Frederick Matthias Alexander (b.20 Jan1869; d.10 Oct 1955) was an Australian orator/actor who developed the taught self-help process that is today called the Alexander Technique – a means of educating people to recognize and overcome negative reactive, habitual limitations in movement and thinking, which he called ‘misuse’.
Alexander arrived at his awareness of these patterns of misuse through his own unfortunate experiences with his voice. He was a gifted orator, but started to lose his voice when performing. After much medical investigation, the doctors concluded that the solution was simply to rest. This resolved the problem – until he started performing again. His voice was functional enough in normal conversation, but as soon as he resumed public speaking, the problem reappeared. Alexander realised it must be something he was doing, and as the doctors couldn’t tell him what that was, he resolved to identify it himself.
After much observing in front of mirrors, he realised that when he began to orate he pulled his head back and down, depressing his larynx and triggering the whole pattern of misuse that led to the loss of his voice. Further observation made him aware that this pattern already existed on a more subtle level when he was speaking conversationally, but that the stimulus of public speaking caused a much more intense reaction.
It took Alexander considerable time and experimentation to discover the starting point for undoing the pattern of misuse. He ultimately understood that man, as with all other mammals, has what has been called a ‘primary control’, which is the relationship of the head, neck and back to each other. If this relationship was functioning as it was designed to, the whole mechanism of the individual was able to function at its optimal. However, if for any reason this relationship was distorted by patterns of misuse, a chain reaction was triggered throughout the body. Once he had understood this, his objective became to find a way to restore and maintain that ideal head, neck and back relationship. But achieving this turned out to be much more complex than he had first assumed, as many years of frustration and failure proved.
Meaning to change is not enough
At first he fell into the trap that most of us do – that of assuming that the intention to make a change and do things differently was enough to make the change possible. He quickly discovered, however, that much more subtlety was necessary to avoid falling into the same pattern as before. As soon as be began speaking, the pattern he had identified and was determined to change reasserted itself, no matter how hard he tried to prevent it.
In fact, it seemed that the harder he tried, the greater his tension became, his intense determination actually making things worse! Even more discouraging was that when he felt he was doing it right and not repeating the pattern, the mirror proved him wrong. He also realised that by the time he started to speak, the pattern of tension that caused the problem had already been activated. Finally he realised that trying to tackle the problem directly was just another version of end-gaining, which was what had led him into the trap to begin with.
Thinking rather than feeling
Having discovered that he could not rely on his feelings, he was forced to work out an approach that used thinking rather than feeling to guide him in his efforts to change, one that worked indirectly, to prevent the old destructive pattern from being triggered. In other words, the solution had to be arrived at in a preventative way, by inhibiting his habitual response and directing himself to an overall better use, and only then allowing himself to gain the immediate end. This was the means of change that finally enabled him to restore his lost voice and resume public speaking.
Alexander spent more than a decade perfecting his technique, at that stage still mainly concerned with restoring his lost oratory voice. However, he soon discovered that others shared similar patterns of misuse – in fact variations on misuse caused by patterns of end-gaining appeared to be almost universal in our culture. He was persuaded to begin teaching others his method, and thus the official birth of the Alexander Technique. The Technique soon became well respected in his native Australia. He later moved to London, which at that time was the theatrical centre of the English-speaking world.
In England his teaching practice expanded. During World War II he was evacuated to the United States by the British government, who by then considered him and his technique of national value. He continued teaching while in the USA, before returning to the UK at the end of the war. His success in assisting many illustrious men of the time, such as Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, John Dewey and eminent members of the medical profession is well documented, and there are numerous testimonies to the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique in the medical journals and popular press of the day.
Ahead of his time
In some ways, however, Alexander was ahead of his time. When he was conducting his observations and developing his technique, there was no scientific evidence to support his understanding or his approach to resolving the problem. However, within about 20 years of the publication of his first book, the results of various seemingly-unrelated scientific studies began to verify what he had grasped using the classic practical scientific method of keen observation and unbiased trial and error.
Even today, more than a century later, evidence to further support Alexander’s Technique continues to build up. Nothing has come to light so far that contradicts his conclusions, even though his staunchest dissenters have attempted this for decades. In fact, throughout his long life Alexander welcomed scientific investigation of his method, which he was confident would be confirmed by any unbiased investigation.
For more details of the history of the Technique, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F._Matthias_Alexander