Specific maladies and disorders can be attributed to the way in which we treat and handle our physical beings - in those adopted, unmindful body tendencies which are now obtruding our innate poise. The Alexander Technique utilizes methods for unlearning those habits in order to attune the anatomical musculature with its inborn harmonious inclination - thus permitting inherent reflexes to supersede timeworn unnatural mobility.
Your Alexander Technique Advisor is Graeme Lynn GCFP, CSTAT
Pain in the body takes people to doctors more than any other ailment. Remarkably, most such pain is not a disease or a problem that can be addressed directly but a sign of forgetfulness, what Thomas Hanna called sensorimotor amnesia, the loss of sufficient ability to access our kinaesthesia and control our movement. Whether as a consequence of injury, surgery, traumas of every kind, disease, occupation, emotional patterning, character strategies, core beliefs, malnutrition, lifestyle, faulty development, imitation in youth, reflex responses to stress, or other factors which can instigate poor habits of feeling and doing, we lose adequate and integral sense and control of our physical selves and so we cause ourselves pain, directly or chronically. The pain is a by-product of sensorimotor amnesia and will disappear spontaneously as we recover adequate self-control and self-awareness of our physical selves.
An especially effective means of this recovery is the Alexander Technique, whose founder, F. M. Alexander, as a successful stage actor in the latter years of the nineteenth century, was troubled by an acute loss of voice during performances, a problem for which the medical profession could offer no cure as there was no pathology. These days, because of the often spurious sophistication of some diagnostic taxonomies, beguiling diagnoses can be made which reify what is often a dysfunctional process, a dysfunction of sensing and coordination. For instance, 'ideopathic hypertension', which translates as high blood pressure of unknown origin, or 'fibromyalgia', pain in the muscles and connective tissue, are misnomers, which only seem to designate a thing. Even 'arthritis' serves as a misleading identification and tends to remove responsibility from the individual's innate capacity for self-correction.
So Alexander needed a cure for his ailment because it was ruining his artistic vocation. But there was no cure. Remarkably, he realized that it was he himself who was responsible for his problem and he alone who could do something about it. And through a pioneering spirit, persistence, and a profound impulse to self-investigation, he developed a means of self-correction of the physical mechanism and, some would say, of the functioning of the human process as a whole.
His amazing story is detailed in the chapter entitled 'The Evolution of a Technique' in his third book, The Use of the Self. Some of the principles that Alexander discovered might now seem commonplace because he came to them more than a hundred years ago and they have re-shaped the culture. Indeed, most of them we know because they are at the heart of the New Age although we may not always incarnate them. The Alexander Technique, a seminal discipline in this still emerging culture, offers a practical means for doing so. For instance, the principle of the holistic nature of the human process probably most of us believe. In practicing the Technique one comes to know with certainty that every action involves thinking and feeling, attention and motive, and that every action, whether well performed or poorly performed (that is, with the consequence of pain), is done by the whole body, and we begin thereby to refine our attention and motivation, and to allow the participation of all of ourselves in our actions. In the Technique, one learns how to learn - by not doing that which one knows, and which one is willing to accept is perhaps an essential factor in one's very limitation, and allowing and embracing the new under the guidance of the teacher. One learns to be in the present, through the design of the lesson and through knowing that the (present) means leads irrevocably to the (future) end, and through thus attending to the means whereby one does any action. In a lesson, one learns and practices this in such simple actions as sitting, standing, reaching, bending, lying down, and walking, and then comes to generalize this practice to everyday life activities.
Many of us would uphold self-awareness as one of the greatest of values. The Alexander Technique brings this ideal into our daily lives. This famous story could be told in any Alexander lesson: One day a man of the people said to Zen master Ikkyu: 'Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?' Ikkyu took his brush and wrote the word 'Attention'. 'Is that all?' asked the man. 'Will you not add something?' Ikkyu then wrote twice, 'Attention. Attention.' 'Well,' remarked the man irritably, 'I don't see much depth or subtlety in that.' Then Ikkyu wrote three times: 'Attention. Attention. Attention.' Half-angered, the man demanded: 'What does that word "Attention" mean anyway?' And Ikkyu answered gently, 'Attention means attention.' Some Oriental teachers, in fact, have referred to the method as 'Western meditation' although Alexander would surely have objected if that were to imply that the Technique withdraws one from complete presence to the psychophysical dynamics of the moment. Truly, the Technique is more like yoga, a word that signifies skilful means.
Many of the Technique's principles may be found in other disciplines. But Alexander's singular discovery was what he came to call 'the primary control': the dynamics and coordination of the relationship of the head with the neck and of the head-neck relationship with the back and, via the centre, the rest of the body. What Alexander found in the course of his correcting the faulty use of himself was that in releasing and directing himself out of his centre and upwards from his support along the axis of the spine, the head freely poised and the breathing unrestricted in the course of movement, any action could be rightly performed with a minimum of strain and a maximum of effectiveness, that is, with grace and poise. Through the gradual mastery of this by practical intelligence and committed application to the principles of self-awareness, holism, presence to the moment, relinquishment of habit, and openness to the new, Alexander discovered in himself and later in his pupils that functioning at all levels improved, not only physical function but mental function and feeling, and that what were often and otherwise intractable difficulties disappeared in process.
To master what may sound like a set of familiar principles took Alexander some nine years of self-study, many before a grouping of mirrors where he could see what he was actually doing with himself, where he often found that what he thought and felt he was doing was not at all what he was doing because his very apparatus for sensing what he was doing - his kinaesthesia - was not reliable to inform him! He used the 'redundant' sense of seeing - watching himself in action - to inform and re-educate his kinaesthetic sensing. He once said that what took years to master through working on himself could be accomplished with a pupil by a skilled teacher in a short series of lessons wherein the teacher's refined use of him or herself and of his or her hands, together with constructive instruction, supersedes the usefulness of the complex of mirrors and quickens the pupil's learning.
What a teacher does during a lesson is gently guide the pupil during simple movements into improved self-use, easing out chronic action in muscles that are over-working and coaxing the appropriate degree of activity from muscles which are under-used, thereby better organizing the person's total pattern of response. With conscious practice, one gradually takes responsibility for this improving self-organization so that one comes, in time, to enjoy lightness, ease, and greater freedom of movement as the common experience of everyday life.
The principles of the Alexander Technique are at the foundation of most human improvement. And the method itself provides us with a practical way to undo our functional limitations. These familiar yet often inefficient patterns can produce conditions of dis-ease, harmful tension, and unfulfilled potential.
Alexander demonstrated that it is entirely possible to transcend these limitations and to acquire exemplary coordination, alertness, greater freedom, and a healthier use of ourselves. Since his original discoveries, renowned scientists, educators, artists, and common people alike have acclaimed his work. Today, the Technique is included in the curriculum of the most prestigious schools of music and of the performing arts worldwide and as a supplement to conventional forms of healthcare (which rarely recognize the pervasive influence of use on functioning), especially, and unfortunately, when these accepted modalities have failed.
The most common misconception about posture is that it exists. The second most common misconception about posture is that it matters. The third is that you can do something directly about it.
Firstly, no one is ever static - as the word 'posture' implies - unless they are dead. That is why the word, 'acture', connoting the ongoing response to gravity, is a better term.
Secondly, no amount of correcting a static pose is going to significantly affect what one does the other 99.999% of the time, that is, the infinite number of other moments in a normal person's life when they are not trying to stand 'correctly' in front of a mirror to check their posture. In fact, it is almost pointless to instruct or show someone how to stand correctly (even especially according to the often suggested 'plumb-line' rule devised by the associated medical establishment, which instruction is not essentially different or any more effective than our mothers' admonishments, 'Stand up straight - chest out, chin in, stomach in' - and is, in fact, remarkably similar! and equally misguided!) and expect that to have any significant effect on the rest of one's active life, because so-called state-specific learning is ineffective. That is, learning is not learning if it pertains only under specific circumstances - in front of a mirror, for example. Thirdly, the oft-touted idea that you can correct the way you stand (or move) and accurately know whether you are correct is downright wrong. If you could in fact correct the way you stand (or move) by adjusting yourself, even in front of a mirror, you would already have done so because you would be able to feel that you were wrong. Since you cannot thus feel, the mirror cannot effectively help. You cannot make the so-called corrections last because your feeling, upon whose basis you would maintain the corrections, is already wrong, and undermines your will to adopt a new form. This, in fact, was F. M. Alexander's critical discovery more than one hundred years ago - and the dreadful conundrum in which he found himself - when he was attempting to correct his own chronic 'use' problem. And it changed his life.
Alexander discovered, by observing himself in the mirror, not how to correct his movement, but that it was impossible for him to do so! - because the very faculty upon which he depended to make his adjustments - his self-sensing - was faulty.
The self-senses are the senses of balance, articulation, felt movement, tissue pressure, tissue tension, and pain. These senses are inextricably interrelated with movement in the nervous system and that is why they can go wrong when something goes wrong with the faculty of movement. Movement can err because of injury, surgery, disease, lifestyle, traumas of every kind, emotional patterning, character strategies, core beliefs, poor nutrition, faulty development, imitation in youth, reflex responses to stress, and other factors which effect learning of faulty patterns of doing (and, thus, feeling). So, Alexander discovered that he had to re-educate his feeling, his self-sensing. And that is why one must not address doing alone (that is, standing 'correctly', for instance) but rather, feeling. And that took Alexander years of self-study. And that is why pain - which, like poor posture, is a common consequence of action that is not harmonious with one's physical structure - is such a profound problem, because it cannot be resolved directly and easily. And so, it must not be addressed in glib terms such as 'do this' or 'do that.'
If a person knew how to stand (or move) correctly he or she would already be doing so. Since that is not the case then one has to learn again to feel, that is, sense, what one is doing. And it must be realized that a person with a pain, posture or 'use' problem is really not presently sensing what he or she is doing because, if it were so, he or she would already be 'well organized', that is, would not be doing something which is harmful or problematic.
The profundity of Alexander's discovery is largely unknown to the wider public. Physiotherapy, fitness instruction, and the like, which often teach models for 'good posture', are part of the conventional medical model, which has proven itself an inadequate and partial paradigm. That is some of the why and wherefore of the New Age. Allopathic medicine and its dependants are not part of the new paradigm, not that there is not great value in medicine and so on, but their application is not universal in the field of health. Sensing and movement, or the sensorimotor functions, are not their field of expertise, fundamentally because sensing and movement are holistic processes, involving the body as a totality and the mind-brain-body as a totality, whereas the medical model is a partial and fragmentary model, denying the existence of mind and treating the body as a sum of its parts.
Alexander discovered that his self-sensing was unreliable and that it was the very thing upon which he depended to move well, which was thereby impossible. Good movement (which includes the ongoing response to gravity) remains impossible for anyone whose movement has gone wrong, until they re-educate their self-sensing. This re-education is accomplished in Alexander Technique lessons through refined manipulation and instruction. The expertise of the Alexander teacher is in his or her ability to best organize or coordinate, with the skilled and gentle use of his or her hands - which hands are uniquely trained to sense subtleties of movement and tension - the pupil's core organization. The refinement of touch and the instruction that accompanies the manipulative process rightly directs the pupil's attention to his or her habitual patterning and stimulates his or her own sensory self-exploration and capacity for freedom and self-control.
This manual and verbal instruction is carried out in the process of simple movements such as sitting, standing, lying down, reaching, bending, and walking. As the pupil masters the use of the physical mechanism in such basic activities, he or she goes on to apply the learning to the more complex actions of everyday life. 'Acture', the ongoing response to gravity, is thus addressed in every moment and truly re-educated. The grace and poise that is our natural inheritance is re-created. This takes time, time to unlearn established faulty habits and to relearn right and conscious use of oneself in action, time and commitment of attention, intelligence, and intention to the sensorimotor learning process. Alexander once said that a good teacher of the Technique can, however, accomplish with a pupil in a short series of lessons the same changes that took him years working on himself.
The Alexander Technique is a unique and uniquely effective method of sensorimotor re-education, founded on the profound principles of self-awareness, holism, freedom, learning, and the love of embodiment, applied to the humble arena of human sensing and movement. These fundamental principles define the Technique as one of the seminal disciplines of the New Age. And because of its profound foundations, it has implications that exceed its humble purposes. That is partly why Alexander believed that it could change the direction of civilization. His work has indeed had a significant positive influence in that change, not only in its impact on ordinary people's lives, but in its influence on some of the most renowned scientists, educators, thinkers, psychologists, and artists of the twentieth century. For that influence for good to continue to grow, the principles on which it is founded must continue to counter those of the partial paradigm they seek to succeed.
'When thought leads to actions, the neurophysiologist is forced to accept that thinking can change the neuronal activity of the brain Such conversion of thinking and intent into cortical impulse patterns remains, for the time being, far beyond the limits of our understanding.' Fundamentals of Neurophysiology, revised edition (1988)
Often people interested in the Alexander Technique wonder what a lesson is like and how it actually succeeds in advancing a person beyond his or her limitations. Although, in some sense, every Alexander lesson is essentially the same, the first is unique because therein you begin to learn the fundamentals of the method, which, with time and practice, you come to apply to your everyday life. The Alexander Technique is founded on three basic principles: attention, intelligence, and the instrument of intelligence, intention. For a moment, just give your attention to the first knuckle of your left index finger. Now, nobody knows what attention is, but whatever you just did mentally or 'on the inside', that is attention, in this case, attention to sensory experience. There are some fourteen senses - and you thought that there were only five! Just recently, in fact, brain researchers discovered a fourteenth sense they have called 'blind sight'. Certain blind people, it turns out, can sense verticals and horizontals visually because of an undamaged neural pathway, which it turns out we all have, distinct from the optic nerves that carry the impulses related to colours and black and white.
In the Alexander Technique, the senses that we seek to re-educate and refine are the senses of balance, articulation, felt movement, tissue pressure, tissue tension, and pain. Except for excepting those of cold and heat, we are talking about the senses of embodiment or self-sensing. By bringing our attention to our 'inner' selves, to the senses of embodiment, we give freedom to the play of intelligence, which is the faculty of exploration, consideration, knowing, reason, intuition, and understanding, here brought to the context of embodiment. This is the beginning of the re-education and refinement of our self-sensing, which refinement serves the improvement of our movement, and thus, the obviation of our limitations in function.
Alexander's unique intelligence was his discovery and understanding of what he came to call the 'primary control' of human movement. He found that by understanding and mastering this senior organizing function, all other movement functions fall into place and become rightly coordinated. By exploring, considering, understanding, and mastering the primary control in his own case, he surpassed his functional limitations. And he found that this mastery could be conveyed to others in a relatively short series of lessons by gentle, educative manipulation and intelligent instruction. Some of that intelligent instruction I hope you are getting now!
The primary control is the dynamics and coordination of the relationship of the head with the neck and of the head-neck relationship with the back and, via the centre, with the rest of the body. That was easy! The primary control is like a multi-dimensional link chain, which includes the three dimensions of the body's volume and its movement. The first link in the chain is the head-neck relationship. Freeing the head-neck relationship allows the back to lengthen and widen, and that expansion allows the body to release outwards from its centre via the limbs and axial trunk. All of this is initiated by attention and activated by intention, which in the Technique takes two forms: 'inhibition', or non-doing of habitual patterning, brought into consciousness by instruction and attention and 'direction', or the ideomotor evocation of the improving self-organization, brought to possibility likewise.
Alexander found that if, in the course of movement, one releases and 'directs' oneself out of one's centre and upwards from one's support along the axis of the spine, the head freely poised and the breathing unrestricted, any action can be performed with a minimum of strain and a maximum of effectiveness, that is, with ease and poise. Attending to oneself in the context of the primary control, becoming more and more intelligent about one's own movement in that context, and using one's intention to undo, or 'inhibit', interferences with it, and to master, or 'direct', its right organization frees our natural grace and un-roots physical limitations.
The expertise of the Alexander teacher is in his or her ability to best organize or coordinate, with the refined and gentle use of his or her hands - which hands are uniquely trained to sense subtleties of movement and tension - the pupil's movement and response to gravity via an ongoing address to the pupil's primary control. This ongoing improvement of the organization of the pupil's primary control, which comes, in time, to include the whole person, is the essence of the teacher's manipulation. The refinement of touch and the worded instruction that accompanies the manipulative process especially in the beginning, rightly directs the pupil's attention to his or her habitual patterning, stimulates his or her own sensory self-exploration or intelligence, and commands the application of his or her intention to allow and evoke the improving self-organization.
This manual and verbal instruction is carried out in the process of the simplest of movements such as sitting, standing, lying down, reaching, bending, and walking. As the pupil refines his or her mastery of the physical mechanism in such simple activities, he or she goes on to apply the learning to the more complex actions of everyday life. And that is about it.
Alexander once said that the Work, as he called it, in spite of being a hands-on educative method, is the most mental discipline there is. It is widely known that he was prone to hyperbole for the sake of emphasis. (He was also prone to long and involved sentences when writing about the Technique! This is because human function, unlike human language, is non-linear, hence the difficulty in comprehending it verbally. In fact, human mechanics are far more akin to a complex cybernetic feedback loop of interweaving functions. The saying, 'A picture is worth a thousand words,' is only the beginning. The experience of the Technique involves many more dimensions than a mere picture.) However, it is basically true that the Technique is the application of the higher human faculties of attention, intelligence, and intention to the fundamentals of self-sensing, movement and posture (or 'acture', since there is nothing ever actually static in life, and the response to gravity is dynamic and ongoing, and we are more like actors than posts). We do not know what the mind and body are, but the Alexander Technique takes advantage of the fact that somehow they inextricably interact and we can use each to improve the other. By using the senior faculties of the mind to address the senior function of our physical mechanics, we bring about freedom and easy control of our actions. As functional limitation of some kind is the basic physical problem with which most of us are beset, and undue muscular contraction, the essential cause of pain that is not organic in nature, the Alexander Technique undoes our suffering at its root and returns us to the inherent pleasure in embodiment.
Graeme Lynn is Canada's most highly qualified somatic educator, certified in the Feldenkrais Method, the Alexander Technique, structural bodywork (Hellerwork) and Hanna Somatics.
He has studied in California, England, and Israel, under such renowned teachers as Thomas Hanna, John Nicholls, and Dan Armon. With his partner, Christine Ohlms, he teaches at Kinetix, The Studio for Somatic Learning, at 585 Bloor St. W. at Bathurst subway station in Toronto.
For more information or to schedule a lesson, please call: 416-964-7026.