F. Matthias Alexander

Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) was an Australian actor, born in Tasmania, who later moved to London to develop the educational process that is today commonly called the Alexander Technique - a method of helping people learn to free habitual reactions of thinking, learned by improving one's own kinesthetic judgment of movement and effort.

Alexander Technique is often considered the "grandfather" of other psychological and somatic processes such as Gestalt Therapy, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, Hellerwork, etc. Alexander first innovated such concepts as an interconnected body/mind, behaviorism, verbal visualization, the hypnotheraputic style of avoiding reaction during speaking, and using modeling in teaching (guiding movement in contact with the student to show quality and direction.) His foundation concept of "Primary Control" is only now being scientifically studied.

Many books on the Alexander Technique now exist, one of the first being Freedom to Change by Frank Pierce Jones.

F.M. Alexander himself was a Shakespearean orator, and had a problem of losing his voice onstage. Careful observation of himself with mirrors revealed that he habitually stiffened his body when about to recite or to a lesser extent before speaking. His technique was based on finding his way past his problems, which he decided were based on the way he used himself.

Many famous actors, writers and philosophers of the turn of the 19th century were his students. According to some, the technique was important in the career of educational philosopher John Dewey. The two men met around 1918 in New York City when Dewey had a series of lessons. Dewey felt that Alexander taught him how to stop and think before acting. His study of the Alexander Technique enabled him to hold a philosophical position calmly once he had taken it or to change it if new evidence appeared.

Table of contents
1 Alexander's Writing
2 Alexander's Books
3 External links

Alexander's Writing

Alexander's books have a reputation for being difficult to read. Part of the difficulty with the language that Alexander uses is that he is discussing a radically new hypothesis. Most people trust their own senses, but Alexander shows again and again that we are wrong to trust them. This is a very difficult thing to take in. Even today most of us arbitrarily separate mind and body. Alexander through his experience was forced to abandon this separation. He talked about the 'psycho-physical mechanism', the 'self', the 'organism'. He would not have used the words 'mental' or 'physical' at all but that "... there are no other words at present which adequately express manifestations of psycho-physical activity ...". Because he was using everyday words to describe new ideas he often had to digress (footnotes were a favourite way) to explain the sense in which he was using this particular word.

Alexander was a man of his times. He read Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer, as well as Shakespeare and Byron, and his writing reflects this. Don't be distracted by claims that Alexander is difficult to read. He chose his words with care and reading his books is a very rewarding experience. The final word on this subject should go to John Dewey, from the introduction to Constructive Conscious Control :

"For although there is nothing esoteric in his teaching, and although his exposition is made in the simplest English, free from technical words, it is difficult for anyone to grasp its full force without having actual demonstration of the principle in action."

Alexander's Books

Man's supreme inheritance

Man's supreme inheritance : conscious guidance and control in relation to human evolution in civilization. (Long Beach, CA, USA : Centreline Press, 1988.) 95 p. (This edition incorporates two pamphlets published previously: The theory and practice of a new method of respiratory re-education, 1907; and Re-education of the kinaesthetic systems concerned with the development of robust physical well-being, 1908.)

This is Alexander's first attempt to set down his philosophy and method in written form. Man's supreme inheritance is the ability to inhibit habitual control of our actions and substitute conscious reasoned control. "By and through consciousness and the application of a reasoning intelligence, man may rise above the powers of all disease and physical disability". Heady stuff! Alexander had been teaching his technique to others for about 17 years when he wrote this book, and six of those years were spent in London. He had even then an enormous number of examples of the success of his method of re-education. The difference is that Alexander, through his books and his teachings, showed us the practical steps we can take to make the dream come true.

The thesis goes something like this: in prehistoric times we were well served by instinctive or habitual control of our actions. Change was always at a slow pace and we had plenty of time to adapt to any new situations. In the modern world the pace of change is much faster (even around the turn of the century - how much more so now). Our habitual control is no longer adequate, and more often leads us astray into patterns of use that are harmful, causing disease and deformity. All forms of physical culture utilising our habitual guidance only serve to accentuate this effect. Alexander argues that the sub-conscious is merely the complete set of habits.

As we have progressed along the road of civilisation, we have learned to inhibit our habits of thought and our desires. This is an evolutionary step - we are no longer natural animals. Any separation of the mind and body is completely arbitrary and in practice the two cannot be separated. What we need to do now is bring our habitual control of our whole organism (mind and body together as one) under conscious control. Alexander contends, and has demonstrated, that any act using voluntary muscle can be controlled - any unconscious habit can be elevated to consciousness and controlled.

While consciousness is the gift that sets us apart from the other animals, it is also a burden to us - we must employ it in every sphere or else we go wrong.

Constructive conscious control of the individual

Constructive conscious control of the individual. (London : Methuen, 1923.) With an introduction by Professor John Dewey.

"During the last 500 years in all spheres of remedial and curative activity, the standard of sensory appreciation, of general coordination and of reliable use of the mechanisms of the organism has been and still is being gradually lowered, with the associated serious conditions which are apparent today"

Constructive Conscious Control is the definitive exposition of Alexander's philosophy and the Alexander Technique; the principle and the procedure. Jones notes that Alexander always considered it his most important book. "It was more ambitiously planned than any of the others; the examples and language were carefully chosen; and it had the benefit of Deweys advice".

Alexander received much correspondence after Man's Supreme Inheritance was published and he acknowledges the questions of readers. "In this book I am most anxious to answer such oft-repeated questions as: "why are our instincts less reliable than those of our early ancestors?"; "at what stage of man's evolution did this deterioration begin?"; "what is the cause of our present-day individual and national unrest?"; "can you set down principles which will enable us to decide as to the best methods of educating our children."

Alexander's vision is clear in this book. For the human race to advance and be uplifted, it is necessary to function "as a psycho-physical unit" and by applying conscious guidance and control of our selves. To achieve our potential, to continue to move along the evolutionary scale, and to achieve health and happiness, it is necessary for us to restore our debauched sensory appreciation and to re-educate our use of our selves.

This book is a must for all serious students of the Alexander Technique. All the key concepts are introduced and discussed at length.

The use of the self

The use of the self : its conscious direction in relation to diagnosis, functioning and the control of reaction. (London : Victor Gollancz, 1985.) 23 p. With an introduction by Wilfred Barlow, first published 1932.

"A classic of scientific observation." - British Medical Journal (from the book jacket).

In chapter one of this book Alexander leads us through the voyage of discovery, from the throat problems which threatened his career as an elocutionist, through to the formulation of the principles of what we know as the Alexander Technique. Major turning points and shifts of understanding are highlighted.

  • discovery that the senses are untrustworthy
  • the shift from separation to mind/body unity; no act is wholly mental or physical
  • discovery of primary control
  • importance of first inhibiting habitual reactions
  • use of conscious direction in combination with inhibition
  • Through two case studies, the golfer and the stutterer, he shows how these principles work in practice.

From the beginning Alexander had mixed experiences with the medical profession. It was a doctor who first convinced him to take his technique to a larger audience in London, and afterwards some of his most notable defenders and followers were doctors. Alexander was however openly critical of the profession, which put many doctors off. Many thought he was merely another quack. Still, doctors often sent patients to him as last resort - and it seems that in all cases they experienced some relief after being re-educated by Alexander. He never claimed to cure though - he treated poor conditions of use. With better use most patients found physical relief since their body/mind was functioning better.

The Use of the Self dicusses the need of the medical profession to be aware of poor use. Alexander has shown that poor use is a constant influence for ill in a person, which lowers their level of functioning and leads to disease. Present medical training doesn't include any consideration of use, and the medical profession is limited in its ability to diagnose and treat illness.

Dr Wilfred Barlow commented "We can only marvel at the courage, clear-sightedness and perseverance which underlies this book". The book is quite readable and the first chapter gives a very valuable insight into the development of the principles of the technique. It would be worth reading this before Constructive Conscious Control as it will help you to see where Alexander is coming from.

The universal constant in living

The universal constant in living. (Manchester : Re-educational Publications, 1941.) With an appreciation by G. E. Coghill.

The universal constant in living is that: USE AFFECTS FUNCTION

That is to say that your manner of use of your self is a constant influence for good or ill on the level of function of your self. Much of this book is devoted to demonstrating that constant influence, and its consequences and practical considerations.

Frank Pierce Jones says that this book should be considered as a long appendix to the other books and it contains little organisation. However, he also points out that there is much in the book that makes it worth reading. When it covers the same ground as the previous books it adds new emphasis. The appreciation by G. E. Coghill is particularly significant. Coghill was a very eminent scientist who had worked in the areas of physiology and anatomy and had discovered something like Alexander's primary control in the lower vertebrates. Coghill ends his appreciation with: "I regard his methods as thoroughly scientific and educationally sound"

The Universal Constant in Living opens with a theme that was echoed by Rene Dubo in his book The Mirage of Health, although there is nothing to show that they were aware of each other's work. The book opens with:

"Few of us hitherto have given consideration to the question of the extent to which we are individually responsible for the ills that our flesh is heir to; this is because we have not come to a realisation of the faulty and often harmful manner in which we use ourselves in our daily activities and even during sleep, or of the misdirection strain and waste of energy due to this misuse."

To Alexander the individual is paramount. We cannot blame scientists, or the government, or any outside agency for our lack of health and happiness. It is our responsibility alone.

This book is in part a response to those followers of the technique who seemed to Alexander to be watering down the technique. He complains that they make no mention of any technique through which these concepts can be put into practice. This was all that Alexander had ever tried to do. He is emphasising the oneness of control of use and reaction, and stressing the importance of mind/body unity in practice.

There is a quality about this book that is not found in the others. It lacks the grandeur of Man's Supreme Inheritance, the vision of Constructive Conscious Control, or the practicality of Use of the Self. One feels that at 72, Alexander is somewhat exasperated that people have not taken up his ideas to the extent he would have wished; the problems and solutions are so clear to him. This attitude is highlighted in the second to last chapter called 'Stupidity in Living'. Other writers tell us that to a great extent he brought this on himself, not trusting even his best and most faithful followers.

Sections of the book are highly critical of the people he obviously feels should know better, since he has explained it all to them. If only they could see that all their efforts are wasted since they continue to rely on habitual guidance and control etc. Alexander savagely criticises the Report on Physical Education by the British Medical Association - they fail to come up with anything which was different in principle from that which had come before. He dismisses physiologists, since the use of those he had met was as bad as any person. From this he concludes that the study of physiology cannot and does not help a person to change their use for the better.

The Universal Constant in Living shows how Alexander's ideas have matured. It is perhaps best read after the other books, as Frank Pierce Jones has suggested, as an appendix.

External links




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