What IS the Alexander Technique?

It shouldn’t be a stressful question – getting asked what you do for a living. That is of course unless you’re a bank robber or a hacker or work for the IRS. But when someone at a cocktail party asks me, “So Jenn, what sort of business are you in?” and I say “Well, Fred, I’m an Alexander Technique teacher,” the response—after a pause—is usually something to the effect of “You know, I’ve never heard of that. What IS the Alexander Technique?”

My quick answer, if I’m at a cocktail party or know that the person asking is just trying to be polite is: “It’s a technique that helps you do everything you do with more ease and less tension,” –-which is entirely true, but lately I’ve been thinking (rather dishearteningly) that this answer is more confusing than helpful.

Most people who have heard of the Alexander Technique but have never experienced it think it is a method of teaching better posture. (When Susan at that same party asks me what I do and I tell her that I teach Alexander Technique, she immediately blushes, stiffens her neck, pulls her shoulders back and says with a laugh, “oh boy I should call you up and get some work with you. I have TERRIBLE posture!”) Posture is a lovely byproduct of a course of Alexander lessons, but it is not the goal of those lessons. Most people come to me because they are in pain, or because they want to enhance performance (be it dance, acting, running, golf), and though oftentimes it alleviates pain or aids in performance, that’s not quite the goal of the work either. It’s not bodywork. It’s not Yoga. It’s not even new. So what IS it?????

According to Michael Gelb in his book Body Learning, The Alexander Technique is so hard to describe because “it involves a new experience—the experience of gradually freeing oneself from the domination of fixed habits. Any attempt to put that experience into words is necessarily limited, rather like trying to explain music to someone who has never heard a note.” Mysterious? Sounds that way, but when actually experienced the Alexander Technique is downright simple—even intuitive once you’ve encountered it.

The Alexander Technique helps you to bring your unique habitual patterns into your awareness, and then gently aids you in letting the harmful or unnecessary ones go. These habits could include an unconscious tightening in your neck or stiffness in your legs that prevent you from walking with ease, or these habits could be negative cycles of thinking that lead to anxiety or depression. Or both. Or something altogether different. With the Alexander Technique you don’t learn a new skill, rather, you learn how to undo–to strip away what you don’t need so that your most authentic self–your best you–can surface. (This, by the way, is why this process can be so helpful for actors: with the help of AT, an actor learns how to bring their best self into the room, free of tension, nerves, judgemental thoughts, and ready to freely listen and respond in the moment.)

In an Alexander Technique class or course of lessons, we explore how your thinking and your awareness affects the way you move through your day—this can include the way you interact with your partner or co-workers, or with material objects (like your computer keyboard or your steering wheel), or even the way your child interact with friends and teachers. Then we explore the ways in which you use yourself in those interactions affects how you function. Here’s an example of what I mean: I’ve always hated using knives. I have a terrible relationship to this important tool. I’ve come to recognize that I tighten my hands and brace my shoulders when I chop vegetables, and because of this I used to experience sharp pain right through my elbow every time I cooked a large meal. With the help of Alexander Technique, I’ve become aware of this pattern and have learned ways to undo this habitual tension. Now, my elbow is pain free. (The how of this work I’ll save for another time!)

It is not uncommon to uncover that every time you get into your car (whether there is traffic or not, whether you are in a rush or not) that you hunker down and grip the wheel like you’re fleeing the scene of a crime! Or that each time your child feels unprepared for a math test, their jaw clenches and their shoulders pull in. Does this physical behavior help you drive more carefully? Might this excess tension lead to back, neck, shoulder, or joint pain later in your child’s life?

So, to sum up: The Alexander Technique is a way to do everything you do with more ease and less tension. Wait…

I’d love to hear from you. How was the Alexander Technique explained to you? How do you explain it to others? If you are a teacher, how do you explain it to potential students?