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.
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