- F.M. Alexander’s Basic Discovery
- The Biological Basis of the Educational Method
- Important considerations in the Teaching Technique
The Alexander Technique is a potent example of what Sherrington (1) termed “the integrative action of the nervous system.” The loss of this integration ultimately leads to disease. This may occur when there is a loss of ability to balance the stressor effect of the surrounding gravitational field with the body’s anti-gravity musculature. The mitigation of stressor effects, such as pain, occurs when specific mechanisms inherent in all vertebrates stimulate and sustain the optimal lengthening and widening of the voluntary muscles against the constricting force of gravity. In animals, these are activated via subconscious reflexes. In humans, however, these reflexes may lose their potency – resulting in contraction and diminution of stature-a possible forerunner of back pain, disc problems, sciatica, etc. In such cases, the Technique helps by reactivating those reflexes which balance the pull of gravity to align the body properly in space. The mechanisms mediating the above phenomena were investigated by Magnus (2) working on vertebrates in 1925. He termed them collectively “the central control.” Earlier, in 1918, Alexander (3) worked independently on himself to reveal these same mechanisms, terming them “the primary control of use.” This paper will discuss in detail the operation of this central or primary control and its possible value in education and preventive medicine.
KEY WORDS – Awareness, inhibition, direction, muscle spindles, “primary control of use.”
Sherrington, C.S., The Integrative Action of Nervous System. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1906.
Magnus, R., Animal Posture, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1925, 98 (ser. B) 339-359.
Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, 1918. Center Lne Press, 2005 Palo Verde Avenue, Long Beach, CA 90815.
The noted biologist, D’Arcy W. Thompson, lamented our destiny as we age, as follows:
“Man’s slow decline in stature is a sign of the unequal contest between our bodily powers and the unchanging force of gravity which draws us down when we would fain rise up. We strive against it all our days, in every movement of our limbs, in every beat of our hearts – it is the indomitable force which defeats us in the end, which lays us on our death beds and lowers us to the grave.” (1)
This paper calls the attention of the scientific community to the work of F. M. Alexander. It can help us make our peace with gravity, so that we need not fear to succumb to Dr. Thompson’s dire predictions. Our evolution has been from creeping quadrupedalism to upright bipedalism. We revel in seeing our developing children rise to their feet in joyous verticality and move through space with such exquisite coordination and precision. How does this happen? There must exist a number of mechanisms which permit the human organism to neutralize the force of gravity. They are innate and genetically fixed through millions of years of hominid evolution. Without them, the further development of our species would have been impossible. Certainly, the coordinated development of our brains and our hands leading to our ability to use tools could not have occurred. But, how easily we lose our coordination! The care and precision required to execute the simplest act may put a great strain on us. How we use ourselves, how our fingers hold tools which are activated by the muscles and joints of the wrist, forearm, elbow, humerus, shoulder girdle and back muscles will determine how efficient the activity is. If usage is poor, muscle strain will lead to fatigue, pain, diminution of stature and, ultimately, to complete cessation of function. The term “dis-ease” clearly defines the temporal sequence of this kind of usage. The Alexander Technique, among other considerations, is a method to restore ease to activity. It is an instrumentality, not only for detecting and diagnosing poor usage, but also the discipline leading to the restoration of conditions associated with efficient use and functioning. I also would like to call attention to the truly holistic nature of the Technique; for it enables one to activate his/her own psycho-physical energy to re-establish good usage and to discover in the process how psyche and soma are fused into an indissoluble matrix which governs all human activity.
The Alexander Technique is an educational process which implies that there is a teacher and a student. To merely view it as therapy, whether physical or psychological, is to miss the mark. What is the mark? It is the recognition and the utilization by the student of a primary control of use discovered by Alexander and verified independently be research biologists, including Sherrington (2), Magnus (3), and Coghill (4). To rediscover and utilize this biological principle, inherent in all vertebrates, normally requires the aid of a teacher who is adept in the Technique. The student learns to improve use and function by the application of the primary control of use, described below, rather than passively being cured by outside factors such as drugs, orthopedic devices, etc. Such cures, at best, are palliative and short-lived.
F.M. Alexander’s Basic Discovery
No investigator has considered, except in the most cursory manner, those habits of work and varied usage which have a profound influence on our health. In general, it is obvious that habitual use influences, for good or ill, the functioning of the organism. What is not obvious, however, is the precise correlation between a specific habitual activity and its resultant effect on the entire organism. To be capable of such a correlation implies the existence of a body of knowledge which can demonstrate the influence of the use of the self upon the degree of effective functioning of the organism. This was Alexander’s basic discovery. He was a successful actor until he lost his voice due to laryngitis, which, over time, became chronic. He was advised by his physician to stop speaking until the inflammation of the larynx subsided. But when he resumed speaking, the laryngitis recurred. Again, he was advised to rest his vocal cords. After despairing over the failure to achieve a cure by such methods, he took counsel with himself. Reasoning that there were disruptive factors in his normal speaking voice – factors which gained strength when he attempted to speak for long periods – he began to view himself in front of a mirror, to discover what they were. Out of self- observation which lasted over nine years, a tour de force of patient, scrupulous research, he made discoveries of fundamental importance to the solution of his problem. It would be impossible in an article of this length to give a detailed account of these discoveries. However, at the risk of over- simplification, the salient points must be mentioned if his work is to be properly understood.
Early in his investigation, he discovered that there was no accurate correspondence between what he actually did in the act of speaking and what he thought he did. For example, when he ordered himself to speak, he unwittingly threw back his head, depressed his larynx, raised his chest, and sucked in air through his mouth. Later, he found that these additional activities interfered with efficient speech. Initially, so poor was his sensory awareness that these disruptive activities hardly registered in his consiousness. It was not until he began to observe himself in a mirror that he saw how badly his senses had deceived him. He further observed that, even with the use of a mirror, he could not consistently carry out in a precise manner the relatively simple orders he gave to himself. In his attempts to gain such control, he was led to an insight as to how control is initiated and maintained in all psycho-physical activities.
After many months of mirror discipline, he concluded that success in his speaking trials depended on three factors:
AWARENESS: Here the individual creates an expanded field of attention in which the interaction of the self and the environment is perceived as an ongoing process. It is the establishment of an integrated field in which both the environment and the self are viewed simultaneously.(5)
INHIBITION: It must be understood that this term is not used in the Freudian sense. For Alexander, it implies the withholding of conscious consent to respond to any stimulus to act. It means the severance of those lines of neural communication controlling the trigger mechanism of unreflecting habitual response to all kinds of stimuli.
DIRECTION: If the above two factors are operational, it becomes possible for the student to give new guiding orders to activate the tonic neck reflexes as a precursor to any kind of movement, such as walking, talking, sitting down, etc. How to activate these reflexes in the student is the science and art of the Alexander teacher. Applying these three factors to his immediate problem of chronic hoarseness, Alexander discovered that only by withholding consent to speak could he learn to speak with increasing efficiency. In other words, the complex train of psycho-physical events which occurred upon the stimulus to speak had to be successfully inhibited and new unfamiliar guiding orders given. This then allows the backward and downward pull of the head to be eliminated so that the head is redirected forward and up, to rest lightly on the highest point of the spinal column. As he continued observing himself, he discovered that, if he allowed his head to direct forward and up to reach the highest point on the atlas of the cervical vertebrae, and at the same time allow the torso to lengthen and widen, those reflexes which are responsible for posture and movement, such as the tonic neck reflexes, are activated and enhance efficiency of use and function. He termed it “the primary control of use” and deduced that it is one of the important integrating mechanisms of the mind- body. If it functions unhindered, vital activities such as circulation, respiration, locomotion, etc. may operate in an increasingly efficient manner. If it is hindered, then, depending on the degree, the activities suffer a corresponding diminution in efficiency.
Quite early in his research, he realized that he was dealing with effects of gravity on the neuromuscular system. As an example, malfunctioning, leading to pain and disease, results if lengthening and widening against the force of gravity does not occur in those areas associated with functioning of the vocal cords; in this case, laryngitis. Furthermore, there must occur simultaneously a lengthening and widening of all the musculature of the torso, not merely the neck muscles surrounding the voice box. In other words, there is a unity of action embracing the total musculature of the mind/body. He published his findings in a number of books listed below.(6)
The Biological Basis of the Educational Method
Magnus and his school have demonstrated that vertebrates are instinctively maintained in a state of muscular balance permitting optimum efficiency in any movement they perform.(7) He demonstrated that head-neck reflexes were the central mechanism orienting the vertebrate to its environment, both in maintaining a posture taken for a particular purpose and in restoring the animal to normal resting posture after the purpose has been fulfilled. One of the important mechanisms which mediate such efficiency are the tonic neck reflexes which control posture in all vertebrates. Furthermore, Magnus asserted that “it has been proved that the center for the control of the postural reflexes extends from the first cervical segment of the spinal cord to the anterior portion of the mesencephalon or mid-brain.” In German, the term for this is “Korperstellungsapparat,” which conditions the tone of the anti-gravity muscles. The stimulation of the reflexes connected with them are largely influenced by the position of the head and neck in relationship to the rest of the body. It is precisely the same mechanism that Alexander discovered while working on himself to overcome his laryngitis. He called it the primary control of use years before Magnus had made the same discovery in 1924. Both men worked independently and were unaware of each other.
Sherrington, in discussing the central nervous system, observed, “that it is an organ of coordination in which, from a concourse of multitudinous excitations, there result orderly acts, reactions adapted to the needs of the organs, and that these reactions occur in arrangements (patterns) marked by absence of confusion and proceed in sequences likewise free from confusion.” He demonstrated the coordination of the simple and compound reflexes and their relationship to the motor cortex of the brain which dominates the different kinds of motor reflexes and indirectly influences the activity of the cerebellum as the main factor in the proprioceptive system, whereas the cerebrum is the main factor in the functioning of the telereceptors.(8)
Sherrington recognized the value of Alexander’s educational method in these words: “Mr. Alexander has done a service to the subject by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psycho-physical man. To take a step is an affair not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the moment – not the least of the head and neck.” (9)
In addition to the work of the above scientists, one more important name should be included: George E. Coghill. He spent forty years studying the anatomy and physiology of an amphibian, Amblystoma, and found that what he discovered in these organisms, also applied to man (10)
It is clear from the above that Alexander’s work has been corroborated by basic biological research conducted by eminent authorities in the field. Interestingly, Magnus’ discovery of what he called the “central control” was adumbrated by Alexander much before 1924, the year “Korperstellung” was published. Alexander called it the primary control, but ultimately the two terms refer to the same thing. Alexander’s great contribution was to show that the primary control can be activated by helping the student become conscious of the proprioceptive component of the various neuromuscular mechanisms utilized in standing, sitting, walking or using the fingers for fine, accurate work, as in the practice of dentistry. The importance of proprioception cannot be overstated. If the proprioceptive nerve spindles in the muscles, joints or tendons cannot convey their messages to the central nervous system, which can occur in a sensory polyneuritis affecting the sensory roots of spinal and cranial nerves, then the patient loses the sense of having or being in a body. The patient literally collapses in a heap, becomes disembodied.(11) Fortunately, this is an extremely rare occurrence and, therefore, points to the evolutionary stability of this mechanism for species survival.
Important considerations in the Teaching Technique
At this point it might be asked: Why is it that, as most children reach school age, the efficiency of their primary pontrol of use begins to diminish, in many cases quite dramatically? This may be due to:
- Subconscious imitation of bad usage of parents, other adults and siblings in the child’s life.
- Poorly designed children’s furniture, such as beds, which do not support the spine; hammock-backing to carriages and chairs which encourage back- slumping, etc.
- Lastly, rigid toilet training, autocratic kindergarten and primary school discipline and poor socialization, which encourage competitiveness at the expense of cooperation, may introduce a great deal of stress into the child’s life, with consequent psycho-physical deterioration.
Considering the above, it is evident that the kind of education children receive must, at the least, not diminish the integrity of their genetically endowed psycho-physical unity. It is too precious an inheritance to be squandered on poor educational methods associated with disruptive societal influences, such as poverty and crime.
The eminent philosopher John Dewey regarded the Alexander Technique as a method for translating his educational theories into practical experience. He observed that the pathetic fallacy in most educational procedures is the assumption that all that is required for the student to do anything is the will and desire to do it. (12) In some miraculous manner, it is assumed that the doer will contrive the appropriate means to gain the ends desired. The skillful Alexander teacher corrects this fallacy by explicitly demonstrating how the student’s sensorium does not accurately register what is taking place within the mind/body. It is not uncommon for the student to think that his/her trunk is straight, whereas it is really flexed; or, that the shoulders are in an unstrained, level position, whereas they are really hunched up in two disparate levels. Some students are so convinced that they know what they are doing that only an appeal to the reflection in the mirror can shake their convictions. The stumbling blocks to finally sense what is happening to them, is the recognition of the following:
- Unreliable sensory appreciation associated with malcoordination or misuse of the self.
- Incorrect conception of the teacher’s directions.
- Unduly excited fear reflexes which interfere with rational thinking.
- Strong reluctance to perform an act in an unfamiliar manner.
Once the above no longer operate, the student becomes increasingly capable of inhibiting his/her old psycho-physical responses and, therefore, increasingly capable of activating the mechanism of the primary control of use to establish optimum coordinated use and functioning in all areas of work and recreation, in the sure knowledge that health is also enhanced. Early educational conditioning instills in most students a desire to be right and the concomitant fear of being wrong. Coupled with poor sensory awareness, it is a potent pattern for thwarting successful educational practice. Here again, the skillful Alexander teacher will allay such fears by making no demands upon the student until, and not before, he commands an increasing control over his psycho-physical mechanisms. As long as the student is dominated by old habits of use, it is impossible for him/her to have an accurate conception of the teacher’s verbal, and non-verbal hands-on directions. This is obvious, once it is recognized that defective sense registration and anxiety to be right prevents the student from rationally considering what Alexander called “the means-whereby” to achieve efficient usage. In Alexander’s method, cognizance is taken of this and purely verbal and hortatory directions are avoided. Instead, hands- on work coupled with verbal directions are given. In this manner, and utilizing the primary control of use, the student is encouraged to discard faulty mechanisms associated with past incorrect conceptions and to redirect himself/herself in a manner in harmony with the primary control of use.
The Alexander Technique is an educational method to detect and eradicate habits which can lead to pain and disease. The intimate, subtle nature of the actual teaching method must be stressed. The constant and unremitting practice of awareness which the technique encourages can give one an insight into the source of one’s motivations. One also learns to evaluate a thought by relating it to bodily tensions with which it is associated. In this manner, the indivisible unity of the mind-body is observed by the student in all of his/her varied activities. Whether one is aware of a gross sensation of pain, or a more subtle one, such as a variation of mood, one becomes increasingly capable of modifying it, if one so desires. Thus, a state of depression, usually associated with a slumped back, a fixed stare and undue muscular tension throughout the body, may be greatly improved by inhibiting those associated conditions. The student becomes increasingly adept in discovering how his thoughts are related to specific bodily tensions and, conversely, how these tensions are related to his thoughts. Slowly, but inevitably, as one proceeds to gain conscious control, the old grooves of bad habits are discarded and a increasing sense of freedom and spontaneity results.
by Dr. Samuel S. Reiser, D.D.S.
Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique, New York, USA (*)
Sixth International Montreux Congress on Stress
February 20 – 24, 1994
- Thompson, D.: On Growth and Form, Cambridge University Press, 1942.
- Sherrington, C. S.: The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, pp. 306-307, 313. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.
- Magnus, R.: Animal Posture: Croonian Lecture, University of Utrecht, June 11, 1925.
- Coghill, G.E.: Anatomy and the Problem of Behavior, Cambridge University Press, 1949.
- Jones, F.P.: Body Awareness in Action, Schocken Books, New York, 1976, pp. 9, 159.
- Alexander, F.M.: Man’s Supreme Inheritance, 1918. Constructive Conscious Control, 1928. The Use of the Self, 1932. The books above have prefaces by Prof. John Dewey and have been re-issued by Center Line Press, 2005 Palo Verde Avenue, Long Beach, CA 90815.
- Magnus, R.: Korperstellung, Berlin, Springer, 1924, p. 544.
- Sherrington, C.S.: Brain:Encyclopedia Britannica, (Ed. 14, Vol. IV)
- Sherrington, C.S.: “The Endeavor of Jean Fernel,” London: Cambridge University Press, 1946
- Coghill, G.E., Appreciation: The Educational Methods of F.M.Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, Dutton, N.Y., 1941, pp. xxi-xxviii.
- Sacks, O.: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1987. pp. 43-54.
- Dewey, J.: Human Nature and Conduct, New York: The Modern Library, 1930. pp.27-30. The Philosophy of John Dewey, Northwestern University, Evanston & Chicago, 1939, pp. 44-5.