A Short History of AT

The Life of F.M. Alexander

The history of the Alexander Technique extends back more than a century. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869–1955) began his teaching career as an elocutionist in Melbourne in the 1890s. Over the course of several decades, he developed the method that bears his name—a general approach to changing habits of postural support, muscle tension, movement, attention, and reactivity. Alexander moved to Sydney in 1900, then London in 1904. At the onset of World War I, he moved his practice to New York City, where he taught off-and-on until returning to London full time in 1924. He opened the first training course for teachers in London in 1931. During World War II, he moved the training course to America. He resumed training teachers in London in 1945 and taught until shortly before he died in 1955. (Evans, 2001; Bloch, 2004; Staring, 2005; Murray, 2015). The Alexander Technique has continued to evolve in the decades since his death.

Elocution

As a young man, Alexander was a teacher of elocution—also called voice culture—and a performer of “elocutionary recitals” involving poetry, soliloquies, and short dramatic scenes (Damousi, 2010, pp. 66–69). In the days before amplification, elocution lessons were of interest not only to actors and singers, but to barristers, clergymen, teachers, and politicians (Kofler, 1889; Kirkpatrick, 2006). Voice culture was considered a branch of the larger physical culture (physical education) movement (Mullan, 2012), and doctors sent patients to elocutionists for aid in respiratory health (Leeper, 1909/2015). Alexander’s earliest pamphlets (1894, 1895 & 1900) lean heavily on the works of nineteenth-century authorities on breath and voice, including Thomas P. Hill, Nicholas Hartley, Leo Kofler, and Emil Behnke and Lennox Browne. He taught breath gymnastics (exercises) and voice production (Alexander, 1900; Anonymous, 1904). Alexander appears to have been quite successful. As early as 1896, he received referrals and testimonials from a network of doctors (Staring, 2005, p. 42; Alexander, 1900). He would attract the support of doctors throughout his career (Bloch, 2004; Murray, 2015).

Development of Alexander’s Technique

Alexander’s method changed gradually over time, through self-study provoked by persistent problems with his voice in performance (Alexander, 1907/1995; 1932/1985), through working with his brother, Albert Redden (A.R.) (Staring, 2005, p. 354, fn 343), and through his teaching experience (Bloch, 2004, p. 56). He also explored other methods, such as the Delsarte System of Dramatic Expression (McLeod, 2017, pp. 135–137) and a variety of physical culture systems, including Sandow bodybuilding (Alexander, 1925/1995, p. 133; McLeod, 2017, pp. 145–153). Though his method likely changed substantially from his early days as an elocutionist, Alexander retained a lifelong interest in breath coordination (1923/2004, pp. 126–133; Rengstorff, 2015, p. 4). 

Alexander’s work likely resembled modern Alexander Technique teaching by 1914 (Murray, 2015, p. 75). He began using positions and movements that challenged postural coordination, such as “positions of mechanical advantage” (for example, a semi-squat) and functional movement such as sit-to-stand (1918/1995, pp. 168–175). At the same time, Alexander rejected common understandings of posture—including the idea of posture as a correct position, or that exercise was required to improve posture (1923/2004, p. 40, p. 114). Just as importantly, Alexander became focused on how habit challenged self-control and distorted self-perception. In lessons, a student’s foremost responsibility became the “inhibition” of habits, not the assumption of a correct position or the performance of a correct action. An overarching goal of a course of study was to improve the accuracy of the student’s body awareness—or “sensory appreciation” (1908/1995). To this end, Alexander developed a sophisticated and subtle use of his hands in teaching to clarify the intended coordination through sensory feedback and guided movement (1908/1995, p. 83; Jones, 1976, p. 31). For example, when working with sitting and standing, he would guide the student in and out of the chair.

By the 1920s, Alexander had developed a reputation as a remarkable practitioner and students particularly noted his hands-on skill. James Harvey Robinson, a professor of history at Columbia University, wrote in 1918 that Alexander “literally remodels the patient…all quite gently and persuasively” (Alexander, 1918/1996, p. 229). The minister and author, Gerald Lee, gave a flowery account of lessons with Alexander in 1920: “When you have removed all obstructions and preconceptions in your own mind—and will stop preventing him from doing it, he places your body in an entirely new position and subjects you to a physical experience in sitting, standing, and walking, you have never dreamed you could have before” (1920, pp. 163–164). Andrew Rugg-Gunn, a doctor who supported Alexander’s practice for several decades starting in 1913, commented on Alexander’s skill in “palpation” and felt that Alexander’s “insight into the living body had the quality of genius” (2002, p. 6). And Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of the Feldenkrais method, told Mia Segal that Alexander “had the best hands he had ever felt” (Murray, 2011, p. 3).

Intellectual Influences

Alexander’s work shows the influence of many of the intellectual currents of his day. In his first two books, Man’s Supreme Inheritance (1910/1918) and Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (1923), he places his technique within a larger vision of mankind’s evolution towards greater consciousness, indebted to Neo-Lamarckian thinkers like Herbert Spencer (1918/1996, pp. 3–8; 1923/2004, pp. 3–66). Such Neo-Lamarckian ideas—that acquired habits could be passed on to subsequent generations— were common in educational and physical culture systems of the time (Fallace, 2011, pp. 12–13; Singleton, 2010, pp. 97–98). Alexander was also influenced by the new sciences of psychology and neuroscience, including William James’ writings on volition and “ideomotor action” (Murray, 2015, p. 37; Lamont, 1959, p. 27)  and Charles Sherrington’s research on reflex action, kinesthesia, and inhibition in the nervous system (1906/1995, p. 49; 1908/1995, pp. 79-86). In New York City during World War I, Alexander taught the prominent pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey, who became an enthusiastic advocate of Alexander’s work and a significant influence over the next twenty years, especially in the writing of Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual and Alexander’s third book, The Use of the Self (Williamson, 2016; Murray, 2015, pp. 78–83; 129–132).

The Primary Control

In the 1920s, Alexander became familiar with the German physiologist Rudolf Magnus’ research positing reflex control of posture in animals (Bloch, 2004, p. 132). Magnus’ conclusions about the role of head position and neck reflexes on posture—or more accurately, Alexander and his doctor supporters’ mistranslation and misappropriation of Magnus’ German text—would influence Alexander’s coinage of the “primary control” (Douglas, 1950/2015, pp. 127–129; Fischer, 2019). The term primary control is used to describe both a postural relationship—the head, neck, and back—and also a pedagogical practice: Alexander taught students to consciously prevent interference with the “primary control” to bring about uninstructed and unconscious improvements in posture, movement, and reactivity. The reflex models of posture proposed by Magnus and Sherrington provided the neurophysiological mechanisms that teachers would use to explain the Technique for decades to come: one learns to inhibit learned habits in order to restore reflex control of posture (Jones, 1976/2003, pp. 47–48; Gelb, 1981/1994, p. 47; Miller & Langstroth, 2007, pp. 32–33; Walker, 2008; Dimon, 2014, pp. 38–42).

Training Course for Teachers

In 1931, Alexander opened the first training course for teachers (Westfeldt, 1964/1998; Bloch, 2004, p. 148). “First generation” teachers are particularly esteemed in the profession for their direct knowledge of Alexander’s work. The three year model for training Alexander established is still the basis of traditional teacher training today. Alexander moved the training course to America during World War II, training teachers outside Boston, MA, and Philadelphia, PA. Alexander suffered a stroke in fall 1947, and his teaching assistants took over most of the duties of the training course while he recovered. He resumed teaching by the following spring. His teaching assistant, Walter Carrington, took on many of the duties of training around 1952 and continued the training course after Alexander’s death. (Carrington & Casey, 1986, p. 19). Two short films were made of Alexander in 1949 and 1950, with footage of him both demonstrating chair work as well as his own agility in old age. 

Mid-century Scientific Research

Two first generation teachers worked to establish the medical or scientific credentials of the Alexander Technique at mid-century. Wilfred Barlow was a medical doctor who trained with Alexander in the 1930s. While he attempted small studies with army cadets during World War II and vocalists at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in the early 1950s (Barlow, 2014), his work arguably had its biggest impact in the performing arts with the inclusion of the Alexander Technique in the curriculum at the RCM.1For an assessment of Barlow’s research, see Rajal Cohen’s review of his collected papers. Frank Pierce Jones trained with Alexander and his brother, A.R., in the U.S. during World War II and did the first laboratory research on the Alexander Technique in the 1950s and 1960s at Tufts University. Jones published a number of papers on the Alexander Technique, including research on postural set and the first study in the literature on sit-to-stand.2See Tim Cacciatore’s assessment of Jones’ research on sit-to-stand and Rajal Cohen’s discussion of why Jones’ research wasn’t more influential. (Jones, 1998) For a variety of reasons, Jones’ research was not widely cited. Following Magnus and Sherrington, Jones posited reflex explanations for AT phenomena. Jones felt constrained by behaviorism, the dominant model of psychology in the United States during this period. Strict behaviorism rejected the study of internal mental states and Jones expressed relief when concepts such as “awareness” become scientifically respectable again in the 1960s (1998, p. 292). Study of the Alexander Technique also pushed against the limits of technology, as many of the most interesting aspects of the Alexander Technique, such as body schema and postural tone, were not measurable in the laboratory. This may explain why there was next to no significant research on the Alexander Technique until the 1990s.

Decline and Renewal

After Alexander’s death in 1955, interest in his method declined (Bloch, 2004, p. 242; Gounaris, 2017, p. 11). Renewal began in the performing arts, with the Alexander Technique offered at the Royal College of Music in the 1950s and the Juilliard School in New York City in the 1960s (Barlow, 1978, pp. 209–2010; Kleinman & Buckoke, 2014, p. 281; Leibowitz & Connington, 1990, pp. 3–8). Since that time, the Alexander Technique has become a regular offering in performing arts schools internationally, and many performing artists have trained as Alexander teachers. Interest in the Alexander Technique also grew with the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, when people turned to many Eastern and Western practices in the search for personal growth, awareness, and enlightenment (Caldwell, 1975; Blanc, 2005). Perhaps the most important single event in the growth of the Alexander Technique after Alexander’s death was Nikolaas Tinbergen’s unexpected advocacy of the Alexander Technique in his Nobel Prize speech in 1973. Though his address was controversial among scientists and even among Alexander teachers, the publicity led to a surge of interest in the Technique (Bloch, 2004, p. 242; Lewin, 1974; Cacciatore, 2000; Murray, 2015, p. 160).

Training Courses and Professional Societies

The Alexander Technique spread first to the United States and Europe, with significant interest in Israel beginning in the 1950s. The most influential of first generation Alexander teachers were those who ran training courses, notably Walter Carrington, Patrick Macdonald, Marjory and Bill Barlow, among others. Marjory Barstow was another influential first generation teacher. Though Barstow did not run a training course, she did work with a number of teachers in what has been described as an apprentice-style training beginning in the 1970s (Conable, 1988/2016). The Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) was founded in 1958. In the 1960s, STAT formally established a three-year training standard, which by the end of the decade was codified as 1600 hours of instruction time to qualify as a STAT-certified teacher (Fitzgerald, 2007, p. 44). By the 1980s, STAT was overseeing training programs internationally, and so affiliated societies were formed, now numbering eighteen societies across the world. The formation of the North American Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique in 1987 (now AmSAT—the American Society for the Alexander Technique) led to a dispute on the membership of students who had trained outside the STAT model. In 1992, an alternative society, Alexander Technique International was formed (ATI History, 2019). Mouritz Press has recently begun compiling information about the history of training courses and has identified approximately 185 teachers worldwide who have run training courses over the past 65 years (Fischer, 2019a). 

Developments in Pedagogy

Since Alexander’s time, there has been an expansion in the teaching procedures used in lessons. F.M. Alexander taught almost exclusively using procedures around sitting and standing (referred to as chair work) and lying down (called table work). Alexander’s teaching assistant, Irene Tasker, is often credited with developing what is sometimes called “application” or “activity” work, in which the lesson is centered on applying the Technique to an everyday activity (Evans, 2001, pp. 182–184; Hunter, 2013). Activity work is widely used by modern Alexander teachers, and some teachers specialize in particular activities, such as running (Balk & Shields, 2006), swimming (Shaw & D’Angour, 2001), dance (Nettl-Fiol & Vanier, 2011), or pregnancy and childbirth (Machover & Drake, 1993). Even teachers who focus almost exclusively on Alexander’s classic procedures will often include time in lessons for applying the Technique to a specific activity, for example, playing a musical instrument (Carrington, 1986, p. 42).

Other approaches to teaching the Alexander Technique may be less widespread. Some teachers use developmental movement to clarify aspects of the Alexander Technique, an approach first explored in the late 1960s by graduates of Walter Carrington’s training course, Joan and Alexander Murray, in collaboration with the neuroanatomist and anthropologist, Raymond Dart (Goldberg, 1996). Traditional AT lessons are delivered one-to-one, with near-constant interaction and personalized feedback. Teaching in groups is associated with Marjory Barstow, who began teaching in groups of 60 or more in the 1970s. While most Alexander technique teachers will teach AT in group settings such as an introductory workshops, some Alexander teachers now teach almost exclusively in a group setting. Body mapping, an anatomy-based retraining of awareness, was developed by William and Barbara Conable, two students of Marjory Barstow. The most recent teacher experimentation involves distance learning, such as online lessons, in which traditional hands-on guidance is impossible. Such experiments have been seen by some Alexander teachers as a refreshing liberation from perceived Alexander Technique dogma. Others have seen these practices as a dilution or even a distortion of the Alexander Technique. 

Scientific Research in the 21st-Century

Perhaps the most notable development in the new century is the growing body of scientific research establishing some of the benefits of Alexander lessons and investigating plausible mechanisms for such benefits. Modern scientific models are much more relevant to the Alexander Technique than the reflex models of posture available to F.M. Alexander. Research has started to identify some of the neurophysiological changes associated with Alexander lessons and teacher training—including increased adaptability of postural tone (Cacciatore, et al, 2011), changes in movement coordination possibly linked to adaptability of postural control (Cacciatore et al, 2014), reduced muscular co-contraction (Preece, et al, 2015), and possible changes of coordination from superficial to deeper musculature (Becker, et al, 2018). There is also intriguing research linking changes in body schema with functional improvements during movement learning, or dysfunction, as with chronic pain or focal dystonia (Bray & Moseley, 2011; Byl et al, 1997).3Note that these studies are not about the Alexander Technique, but form part of a body of research on body schema and skill learning or dysfunction that may be highly relevant to a scientific understanding of AT. Randomized controlled trials have found significant benefits of AT for individuals with Parkinson’s disease (Stallibrass, et al, 2002), low back pain (Little, et al, 2008), and neck pain (MacPherson, et al, 2015). Such research is likely to make it easier for Alexander teachers to make connections with the medical profession. Historically, the Alexander profession has often struggled to reconcile tradition and innovation and to establish the boundaries of what practices are acceptable as the Alexander Technique. As the subtleties of the Technique become measurable outside the lesson, Alexander teachers may be able to find connections between the different traditions within the Technique’s long history, as well as finding more ways of connecting with other professions and the wider public.

Author:

Andrew McCann is a regular contributor to Alexander Technique Science. He teaches the Alexander Technique in Chicago.

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