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Towards a Physiology of the F. M. Alexander Technique

A record of work in progress
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Alexander Technique
210 x 148 mm.
Mouritz Bibliography
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Mouritz description: 
A rather ambitious title, this is a description of research into the possible mechanism and effects of the Technique. The first part, ‘Experimental Studies’ gives a brief resume of research to date, especially detailing Stevens’ own research into, for example, 1) sway behaviour in normal subjects and experienced Alexander students, and 2) height and shoulder width before and after Alexander lessons. The second part, ‘Alexander research in the light of current scientific concepts’ contains descriptions of physiological mechanisms of posture and movement, e.g. proprioception, stretch reflex, elasticity of spine and of tissue, muscle properties and activities, touch and consciousness. It includes many references and summaries of research into these areas. Knowledge of basic anatomical and physiological terms is assumed and without it it is not an easy read.


The scientific aspect of the Alexander Technique has long been a topic for discussion; but Professor Dewey, who was a professional philosopher and, as such might be described as a professional thinker, was in no doubt about the matter. He wrote in his Introduction to Alexander’s book, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual: “Mr Alexander’s teaching is scientific in the strictest sense of the word”. However, Dewey’s personal experience of the type of thinking required in the Technique caused him to differentiate between this and the more familiar manner of thought, or ratiocination involved in his professional work. He termed this new and unaccustomed process “thinking in activity”.

Such thinking, unfamiliar to many scientists and scholars, is generally practiced, at least to some extent, by skilled performers in all spheres of artistic and sporting activity. It is often referred to as “thinking what you are doing” and requires sensitivity and awareness as well as experience and understanding of the different physical actions required. Its validity is tested by the process of “operational verification”. Alexander himself thought in this way, and those of us who aspire to follow in his footsteps must needs do the same. Thus, practice takes precedence over theory: and theory is only advanced to be tested experimentally in the hope, as Popper recommended, that it can eventually be falsified. In the words of Alexander: “The man who can show me where I am wrong is my friend for life”.

However, it hes in our human nature always to ask “Why?” and although a certain result may evidently flow from a procedure, until this question is answered, we are seldom satisfied. As for Alexander himself, he was much too fascinated by the processes involved in the evolution of his Technique to pause and ask, “Why?” But, nevertheless, he was always interested and gratified when others came up with facts and information and appeared to confirm his empirical findings.

When I first met him in 1935, and subsequently entered his training course for teachers, little was known about his work from a scientific point of view. Such practical matters as: the significance of Inhibition as a feature of neurological functioning, the importance of the head-neck-back relationship, the nature of the postural reflexes, and especially of the stretch reflexes, all these were generally unexplored. I can remember the excitement when Dr. Andrew Murdoch published his paper, “The Function of the Sub-occipital Muscles, the Key to Posture Use and Functioning”, and then when Professor George Coghill publicly related Alexander’s discoveries to his own work and went on to declare, “I regard his methods as thoroughly scientific and educationally sound”.

Of course, Alexander’s teaching is primarily concerned with education; or to be precise, with re-education. He was a teacher and an educator, not a scientist. However, scientific interest in his work is to be welcomed and appreciated as offering explanations and answers to the question, “Why?”. But scientific thinking differs from Dewey’s “thinking in activity” and it has to be recognized that this latter is indispensable from achieving such desirable physical changes as Dewey brought about in himself with Alexander’s help.

In the light of all these considerations, the work that Chris Stevens has undertaken must be warmly applauded. His book is modestly entitled, Towards a Physiology of the F. M. Alexander Technique and it is properly subtitled “a record of work in progress”. It is not presented as a definitive study but it can be recommended to all teachers and students as a source-book of scientific information of interest and value. The author states that “this is an unfinished work and I am still learning how to explain some of the fascinating discoveries being made.” And he goes on to promise a free update and free advice and answers to his reader’s questions. It is a timely and useful production that will be of help to all those who wish to learn more about the scientific aspects of Alexander’s practical technique.

© Walter Carrington. Reproduced with permission.

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