What is the Alexander Technique?
The Alexander Technique is a method for improving your posture and
voice. It does this by helping you detect and remove unnecessary
habitual muscular tension in your body.
How was it invented?
The Alexander Technique was invented during the latter part of the
nineteenth century by an Australian actor, F. Matthias Alexander.
Alexander specialized in reciting Shakespearean monologues. As time
went by, he had more and more trouble with his voice. He suffered
from chronic hoarseness, sometimes losing his voice altogether.
This, needless to say, put a halt to his career. Alexander sought
help from doctors and from voice coaches for his condition, but they
could neither explain it nor recommend a cure.
At his wits' end, Alexander hypothesized that perhaps he was losing
his voice because of something he was doing while reciting. To see
whether this was true, Alexander watched himself closely in a mirror
as he recited. Over a period of several months, he became skilled at
observing his own speaking habits. He noticed that when he recited,
he would contract the back of his neck slightly when he inhaled. This
would tilt his nose upwards, thrust his chin forwards, tense his
throat, cause him to gasp, and ultimately put undue stress on his
The more Alexander watched himself, the more he discovered that
he had bad habits throughout his body, not just in his head and neck.
All of these bad habits centered around tension.
Through trial and error, Alexander discovered techniques that
changed these habits for the better. Not only did these techniques
cure his voice problems, his posture also improved and he was freer
in his body as a result of being able to relax muscles that he had
been holding habitually and unconsciously tense.
Alexander eventually taught these habit-changing techniques to
others. Collectively, they became known as the "Alexander
Who practices the Alexander Technique?
Actors are often taught the Alexander Technique in their
formal training. The Juilliard School has made the Technique part of
their standard curriculum. Kevin Kline, John Cleese, Paul
Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sir Henry Irving, and many others have
all studied the Alexander Technique.
Singers and musicians benefit from the Alexander Technique as
well. The Royal College of Music in London teaches it. Famous
musicians that have studied the Alexander Technique include Yehudi
Menuhin, James Galway, Sting, and Paul McCartney.
Anyone who dances, engages in a sport, martial art, or other
physical activity will find that the Alexander Technique is a useful
tool for improving their performance.
Those who suffer from tension or poor posture in their neck,
shoulders, or back will find the Alexander Technique beneficial.
Also, many people with back injuries find that the Alexander Technique
can reduce or eliminate the suffering caused by muscle spasms.
What is it like?
My Alexander sessions lasted for thirty minutes apiece. In each
session, I spent fifteen minutes lying on my back on a firm surface
(like a carpeted floor) with my knees up, my hands on my belly, and my
head resting comfortably on a book. As I laid there, I would give
myself the following silent directions:
Let my neck be free
To let my head come forward and up
To let my shoulders expand
To let my back lengthen and widen
And let my legs release away from my body
"Forward and up" is Alexander-speak for a particular orientation of
the head that is difficult to describe. If you take a course in
the Alexander Technique, your instructor will show you what this
means. Briefly, think of a rod entering one ear, going all the way
through your head, and exiting out the other ear. Now imagine the
muscles at the back of your neck releasing their tension. Your head
rotates around this rod, your forehead comes forwards, and the crown
of your head comes up. That's approximately what "forward and up"
I didn't do anything while lying there, other than thinking the
above directions to myself. In fact, you don't "do" anything at all
with the Alexander Technique. The point is to release tension, so
anything you "do" is counterproductive. Instead, you sharpen
your awareness of your habitual tension, you consciously inhibit these
habits and you affirm better behavior instead. My instructor used her
hands to locate tension in my body and gave me feedback on what was
going on in my body below my level of perception. One of the goals of
the Alexander Technique is to sharpen your perceptivity to the point
where you yourself can know where you are tense without having to
depend on an instructor to tell you.
If you like, you can try the above exercise yourself without an
instructor. Memorize the directions, find a book of the right
thickness to be comfortable under your head, and lie down on a
carpeted floor with your knees bent. Set a timer for fifteen or
twenty minutes, then repeat the directions to yourself while lying
there. Notice how your body feels, what parts of your back are
touching the floor, where tension is, and so on.
I find that while I am lying on the floor, my body undergoes
surprising changes during the fifteen minutes. As my back slowly
relaxes itself, different parts of my back end up touching the floor.
The arch of my back slowly lowers itself until my whole back touches
the floor. When I finally rise, I look and feel taller and more
The other fifteen minutes of my sessions with my Alexander teacher
had me doing activities I do every day, like standing, sitting,
walking, carrying a bag in one hand, and so on. My teacher gave me
feedback on what was going on in my body, and gave me directions on
how to reduce unnecessary tension.
My fiancee took lessons in the Alexander Technique along with me.
She sings opera and lieder. I have never heard anything that
improved her voice as much as the Alexander Technique did. At the end
of our Alexander sessions, her singing would be rich, vibrant,
relaxed, controlled, and penetrating. She also would be standing
about an inch taller than she usually does, with every trace of slump
gone, but perfectly relaxed, not rigid at all.
Leibowitz, Judith & Connington, Bill, The Alexander Technique
. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.