What is the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique is a system involving self-awareness of body posture and learning to train your body to adopt a more natural poise in everyday activities with the intent to help relieve muscle tension throughout the body and to help relieve excess pressure on your spine, joints, internal organs and other body parts.
Basic everyday activities are looked at, for example:
- How you stand.
- How you walk.
- How you sit down.
- How you get up out of a chair, and so on.
The Alexander Technique was developed by Frederick Alexander, an Australian actor in the late 19th century, after suffering with his own health problems and failing to get any relief from following his doctor’s advice. Read our article Background History to How the Alexander Technique was Developed to see how Alexander experimented and progressed the technique and how it came to be the force it is today.
How does the Alexander Technique work?
The Alexander Technique is based on the following 2 principles:
- Inhibition – i.e. purposely putting a pause in before taking any action.
- Direction – i.e. giving yourself a set of directions or orders to prepare your body to carry out an action.
According to Alexander, the root cause of many of our problems stems from the over-tightening of the neck muscles, which in turn leads to putting other areas of the body out of balance. Tightening the neck muscles tends to lead to us pulling our heads back, which puts pressure on the spine, compressing the spinal discs and shortening the overall structure of the body. Generally with any movement, the head tends to lead and then the body follows, so co-ordination and balance is often interfered with when the head is pulled back due to tensing the neck muscles.
With the above in mind, the 3 main Directions that are generally followed with the Alexander Technique are:
- Allowing the neck to be free.
- Allowing the head to go forward and up.
- Allowing the back to lengthen and widen.
The 3 Main Directions Explained
ALLOWING THE NECK TO BE FREE
Allowing the neck to be free or not stiffening the neck is always the first instruction/direction to be given as the other directions would not be effective without this one.
The purpose of this Direction is to eliminate any excess tension found in the neck muscles. Eliminating the tension in the neck first is necessary to free the head up in relation to the rest of the body.
ALLOWING THE HEAD TO GO FORWARD AND UP
The head naturally moves slightly forward when the tension in the neck muscles is released, and the whole body follows. Consciously moving the head up as it goes forward is important as otherwise the head would drop down and exert pressure on the neck muscles.
Note that movement of the head is in relation to the spine, not in relation to the ground.
ALLOWING THE BACK TO LENGTHEN AND WIDEN
As described above, the spine tends to shorten when the head is pulled back from excess tension in the neck muscles. Therefore this Direction is given to encourage lengthening of the spine and the entire body. It’s important to include a widening Direction with a lengthening Direction, as a narrowing can occur with lengthening.
In addition to Inhibition and the 3 main Directions as described above, there are numerous secondary Directions you can give yourself, depending on your everyday actions and health conditions.
It’s necessary to stress here the importance of being as aware as you can be of your own body posture and movements when sitting, standing, walking or performing any other activity.
Any Directions you give yourself should be in the form of “allowing your body to do something” rather than “trying to do something”, as trying to do something automatically introduces tension into the body.
Examples of secondary Directions could include any of the following and I’m sure you could add many more to the list!:
- For hunched shoulders – allowing the shoulders to drop or imagine releasing the tension from the shoulders.
- For rounded shoulders – imagine the shoulders moving away from each other.
- For an arched back – allowing the back to relax or imagine not arching the back.
- For breathing problems – allowing the ribcage to drop or imagine the ribcage dropping.
- For standing – allowing the body to lengthen or imagine the body lengthening from feet to head.
- For balance – allowing your body weight to spread evenly through the feet or imagine your body weight spreading evenly through the feet.
Remember that you are not trying to hold a particular position, rather you are allowing your body to be free. The question here is not “what can I do to help myself”, but rather “what can I undo to help myself”.
Awareness of our everyday actions is the key. Quite often, for example, we might think we are standing up straight, but if we look in a mirror we may see that in fact we are leaning backwards or arching our back.
If you are finding it difficult practising this technique on your own, it could be helpful to have a series of lessons from an Alexander Technique Teacher who is trained to spot bad habits and help you correct them.
N.B. Alternative health practitioners seek to work in conjunction with the medical profession and a person is always recommended to see their G.P. for any serious condition. Practitioners do not diagnose disease, nor can they prescribe pharmaceutical or other products, unless qualified to do so. A practitioner cannot guarantee a cure for any illness. If you have any concerns regarding your health, it is always advisable to consult your doctor or health care professional.
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