A series of F.M. Alexander’s teaching aphorisms have been available for some time. They first appeared in The Alexander Technique: the essential writings of F.M. Alexander (1969), a book of thematically arranged selected material from Alexander’s four books edited by Edward Maisel. There’s been several reprints since then but the book is now out of print. You can however still find reasonably priced second hand copies. More recently they’ve been available in a small booklet: Aphorisms.
These aphorisms are particularly interesting because they give us an opportunity to hear Alexander’s thoughts expressed in a spontaneous, less formal way than in his books. For me, their principle utility lies in their ability to stimulate reflection on the technique and our experience of it.
For this reason, it’s important we don’t become too attached to any single interpretation or seek the ‘correct’ meaning. Our understanding can and should change over time. We should continue to reflect on these aphorisms as our experience evolves, arriving at an ever deeper understanding. I therefore won’t be defending my interpretations and reflections as anything like the last word on them. To do so would be misunderstanding their true usefulness.
As an aside, when I was living and working in Spain I made my own translations of them as I felt the Spanish translator had, on occasion, misunderstood the original meaning precisely because of his lack of experience of the Technique. If I were to revisit my translations they may well change them —and this isn’t just because my Spanish has improved!
Understanding the context
Before we make a start on the aphorisms, it’s a good idea to be clear about a few things. The first is that Alexander didn’t ‘write’ them. Ethel Webb, his assistant and secretary, often listened in on his lessons and jotted down the phrases that she found interesting at the time. Some may not interest us now, but could seem mind blowing later!
Secondly, each aphorism is something that Alexander said to a particular pupil at a particular time. He was attempting to teach this pupil who, like all of us, would’ve come to the Technique with their individual problems and difficulties. We should therefore not assume the aphorisms are universally applicable or relevant.
And lastly, the spoken word is often less carefully chosen than what we’d put in writing, and these aphorisms were delivered with a vocal inflection, emphasis and gestures not available to us. We also know nothing about the people Alexander was speaking to nor the context of the conversation. So what we’re left with will often be a little ambiguous or open to interpretation compared to what the pupil would have received. But, as I said above, as long as we don’t become too attached to a particular interpretation and instead use these aphorisms as a stimulus for thought and reflection, this need not be a problem.
So let’s make a start:
“This isn’t breathing; it’s lifting your chest and collapsing”.
Many of Alexander’s aphorisms deal with breathing. This isn’t surprising when we consider that a great part of his reputation was built on his capacity to teach people to breath better. In fact in his early days he was popularly known as ‘The Breathing Man’.
Alexander seems to be describing a common breathing defect which is often the result of breathing exercises taught by sport or voice coaches. These type of exercises were very popular in Alexander’s day and are still very common. The idea is to take as much air into the lungs as possible by raising the chest and arching the back, and then expel as much as you can by sinking the chest and rounding the back. As an exercise, this approach is based on the idea that the breathing mechanism should be worked to its maximum and supposes this will improve its function across the board. This simplistic idea underlies many approaches to exercise.
The problem with this approach is that it has nothing to do with the real demands of breathing whilst also harming other parts of the body such as the back, neck, shoulders and internal organs. This is why Alexander says that “This is not breathing”. What this exercise develops is the habit of breathing in this harmful and artificial way. There’s no advantage in this and plenty of harm.
Alexander’s approach is to recover the correct functioning of the breathing mechanism by means of using it correctly. This is achieved by learning how to not interfere with it whilst focusing on coordinating the body as a whole. The improvements in breathing came about as a natural result of this general improvement, instead of any direct ‘exercising’ of it.
This approach is based on the understanding that, in practice, we can’t separate correct use of the breathing mechanism from the correct use of the rest of the body. Any attempt to improve the breathing that fails to take into account the effect it’s having on the whole will sooner or later cause trouble. Ironically, It’ll be detrimental to the breathing in particular, not only to general conditions.
Another interpretation is that the person in question was demonstrating a more subtle, untrained version of this style of breathing. This is common in people who are very tight and fixed in the thorax. Raising the chest is the only way they have of creating a bit of space for the air to come in. Fortunately, Alexander’s solution still applies. Instead of working harder and harder to breath in, the Alexander Technique reestablishes a general coordination and thus the free movement of the ribs. This naturally leads to free and easy breathing, free of strain and deformation of the rib cage.