Is Alexander Technique Quackery?
If you are developing an interest in Alexander Technique, it’s good to gather information and understand what it is and how it may be helpful.
To some people, Alexander Technique is quackery. They think of it as unscientific. They like to demean it and place it into a category of exclusion. Quite often, even though they may be well educated people, they will make this scathing determination without having the least knowledge of Alexander Technique, its history, its practice and its methodology.
Alexander Technique has been taught around the world for over 120 years and has a good reputation for delivering positive outcomes. Is it too good to be true?
How can education be quackery?
The Oxford dictionary says that the term “quackery” relates to medical treatments that make false claims. Alexander Technique is not a treatment, medical or otherwise. It professes no cure. It teaches people to become aware of their movement. How can becoming aware of your movement and posture be quackery?
People expect Alexander Technique to provide cures or treatments. That’s a misunderstanding of Alexander Technique.
To then judge Alexander by those misunderstandings is ridiculous. A dietician cannot make you lose weight. A guitar teacher can’t make you play well. A French teacher can’t make you speak French. Similarly, an Alexander teacher cannot force you learn about your movement and posture and then implement that learning.
If you follow the dietician’s advice you might lose weight. If you want to play guitar, a guitar teacher can be extremely helpful.
How does it work?
An Alexander Technique teacher can assist you to move, balance and coordinate in a better more efficient way. The mechanism used is awareness. Specifically, Alexander Technique brings awareness to the elastic support of muscles, bones and ligaments in movement and posture. Movements that rigidify muscle can become destructive because they force the body to over-effort to compensate.
Alexander Technique observes that good posture and movement involves an easy elastic muscle tonus.
Learners are shown how to discriminate between constructive balanced movements and destructive overly-tense movements. This discrimination involves recognising detailed information from afferent nerves. These nerves are found in muscle tissue and feed information about muscle contraction to our minds. Normally, not noticed, Alexander Technique trains people to understand the difference between quality of movement using that “tension information”. It’s that simple. It’s also highly effective for people with posture and movement related problems.
If you lose weight (well done) there may be a secondary benefit. Risk of diabetes reduce, risk of heart disease, breathing will improve. You may even feel better. These benefits are indirect. They are also cascading in that, if you lose that weight many elements of your life may improve one after the other but all at the same time.
This is the same with Alexander Technique. It teaches you to think about movement and posture in different ways. Alexander technique skill assists you to move with less muscular effort, different weight distribution and greater sensory awareness. This occurs through a process of “reafference” where the regulation and interaction of internal feedback and sensory signals for bodily movements are brought into conscious awareness. People respond to this instruction very positively. This isn’t outlandish mumbo jumbo. In fact, there is a great deal of science (see below) that affirms the Alexander approach and the sensible benefits it suggests might be available. Is Alexander Technique quackery? No it is not!
Alexander Technique teachers think that learning Alexander Technique movement skills also has indirect, cascading benefits to health. They do not treat back pain or neck pain or any other ailment. Alexander Technique teaches movement. However, over the years, many people have reported that the more efficient movement that is taught to individuals seems to have an indirect positive influence on many chronic conditions.
An unusual model
FM Alexander (1869-1955) suggested that human functioning was more complex than mechanical models suggested at the time. He observed that many human responses involved the coordination of the parts of the body. He observed that the coordination of the parts led to overall effects that were greater than the sum of those parts. He recognised that human movement was fine and nuanced. He saw that the lifting of an arm was not a mere mechanical event but also served to convey meaning, mood, skill and dexterity all at the same time.
He suggested that there was probably an integrated organisational system of movement that allowed for skillful, lively and easy interplay with the world.
He observed that there was evidence of an organisational system of movement reflected in the relationship of head balance to spinal tone. He supposed that this relationship could be an important primary element for movement organisation. What if people with difficulty in movement could effect change by working with this relationship.
The indirect influence of improved movement on people’s health and well being has sparked the curiosity of many qualified and interested people. There has been a great deal of research into how and why Alexander Technique movement skills indirectly influence people’s general health.
There are some very interesting studies of Alexander Technique training and its influence on health and well being. click here to see a list of published research
FM Alexander (1869-1955) was keen to explain his method for movement training to medical people. However, he was also very insistent that his technique not be relinquished to the medical profession.
His reason for this antipathy was that he feared that his discoveries about movement would be misunderstood, re-interpreted and consequently, diminished.
Many scholarly articles about Alexander Technique appear to be written by people who have had limited experience of the Alexander Technique. Unfortunately they bring their own filters and bias to their papers.
One such paper published recently started by saying, “The Alexander Technique is a method for the treatment of chronic back pain conditions.”
Alexander Technique is an educative technique that teaches people to become aware of their movement and posture and to find ways to alter these towards better efficiency. It uses a model that is very similar to modern systems theory and embodied intelligence models. Each model suggests that feedback can be misleading when it is limited or constrained to fixed methods and small samples. Alexander teaches pupils to increase the range and scope of feedback coming from both inside and outside the body.
As already stated, learning about your movement, posture and balance can have secondary indirect benefits-but they are secondary. The focus of Alexander Technique is education about movement, posture and balance. It is not about treatment.
Is Alexander Technique Quackery? No, definitely not! Some people, who are scathing of Alexander Technique, scream out that, using scientific method (Cochrane method), there is only a moderate amount of proof of the efficacy of Alexander Technique. It’s not quite the same as suggesting quackery, is it?
Articles that suggest skepticism are generally not skeptical, instead they are cynical and have predetermined focus on debunking any process that doesn’t conform to their fixed ideas. These are the same people who debunked Galileo, DaVinci, Newton etc.
Unless you are a large drug company with very large budget, providing proof that meets the Cochrane test is very difficult. Random control double blind trials with very large (thousands) test groups; research less than 5 years old are required. Alexander actually has a number of random controlled double blind studies that were carried out and showed quite positive results but the test groups were only in the hundreds not the thousands.
Other “treatments” (have I made the point that Alexander Technique isn’t a treatment??) that also fail to show efficacy using Cochrane are back surgery, hip and knee replacements, discectomy and a range of other accepted medical practices.
So, do I think that modern surgery is quackery? Of course not. Nor is Alexander Technique.
Does Alexander Technique work?
Does Alexander Technique encourage mindless conditioning, faith in unscientific methods, foolish behaviours, strange rituals? Absolutely not! In fact, if anything, Alexander Technique teaches people to apply evidence-based thoughtfulness to their movement. This is why so many professional people, scientists, lawyers, musicians, authors and intellectuals study Alexander Technique and talk positively about its benefits. Learning Alexander Technique is a safe and useful skill that can have multiple benefits for your health and well being.
Alexander technique teachers are trained for three years minimum where they learn functional anatomy, physiology and highly detailed awareness of movement, balance, posture and coordination. These highly trained individuals, work by a code of conduct, carry out yearly continuing professional development and provide professional training to their clients.
You can rest assured that, by learning Alexander Technique, you will get a new perspective on your movement, posture, coordination and balance. It is hoped that you will also benefit from the secondary cascading benefits of Alexander Technique training but that process is indirect and consequential.
I invite anyone to come to an Introductory presentation on the Alexander Technique. I hold those regularly here at Leura. You will be surprised and delighted that this educative technique can assist you to improve.
Given how Alexander Technique makes for more ease and efficiency, it is no surprise that many household names are amongst the celebrities who have trained in Alexander Technique.
Amongst them are:
John Cleese, Hugh Jackman, Greg Chapel, Roald Dahl, Kenneth Branagh, Linford Christie, Dame Judi Dench, James Galway, Jeremy Irons, Barry Humphries, Prunella Scales, Jennifer Saunders, Julia Sawalha, Roger Woodward, Robin Williams, Sir Paul McCartney, Christopher Reeve, Paul Newman Sting, James Galway Kevin Kline Daley Thompson William Hurt Yehudi Menuhin
John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, Raymond Dart, George E. Coghill, Charles Sherrington, and Nikolaas Tinbergen.
97% of people with back pain could benefit by learning the Alexander Technique – it is only a very small minority of back pain sufferers that require medical intervention such as surgery.
Jack Stern, spinal neurosurgeon
I find The Alexander Technique very helpful in my work. Things happen without you trying. They get to be light and relaxed. You must get an Alexander teacher to show it to you.
John Cleese, actor
The Alexander Technique will benefit anyone whether they are an elite athlete or whether they just wish to live life without the aches and pains that many people suffer and accept as part of life. It is a pity that these techniques are not shown to us all at an early age for I have no doubt that this would alleviate many of the causes of ill health in our communities.
Greg Chappell Australian test cricketer
The Alexander Technique works… I recommend it enthusiastically to anyone who has neck pains or back pain.
Roald Dahl, writer
Mr Alexander has done a service to the subject [of the study of reflex and voluntary movement] by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psychophysical man. To take a step is an affair, not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuromuscular activity of the moment, not least of the head and neck.
Sir Charles Sherrington, neurophysiologist
Alexander students rid themselves of bad postural habits and are helped to reach with their bodies and minds, an enviable degree of freedom of expression.
Michael Langham, Director. The Juilliard School, New York USA
The Alexander Technique can be sustaining; it is something that if learned well, can be carried along with you for the rest of your life. It gives you confidence to be who you are when you are up in front of an audience.
Patrick Addams, Managing director. Royal Academy of Music
Of all the disciplines that form the actor training program, none is more vital, enriching, and transformative than the Alexander Technique.
Harold Stone, Associate Director, Theatre Department. The Juilliard School, New York USA
We already notice, with growing amazement, very striking improvements in such diverse things as high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures, and in such a refined skill as playing a musical instrument.
Professor Nicholas Tinbergen. Nobel Prize winner for medicine and physiology
Alexander established not only the beginnings of a far-reaching science of the involuntary movements that we call reflexes, but a technique of correction and self-control which forms a substantial addition to our very slender resources in personal education.
George Bernard Shaw, writer. Nobel Prize winner for literature
It gives us all the things we have been looking for in a system of physical education: relief from strain due to maladjustment, and consequent improvement in physical and mental health, increased consciousness of the physical means employed to gain the ends proposed by the will and, along with this, a general heightening of consciousness on all levels… We cannot ask more from any system of physical education; nor, if we seriously desire to alter human beings in a desirable direction, can we ask any less.
Aldous Huxley, writer
The Alexander Technique has helped me to undo knots, unblock energy and deal with almost paralysing stage fright.
William Hurt, actor