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.
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.
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