What IS the Alexander Technique? (And why the definitive answer is not in here.)
I was thrilled to see the wonderful Alexander Technique teacher Joan Arnold included in last week’s New York magazine article about “The Everything Guide to Posture.” The article recommended a private AT lesson with Joan as one method to improve posture, along with several other modalities like yoga, pilates and Feldenkrais. Every time AT is in the news, it helps all of us in the AT community with that awkward exchange that goes something like this:
Scene. In an elevator/dentist’s chair/at a cocktail party.
Man #1: “So, what do you do?”
AT Teacher: “I am an Alexander Technique teacher.”
Man #1: “Oh!” (smiling. Smile changes to squint.)
Man #1: (long pause) “ So what IS that, exactly?”
If you are Man #1, you are not alone. AT struggles for name recognition alongside various other wellness tools. And its lack of marketing ease is kind of its own doing because there is no handy, dandy one-size-fits-all definition of the technique. It’s a multi-faceted shapeshifting method that applies to everything you do - and that (unfortunately) can’t be easily contained in a sentence.
One way to define the technique is in relation to what it does for people: it helps you in your everyday activities. It could be used to improve performance (the artistic community of actors/singers/dancers/instrumentalists is well-versed in the benefits, and AT is part of the curriculum in top training programs worldwide such as the Juilliard School, Yale School of Drama and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). It could help to alleviate pain, stress or anxiety (see the British Medical Journal’s study on the demonstrable effects of AT study on long-term back pain). It could enable you to sit better at a desk, use your electronic devices in a more easeful way, or hold your newborn baby without back strain.
It does this using some foundational elements: awakening the mind-body connection. Bringing awareness to the whole of your self and your own unique habits. Understanding that the way you use your body affects its functioning, and offering possibilities for change.
I’ve been considering “the possibilities” since I first encountered AT 15 years ago, and while it’s frustrating to not be able to encapsulate it in a sentence, it’s not unlike when I decided in my teens that I wanted to be an opera singer. Part of the appeal of embarking on that journey was that it was a never-ending one. I’d never “master” being a classical vocalist – it would be a path that would continue to challenge (and sometimes aggravate) me. It would have to be a lifelong pursuit: something to question and be curious about, to continually deepen and reevaluate in my understanding. The creator of the Alexander Technique, F.M. Alexander, cautioned against the notion of what he called “end-gaining” – in solely fixating on achieving a goal, one loses sight of the means of working towards that goal. (Alexander called these means the “means whereby”. There is a nice selection of some of F.M. Alexander's writings on both end-gaining and the means whereby here. ) End-gaining, which results in rushing, pushing ahead and an inability to make conscious choices along the way, generally does not serve us well.
So I’ve stopped end-gaining a “perfect” description of AT. I’ve started listening a little bit more. And then my answer actually responds to the person asking the question, and if it sparks something, we have a conversation.
So bravo to Joan, and to New York magazine for including Alexander Technique in the conversation about “what can we do to improve posture?” That gives us something to talk about.