Imagine for a moment that you have a friend living on a distant island who can never hope to study with an Alexander teacher in person. Your friend is impressed with the many beneficial results you've obtanied from studying and applying the technique and wants to know how he or she too can benefit from Alexander's discoveries.
What would you tell your friend?
We know that Alexander received many written requests for help, and that he took them very seriously. I recently met a lady, who grew up in the north of England during the 1930's and 40's who told me of her father's correspondence with Alexander. The two men exchanged letters on a regular basis over a period of many years.. Her father had been interested in putting into practice the ideas he had read about in Alexander's books and Alexander spent a considerable amount of time and effort to help him in this project, even though the two men never met.
Alexander was very clear in his published writings that a serious student of his work could accomplish a good deal without the assistance of a teacher. "Anyone who will follow me through the experiences I have set down, especially with regard to 'non-doing', cannot fail to benefit" he wrote in the 1945 preface to the new edition of Use of the Self.
It is now nealy half a century later and we've learned a lot more about the process of teaching the technique. We also have new tools, like portable audio and video equipment, that were not available in Alexander's time. Yet very little has been done to encourage and empower the beginning student prepared to work on his own, or with only occasional hands-on help.
What follows is a first draft of the advice I have for such a person to help him or her started. It is intended as a discussion piece and I welcome any comments and suggestions. I also welcome feedback from any isolated somebody willing to experiment...
Start by reading Use of the Self, Alexander's third book, particularly Chapter 1, "Evolution of a Technique". As with all of Alexander's writings, these pages must be read carefully and with a great deal of thought.
Begin observing yourself in a mirror. A full length one is best. Pay special attention to the relationship of your whole head (not just your face) to the rest of your body. Notice how this relationship changes as you perform simple activities like talking, walking or raising an arm or leg.
How does what you see in the mirror correspond to what you think you're doing, and what do you feel you're doing? Which do you think is more accurate? Take plenty of time to explore and compare your experiences with Alexander's.
Experiment with changing the relationship of your head to your body, perhaps tilting it a little forward or backward from the top of your neck and observe what difference these shifts make to your movements and to your breathing.
Alexander found that the most useful change he could make was to mentally direct his neck to be free so that his head, followed by his body, could release in an upward direction - delicately, without any stiffening or undue effort.
Try this. What do you notice? Does anything look or feel different?
Now, try doing the opposite. Stiffen your neck a little as you gently push your head down towards the rest of your body. What effect does this have on your ability to breathe, speak and perform simple activities?
What happens when you just leave yourself alone? Is there a relationship between your head and your body that you tend automatically to go back to? 'Exaggerate yourself' for just a moment. Notice what happens to your head/body relationship when you do this.
Feel free to experiment in other ways that occur to you. Pay close attention to the results of your experiments. Remember that you are both the experimenter and the object of the experiments. So you are always going to have to be careful that you are not deceiving yourself. Continue comparing what you see with what you're thinking about and what you feel.
After you've experimented in front of the mirror long enough to have made for yourself some of the same kinds of observations that Alexander wrote about, extend your self-study to your daily round of activities. Can you sense how your body reacts to stressful situations, for example? How about pleasant experiences? Does the presence of some people act as a stimulus to tighten your neck? Do others seem to encourage freedom and expansion in your body?
Notice the effects of sound on your physical mechanism. Experiment with scanning your auditory 'horizon' and noting the effects of actively listening to the highest pitched sounds available to you. These could be high musical notes, the chirping of birds, even the sound of wind blowing through the branches of a tree. Then, shift your conscious attention to the lowest-pitched sounds you can hear - drum beats, the sounds of heavy machinery, for example. What effect does this shift have on the way you're using your body?
Keep in mind that Alexander's purpose in performing his investigations was to improve the quality of his performance. So begin to observe other people--and animals and small children--with a view toward becoming a good judge of quality of movement. Keep a look out for particularly good examples of ease, balance and co-ordination. Look also for particularly bad examples. Can you make any generalisations about quality of movement and the nature of the head/body relationship?
Remember that Alexander spent a long time observing himself in a mirror before he made his important discoveries. Don't expect overnight miracles. Alfred Redden Alexander, FM's younger brother and a brilliant teacher in his own right, gave this wonderful piece of advice to anyone using Alexander's discoveries as a tool for self-exploration:
"Be patient, stick to principle,
and it will all open up like a giant cauliflower."
Robert Rickover has been a teacher of the Alexander Technique since 1980, maintaining a practice in Toronto for most of that time. In addition to his formal training at the School of Alexander Studies in London, he has studied extensively with marjorie Barstow and assisted on her summer workshops in Lincoln, Nebraska. Robert also holds degrees in physics, economics and metallurgy from Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He has written extensively on the Alexander Technique, including his regular Viewpoint column in DIRECTION, and is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique, published in 1988 by Metamorphous Press. He also hosts the Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique, a comprehensive set of web pages.
2434 Ryons Street, Lincoln, Nebraska 68502, USA