The Alexander Technique: A New Approach to Mind-Body Unity
No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. – Albert Einstein
No one would deny that we ourselves enter as an agency into whatever is attempted and done by us. This is a truism. But the hardest thing to attend to is that which is closest to ourselves, that which is most constant and familiar. And this closest ‘something’ is, precisely, ourselves, our own habits and ways of doing things…
It is, however, one thing to to teach the need of a return to the individual man as the ultimate agency in whatever mankind and society collectively can accomplish…it is another thing to discover the concrete procedure by which this greatest of all tasks can be executed. And this indispensable thing is exactly what Mr. Alexander has accomplished. – John Dewey
Albert Einstein is well known to all of us. John Dewey was America’s most famous philosopher. He founded the school of philosophy know as “pragmatism” and he was also very influential in the development of American education during the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, he is often referred to as the “father of American education.”
But just who was the “Mr. Alexander” that Dewey apparently held in such high esteem? And what did he do to merit Dewey’s praise?
“Mr. Alexander” was F. Matthias Alexander (1869-1855), an Australian by birth, who lived most of his life in London. He was the developer of a method of teaching people how to change harmful habits of posture and movement – habits that prevented them for operating at their full potential. His method continues to be taught today and is commonly called the Alexander Technique.
It might seem strange that a philosopher would be so taken by a process that seems mainly to do with the operation of the physical body. After all we don’t usually attach great philosophical importance to the activities of our chiropractor, massage therapist or physical trainer.
When Dewey and Alexander first met in New York during World War I and had a series of lessons with Alexander, the most immediate results were dramatic improvements in his breathing, eyesight and in the flexibility of his ribcage. Before then, Dewey had always been a very cerebral person and considered his body to be just something needed to keep his mind functioning.
But before long Dewey come to realize that there was a great deal more to the Alexander Technique than improved physical functioning, as important as that was. In his book Freedom to Change – The Development and Science of the Alexander Technique, Frank Pierce Jones relates an interview he had with John Dewey in 1947:
“(Dewey) said that he had been taken by (the Alexander Technique) first because it provided a demonstration of the unity of mind and body. He thought that the demonstration had struck him more forcibly than it might have struck someone who got the sensory experience easily and quickly, because he was such a slow learner. He had always been physically awkward, he said, and performed all actions too quickly and impulsively and without thought. ‘Thought’ in his case was saved for ‘mental’ activity, which had always been easy for him. It was a revelation to discover that thought could be applied with equal advantage to everyday movements.
“The greatest benefit he got from lessons, Dewey said, was the ability to stop and think before acting. Physically, he noted an improvement first in his vision and then in breathing. Before he had lessons, his ribs had been very rigid. Now they had a marked elasticity which doctors still commented on, though he was close to eighty-eight.
“Intellectually, Dewey said, he found it much easier, after had had studied the technique, to hold a philosophical position calmly once he had taken it or to change it if new evidence came up warranting a change. He contrasted his own attitude with the rigidity of other academic thinkers who adopt a position early in their careers and then use their intellects to defend it indefinitely.”
In my own work as an Alexander Technique teacher, I find that physical and mental rigidity often go hand in hand. You can verify this for yourself by taking a close look at people you know and comparing the ease of their physical bearing with their openness to new ideas.
There are exceptions of course – often very dramatic ones, too. But this kind of observation provides evidence of the mind-body unity Dewey spoke about, and which was emphasized by Alexander.
Today, Alexander Technique teachers continue to stress the connections between the way we think about how we sit, stand and move, and the manner in which we actually perform these activities. When we learn how to be precise in our thinking about what we want to happen, the physical results follow automatically.
What you think is what you get.
As with John Dewey, the immediate benefits are often primarily physical in nature. Indeed many people initially take Alexander lessons because of back pain, stiff necks and shoulders and the like. But over time they sometimes discover other, more subtle, benefits of the sort Dewey found.
And for some, these unexpected benefits turn out to be the most valuable.