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Our Mindful Body

The Alexander Technique

by Jean McClelland

More than 100 years ago, an Australian actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869 -1955), was in the midst of a successful career as a Shakespearean recitalist when he suffered recurring bouts of hoarseness. Doctors prescribed a “rest cure” which seemed to help, but as soon as Alexander went back to performing, he quickly lost his voice. Doctors were perplexed by his condition but felt they had nothing more to offer him. 

Alexander, never one to hold back his opinions, told his physicians that there must be something he was doing while he was performing that was causing his issues. His physicians agreed with his theory but admitted that they had no idea what that might be. With a doggedness that defines both genius and creative and scientific process, Alexander set out to observe his habits around the use of his voice. 

He worked with himself for more than10 years, and what he discovered has become known as the Alexander Technique. Alexander observed that when he was about to recite, he instinctively (and rather noisily) sucked in air, arched his chest and went into what we have come to know as a startle pattern or flight or fight. He then noticed that he did the same thing before most of his other activities, even the most mundane and mindless.

We all share this tendency to react impetuously and to jump and grab onto ourselves. We live in a fast-paced world that leaves us little time to mindfully observe how we use ourselves in our activities. It is no wonder that actors, musicians and athletes seek out lessons in the Alexander Technique. Their craft demands a well-coordinated body that is fluid and free. Many other people take lessons in the technique to improve their breathing, back and neck pain and to achieve an overall state of well-being.

For a very effective at-home lesson, start by noticing how often you jump to do something. Notice what happens when the phone rings. Does tension arise inside the body? For most people it does. The next time the phone rings, notice if the instinct is to jump to answer it, but then wait and let it ring one or two more times and then mindfully answer it. While on the phone, place a hand on the back of your neck and notice if you feel your neck grab before you speak. This is what Alexander discovered in himself, and it is a universal habit.

The Alexander Technique is called a mind-body discipline because we physically and mentally sense how we react to a stimulus by jumping and grabbing. When we notice how we react, we can change. There is power in noticing our habits without judgment. When we bring awareness to them, they shift, and we find our path to integration and wholeness.

Jean McClelland, MAmSAT, is a senior teacher of the Alexander Technique and teaches voice and Alexander Technique in the MFA acting program at Columbia University. For more information, visit 

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