This is a question Alexander Technique teachers get all the time, and one I wrote about last January in What is the Alexander Technique? It’s something I keep coming back to.
Teachers’ replies to this most basic of questions about the Technique vary dramatically.
Some teachers are able to come up with a short, clear and easy to understand answer.
Many others appear to be flustered, as though they’re being put on the spot, and often preface their reply with phrases like “Well that’s a tough question.” or “I was afraid you’d ask me that.” They may say something like: “It can’t adequately be described with words – you have to experience it for yourself.” Sometime their answer is so jargon-riddled that it’s impossible for ordinary people to comprehend.
It’s easy for those of us who teach the Alexander Technique to understand the many reasons behind these seemingly bizarre replies – for example our unfamiliar way of thinking about posture, pain, and stress, our concern that anything we say can easily be misinterpreted, etc.
But still…it must seem bizarre to a questioner why there is so much reluctance to giving the answer to a very obvious and basic question. A question which, if anybody ought to know how to answer, it would be a teacher of the Technique!
A brief pause here…nothing I’m writing here is meant as a criticism of my colleagues. I am, or have been, guilty of all these ways of describing the Technique. It’s taken me years to feel confident and comfortable answering the “what is” question.
In this regard I owe a lot to the late Marjorie Barstow. More often than not, she would begin a workshop by asking everyone for their definition of the Technique. Of course some participants, new to the process, couldn’t answer the question, and Marj was fine with that.
Some of the answers were excellent. My favorite (and Marj’s too) was from one of her ongoing students, Dr Alfred Flechas. He suggested: “The Alexander Technique is a way of learning how to release harmful tension from your body.”
I often use that answer myself as it seems to resonate with a lot of people. Sometimes I say: “Its a method of helping people do whatever they want to do more easily and with less unnecessary strain.”
And sometimes, particularly when my contact with the questioner if fleeting – going through customs for example – I say: “It’s a way to help people improve their posture and co-ordination.”
My current favorite answer – but definitely not for everyone! – is: “It’s a way to make the best use of our physical structure and of the forces that operate on us as we go about our lives on the surface our planet.”*
I’m always looking for better answers – which is one reason why at the beginning of my podcasts I ask the person I’m interviewing to give their short definition or description of the Technique. In some ways it’s not surprising that many of the best answers come from Alexander students as they are often free of the trepidations many teachers have.
Actually, I’m much more comfortable these days talking about Alexander’s discoveries – what they were and how we can make use of them for ourselves. But that is a topic for another blog. In the meantime, you might want to read this excellent article by Alexander Technique teacher Nicholas Brockbank, What Did Alexander Discover – And Why is it Important?
One final thought: It’s interesting that F. Matthias Alexander himself never gave a concise answer to the question. Indeed, as far as I know, he never even used the term “Alexander Technique”! Maybe that’s because he started his teaching career as a teacher of the Delsarte Method**, shedding that identity only after he moved to England in 1904, and perhaps not feeling comfortable attaching his name to what he was doing. From that time on, he generally referred to to his teaching as “the work” or “my work.”
Alexander was also very clear in his writings that he viewed his work as just the beginning of an ongoing process of discovery and innovation.
For me this history, and the very nature of the Alexander Technique itself, means there is no single “official” Alexander Technique definition. Individual teachers, students and professional societies have come up with their own definitions of course. But they can – and often do – change over time, reflecting new developments or the sort that Alexander expected would take place.
And now dear readers a final question: What is your definition of the Alexander Technique?
I’d love to read your answers below and/or on Facebook.
*More on the inspiration for this direction can be found at Gravity, Support and Freedom – and the Alexander Technique
**More on the Alexander/Delsarte connection can be found at Francois Delsarte’s influence on F. Matthias Alexander and the Alexander Technique
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