The Alexander Technique addresses the problem of habit and its unremitting influence upon our lives.
We are all creatures of habit. We all have characteristic ways of standing, sitting, bending, walking, speaking, moving and reacting to the stimuli of everyday life that are habitual and feel part of us. A friend might be able to identify us from a distance because of our shuffling side-to-side gait for instance. Or perhaps if we catch sight of ourselves in a shop window we are surprised by our stooped appearance, because we feel upright. The characteristic way we go about our daily activities has a constant influence upon us for good or for ill. Certain ways of balancing, moving and reacting are more harmful, clumsy and inefficient than others; over time they can lead to strain, tension, wear and tear, aches and pains, and an uneasy sense that something important has been lost in the process of growing up and growing older.
So how can the Alexander Technique help?
The Alexander Technique, developed by F. Matthias Alexander in the late nineteenth century, starts from the premise that it is something we are doing ourselves that is causing or contributing to what ails us; that we are responsible for our habits. If we can learn to stop this wrong doing, our general functioning – our balance, breathing, circulation, digestion, and so on – can be allowed to work without harmful interference. Our task, then, is to discover how we are interfering and to prevent it.
But where to begin?
Alexander discovered that the relationship of the head to the neck, and of the head and neck to the back and limbs, was of primary importance; that there was a certain preferred relationship of these parts, characterised by freedom of the neck; a poise of the head he described as ‘forward and up’; a lengthening of the spine, without exaggeration of the spinal curves; a widening of the back, with full and natural movement of the rib cage synonymous with free breathing; and arms and legs harmoniously integrated into this total pattern. He found that it was useless to attempt to deal with specific wrong habits, such as raised shoulders or faulty breathing, directly, by doing something, because they were merely symptoms of a wider problem, namely an interference with the preferred head-neck-back-limbs relationship, which he termed ‘the primary control’. The key to changing habit, in other words, was to learn to prevent interference with the primary control.
In practice, however, this is not easy, and there are many stumbling blocks in our way. Not least of which is that our old habits, despite doing us harm, paradoxically often feel right and natural to us, and so are resistant to change. The converse of this is that the new, better working of the primary control that we seek often feels wrong to us at first, until we have had sufficient experience of it.
Alexander solved this problem in himself through years of painstaking self-observation and experiment aided by mirrors, a full account of which is given in his book The Use of the Self. He overcame it in teaching his pupils by developing a special way of using his hands, so that with great sensitivity, skill and dexterity of touch, he was able to guide them into a better balance while performing ordinary daily activities, giving them the actual experience of a proper working of the primary control, and bypassing their old habits. To this end, he made particular use of the act of getting into and out of a chair, not primarily because of the intrinsic importance of the act itself, but because it provided a kind of microcosm for understanding the nature of habit in general.
Alexander’s solutions to these problems have stood the test of time. In learning the Alexander Technique, we are invited to stop and think rather than react like automata to the stimuli of everyday life. In this process, we gain increased poise, well-being and confidence, and awaken the possibility of realising that greatest of all freedoms – freedom from the tyranny of habit.