The following is a brief definition of the Alexander Technique that I found online a few years back. As the definition is quite off the mark, I queried the author at the time but didn’t receive a response. I can’t provide a link as the page no longer exists —I doubt I had anything to do with this— and I won’t be naming the author as the article is in fact representative of common misconceptions. I also believe the mistakes, whilst unfortunate, were made in good faith. A superficial analysis of the Technique, in addition to some dodgy source materials, can easily lead to this type of misunderstandings.
“The Alexander Technique is an alternative medical practice based upon posture. According to proponents, maintaining the proper alignment of back, neck and head is the most important thing for good health. When a misalignment is fixed, a variety of diseases can be cured, including asthma, ulcers and more.”
That may sound ok to many, so where’s the problem?
Let’s make a start.
1. Not an “alternative medical practice”
This is a common misconception and it is understandable. Many people do start Alexander lessons because of aches and pains, even specific conditions, and they experience great relief and perhaps what would normally be considered a cure as a result of these lessons. Even taking into account that the Technique has other applications does not negate this first point. The distinction, however, lies in the methods and aims of the Technique. An Alexander teacher does not attempt to directly treat a complaint, rather, aims the teach the pupil how to avoid the patterns of movement and postural support that cause them trouble. This differing aim leads to methods that do not resemble medical practice nor attempt to.
This may seem like wordplay, but an actual lesson in the Alexander Technique should make the difference easy to appreciate.
2. Not “based on posture”
Even though I’ve often said that I don’t like the ‘AT has nothing to do with posture’ sound bite, to say that it is based on posture is going too far in the other direction. Even if you come for an Alexander lesson seeking to improve your posture, you will not be taught any ‘correct postures’.
This misunderstanding is also reasonable. Posture does improve with the Alexander Technique; people often start a series of lessons because they wish to improve their posture. The difference is that AT teachers do not directly attempt to improve posture, the improvement is a by-product of learning the Technique and putting it into practice.
By the same measure, it is inaccurate to say teachers aim to maintain ‘proper alignment’.
3. Head, neck and back
Many will be familiar with emphasis placed on the head, neck back relationship in the Alexander Technique. However, the idea that Alexander teachers consider it “the most important thing for good health” is a mistaken interpretation and definitely not a direct quote of any teacher (let alone FM Alexander). The Alexander Technique, in its relation to health, is best regarded as health education with an emphasis on prevention. Many things contribute to one’s health and Alexander teachers do not claim a monopoly on health maintenance. In fact, any pupil presenting medical conditions are encouraged to seek medical advice if they haven’t already. Our professional codes of ethics require this of us, but it is a natural response to understanding the aims, methods and scope of our work.
The head, neck, back relationship we refer to is a lot more subtle and dynamic than any simple ‘alignment’. We need to move and any such static arrangement would obviously be impractical. And what is really at issue is how a beneficial relationship is achieved. This is the Technique that Alexander developed and is taught by Alexander Teachers. There is a process of awareness, understanding and intention that cannot be replicated by any simple positioning of the parts.
The Alexander Technique is sometimes imagined to be a sort of manipulation therapy and this is reflected in statements like those in the definition above. However, this is not the case. Although teachers do use their hands in the teaching process, it is not for manipulation nor massage. We use our hands to monitor what the pupil is doing and guide them in movement.
4. The “cure” of disease
If you’ve made it this far you could probably respond to this assertion yourselves. The Alexander Technique is not about cures but prevention, and it can alleviate problems only to the extent to which they are caused by inefficient postural support and movement patterns.
As an analogy, if someone has sore feet due to ill-fitting shoes, investing in a better fitting shoes will conceivably resolve the issue. The effect may not be immediate but you should expect improvement. If the pain and discomfort disappears completely, ‘cure’ doesn’t seem to be the right word for the result. And presenting good fitting shoes as a ‘cure’ for all feet trouble would be ridiculous! Another possibility is that pain persists because the damage is too far gone, or perhaps there is another contributing factor. Regardless, the preventive measure has made a positive contribution.
And so … what is the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique, although it has other applications, can be regarded as health education with a focus on prevention. This education is practical, not theoretical, and is therefore only useful if what has been learnt is put into practice. The purpose of the lesson is not to tell you what’s wrong with you but to show you what to do about it.