Alexander Technique and Physical Therapy
The Alexander Technique


By Idelle Packer, MS, PT, CTAT

    "Sit up straight! Will you just relax? Chin up! Shoulders back! Not that far back! Are you slumping again?" Try as we might, this authoritative inner discourse foils our intent to improve posture and alleviate tension. Associated with our failure over the years to make any real improvement in our stature, posture has become a dirty word.

    Let's for a moment view the body as an interconnected system and examine the effect of pressing back our shoulders. Try it. Pull back your shoulders. Are you aware that the head has rotated back, bringing the neck forward? Can you notice gathering muscle fatigue between the shoulder blades? What is going on in the neck muscles at the base of the skull? Check your rib cage. Is it displaced forward? Have you stopped breathing?

    Trials and observations like these intrigued the young orator, Frederick Matthias Alexander, at the turn of the last century. Standing in front of a 3-way tailor's mirror he observed his body's response to his inner commands to try and improve both his stature and his speaking voice.

    The discoveries made during the early years of Alexander's investigation led to a practical method for changing unconscious harmful habits such as the common slump. Compression from the head falling back on a C-shaped spine diminishes stature, produces excessive fatigue and bodily tension, and may be the postural precursor to back pain, disc problems, sciatica, and osteoporotic deterioration.

    The Alexander Technique provides the antidote to this progression in an indirect, yet highly effective manner. Presuming that poor posture reflects a general pattern of malcoordination, the teacher focuses first on what you are doing. For example, if the very thought of sitting or standing up straight produces a habitual response to tighten the low back and upper neck, you would be asked to observe the pattern.

    Next, the teacher might use words and a light touch to encourage a release of unnecessary muscular tension. Each time you spoil the effort by returning to the old tension pattern, the teacher halts the process, allowing you time to register the engagement of the old pattern. Eventually the preferred balance of head, neck, and back can be instigated independently at will.

    Longstanding postural or muscular patterns that previously felt "normal" now feel wrong. Perceptions restored, you choose the preferred balance of head, neck, and back even in the most strenuous or repetitive activity bypassing the tension or pain response.

    The Alexander Technique presumes that significant change requires individual lessons with a teacher. However, it is possible to make discoveries on your own. Enjoy this "exercise" to improve comfort in sitting:

  • Find a chair with good back support, and move your hips to the back of the seat. Try improving your chair design by placing a pillow on the chair back just above the waist to bring you forward and provide thoracic support.
  • Place your feet flat on the floor or use a footrest.
  • Without slumping, allow the back of the chair to support you.
  • Without stiffening, lean into the chair back and envision your back lengthening and widening.
  • Pay attention to neck and jaw tension. Allow the neck to be free, head poised easily.
  • Notice your breathing. Allow it to expand to the back and sides of your ribs.
  • Sit at a comfortable distance from your work surface.
  • When you look down to read or write, allow your eyes to lower while maintaining the ease of the neck and the poise of the head.
  • Allow lengthening and widening of the torso. Allow the breath to flow.

        The key is releasing tension. Words like "allowing" or "letting" promote ease and produce a lengthening response in the spine. We stand better, sit better, feel better, look better. Constructive inner dialogue replaces the nagging harangue to enhance any activity. The elderly need not limit their stride for fear of falling or struggle out of a chair. We need not become more stooped as we age. And we need not restrict our activities because we are afraid of back pain. While never saying the word, "posture," the Alexander process gives us a natural easy proficiency.

© Idelle Packer 2003
This article appeared in
Rapid River Magazine, volume six, issue three, November 2002.

"There's no such thing as a right position, but there is such a thing as a right direction."
F.M. Alexander from
The Essential Writings of F. Matthias Alexander: The Alexander Technique
(Carol Publishing Group, 1990) edited by Edward