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Articles by ISATT Members

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1. Crossing Borders by Lance Dercum
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2. Rewiring - not Retiring, with the Alexander Technique!by Margaret Maher
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3. Cultural Habits by Richard Brennan
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4. Is Alexander Technique Curative or Educational? What is the Medical Support for the Alexander Technique? by Niall Kelly
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5. Are computers and laptops really big head magnets? by Niall Kelly
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6. The Strains & Pains of Playing Music by Penelope Easten
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7. Walk Tall with the Alexander Technique by Penelope Easten
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8. Essay: What is the Alexander Technique by Pádraig Ó Fátharta
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9. Essay: Faulty Sensory Perception by Pádraig Ó Fátharta
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Crossing Borders

By Lance Dercum

As an American student, studying the Alexander Technique (AT) in Ireland, I cross over international borders half a dozen times a year. With my passport out, going through border control, I am asked why I am living in Ireland. I reply that I am studying the Alexander Technique; so far so good… then with a mixture of professional and personal curiosity I am asked "what is that?" This is where it becomes more difficult; since I worry that saying 'I don't have a clue' might lead to further questioning, possibly in a backroom; I give a garbled answer about it being like but different from physical therapy. Then in an attempt to make it sound more glamourous or legitimate I add something like 'it is sometimes taught in acting and music conservatories'. By this point the border agent's eyes have glassed over and I am waved through, categorized as silly, but harmless.

I always feel somewhat deflated after these interactions wondering why I cannot explain AT simply, concisely and in a way that will spark interest rather than boredom and dismissal. Now once again I am being asked in capital letters… WHAT IS THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE? Again I find myself struggling to come up with a good answer. In a way this feels analogous to being asked: What is LOVE? As with any one who has experienced it, I know what love is down to the soles of my feet. But ask me to explain what love is clearly, and suddenly what is felt so clearly becomes very complex. To extend the analogy… like love, the technique must be experienced to be fully understood.

I came to the Technique unburdened by any concept of what it was or even that it might be something useful for me. My wife had joined the Alexander Teacher Training course in Galway Ireland. While she was there I came over to visit her and as an indirect result visited the training. Although I wasn't looking to get anything from the Alexander Technique I found it to be in equal parts humbling, powerful and intriguing. Over the subsequent years as a student these responses haven't gone away. I found the Technique humbling because for most of my adult life I have pursued physical and mental forms of awareness training. As a student of both Tai Chi and Buddhism I felt I was reasonable aware and in control of my mind and body. Despite this training Alexander teachers were quickly able to point out a number of physical habits which I had been completely unaware of. More profoundly it was clear to me that these physical habits where tied to negative mental/emotional states. More humbling still was the realization that I had become so habituated to the painfulness of these states that I was totally blind to them.

I would later be introduced to the concept of psycho-physical unity which is the understanding that the mind and body cannot be separated from each other, but rather they are in fact both aspects of the same unity. If one accepts this unity it follows that our mental habits are our physical habits. This understanding means that to work on one aspect is by definition to be working on all "other" aspects. This provides an explanation why my pattern of looking down was connected with an emotional pattern of shutting down. It also helps explain why being unaware of one was to be unaware of the other. What I found powerful and intriguing was the ability of skilled teachers to not only reveal negative patterns to me, but to lead me out of the habit and into different states of physical organization. One of the things that keeps me excited about the Technique is finding these different states of use that feel disconcertingly different but simultaneously have a quality of fluidity and poise.

Unfortunately, no matter how humbling, powerful and intriguing I find AT, it does not get me any closer to explaining to myself or to others what it is. To further complicate matters each visiting teacher or interaction with students from other schools leads me to have to expand the scope of what the Alexander Technique covers. All the visiting teachers that have come to the school have been excellent, but each of them present a very different understanding of what it is. Sometimes these understandings seem to be so different as to be in fundamental opposition to each other. Yet at the same time and paradoxically, all of them are instantly recognizable as teaching the Alexander Technique. From this one must deduce that there is bedrock of understanding and experience that separates Alexander teachers from teachers of different techniques. As much as these differences can be frustrating it is also liberating that every teacher has had room to develop their own style. In my opinion this moves the AT into being a healing Art rather than a purely technical skill.

When discussing what the Technique is, and how very different teachers and approaches could all be accommodated under the same tent. Some teachers define it as the teaching of awareness and I certainly believe that awareness is fundamental to the Technique. In my own experience it was the pointing out of my strong emotional/physical habit that I found so compelling. But one can become aware of an unwanted habit without being able to first stop and then change the habit. It is with these next steps that the Alexander principles of inhibition and means whereby become important.

In the description that F. Matthias Alexander gives of the process by which he diagnosed the cause of and then a cure for his own loss of voice (the process that lead to the development of the Technique) he was able to relatively quickly spot the habits of use that where causing the problem. It was the coming up with mental tools that allowed him to correct his habit which was the real work and the real genius. The key insight that Alexander had was that it wasn't enough to recognize the habit and try to replace it with something else. Whenever he tried to do something different he would observe in the mirror that he would do something other than what he intended to do. More puzzling still, what he saw himself doing in the mirror was different than what his kinesthetic senses where telling him he was doing. From this he deduced that he was caught by both faulty concepts and faulty sensory awareness. It was at this point that Alexander had the insight that makes AT different and special, compared to other physical or mental therapies. Recognizing that wrong use had mis-trained his kinesthetic system and that unexamined mental habits where driving his use, he realized that he couldn't rely on what felt right to change the habit. From this he developed the principles of inhibition and directing as ways to cut through the Gordian knot of faulty sensory appreciation that kept leading him back into his unwanted habit.

So although the Alexander Technique does teach awareness, it is an awareness that is both multi-stepped and has a plan. The first step is to become aware of the unwanted habit; the second is to inhibit the unthinking rush into movement (where the habit takes over) and the third is to give the body directions where the action can be performed in a non-doing (non-habitual) way: a way that is in line with the proper functioning biomechanics of the body. At each stage in this process it is the teacher's job to use their skills of observation and direction - with well-trained intelligent and non-doing hands - to help facilitate the learning. When this process is properly trained it results in the student's intent and their action becoming aligned.

Although Alexander didn't write a great deal about the use of the hands, I believe it is an integral part of the Technique. As for myself, it is central to what first attracted me to the Technique and the aspect from which I have received a great deal of benefit. It is clear that Alexander teachers train and use their hands in a way that is different from other therapies. The quality of non-doing but directed hands have been instrumental me uncovering and letting go of deep patterns of emotional/physical tension.

An interesting feature of this work is that the coordinated use of touch and verbal directions quickly illuminates the false duality of mind and body. To work on physical habits is to illuminate and affect habits of thinking and emotion. Furthermore, it becomes clear that positive physical use results in greater emotional freedom.

So what is the Alexander Technique? I am not sure I will ever have a simple answer to that question. Next time I am asked at border control, maybe I will just say it is something that can help with lower back pain. If this answer doesn't get the interest of the person on the other side of the perplex shield, then probably nothing else I could say would. For myself I hope to keep crossing borders into a greater understanding of the Technique.

Lance Dercum recently qualified as an Alexander Technique teacher at the Alexander Technique Teacher Training Course in Galway.


Rewiring - not Retiring, with the Alexander Technique!

By Margaret Maher

The what?? I hear you say! The Alexander Technique gets its name from Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955). It is a self-help, mind/body approach to the way in which we use our bodies to stand, sit and move and perform everyday activities with greater ease. It is a method for developing conscious 'use' of ourselves in all the activities of living. Alexander believed that the mind and body work together in a unified way, which nowadays is a well-accepted fact, but not so at the end of the 19th century!

'Where the human machinery is concerned Nature does not work in parts, but treats everything as a whole' – F.M. Alexander

It is not a therapy or a treatment but a re-education. It teaches self-awareness of habits and suggests choices in how better we can 'use' ourselves to relieve stress, strain, tension, pain etc as we go about our everyday lives. It improves posture, balance, poise and co-ordination and has proven helpful to sufferers of a wide range of ailments including voice and breathing related disorders, stress induced illnesses eg headaches. When practised regularly it promotes calmness in mind and body. It appeals to singers, actors, dancers and musicians, as it helps greatly with performance.

'The Alexander Technique has helped me undo knots, unblock energy and deal with almost paralysing stage fright.' - William Hurt, actor

'I was cripplingly shy for a long time and I took up a thing called the Alexander Technique, which is the most extraordinary technique, and all of that disappeared and I can do performance and be funny and all of that without a problem now.' - Jimmy MacCarthy, singer/songwriter

I started lessons in the Alexander Technique in 2006 due to long term chronic back pain. I had spent the previous 27 years trying to get relief from conventional medicine and every type of complementary medicine I came across. While I got great support and relief from some great people, I wasn't fully addressing what I was doing to contribute to my pain. In full time teaching and rearing a family and most of the time in pain, I decided to take a job sharing year in 2006. It was then I came across an Alexander Technique teacher and I began taking private lessons. I experienced pain relief from the first lesson and more importantly, guidance and knowledge in how to help myself. Within a short time I had decided to plan for early retirement and train as an Alexander Technique teacher. I retired in Feb 2015 and started my training in Sep of the same year. I am now in my 3rd year and hope to graduate in March 2019.

What I love most about the technique is that it has given me the 'tools' to help myself eg the semi-supine lying down position which helps release muscle tension and pain, learning to sit/stand and do everyday activities with more ease. I can use it anytime/anywhere and it has put me more in control of my own healing. It's not a magic cure all (what is!) but I am now living a fuller life with much less pain. I am more energetic and feel a calmness that permeates mind and body. I had a serious injury to my neck a few years ago and I believe were it not for the technique I'd still be in great pain.

The Alexander Technique could and should play a role in our education system, not least in helping to make our school furniture more suitable for children who have to remain seated for so much of the school day. It would also help them to become aware of how they 'use' themselves in their everyday lives and make them conscious of any harmful habits and how they could help themselves. I would like to do some work in this area when I am trained.

'... give the child poise and the reasoned control of his physical being, and you fit him for any and every mode of life; he will have wonderful powers of adapting himself to any and every environment that may surround him.' - F.M. Alexander

I attend the Alexander Technique Teacher training college in Galway - the only one of its kind in Ireland. It was established in 1998 and attracts students and visiting Alexander teachers from across the globe. It's a full time course taking 1600 hours to complete but it's no chore as I absolutely love it. Far from being 'retired', I feel renewed and 'rewired'.

'Alexander established not only the beginnings of a far reaching science of the apparently involuntary movements we call reflexes, but a technique of correction and self –control which forms a substantial addition to our very slender resources in personal education.' – George Bernard Shaw

Margaret Maher will shortly qualify as an Alexander Technique teacher at the Alexander Technique Teacher Training Course in Galway.


Cultural Habits

By Richard Brennan

In the Alexander profession we naturally become aware of personal habits - our own and those of our pupils as well as the people around us. We have adopted many of these habits through imitation of those close to us, or when trying to cope with unfavourable conditions in our environment. We often think of these 'conditions' as being an angry parent, a hostile sibling or the unfriendly atmosphere at school or at work, but it can often be the broader cultural habits that we may not think of.

For instance, many years ago I was standing waiting to be served in a small grocery store in Australia, when a man unknowingly jumped the queue in front of me. The store-keeper, aware that I had been waiting, turned to this other man and in a mild but firm voice said 'back off!' I, with my European politeness, was quite taken aback at the store-keeper's directness and the incident has stayed in my mind ever since. It was not long, however, before I realised that that was very common in Australia, and no offence was meant. It also became apparent from frequent comments that the English (and Irish) were seen as being very indirect. This got me thinking about 'cultural habits'. Through subsequent observation and experience it became very apparent that not only do we have personal habits that are unique to ourselves, but we also adopt many habits of speech, behaviour and movement simply because we live in a certain country or society.

Of course I am making sweeping generalisations and obviously I cannot include everyone in the cultural categories. Yet it can said it is more likely that an American will have a habit of talking loudly in public than a person from Thailand and that an Irish person will often start a conversation with people around them while waiting for a bus where as someone from England will probably not. In the same way, it is possible to perceive these differences in their gestures or movements. Just think for a moment about the mannerisms and patterns of movement that Japanese people display, compared to that of an Italian or of a native of the Caribbean.

It is easy to see the habits of other races or cultures while travelling, but much more difficult to recognise our own, when they surround us every day. Perhaps this is why people travelling feel liberated when there are away from their country for any length of time - their habits no longer 'feel' quite so right and normal to them.

A few years back, while looking for a new place to live, I embarked upon a five-month round-the-world trip which included Europe, the USA, Tahiti, Raratonga, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and eventually Ireland. Each country I visited was at a different stage of development. On my travels I sometimes stayed in places where it was possible to order room service via the television's remote control, hardly moving a muscle, or while cruising on a luxury ship around exotic South Pacific Islands. Other parts of my journey involved visiting simple Tahitian villages and taking part in the ancient kava ceremony in Fiji. In some of the places I visited, more new technology was becoming available by the day, whereas in others life had changed little in the last thousand years - the local people would certainly not have had any concept of deadlines or relaxing down at the local health club.

Due to the contrasts in the places I visited my journey became, at times, a very surreal experience. One day I would be encountering people who were still living in houses made out of banana leaves and sleeping on mud floors, with barely enough food to feed themselves and their families, and the very next day I would be staying in a modern city where people were working frantically in front of computer screens in high-rise office buildings, or talking as fast as possible into their cellular telephones while stuck in heavily congested traffic. Because of the extreme contrast, it became more obvious than ever that the people in these cities were under far more stress and therefore moved in an entirely different way to their less modern counterparts. Although many of these people had both wealth and technology to help them in their daily lives, their manner seemed more abrupt - and even hostile at times - and they seemed to be generally more miserable and self-centred. It was actually unusual to see them smiling. By contrast, in the less technologically advanced cultures the people were not nearly so goal-orientated; perhaps as a result, they appeared to laugh and smile more often. These people were much friendlier, had time to sit and talk, were more easy-going and, as far as I could tell in the short time I was there, generally seemed happier and more fulfilled. It was not long before I noticed how I changed to adapt to the way in which other people treated me. If they were friendly and open, as they were in Fiji, I found myself dropping my English reserve and becoming generally more relaxed. This changed dramatically as I encountered the rush and hurry of life in Hong Kong. It became all too obvious that the bombardment of stimuli caused me to tense up every muscle in my body, just trying to cope with it all.

It is obvious, when we think about it, that people of different cultures and backgrounds stand, walk and move in different ways. The people in Cairo, for example, have a word to describe the poorer farm workers who live outside the city - its literal translation means 'the graceful ones'.

So it might be useful sometime to really stand back from the society we live in, to try to ascertain which of our own and our pupils' habits are there simply because we were raised in a particular part of the world. This is not an easy process. It is often the case that our cultural habits are the hardest of all to eliminate during Alexander lessons, simply because they may appear to be so normal to us.

Richard Brennan is Director of the Alexander Technique Teacher Training Course in Galway.


Is Alexander Technique Curative or Educational? What is the Medical Support for the Alexander Technique?
AmSAT ACGM Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, June 10, 2016

By Niall Kelly

According to researchers at York University, fewer than 50% of Alexander Technique teachers in the United Kingdom are making a living from just teaching the Technique. And I understand it is not much better here in the United States.

This York University survey included 534 responding teachers from the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT), Alexander Technique International (ATI), and Interactive Teaching Method (ITM). The survey found that the people who were looking for Alexander Technique lessons were principally women in their mid-to-late 40s with musculoskeletal pain.

The average age of the participating teachers was 58 years ranging up to 84 years, but only 50% of them were fully engaged in teaching the Alexander Technique. And 50% were in non-Alexander Technique paid work. Of the 50% who were teaching full-time, about 25% were happy with their income. When you consider the level of investment in time and in money that we make, this is not, to my mind, a really good return on the investment.

This is in marked contrast with what F.M. Alexander earned. He was well able to make ends meet. In fact, he could afford to rent a fine house in London, not far from Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace. He had a doorman, paid his teachers and assistants, dined out in the best of restaurants, and went to the theatre most evenings each week. He had a horse that he stabled locally and rode out in Hyde Park. He could even afford to buy a farm and house in the country, and order himself a Rolls Royce! How did he do it?

He didn't do it by teaching the Alexander Technique. He did it by using — and teaching people — his techniques to fix their problems... View full pdf article here →

Niall Kelly is former President of ISATT.


Are computers and laptops really big head magnets?

By Niall Kelly

Very young child staring at a computer screen

Many of today's children will begin using a computer at 5 and a half years old. Soon, the age of first time computer use could be as young as three. In fact, in a recent edition of Marketing Magazine it was reported that two of the top selling toys in the lead-up to Christmas this year are innovative new tablet computers targeted at four to nine year olds. Add to this the growing use of computers in the classroom, and it becomes clear that it is now more important than ever to be aware of problems their continuous use can cause, writes Niall Kelly, management consultant and teacher of the Alexander Technique.

Few of us have learned how to sit well at a computer. That is, until muscular pain, repetitive stress injury, or the onset of headaches has forced us to seek help. In this short article, Niall explains why this happens, and how we can avoid future problems, both for ourselves and for our children by adjusting our poor postures and eliminating pain.

Looking at some people working on computers, particularly laptops, you could be forgiven for thinking that the computer is actually a large magnet drawing their head slowly and painfully into it. The way their head bends forward and into the computer gives the impression of an invisible force that is pulling it into the screen.

But, of course, computers are not magnets. This "invisible force" is in fact, the direct result of poor posture. Because we were not taught how best to sit at a computer for extended periods of time, our muscles become tired and allow our neck and head to fall forward. This then pulls the upper body after it, bending in the middle of the back. The collapse in the torso gives rise to the typical slump so often seen in teenagers and adults. The tightening of very strong muscles in the front of the neck and torso, as we lean into the computer, causes this slump. These muscles then pull the head and upper body forward and down, thus giving the impression that we are sliding, or falling into it.

Often, when we work at a computer, we become so engrossed in the task at hand, that we forget ourselves. Lost in concentration, we are often completely unaware of the effect this posture is having on us until actual physical pain sets in. We then come away feeling sore and exhausted. Allowing your head to fall forward of your spine in this way for long periods, has a wide range of ill effects on you and your body.

Did you know that holding your head just a few inches forward of your spine has the same effect on you as hanging a 30lb weight from your forehead? Little wonder then that the neck and shoulders begin to ache and complain in protest. Try stretching your arm out to the side and holding it there for as long as you would normally work on your computer and you will soon feel the discomfort and pain that results. Do stop before it becomes too sore! Unfortunately, the makeup of our neck and shoulder muscles means that we do not register any significant pain until we have been doing this for a long time. Long enough in fact, for this poor posture to have become a deeply ingrained and damaging habit.

Apart from the pain that will develop in your neck and shoulders, this collapse will also cause pain in the middle of your back. It also reduces the space within your torso, which in turn, limits the range of movement of your diaphragm, reducing your lung capacity by up to 30%. Just imagine getting around on only two thirds of your normal lung capacity. Your breathing will become shallow and accelerated just so that you can keep going, and this can then reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood, causing fatigue.

Add to this the constipation that you will most likely suffer. This is because your intestines are no longer getting the regular and extremely beneficial, massage that they should from your diaphragm as it pushes down fully upon them. It no longer can in its newly cramped environment.

All of this adds up to an ever-increasing sense of un-ease, discomfort and pain. Added to the general lack of energy from the reduction of oxygen in the bloodstream and it's all beginning to sound rather exhausting really, isn’t it?

We need to learn how to sit so that our skeletons can properly support us. So that our upper bodies and torso can function as they should and so that we are strong enough to prevent our head from being drawn into the seeming magnetic pull of the computer. The good news is that this is not impossible, it’s just good posture.

The way in which you sit is most important. To begin with, sit towards the front of your chair. Put your feet flat on the floor. Now sit down so your sit-bones are in contact with the front of the chair and your feet flat on the floor. Allow your head and torso to float upwards. This will help prevent you from slumping over your desk or back into your chair. Keeping your spine straight and using your hip joints to allow your upper body move towards and away from the desk is essential for good posture. In this way, you will avoid pushing your neck and head forward and collapsing onto yourself with all the ill effects described above.

As adults, bad habits can be difficult to break, but with a little effort and self-awareness, it can be done. You can prevent and reverse the potentially damaging effects of computer use. For children, it takes only a few moments of reinforcing good example each day, at school or at home, to instil the positive habits that will prevent a lifetime of discomfort, exhaustion and even pain. After all, just like a puppy, a computer clearly is not just for Christmas.

Niall Kelly is former President of ISATT.


The Strains & Pains of Playing Music

By Penelope Easten

When you listen to classical music, do you wonder what the musician feels? Enjoyment, musical rapture? Or pain? Many musicians suffer some discomfort when playing; usually in the neck, shoulders or wrists. For some it can be intense, & can even halt their career, temporarily or permanently. The usual response is physiotherapy, osteopathy or chiropractic. But while these may bring some relief, they do not solve the root cause of the problem, which is usually how they are using their bodies while playing.

Musicians make great demands on their bodies. Violin players, for instance, must hold their arms at shoulder height, the bowing arm continuously moving, the left hand curved up onto the string with the fingers stretched. Fine for a few minutes. But professionals or music students are playing for hours a day, every day.

If there is tension in the shoulder joint, for instance, the person could do some gardening, shopping then computing, & probably never notice the shoulder. Because the tasks keep changing, so do the strains, so no one joint is overstressed for long. But the rigours of playing don't allow for change. The muscles are worked in the same planes, over & over, for hours at a time. Any slight tension, misuse or misalignment will be magnified till problems result. This is repetitive strain injury.

Alexander technique can often offer a solution here. F.M. Alexander was an actor, born in Tasmania in 1869. He suffered voice problems, which threatened his career. They responded to total rest, but returned within half an hour when back on stage. Alexander realised there must be something he did while acting that produced the problem, & he set out to discover it, using mirrors, close self observation & a lot of patience! He soon found that he pulled his head back while reciting, & this caused his larynx to tighten. In fact he was doing it in ordinary speech too, but not enough to cause problems there. So that was the problem, but how to release it? It took ten years to discover the processes that now a trained teacher can teach in a few months.

When something hurts, our instinct is to stretch, shake or wriggle the area to attempt to loosen out the tension. This helps for a short time. But the habitual tensions are not touched. To get at these requires "inhibition", Alexander's method of muscle release achieved through thinking. With a series of lessons, the pupil learns firstly to be aware of body tension in much more detail, & then begins to learn to release it. The result is fundamental changes in body use; returning us to the poise & freedom seen in small children.

Fundamental change has to be taken slowly, especially because a musician's livelihood depends on the way they play. We start by making everyday changes to sitting, walking, lifting etc, because whatever is happening while playing will also be happening the rest of the time, though to a lesser extent. Only when the person is confident & comfortable with the new way of doing things do we bring the instrument in, to watch what is happening, & gently begin to suggest ways of changing.

The results can be subtle, but profound. Everything can become freer. One can begin to breathe freely while playing. The neck need no longer be jammed onto the instrument, which frees the shoulders & so also the arms. The fingers can lengthen into action instead of being tight & forced. The whole body is balanced better, resulting in increased poise & confidence. Performance anxiety lessens accordingly. And I always notice an improved, fuller tone, as the whole body can resonate with the instrument, with nothing constricting the vibrations that create the music. And hopefully, the pains & problems drop away.

Penelope Easten works with all types of musicians, but has particular experience of fiddle & cello, piano & singing. She also works a lot with natural breathing, & its application to wind instruments. She is now learning the guitar.
View another article by Penelope Easten


Walk Tall with the Alexander Technique

By Penelope Easten

Life's getting me down. I've a weight on my shoulders. I feel crumpled and shattered. I can't stand on my own two feet and work is a pain in the neck. If only I could walk tall, get my head above the water, feel together, stand my ground and have shoulders broad enough for someone to cry on.

We have lots of wonderful phrases expressing the link between our body posture and how we feel. Yet we still think that to get better posture we should just try harder to put our shoulders back and sit tall. Try it as you are reading this. Are you naturally good postured or does it hurt after a few minutes?

As tiny children, we all had wonderful poise, grace and posture. We were a joy to watch. But, sadly for most of us, it's long gone and doesn't seem that easy to put right again.

Just over a hundred years ago, a man came up with a revolutionary new method of regaining that good poise and body use. His name was Frederick Matthias Alexander, and the method he devised was called the Alexander technique. He was born in 1869 in Tasmania. As a young man, he was a successful actor, but his voice began to fail him during performances. After his doctor had tried all sorts of cures and failed to help, Alexander realised there be something he was doing during performances that caused his voice to strain.

With amazing diligence, he set about finding out what it was and discovered a whole chain of postural events, starting with pulling the head slightly back on his neck. He spent the next ten years developing his technique, discovering how to observe his body in detail, and then how to undo his problems: not through the body, as that would simply pull more wrong muscles into play, but by training the mind to "let go" of the misuse. His voice didn't just recover, it became much better than before.

People flocked to learn from him, and he found he could help, not just with voice problems and poor breathing, but with back, neck and shoulder problems, joint problems, stress, even digestive problems. He was sought after by celebrities of the day, royalty, academics, opera singers and actors. In the 1930s, he formed a school to teach others his technique, and when he died in 1956, his technique was well established.

Back to our crumpled posture. We haven't just collapsed; we're overusing a whole set of muscles to maintain our poor posture. In an Alexander lesson we learn to be in tune with these, and then through the mind, and with the teacher's help, we learn to let them go. Gradually, as tensions are released, the neck lengthens, the spine straightens, shoulders broaden, the head once more becomes poised on the neck, and the limbs move freely.

As the physical body straightens up, so the accompanying feelings of weariness, feeling down, heavy and unable to cope can drop away to be replaced with a new confidence, lightness and mental freedom. Joint pains and back problems are often caused by our everyday poor use and posture. Tension around the joints, for instance an over-curved lower back, or moving heavily or stiffly, puts pressure where nature did not intend it. Pain is the end result.

Lessons in the Alexander Technique last 45 minutes and need to be followed weekly over several months for best results and in order to undo the habits of a lifetime. Over a course of lessons, as the body is realigned, the pressure and tensions reduce and the pain stops.

But the Alexander technique aims to do much more than just stop pain. The course of lessons is complete, not just when problems are gone, but when the pupil has learnt to maintain the new use for themselves. They should now be able to do a round of gardening, a long ramble, redecorate a room or go through a busy period of work without the problems returning.

Penelope Easten is an Alexander Technique practitioner based in Ogonnelloe, Scarriff, East Clare. For a half-price introductory session, call 061 923 904.
View another article by Penelope Easten


Essay: What is the Alexander Technique?

By Pádraig Ó Fátharta

'The Alexander Technique? That's about posture, isn't it?' one sometimes hears, as the speaker perceptibly arches the back and sits up 'straight'. And one replies, 'Well, not really....' Indeed the Technique is more akin to slumping than to any postural rigidity, more akin to letting go than to effort. To those of us who have come to the Technique, what a relief to discover that the ground supports us if we allow it, and that our body's bony structure and postural muscles are well equipped for upright and poised living without any 'help' from us! Indeed, getting out of your own way was a piece of advice often given by F. M. Alexander himself, the founder of the Alexander Technique.

'F. M.', as he was known to his acquaintances, was an actor in his native Australia at the beginning of the last century. He began to develop hoarseness while declaiming, and concluded that the cause was something he himself was doing while reciting. Determined to pinpoint what exactly that was, he began a painstaking ten-year period of self-observation with the help of mirrors. The mirrors showed him certain personal idiosyncrasies, as he thought of them, mainly to do with breathing and contractions in the neck and throat area. These habitual reflex actions he could not eradicate, however hard he tried, reflex actions being independent of conscious control, as we now know. The breakthrough, and incidentally the cure of his hoarseness, came when he gave up the direct approach in favour of an indirect one that he called inhibition. Moreover, he came to realise from observing others that corrupted, or faulty, reflexes, beginning in the neck area, seemed to be a universal phenomenon, and not just peculiar to himself. And so it was that he began to help others with his discoveries and his technique, first in Australia, and later for several decades in England.

Animals other than humans do not as a rule suffer from what I have called 'corrupted reflexes', such as permanently hunched shoulders, gritted teeth, clenched fists, shallow breathing, lop-sided gait or jerky movements. Neither do small children, nor do primitive people, by and large - one can but admire the grace of an African woman carrying a load on her head, or the natural poise of a small child anywhere. But give any child a few years bent over a school desk, coupled with injunctions to 'sit up straight', and the ensuing double malformation of an arched back compensating for slumped shoulders is not to be wondered at. And give so-called primitive people some time in our technological world of time-pressed schedules and ill-designed machines and furniture, and they too become heirs to our 'civilised' pains and woes.

Whatever the original stimulus of a faulty physical reflex, be it injury, disease, psychological trauma, ill-designed footwear or furniture, demanding schedules and the like, once the reflex has become habitual we are no longer aware of it as inefficient or inappropriate. We may notice someone else's habitually raised shoulder but not our own, any more than we are aware of our own habitual frown, compressed neck or generally tightened musculature, not even should they manifest in pain, disease or injury. Sages throughout history have counselled self-knowledge (as with Socrates' 'know thyself'), but it was not until Alexander that we got the tools.

And so to some of the main nuts and bolts of the Technique. How do we become aware of our faulty proprioception so as to correct it? We too, like Alexander himself, can work with mirrors to aid us in self-observation. Accurate body-mapping can help too. If, for example, I believe the waist has a flexing hinge (it has not) I will tend to bend from there and not from the hips and so may precipitate a slipped disc. Lying in the semi-supine position once or twice a day with books to support the head is another favourite practice of the Technique. However, there is no substitute for the skilled hands of an experienced teacher to make one aware of one's retracted neck, of one's pelvis thrust forward, of one's heels tending to rise off the ground and the like. Once aware, one has a choice. The Technique can therefore be said to be a process of liberation, an exercise not so much in learning as in un-learning accumulated unhelpful habits.

Every bodily function and every movement is related to all the other functions and movements. Clenching the fists unnecessarily and habitually, tightening the speaking organs, arching the back and the like - none of these activities occurs in isolation. In particular, they are always accompanied by a tightening of the neck muscles, typically a pulling back of the head. It is natural for humans and animals alike to tense these muscles when faced with 'fight or flight' issues (what has been termed 'the startle pattern'), but in human beings there is a tendency for them to become chronically contracted. This exerts a downward pressure on the spine, and this in turn negatively affects breathing, movement and indeed the working of every single organ. This explains why the Technique pays so much attention to the Primary Control, as Alexander called the relationship between head and neck. The objective is not to relax these muscles, or any other group of muscles, to the point of collapse. Rather, because the head's centre of gravity is forward of its pivotal centre on the Atlas vertebra (this arrangement can be shown to facilitate forward movement), the posterior neck muscles are meant to be in a certain tension in order to maintain easy balance.

It is not possible to compel muscles to release to any degree whatsoever. Trying to do so is more of what Alexander called endgaining, striving to attain an objective without having regard to what he called the means whereby, how one carries out the action. (Why be obsessed with reaching the postbox in time to mail a trivial letter, or indeed an important one, if in the process I move badly, worry inordinately and precipitate illness?) Musculature release simply cannot be commanded at will, muscles don't 'do' relaxing. The good news is that the body in its plasticity never really forgets its original optimal equilibrium, and if one stops using oneself wrongly the good use (as exemplified by the child or by the African water-carrier) tends to come about by itself. The core of the Technique, therefore, consists in deciding to stop acting in our customary harmful manner, (inhibiting). Further to that, if our reflective consciousness as human beings is the root cause of our losing touch with automatically healthy reflexive movement, consciousness can also be the instrument of enabling the restorative process. Alexander rightly stressed our psycho-physical unity. Muscle tonality is conditioned by psychic impulses. By becoming aware of the neck, for example, I can allow it to release, so that the head can go forward and up, so that the back may lengthen and widen (the 'primary directions' of Alexander), so that the limbs may lengthen away, the fingers and toes edge away from each other, and so on.

Bringing together the various strands of the Technique, we can say that before performing any action - speaking say - one first 'inhibits' one's habitual way of acting, one thinks of the 'primary directions', then one may decide to act, or to give up one's original end and so decide not to act, or decide on a new end and do something else entirely. Whichever decision it may be, one continues giving oneself the directions throughout, so that in everything one does the eyes guide the head, the head leads the body and here again the child and the animal kingdom are our mentors. There is a sense of expansiveness in all directions intra-corporeally and also extra-corporeally, that is to say, spatially outside of us, together with a realistic recognition of our time limitations, and so there is a sense of having enough time for those tasks we do carry out.

And so it transpires that the Alexander Technique is a way of life, no less. Sometimes we open a door and vast vistas open before us. So it was with Alexander. A man of proven genius but limited education, he happened on principles that have far-reaching implications for anatomy, physiology, medicine, sports and artistic performance, psychology, education, religion and politics. Definitely more than another relaxation technique, and quite definitely more than being about 'posture'!

This article was written in 2004 whilst Pádraig was a student at the Alexander Technique Teacher Training Course in Galway. Pádraig Ó Fátharta qualified as a teacher in 2007.
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Essay: Faulty Sensory Perception

By Pádraig Ó Fátharta

Someone is driving a car and we, the passengers, notice her knuckles are white, such is the intensity of her grip on the steering wheel. We may notice the same tight grip on a pen when someone is writing. Someone else is walking ahead of us in the street, and our attention is drawn to his ungainly gait, one arm swinging freely but the other arm held rigidly by his side. Examples could be multiplied ad infinitum, almost, of people tensing themselves unnecessarily in the course of their daily activities. To the onlooker, and certainly to the trained eye, such misuse is obvious, while the people themselves (be they driving, writing, walking, speaking, playing, dining or engaged in any other activity whatsoever) remain unaware that they are putting far more effort into the activity than they need to. It is a truly amazing fact of life that most of us, most of the time, remain unaware of how we use and misuse ourselves. This is in the area of what practitioners of the Alexander Technique call faulty sensory perception.

Faulty perception seems to dog all our cognitive faculties. On the level of our external senses, we easily become unaware of familiar odours, be they personal, domestic or environmental. Similarly with touch: we are habitually unaware of how our clothing feels against our skin, for example. We can actually misread sensory signals: which of us has not been surprised at hearing ourselves speak or sing on tape for the first time, or been surprised when we see ourselves in a photograph or on film? Our mental processes also seem to travel in well-worn grooves, so that we tend to remain closed to whatever lies outside the groove.

Of all the senses, it is on the level of our internal, kinaesthetic sense, or proprioception, that serious misuse is apt to arise. If the body's sense of itself is faulty, then this necessarily carries into our actions, often resulting in injury or disease eventually. One can be mistaken about the position of various body parts relative to each other and also about the position of the body as a whole relative to objects in our external space. For instance, one can imagine oneself to be standing straight when in fact the pelvis is thrust forward and the back arched and, most importantly, one can imagine one's head as perfectly balanced on one's neck and trunk when in fact it is invariably pulled back, causing the spine to contract and the whole body to collapse inwards on itself, so to speak. And all the while, one remains unaware of what is happening.

Why is this? How is it that we can remain unaware of excessive tension and effort for so long? After all, it is we ourselves who are causing it, so how could we possibly not know what we are doing? In neurological terms, we know that joints, tendons and muscles have sense organs known as proprioceptors. These communicate information to the central nervous system regarding the various parts of the body where they reside, information pertaining to position, movement, tension, balance and effort. It seems to be the case that the central nervous system takes for granted, as it were, the smooth working of all this immensely complex activity. Once a pattern is established, the conscious mind leaves it 'on automatic pilot' so as to devote its energy to integrating the latest experiential developments.

We can become used to almost anything, it seems. Habit is at once our ally and our enemy. Without habit, there would be no learning - no learning to walk, talk, read, write, or acquiring of the other myriad human skills. However, once an error or fault enters the system, that too is liable to become habitual. Hunching at unsuitable school desks is a prime example. Together with unsuitable furniture, one could list ill-designed footwear or clothing, injury, disease, psychological trauma and demanding schedules. For whatever reason, a particular muscular holding seems advantageous at some point, this then can become habitual, and the bad habit in turn further distorts sensory perception so that a vicious circle or downward spiral is in place. This is particularly serious where the distortion occurs in the relationship between head and neck, an area shown by Alexander to be fundamental in relation to the use or misuse of the body as a whole, or more accurately, the use or misuse of one's whole self.

One can perhaps point to our modern western way of life as being at least partly responsible for serious misuse. It seems to be a fact that so-called primitive peoples use themselves in a much more integrated way than do their western counterparts. As do young children, before abuses such as interminable hunching at school desks habituates them to unhealthy posture and movement. Industrialised society values ever-greater material productivity, whereas the world is becoming increasingly aware that speed, production targets and deadlines come at a personal, social and ecological price. Underpinning the modern ideal of material progress is an implicit cultural bias in favour of mind, in fact: mind and body tend to be seen as separate; the body is seen as 'mine', 'my' object, so that attention is focused on mental states to the exclusion of bodily feelings and sensations. Going back to Descartes' 'I think, therefore I am', the modern mindset lacks body, literally. Far from being solely the province of academics, and however much we may like to scapegoat the absent-minded professor, our anti-body cultural bias affects us all (to what extent am I aware of my body as I write this, and how are you regarding breathing and posture as you read it?). Against this background, Alexander's cautioning against 'mind-wandering' is in effect a clarion call for change.

If we desire to restore good use, then, the crucial issue is finding a way out of some of our well-worn habitual grooves. It transpires that well-meaning efforts to break out ('breathe deeply', 'sit up straight', 'relax') take place within one's overall pattern, and invariably serve only to make things worse. To really venture outside our accustomed parameters is to feel ourselves in alien territory, with sensations and feelings that are no longer homely or familiar. In order to do the right thing, we must be prepared to believe ourselves in the wrong, as Alexander said. Here, it is a case of seeing is believing. Alexander used mirrors to see for himself that what he felt he was doing did not correspond with the unerring truth revealed in the mirror image. This applied particularly, he noticed, to the head-neck relationship. The inescapable conclusion was that the feelings were unreliable, and that the way forward lay in following what he knew to be right rather than what felt right. This he followed with spectacular success, and the same procedure is open to anyone, as Alexander was fond of pointing out.

However, not everyone can be expected to be as diligent, as perceptive and as persevering a self-educator as Alexander was. In practice most people need the hands of a skilled teacher to gradually guide them back into good use. Fortunately for us, there is a line of teachers going back to those taught by Alexander. The teacher represents objective but also gentle otherness which the pupil gradually learns to trust. In this context, Technique-related literature and some elementary anatomical knowledge can be a help, albeit only in a limited way (Alexander observed that doctors, for all their knowledge of anatomy, were as likely to misuse themselves as was the general public). In time the pupil becomes more and more at home in the new realm of restored good use. This is not to say that a new set of habits replaces the old, which might suggest a certain staleness. Rather is it question of a new habit of vigilance and awareness (awareness of oneself and of the environment) where, originating with the 'primary control', one responds appropriately to each and every situation. A lifetime task this, of course, and there is surely no worthier challenge.

This article was written in 2005 whilst Pádraig was a student at the Alexander Technique Teacher Training Course in Galway. Pádraig Ó Fátharta qualified as a teacher in 2007.
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