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Optimise performance and manage stress – John Hunter outlines the benefits of the Alexander Technique to the Bar

The long association between F M Alexander (1869-1955) and the theatre dates back to the very origins of the Alexander Technique (AT). 


He was an actor who loved Shakespeare, loved to recite and, having lost his voice, succeeded not only in curing himself of his problem but also in discovering certain fundamental principles of human functioning.

Once established as an expert in breathing and voice in his native Australia, Alexander came to London in 1904 where he developed and taught his method for more than 50 years. Largely ignored by the medical profession, he had an early success helping a young actress, Lily Brayton, who had also lost her voice. After four days of lessons, she was back on stage and Alexander’s reputation received a great boost. Other stage luminaries followed, including renowned Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving, and soon the young Alexander was to be seen in the early evening travelling from theatre to theatre in a Hansom Cab in order to give the leading men and ladies of his day their ‘Alexander lesson’ before they went on stage.

What does AT offer the barrister?

In a number of ways the barrister calls on skills in common with the actor: stage presence, efficient voice production and, at times, a sense of drama. The poise and sense of presence which the actor needs to command on stage are certainly advantageous in court as in life.

Many turn to Alexander lessons to deal with a specific problem, back pain being the most common. A recent randomised controlled trial at Southampton University demonstrated its efficacy in this regard (see British Medical Journal 2008;337:a884, Little P, Lewith G, Webley F, et al). Pupils of the technique often report that it not only helps them with muscular aches and pains but that the benefits are myriad: general ease of movement, a sense of presence, managing stress, a way to deal with performance anxiety, quickly recovering equilibrium, heightened awareness, improved resonance and authenticity in vocal production.

Stress management

Learning to manage stress is a common reason people come to AT. It is well known now that stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which build up in the body, can be released through physical exercise, but one cannot always find the time in the midst of professional demands to take oneself off for a run or to the gym. The improved sense of ease and self-awareness which come with AT lessons, however, help one to avoid generating stress responses and give one the tools to let go of muscular tension before it becomes damaging. As tensions melt away, underlying emotional issues and mental demands – better seen in context – have less impact on the physical body.

How does it work?

During his early experiments Alexander brought together in a practical and effective form two little used capacities of human functioning.

The first, long known to philosophers from East and West and recently the subject of studies by an increasing number of cognitive neuroscientists, he termed ‘inhibition’; not to be confused with the meaning Freud attached to it (ie a kind of emotional repression) but in the sense of consciously refusing to react to a stimulus. A detailed account of the process is described in his book The Use of the Self.

The second relates to what nowadays comes under the umbrella of ‘embodied cognition’, which challenges the old Cartesian dualism. Alexander developed a way of using sensory awareness and thought – as awareness rather than concepts – to reorganise his postural habits in such a way that he was able to remove the downward pressure on his larynx which had been causing his loss of voice. He found that in so doing he was also removing pressure from his neck and spinal column which positively affected his respiratory mechanisms and his whole postural tonus.

After Alexander had unravelled his own pattern of tensions and learnt how to coordinate himself more efficiently, he developed a way of giving the experience directly to people with his hands. Alexander teachers train for 1,600 hours over three years to develop the necessary hands-on skills to indicate the required balance of tensions in the musculo-skeletal frame.

How to learn it

A course of 15-20 lessons with a qualified teacher is recommended, spread over a period of around six months. A lesson typically lasts 30-40 minutes and will involve working, fully clothed, with a range of the most common activities: sitting, standing, walking and bending whilst maintaining optimum lightness and freedom of movement. Especially in the early lessons, time will be spent lying on a treatment table which will allow the teacher to bring about a considerable release of unnecessary tension and to help the pupil to find their natural alignment. More specialised work with voice, respiration and performance can follow.

Self-help

Apart from reading more about AT, here is a simple experiment one can try in chambers if you have a clear area of wall, wide enough to lean against.

  1. Position yourself with your back towards, but not touching, the wall; heels approximately two inches away from the wall with feet hip-width apart and turned slightly out.
  2. Rock freely from your ankle joints without disturbing or stiffening the rest of your body – especially your neck; then rock back until you make contact with the wall, noting whether your upper back or bottom arrive first and then ensuring that both points make contact; the head should not touch the wall.
  3. Next, slowly bend your knees to lower your height by three or four inches whist maintaining both the lower and higher points of contact between your back and the wall by sliding down it, making sure that your knees do not come in towards each other as you bend but go over your toes.
  4. Then slide up the wall again, still keeping lower and upper points of contact.
  5. Repeat this three or four times, then use your hands to push yourself away from the wall moving only from the ankles (ie not pushing your hips or chest forward).
  6. Take a tour around the room, come back to the wall and begin again, noting whether your back arrives at the wall as it did the first time (ie top or bottom touching first) or both top and bottom arrive together.

If you have any difficult trying this then don’t force anything but get advice from a trained teacher.

Further reading and sources of information

Contemporary thespian students

The impressive roll-call of contemporary thespian students of the Alexander Technique includes Dame Judy Dench, Sir Ian McKellen, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonathan Pryce (who when asked in an interview with The Guardian ‘Which book changed your life?’ responded ‘The one the teacher put under my head during the Alexander Technique sessions at Rada. I grew an inch and a half’). Sir Lenny Henry also turned to the technique when preparing for his first serious stage performance as Othello to help him transform from a stand-up comedian into a man with the presence and demeanour of a general.

Contributor John Hunter, Westminster Alexander Centre

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John Hunter

Since qualifying in the Alexander Technique in 1984, John has taught at the Royal Academy of Music, atthe Actors Centre and in his private practice in Covent Garden. Web: www.the-alexander-technique.eu/