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Professional Articles

Interview with Aranka Fortwängler – published in FIZIO JOURNAL, 12/2000

What is the Alexander Technique?
A.T. is a pedagogical and empirical method used to improve the entire coordination of the human organism, which, in turn, has a positive effect on the quality of all movements and all everyday activities.

Where does the name Alexander Technique come from?
A.T. was named after the Australian actor and performer Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955). His successful career was threatened by problems with hoarseness and loss of voice. When doctors failed to help him, he decided he had to find the cause of and the solution to his problems himself.

How did Alexander do this?
Alexander began to systematically study what his organism was doing while he was reciting. For this purpose, he used three mirrors and studied himself carefully from all sides. He collected data on the reactions of his body while he was speaking normally, and when he was reciting loudly.

In doing this, what did he discover?
The first important discovery was that, while he was reciting, he was contracting his neck muscles, pushing his head backwards and downwards, and thus hindering his normal breathing and the work of the vocal chords.
When he partially succeeded in preventing this downward pressure, his whole body automatically relaxed, extended and broadened itself, and released the pressure on his vocal chords. This also reduced his tendency to become hoarse. With time, he discovered that this tendency of contracting the head and the spine was universal, and that it also occurred, to a greater or lesser extent, in all other movements and activities.

Did he succeed in resolving all his problems in this way?
No, this was just the beginning, and the first link in a chain of discoveries. In spite of his awareness that a relaxed neck and a freely balancing head led to an expansion of the whole body, and that this has a positive effect on the functioning of the whole organism, Alexander could not maintain this condition while reciting. By repeatedly observing himself with mirrors, he discovered that, in spite of the decision to relax his neck, as soon as he began reciting, the old habit of contracting it inexorably predominated again.

What caused this lack of capacity to do what he had decided to do?
One of the factors was the force of habit – our human tendency to use the closest and most familiar reactions in life, regardless of how harmful and inefficient they might be. 
The second problem is our inadequate (wrong) perception. If we have formed a habit over a long period of time, our sensory perception becomes used to it, and interprets it incorrectly. For example, if we have always been leaning backwards while standing, after a certain period of time, we have the subjective feeling that this is the normal, or upright posture. If someone comes and straightens us, we will have the feeling that we are leaning.
This fact is a huge obstacle when trying to improve the coordination of our organism. Since we always intuitively follow what our sensory perception tells us, we have no other chance but to – in spite of our best will and effort – always instinctively continue to do what we feel is “normal”, “familiar” and thus “correct” – namely, to persist in our old bad coordination habits!

How do we avoid this trap?
F.M. Alexander experimented for years. A strong will, precise observation, a sharp mind, and a pioneering spirit led him to making further epochal discoveries.
The first principle was inhibition, the conscious suppression of an automatic reaction to any stimulus. Alexander understood that, if he ever wanted to put an end to his habitual reaction, he had to create the possibility of a constructive pause. This does not mean that we have to supress our wishes or renounce our movements. On the contrary! Inhibition is a moment of clear awareness, which provides the possibility of choice: how (with what type and quality of coordination) do I want to react to a particular stimulus/impulse? This, in turn, enables our reactions to become more spontaneous, effective, full of original ease and grace.
The second step in this process of re-education consisted of what are known as directions. These are comprehensive, conscious, constructive, mental “messages” that we send to our body. Their content depends on the concepts and perceptions that we have about particular movements and activities. Directions are a new constructive plan, which enables us to leave the vicious circle of old, well-established habits and harmful concepts about our own self. 
By applying inhibition and directions, Alexander eventually succeeded in overcoming his problems. His overall health also drastically improved. An increasing number of people became interested in his technique. Physicians referred their patients to him, and performing artists sought his advice in order to improve the quality of their work. He understood that the principles of the functioning of the human organism that he had discovered concealed enormous opportunities for improving the health and performance of mankind as a whole.

Where should we begin?
We do not have to start from scratch in finding all the principles that Alexander discovered – the sensitive, educated hands and clear verbal instructions of an A.T. teacher greatly shorten this journey. All we need is an open mind, curiosity, and the readiness to face changes which will take over not just our body and our movements, but also our way of thinking about them.

What training and standards must Alexander Technique teachers have?
The training is very thorough and is subject to international criteria agreed between national Alexander Technique organisations from around the world. The training lasts 1,600 hours, and is split into three years. One school can have a maximum of 14 students, and one to two qualified teachers.
All three years are mixed, which provides the possibility for beginners to learn from more advanced students, and the latter have the opportunity to test their experience on their “younger” colleagues. The course also includes a small theoretical part (approx. 20%) dealing with selected anatomy and pathology topics, as well as the development of the movement apparatus, the study of A.T. literature, etc. In the practical part, students are taught about the previously mentioned criteria of constructively dealing with their own organism. They receive training in manual skills in line with A.T. principles, and in pedagogical skills, which will be important when they work with future students. In the third year of the course, students – under the supervision of their teachers – begin to give individual lessons to their own students.



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