How the Alexander Technique Differs from Manipulative Therapies
One of the most unusual aspects of the Alexander Technique is its educational nature. The Alexander Technique is not a therapy—it is an educational practice. That’s why an Alexander practitioner is called a teacher.
By paying attention to the teacher’s verbal descriptions and hands-on guidance, you learn how to adjust unconscious physical and mental habits and re-coordinate your body.
In the Alexander Technique, you learn a method of working on yourself that you can continue to apply outside of the session. You develop an awareness of the habits that may be causing pain and poor functioning, and you acquire a means of stopping those actions. Unlike a therapy, the Alexander Technique involves self-directed practice.
The Alexander Technique helps you recognize the habitual patterns of coordination that interfere with your ability to function optimally. You learn how to apply both teacher-guided and self-guided instructions.
Unlike the benefits of manipulative therapies, those of the Alexander Technique are lasting—as long as you pay attention to your teacher’s guidance and practise what you learn. Through the Alexander Technique, you can dissolve longstanding negative habits of thought and movement, thereby improving your psychophysical integrity.
Recognizing unconscious habits
Recognizing habits sounds simple. But you developed many of your habits unconsciously—some as early as age three! They are not in the forefront of your mind. This makes learning to recognize them quite a challenge. Habit becomes like resting postural tone—it slips below the level of perception.
With some therapies, you are given a set of exercises or manipulations that have been developed for general populations. In an Alexander lesson, everything is geared toward what your body needs. You learn how to “talk” to your body in a new way. The teacher helps you see the habitual patterns that are normally invisible to you, and provides guidance to help you learn a new set of instructions that improve how your body and mind function together.
Most therapies are aimed at specific problems. The beauty of the Alexander Technique is that you can apply it to any situation you might encounter. It’s geared not just to fix an ache or a pain, but to improve a diverse range of activities.
You might come to an Alexander teacher with a specific problem. You will leave with the ability to choose—for the first time in your life—whether to continue to be guided by an accidentally developed, inefficient coordination or by a new, conscious, efficient one.
Making changes from within
There is a world of difference between the hands-on guidance offered by an Alexander teacher and the manipulations used in other types of therapy. The goal of the Alexander practitioner is to make you aware of inappropriate muscular action, and to show you how to alter that action. You are not a passive recipient of manipulation, but a lively, responsive participant in an educational process.
Since posture is internally generated—that is, your habits of posture and movement are “stored” in your brain and body—no external manipulation can have any lasting effect on your habits.
To change posture and habit, it is essential that change come from within. An Alexander practitioner never uses force to overcome excessive muscle tone. Instead, he or she uses verbal and gentle hands-on guidance to encourage you to make the changes yourself.
Understanding the mind–body connection
Any division between body and mind—between thought, emotion, and movement—is purely artificial and can never accurately express the essential unity of the human being. “Muscle tension,” said F. M. Alexander, the inventor of the Alexander Technique, is “a matter of belief.”
Researchers in many domains have observed how language is embodied, how emotion involves muscular response, how movement is a quality of thought. We are indivisible. No attempt to work on the body without considering the emotional and cognitive processes of that body can be very successful.
During an Alexander lesson, you are encouraged to activate your perception and thinking in order to alter habits that may seem only muscular in nature. You might see that your tight neck reflects a momentary state of fear, or your startle reflex, which is caused either by stress and competition or by the pain of injury. Or you might discover that it is a purely imitative response, and that the response carries some of the emotional state of the person you’ve picked it up from.
We often unconsciously imitate the perceived states of others in order to understand those states. Cultural anthropologists refer to this tendency as “kinesthetic empathy” and theorize that it helps us understand others’ intent. This ability appears to be programmed into us. What parent has not experienced the imitative response of a newborn to changes in facial expression? Long before a baby has any conscious control over musculature, he or she imitates.
Kinesthetic empathy is important for Alexander practitioners. As soon as someone places hands on us, we experience the state of that person’s musculature and coordination in an immediate way. Alexander practitioners are therefore required to address their own use before guiding others. CanSTAT-certified Alexander practitioners, in fact, spend hundreds of hours addressing their own use before they are permitted to begin working on others. (This is not necessarily true of Alexander teachers who have not been certified by STAT-affiliated societies.)
An example involving posture
Posture is first regulated reflexively, based on sensory input. Every bit of information that enters through the senses has an immediate effect on muscle tone. The eyes establish constantly changing points of reference; sensors in the muscles, tendons, and joints respond to gravity and movement; the canals of the inner ear measure acceleration and deceleration. Myriad loops between sensory input and motor output regulate posture.
Your intention then enters these input–output loops, as you adapt your posture to support your movements. It is here that problems arise. When you experience fear or pain from injury, for example, you tend to retract and over-stabilize your limbs. This can interfere with postural efficiency. Muscle action that you hold for a long time eventually becomes constant. If fear or pain causes you to tighten your neck often and for extended periods, your brain will learn to maintain this added tension as a constant state. It will slip below your level of consciousness and no longer be felt as an action. It will become part of your continually maintained postural muscle tone, where it will interfere with your ease of movement.
To remove these acquired constant actions, you must apply your consciousness. To replace the message from the brain that demands excessive muscle contraction, you must learn to insert a message that will inhibit the muscle contraction. Slowly, with the application of awareness and conscious direction, you can restore the normal functioning of your reflexes.
Posture, then, depends on systems that continuously adapt the body on the basis of sensory input and in support of your reactions and your decisions to act. You can use the Alexander Technique to makelasting, positive changes to your posture.