LIBRARY - Reference(s)

Body Awareness in Action [Freedom to Change]: Review by John V. Basmajian.

AT Focus: 
Alexander Technique
1977
Format: 
Article, essay
Language: 
English
Article, citation and copright
Article Text: 

Just before his death in 1975, Jones completed this book. Both book and author were dedicated to maintaining the sputtering flame of interest in a technique invented and advocated by a charismatic, self-taught, psychosomatic therapist, F. Matthias Alexander.

First a patient in the 1930s and then a disciple of Alexander, Jones gradually abandoned his vocation as Professor of Classics at Tufts and Brown Universities and ended his years performing experiments at the Institute for Psychological Research of Tufts where he also became lecturer in psychology. His studies of the Alexander technique were reported in the 1960s in respected journals and constituted a modest but acceptable body of work.

In this small book, the scientific aspects of Jones's study can flesh out only one full chapter of 32 pages late in the book. The bulk of the volume is devoted to an interesting, sometimes fascinating, account of Alexander and his many brilliant friends. These included Sherrington, Dewey, Aldous Huxley, Rayond Dart, Bernard Shaw, and Sir Stafford Cripps. His list of enemies was much longer and equally impressive. These enemies became most vocal at a notorious trial in Johannesburg where they appeared for the defense in a suit for defamation (slander) which Alexander brought against Ernst Jokl who attacked Alexander and his associates in an official journal of the South African government. Jokl, now an American citizen, was a recent immigrant from Germany to South Africa, at that time and was thoroughly scandalized by Alexander's teachings which had been introduced into South African schools by educators. In a scathing editorial, "Quackery vs. Physical Education," he compared Alexander unfavorably to Mary Baker Eddy and African witch doctors. He also accused Alexander of claiming cures for serious diseases. Alexander won the case after a trial that became a cause célebre internationally and is still considered important in South African legal circles.

What was all the fuss about? Alexander had developed a technique of conscious control of specific body muscle groups and posture, especially of the neck region, which led people with psychosomatic ailments to an improved sense of well-being and even "curesÓ. He had discovered his technique while a Shakespearean actor and elocutionist in his native Australia before the turn of the century through his intensive efforts to shake off severe hoarseness and loss of voice which defied cure by conventional medicine. By introspection and self-experimentation, he found that he could consciously inhibit stressful patterns in his neck which resulted in marked improvement of his vocal problems, Soon he was the darling of fashionable circles in England and America and had established a school in the 1930s for training teachers of his technique. Jones became a convert and teacher when Alexander was quite elderly.

Was there good science in his teaching? In his day, important scientists were heavily opposed to the jargon phrases invented by Alexander to account for his results. Not understanding what he was saying and extremely skeptical of this self-taught healer, they rejected his views. Not so Nikolaas Timbergen who shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1973. In his lecture of acceptance of the Prize, Tinbergen devoted half his lecture to an account of the Alexander Technique; referring to it as an example of "the usefulness of an ethological, approach to medicine." He and his family had experienced amazing improvements in their health following training by students of Alexander in recent years.

Surprisingly, the community of psychophysiologists and neurophysiologists did not immediately seize upon this extraordinary testimonial in 1973, and it is safe to say that almost no psychosomatic specialist under the age of 45 knows much more than the name "Alexander Technique." Today it seems like a relic of the depression years. The stridency of antagonism obviously has been muted by the massive forward roll of psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy in the past three decades. With the wide acceptance of electromyographic biofeedback and other related techniques, both with electronic instruments and without, Alexander has become little more than a historical footnote. His major influence seems to have been an almost flirtatious recruitment of famous non-scientists to support his views. Alas for him, scientists considered him an entrepreneur and quack.

Today we must temper our judgment. Theatrical and financially successful he no doubt was but his conception of muscular relaxation and appropriate postures for trained motor behaviors holds a grain of truth from which he developed his elaborate techniques. This book, perhaps the swansong of the Alexander era, is a fascinating account, but adds little substance to the therapeutic claims. Absorbed today in the general mainstream of psychosomatic medicine, the Alexander Technique is only relevant to its small band of advocates. Jones performed a valuable service to psychology, and his widow and the publisher deserve praise for ibringing us this fascinating book.

1977 © John V. Basmajian. It has not been possible to trace the copyright holder of this review.