How the Alexander Technique helped me Overcome Terrible Customer Service and Useless Tech Support

ID-10067459This past week, I had to deal with two companies which, under the right circumstances, provide an excellent product but which have truly awful phone support systems.

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: Long hold times during which you’re forced to listen to messages about how much the company values your business.  Service and tech representatives who are unable to help you because they have no idea what has been done already or simply don’t have the necessary training to help.  Bizarre phone loops that take you back to where you started.

I’m generally pretty good at moving up to a higher level of customer support. For example by calling the company’s corporate headquarters where there is usually an office to deal with persistent people like me.

But nothing seemed to work this time.

In both cases I needed to have a quick resolution of the problem and I found myself getting more and more frustrated, inpatient and angry. I could feel the toll this negative energy was having on my body but it still took awhile for me to realize that I had a tool that could help  – the Alexander Techniqueif I chose to use it.

Kind of embarrassing, since I’ve been an Alexander teacher for over 35 years!

One of the companies* was Windstream, a regional provider of phone and internet service.  My modem had been randomly losing connection to the internet and the company agreed it was a problem caused by an error on their part.  I could have lived with that for a few days if I didn’t have several Skype teaching calls coming up, calls which would be almost impossible to do well with interruptions.

I was told the earliest a visit from a technician could be scheduled was the following week and that they couldn’t tell me if it would be morning or evening!  And that it was absolutely impossible (their words) to do it any sooner.

I cancelled a Skype session scheduled for early the next morning and went to bed feeling trapped between an incompetent corporation and my teaching obligations.  As I usually do before falling asleep I did a bit of Alexander Technique self directing – “I’m free”, “My breathing is free”, “I’m free to receive the support of the bed” – that sort of thing.

Just before dozing off, I thought I might as well throw in a freedom direction about my predicament – “I’m free to find a solution to my connectivity problem.”

In the middle of the night I woke up with the thought “Time Warner”.  Yes, Time Warner, the giant cable company regularly voted the most hated company in America!  And for good reason: it’s customer service is as awful as Windstream’s and it’s much, much bigger.

Still, it did offer cable internet service that I’d used for years and that was quite reliable. It would cost significantly more than I was currently paying but when I called them the next morning, I was offered a guaranteed 1 hour window for installation that very afternoon at 4 PM.  That would be after my 2 in-person students, and well before my scheduled Skype sessions starting the next day.

This was an obvious way around the problem, but in my frustrated state I had overlooked it.

Put another way, the solution had been there all along, but I hadn’t be “free” to recognize and choose it.

My situation was not that different that of my Alexander Technique students. Once they’ve experimented a bit with using Alexander directions to change their posture and movement patterns I remind them that they now know there is a “free” state always available within them. Moving from their default state to the free state requires nothing more than a simple mental choice – for example thinking softly to themselves, “I’m free.”

But I had forgotten to remind myself!

Once I saw there was a choice, I was no longer focused on getting Windstream to do the right thing quickly.  I assumed they probably would not, but thought I’d make just one more call – this time not as someone pleading with them to do something for me, but as a lost customer they might be able entice back.

It was with in great sense of calm then called Windstream’s “Executive Customer Service” and outlined the problem I had been having. I then told the agent I was leaving them for an equivalent service I had arranged for later that day that would cost almost twice what I was paying them – precisely $24.52 a month more, I added.  Including taxes.

Unless they could fix my service that morning.

There was a long period of silence at the other end. The agent then said she would see what she could do. I thanked her and wished her a good day.

Forty-five minutes later, I got a call from the local office saying a tech would be at my house within 30 minutes.  He came, installed a new modem, re-set my connections with their central system, and made sure I was able to connect all the devices in my house to the new modem’s wi-fi.  He then, on his own, decided to check some wiring in an alleyway behind my house to make sure it was up to standard. It wasn’t, and he replaced a considerable amount of wiring.

Altogether he spent almost 2 hours making sure everything was working at optimal efficiency.

I then called Time Warner to cancel my appointment.

Thank you F. Matthias Alexander!  And thank you Jennifer Roig-Francoli, Mother of Freedom Directions!  You can listen to several podcasts about Freedom Directions, and other Alexander Technique directions here:


*The other case involved Tracphone, a cell phone company.  It was resolved in much the same way as my Windstream problem.

Photo courtesy of David Castillo Dominici Free Digital

Striding Towards Freedom

I have always walked a lot.

As a child, my parents were just about the only people in the neighborhood without a car so if I wanted to go somewhere, I had to walk or take the bus. It was perfectly normal for me to walk 2 miles each way to see a movie, and of course I walked to school every day – about a mile each way for high-school. For awhile I had an after-school paper route that started a mile and half from my house.

Wherever I’ve lived – Washington, New Haven, Boston, New York, Toronto, London, and now Lincoln – I walk when I need to get somewhere as much as possible, and to explore new neighborhoods. Walking and swimming are my two favorite exercises.

Since becoming an Alexander Technique teacher in 1981, walking has taken on new meanings for me.  To start with, it was on a long Sunday walk in Toronto, the day after my first Alexander lesson, that I noticed strange things going on with my arms: my hands wouldn’t stay in my coat pockets, and my arms insisted on swinging freely!  Later on, I noticed that my walking was taking place with a lot less effort.

Over the years, it’s been an excellent activity for me (along with swimming) for exploring Alexander Technique directions.

It’s also proven to also be an excellent activity for my students to learn about directions, and how to use and test them.  See, for example. Throw it Away

One of the nice things about using walking as a teaching framework is that it’s an activity most of us are already doing over the course of our day.

I’ve also found that the rhythmical quality of walking, with the power of propulsion shifting  from one leg to the other, makes it relatively easy for students to notice how using – and then deliberately not using – directions affects their walk and how they can learn to preempt heavy footfalls with a useful Alexander Technique direction.

Finally, a wonderful aspect of walking is the auditory feedback it can provide as a student’s feet arrive at the floor, particularly with hard surfaces and especially creaky wooden floors. I often tell my students that if they have wooden floors somewhere where they live or work, that will be the perfect place for them to explore directions while walking.

Beyond these teaching considerations, I have found that walking is a wonderful way of letting my mind mull over a problem or question I’ve been working on. With surprising frequency, I find the solution or answer seems to just pop into my head after a nice walk!

A couple of years ago, I heard a wonderful two-part program about walking on the CBC Ideas series titled Walking Matters. That program inspired me to create the Centered Walking website. You can listen to the program here: Part 1   Part2

Since then, I’ve found three other excellent pieces about the many surprising benefits of walking:

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking – from BBC News

Why Walking Makes Us Think – from the New Yorker Magazine

In Praise of the Flâneur – from the Paris Review

Finally, Henry David Thoreau wrote a wonderful short book about walking – a meandering ode to the simple act and accomplished art of taking a walk titled Walking

One step at a time is good walking. – Chinese proverb

Photo by Eadweard Muybridge an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion.

The Plot Thickens: The Alexander Technique

F. Matthias Alexander

F. Matthias Alexander, developer of the Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique has been around for over 125 years and so it’s not surprising that references to it, and to it’s founder F. Matthias Alexander, have appeared in works for fiction a number of times.

Some of those references have been funny, some bizarre, and some quite nice descriptions of the work. As such, they afford an insight into ways in which the Technique has been perceived over the years.

(My personal favorite is the story about Alexander, Dewey and Anzia from Norma Rosen’s book.)

Most famously, Alexander shows up as a character in Aldous Huxley’s book Eyeless in Gaza, published in 1936. Huxley introduced Alexander in the person of Miller, a medical anthropologist. Miller, in the words Frank Pierce Jones “..also incorporated a part of Gerald Heard, whom Alexander detested, and a part of Dr. McDonagh, a fashionable but unorthodox physician to whom Alexander also referred his pupils.” (1)

For the next fifty years there are occasional references to “F. M. Alexander”, “Alexander” and even the “Alexander Brothers” here and there, but with no explanation of who he was.

In 1989, Norma Rosen wrote a novel, John and Anzia – An American Romance, about the (actual) relationship between Professor John Dewey and Anzia Yezierska, a Polish-American emigree from the Lower East Side of New York.

In Chapter 7, Yezierska accompanies Dewey and two of his friends to visit “the studio of the well-known body aligner, F.M Alexander.” Yezierska is a little hesitant, saying “I think I’m already aligned.” Nonetheless she does go.

Here are a few excerpts from the events that follow upon their arrival:

“…Alexander himself entered the room with a bouncy stride, as if a special spring twanged in his foot. He wore a formal suit and sandals with thick white socks. Everything about him seemed freshly sprouted, like the white carnation in his buttonhole. He turned his sharp-featured face to address them.

“‘You hear my voice? The full production, the roundness, the depth? This is my true voice, a fine instrument. Once it was crippled. I opened my mouth and croaked like a crow. In the middle of my favorite recitation piece, ‘Napoleon’–”

“He interrupted himself to recite theatrically, ‘Oh, lonely exile! Oh, armored ambition pierced!’ Then he went on in his normal, slightly less theatrical tone. ‘In despair at the loss of my voice I devised my technique. The results – you hear in my voice. Now you must listen and obey…

“We will not take ladies first. We will take the professor.” He clapped his hands onto John’s head, standing tiptoe to do it. “All your life your head has thought you. No you must think your head. Think and direct it, forward and up!”

Later, after working with the others attending the lesson, he gets to Yezierska:

“You also will experience difficulty in saying no to yourself my dear Miss. Nevertheless! Think only forward and up! Legthen and widen!”

“…The chair edge touched under her buttocks and for one moment she floated in a weightless crouch above the chair.

“Alexander whirled around. ‘This woman’s vertebrae have the ability to think!'”

More recently, a short story appeared in the New Yorker Magazine in 2007. It’s central character is an unnamed Alexander teacher in Boston – based on Tommy Thompson, an actual teacher there. From a conversation with Tommy I know he hates the story and it’s not hard to see why. Indeed it’s a pretty awful work of fiction on many levels, but you can judge it for yourself here. The Long Distance Client

Another Alexander reference (courtesy of Karen DeHart) comes from Writing Jane Austen: A Novel, by Elizabeth Aston:

“A stunned Georgina came out of the surgery with her arm in a sling and a prescription for a painkiller written out by Dr. Perry, and signed, after a further half-hour wait, by another doctor. She had an appointment in three weeks’ time with the practice physiotherapist, and friendly final advice from Dr. Perry that of course she could use the mouse and type with her left hand, but the chances were if she did that exactly the same thing would happen to that one.

“Maud turned out to know a good deal about RSI. “All young musicians these days are supposed to see Alexander practitioners,” she announced. “That’s probably what you should do. They readjust your body, and you learn how to do things, and how to do it better and you don’t put any stress on yourself. Only by the time it’s got as bad as it has with you, I’m not sure there’s anything much anybody can do about it. Except to stop doing whatever it is that’s given it to you. We had a pianist at school who had to stop playing for two years.”

The latest Alexander reference – this time a non-fiction book, but written by a popular fiction writer – also comes from Karen:

Moonwalking with Einstein – The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (page 11) by Joshua Foer : “When he walked, Buzan seemed to glide across the floor like an air hockey puck (the result, he later told me, of forty years’ training in the Alexander Technique).”

Buzan is Tony Buzan, author of Use Your Head, who one wrote: “The Alexander Technique transformed my life. it is the result of an acknowledged genius. I would recommend it to anyone.”

There may be other references I’m not familiar with. If you know of any, please let me know, using the Email Contact.

1. Body Awareness in Action, Chapter 7
2. I am indebted to Loren Shlaes, an Alexander Technique teacher in New York City, for sending me a copy of this novel.

Studies in Public Posture: Bernie Sanders

In two earlier blogs, The Power of Posture and The Power of Posture – Part 2, I wrote about the posture and coordination of politicians and American televangelists.  In general the ones who are successful use their bodies more effectively than the average person.

And, as I wrote in the second blog:

Members of both groups also tend to be good public speakers.

Not surprising, given that their job is to convince their listeners to support them, either with votes or money.

Today, I’m beginning what I hope will be a series of blogs that focus on the posture, coordination and public speaking patterns of specific public figures from a variety of fields.

I want to do this from an Alexander Technique perspective. I’d like to emphasize close observation of movement patterns that are effective, as well as those that might be preventing these men and women from presenting themselves to the public as effectively as possible.

I’ll keep my own observations and comments very short in the hope that other Alexander teachers and students will weigh in with their own.  I’m hoping for some guest blogs too!

I also want to stay away from any consideration of the subjects’ specific views and policies.  The main focus of the Alexander Technique is not about what people do, but how they do it.

You Tube will be my primary source.  It’s the perfect medium for people from around the world to observe the same people and then share their observations. What I hope to provide is a platform for sharing those observations.

An obvious choice to start with is Bernie Sanders, one of the two candidates for nomination by the Democratic Party to run for President of the United States in the November election.

His speaking ability has played a large role in propelling him from an unlikely entrant into the Democratic race, widely seen by most political pundits as not having any chance of success, to becoming a very serious challenge to Hillary Clinton, his only remaining opponent.

Clearly he is an effective public speaker.  But I believe he could be a lot more effective, and a lot less likely to damage his speaking voice, if he made a couple of changes in his method of delivery.

Let’s start with the two video clips shown above. Here are my first thoughts:

Bernie seems to have a lot of neck tension and his head is habitually pushed forward from the top of his spine.  How much of this he can change in a short period of time is debatable. Photos of him as a student activist show this same pattern to some extent so it’s probably a deep-rooted pattern.  But there are two inter-related speaking patterns that really stand out to me, both of which I suspect he could change fairly quickly:

1 – He’s putting an awful lot of effort into speaking.  Sometimes it seems he’s forgotten that he has a microphone! All that force is putting a strain on his vocal mechanism, and his voice is clearly suffering at times.

2 – When Bernie wants to emphasize a point, he pushes his head still further forward, as well as his whole upper torso – which he also pulls down – putting further strain on himself.  You can see in the videos that his height actually diminishes at these moments, a clear indication that he’s compressing his entire body.

His public speaking pattern seems to echo in some ways that of F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique. Alexander was an actor and orator who ran into serious vocal difficulties resulting from his attempt to project his voice to to the back of large halls, crowded with rowdy tin miners, and –  this being the late 1890s – no PA system.  Alexander’s basic strategy had been to make more of an effort when speaking in these environments.

The unfortunate effects of this over-effort on his part – hoarseness, gasping for breath, and even the loss of his voice – prompted him undertake a period of self-study that ultimately led to the discoveries that lie at the heart of the Alexander Technique. And enabled him to project his voice far more effectively with less effort and strain.

The short video below is interesting because here Bernie is not on stage, but having a conversation.  You can see that the speech patterns discussed above are still there, but in a more muted form.  It was recorded more recently, so you can also hear the cumulative effects of his speaking patterns on his voice.

I suspect any competent Alexander teacher could help Bernie notice those patterns, and provide him with verbal and/or hands-on guidance that would enable him to let go of them to a significant extent fairly quickly.

What do you think?  Any other Alexander Technique thoughts about Bernie? Who else in the public sphere seems like a good topic for a future blog?  Would you like to write guest blog on this topic?

Normally I’d encourage you to put your comments on Facebook, but in this case it would be very helpful to also post them in the Comments section below so that this page can be a resource for learning how to observe posture and movement patterns in others, and themselves.


I have acquired the ownership of two domain names which, at some point, could be used to bring the material from this series of blogs together in one place: and

How Bad Is The “P” Word?

header“P” – as in Posture.

In a previous blog, What Is The Alexander Technique?,  I wrote about the curious reluctance of many of us Alexander Technique teachers to actually say what the Technique is.  Another odd feature of our profession is the ongoing, sometimes heated, debate about whether the Technique is, or is not, a method of posture improvement.

Why is this the case?

After all, posture improvement is one of the main reasons students take Alexander lessons.  Indeed, when the Technique is mentioned in conversation, most people have no idea what it is, but typically a few will say something like “it has something to do with posture.”  And many Alexander Technique students will mention improvements in their posture as one of it’s most important benefits.

In my own case, I started taking lessons out of a general curiosity, but within a couple of lessons I noticed a dramatic improvement in my posture.  Within the first month, my height increased my almost an inch which, rightly or wrongly, I identified with continuing posture improvement.  I was so amazed that I continued with lessons for a couple of years and then went to England to take a 3-year course to become an Alexander Technique teacher.

I can think of two reasons some teachers are opposed to using the word “posture”, which I’ll list below.  But – full disclosure – I personally have absolutely no hesitation in telling people the Alexander Technique is about posture.

1: Many people think of posture as a fixed position, something they have to create by lifting themselves up and then holding themselves in the new “correct” manner.

But of course we’re living creatures, and as long as we’re alive we’re in constant flux. And even if there were a “correct” position at any point in time, it would cease to be “correct” a split second later.

Alexander Technique teachers are quite rightly concerned that perspective students will confuse a static view of posture with what the Technique teachers can actually help them achieve: an easy, dynamic, and upright way of sitting, standing and moving.  The word “posture” for us is a verb, not a noun.

2:  Another reason why some teachers don’t like to connect the Alexander Technique with posture is that there are a lot of other profound benefits one can get from Alexander Technique lessons such as improvements in breathing, pain reduction, ability to be comfortable in stressful situations – the list goes on and on – and teachrs don’t want to limit the way people think about the process.

On the other hand, I believe there are at least two reasons why it’s makes good sense to connect the Technique with posture:

1: Posture is getting a lot of press these days and much of it correctly connects poor posture with a variety of ailments – “text posture” with neck pain, for example. Also, while there are still plenty of posture articles and programs that promote a retrograde view of posture, offering suggestions like “pull your shoulders back” or “sit up straight,” we’re increasingly seeing more dynamic views of good posture that dovetail nicely with Alexander Technique principles.

A potential student may indeed have a “faulty” idea of what posture is all about, but it’s not really doing him or her a service by saying our work isn’t really about improving it. A student who has a few lessons will almost certainly come to a new realization about posture on their own.

I had a good friend who worked for years as a publisher’s representative.  Her job was to visit book stores and convince them to order new titles. One of the first questions the owner would ask if the answer wasn’t obvious was: “What shelf would it go on?”  When I described the Alexander Technique to her (in a very different way than I do today!) she said she’d have a hard time thinking of an appropriate shelf for an Alexander book, making it likely it wouldn’t be purchased.

People often need an existing category in which to slot a new idea, even if only temporarily.  It’s part of our job to provide that category and for many potential students “posture” is an ideal “shelf.”

2: While much of the scientific and medical research about the Technique addresses it’s effectiveness in pain reduction and specific performance issues, there is also a considerable amount of recent research showing the Technique’s positive effect of postural tone.  In some ways, this line of research is the most interesting of all since unlike most other studies, it is based on precisely measured quantitative effects, not self-reported qualitative effects.  You can learn more about this exciting new line of research here: Alexander Joins the Neuro-Zone

It’s also worth noting that F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique,  used the words “posture” and “postures” almost 50 times in his books.

As I indicated above, while I understand some teachers’ reluctance to talk about posture, I’m firmly in the “pro-posture” camp.

What are your thoughts on this? Can you think of additional arguments on either side of the debate? Please leave your comments below and/or on Facebook.


You can listen to several podcasts about posture and the Alexander Technique here: Alexander Technique Podcast – Posture

The Posture Page also has information about Posture and the Alexander Technique

New York City Alexander Technique teacher Karen Krueger has two nice articles on posture and the Alexander Technique: Spreading The Word, Even If The Word Is “Posture” and Standing Up Straight Can Be Just As Bad As Slouching

Stuck In The Middle With You: Your Neck

When our children were in middle school, my wife and I would attend “Classroom Visit Night” at the start of each term. This involved going to all their classes in the same order they did during the school day, and for about 10 minutes each teacher would talk about the class and answer questions.

One evening, we were in a General Science class with a middle-aged teacher who appeared to be compressing his head down onto his neck with an extraordinary amount of pressure. (OK – a dirty little secret about Alexander Technique teachers: We do take notice of that kind of thing, especially when it’s extreme, even when we’re not “on the job.” And as much as we try not to make judgements – well, sometimes we do.)

At one point in his talk, he talked about students who weren’t doing well in class but, who in his opinion, “had a good head on their shoulders”, and who he would try to help do better. Just as he said that, his neck became even a little more compressed!

That phrase was new to me at the time and I remember thinking about it a lot afterwords. I’ve since learned it’s a fairly common idiom used to describe someone who is intelligent, sensible and has common sense. But it seemed to me that using phrase had an adverse effect of the teacher, certainly in the moment, but quite likely over time as well.

As you can easily see by looking at anybody (or yourself in a mirror, or the image above) there is a significant distance between the support point of your head and the top of shoulders.

As Barbara Conable, an Alexander Technique teacher and one of the developers of Body Mapping points out, there is a kind of “law of human behavior” that states that when there is a difference between the actual physical situation in your body and your perception of that situation, it’s the perception that always wins out.

This does not mean your faulty perception will change the underlying physical reality, but it does mean you will attempt to stand, sit and move in accordance with that false perception. And that will typically involve creating harmful excess tension.

I like a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks. – Steve Martin

Would you like to test this for yourself?

First, locate the 2 little groves on your skull that are located just underneath your ear lobes, putting a finger tip lightly on each one. Midway between your two finger tips is the top of your spine. That’s where your head is actually supported.

Spend a few seconds with your fingers there so you can start getting a good sense of it’s location – which for most people is quite surprising.

Next, put your hands on top of your shoulders and spend a few seconds there as well.

Now, imagine your head is resting on the top of your spine and then shift to imagining it’s resting on top of your shoulders. Switch back and forth a few times.

What did you notice? Does one conception seem to make you heaver and more compressed than the other?

You might also try taking the “my head is on top of my spine” conception with you as you take a little walk around the room. Then, while continuing to walk, shift over to “my head is on top of my shoulders” and notice what happens to your walk. Again, switch back and forth a few times.

(This experiment will work best if you walk on a hard surface, wearing shoes. A creaky wooden floor is ideal as it will give you auditory feedback about how lightly, or heavily, your feet arrive at the floor as you switch back and forth.)

What did you notice? And what does that tell you about the usefulness of having a correct perception of your structural reality? And, what does it tell you about the implications of using a phrase that goes against that reality?

Man is the head of the family, woman the neck that turns the head. – Chinese Proverb

I’d love to hear about your experience. Please post them below and/or on Facebook.


Another, somewhat related, example of an unfortunate use of words that can produce harmful consequences can be found in the common American phrase “Ready, set, go” to start a race as opposed to the much better British version “Ready, steady, go.” And then there is Toronto’s “Sick Kid’s Hospital” – which I believe was based on the name of a London hospital. And, of course, Head & Shoulders shampoo, a popular American brand. Perhaps these will be the subject of another blog…

Image copyright: pixologic / 123RF Stock Photo

What Is The Alexander Technique?

It’s a question that Alexander Technique teachers get all the time and, oddly, it’s frequently met with a hesitant response that suggests the teacher isn’t totally comfortable providing an answer.

Why is this?

There are probably several reasons, but I believe the main one is that the Technique has an approach to human functioning, and how to improve it, that doesn’t fit well with the way most people think.  Alexander teachers tend to inhabit their own verbal and mental ecosystem and it can be a challenge for us to step away from it to provide useful explanations to people on the outside.

Over the years I’ve found the very best descriptions of the Technique come from Alexander Technique students. They are often able to describe what they have learned in a fresh way, one not conditioned by Alexander jargon.

This is especially true for students who are journalists and non-fiction writers, people who make their living by explaining unfamiliar ideas in ways a general audience can grasp.

Maud Newton falls squarely into that category. I recently came upon a wonderful blog post of her’s, I, Rodent – Humanized mice and mousy humans. It’s a fascinating read and ends with this account of her Alexander Technique experience:

For a couple years I’ve been studying the Alexander Technique. I started because I had bad posture and a racing overanxious brain and nothing else I’d tried until then (apart from psychotherapy) had helped much with either.

The Alexander Technique is difficult to describe, but it can teach you to reduce unnecessary tension by becoming aware of your habits, of things that have come to seem inherent to an activity but aren’t really. For example, thinking doesn’t actually entail clenching your jaw or wrinkling your forehead, even if you always do those things when you’re concentrating. Sitting doesn’t need to involve swinging your arms. Texting doesn’t have to induce hunching.

Something you can do to try to train yourself out of habits like these is to tell yourself things like, “I am not sitting down,” even as you sit down, and see what happens. Or tell yourself, “thinking is not a jaw activity,” or even, “I don’t have a jaw.”

I’m describing it poorly, but the Alexander Technique has acquainted me with so many knotty places in myself that I can work with more easily now. One that remains mysterious is just below my chest, between my heart and my gut. It’s a spot that always feels kinked.

“Sometimes it helps to imagine what it feels like to be inside there,” my teacher said recently.

I’ve learned to take these suggestions seriously and when I got home later I tried feeling my way into the spot. It was hard like a walnut on the outside. The thunder of my heartbeat reverberated all around. Prying open the nut, I found a small brown mouse, trembling and uncertain, its whiskers twitching. It was braced to hamster-wheel. It expected to be disavowed. It’s okay, little mouse, I thought, and the kink loosened slightly.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this description and, if you’re a student of the Technique and have one of your own, please share it below and/or on Facebook.


Just after writing this blog, I learned about the tragic death of Alan Rickman, the English actor and director, best known for his film performances as Hans Gruber in Die Hard and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film series. Rickman was a student of the Alexander Technique and here are a couple of his descriptions of the work that illustrate the theme of this blog:

With the best of intentions, the job of acting can become a display of accumulated bad habits, trapped instincts and blocked energies. Working with the Alexander Technique to untangle the wires has given me sightings of another way; mind and body, work and life together. Real imaginative freedom.

Using the Alexander Technique empowers me and gives me a balanced sense of tension rather than relying on creating tension to do something in order to produce a sound or an act that is preconceived. I realized that I cannot control a set of circumstances outside of myself so I can go on a journey relying on the state of mind and body that the Alexander Technique gives me.

RIP Alan.

Image Copyright: lupobianco / 123RF Stock Photo

Change Your Tune

I once assisted the late Marjorie Barstow on a teaching trip to a large mid-western university where she gave classes in the Alexander Technique to Music Department faculty and students.

In one class, a professor asked for help playing the trumpet.  He was clearly a talented musician, but he was adding quite a bit of unnecessary tension to his body when he played.  Indeed, even before he began to play, just picking up the instrument seemed to trigger a good deal of that tension.

As Marj worked with him, a lot of his tension dropped away and the quality of his playing improved dramatically.  So much so that even I – a somewhat tone deaf non-musician – could easily hear the change.

Marj would occasionally stop and ask him what he noticed.  His reply was always something like: “I feel so much easier, and I can tell the sound is better but…”  The words following the “but” were phrases like “…it doesn’t feel right” or “…I’m sure I’ll lose this right away” or “…I can never do this on my own”

On and on he went and each time Marj said nothing and resumed helping him with a bit more playing. Then, after about his 5th negative thought, out of her mouth popped the phrase, “You better change your tune!”

Marj and me, taken in 1989 when Marj was only 90 years old.

Marj and me, taken in 1989 when Marj was only 90 years old.

It happened so fast, so softly, and so unexpectedly, that I don’t think most of the people in the room consciously noticed it.  Certainly not the professor, who seemed very briefly to be in a state of severe mental confusion.  But after than, he started playing again, with no help from Marj, in a way that incorporated much of what she had shown him.

And the next day, when she worked with him, there was not a trace of his earlier negative thinking.  He had “changed his tune.”

I asked Marj about what she had said but, as I expected, she had no memory of it although she agreed he had made a significant change in his thinking and playing.

Marj, who at that point had been thinking about and experimenting with F. Matthias Alexander’s discoveries for nearly 70 years, would insert powerful transformative phrases – little zingers, really – that seemed to come out of nowhere and which would re-direct a student’s thinking in a useful way. For the most part they they went unnoticed at a conscious level.*

How did she do this?  Who knows, but I guess if you’ve immersed yourself in a field of study for as long as Marj, you develop the skill of spontaneously intervening in just the right way and in just the right time to help the person you’re working with.

I’m now at about 35 years teaching experience and I’m sometimes pleasantly surprised at what I say or do during a lesson.

I’m hoping this will become a more frequent experience over the next 35 years!

If you’re an Alexander Technique teacher, have you had similar experiences? Please leave your comments below, or on Facebook.

And if you’ve not had Alexander Technique lessons, and want to start the new year by changing your tune, you can locate a teacher here: How to Find a Teacher of the Alexander Technique

*Anyone familiar with Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) watching Marj would find many examples of classic NLP interventions.  This is not surprising given that many of those interventions were based on extremely detailed, second-by-second observations of therapists who were known to be extremely effective, often in rather orthodox ways.  Marj, while not a therapist, would have made a perfect subject for the early NLP researchers.

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What is Our Supreme Inheritance?

Answer #1: It’s the title – almost! – of F. Matthias Alexander’s first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance – originally published in 1910 and republished in an expanded version in 1918 with an added sub-title, Conscious Guidance and Control in Relation to Human Evolution in Civilization and an introduction by the American educator and philosopher John Dewey.

Answer #2: Our supreme inheritance is our ability to use our mind to make conscious choices about how we function as we go through life.

Alexander was the originator of the Alexander Technique and his book, the first of four*, lays out his theory that “the great phase in man’s advancement is that in which he passes from subconscious to conscious control of his own mind and body.”

I also particularly love this quote from Alexander:

OK, you may be thinking, this all sounds good, but lots of other systems, religions, philosophies etc make similar promises.  What’s special about Alexander and his Technique?

Let’s start with Alexander the man.  He was born on the island of Tasmania in 1869 where he grew up in very humble circumstances, and with almost no formal education, before moving to the mainland of Australia.

Back then Tasmania was a violent semi-penal colony. Both of Alexander’s parents were children of convicts deported from England. It’s inhabitants were generally looked down upon by other Australians, in somewhat the same way that Australians were looked down upon at the time by many people in England. Tasmania was at the far edge of the British empire, socially and geographically – not at all the popular bucolic vacation spot it has become today!

And yet…Alexander moved to London in 1904 with letters of recommendation from prominent physicians and within a few years became quite well known in theatrical, and even some upper class social, circles as a man with a remarkable talent in helping people improve their physical functioning.  He acquired the nickname “The Breathing Man” because of his ability to improve his students’ respiratory functioning.

It’s hard to conceive of a modern equivalent.  For England today, perhaps a sheep farmer living in the FaIkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean hopping on a boat to London to share a new philosophical insight which attracts immediate attention in academic circles.  For America, maybe an impoverished Aleut-Eskimo fisherman from one of tiny Islands spread out in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Siberia, flying to New York to display his exciting new paintings which captivate the art world and lead to a new artistic style.

Alexander obviously had charisma. And talent. And the kind of Australian pluck that later converted a penal colony into the Land of Oz. But equally important, I think, is the fact that his teaching was to a large extent focused on physical functioning, even though it had powerful effects far beyond that.

The kinds of improved physical functioning that Alexander was able to help his students achieve is relatively easy for both the student and his or her friends and family to notice.  Especially when, as was often the case, the improvements happened fairly quickly, often after just a few lessons.

That is still true today. The Alexander Technique has a huge advantage over many other self-improvement programs because it’s effects are often nearly immediate and highly visible and sensible. That, coupled with Alexander’s insight that there is no real separation between “body” and “mind” means that Alexander’s work can be appreciated on multiple levels.

The Technique’s effectiveness can be readily tested: a simple thought like “I am free,” properly self delivered, can fairly easily be shown to bring about an in-the-moment improvement in physical functioning. See, for example, Throw it Away! and The Shockingly Easy Way To Improve Your Posture – And The Way You Do Everything You Do.

For me, that’s one of the most distinctive and appealing features of the Alexander Technique.  You don’t have to wait weeks, months, years or a lifetime to verify it’s effectiveness.  Once you learn a few basics. your “leap of faith” need only take a few seconds.

And for you, the reader, if you haven’t already explored the Alexander Technique, perhaps this will encourage to you do so, and claim your own personal Supreme Inheritance.

* You can order Alexander’s books from the Alexander Technique Bookstore

The Shockingly Easy Method To Improve Your Posture – And The Way You Do Everything You Do

14461458_s It is natural for our bodies to work efficiently – Patrick Macdonald.

MacDonald was one of the first people trained to be an Alexander Technique teacher, in the early 1930s,  and his observation was based on over 50 year’s experience teaching the Technique.

Our physical structure is perfectly adapted for our life on the surface of earth, with it’s array of forces operating on us 24/7 – gravity, support, atmospheric pressure (the result of gravity), light, heat etc.*

We are most definitely not paying the price for having an upright posture – as some have suggested – to explain the high incidence of common physical maladies, such as back or neck pain. We are, as MacDonald suggests, designed to to move freely, in balance, with minimum effort.

Our problems often occur when we misuse ourselves by unconsciously creating harmful habits of posture and movement.  As the old comic book character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and they are us.”

The Alexander Technique is largely concerned with bringing these harmful patterns to light and learning how to let go of them.

Beyond our amazing physical structure, there is another aspect of ourselves which very few people seem to be aware of: Our innate desire to sit, stand and move more efficiently.

This desire on our part to improve – or perhaps it could be called an extremely strong bias – is what makes the Alexander Technique work so well for so many people.  How else to explain the striking benefits in physical functioning so many people experience after having only a few short lessons.

One of the easiest ways you can experience this inherent desire to improve is to experiment with the use of a paradoxical “negative” Alexander Technique direction.  We’ll use walking as a framework for you to engage in a bit of easy self-exploration.

Here’s your assignment: With your shoes on, and using a wooden floor or perhaps a hard surface like a concrete sidewalk, take a very short walk and think to yourself, softly and lightly, the phrase “I am not walking.”  Then, as you continue walking, throw that thought away for a few steps, and then bring it back for a few steps. Keep the time frame for any one experiment to under 20-30 seconds. (A noisy wooden floor, is ideal for this kind of experiment because it gives you direct auditory feedback on the heaviness of your footfalls.)

This will NOT work well if you’re doing any of the following:

  1. Concentrating on the direction.
  2. Trying to keep the direction instead of accepting the likelihood you will forget it and then, when you notice you’ve forgotten it, gently bringing it back.
  3. Trying in any way to make the direction happen.  Your only job is to have a light, but definite, intent.
  4. Thinking a different thought – for example “This is crazy, of course I’m walking!”
  5. Getting drawn into the effects of your direction at the expense of the direction itself during the experiment.  The time to be interested in results is when the experiment is over.

(A great deal more information on Alexander Technique directions, and how to use them, can be found at New Directions in Alexander Technique Directing.)

What did you notice?  If you’re not sure, repeat the experiment and put a little attention to how your feet arrive at the floor – the amount of pressure you feel in the soles of your feet and the amount of sound they make as you walk, thinking the direction, throwing it away, and bringing the direction back.

There’s a very good chance you walking got a bit lighter and more fluid and when you used that direction and when you threw the thought away, and just walked “normally”, you were a bit heavier, perhaps making more noise with your feet.

What’s going on here?

When you say “I’m not walking” you’re effectively telling your body something like: “Don’t walk the way you usually do – your idea of what walking is – and find a different way to walk.”  But that’s way too long a phrase for your mind to process, so it’s best to shorten it to “I’m not walking.”

The fact that a very light thought changes the way your whole body functions is pretty amazing in itself.

But even more startling is that the change is always for the better. After all, your body could logically do what you ask by creating a worse way of walking. But in my experience, and the experience of many other teachers and their students, that never happens!

You can do this same sort of experiment with any activity.  For example: “I am not speaking” as you speak, “I am not lying down” as you lie in your bed, and “I am not breathing” as air flows into and out of your lungs.

Let me know what you discover, and your thoughts on why the change brought about by this kind of direction is always for the better.  Please leave comments below, or post them on Facebook.

*You can learn more about these forces, and how they effect us, here: Gravity Support and Freedom, and the Alexander Technique.

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