How the Alexander Technique is Taught
Alexander Technique teachers use a combination of verbal instruction and gentle hands-on guidance. Students remain fully clothed during a lesson or class, although teachers usually suggest comfortable clothing that does not restrict movement. Table work can be part of an Alexander lesson, and so women may prefer to wear slacks or sweat pants rather than a skirt or dress.
Learning from Evaluation by Others
In a class or lesson, a student is typically asked to sit or stand or to perform simple, everyday activities such as getting up from a chair or walking. The teacher observes the the student moves and makes specific suggestions designed to help him or her perform the activity again with less unnecessary tension. The purpose of these suggestions is usually not so much concerned with the activity itself – the choice of which is often fairly arbitrary – but with teaching the student strategies that can be applied to whatever they do. Specific activities are used as a convenient framework for helping the student improve their overall “use” (see Key Alexander Technique Concepts).
The teaching process is non-judgmental in nature. Teachers are very aware that many students are anxious about their posture and movement patterns, and so every effort is made to put them at ease. There is little or no talk of “right” or “wrong” ways of doing things, but rather an emphasis on ways in which the student can learn to make useful changes in their functioning.
Learning to Get Out of Your Own Way
The emphasis in Alexander teaching is always on learning how to stop doing the things that are getting in the way, rather than assigning new things for the student to do. If, for example, a student has a habit of stiffening their neck, he or she will be shown how to let go of that stiffening, they will not be asked to hold their neck in a different way. If a student is pulling their shoulders forward in a slump, they will be shown how they can stop creating the forward and downward pull; they will not be asked to pull their shoulders back as this would merely produce a re-arrangement of their tensions, with no genuine improvement in functioning.
Teachers use their hands to supplement and to clarify their verbal instructions. Many new students’ own body awareness has been compromised over the years and they may think they are doing what the teacher asks them to do, but in reality they often do something quite different. (see Key Alexander Technique Concepts) Direct kinesthetic guidance, delivered with a very light touch, can help bridge the gap between perception and reality. The guiding use of the teacher’s hands is one of the unique features of Alexander Technique teaching and on Alexander teacher training courses, a great deal of time is spent training teachers to do this effectively.
Alexander teachers pay a lot of attention to the way in which a students organize themselves to carry the weight of their head on top of their spine. The human head weighs between ten and twelve pounds – a major part of our total body weight - and unless it is lightly balanced, considerable effort has to be made to keep it in place. That effort, in turn, creates an overall compression of the body as compensatory tensions develop. Releasing excess neck tension allows the head to rest easily on the spine and encourages a general release of harmful holding patters throughout the body.
Methods of Teaching
Some teachers will work with specific activities of interest to their students, singing, running, working at a computer for example. Others restrict their teaching to a few activities such as sitting, standing, getting out of a chair on the assumption that the student will be able to transfer the movement skills they learn to other things they do. (See Alexander Technique Styles and Specialties)
Many teachers use “table work” as an integral part of their teaching. The student lies on their back on a massage table with some support under their head and with their knees bent and raised to a level higher than their hips. By itself this configuration encourages a gentle release of tension and lengthening of the spine. More importantly, by temporarily removing the challenge of maintaining an upright posture, it is easier for the student, with the teacher’s help at first, to learn how to release unnecessary tension in their body.
Students are often encouraged to lie in this position at home for a few minutes each day. As with the table work portion of a lesson, the main purpose is to gently clear obstacles to efficient functioning. Some of this release is likely to continue as the student gets off the table and resumes daily activities. The process can be thought of as clearing the tracks so that the train can run more smoothly.