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The F. M. Alexander Technique - Part 1


Many trainers are concerned about posture and movement and their relation to the neuromuscular system. Among the trainer's tools to correct problems in these areas are resistance training, stretching, manual positioning, guided movement and the conscious activation of muscles. All of these methods are based on getting muscles to "do" things: to lengthen, strengthen or activate sufficiently. Muscular imbalances are corrected by stretching and strengthening. If muscles are inactive, the client is asked to consciously activate them. If the jaw or shoulders are held forward, the client is instructed to hold them back. It seems axiomatic and many trainers, and clients, can attest that these methods work to improve posture and movement patterns.

But like everything in fitness, there is an alternative theory that looks at these problems from another side. Called the Alexander Technique, it was developed over one hundred years ago by an actor who lost his voice because of excess tension in his neck. The basis of the Alexander Technique is that unconscious habits of excess tension in activity impede proper movement and posture. By focusing on preventing these habits before and during movement, instead of trying to create proper movement, innate posture and coordination are better able to re-emerge. Major performing arts institutions such as Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music have used the Alexander Technique for decades, and several studies have indicated that the Alexander Technique may be more useful than other methods for improving breathing, back pain, and even for reducing the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. A growing number of athletes and fitness professionals are also finding that the Alexander Technique is uniquely suited to improving the proprioceptive sense, leading to a positive effect on performance, injury prevention and fitness training.

History of the Technique

F.M. Alexander (1869-1954) was an Australian actor who realized that excess tension in his neck caused him to lose his voice on stage. Performing his lines in front of a mirror, he observed muscular contraction in his neck as he spoke. The contraction shortened his stature and caused his chin to jut forward. Through further observation he realized that he had the same habit, although to a lesser degree, when speaking more softly. Still further observation revealed that the habit of shortening his neck did not start when he spoke, but was more closely connected with his thought of speaking. In other words, one of the first things that Alexander did as he conceived of speaking, was shorten his neck. As many trainers and coaches have observed, the ability to feel what we are doing (the proprioceptive sense) is often inaccurate and Alexander could not feel any of this excess tension, nor could he speak without it. It was as if it was part of the fabric of how he used himself every time he spoke.

To solve his problem, Alexander focused on inhibiting his habitual movement pattern. Since he was aware that the movement that felt right was actually wrong, he did not try to speak correctly. Instead, using a mirror, he concentrated on the avoidance of the habit of tightening his neck and made speaking a secondary, incidental, objective. The result felt wrong but through this method Alexander was slowly able to recalibrate his proprioceptive sense and establish a more accurate feeling of speaking without excess tension.

Alexander could also see that shortening his neck when speaking was not his only habit of excess tension, and he that was not the only person who engaged in these habits. In himself and others he saw bracing, shortening and narrowing of the entire body with each action or response to stimuli. After several years of self-observation, Alexander began to teach his method of conscious inhibition through manual facilitated movement. He wrote four books on the subject and his supporters included the eminent biologists of the day, G.E. Coghill and Sir Charles Sherrington, author of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. In 1973, behaviorist Nikolaas Tinbergen devoted half of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to the Alexander Technique.

What Happens in a Lesson?

An Alexander teacher uses a gentle guiding touch to help the student recognize and consciously release excess tension so that they can expand into their full length and width. With this same guiding touch the instructor also takes the student into movement while encouraging them to focus on avoiding the habit instead of trying to "do" the movement, which would immediately cause the habit to engage. The movements used are simple: bending, rising from and sitting in a chair or squatting to the floor. Alexander teachers also help people avoid habits of excess tension during breathing and vocalizing. Between lessons the student is asked to allow themselves to become aware of habitual tension and to experiment with inhibition as they respond to stimuli throughout the day. Usually between 10 and 30 lessons are required for the student to feel the discomfort of excess tension as it arises, making it easier to avoid, so that they can use themselves with less effort.

The Alexander Technique instructor uses a gentle guiding touch to help the client recognize and inhibit habits of excess tension that shorten the spine and narrow the back.

The Alexander Technique in Fitness Training

What Alexander really discovered is that refraining from an act is no less an act than committing one because inhibition is also an activity of the nervous system. If today's personal trainer aims to develop the neuromuscular system, Alexander's concept of conscious inhibition should not be neglected. It is common knowledge that in most of life's activities, getting out of one's own way is half the battle. For the athlete facing back pain or a performance plateau, the slumping client with a jutting chin and rounded shoulders, or the musician struggling with repetitive strain injury, it is often an epiphany to finally recognize and prevent the roadblocks they are putting up for themselves.

Using the same guiding touch, the Alexander Technique instructor helps the client to inhibit shortening and narrowing as they move, as in this example of movement into a squat.

Benefits

Specific benefits of the Alexander Technique include improvements in proprioceptive awareness, ease of movement, posture, breathing and vocal production. It can also help people to reduce tension and tension associated pain such as back pain and pain associated with repetitive strain injury. Finally, the Alexander Technique imparts a renewed feeling of lightness that is its hallmark.

Finding a Teacher

Certification as an Alexander Teacher requires the completion of a 1600-hour course in a training program certified by the American Society for the Alexander Technique. Information about training and a list of certified teachers can be found at www.alexandertech.org.

Books by F.M. Alexander

Scientific Studies and Articles

Physical Therapy And The Alexander Technique Homepage

The Alexander Technique: An Innovative Approach To Reducing Physical Tension And Stress

Functional Reach Improvement In Normal Older Women After Alexander Technique Instruction

Photo Credits

Instructor: Leland Vall
Client: Luis Baez
Photos: Arthur Donowski