// The Alexander Technique: An Australian legacy

by Jeremy Chance

How could an Australian who died almost 60 years ago in London inspire change in today’s fitness industry?

First, you need to know a little bit about the man behind this change, F Matthias Alexander, one of Australia’s pioneers of mind-body work. Alexander was the creator of the Alexander technique, a Pilates-like method which has been slowly but steadily gaining ground among intellectuals, scientists and fitness professionals with an interest in the field of human movement. In 1988 the Australian Bicentenary Committee named Alexander as one of the ‘200 Australians that Made Australia Great’.

The Alexander technique focuses on bodily coordination (including psychological principles of awareness), with the aim of achieving freedom of movement. Teachers of the technique use finely trained observation and light hand contact to detect physical and mental stresses in clients and students. The discipline addresses imbalances in actions including walking, standing, sitting, using the hands and speaking.

But Alexander left behind more than a technique. He offered a vision of how we can find one unifying method of determining the most efficient human movement.

At a practical level, how do we know one way of moving is better than another? By what means can we decide which set of exercises, or strengthening which groups of muscles could deliver better, pain-free performance? Everyone has an opinion, and these ideas often contradict each other.

No particular system or idea appears to have the currency to unify the industry to one standard.

So the next question is, how would we know when we have arrived at such a unifying idea? One obvious result would be a dramatic and irrefutable reduction in posturally-induced pain.

Pain is a natural way for our nervous system to send us a message that whatever we are doing is not good; that it is against nature’s plan – so please stop it. It’s a great way for our body to stop us continuing to do harmful things, but the difficulty is that we are not always sure why we are getting the message.

Sometimes we attempt an action differently, sometimes we ‘push through the pain’ and sometimes we give up.

A unifying concept of human movement would be like the holy grail of the fitness industry, changing the way all styles of exercise are performed so that it does not result in unnecessary pain. This would sweep away one of the great challenges of the fitness industry – how to achieve drug free, painless enjoyment in all performance activities.

Teachers of Alexander’s methods may hold claim to being able to do this. In August 2008 the highly respected British Medical Journal published a groundbreaking study into the results of Alexander’s technique. The study proved the application of his methods could reduce pain by 86 per cent in cases of long-term chronic and recurring back pain, even 12 months after the program. No other method has been shown to be so effective in the reduction of pain.

The slow infiltration of Alexander’s discoveries could, in time, revolutionise the fitness industry. The issue of posturally-related pain could be massively reduced, making incidence of immediate injury the biggest cause of fitness-related pain.

So, if Alexander’s discovery offers such potential in the field of pain reduction, why has over a century passed without it becoming more widespread? The reason may be that the technique embodies itself in a sensation, a feeling. To know it, you must feel it through the hands of a teacher. The feeling recaptures the kinesthetic understanding that was once our birthright as toddlers. Slowly we lose this through the misapplication and failure to understand nature’s ‘master plan’ for human movement.

For an Alexander teacher to give you this experience, he or she would have felt it through the hands of an older teacher and that teacher may have experienced the idea directly from Alexander’s hands. This all takes time of course – 109 years and counting.

By studying different lineages and methods of communicating Alexander’s work, the following movement principles may be arrived at:
• All movements are interdependent.
• Harmful movements go largely unrecognised.
• Movements strongly influence our health and state of mind.
• Head movements govern vertebral coordination.
• Movements are driven by old feelings, rarely new ideas.
• Movements are changed by reducing tension, not increasing it.
• Our sense of movement is internally calibrated.

If implemented in the fitness industry, these movement principles could represent a considerable shift in the approach to human coordination.

Evaluations of Alexander’s technique over the past century

Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952), Neurophysiologist , Nobel Prize for Medicine 1932
‘Mr Alexander has done a service to the subject [of the study of reflex and voluntary movement] by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psychophysical man. To take a step is an affair, not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the moment, not least of the head and neck’.

Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988), Ethologist , Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1973
‘…the work of a very remarkable man, the late F. M. Alexander… we believe that his achievements deserve close attention. What Alexander has discovered is that a lifelong mis-use of the body-muscles (such as caused by, for instance, too much sitting and too little walking) can make the entire system go wrong. As a consequence, reports that ‘all is correct’ are received by the brain (or perhaps interpreted as correct) when in fact all is very wrong. A person can feel ‘at ease’ e.g., when slouching in front of a television set, when in fact he is grossly abusing his body’.

British Medical Journal study
Title: ‘Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain’, August 2008
Results: Exercise and lessons in the Alexander technique, but not massage, remained effective at one year. Number of days with back pain in the past four weeks was lower after lessons (compared with control median 21 days: 24 lessons -18, six lessons -10, massage -7) and quality of life improved significantly. No significant harms were reported.’
Citation: BMJ 2008;337:a884; doi:10.1136/bmj.a884

Jeremy Chance
Jeremy has studied and practiced the Alexander technique since 1969. An international presenter, he runs a successful teacher training program from two campuses in Japan. With BodyChance, Jeremy brings the proven science of FM Alexander’s discoveries to today’s health and fitness professional. He has featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, Woman’s Weekly and on ABC television. For more information call 1300 305 737 or visit www.bodychance.com

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