How the Alexander technique was discovered and how it works
Frederick Matthias (‘FM’) Alexander was a young actor who had reoccurring voice problems that threatened his ability to work. He went to the doctor and was given medical advice to gargle and to rest his voice, but this didn’t help him and his voice problems continued to reoccur. Alexander recognised that it must be something he was doing with his throat – how he was using or misusing it – that must be causing his problems.
As his doctors couldn’t tell him what it was he was doing, Alexander set out to watch himself with mirrors while he recited a passage out loud to find out what it was. He noticed that, while reciting, he pulled his head back, depressed (or vertically flattened) his throat and sucked in breath through his mouth in a way that produced a gasping sound. He also found he did the same during speaking but to a lesser degree – the way he habitually used himself (his habitual ‘use’) in speaking, an everyday activity, became exaggerated during reciting, a time of stress or excitement.
While Alexander was unable to directly stop depressing his throat (or larynx) or gasping in breath, with time, he found he was partially able to stop the pulling back of his head – and he noticed this reduced the other two problems.
Making an important discovery
From this, Alexander realised that the relationship of the head to the neck and the rest of the body – the way the head was oriented – constituted a master reflex, or primary control, that determined the tone and manner of behaviour of the whole body. (Note this master reflex is most clearly seen in action in the physical startle pattern and fight–flight–fright stress response.)
Alexander then experimented with altering the position of the head in relation to the body, and realised that putting his head definitely forward also produced a pulling-down effect and depressed his larynx. He also noticed that when he depressed his larynx, he unintentionally raised his chest, which hollowed his back and shortened his spine and overall height. From this, he realised he was misusing his whole torso, not just the specific parts of his body used in speaking. Alexander found that he needed to ensure there was a lengthening and widening of his back to make certain he didn’t hollow it, raise his chest or shorten his overall height. He spent a lot of time building up this new deliberate, reasoned response and use of his body. This response would eventually become Alexander’s primary directions:
‘To let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen, altogether, one after the other’.
When Alexander thought he was able to prevent his head from pulling back and down and keep his back from hollowing, he turned his attention to maintaining these directions while reciting. To his horror, he found that he was unable to maintain his new reasoned direction of his body. The strength of habit was just too strong.
Being tricked by his senses
By watching his mirrors, Alexander discovered he was actually pulling his head back at the moment he started to recite, just as he thought he was putting it forward and up. This led him to realise his feeling of what he was doing was not a proper guide to what was actually happening. His sensory appreciation was inaccurate as his sensory mechanisms (the brain and the sensory receptors that govern sensation and perception) were not telling him the truth. Later on, Alexander found that this was also true with all his pupils.
Alexander came to recognise that, as his old familiar use felt right, he would have to be prepared to feel wrong – as the new way was bound to feel unfamiliar and wrong, precisely because it involved doing something outside his prior experience.
Learning to stop
Alexander came to realise that the only way to prevent his wrong instinctive reaction to a stimulus to speak from taking place was to stop and to refuse to make any immediate response. In this way, after having gated out his automatic reflex response, Alexander was then able to make a new reasoned response as the way was open for him to do this.
Over time, Alexander was able to stop, or ‘inhibit’, his old automatic responses and to bring about new ones he had reasoned out both up to, and during, the act of gaining any particular ‘end’ (outcome or goal). His throat and vocal problems cleared up, as did the respiratory and nasal difficulties he had had since birth. In the process, he noticed a great improvement in his health and wellbeing.
Helping others with his discovery
When Alexander later began to teach others what he had discovered, he noticed a similar improvement in their general health when they too learned to stop their habitual reactions and apply his conscious directions (his ‘means whereby’) to daily life activities and situations.
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