Can you Learn the Alexander Technique on your Own?
by Robert Rickover
Do you need an Alexander Technique teacher to learn the Alexander Technique?
Most Alexander teachers would probably answer "yes". But what did F. Matthias Alexander - the developer of the Technique - have to say? After all, he had found a way without outside help.
In his Preface to The Essential Writings of F. Matthias Alexander, Edward Maisel summarizes Alexander's thoughts on the matter:
Alexander encouraged self-instruction. "You can do what I do," he said, "if you do what I did." In a late edition of one of his books (The Use of the Self), he even added a special preface addressed to "those who are anxious to teach themselves." In this context, he offered three pieces of advice. (1) Letters from these self-learners indicated that they were reading too hastily, and he warned them against '"the habit of too quick reading in which understanding becomes dominated by speed." (2) From the very outset, neophytes had to realize that their old ways of doing and feeling could no longer be depended upon -- "some of those who have complained of difficulty in trying to teach themselves may have overlooked this point." (3) For learn-it-yourself purposes, Alexander directed particular attention to the personal difficulties he himself had encountered and how he had free himself from them
In short, Alexander had no objection to people working on their own who accepted and kept in view his major points about the technique. "I would say, 'Go ahead,'" he stated bluntly; he promised a fundamental experience to anyone "with or without a teacher" who patiently applied the technique to ordinary living. At the same time, he emphasized that the whole process would go much faster with a teacher.
Frank Pierce Jones, one of Alexander's best known pupils and the author of Freedom to Change, gave his blessing to self-learners, observing that "since the technique is nothing more than the application of experimental method to everyday behavior, there is no reason to delay the undertaking if a teacher is not available.
Here is more of what Jones had to say in his book:
People have frequently introduced themselves to me with the statement: "I have read Mr. Alexander's books and I always try to hold my head in the right position, which he advocates." This, of course, is just what he did not advocate. He discovered an inhibitory control which has nothing to do with position. This was not an idle chance discovery. If followed a series of careful observations of the way he responded to the stress of public recitation. If you wanted to establish a similar control without expert assistance, you could design a few simple experiments in which you could subject yourself to mild stress and observe its effect on the muscles of your neck. For instance, if you lie down on your back and anticipate the effort you would make in order to sit up, you may detect an increase in tension in your neck even before you begin to move. See if you can inhibit this increase as you continue to think of sitting up but don't sit up Then decide not to sit up but bring your right knee up while you inhibit the increase in neck-muscle tension. (Note that you are not relaxing tension that is already there but inhibiting an increase in response to the thought of raising your knee) You may judge your success in two ways: (1) by how well you sustain your resolution to inhibit and (2) by the movement of the knee, which should follow a different pathway from on if would ordinarily follow.
Another experimental situation you might devise would be to expose yourself to a disagreeable sound like an alarm clock or a piece of squeaking chalk, or merely to thin of such a sound, and to observe in as much detail as possible how your body responded, giving special attention to the response of your head and neck. After obtaining a fairly clear perception of the pattern of your response, you could then experiment by inhibiting the change in level of neck-muscle-tension and observing any changes that might take place in the rest of the response pattern.
Alexander wrote his thoughts on self-learning in the 1930s, Jones in the 1970s. We've learned a lot more about this topic in the years since and while it is almost always the case that the help of a skilled Alexander Technique teacher will greatly speed up the learning process, there are now a great many additional resources available to help a student who wants to learn the Technique with little or no help from a teacher.
These resources have been brought together at Alexander Technique Self-Study, part of the Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique.
Robert Rickover is an Alexander Technique teacher in Lincoln, Nebraska and Toronto, Canada and is the creator of the Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique Robert's website: Alexander Technique Nebraska and Toronto