Weird, Woo-woo, Wacky, Why Not?
The little I had heard about the Alexander Technique seemed suspiciously vague and way too woo-woo for me.
So I turned to YouTube.
There, at the very top of the search results, I found this wacky video of actor William Hurt learning the Alexander Technique: (Please only watch a minute or two and be careful to not get hypnotized.)
Rather than inspire me to give the Alexander Technique a go, it made me giggle at its unintentional absurdity and chuckle along at the comments below.
Next, I turned to Google for answers. I figured to top search result, AlexanderTechnique.com, would be a good place to start.
It wasn’t. For example, here’s their “definition” of the Alexander Technique:
“The Alexander technique is a way of learning how you can get rid of harmful tension in your body.” Although certainly not a full definition of the Alexander Technique, this is a good start.
“Not a full definition”? Weird that they can’t even define what it is.
But I gave the Alexander Technique a go anyway. My friend, who I’ll call Charlotte to save her from grief for any perceived Alexander slander in this review, gave me a deal. She’d just finished three years of studying it and offered me ten sessions for just $100.
Why not? I was curious.
Here’s my review of those Alexander Technique sessions.
The Alexander Technique in Brief
Before my Alexander Technique review, here’s my best attempt to briefly recap its Wikipedia page:
The Alexander Technique helps you retrain bad habits in posture so that you can move efficiently and pain-free in the way our bodies were designed to. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869–1955) invented it to fix his own issues of voice loss while reciting Shakespeare in theatre.
Classes are most commonly taught privately in 30 to 60 minute sessions. They involve sitting, squatting, walking, and lying under the guidance and supervision of a qualified teacher.
These days, it’s popular among stage performers (like Hugh Jackman and Hilary Swank), musicians (like Madonna and Paul McCartney), and dancers. They apply the technique to improve their performance and reduce the incidence of repetitive stress injuries.
Minimal scientific evidence backs the technique, but the few studies that exist are somewhat promising. They indicate it may help reduce long-term back and neck pain and be beneficial to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Alexander Technique Review: My 10-Class Experience
Unlearning from Yoda
Half of my ten Alexander Technique sessions were with my friend Charlotte’s teacher. (Or guru?)
I’ll call this teacher Yoda, because she too is tiny, dresses frumpily, and speaks in difficult-to-understand turns of phrases like:
“You must unlearn what you have learned.”– Yoda (both the Star Wars version and my Alexander Technique “guru.”)
Unlearning, as I eventually untangled from Yoda’s roundabout way of explaining things, is what the Alexander Technique is all about.
It helps us unlearn the bad postural habits that a life in desks, car seats, and couches has forced us into and get back to positions we’re designed to move in.
I 100% agree with this concept. Whether Yoda and Charlotte could help me make it happen with the Alexander Technique, I wasn’t so sure.
Try This at Home
This little trick, or cue, that Charlotte would often throw into our sessions is so easy you can try it at home right now:
Without looking up, think about all the empty space between the top of your head and the ceiling above.
Did you notice your body
straighten* lengthen up a little bit to fill that space?
I sure did whenever Charlotte or Yoda asked me the same question. And I still give myself the same cue from time to time. It helps.
This little trick was one of many they had in their arsenal that started to convince me there was something to this Alexander Technique.
[*”Straighten” is a bad word in the Alexander Technique world because your spine’s natural position is an S shape, not straight.]
Learning to Be Lazy
Here’s another example of a quick “trick” from my Alexander Technique sessions.
Charlotte told me to hold a piece of paper in front of me. She then asked me how hard I was squeezing the paper on a scale of one to ten.
“Three,” I said.
“Can you hold the paper with a one or two out of ten instead?”
Of course I could.
Why, then, was I squeezing the paper unnecessarily hard? What a waste of energy!
We then spent most of that session chatting about this. What other mundane activities was I was wasting energy on? And how could I save stress throughout the day by being more practically lazy?
Going from a three to a one is a small change, but when you learn to do so for hundreds of movements throughout the day over decades, it can make a big difference.
Assess yourself right now. I bet some part of your body is excessively tense and could be a bit lazier right now.
Be a Be-er Not a Do-er
Imagine a big-shot CEO who tries to respond to every customer call and email. She’ll burn out in no time.
As Charlotte and Yoda explained, our bodies have a similar thing going on.
We have “do-er” muscles (the CEOs) and “be-er” muscles (the assistants). The “do-ers” are supposed to do the heavy lifting while the “be-ers” keep everything in balance.
But when we have poor posture our “do-er” muscles take over the “be-er” muscles’ job. And eventually they flame out. Our sore backs, necks, and shoulders then scream at us, “Enough already!”
To get my “be-er” muscles back in action, Charlotte and Yoda taught me not to think about sitting or standing up straight, but about stacking my bones.
And they taught me how to feel when they’re stacked. My bodyweight feels heavier as it pushes down in the same directions and I gently sway as my “be-er” muscles do their job.
The Worst Part
I estimate I spent four of my ten hours of Alexander Technique sessions either lying on my back or sitting down.
And I sucked at both.
Charlotte and Yoda constantly poked, prodded, and positioned me to correct my form, sometimes using cushions and straps, but to no avail. I was so bad at sitting and lying that I didn’t even manage to progress to “advanced moves” like walking up and down stairs.
I liked these parts of my sessions the least. Unlike the other parts, which were more interactive and engaging, I felt like a life-sized Ken doll and, like a Ken doll, I had no understanding of what was going on.
On the bright side, it was relaxing.
Homework that Works
After most of my sessions, Charlotte gave me homework.
My most frequent assignment was to lie on my back for ten minutes.
Another homework assignment was to periodically freeze where I was standing and ask myself how my bodyweight was distributed between my right and left feet and where my head was positioned relative to my body.
The “right” answers should be 50/50 and right on top. I was rarely “right.”
But physically before correcting myself, Charlotte instructed me to take mental note of my position and what changes I needed to make to get into an ideal one. This way I became more conscious of my habits I needed to unlearn.
Slowly my brain untangled itself to unconsciously put my body in the “right” position more often.
My Own Definition of the Alexander Technique
Despite many attempts, I never managed to get a solid definition of the Alexander Technique out of Charlotte and Yoda. So I came up with my own:
Mindfulness for the body.
The Alexander Technique helps our bodies find the simplest, least stressful ways to deal with life’s obstacles, just as mindfulness does for our thoughts.
Charlotte and Yoda didn’t like this definition. Oh well. It helps me bring it all together. Until they come up with something better, I’m sticking with it.
Long Story Short
Do I Still Think the Alexander Technique is “Woo Woo, Wacky, and Weird”?
As I write this, it’s been six months since my last Alexander Technique session.
By no means am I back to moving perfectly naturally like a young child but, surprisingly, I’m still feeling residual effects.
A couple times a day, I’ll catch myself being imbalanced—slouching on a chair, for example—and will make a mental note of what I’m doing wrong and readjust. And for some movement patterns, like how I get down to pick stuff off the ground, I seem to have unlearned my bad habits.
So while I sometimes found the language frustratingly over-complicated and unfocused and had no idea what was going on lots of the time, overall I’m a fan.
With some better marketing (including some YouTube videos filmed later than 1995) and a more mainstream approach, the Alexander technique has the potential to help a lot more people than the actors and musicians who make the most use of it now.
I wouldn’t pay full price for a private teacher but if some entrepreneurial modern Alexander Technique “guru” were to make the “body-fulness” equivalent of mindfulness apps like Calm or Headspace, I’d get back into it for sure.
Update: Alexander Technique Teachers Review My Review
Someone shared my Alexander Technique review in an active Facebook group of professional Alexander technicians.
Their comments and feedback is worth noting for anyone who’s wondering about signing up for some sessions:
- It’s not just about the body. The mind and body are intertwined, so the technique works on awareness, feelings, habits, and poise of the whole self, not just the physical self.
- Posture is the wrong word. Rather than posture, the Alexander Technique emphasizes poise.
- Touchy-feely. Alexander Technique sessions are hands-on experiences, which is something I admittedly didn’t touch on enough. They say this makes an app unfeasible.
- Admirable reactions. Instead of responding with internet equivalent of road rage, like most people do these days, they were unanimously grateful for my feedback and sought improvement opportunities within it.
What Do You Think?
Share your own review of the Alexander Technique or questions about it with me and fellow readers in the comments.
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Thanks, this is a helpful and realistic assessment of your experience, albeit incomplete. But why wouldn’t you pay full price for the expert guidance and support you received in just 10 short lessons? How could you get that from an app? You didn’t mention anything about your teacher’s touch or hands-on guidance, and for a body-based method you don’t describe much about your sensual experience. You make it sound all mental. I’d love to hear more about how practicing the AT has affected your life.
This comment took the words out of my mouth! I enjoyed reading about your experience with the technique, which you put so nicely into words. As a certified AT teacher, I find it very exciting to hear about other people open up to this wonderful thing and even share it with the world. That is great! But then you end up with the app thing, which totally misses out on the real deal. You can’t do it by yourself! Even experienced teachers are better off getting some outside view by other teachers. We too have to remind ourselves to unlearn what we know already… Otherwise we get stuck in the same thing over and over again. Who wants to do that? “Forever changing” we call it in our school. Also, if I may, the use of the word “posture” is also a miss, for posture is a shape- a position, and that could be many things. In our school we use the term “poise” which refers to the condition that comes from a clear choice and direction of the mind that translates into the body. This is something we can improve and work on with the assistant of a good teacher. For me AT is not about posture but about poise. It is a mindfulness approach to managing yourself in a more organic and natural way. Like nature intended. Marketing the technique as something that helps you to “correct your posture” is not doing justice to the work, which is a more holistic and life changing then anything else. It’s freaking amazing! And we have F.M Alexander to thank for that. Genius! Thank you for sharing and best of luck in everything. And remember: ease of being is what it’s all about 🙂
I’m an alexander teacher and I’m thrilled that you’ve gotten so much out of your sessions. We in the field are extremely aware of the “bad marketing” — this stuff is hard to put into words precisely because it is so experiential, as in: you have to have a session to really get it. I would say after reading this review that a) this is not just a body technique, but includes way more of human experience including your emotional life, habits of mind, how you talk to yourself, awareness of far more than posture. You sell yourself and the technique short by focusing just on the body because b) there is no mind-body split. That is a superficial construct most of us operate in. But artists (and, frankly, people in a lot of pain) like this technique and respond to it because it offers a more whole-person experience, not pieced-out into chunks (my body, my posture, my habits).
Also, clearly some of us in the field need to address that wikipedia page.
In the meantime, if you’re a person who insists on science:
How awesome! I love your recap and explanation. It represents one way of using the AT very well.
I am an extraordinary performance coach, and I use the AT (I am a certified teacher, as well as professional performer) to coach the most elite performers in the world. (Cirque du Soleil, Broadway, marathon runners, etc.) What we do is use the principles of peak performance, human design, movement and thought to do the things we most desire.
Coincidentally. I just started a youtube channel, and since you mentioned it, I welcome you to check it out.
Also: I love the typeface you’re using. Gorgeous- what is it?
PS I HIGHLY recommend you read Cathy Madden’s “Onstage Synergy” which is the best book out there about actually using the AT for yourself. (Less than the cost of a lesson.;)
I really enjoyed reading this post! Such clear and detailed insight into the work. Just wondering, because I recognized the picture of the room you had your lesson in, did you intentionally change the name of the teacher? She was my AT teacher trainer, and even now I’m still taking lessons with her when I can. Perhaps I missed it somewhere in the post about the said teacher not wanting her name to be revealed?
Just checking in to see what’s up!
There IS an app. It’s called Allez-Up.
I have been teaching Alexander Technique for 15 years now, and I don’t have a problem at all with calling it “mindfulness for the body,” as I often call it “mindfulness in motion.” My most often used definition is that it is a technique that helps people “disarm the force of habit” so they can learn to get out of their own way. It usually starts with posture and movement habits, but habits of thinking and feeling (that mindfulness meditation and cognitive therapies address) always show up sooner or later. Also, I’ve found that “mindfulness” in the traditional sense of the word is more accessible when it isn’t confined to your head space. Ultimately, what I really do is empower people with some choices over what they will and will not do with themselves.
Because I live with someone who is in the vulnerable population for Covid-19, I am teaching exclusively on-line. Though I absolutely LOVE the hands on aspect of AT, I have found that some parts of the technique work equally well or even better in a video chat format.
Hi Chris, I read Alexander’s book, which I can’t recall the name of (can someone help me please?) about 20 years ago. As a trained ballet dancer it rocked my world with its common sense and complete logic. I also enjoyed your review, although you almost lost me when you started with your research on You Tube and Wikipedia – glad I persisted though.
For the past 15 years I’ve been working as a journalist, spending inordinate amounts of time in a chair at a computer. Even with the knowledge I have, bad habits set in and sent me south.
Hence why I’ve been looking back into AT – a week off work with muscle spasms has shown me I can’t keep doing what I’m doing.
Thanks for your honest review, and if anyone can help me with the name of the book I’d be very grateful.
What a wonderful post Chris! I arrived at your blog sort of serendipitously, and I loved reading such an honest and “raw” impression from someone unfamiliar with the technique. It’s Interesting, that majority of comments here come from AT teachers (and I am one as well!).
I absolutely agree with you that this technique needs new marketing approach, and better explanations, that will be easy to grasp for someone unfamiliar with our lingo. We do get sort of tied up in the lingo, and part of the teaching as I see it, means finding words, examples, games and such that will resonate with the particular student in front of me. And that is why the individual lesson (in person or on zoom) is usually the most effective.
There are ways to successfully teach principles of AT in a group setting as well. I think it gets more complicated when there is no way to observe a student and exchange feedback. Hence, apps and online recorded courses may be limited in that regard. Or maybe not?
Besides, as you pointed out, you may not notice the changes that happened, whereas teacher next to you observes them and points them out to you, basically helping you expand and fine tune your attention and awareness – which in essence is the AT work.
Great article. You did well in 10 lessons to understand as much as you did. Clearly a genius. Here is a link to some post 1995 material.
I hope you find it much more up to date.
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