WHAT IS THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE?
The Alexander Technique is an approach to the study of movement. The Technique focuses on the unconscious, habitual ways in which we use ourselves - our patterns of posture, our movement and our responses to stress and pressure, and teaches us to have conscious control over these aspects of ourselves. Our patterns of posture and movement are part of our unconscious behaviours.
Poor posture, movement habits and unconscious muscular contractions underlie a wide range of dysfunctions such as sciatica, back pain, neck pain, knee pain, muscular and joint pain, migraines and tension headaches, most voice disorders, RSI, and breathing problems including asthma and a wide range of other symptoms. An Alexander Technique teacher can help you become aware of unconscious patterns that cause misuse of yourself, so that you can consciously evaluate them, and bring about favourable changes.
Alexander Teachers have at least 1600 hours of practical training in observation of patterns of usage, how the body is used, and in using their hands to help students move out of their patterns of misuse. The experience of being trained often brings about conscious revelations about how our body usage affects our mental or physical condition. This method of conscious guidance was developed in Melbourne over 100 years ago by F. Matthias Alexander, an actor who lost his voice, and is now taught throughout the world.
The Alexander Technique was developed by Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor whose career was threatened by significant and recurring voice problems. He tried numerous treatments recommended by professionals, but none helped, apart from the advice to give his voice a rest. In an inspired moment, he reasoned that perhaps his voice trouble was caused by something that HE was DOING in the process of projecting his voice. In the late 19th century, this was a completely new way of looking at what seemed to be a purely physical problem. In order to get an objective view of himself, Alexander used mirrors to observe himself as he spoke and projected his voice. Over a period of time, he began to see that in the act of using his voice, he unconsciously 'misused' himself by tensing and dis-coordinating his whole body, thus exerting pressure on his vocal system. This was the beginning of a period of self-study that would result in the realisation that the solution to his voice issues, and other breathing problems that he had endured since childhood, was to re-establish the efficient coordination of his whole system. The mastery of his own coordination was apparent in his improved vocal performance, breathing, posture and movement.
Improve Your Voice and Performance
In the 21st century, the Alexander Technique is an obvious choice for singers, actors, public speakers and instrumentalists to deal with overuse and other disorders. These problems include stuttering, hoarseness, nodules on the vocal folds, lack of projection, lack of clarity whilst speaking, muscle tension dysphonia and spasmodic dysphonia.
Interestingly, Alexander noted, when recording the work he had done with a stutterer, that someone who stutters, does so with his whole body. He recognised that when we use our voice or engage in any activity, the whole physical and emotional (pyscho-physical) self comes into play. In relation to voice production, this includes dealing with our immediate reaction to using our voice, as well as the underlying physical restrictions that contribute to less than optimal performance.
The technique is taught at the majority of elite performing arts colleges throughout the world. In Melbourne, Alexander Technique teachers work at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA); in Sydney - the SCM NIDA. The Alexander Technique is also used by many sports people to improve performance, and to prevent and deal with injury.
Alexander Technique and Back Pain
One of the most common applications of the Alexander Technique is in the resolution of back pain. A large-scale clinical study published in the British Medical Journal has shown that "lessons in the Alexander Technique led to important patient improvement in function, quality of life and reduction of days in back pain". The randomised controlled trial, involving 579 individuals with chronic, non-specific lower back pain, assessed the benefits of surgery alternative therapies such as massage therapy and general practitioner care. It offered clear proof that of all the approaches tested, the Alexander Technique proved to be the most beneficial as a long-term method of reducing back-pain. See our Resources section for more information on the range of issues that can be assisted by the Technique.
An Alternative to Medical Interventions
This is no surprise to those who are familiar with the Alexander Technique as an alternative therapy. As Alexander Technique teachers, we often see people who have tried to alleviate back and other physical pain and tension through modalities including surgery, chiropractic, physiotherapy, heat treatment, massage, exercise and drugs, often with minimal ongoing results.
The Alexander Technique is different. We deal with the underlying causes of the pain. Poor posture, faulty movement patterns and chronic muscular contraction are all conditions which result in tension and pain, but which usually go unnoticed by medical professionals. These are the very things that often lead to recurrent or chronic pain.
With gentle guidance from an Alexander teacher, your posture and movement will improve, and you will begin to undo chronic muscular contractions. As you progress, the associated pain will begin to lessen. Often after just one or two lessons, a student will notice dysfunctional behaviours and be able to make positive changes in themselves.
Chronic and Recurring Pain
While many treatments can ease acute spasms or physical injuries, treating ongoing chronic painful conditions is where Alexander Technique can make a real difference.
Medications for pain relief can be associated with side-effects while diagnosis can differ from one practitioner to another. And based on scans, people may receive a diagnosis of slipped disc, narrowing of the spinal canal or "degeneration" due to age. Many patients whose scans show 'degeneration', 'slipped discs', narrowing to the spinal canal and other diagnoses experience no significant pain, while others with 'normal spines' experience chronic pain.
Chronic pain conditions may be attributable to your accumulated movement and postural patterns and habits. The Alexander Technique will help you to notice and change ingrained habits of body and mind which may cause and sustain the pain cycle.
'Neck problems are virtually an occupational hazard for Ear, Nose and Throat surgeons. I had serious problems during my working years, but hoped for relief on early retirement. This was not the case and limitation of cervical (and thoracic) movement became quite an intrusion on my life. Physiotherapy and medication gave only short-term improvement. On being introduced to the Alexander Technique I was somewhat sceptical that anything was going to work, but can only describe the relief gained, and maintained, as quite incredible. General posture has improved and neck mobility has returned to that last experienced more than twenty years ago. What more could one ask for?'
Kieran Tobin, M.B, B. Ch, BAO, FRCS(Eng), FRCS(Irl), D.L.O; Past-President of the Irish Otolaryngological, Head and Neck Society; Past-President of the E.N.T. Section of the Royal Society of Medicine of Ireland