The Alexander Technique is an untapped resource for students and teachers
The legacy of an under-recognised 19th century Tasmanian actor is one our country’s most valuable and largely untapped natural resources. Rather than being buried deep within the earth however, this resource lies deep within ourselves. Essentially, this resource constitutes the cultivated capacity – learnable, and hence teachable – to consciously direct our thoughts and actions reliably and fruitfully, without undue effort.
How did the Alexander Technique begin?
Frederick Matthias Alexander was a self-reliant young man with a passion for performing Shakespeare. When a vocal problem threatened to derail his thespian ambitions, he decided to investigate and resolve the problem. By close self-observation, including the use of full-length mirrors, Alexander noticed that some unnecessary muscular tensions in the region of his neck and throat were actually creating vocal strain and constriction. He gradually found a way, through heightened awareness and directed thought, to release the unnecessary tensions in this region of the neck and throat. In the process, Alexander discovered that as long as he was able to maintain the delicate balance of his head atop his spine, along with an absence of unnecessary tension in his neck and throat (easier said than done), his voice problems would reduce and then resolve.
What is the Technique?
The naturally occurring dynamic relationship between the head, the spine and the torso turns out to be the primary organising condition for all creatures with a spinal column. In this way, Alexander discovered the natural law of ‘vertebracy’ as applied to humans. This involves maintaining a dynamic relationship between the head, spine and torso, without undue tension. Many other vertebrates use themselves naturally in this way. Think about the ease with which cats, horses, birds, fish and snakes all move. Humans commonly need to learn how to consciously maintain these natural conditions of use and functioning. This is where Alexander’s work starts to become really significant and valuable.
We often put ourselves under, or are subjected to, considerable mental stress and strain. Alexander also understood very well that undue tension could be as much mental as muscular. Hence, if we adopt the wrong attitude to a given task, this can prevent success in the same way as undue muscular tension does. Rigidity of thought, or resistance to doing something, are two ways in which unnecessary mental tension creates obstacles to easy action.
Alexander’s way or ‘technique’ of overcoming obstacles to easy action essentially requires a letting go of habitual tension, and generally doing or trying less, either muscularly or attitudinally. Before anyone can let go of unnecessary tension however, they need to become aware of the tendency or pattern, as these often operate habitually, and without much awareness. The principles of the work therefore involves observing one’s habits closely, letting go, doing less, and ultimately preventing the initial muscular and mental tensions/obstacles from either returning, or even appearing in the first place.
It includes a hands-on approach
Alexander, and Alexander teachers ever since, combined gentle hands-on support with verbal instruction, to guide people through the process of increasing awareness of their habitual, psychophysical patterns. This hands-on teaching skill of supporting and guiding the student (as opposed to manipulating them) was, perhaps, Alexander’s most valuable discovery. The manual component is distinctive, subtle and integral to learning and benefiting from the work. The changes that flow from learning in this way commonly lead to a sense of increased ease, less effortful action, sharpened clarity of thought and purpose, renewed comfort, and growing self-command.
Alexander Technique and learning are connected
Alexander’s ‘technique’ turned out to be essentially pedagogical, in that he taught people how to manage and monitor their physical and mental equilibrium in the course of their everyday activities. This was achieved by applying the principles of closer self-observation of the head/neck relationship, letting go, doing less and preventing unnecessary tensions and impediments from appearing. Since 1934, when Alexander certified his first cohort of students until the present day, graduates of Alexander training schools around the world have been certified as teachers, trained to assist people in learning and applying the principles.
Local education history and the Alexander Technique
As early as 1909, the Leeper Report on ‘Physical Culture’ in the UK and Continent was submitted to the Victorian Teachers and Schools Registration Board. The report recommended that “the Alexander method of re-education…is deserving of the Board’s special attention”. For whatever reasons, this recommendation was never taken up by the Department of Education in Victoria, nor anywhere else at the policy level in Australia or further afield.
Alexander’s work has slowly gained attention and traction in the fields of allied and alternative health, the performing arts, fitness and well-being. However its considerable merits have been largely overlooked by educationalists (theorists, philosophers, policy thinkers), teachers at any level (early childhood, primary, secondary and tertiary), and academic teachers of teachers.
Leading philosopher Dewey supported the use of the Technique in education
Alexander made a number of trips to the US, the first in 1914-15. At that time, he was introduced to John Dewey. Dewey was already a leading political and moral philosopher in late 19th and early 20th century America. One of his major passions was the preservation and advancement of democratic societies, and the integral role education played in the development of these societies.
Dewey wrote extensively about the aims of education, schooling, curriculum and the growth and development of children, and the importance of these issues for healthy sociality and a thriving democracy. Dewey remained a private student of Alexander for many years and wrote brilliantly incisive and laudatory Introductions to three out of the four books written by Alexander that were published in his lifetime. In one of them, Dewey made the arresting and provocative claim that Alexander’s work “bears the same relation to education that education itself bears to all other human activities”. It is surprising how little interest this claim has generated within educational institutions, discourses and practices over more than 80 years since, given its sweep and deeper implications.
How Alexander’s technique could be applied in schools
Although the majority of interested students have always been adult-age, Alexander declared unequivocally that “my work belongs with the young”. Alexander established a small school in rural England where the principles of his work could be taught and incorporated across the curriculum. He did so confident in the knowledge that his work helped to reduce, eliminate, and ultimately prevent obstacles to successful learning. He had enough evidence of this from the extensive work he had done with adults, and rightly suspected that children would be responsive to his work as their habits of learning and living were generally less entrenched than older folk. The following short clip provides a useful overview of how the Alexander work can be applied in schools.
Mind and body inseparable
Perhaps the reason the Alexander Technique has struggled to gain the attention it deserves in the broad field of education is because it has a physical as well as mental dimension; it addresses the mind-body together, with the mental and the muscular being understood as ‘two sides of the one coin’.
The principles of the Technique apply as much to how we think and learn, how we coordinate and move in everyday activity, and how we dispose and ‘posture’ ourselves in relation to any given task, whether for learning or otherwise.
The recent feature program on the Alexander Technique in The Body Sphere could have been just as validly scheduled for All in the Mind.
Pertinent learning methods
This is also where the Alexander work comes into its own as pedagogy. While the principles, as identified above, are simple enough to learn, their sustained application requires qualified and experienced teachers to facilitate the necessary changes. Alexander teachers can help people of all ages to become more aware of how they learn and undertake daily activities, and to discern whether or not they might do just as well, or even better, with less obvious effort or strain. These are no small claims, but ones Dewey was no doubt alluding to when suggesting Alexander’s work to be a meta- or über-form of Education, that usefully informs any/all other specific learning.
We could use the Technique now in schools
All that is required to learn the Alexander Technique is a little curiosity, some self-discipline and patience, and the skilled support and guidance of a qualified Alexander teacher. The insights, changes and learning that come from taking lessons and studying the work tend to prove themselves over time, as people commonly experience increased ease, comfort, efficiency, fluidity, confidence and pleasure in whatever they do.
The time is ripe for Alexander’s work to contribute much more to the broad field of education, and for Dewey’s arresting and provocative claim to be borne out by more widespread understanding and further research.
Gary Levy is a casual researcher and tutor in the School of Education, Deakin University, who has also taught in primary and secondary schools. His PhD focused on aspects of care ethics and relational pedagogies in schooling. His research and teaching interests range across a number areas, including curriculum and pedagogy, literacy, and the sociologies and philosophies of education. He has been a qualified and active teacher of the Alexander Technique since 1992, and has been seeking ways and opportunities to generate more interest in the Alexander work within the broader community of educators.