Continuing Education

Changes You Choose: Exploring the Alexander Technique

How do we unlearn physical behaviors detrimental to our comfort and well-being that have become deeply ingrained in our daily lives? For many, one successful means of unlearning Imagestarts with the Alexander Technique.  When Learning in ActionAn Introduction to the Alexander Technique instructor Stacy Gehman first discovered the process in the late 1970s, he found a study that spoke to him on a level akin to his interests in Tai Chi and Zazen. However, he didn’t foresee it being the answer to some of his own discomfort. “I was having very unpleasant backaches,” says Gehman. “I tried various therapies, but without much relief, then a friend gave me a book on the Alexander Technique. I found it very exciting. Somehow the idea that what I needed was not somebody to fix some defect in me. It was fascinating that I might be able to learn what it was I was doing that caused my problem.”

Inspired to further study, Gehman found classes to be surprisingly scarce. “There were no Alexander teachers in the DC area, but one had just moved to Baltimore. So, I started lessons, which I found fascinating, and they filled me with wonder. With only gentle guidance, my way of moving changed radically. As a physicist, I could not understand how I could stand up without using my usual amount of force and effort. Yet, there it was, and I wasn’t inclined to believe in miracles.” 

In 1978 Gehman sought the instruction of Marjorie Barstow, the first teacher certified by FM Alexander. “She was not happy with students merely having lovely experiences,” Gehman recalls. “She wanted all of us to use our eyes to see what was happening in each other, to think about it, to describe what we saw, and understand how it might apply to us. She frequently said she did not want us to believe anything she said, but to think about it and to try it out for ourselves. At 79 years old, she moved more fluidly, and had more energy than anyone else in the room, and most of the students were in college or young adults.”

Creator of the Alexander Technique F Matthias Alexander (FM) was an aspiring actor who found himself losing his voice with a shocking degree of regularity. Doctors were of no help. Following a series of treatments, FM was advised by his physicians to rest his voice for two weeks. During this period of recuperation, he noticed that when he used his voice normally, there were no problems, but as soon as he began to recite his lines a detrimental tension tookImage effect. “He would begin to develop hoarseness,” says Gehman. “He reasoned that he must be doing something different when reciting, and since no one could tell him what that might be, he would have to discover it for himself.”

“He began using mirrors,” says Gehman, “and in what I think was a stroke of genius, he did not start by watching himself recite, but by watching himself speak normally, which seemed reasonable to him because he did not know what to look for.”

“I like to point out at this point in the story a few remarkable points, which are key for learning the Alexander Technique for oneself,” says Gehman.  “First, FM had to intuit that he could be doing something and not know it, in fact not even feel it, and if that is the case, he might be able to see what it was in the mirror.  Then he chose to look for a difference between one activity, which gave him no trouble, and another that did. Gregory Bateson, an early cyberneticist defined ‘information’ as ‘a difference that makes a difference,’ precisely the task FM set for himself.”

According to Gehman, in developing his technique FM took a long look back on human history and our evolving physicality. “(His) idea was that until our existence as hunter-gatherers, we had evolved slowly and instinctively. But when we began to make tools, and to modify our environment, the changes to our daily activities proceeded too fast for evolution to keep up, which led to misuse of our bodies at an ever-accelerating pace. He saw his work as a way to take the evolution of the human being from an instinctive process to a conscious one.” 

The Alexander Technique asks one to look deeply at the interconnection of their physical and emotional lives. “The word ‘emotion’ taken literally (ex + movere) means ‘from movement’ in Latin. What we feel is the result of a movement, however subtle,” says Gehman. “And if we want to change habitual feelings that are a nuisance to us, it can be done. But the Alexander Teacher is not going to do that for you, or tell you what change to make. If you learn the process, you can apply it to whatever you choose, and leave everything else alone.”

At first glance, the Alexander Technique appears simply a regimen for good posture, but to the initiated it is a great deal more.  Gehman illustrates the benefits of the technique with a personal anecdote, “My younger daughter was taking gymnastics classes, and when she was around six I observed something odd as she was on the balance beam. I could not understand Imagewhy she was so tight, and constantly losing her balance. When we got home I mentioned to (her) that she seemed to be having trouble on the beam. She said ‘Yes, my teacher said that I was to keep my butt really tight and tucked under, and make my legs really straight.’ I helped her understand what her teacher had seen the class doing, and why she had given those instructions. But I also helped her re-think what she could do to get the results the teacher wanted without all the excess effort that destroyed her balance.”

Gehman says students looking forward to studying the Alexander Technique can take as little or as much of it as they want. “The Technique is unique in that it does not tell you how you should conduct your life, but it can tell you how to make changes in your life that you choose. Learning how to stand-up and sit-down more easily, or improve your golf swing, stop hurting at your desk, etc. are all perfectly good reasons for studying the Technique. Others see that if they can learn to change habits of movement that have existed for their lifetimes by becoming more conscious of what they are doing, then maybe that might be useful in altering other habits of thought that cause them problems.”

Learn more about Learning in ActionAn Introduction to the Alexander Technique.

Photo credit #1: Umar Sha_cc_2.0
Photo credit #2: Gigiben_cc_2.0
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