandon the old reaction (inhibition). If this finally succeeds, the movement is connected with less neuro-muscular tension and is therefore easier and more natural.
Behaviour that is accompanied by inhibition allows our reflexes to work undisturbed and helps us upright effortlessly against gravity. This is how F.M. Alexander (the founder of Alexander Technique) was able to say: “If you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing will do itself.“
Inhibition is the central issue, which is trained in the Alexander Technique. In the modern world that is characterized by sensory overload, inhibition brings the valuable skill not to automatically and routinely respond to stimuli. This creates space and peace for a fulfilled being. Conscious learning and adaptation processes can unfold in their own time.
In addition to the inhibitions, "directions" constitute the second major practice concept of the Alexander Technique. Directions are one way to adjust ourselves at an enjoyable and meaningful way, mentally and physically.
In our daily activities we do this all the time - more or less conscious and more or less effective. For example, if we sit on a chair, we focus on sitting. We perceive that we have taken a slumped posture. Maybe we feel a lot of tension or even pain in the back or shoulders. Then we say to ourselves: "I should sit up” and try to put our idea of "sitting up" into action. By and by, sitting upright feels tiring, breathing becomes shorter and we are soon back in the old slumped position. Obviously, something is wrong with the way in which we have positioned ourselves, that is to say, with the instructions that our nervous system gave to the muscles.
The Alexander technique attempts to control these tasks with more awareness, efficiency and ease.
This is where the concept of the directions begins. It gives practical answers to the question of the qualitative development of the thinking activity. In the Alexander Technique work, directions are to be understood as an expansive process. They broaden us, take unnecessary tension from the body and prepare the respective activities immediately before and / or effectively accompany them.
The quality of directions can be better described by terms such as "letting it happen", "allow" or "allow energy flow directions" rather than with "doing". The idea of directly taking a certain posture is per se already too much doing-oriented and fixed. We put in additional tension to get ourselves in a well-reviewed external position. However, there is no proper posture as a static concept; there are only right directions that can bring us natural, dynamic balance. This means "letting go in a good orientation." The ability to do so is systematically trained and experienced in the Alexander Technique work.
This makes it clear that directions are inextricably linked to inhibition and are both intended to improve the use of the self.
Frederick Matthias Alexander – the founder of Alexander Technique
Born in Tasmania/Australia, Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) was the founder of the so-called Alexander Technique. He was a rather sickly child and suffered, among others, from asthma.
As a young man he followed his passion and became an actor and reciter. After a short time he became a household name in Australia as a performance artist. But soon he was confronted with an existential crisis that was to give his life a decisive turn. During his appearances, hoarseness and difficulty in breathing were increasingly emerging, progressing finally so that his career came in serious danger. In desperation he turned to doctors and vocal coaches. But all recommended therapies and exercises, as well as the temporary sparing of the voice brought no success. The fact that Alexander's voice worked much better in everyday life and also before the performances than during the performances, earned him a key finding: His voice problems had to be connected with something he “did” when he was reciting. He stopped all therapy attempts and was determined to solve the riddle himself. That was the start of Alexander's unique, scientific discovery, which not only solved his own problem, but it also made him develop a comprehensive educational system.
Alexander set up mirrors in his apartment and watched himself again and again while reciting, in normal speech and when he was doing other tasks. He firstly noticed three things in the manner in which he recited that occurred much weaker during normal speech:
Occasionally, he succeeded to alleviate his habit to stiffen his neck, whereupon his voice quality temporarily improved. This observation confirmed him that his voice problems ("function") are caused by the way he recited ("use of the self”). He also noted that a less stiffened neck had a positive impact on the contracted throat and the breathing. Conversely, he could not directly influence the contraction of the larynx and the sucking in of the air while reciting. Alexander concluded from this that the stiffened neck had to be a primary, superior factor of his coordination.
Inspired by these findings, Alexander continued his scientific research experience. The stiffened neck and the thrown back head were identified as key issues, and so he kept trying to get his head forward in a more favourable position.
To his disappointment, he noted however when looking in the mirror, that he withdrew his head further, although he thought he was doing the opposite. Also the pressure on the larynx and the suction of the air has been negatively affected by his efforts. His sensory appreciation did not show him what actually happened, but misled his correction attempts ("imperfect sensory appreciation").
This led Alexander to the comprehensive question of how he could efficiently control himself while reciting (or doing other activities). In the course of many years, he developed the above described system of inhibition and directions. He called it "Thinking in Activity": In the heart of the matter, certain beneficial directions are rather thought or admitted, than actually done.
Alexander also became aware that the tensions he discovered (e.g. neck stiffening) were only part of a broader pattern of tension, and that these patterns were observed not only during recitation, but also in other activities in an attenuated form. Part of his "Use of the Self" was, among others, pulling up the chest, curvature of the spine, the pushing forward of the pelvis, an over-tension of the legs and the clawing of the feet into the ground. All these factors influenced each other and had a limiting effect on his balance and movement.
Alexander realized however the dynamic relationship of the head, neck and torso as primary for the quality of the use of the self. This relation determines overridingly the general coordination of the human body ("Primary Control").
Working on himself changed Alexander fundamentally. His voice problems and asthma, that had plagued him since childhood, disappeared. The ease of his movements and his charisma impressed people.
Many came to him and wanted to learn from him or get rid of their various ailments. Alexander soon realized that his discoveries were of universal nature, and in the course of decades he differentiated his scientific system more. In 1904 he moved to London, where he continued his extraordinarily successful teaching. Among his students and supporters were writer George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley and the great American philosopher John Dewey. Alexander wrote four books and trained from 1931 many teachers who carried on the work that is now called the Alexander Technique.
In 1955, Frederick Matthias Alexander died after he had given a few weeks before his last lesson.
Alexander Technique in the Equilibrium Studio