Will the correct definition of the Alexander Technique please step forward?

I read blogs, books and listen to podcasts about the Alexander Technique. Usually, at some point there is a definition of the Alexander Technique.

What’s interesting about these definitions is that they vary widely. Some teachers also seem to spend as much time trying to debunk other people’s definitions as actually creating their own.

Because the Alexander Technique is about mind-body technique, all definitions are incomplete because of our habit of dualistic thinking. We think about the body as though that body didn’t have mind that lives in it. Here’s an example from Pedro de Alcantara.

“The simple act of brushing your teeth, for instance, appears to be purely physical, involving your mouth, one of your hands, and little else. But it’s humanly impossible to do any one thing without there being a psychological dimension. The emotions associated with brushing your teeth are varied and intense, going back to your childhood and involving memories, fears, desires, pleasures, and displeasures. The act contains faint or not-so-faint connections with every visit to the dentist, every meal and its aftermath, every moment of vanity or shame regarding your teeth and your smile. Further, brushing your teeth is a ritualistic act of cleansing that prepares you for talking to someone intimately, for appearing in public, for going to bed at night and entering the land of dreams, and so on. In truth, brushing your teeth reflects the intertwined and inseparable coexistence of the physical, the psychological, and the metaphysical—or to put it differently, body, mind, and soul.”

Alcantara, Pedro de. Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique (The Integrated Musician) (pp. 3-4). Oxford University Press.

Because of our tendency toward dualistic thinking when talking about our minds and bodies, it’s very difficult to come up with definitions that are short, media friendly and pithy.

Having listened and read a whole lot of definitions, they seem to fall into 3 main camps.

In the first group, the emphasis is that Alexander Technique is mysterious and undefinable. There is so much about the technique that is subjective personal experience that it’s impossible to define it. Patrick McDonald, on one of his rare appearances on film says that the technique:

“one doesn’t want a sergeant major thing of pulling the head back and sticking the chest out. On the other hand one should slump yourself down and contract your body, that’s wrong too. The right thing is in between those two things and I can only explain that with my hands”

In other words, he can only explain it through giving someone the experience.

The second set of definitions the emphasis is on our bodies, in particular, about our co-ordination and moving out of tension or pain. It’s about unlearning bad habits that produce tension in our bodies.

Here’s a typical definition from this group on the STAT (Society for the Teachers of the Alexander Technique) web site.

“The Alexander Technique is a skill for self-development teaching you to change long-standing habits that cause unnecessary tension in everything you do.
Whatever your age or ability, the Technique can help boost your performance in any activity and relieve the pain and stress caused by postural habits, like slouching or rounded shoulders.”

Another one from Dan Cayer

“The Alexander technique is a process for synchronizing mind and body and starting to become more aware of habits that are interfering with one’s wellbeing and causing pain”.

http://bodylearning.buzzsprout.com/382/158464-how-the-alexander-technique-can-help-people-with-chronic-pain/

The third set of definitions the emphasis is on the Alexander Technique as a philosophy. It’s about learning how we think. It’s about understanding our unconscious and impulsive behaviours so we can make better decisions.

Peter Nobes:

“Alexander Technique gives us a ‘means-whereby’ we can achieve what all the self-help books are offering. A means-whereby to real, lasting change. The Dalai Lama says that the purpose of life is to be happy. What we have here is a means-whereby to achieve it”.

Nobes, Peter. Mindfulness in 3D: Alexander Technique for the 21st century (pp. 116-117). The Real Press.

Pedro de Alcantara talking to another musician about what the Alexander Technique really is:

“All problems are the same and all problems are due to you becoming temporarily insane… so you have a crazy idea about the effort you need to make in order to sing … it’s the way that you are thinking about the problem that is creating the problem”

Pedro de Alcantara, The Real Truth Behind the Alexander Technique (http://bodylearning.buzzsprout.com/382/489976-the-real-truth-behind-the-alexander-technique)

Bruce Fertman:

“Now my work as an Alexander teacher revolves around how we choose to respond to the world within us and all around us. How do we choose to respond to our own thoughts and emotions, to physical sensations both pleasant and unpleasant? How do we choose to respond to criticism, to praise, to deadlines, to the wind? How do we best adept to an ever-changing world, to our uncertain futures? The question is not how can we move well, but how can we move well through the course of our lives, how can we live life fluidly, articulately, powerfully, sensitively, pleasurably, and responsibly?”

Bruce Fertman, Teaching by Hand, Learning By Heart, Foreward page IX

Most definitions try and include some of above aspects.

“The Technique evolved by the late F. Mathias Alexander is generally regarded as one for altering postural behaviour of individuals, and indeed it can be so regarded. However, it concerns itself with considerably more than this. It is a technique for altering the reaction of the individual to the stimuli of his environment, and thus it can be applied to a whole range of human activities, whether these be regarded as just thought processes or processes involving predominantly muscular activity”

Patrick Macdonald

Will there ever be a universally agreed definition of the Alexander Technique? Given the fact that there are now a wide variety of different practices and ideas about it, I doubt it. Maybe that’s a healthy thing.

And the last word goes to the man himself. When Alexander was asked for a one-word definition of his technique, he came up with:

“Readiness”

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© Kevin Saunders, Yogaground 2018

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