What is the Alexander Technique?

The Alexander Technique is an educational method used worldwide for over 100 years. By teaching how to change faulty postural habits, it enables improved mobility, posture, performance and alertness and relief of chronic stiffness, tension and stress.

People study the Technique for a variety of reasons. The most common is to relieve pain through learning better coordination of the musculoskeletal system.

Another common reason is to enhance performance. Athletes, singers, dancers and musicians use the Technique to improve breathing, vocal production, and speed and accuracy of movement.

The most far-reaching reason people study the Technique is to achieve greater conscious control of their reactions.

During lessons you learn through direct experience how to go about your daily activities with increasingly less effort and greater ease. You develop awareness of habits that interfere with your natural coordination and learn how to undo these patterns to consciously redirect your whole self into an optimal state of being. Most of us have many habitual patterns, learned consciously or unconsciously. These patterns can be unlearned, enabling the possibility of new choices – in posture, movement and reactions.

Who was F.M. Alexander?

F.M. Alexander (1869-1955) was an actor who began his career as a Shakespearean orator and developed chronic laryngitis while performing. Determined to restore the full use of his voice, he carefully observed himself while speaking, and noticed that undue muscular tension accounted for his vocal problem. He sought a way to eliminate that restriction.

Over time, he discovered and articulated a principle that profoundly influences health and well-being: when neck tension is reduced, the head no longer compresses the spine and the spine is free to lengthen. Alexander restored his own natural capacity for ease by changing the way he thought while initiating an action.

From this work on himself and others, he evolved a hands-on teaching method that encourages all the body’s processes to work more efficiently – as an integrated, dynamic whole.

(From the 1996 North American Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique Directory)

Who is the Alexander Technique for?

The Alexander Technique brings personal growth to anyone who studies it, but most people arrive at Alexander Technique lessons in order to solve some difficulty. Pain and bad posture are common reasons for taking lessons; difficulties associated with computer use is another popular reason. Performers who use their body as a tool for expression find the Alexander Technique an indispensable part of their education. Most people come for more than one reason, and discover that the Alexander Technique benefits them in many unexpected ways.

Alexander Technique for Riders

I offer riders the ability to look inside themselves to see what and how they are effecting their horse. Then teach them how to change bad habits.

I was born in 1952, but actually began my involvement with horses before birth as my mother rode, even fox hunted, with me in vitro.

I grew up in Middleburg Virginia into a horse family in a horse town. Both of my grandparents were Masters of Hounds, one in Maryland on the Chesapeake shore, the other in England.

I was fox hunting on a lead line at 5 years and off lead by 6, so needless to say horses are in my blood!

My stepfather trained racehorses and so I broke yearlings for the track and galloped racehorses, even jockeying in local steeplechases as a teen.

bend horse trainerWe didn’t have a lot of money so couldn’t afford to show my own pony but got lots of pick up rides in the hunters as a youth.

By the time I got to Madeira, a girls boarding school in VA, the eventing bug hit me and I campaigned through prelim.

Then the freedom of college, boys, drugs, and rock and roll took over, and riding took a back seat.

After college I moved to upstate NY and resumed eventing and got more serious about the dressage phase, which later became my passion leading me up to today where I find the intimacy of connection that dressage offers between horse and rider to reflect my joy of being with my horse. I believe each horse and rider need a lot of diversity to compliment their relationship so I also still jump, trail ride and horse camp and look for ways to deepen my connection with my horse in ways that are fun and rewarding.

I started teaching dressage in the late 1980’s, became a Centered Riding instructor in the mid 90’s and graduated from a 3 year program about body awareness in 1997, called Alexander Technique, which I have been teaching ever since then. I specialize in using the Alexander Technique for riders.

What I believe my experiences and education have provided me is what I share with others: the ability to look inside themselves to see what and how they are effecting their horse. To gain awareness of the habits they bring to their riding, some good some not so good, and develop new habits that compliment their riding and create more harmony, understanding and joy in their relationship with their horse, whatever their discipline. My primary goal is to bring back or enhance the joy one feels when one rides a horse, if it ain’t fun, why the heck are we doing it!

Benefits of The Alexander Technique

Performance

The Alexander Technique helps musicians, dancers, singers and actors; in fact anyone in the performing arts to improve stamina, increase clarity of perception, free up spontaneity, manage stage fright and performance anxiety and reduce muscular strain and tension from holding or playing an instrument.

Improved self-awareness helps identify mental and physical habits that contribute to problems experienced and enables you to refine your performance technique and develop of a wider repertoire of skills to deliver the best possible performance.

Breathing

F.M. Alexander developed the Alexander Technique over 100 years ago as a result of his search for a solution to his persistent voice and breathing problems when he was performing on stage.

He quickly became well known for his work not only with performers, but also with people suffering from conditions such as asthma and even tuberculosis.

Today the Alexander Technique offers improved understanding and coordination of breathing to athletes, singers and other performers, people with medical difficulties relating to breathing and also relief from panic attacks that affect the breathing.

Sport and Fitness

The Alexander Technique will help you in your sport, or simply to enjoy your favorite physical activities without stress or pain.

The Technique will help you become more aware of how you think and move.

Thinking in activity will improve your performance by:

  • improving breathing
  • reducing undue muscular tension
  • facilitating recovery
  • reducing the likelihood of injury
  • improving reflexes, balance and coordination
  • improving quality of movement and mobility

Relief from Stress and Tension

The Alexander Technique is profoundly calming.  In a stressful situation the Technique helps to organize our perception of the choices available. Learning to apply the Technique in this way builds quiet confidence and emotional intelligence.

The Alexander Technique has been found invaluable – often in conjunction with medical or psychotherapeutic treatment – in dealing with:

  • long term illness or disability
  • serious disease or injury
  • post-traumatic problems
  • panic attacks
  • chronic pain

Improved Posture

Learning the Alexander Technique can help to prevent or alleviate conditions associated with undue tension or poor posture.

These include many difficulties with pain and weakness, coordination and movement, and joint or muscle problems.

Examining the way we carry ourselves and hold tension, and teaching us to move more naturally and freely, can address the underlying cause of many such problems.

The Alexander Technique can enhance rehabilitation after surgery, injury, or illness. It can improve management of and pain, and provide coping skills for chronic illness and disabilities.

Alexander Technique: Practical Riding Skills

When we start working together we will begin off the horse and start by learning how to apply the Alexander Technique to practical horseback riding skills:

  • How to absorb your horses’ movement, at all paces, to allow him maximum freedom over his back.
  • How to develop your horses’ movement, at all paces, to impress the dressage judge.
  • How to stay deeply connected to your horse, at all paces, to maintain your balance.
  • How to allow the horses energy and momentum to be absorbed and controlled your body to keep your horse “on your seat”
  • How to communicate effectively, but subtly for changes of bend, direction, and pace.
  • How to use your back, for riding the half-halt, and encouraging roundness of the horses’ back and engagement of hindquarters.
  • How to sit and distribute your weight, for riding correctly on the right rein or left rein, to improve your riding of turns, corners, circles and lateral work.
  • How to correctly support your arms out of your back to create an elastic contact with your horses’ mouth, free of resistance or tension.
  • How to release your legs out of your hips and put your lower leg on your horse without creating tension elsewhere in the body.
  • How to use breathing to help keep the “down connection” and to ride resistance free transitions.

Hows does tension in my body affect my voice?

When you talk to a musician you ask, “what is your instrument”, and if they say “I am a singer”, then their body is their instrument. But wait, we use our voice everyday, and does the tension we hold in our neck and shoulders affect how our voice comes out, whether raspy or hoarse, strained etc?

Bend Or Voice CoachBefore I started my path into how the body and thoughts are connected, I imagined anything that was important to my well being was in my head (brains you know!); I mean that is where are my senses are (no pun intended): eyes to see, ears to hear, tongue to taste, and voice to talk…however, I notice that when I lock my knees or tighten my arms and shoulders; it is very hard to breathe and therefore to speak (you know we speak and sing on our exhale).  So how does that happen, well our voice box or larynx (pronounced Lar-rinks) is in our throat, and connected to many muscles and connective tissue that is connected to our jaw, our tongue, our neck and shoulder muscles, and if you looked at my last blog on tensegrity, you now understand that no muscle moves in isolation, locking our knees way below affects our voice; we are a matrix of bone and connective tissue working together.

Try this experiment:  Say “ah” and as you are letting the air out to form the sound “ah”, lock your knees and what happens to the tone of the “ah”, unlock them and what does it sound like; pull your shoulders up to your ears, does that affect the “ah” sound.  Fun to play around with!

Alexander Technique: Horseback Riders

The Alexander Technique is a century-old educational process in which the student learns a set of skills that he or she can apply in all facets of life. One of the assumptions underlying this educational process is that most people carry more muscle tension than they need in order to carry out activities. The first skill that students learn, then, is how to lessen these areas of undue muscle tension. Second, they learn that, without the interference of the tension, they can cultivate a more natural alignment of their head, neck and spine that has associated with it qualities of balance, strength and coordination. Overall, knowledge of these skills allows students to move and carry out activities with greater ease and less effort.

There are a number of ways in which the Alexander Technique is helpful for riders. In order to describe its benefits, let me introduce the topic of communication between horse and rider. Riders know that communication with their horse is one of the fundamentals of good riding. What some riders don’t realize is that we communicate with our horse not only through the aids we give, but also by the way in which we use our bodies. This “body use” is often unconscious. Muscles, responding to stimuli from the environment, and to our perceptions and attitudes, develop patterns of undue tension. Although we may not be aware of these patterns, our horse does perceive them in addition to any aids that we give. In this sense, we may safely assume that the horse’s experience sometimes echoes that of Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said: “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”

There are two ways in which our patterns of tension may affect our ride. First, if we have undue tension when we are asking our horse to go forward (for example, when we ask for the canter depart), then this will create a contradiction for our horse. That is, our aid says, “Go!”, while any increase of muscle tension in other parts of our body says, “Stop!” As a result, we may wonder why our horse is slow to respond to the aid, or seems resistant.

One of the results of this situation may be that we will add to our horse’s level of tension. In fact, if we ride a particular horse over a period of time, and we are consistently tight or stiff in a specific area, then the horse may become stiff in that exact same area! Sally Swift calls this phenomenon comparable parts. (The phenomenon is described in an article entitled “Gain Without Pain”, by Sandra Cooke, in Practical Horseman, February, 1993.)

But what does all this have to do with the Alexander Technique? As you might have guessed by now, one of the central benefits of the Alexander Technique is that it helps us to gain awareness of our unconscious patterns of tension and to reduce them. It provides a concrete, step-by-step means of undertaking this process. Ideally, through this process, we attempt to become as aware of ourselves as our horse is of us.

There are a number of results of this process. First, our communication of the aids becomes clearer. When we give an aid, that’s the only thing our horse “hears”, since we’ve reduced the contradictory “background noise” caused by our areas of tension. As a result, if our horse is resistant, we’ve reduced one of the possible causes of that resistance, namely the unconscious messages that we may have been giving our horse. And in many cases, this eliminates the horse’s resistance!

Second, by reducing the “noise” caused by our areas of tension, we gain greater awareness of ourselves and of our horse. Our feel for the ride dramatically improves. My experience of riding while pursuing this process is that I can sense increasingly subtle aspects of the horse’s movement. For example, in addition to being able to sense the rhythm and tempo of each gait, I can sense when the horse’s right hind leg is carrying extra tension – and what the relationship of that leg is to the horse’s back! In fact, all riders can develop this awareness through practice – and the Alexander Technique proves an invaluable tool in doing that.

Third, the freer we are of undue muscle tension, the easier it is to follow our horse – for example in the sitting trot. For muscle tension is the main culprit in causing extraneous movement in the rider. As we lessen that tension, we gain greater control and greater ability to “receive” and follow our horse’s movement. It’s amazing how, on subtler and subtler levels, we can quiet ourselves, in such a way so that our only movement (other than the aids) is a direct result of the horse’s movement.

Finally, our aids can become increasingly subtle: we can ask questions of our horse with a whisper when we used to have to ask with a shout. This is partly because, as I mentioned, the background noise is less and also because the horse’s tension, and therefore his resistance, is less. And this doesn’t mean that we are at all passive in relation to our horse. We can be extremely active in making a decision about what we want and communicating it to our horse – and we can do this with a minimum of undue tension, that is without compromising our receptivity in following our horse as he carries out our request.

* * * *

I’ve discussed the benefits for riders of reducing muscle. Perhaps the most important benefit of all is that it helps riders to pursue self-carriage in their horse. In this sense, the Alexander Technique dovetails beautifully with classical horsemanship, for many riders and teachers of horsemanship agree that “doing less” plays an important part in developing self-carriage.

Let me offer two examples of this. I once saw a banner in a riding arena that said, “Where force ends, dressage begins.” Second, let us consider Charles de Kunffy’s description of self-carriage in his book The Ethics and Passions of Dressage. He says that, first and foremost, self-carriage must involve the relaxation and stretching of the horse’s musculature, which will “facilitate the horse’s ability to absorb the concussions of the impact on the ground throughout his entirety and, therefore, reduce or even eliminate trauma to his joints and muscles.” He goes on to say that, if we want to achieve this result, then “all tensions and blocking of mobility caused by harsh hands, should be avoided. The hands and the reins should neither inhibit the horse’s strides, nor confine his neck. The horse must have utter freedom from restrictive rein contact. Instead, one ought to offer a soft and steady hand — and at times even a yielding hand — independent of the balancing activities of the rider, to a confident horse that is stretching towards the bit and seeks an even contact with it.”

De Kunffy is clearly arguing that one prerequisite of self-carriage is a lessening of undue tension. But what exactly is self-carriage? What are the elements that make it up? Let me offer a simple description. First, as we saw in the de Kunffy quote, self-carriage involves the horse’s head leading forward and out from a free and flexible neck and poll. This is sometimes referred to as the horse going “in the bridle” or “on the bit”. In other words, we want the horse’s head to move not into a set position, but in such a way so that he meets the contact of the bit and of our hands, with his mouth. At the same time, he lifts his back, so that it becomes rounded, as well as free from tension. That is, ideally he is experiencing “throughness” in the relationship of his head, neck and back. Finally, his hindquarters become deeply engaged – paradoxically so that his forehand (head, neck and shoulders) can lift and lighten. The latter is sometimes referred to as the “relative lifting” of the forehand. That is, the rider does not directly lift the horse’s forehand. Rather, the rider helps the horse to engage his hindquarters and then the horse’s forehand will lift automatically. The effect is not unlike that of a seesaw, except that the movement of parts that we are after is much more internal and subtle than the movement of an actual seesaw.

Here again, it turns out that the Alexander Technique dovetails with the teachings of classical horsemanship. For the Alexander Technique has at its heart the cultivation of a new and more natural alignment of the student’s head, neck and back, known as the primary control, that has striking similarities to the self-carriage that riders look for in their horse! (This is true even though F.M. Alexander, who developed the technique, was an actor by profession, and knew nothing about the discipline of classical horsemanship.)

For example, if a person’s primary control is working well, then this means that her head becomes poised, leading slightly forward and up from a neck that is free of tension, while her back lengthens and widens to stay slightly behind her head. All of this could be called throughness. As you might imagine, the only difference between throughness in the human being and throughness in the horse is that the former is taking place in a vertical plane, while the latter happens in the horizontal plane. Finally, the person’s legs lengthen toward her heels and she allows her feet and heels to settle onto the floor or into the stirrups (engagement of her hindquarters). Then, in a circular progression similar to that of self-carriage, this grounding and deepening of her feet and legs allows her upper spine to lift and lengthen, while her head becomes even more poised.

Now it’s important to point out that, like self-carriage, the primary control is not a position. While it has as one of its byproducts the correct form, whether for dressage or for jumping, the primary control actually involves a relationship of head, neck, back and heels that has a dynamic quality and that allows for freer, more flexible movement, regardless of the position or activity. This dynamic relationship emerges most of all when we attend to – and lessen – any areas of tension that are interfering with it. To sum up, a popular saying in the Alexander Technique is that when we stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself.

Given its emphasis on the primary control, the Alexander Technique can be seen as a kind of dressage for humans. (Don’t worry we don’t make our students do half-pass or flying change of lead or any of the other dressage movements!) The beauty of the Alexander Technique, though, is that, if the rider employs it to cultivate a more natural relationship of her own head, neck, back and heels, then this can become a tool for improving the horse’s self-carriage — not by doing something to the horse, but simply by changing herself while she is in contact with her horse. (Recall the phenomenon of comparable parts. Luckily, this same phenomenon can also work in a more positive direction.) Thus, the Alexander Technique provides a wonderful complement to all of the other tools that have been developed over the centuries in the pursuit of self-carriage.

From the above discussion, it may sound as if the Alexander Technique is only suitable for students of dressage. In fact, that’s not the case. Whether you’re eventing or competing in the hunter-jumper ring or involved in any other riding discipline – or even if you’re a recreational rider – the Alexander Technique can help you to improve your riding.

Let me end on a more personal note, by describing how I work with riders. In order to teach them about the benefits of the Alexander Technique, I work with them in two ways. First, I give them lessons in the Alexander Technique, away from the horse. And second, I work with them on horseback. The lessons on horseback involve a combination of Alexander Technique “hands-on” and more conventional horseback riding instruction. Of course, the exact mix of approaches depends upon the needs of the specific rider and horse.

Article by Adam Bailey, teacher of the Alexander Technique in the Boston area.

Alexander Technique Testimonials

“I found the Alexander Technique after suffering from neck, shoulder, and lower back pain for over 10 years. Since my lessons began, I feel more in tune, more aware of how my body reacts to the environment and am gaining more control of my body and mind. I leave each class lighter, brighter, and happier. I like to think of my true self “emerging.” As I let go of positions of fear, I am renewed with a sense of confidence and joy. I am grateful for this transforming experience, and I enthusiastically recommend The Alexander Technique to everyone I know.”

Juliet Hwang, M.D. , Pediatrician

“The Alexander Technique nables people to get better and stay better longer. This is undoubtedly the best way to take care of the back and alleviate pain. By teaching people better body mechanics, it frequently enables patients to do away with pain.”

Jack Stern, M.D., Ph.D.

“The Alexander Technique has shown very striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness, mental alertness, and resilience against outside pressure. Many types of under-performance and ailments, both mental and physical, can be alleviated, sometimes to a surprising extent, by teaching the body musculature to function differently.”

Dr. Nikolas Tinbergen

“Halfway though my first lesson, the shooting pain down my arms that had plagued me for months disappeared! Weeks before, when my chiropractor told me that my pain was ‘postural’, I really panicked. All my life people have told me that my posture was bad, but no matter how hard I tried to ‘stand up straight’ I could never do it for more than a minute. Studying Alexander Technique immediately gave me better use of my body and I have enjoyed better posture and many health benefits–including the complete disappearance of my chronic back pain and tension. And, to top it off, the lessons are supportive, pleasant and relaxing.”

Carole Real
Writer

“Recurring pain in my hip flexors and left shoulder originally ignited my curiosity in the Alexander Technique. I firmly believe that every human being can learn from The Alexander Technique to improve his/her daily life.”

Annie Bosler
Musician

“I have taken the Alexander Technique lessons for two years.  Not only have the lessons helped alleviate back pain and improved my posture; the work has given me a sense of self-confidence which has been noticed by family and friends.”

Fran Slaterback