My complex relationship with the question, “What is the Alexander technique good for?”
When I became an Alexander Technique teacher, I always used to dread this question; “What is the Alexander Technique good for?”
Whenever somebody asked it, one of two things would happen. Either I would want them to understand everything about it that I did, which would take more time than either of us wanted to commit. So, I’d ramble on for a while about habit or faulty sensory perception until one of us lost the will to live and I’d stop talking.
Or, even though I don’t think it was what they intended, the question I would hear in my head was: “Condense all of your years of experience into a nice simple soundbite that will make sense to someone with absolutely no experience.” which, now that I think about it ended up more or less the same way.
Professions which involve mindfulness are tricky this way, mainly because in today’s hectic world, mindfulness and its benefits are outside the realm of most people’s experience. What ends up happening, is that these wonderfully deep and profound practices are squeezed into limiting, ill-fitting pigeon holes.
Yoga becomes that thing which is good for improving flexibility and looking good in lycra on Instagram. Meditation is limited to being a way to deal with stress and anxiety. Tai-chi is helpful for improving balance in the elderly. And the Alexander technique is good for improving posture and relieving back pain (and looking good in lycra on Instagram obviously…).
And while these simplistic characterisations are frustrating, they aren’t surprising. First of all, they’re true. Yoga does improve flexibility, Tai Chi does improve balance, and the Alexander Technique does improve posture. Yes there’s much more to the story, but these starting points can be thought of building blocks rather than road blocks.
Secondly, we’re busy people. We want to get the jist of things, but we can’t always sacrifice the time required to really understand them. But while this is workable for a lot of things, it makes it really easy to miss the true value of things which can only really be understood through experiencing them.
Take reading, for example. It would be fair to describe reading as a good way to pass the time whilst waiting for a bus. But if this was the way people actually thought about it, those of us who don’t use buses would be far less interested in learning to do it.
The endless variety of stories, poems, fairy tales, writing styles, the pleasure of losing yourself in a good story, or absorbing the wisdom of people long since gone so that, as Winston Churchill put it, “we can come by easily what others have laboured for”, all of those things are incomprehensible to someone who has never actually experienced them.
Reading is indispensable to us in a million different ways, but explaining why it matters to somebody who has never actually done it would be a surprisingly difficult task. As with adversity, or with love or with so many of the most valuable things in life, understanding comes not through analogy, but through experience.
So now, when I’m asked what the Alexander Technique is good for, rather than talking about habit, or tension or quality of movement or quality of attention, instead of trying to find an answer that I hope will resonate with whoever asked the question, I pick out the aspect which has meant the most to me, and explain it that way. Because if the person I’m talking to only understands one thing, I want it to be what this, and other disciplines like it, have meant to me.
“It’s a way of learning to spend less time doing things you didn’t intend to do.” I say. It’s not a perfect answer, but at least we both came out of it with our will to live intact.