How does it work?
For a century now, Alexander technique has been taught one-on-one with hands-on guidance by the teacher. But it was not how Alexander himself started. For the first twenty years of his work, he worked by verbal directions alone – helping his pupils to observe what they were doing as they breathed, spoke or moved, and then guiding them in their thinking to bring about change. He called this process Constructive Conscious Control. Then in 1914 or thereabouts, he discovered that his hands could bring about the change for the pupil. It must have seemed easier for everyone, and this quickly became the way he taught. When assistants joined him in the work, this was what they learnt to do also. The hands-on method of teaching seemed set to stay.
But over the years, some Alexander technique teachers were keen to explore whether one could teach partially or even fully without hands, rediscovering how to help the pupil observe and guide themselves. Even some of the original teachers were part of this process, working with pupils ‘in application’ – such as when playing an instrument, or even in groups. I myself have been increasingly exploring this for twenty years now.
A century on, the Covid 19 global epidemic has forced a lockdown in many countries and stopped all hands-on therapists from practising. Suddenly, hands-off teaching is all that is available, and many teachers have taken the challenge to learn this new way of working, which requires them to find their own path to the target audience. Although some countries are now opening up, others are not, and many pupils and teachers are sensibly unwilling to return to ‘in person’ work too soon. The need for online work remains, and is unlikely to go away again.
So how does it work? The starting point always has to be self-awareness. One cannot make a change unless you are aware you are doing something. To take a simple example of someone attempting to bring about a change of habit: think of the person trying to stop smoking. If she unconsciously removes a cigarette from her pocket, lights it and begins smoking, she could be halfway through it before she notices her actions! To stop smoking, she needs to notice not only that original movement of the hand towards the pocket, but perhaps even the thought to do so. The more conscious we are of what we are doing, the more choices we can make about it.
So a lesson might start with some observation – say of how one sits or stands from a chair, or performs a simple task. Do I pull back my head, lean heavily on my hands, or push strongly with my thighs? Such actions are usually done so habitually that there is little or no consciousness of them. The first task is to wake up this consciousness. The teacher might gently comment to help the pupil notice what is happening, and encourage them to verbalise it. There is never any criticism – after all, however poor our habits, and however much they hurt, they are still working to get us up and down, otherwise we’d be stuck in the chair forever! But we could find an easier way.
When people can’t feel what is happening, one can use screen shots of the movement, or other objective methods to observe.
Then the teacher uses verbal guidance to help the pupil change. Often, we need to start with some anatomy play, to understand how the joints are meant to move, to discover that there are options to our movements. Then we need to learn to allow the body and nervous system to bring these new movements about for themselves, using conscious thinking to bring about change. We can use ‘inhibition’ – the method by which we stop our usual patterns from swinging into action, and then ‘directions’ – to encourage new movements to come about. We can also use the senses – learning to follow where the eyes lead, which can allow new movements to unfold in us. This is always an adventure in movement – our bodies can take us by surprise in what they can do, finding easy movement patterns we haven’t done since we were children, or ever!
One could ask: are there advantages to on-line lessons? The surprising answer is yes! When the pupil cannot rely on the teacher to sort it for them, the pupil has to discover it for themselves. In an online lesson, there is no possibility of the teacher doing it for the pupil. But with careful and patient observation and explanation from the teacher, it is amazing what the pupil can find for themselves. This is empowering – because if one can do it in the lesson by oneself, one can do it for oneself in the kitchen or the supermarket. It is a powerful way to learn the technique because this way we are always learning for ourselves.
With so many people working from home, in non-optimal work situations – such as the kitchen table – bad backs and stiff necks are increasingly common, along with eye strain from much more screen time. The Alexander technique is a powerful tool to help stiff or painful backs, other joint pain, headaches, as well as generalised tension and stress, and can help just as well in an online lesson. Lessons can show you how to improve – not just your position – but the balance of muscles throughout the body used to sit and work. With different ways of thinking involved in this, as we observe and make changes from the mind and body together, eyestrain and stress can also be hugely reduced. As we learn to breathe naturally again, and allow the natural flow of movement, our sense of poise and ease in our bodies and lives can vastly improve.
With the massage therapists and physios unable to help currently, try an online lesson to see if you can learn how to sort your problem yourself – and give yourself tools you can use for the rest of your life.