What is the Alexander Technique? What’s it good for? Why would I want to study it?
These are questions that any Alexander Technique teacher ought to be able to answer. They are also questions that anyone taking Alexander lessons will have to answer at some point, when they tell their friends what they’re doing! Any teacher or student will also tell you that they are sometimes tricky to answer. So what is the Alexander Technique, and why should anyone be interested in it?
What is the Alexander Technique? FM Alexander’s definition.
A student reminded me recently of FM Alexander’s own definition of his work. He said in his first book:
…the centre and backbone of my theory and practice, upon which I feel that I cannot insist too strongly, is that THE CONSCIOUS MIND MUST BE QUICKENED.
It looks like a simple sentence, but it actually needs a bit of unpacking, because there are a couple of words there that are deceptive. Let’s deal with the easy ones first:
Centre and backbone: it’s central to his work, and provides the main structure. Quite important, then…
Theory and practice: Alexander’s work isn’t just book knowledge. He wants it to be practical – to be used.
Quickened: Alexander chose to use a word best known from the King James Bible – “the quick and the dead”, meaning the living and the dead. Alexander doesn’t want the conscious mind to be faster. Rather, he wants it to be more alive.
Which leaves us with ‘conscious’. What did Alexander mean when he said that the conscious mind must be made more alive?
Conscious: the river analogy
When my student and I discussed this, we decided to approach it by looking at the opposite. What would it be like if the conscious mind was dead? We decided that it would mean unmoving, and that the only change would be towards deterioration. Then we thought about things that don’t move themselves or grow, and which either don’t change or deteriorate. After a few moments, we came up with the idea of sticks and branches floating in a river.
A branch in a river just floats along with the stream. It has to go with the flow of the river. It might get dragged onto rocks, or the force of the water might cause it damage. A branch goes wherever the river takes it.
I have friends who have done something similar – they have allowed themselves to float in a body of water. Just floating, not making an attempt to paddle, they have allowed the current to move them gently along. This is apparently quite good fun until the current gets a little fast, or there are obstacles like rocks in the river bed. Then my friends say that actively swimming to safety is a really good idea!
This gives us a clue into what Alexander might mean by ‘conscious’. If you’re my friend floating in the river, it isn’t enough just to notice that things are getting a little dangerous. Neither is it enough to spring into action, but randomly paddle in the hope of going in a direction that is safer. My friend would need to:
- Notice the danger (be aware of it)
- Decide which is the safest way to swim (reason out a best course of action)
- Swim in the direction they decided was best (deliberately do what they intend)
It is that middle step that is key: reasoning out the best way to go. We can make ourselves more aware, we can make ourselves better at going into action, but what we most need to do is learn to reason out the best way to go.
What is the Alexander Technique? – Alexander says…
If we draw all our ideas together, we could say that central to Alexander’s theory and practice is that our reasoning mind needs to be made more alive. He wants us to discipline our thinking in order that we can direct ourselves efficiently in activity. In fact, he wants us to be able to discipline our thinking so that we can direct ourselves in any activity we choose.
So if we were to answer our question what is the Alexander Technique? – we could say that:
The Alexander Technique is a theory and practice that teaches us how to discipline our thinking in order to direct ourselves better in any activity we choose.
If we do this regularly, we can be more successful at the things we do. And if we are more successful, we will feel happier and more fulfilled. We’ll be more efficient, and have more energy. We could, in fact, change our lives for the better.
Does that sound like a great reason to start?
 Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT NY 1997, p.36.
Image: Photnart [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]