Big questions: will you give me Alexander Technique exercises to practice?

Are there Alexander Technique exercises - the equivalent of these dumbbells?

Today I’m returning to my occasional series on the Big Questions that beginning students very often ask me. Today, it’s the issue of exercises. If you come to me for lessons (either in person or by Skype), will I give you special Alexander Technique exercises to do between sessions?

Why people expect exercises

There are a couple of major reasons why beginning students ask for (and expect) Alexander Technique exercises to do between lessons: previous experience of other health/wellness professionals; and a belief in (or even need for) something to do when they don’t have direct involvement from a teacher. Let’s look at these in turn.

Past experience

When people first come for Alexander Technique lessons, they typically have tried a whole load of other things first. If they’ve come because of unresolved issues involving soreness, they’ve probably been to an osteopath or a chiropractor; they’ve almost certainly tried sports massage or physiotherapy. In many of these cases, the professional has given them exercises or stretches to carry out between sessions.

The trick is that Alexander Technique is really very different to healthcare, and different from wellness modalities that my students have experienced. Unlike sports massage, for example, which is a very physically-oriented thing, Alexander Technique is psycho-physically oriented. In other words, I help you to change the way you move by giving you the tools to change the way you think. In any lesson, my focus is actually primarily on the mental side of things. This means that I’m not likely to give a student exercises in the way they normally understand the term.

Having something to do

Because a lot of my students have a background in music or sports, they are fully on-board with the idea that doing some work between lessons is a good thing, because it helps speed improvement. Even for those without those backgrounds, their experiences with physiotherapists, for example, leads them to expect to be given stuff to do between sessions. And the sorts of exercises given between appointments tend to be lists of specific movements to make for a certain number of repetitions.

There are a couple of point to make about this. One is that, if my students are honest, they’ll admit that they don’t always do the exercises at the frequency they were told. Sometimes they also admit that they left the office of the healthcare professional not completely understanding how to do the exercise properly, or even exactly what the exercise was designed to improve. Finally, ALL of my students (even the sportspeople and musicians) will admit to not always having their mind ‘on the job’ when doing the requested work between sessions. It’s so easy to lose concentration and carry things out mindlessly, and yet still be able to tick it off your to-do list and feel a little virtuous.

Alexander Technique, because it is about the mental as well as the physical, is really not going to be a best-fit with ‘move some limbs around while checking social media’ types of movement. Some mental focus is likely to be needed!

The other reason why Alexander Technique exercises are problematic

The other key issue around exercises relates to one of the fundamental ideas of the Alexander Technique: your manner of use of yourself is the thing that’s causing you problems. When FM Alexander followed the doctor’s advice that wasn’t successful in solving his vocal problems, he came to ask this question:

Is it not fair … to conclude that is was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble? [1]

If the problem lies in the way we go about our activities, it follows that we’d take that manner of use of ourselves into the carrying out of any exercises I was to hand out. We’d actually be practising our old inefficient way of using ourselves, while also congratulating ourselves for being virtuous and doing ‘something useful’.

Alexander wrote about exactly this problem with one of his students (who he disguises with the name John Doe):

What John Doe lacked was a conscious and proper recognition of the right uses of the parts of his muscular mechanism, since while he still uses such parts wrongly, the performance of physical exercises will only increase the defects. He will, in fact, merely copy some other person in the performance of a particular exercise, copy him in the outward act, while his own consciousness of the act performed and the means and uses of his muscular mechanism will remain unaltered. Therefore before he attempts any form of physical development, he must discover, or find some one who can discover for him, what his defects are in the uses indicated. [2]

The verdict for exercises

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I don’t give students a list of Alexander Technique exercises to complete. Because I want to give people tools to change the way they think, it would quite simply be counter-productive! But that doesn’t mean that students are left with nothing to do between lessons. So what do I give people to work on? Come back next week and find out!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.25.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, p.61.

Photo by Keith McDuffee [CC BY (]