F M Alexander and the Alexander Technique 150 years on

Painting of F M Alexander
Painting by Ruth Beardmore, around 1946. Digital image © Dave Gorman 2005

F M Alexander, who founded the Alexander Technique, was born 150 years ago this year.  But who was he and what are the key ideas behind his work?

Observing himself in the mirror

Born in 1869, he was an Australian actor and reciter. As a young man he developed voice problems when appearing on stage.  Medical specialists were of little help and he came close to giving up his performing career.  So he started to look for his own solution by observing himself in the mirror.

He began to see that he used too much tension in his head and neck when he recited. But it also seemed to be part of a wider pattern throughout his body. By stopping what he usually did, he discovered a new and easier way to speak and breathe. The difficulties with his voice disappeared and his health and general functioning improved. He was able to return to acting and began to teach other people his methods.

Teaching in London

In 1904 he moved to London where he established a thriving teaching practice. Many eminent medical, literary and society names came to work with him. He taught in the USA at various stages, published four books and opened a small school based on his principles. In 1931 he set up the first three-year training course for teachers in what is now the Alexander Technique.  Despite a stroke in 1947 he was able to recover and continued teaching until his death in 1955 at the age of 86.

Alexander poster

Use, habit and awareness 

Over time F M Alexander developed a number of principles which formed the bedrock of his technique. A key one is the idea of use – what we do constantly in all our activities. We each have an individual, usually habitual, pattern of how we use ourselves. This affects how we move, breathe, react, think and function. Our use can support or hinder us in daily activities, but it’s not fixed and can change. It was Alexander’s ‘misuse’ that caused his voice problem. “My doing was my undoing” he said.

As Alexander realised from looking in the mirror, what we think we do is often different from reality. So becoming more aware of our use is important, as well as paying attention to how we act, rather than going straight for what we want to do.

Head, neck and back working together

Central to improving our use is another key principle  – what Alexander came to call the primary control.  This is the dynamic relationship between the head, neck and back.  When it’s working well we have a lengthened, rather than compressed, spine, with our head moving freely on top. As a result we have a postural freedom with fluid and integrated movement.

But before we begin to move or do anything we need to learn to pause. This brief moment of stopping – known by Alexander as inhibition – gives us time to prevent our automatic reactions from taking over. Then by using thinking to direct our head, neck and back, we begin to find a new way of moving that involves less muscular effort.

Alexander made no distinction between body and mind. He saw them working as one integrated unit – the self. So thinking and movement are inseparable and any change flows through the whole of us.

F M Alexander plaque in Tasmania
Photo: Diana Watson Monument Australia website
A practical technique with wide applications

F M Alexander was the grandchild of convicts who were deported to Tasmania. As a premature baby he only just survived his early months of life in a frontier town, and found school difficult. But he lived in a time and place where self-reliance, observation, practical skills and common sense were valued. Working with and observing animals, particularly horses, was part and parcel of life.

So it’s no surprise he was able to come up with his own solution to his voice problem and then develop it as a practical technique with wider applications. On his death in 1955 it wasn’t obvious what his long-term legacy would be. But the ‘fundamental facts about functional human movement’ commemorated on the plaque above near his birthplace have stood the test of time.

I’m taking a break from this blog for a while as I complete the final term of my training. But I look forward to continuing the Alexander story in a different way when I return.

 Read an account of a lesson with F M Alexander in 1929 by Lulie Westfeldt

Fear of falling: when tensing up changes balance and stability

Ice Skating at Somerset House, London November 2018

Fear of falling affects all of us at times, specially in winter.  But reacting by tensing up is not the answer as it alters our balance, affecting stability and making us more likely to fall. This was clear when I visited two of London’s pop-up ice rinks over the Christmas holidays.

Anxious skaters were hesitant and stiff, intent only on keeping upright. As they tensed, their weight shifted.  This put them off balance and they became more unstable. By contrast confident skaters moved in a fluid and poised way. They were more springy and supple, allowing their balance to look after itself. They had energy and time to take in their surroundings, which in turn helped with stability.    No fear of falling for ice marshal at Somerset House, London

Fluid and effortless movement

At Somerset House the most skilful skaters were the ice marshals, easy to spot in fluorescent jackets.  They were everywhere at once, swooping in whenever a skater took a tumble. They floated round, upright and alert, eyes taking in their surroundings. For them skating on ice seemed as natural as walking on grass.

Gliding on the ice without fear of falling at Tower of London ice rink

At the Tower of London one skater stood out for her easy flowing style.  She skated forwards and backwards with equal grace, turning and stopping to let her two less confident friends catch up. Like the ice marshals, she looked up and out, aware of her position on the ice and the space around her. And bending at the hips, knees and ankles she used her body’s natural spirals to skate round, shifting her weight onto each leg with fluid co-ordination.

No fear of falling on the ice for children at Somerset House, London

Children falling without fear

The Polar Bear Club was in a separate space reserved for under-8s.  Here there was falling but no fear. Every minute, it seemed, children collapsed on to the ice. But by holding on to the weighted bears they stood right back up and continued to skate.

Falling was part of the experience and the fun.  No-one tensed up or got hurt and the adults encouraged and assisted. As Olympic ice dance champion Christopher Dean put it “The Christmas pop-ups are a really good taster. Especially for kids, who don’t tend to see the fear in it that adults can.”

Ice skates, Somerset House London

Tensing up affects balance and stability

Back at the main rink the disco beat urged skaters round.  But fear of falling made it hard for some even to step onto the ice. Then, once on the rink, some clung to the side, easing round by hand.  “Keep your glove on, Emily!” yelled a protective but unhelpful dad, as Emily tensed her shoulders and gripped the barrier.Street art, London South Bank

Fear of falling is not just a problem when we skate. Cycling on muddy ground recently I noticed that I tensed my legs the minute I moved off the path and onto the mud. As soon as I let go of the tension I felt more balanced and in control of my bike.   It can also be a common response to ageing, pain, post-op recovery or just moving on an unfamiliar surface like ice or mud. What was clear as I watched the skaters was that tensing up to guard against a fall only made a tumble more likely.

Details of a small pilot study showing the positive effects of the Alexander Technique on older people with a fear of falling.

Skating polar bears, Somerset House London

Fear of falling on the ice at Tower of London ice rink

 

A skeleton is for life, not just for Christmas

Skeleton in Christmas hat

Finding my skeleton

I’ve bought a skeleton. He was hiding behind four gilded ornamental pineapples in a dingy corner of a local auction house.  His plastic bones were hanging in the right order, he was moveable and, like most anatomical skeletons, male. (Female versions are rare and cost an arm and a leg).  He was silent but we had an instant connection.

Making a bid

Browsing in an auction house was tricky, like a game of three-dimensional poker. I was a novice, so took my cue from others. It seemed communal yet competitive, sociable but filled with low cunning. Some bidders gave off an air of unconcern, as if out for a Sunday stroll. Others honed in at once on their target, chatting in hushed tones to decide on a price.

There was only one skeleton in the sale and others might want him. How much was he worth to me? I knew I’d find him useful, but didn’t mind if he went elsewhere. Best to treat it like a game where the outcome didn’t matter. So I studied a telescope, a yellow diving helmet and a silent pair of peacocks hoping to throw rivals off the musty scent of sternum and femur. Then I made a nonchalant foray into pineapple corner to settle on my bid.

Internal body map

When I started having Alexander lessons my internal body map was, at best, sketchy. I hadn’t paid much attention to skeletal structure since school biology lessons with Mr Brodie. Where my bones and joints were, what they did or how they moved was not important knowledge.  Or so I thought.

But without a body map I had no sense of what was possible and moved in a more compressed and restricted way than I needed to. With Alexander work my body map has become more accurate.  My movement is now more in harmony with my joints and internal structure rather than ignoring or working against them. Seeing a life-size skeleton during Alexander lessons and training has been part of this process. Without doubt the plastic figure behind the pineapples could be of use.

Looking after my skeleton

My auction house strategies were successful.  No-one else bid, and I secured the skeleton at a modest price. “He’s a good dancer” laughed the receptionist. “We’ve enjoyed having him around”.  So the next challenge was to escort him home.

He blinked as we emerged into the sunlight and paused, uncertain. We set off uphill. An arm (his) fell off.  I stopped, picked it up and carried on. A black cab came to a sudden halt as I wheeled him on creaking castors over the zebra crossing.

Crowds parted as we continued and two waiters at a pavement cafe laid down steaming spaghetti meatballs for a quick selfie.  We made stately progress onward to my front door and I invited him in.

I’ve repaired his arm and re-aligned his hip joints. He’s definitely not just for Christmas.  Both he and my own skeleton are for life. I need to take care of us both now.

Written in Term 8 of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher.

Palindrome by William Cobbing
Don’t try this at home. Palindrome 2003 by William Cobbing (Wellcome Collection)