The Alexander Technique : towards balance in freedom


 All life consists of solving problems, says Karl Popper. Hence one might say that all life consists of responding to stimuli; only that which reacts is alive.

Supposing we had to learn to live, that would mean learning to react, becoming aware of our reactions, understanding why we react as we do, and thus learning to react consciously rather than automatically.

That is what the Alexander Technique proposes.

Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) Australian actor, developed his research during the last quarter of the 19th century. As a solo performer of the art of reciting, his frequent appearances began to take their toll, so that he often lost his voice on stage, and traditional treatments and remedies had only a temporary effect. Having realized that his hoarseness was probably caused by something he was doing, he began to observe himself very carefully with the help of mirrors. This was the start of a long and tireless exploration which soon went beyond the original vocal problem to permit him to develop the fundamental principles of use of the self.

He discovered that it was in fact his own poor use of himself that had such dire consequences on his functioning, and that this use was as much "mental" as "physical". He became aware that he could only work on himself as a whole being: as a wholeness in which body and mind are utterly inseparable, a wholeness in which all body parts are inextricably linked.

We are provided with a structure of bone and muscle that allows us to stand, to walk, to breathe, without too much effort, for gravity helps us. On gravity depend the reflex responses that enable us to stand erect and to make many postural adaptations. Far from being an enemy, gravity is our chief ally.

F.M. Alexander realized to what extent we let ourselves be guided – sometimes blindly – by our habits. It is often they that decide how we react, move, walk, breathe, think – in short, how we live. In the grip of habits that are often uncontrolled and harmful, we interfere with the marvellous system that should enable us to adapt ourselves to our needs. If a tool is used without respecting the proper way of using it, we should think it logical if it functioned less well and finally deteriorated. Are we to be astonished if we ourselves, badly used, end by ruining the equipment that we have and are?

F.M. Alexander also became aware that his sensory appreciation was not always reliable, that the kinaesthetic sense, just like the other senses, is not infallible. He noticed that a movement that has become habitual is perceived as "right". In the course of his researches, he found himself obliged to plunge into the unknown, into the non-habitual, into what at first seemed to him "wrong", in order to arrive at a correct, efficient movement. 

How did Alexander proceed, in order to find a good use of himself?

We know that he liked to repeat that the right thing does itself.

In rediscovering a good co-ordination, he found it useless to "correct" one movement by imposing another on top of it; it was better to prevent "parasite" movements that upset the co-ordination. He decided to refuse to respond to stimuli in an unthinking way; he would not rush headlong at a desired "end", but would consider the means he would use to get there. For this purpose, he decided to give himself time, to allow himself a brief pause between stimulus and response in which he could prepare himself to act in the consciously chosen way.

The process just described is central to the Alexander Technique. Prevent the wrong thing happening, and the right thing does itself. Such prevention is very far from being repressive or frustrating, it is a purely positive activity that permits action. Thus Alexander had an early intimation of the later scientific discovery that the nervous system contains elements that excite and elements that inhibit response, both being indispensable for well-organized movement.

You will have understood from all this that what is most called for during an Alexander lesson (and between lessons, of course) is thought. It is thinking that enables us to suspend habitual "parasite" movements; it is thought that subsequently projects, throughout the body, the directions associated with good use of oneself.

So you see, the pupil's active participation is asked for. Without this collaboration, no lasting change can be obtained. The Alexander Technique is not a therapy, it is a learning process. Pupils are not "patients" – although no doubt they will have a use for a good dose of patience as they experience different stages of understanding and the changes it brings!

I have said that the Alexander Technique teaches us to react differently, to develop a good neuromuscular co-ordination, to acquire a more reliable sensory appreciation…

What else can it bring us?

Balance, freedom, distance, presence… good use of our psychophysical being has many profound implications. As we learn a good use of our mechanisms, as we choose to let gravity – and the reflex systems in us that respond to it – work for us, we find balance in freedom. That is to say, balance that is not rigid, that is not blocked by increasingly powerful muscular locks, but a balance based on instability, one that adapts itself to the slightest change. It is a balance never attained, always in the making. A permanent becoming, intensely in the present.

Thus the Alexander Technique teaches us to be present, to be here, to live now without always projecting ourselves into the future or returning to the past with nostalgia, regrets, or concerns for what might have been. I have in mind an image of a tight-rope walker. Up there on his tight-rope, with nothing to hold on to, I'd be astonished if he thinks of tomorrow or yesterday, or even if he hesitates. I suppose all his thought must be living intensely in the present – thought, not in the sense of reflection, of weighing and considering, but thinking in his body, at the heart of his activity.

It seems a paradox that this quality of presence teaches us the value of distance, teaches how to create space for oneself and for others. Space is indispensable to real exchange – if we take "exchange" to mean the equilibrium between giving and receiving. It is this space, this distance, which shows respect for the other. Distance, balance, freedom are all associated. Some of my habits, let's face it, are automatic reactions dictated by the wish to do well, or by its corollary, the fear of failure, or by stress, or by fear of falling, or other fears. When I am no longer the slave of such habits, I am free to choose my way of responding to people and situations.

I am learning to give myself time. Walter Carrington (Alexander's principal assistant, still teaching in London) writes: You're the only person who can give yourself time. This sentence rings in my ears. You're the only person who can give yourself time. This is fundamental. Learning to take time.

Presence, distance, freedom can bring us nearer to what I think of as a neutral state. Taking care to disengage ourselves from bad habits, we work to find a "functional zero", a suitable tonus, a serene response to gravity, from which starting-point we are free to react to demands, free to adapt to events. One can understand why actors and dancers were among the first to recognize the benefits of learning the Alexander Technique. Qualities of presence, of "neutrality" and of freedom are as necessary to them as clean sheets of paper to a writer: to create roles, to write, interpret, construct expressive movement, all through conscious choice.

© Claire Destrée, 1998



F.M. ALEXANDER, The Use of the Self, London, 1932 ; L'Usage de Soi (trad. par E. Lefebvre), Bruxelles, Contredanse, 1996.

F.M. ALEXANDER, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, London, (Methuen & Co, 1923), V. Gollancz, 1992.

W. CARRINGTON, Thinking aloud. Talks on teaching the Alexander Technique (ed. by Jerry Sontag), San Francisco, Mornum Time Press, 1994.

Karl POPPER, Toute vie est résolution de problèmes, Actes Sud, 1997.