The origin of the Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique can seem rather mysterious and people who have heard of it are often not quite sure what it is. Here is some background about how the Alexander Technique was developed, which also helps to explain more about what the Technique is.

In the beginning

The Alexander Technique is named after Frederick Matthias Alexander, or FM as he was often called, who was born in 1869 in Tasmania. As a young man he developed a love and talent for reciting Shakespeare which eventually became his professional career. 

However, after some years he began having trouble with his throat and vocal cords which caused hoarseness. This became progressively worse over time and was a disaster for his budding career.

Medical examination showed that he had irritation of the mucous membrane of the throat and nose and inflammation of the vocal cords. His doctor suggested resting his voice, which seemed to do the trick as long as he wasn’t reciting, but then when he started again the hoarseness reoccurred, usually worse than before, and at times completely losing his voice.

Facing the prospect of an operation, FM decided to see if he could find a way to help himself. Starting with the evidence that his voice got worse when he recited, he figured that it must be something he was doing whilst reciting that was causing the problem.

Mirror mirror

Using mirrors, FM spent many hours observing himself, both when speaking in his normal manner and when reciting, to see if he could identify anything that might be causing the problem. He soon noticed that when he started to recite, especially when the passages made extra demands on his voice, that he tightened his body in such a way that his head pulled back, he depressed his larynx (voice-box), and sucked in breath through his mouth making a gasping sound. The combination of these things, done repeatedly over time, strained his voice, aggravated the membranes and caused the hoarseness.

Key discoveries

Over many months FM continued to observe himself in more detail and began to notice a wider pattern of tension in his whole body that was clearly part of the problem. He saw that not only did he pull his head back, depress his larynx and suck in breath; he also tended to lift his chest and shorten his stature. He realised that the problem in his throat was the result of him distorting the whole of his body, especially the torso. And that how he ‘used’ his body directly affected the way it functioned.

The solution

Through years of experimentation and refinement FM gradually worked out a method to prevent the harmful habits of tension that not only affected his voice but also influenced the way he moved in everyday life. He learnt to apply conscious thinking to redirect the tension in his body and bring about a more balanced way of moving that improved his overall coordination. Through this method he regained his voice, restored his natural poise and greatly improved his general health and functioning. The Alexander Technique was born!

World recognition

He realised his approach had enormous potential for others, and began to teach his method at first to other actors and performers. He taught many influential people of the day including George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley and Stafford Cripps as well as many leading doctors and scientists. 

In 1904 Alexander came to London to bring his technique to a wider public. And in 1931, he started to train others to teach his method. He continued to teach until his death in 1955.

The Alexander Technique today

There are over 2500 teachers worldwide who have undertaken the three year full-time training required to teach the Alexander Technique. It is taught to people of all ages and walks of life for relief from muscular and joint pain, better balance and coordination, and a freer, easier way of moving in everyday life as well as in sport, work and play.

The Alexander Technique is now part of the curriculum in most music and drama schools, and has also been introduced in a number of primary and secondary schools.

In 2008, the results of a trial into the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique for chronic and recurrent back pain were published in the British Medical Journal. It showed that a course of lessons in the Alexander Technique provided the most effective solution for long term relief. Click here for the full report.

You can read FM Alexander’s full account of his discoveries in his book The Use of the Self, chapter 1: Evolution of a Technique.

Photograph of F. M. Alexander © 2013, The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, London

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