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


Vitality and poise: a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Vitality and poise in Julian Opie's People 15 in Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Walking with poise – Julian Opie’s People 15

Vitality and poise are two key benefits I’ve had from learning the Alexander Technique.  I hadn’t expected this (though I’m sure my teachers did). I’d gone for greater mobility and relief from back pain.  Both duly arrived as my head, neck and back began to work together in a more integrated way. Now other rewards have started to come through. One is that I’m more self-possessed with a greater zest for life.

Expanding and breathing

I’m more aware of vitality and poise in the world at large too, and found both on a recent visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park .  Here monumental pieces – stone, bronze, iron, wood, even string – animated the landscape. Many were of the human figure or about movement, almost alive yet with an inner stillness. Despite their size I felt they could easily come to life and swap places after closing time.

Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore
Reclining Figure Arch Leg by Henry Moore

Part of The Family of Man (1970) by Barbara Hepworth
The Family of Man by Barbara Hepworth

I puzzled over what was different here from any other gallery.  Barbara Hepworth, born in nearby Wakefield, gave me some clues. She wrote of  sculpture as “something still and yet having movement, so very quiet and yet with a real vitality”.  But being outdoors was also important:

“I prefer my work to be shown outside. I think sculpture grows in the open light and with the movement of the sun its aspect is always changing; and with space and the sky above, it can expand and breathe.”

Playful vitality and mindful poise

Visitors too seemed more energetic, lively and engaged than in many indoor spaces. No tired ‘museum feet’ here.  Instead some had hiking poles and set off briskly round the lake trails. Family groups argued about the best routes. And round every sculpture people gathered in twos and threes. They discussed, chatted, wondered what it was all about or just enjoyed the cracking Yorkshire view.

Later I picked up two of the park leaflets.  One of them – 50 Ways to Play – suggested you “play with our art and nature to lift your spirits, enjoy your day and test all your senses”. The second listed Well-being events, including sessions called Still Looking and Room to Breathe.  These encouraged you to “think deeply, move mindfully and connect with nature” while engaging with art and with others. I discovered the park has an Art and Well-being Coordinator  who is herself an artist interested in walking and mindfulness.

Touch with Care, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Expect the unexpected

All in all it was a satisfying place to visit. It encouraged visitors to discover a playful vitality in themselves, while moving through the sculptures and landscape with mindful poise.  My trip to Yorkshire was to see the sculptures. But like my experience with the Alexander Technique, what I found when I got there was deeper, more interesting and worth going back for.

Written during Term 8 of my Alexander Technique teacher training.

Network by Thomas J Price
Network by Thomas J Price

One and Other by Antony Gormley
One and Other by Antony Gormley

Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink
Riace Figures II, III, IV by Elisabeth Frink

Wilsis by Jaume Plensa
Wilsis by Jaume Plensa

Large Two Forms by Henry Moore
Large Two Forms by Henry Moore

Promenade by Anthony Caro
Promenade by Anthony Caro

Cloaked Figure IX by Lynn Chadwick
Cloaked Figure IX by Lynn Chadwick

Seated Man II by Elisabeth Frink
Seated Man II by Elisabeth Frink