History and origins of the Alexander Technique
The Alexander Technique was first developed in the 1890s by an Australian named Frederick Matthias Alexander. As a young and promising actor, Alexander faced a problem which risked ending his career – his voice would become increasingly hoarse during performances, until he could barely produce any sound at all. He consulted doctors, but they could not diagnose any specific disease or cause of the hoarseness. If there were no clear medical cause for his problem, Alexander reasoned that he might be doing something wrong when reciting, leading him to strain or “misuse” his own vocal organs. As his only resort was self-help, he decided to observe his way of speaking and reciting to see whether he could spot anything unusual and find a solution.
Health and Performance
FM Alexander in 1894
What emerged from this experiment of several years was more than just a vocal technique. Alexander gradually realised that the functioning of the voice depended on the correct balance of tension in his entire neuromuscular system, from head to toe. Alexander developed his technique to encourage and maintain this balance through conscious attention and control: a technique which has become applicable to a wide range of problems and aims. In short, this balance was extremely important for overall coordination and many other functions, such as breathing, posture, freedom of the joints in moving the whole body, using the arms and hands for skilled activities, staying calm under pressure, and maintaining good overall health.
Gradually, as others noticed improved health and performance, he began to show his technique to those who came to him for help. From about 1894 onward, he had flourishing practices in Melbourne, and later in Sydney, until this teaching became his main occupation. A number of doctors referred patients to him, including Charles Bage, the Melbourne doctor he had once consulted for his voice trouble; actors also flocked to him for help. In 1904, in order to gain more recognition for his technique, and prompted by his friend JW Steward MacKay, an eminent Sydney surgeon, he moved to London, where he worked until his death in 1955.
FM Alexander in 1910
In London, Alexander’s reputation grew rapidly. One of his earliest acquaintances and pupils was Sir Henry Irving, considered the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Many doctors, including Peter MacDonald, later to become chairman of the BMA, endorsed his work and sent patients to him. In 1939, a group of physicians wrote to the British Medical Journal urging that Alexander’s principles be included in medical training. Eminent thinkers who went to Alexander included George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley. A number of scientists also endorsed his method, recognising that Alexander’s practical observations were consistent with scientific discoveries in neurology and physiology. The most eminent of these was Sir Charles Sherrington, today considered the father of modern neurology. With its wide application, Alexander’s technique drew people from all walks of life, including politics (Sir Stafford Cripps and Lord Lytton), religion (William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury), education (Esther Lawrence, principal of the Froebel Institute) and business (Joseph Rowntree).
FM Alexander in 1920
Alexander also spent a good deal of time during and between the two world wars in the USA, where he met and gave lessons to the philosopher John Dewey, an eminent innovator in theories about education. Dewey asserted that effective learning must be based on first-hand experience; he demonstrated his support and enthusiasm for Alexander’s work by writing the prefaces to three of Alexander’s books. Alexander believed it was important to incorporate his technique into the field of education to prevent problems and to improve learning at an early stage. In 1924, after Alexander worked successfully with a child with educational learning problems, some of his pupils asked to send their children to him for lessons. He then founded the “Little School” in London, helped by two of his assistants, Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker, who had been trained as school teachers by Maria Montessori in Italy. In the school, children were encouraged to maintain optimal coordination in all their activities, while following their academic lessons. The children were evacuated to the USA during the Second World War but, sadly, it proved too difficult to re-establish the school in London in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Passing on the Technique
FM Alexander in 1940
Up to the 1930s, Alexander taught his technique to pupils solely as a means of their helping themselves. A few of his keenest pupils gradually became assistants and teachers in their own right by apprenticeship. Then, in 1931, Alexander opened a formal teacher training course, so that an entire group of students could learn the skills needed to teach the Technique to others. He kept his three-year training courses running until his death at the age of 86. In 1958, three years after his death, his graduates founded the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT), to preserve and continue the work according to the standards Alexander had created and training methods have continued to evolve.
That the Alexander Technique has endured, and that there are now over 3500 teachers throughout the world, is indicative of its scope beyond the problems or talent of one charismatic person; the Technique is founded on principles and skills which can apply to anyone. People have come to the United Kingdom from around the world to study the Technique, while professional societies and teacher training courses affiliated to STAT have been established in 14 other countries. The Technique is taught in all the major performing arts colleges in the United Kingdom, and has also been introduced in a number of elementary and secondary schools.
A number of research studies have been undertaken to study the Alexander Technique as applied to various medical problems, and the first large scale study on the Alexander Technique and back pain, at the University of Southampton, began its trial phase in 2008.
Chronic back pain, which causes probably more disability and days off work than any other health condition, can be eased through teaching better posture via the Alexander technique, doctors say.
Professor Paul Little of Southampton’s faculty of medicine and his colleagues recruited 579 patients from 64 GP practices in the south and west of England. Each practice wrote to a random selection of patients who had seen a doctor because of recurrent back pain over the previous five years. They excluded any with serious spinal disease and those who had tried the Alexander technique before.
The patients were either given normal care, massage, six lessons of Alexander technique, or 24 lessons. Half the patients in each group were also given an exercise programme involving walking briskly for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
Massage relieved the pain for the first three months, but the benefit did not last. But patients who had been trained in the Alexander technique reported less pain and an ability to do more by the end of the year. Those who had had six lessons and stuck to an exercise routine did almost as well as those who had 24 lessons.
Little said he was a little surprised at the result. “I had a pretty good suspicion that people who were well-motivated would do well with the technique, but you have to be committed to learning it for it to benefit you. I suspected most folks might not be that committed and so we might not show terribly much.” Although most trials of back pain interventions have not had particularly good or convincing results, Little said this one was significant. “This is a good, large, trial. It is good enough evidence for people to take it seriously.”
Those who combined Alexander technique with exercise improved by about 40% to 45%, he said. Generally they had been limited in eight or nine activities, but at the end of the 12 months they could do three or four of those without restriction. “It’s a simple, cheap intervention,” said Little. “But at the moment the Alexander technique is not available on the NHS.”
The cost was about £30 a lesson, he said, which would make even a six-lesson course something of a bargain if it cut the amount of NHS time and resources taken up by back pain sufferers.
97% of people with back pain could benefit by learning the Alexander Technique – it is only a very small minority of back pain sufferers that require interventions such as surgery. Jack Stern Spinal Surgeon
A few Quotes
“Instead of feeling one’s body to be an aggregation of ill-fitting parts full of friction and dead weights pulling this way and that, so as to render mere existence in itself exhausting, the body becomes a coordinated and living whole, composed of well-fitting and truly articulated parts. Sir Stafford Cripps,
“You translate everything, whether physical or mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.” FM Alexander 1869-1955
“Mr. Alexander has done a service to the subject [of the study of reflex and voluntary movement] by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psychophysical man. To take a step is an affair, not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the moment, not least of the head and neck.” Sir Charles Sherrington 1857-1952, Neurophysiologist, Nobel Prize for Medicine 1932
“When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing we are doing in this work is exactly what happens in Nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.” F.M.Alexander