Forward and Up: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique

By Pedro de Alcantara

1. The General Principles

The Use of the Self

Picture, in your mind’s eye, a four-year-old girl laughing with delight at something she has seen or heard. Then ask yourself the following question: Is her laughter the expression of a physical or a mental state? You will soon conclude that her laughter contains the whole of her being – her mind, her body, her emotions, her creativity, her perceptions of the world and of herself.

Perform this experiment a few more times. Imagine a concert artist on stage, a driver during rush hour, a mother breastfeeding her baby; then ask yourself whether their actions are primarily physical or primarily mental. In truth, all human beings reveal their whole, indivisible selves moment by moment. Their gestures may be awkward or masterly, executed with a degree of self-awareness or under a fog of distraction; regardless, the essential unity of their lives is constantly manifested in all that they do.

Mind-Body

And yet we tend to separate body and mind in our assessment of ourselves and of others around us. Symptomatic of this split is that we see the workings of the body as separate from the behavior of the body’s owner, so to speak. “My shoulders are tight,” we tend to say; or, “My back is killing me.” If we embraced the unity between body and mind – that is, the inseparability of the physical “doing” and the mind that wills that “doing” – we might say “I’m tightening my shoulders,” or “I’m misusing my back.” This represents a different attitude, one in which we sense and accept our responsibility for our state of being.

Language both reflects and shapes the way we think. To free ourselves of the belief that “the body” and “the mind” operate separately, and of the consequences of this disconnection, we need to free ourselves of our very language. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) understood this well and chose his vocabulary carefully. On the one hand, he relied on little technical jargon; the glossary of the Technique has no more than half a dozen terms. On the other hand, he refrained from using words which imply a separation of body and mind, like “body mechanics” and “mental states.” Instead, he spoke simply of “the self,” which “reacts” and “functions.” We can say unequivocally that the Alexander Technique is not a method of physical relaxation, of posture, or of the use of the body, but of The Use of the Self – as Alexander titled his third book, originally published in 1932.

Stimulus and Reaction

The laughing child of our example is reacting to something she has heard, seen, sensed, or imagined. Her life is a never-ending succession of reactions to a never-ending succession of stimuli. And so is anyone’s, for the flow of life and its excitement never stop. Indeed, to be alive is to react, and to react is both inevitable and desirable. A problem arises when one’s reaction is not appropriate or adequate to the needs of the situation. We all know men and women who react quickly, strongly, and negatively to almost all that happens to them. It is as if they are ready to react, always in the same way, regardless of the situation in which they find themselves. Unwilling to sense each situation as it unfolds, and incapable of deciding and acting according to the uniqueness of the situation, they do not so much react to a situation as to their fixed, preconceived idea of what a situation is or will be. Needless to say, they may well not be aware that their attitudes, not the situation itself, is the cause of the difficulty.

The person fighting a situation with a fixed mind – be it a violinist hacking through a difficult passage backstage before a concert, an annoyed bus driver during rush hour, or a mother impatient with a crying child – shows multiple signs of strain. Each person is different: one is brusque and stiff, another hesitant and timid; one lacks suppleness, another vigor. Most are animated by excessive tension (or, more precisely, by the wrong kind of tension, wrongly applied, and for the wrong length of time). These strains, and the high emotions that underlie them, constitute a misuse of the self. Repeated misuse may well lead to disagreeable feelings and sensations, aches and pains, and – in due course – illness and disability.

End-gaining

Why do we misuse ourselves? Many answers have been suggested, including education (or maleducation), imitation, the stress of modern life, lack of time, and so on. But in his diagnosis of misuse, F.M. Alexander again showed his insight. If misuse is what we do, its origin is in what we wish to do. And, by and large, we wish to attain quick, easy, direct results in all that we do. Alexander called the unreasonable wishing that motivates our misuse “end-gaining.” He considered it a universal tendency and thought that end-gaining – not education, imitation, or modern life – was the ultimate cause of our difficulties.

End-gaining is so prevalent that we are almost unaware of its presence and importance – it is considered normal. Economic policy and political discourse, for instance, are often affected by the end-gaining of officials who try to produce short-term results (perhaps ahead of an election) despite the long-term costs to the nation. In all the arts, there are creators who aim for “effect.” We watch a movie and become conscious of the director’s effort to manipulate our emotions and extract a tear from our eyes, such manipulation is a form of end-gaining. A tennis player who, overly keen on the win, smashes the ball into the net, has committed a small act of end-gaining.

And we, human beings of average ability leading our daily lives, sitting, standing, walking, talking, driving, interacting with other people, all end-gain and misuse ourselves. The simple act of moving from a standing to a sitting position illustrates end-gaining and misuse to perfection. People sit down as if they were looking for the chair with their buttocks; the chair itself is their desired end, which they pursue unthinkingly, inattentively, automatically. In the process they tend to contract the head into the neck, lift and round the shoulders, jut the chest forwards, and stick the buttocks backwards. Alexander teachers see the end-gaining of simple daily activities as fertile ground for their work.

Alexander contrasted the “end-gaining principle” with the “means-whereby principle,” his term for the series of intermediate steps and indirect procedures that allow us to achieve our goals in the manner best suited to each situation. In the case of sitting and standing, these may include suspending the action for a moment. Becoming aware of the assumptions one makes (most times unconsciously) about where the chair may be and how to reach it, sensing one’s tendency to rush or to block an action. Taking some time to execute other gestures, directly or indirectly related to sitting and standing; and other procedures still. In time, these would lead the pupil to sense how he end-gains and how to stop end-gaining, with all the consequences that such a change of attitude entails.