by Juliet Warkentin

From "applied common sense" to "the method for keeping the eye on the ball applied to life" tauntingly ephemeral definitions of the Alexander Technique abound.  One the special preserve of musicians and actors, the concept is now gaining ground with a public in search of any relief from back pain, asthma, depression, and general tension.

Australian actor F. M. Alexander developed the technique in the early 1900s to solve the vocal problems that continually hindered his stage career.  By carefully analyzing his own responses to the varying intensity of his roles, he discovered that it was not the vocal chords themselves that were the cause of his voice loss, but rather a combination of personal habits - retracting his head back and down on the spine, tightening his neck and constricting his body and throwing it out of balance.

Today the Alexander Technique can be applied to the entire body.  "It's an open-ended process" says instructor Robert Rickover, author of Fitness Without Stress: A Guide to the Alexander Technique.   "It teaches us how to improve the quality of human activity".  Simply put, the Alexander Technique retrains the body to work as it was designed to work.  Slouching, hunching, throwing the head back, even clutching a pen are all examples of bad habits that interfere with out capacity for natural grace.

At the heart of the Technique lies the relationship between the head, neck and body.  When the head and spine are balanced and working in harmony  - back lengthened, head balanced on the spine, tilted forward and up - the rest of the body falls naturally into place.  This "primary control" works continually, adapting to every movement we make.  The Technique can then deal with other areas of the body, relaxing the arms, shoulders, legs and torso.

At first glance, very little seems to happening an Alexander class.  There are no vigorous drills or tedious exercises, instead only a teacher and student concentrating on relearning something as simple as walking or sitting.  Using vocal instructions and the light placing of hands, the teacher "suggests" movement to the body, coaxing it to make adjustments.  All of which is harder than it sounds: we may think we are masters of our bodies, but it's difficult to get the body to react in a manner other than what it considers "the norm".

According to Michael Gelb, author of Body  Learning:  An Introduction to the Alexander Technique,  Alexander himself had difficulty imposing new directions on his body, leading him to emphasize the quality of the steps used in the procedure rather than the ultimate goal.

Nevertheless, for many the results are worth it.  Computer graphics programmer Jaye Goldberg has used the Technique for the past year to relieve stress and alleviate pain.  "I put in crazy hours at work, including a lot of time at a computer" she says.   "Now, when I sit back and notice an ache, I stop, take note, and adjust.   I can feel the downward pressure moving up and out of me. "   Whereas normally we walk around feeling "pressed down" the Alexander Technique gives a sense of upward movement.  "I have a lot of mannerisms when I walk that I wasn't aware of" says Goldberg.  "But when I practice with my teacher the sensation is as if I was walking on air."

(This article was originally published in the October, l989 issue of Toronto Life Fashion Magazine and is reprinted with the kind permission of the Publisher.)

To find out more about the Alexander Technique, click here:  The Complete Guide To The Alexander Technique