Alexander Technique Active Resting


ainon sivu1Lie down on your back with the soles of the feet against the floor and head on top of a stack of books. A firm surface will help you to release the back more effectively than a soft one, as it gives more feedback for your body. You can use a yoga mat or a blanket to lie on. Use paperback books underneath your head.

Keep your eyes open. Give yourself permission to be awake, even if you do nothing. Make sure that you are warm, feeling cold makes you tense.

If the book stack is too high, the throat feels the pressure. If your head is tilting backwards, the book is too low. Check that the stack of books doesn’t touch the neck or shoulder, it’s only under the head.

Place your feet relatively close to the body, but not so close that you feel compression in the knees. If the legs are too far away, the arch in the lower back is emphasized, so that it is more difficult to release the back. Feet are approximately hip-width apart. The arms are either resting on the sides or the palms are on top of the abdomen. If your shoulders feel tight, ​​move the hands towards the chest.

If you feel uncomfortable at this point, get up and try again later. If you feel comfortable, lie down for 10 to 20 minutes. If the lower back or any other part of your body feels numb, it’s time to get up and move.

You can pay attention to how the head, shoulders, hips and the soles of the feet meet the surface. You do not have to do anything. You can let your body  start finding a better balance on its own. If you can stop trying to relax, you give yourself a chance to release as much as necessary, and not too much.

You can also remind yourself of the directions in which the different parts of the body are released. Think of allowing the neck to be free, so that the head, arms and legs can get a chance to release away from the spine.

Here you can gradually stop pulling yourself together. The body becomes more three-dimensional, it is extended, widened and deepened. Notice that the knees are pointing towards the ceiling. The feet are softened towards the floor.

If you can’t keep your thoughts together, let go for a moment, and allow yourself to just be there.


(c) Aino Klippel MSTAT 2012 n which

Alexander Technique and yoga


Books Master the Art of Working out, by Malcolm Balk This book is about applying the Alexander Technique to various exercises and it includes three case studies about yoga. The Art of Changing, by Glenn Park The first half of the book offers a great introduction to the Alexander Technique, and the meditations in the other half might appeal to some yoga students. Anatomy of the moving body, Theodore Dimon, Jr Written by an Alexander Teacher, this book emphasizes the connections between anatomical parts of the body. Links to Articles

  • The yoga issue of the Direction Journal
  • Yoga and the Alexander Technique, by Clare Maxwell
  • What has the Alexander Technique to offer the student of yoga? by Anne Finlay, IYTA and Martin Finnegan 
  • Why yoga and the Alexander Technique?
  • Tradition and Authority in Yoga and AT by David Moore
  • The Alexander Technique: A Tool For Dancers and Yoga Practitioners To Reclaim Full Use of Their Postural Reflexes by Cécile Raynor
  • Yoga, posture and the Alexander Technique by Mary Albro                                         A story about an Alexander pupil searching for a yoga book that doesn’t instruct to ”to lift, pull, push, knit, or tuck anything” 
  • How does the Alexander Technique differ from yoga and Pilates by Marcia Claesson
  • Somatics: Yogas of the West by Larry Sokoloff, Yoga Journal

Ashtanga yoga and the Alexander Technique



An Alexander Teacher’s reflections on Ashtanga Yoga.


Yoga, especially ashtanga, has become a popular pastime and it also reflected in the amount of Alexander pupils who are practicing yoga. here, I will point out similarities and differences between the two disciplines, with a purpose of providing tools of communication between Alexander Teachers and yoga practitioners. I started to practise yoga while studying to become a professional clarinetist, and took on ashtanga and the Alexander Technique almost simultaneously in 2003. Alexander Technique and ashtanga is a challenging and rewarding combination, although there are  prejudices prevailing between practitioners of both disciplines. This situation inspired me to find out a little bit about the shared history of Alexander Technique and yoga. Writing this essay has demanded me to look carefully at my yoga practice in order to see how the principles of the Alexander Technique have become part of it. I was also observing yoga students and teachers, trying to figure out some teaching guidelines for Alexander Teachers who want to work successfully with yoga people. The remaining text is structured around the five items that Patrick Macdonald was listing as the features that together “make the Alexander Technique unlike any other” (1989) 2006) with the intention of relating these principles to the practice of yoga. During the process of writing I found myself weighing some of Alexander’s key concepts that are not in Macdonald’s list. These include the polarities of ‘end-gaining’ versus ‘means-whereby’ and ‘mind-wandering’ versus ‘concentration’, as well as psycho-physical unity and positions of mechanical advantage. I find each of them extremely relevant for yoga practitioners.

Alexander Technique and yoga  – an ongoing dialogue

“I may have been unlucky, as may F. Matthias Alexander before me, in having pupils who came to me after incorrectly studying yoga. They were rigid both in neck and brain…”      P. Macdonald, Alexander Technique teacher ((1989) 2006)

“A good use and healthy alignment is the natural state of the body. Connecting to this innate state unravels habitual patterns and untangles energy, enhancing well-being, vitality and effortlessness.” T. Feldman, ashtanga yoga teacher (2008)


Alexander himself being a performing artist, the Alexander Technique became well established among musicians and actors. Performers are generally grateful for achieving a more efficient way of working. A yoga student may look at their practise as an exercise that should be difficult, and perceive lessening of effort as cheating. Ashtanga yoga teachers can also be wary about combining other disciplines with ashtanga, because  mixing approaches might confuse the student as well as affect the authenticity of the yoga practise. Authenticity refers to the idea that yoga is an ancient tradition passed through generations from teachers to students (Räisänen, 2009 p. 17-19). The Alexander Technique might be perceived as a minor discipline, with only a hundred years of history. This is not quite accurate: Alexander was trained in the Delsarte System of Oratory, thus joining into the ancient European tradition of acting. The delsartean ideal of a systematically  achieved naturalness is at the very heart of Alexander’s Technique. Some Alexander Teachers think that Alexander didn’t like yoga because the challenge presented by yoga poses. It was although only after Alexander’s time that yoga in London became largely associated with performing asana (Singleton, 2010, p. 5). Alexander did not comment asana, either. He actually used the case of an Indian Yogi who was able to stop his heart beat to demonstrate the extend to which conscious control could eventually be applied. Naturally, he was advising his readers not to try out this sort of “dangerous trickery” ((1910)1957 p.56). In his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Alexander also reveals his keen interest in acrobatics: ”Continual readjustment of the parts of the body without undue physical tension is most beneficial, as is proved by the high standard of health and long life of acrobats” ((1910) 1957 p.167). At the beginning of the 20th century there was a trend of teaching breathing exercises for children at schools. Alexander was working against this trend. Considering the photo of a boy demonstrating “deep breathing” in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, it is unlikely that any ashtanga yoga teacher would disagree with Alexander about the potential harm of the drill the boy was doing (Alexander, (1910)1957). One of the hallmarks of ashtanga yoga is that breathing exercises (pranayama) are generally not being taught. With the words of P. Jois, the late ashtanga guru: “According [to the] Ashtanga Yoga method, pranayama teaching [is] some[what] difficult.” (Donahaye, 2008) and “If you want to practice the correct breathing system, you must have a straight spine” (Anderson, 1994). Alexander also observed that when doing “deep breathing” people tend to hollow the lower back and push the chest out. This means, that the back of the rib cage is actually squashed. Alexander was not against respiratory re-education as such. He only pointed out that general malconditions like breathing difficulties, should not be mistaken for a specific defect (Alexander, (1923) 2000 p.194). According to Rosen (2010), the first popular yoga breathing manual in English (Atkinson, (1903) 2003) was published the year before Alexander arrived to London in 1904. It was not written by an Indian yogi but the questionable origin does not prevent it from influencing yoga students who attempt to do it’s exercises. Even today the book is advertised by the Ashtanga Yoga Shop in Helsinki as “the indispensable guide to everyone interested in first-rate breathing.” (2010, my translation). This book could be the source that Alexander is referring to as the “well-known system of breathing practised and taught by [the yogis]”, which he thought was “not only wrong and essentially cruel, but also exaggerating the defects of which people suffer in the 20th century” (Alexander, (1910) 1957). It is common for yoga teachers who have heard about the Alexander Technique to know that it has something to do with a free neck. According to the positive or negative image they have of  the Technique, they may ask their students either to avoid or to exaggerate the movements of the head. Also bending or not bending the knees in certain postures can be a question of principle, as the Alexander Technique is being associated with bending the knees. This posture orientated view of the Alexander Technique probably stems from Alexander teachers having advised pupils to modify asanas in order to achieve greater mechanical advantage (Moyer, 1987). When teaching yoga teachers one needs to bear in mind that they might pick up anything from the lesson and attempt to teach it forwards to their own students. When the number of somatic methods has risen, Alexander Technique is often being compared in yoga magazines with an array of bodywork. If this is done properly, it can actually help people to get a better picture of what makes the Technique unique (Knaster, 2000).

How to teach Alexander Technique to ashtangis?

“Teach what is inside you, not as it applies to you, but as it applies to the other”. T. Krishnamacharya, P. Jois’ guru (Arora, 2004)

“’Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah.’ This means that yoga is control over the modifications of the mind.” Patanjali 1.2, translation P. Jois (Anderson, 1994)


For yogis, it will make sense to emphasise the concept of psychophysical unity and the attention Alexander paid to breathing. Also, Alexander was using his reasoning to recognise and systematise universal laws of human behaviour. He didn’t set out to develop a new technique but had to learn to think independently, because even the best available teachers and doctors were not able to help him to recover his voice (Alexander, (1932) 2001). Becoming aware that how one understands instructions is dependent on their way of perceiving them can be a new discovery for a yogi. Yoga being an ancient tradition, students may feel they have to follow instructions without engaging their own ability to think (Balk, 2007, p.27). Sometimes Alexander teachers resort to convenient short-cuts: we talk about a free neck or a strong back, when actually meaning the whole person. When teaching practitioners of ashtanga yoga, the teacher needs to be clear that it was not only a disembodied, idealised free neck, Alexander found himself misusing. It is easy for an ashtangi to assume that someone who can’t put their leg behind their neck does not understand how much the whole body is involved in their practice. Therefore it can be practical to speak in terms of  reactions, rather than starting by explaining terms like ‘inhibition’ or ‘directions’. When Alexander started to observe his reciting, he first didn’t notice anything special, but when he compared normal speaking to reciting, the difference was obvious (1932) 2001). What he noticed was his reaction to the stimulus of speaking. A parallel to this experiment for an ashtangi could be to stand normally, compared to standing on their mat before practice. The stiffening of the neck is the key factor of a total pattern which includes pulling every part of the body into it’s nearest joint. This is a problem for someone who is trying to move their joints. Alexander’s reaction to reciting was to pull the head back and down, to compress the larynx, to gasp for air, to pull his chest out and to over-arch the lower back. He also grabbed the floor with his feet, which was “exerting the most harmful tension over the whole body” ((1932) 2001).  For a yogi a this list of Alexander’s habitual reactions will help to grasp the idea of a total psycho-physical pattern, and it will provide a point of reference when learning the classic Alexander directions. The Alexander teacher should not get too much involved in their pupil’s yoga. The ashtanga yoga “practise” is like playing through a musical composition: the movements have to follow the rhythm of the breath and one has to keep warm in order to stretch safely. Just like an Alexander teacher would not tell a musician to change the awkward notes Mozart wrote, it does not help to criticizedetails of an asana practise without understanding them in their context. If  I am asked  how to do an asana “the Alexander way”, I let the yogi tell what they think they are doing, and feed back what they actually do. This method helps me to avoid stepping on the toes of their yoga teacher. Often grown-up persons start to practise and teach ashtanga with little experience of exercising and not much psycho-physical awareness (Mikkonen, 2008). Nevertheless they consider themselves as specialists in their field, and an Alexander teacher will probably look in their eyes like somebody not very flexible. Even if ashtangis are quick to recognise an Alexander Teacher’s habits of stiffening, they would benefit from a concept of alignment that includes the whole person, mind and body. Because yoga teachers are working with their hands-on, they might need help to realize that teaching the Alexander Technique is not just a matter of  learning where to put their hands. The Alexander teacher’s touch is delicate, placing an untrained hand in such a sensitive area than a person’s neck can have the opposite effect than intended. The best way for a yoga teacher to transmit the benefits of the Alexander Technique is to look after themselves, while teaching yoga the idiomatic way. It is simple to give a demonstration on how it is the quality of touch that really matters, by placing hands on different parts of the yoga teacher’s body, while moving them. Attention to breath makes a direct link between Alexander’s discoveries and an ashtangi’s daily practice. Alexander was developing his Technique to enable him to recite Shakespeare, which requires remarkable breath control. Running out of breath means not just problems with the voice, also muscle tone and the brain’s ability to think are impaired when there’s not enough oxygen. Ashtangis appreciate smooth and even breathing through the nose. Alexander took pride of being able to recite without gasping air through the mouth (Alexander, (1932) 2001). Later he was known as “the Breathing Man” because his teaching was based on the discovery that improved breathing is connected with balance and overall coordination. Instead of trying to manage breath directly by breathing exercises, he paid attention to the conditions that enable breathing to happen naturally. “Guruji divided the breath into two categories: ‘free breathing’ and ‘stiff breathing’.” (Garrigues, 2010a)

Recognition of the force of habit

“It’s easy to teach complete beginners but hard to teach experienced students that have deeply ingrained faulty habits.” G. Maehle, ashtanga yoga teacher (Morales, 2010)

“The experience you want is in the process of getting it. If you have something, throw it away. It’s getting it not having it what you want.” F.M. Alexander (2000)


The habits that the Alexander Technique is designed to change can be described as “both permanent and unrecognised”(Alexander, (1910) 1957), and as “reactions to any given activity.” (Alexander, (1941) 2004). Good habits from the Alexander Technique’s point of view are those that are conscious and that can be changed by choice. When a person becomes used to react in a certain way, it starts to feel normal and right. Even with reasonable discomfort, it can feel more of an effort tostop and change a habit than to keep going the usual way. The stronger the stimulus to do something right, the bigger is the temptation to stick with a familiar response (Alexander, (1941) 2004 p.76). Ashtangis repeat a challenging exercise up to 5-6 times a week. In an enthusiastic and ambitious yoga environment, determination is needed in order to not get driven away with the class energy. Regular practising does not only improve a yogi’s aptitude to perform asana, it will also make the ashtangi to exaggerate habitual miscoordination that is not so pronounced in everyday life. Sometimes in yoga, end-gaining takes the form of being so non-attached that the yogi is hardly practicing anything demanding at all. As people often do their asana practice before going to work, there can also be an element of haste in their practice. There is a force even behind habits that are generally considered to be good. Waking up early and practising daily starts to feel normal, if the routine is repeated regularly. As a person gets accustomed to a certain level of exercise, there is more room for considering the means of  how to perform it. The postures in ashtanga might seem exhilaratingly difficult for someone who is not familiar with them, but for more seasoned practitioners a real challenge is to “prevent the familiar from becoming mechanical” (Balk, 2007). Ashtanga yoga,  like any sportive activity, bears a risk of overstraining (Mikkonen, 2008). It requires a high level of sensitivity to notice something going wrong during practice, since tiredness and the heat produced by rigorous movement can mask symptoms of poor coordination. The Technique not only increases sensitivity, it also empowers the Alexander pupil with an ability to use their kineastethic sense to enhance coordination. It is altough possible for an Alexander teacher not being able to perform asanas that their pupils can do. Even if the Alexander Technique generally helps to prevent injuries, it can in some cases give a false sense of security. One should bear in mind that learning the Technique is not a substitute for regular practicing. Working with asanas by paying attention to the process of learning them, enables the ashtangi to accurately modify the level of practice according to the situation.When one knows the means whereby an asana has been learned, the habitual way of doing it can also be retraced, if one realizes having gone wrong after all. This can help when recovering from injuries, or when the yoga student experiences plateaus, where the familiar expression of an asana seems to be the only possible. Rather than just trying to grasp for something that is not quite at reach yet, the yogi will have tools to unravel their harmful, habitual reaction patterns. While the solid structure of ashtanga yoga is giving opportunities to recognise habitual reactions, the Alexander Technique is providing concrete means of getting into terms with them. One way of dealing with a challenging yoga routine is to take a calm moment before the practise, and make a decision about what to practice and where to stop. What Alexander wrote about posture in general, can be readily applied to yoga:“A correct position or posture indicates a fixed position, and a person held to a fixed position cannot grow, as we understand growth. The correct position today cannot be the correct position a week later for any person who is advancing in the work of re-education and coordination.” (Alexander ( (1923) 2000 p.174). This attitude is in line with the description of asana in the yoga sutras of Patanjali: ”Sthirasukhamāasanam (Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.46) Sthira means perfect. Sukha means happiness. That posture you sit and very happy you, don’t anyone pain: That is Sthira Sukham. That is called asana. You can understand.”  translation P. Jois (Donahaye, 2007).

Inhibition and non-doing

“Don’t you see that what you call the impossibility never arises unless you do the thing you are not supposed to do?” F.M. Alexander (2000 p. 41)

“Don’t hurry, this practice take time, the more you try to rush it, the more you will miss what it is actually about…”  S. Rangaswamy, ashtanga yoga teacher and P. Jois’ daughter (2008)


The Alexander Technique is not about learning to do things right. Rather it brings attention to the ways a person interferes with the natural, free functioning of mind and body. We are all the time reacting to life, both to what comes from the outside and to our own inner thoughts (Alexander, (1923) 2000). This happens whether an individual is aware of it or not. If these reaction-patterns are automatic and unconscious, it is not possible to choose an appropriate way of responding to situations in life. Non-doing can be confused with doing nothing. Alexander’s directions are essentially preventative, encouraging one not to do what is harmful. This does not mean, a person should never challenge themselves. Alexander put it nicely in the term ”satisfactory use”. As long as we are able to maintain a satisfactory level of coordination we have hope of increasing our capacities. Satisfactory for me in this connection means, that the way a person is practising is helping them to become more aware of their habits. An Alexander student can also have a habit of worrying too much about their coordination. In ashtanga, the asana practice consists of a dynamic exercise followed by lying down on the back. It is although very difficult to just lie down, and many ashtangi’s are struggling to rest efficiently during the five to ten minutes of lying-down after their practice. The Alexander Technique can help an ashtangi to find more quietness in activity, and to rest without drifting into sleep or mind wandering, thus bringing these two extremities closer to each other’s. “Practice means choosing, applying the effort, and doing those actions that bring a stable and tranquil state”. Patanjali 1.13 (Bharati, 2008) A yogi needs to avoid imposing the Alexander Technique on top of their practice as one more set of rules to be followed. Ideally, the Technique is used to bring a person back to a state where they can do yoga in the way they intend to do it.

Recognition of faulty sensory awareness

“Identifying with thought patterns translates into me reacting to sensations and experiences in automatic and habitual ways rather than with receptivity, flow, and with what is appropriate at this very moment.”  D. Garrigues, ashtanga yoga teacher (2010b)

“He gets what he feels is the right position, but when one has imperfect co-ordination he is only getting a position which fits his defective co-ordination”  F.M. Alexander (2000)


Observing a yoga class it always strikes me, how different peoples practices are. Even if everyone is following the same precise sequence of asanas, each breath connected with a designated movement, their interpretations vary. This becomes more obvious when students react to the touch or instructions of the teacher. While Alexander teachers explain their pupils how they want them to respond, this is not usually the case in a yoga class. Yoga teachers may not even be clear that their manner of being has a profound impact on their pupils. The manifestations of faulty sensory awareness can be divided into two categories. Firstly a person might be using more effort than needed to perform a task, for example by making themselves feel strong and in control by tightening all over the body. Secondly they might be doing something completely different than they think. A common case would be someone trying to get a foot into lotus by collapsing their weight into the hip joints, thus diminishing the range of movement in the legs. For serious yoga practitioners it can be hard to face the possibility of actually not knowing what they are doing. This can be a very sensitive issue; a yoga teacher may have developed a high level of skill in performing asanas, despite not using themselves efficiently. Being able to endure strain and pain can also be a cause of pride, and the Alexander Technique perceived as a threat which undermines all the hard work they have been doing. Relying on how an asana should feel can be misleading: there will be no room for allowing greater ease, since the level of perceived effort becomes the norm according to which the asana should be performed. The familiar can thus be the standard by which the yoga practice is judged as right or wrong (Balk, 2007 p.39). An approach that does not take faulty sensory awareness into account tends to concentrate on the outer form while ignoring sensory information that is not perceived to be relevant to the correct performing of an asana (Barlow, 1978 p.107-8). Petri Räisänen makes a distinction between the shapes oriented “Western” yoga, and the “Indian” yoga that is concerned with the “flow of energy inside the asana” (2007, my translation). In the former approach the form of an asana has become more interesting than the manner of use of the person performing the pose. Alexander went to length in explaining the extend to which the phenomenon of faulty sensory awareness affects the human population ((1923) 2000). It is not just the physical performance; also thinking and feelings are affected by the standard of perception. For example a person who is trying to concentrate, will be not only tightening and staring, but also undermining their reasoning. They might be judgemental towards an other person, because of the awareness of both their inner and the outer world has been distorted. “Sensory appreciation conditions conception – you can’t know a thing by an instrument that is wrong”. (Alexander, 2000) The ashtanga practice has in-built feedback mechanisms to reduce the impact of faulty sensory awareness. It is just a matter of learning to use them. An ashtangi can gather feedback of their manner of use from their ability to keep looking out towards a gazing point. The act of seeing is often accompanied by moving the head with the eyes, which tells the degree of freedom in the neck. The sequencing of the asanas contrasted with repeated simple movements between asanas, give information about the yogis ability to maintain the good working of the primary control during an increasingly challenging series of  postures. Ashtanga teachers are frequently communicating with their touch. Even if ashtanga teachers with a profound touch are rare, in a difficult pose it can help to have contact with a person who is being in a mechanically much more advantageous position. The  “ujjayi-breathing” in ashtanga yoga is related to the “whispered Ah”. The whisper on the out breath enabled Alexander to hear his voice while putting minimal strain on it. The sound a person is producing is giving feedback about their use: including muscle tension, emotions and the quality of thinking. It is not uncommon that ashtanga yogis become hoarse due to the way they breathe during their practice, although some develop a beautifully resonant voice. It is vital for an ashtangi to make a connection between breath, voice and use.

Sending directions

“ ‘What is this direction,’ I asked myself, ‘upon which I have been depending?’ I had to admit that I had never thought out how I directed the use of myself, but that I used myself habitually in the way that felt natural to me.” F. M. Alexander (1932 p.22)

“People imagine that their bodies are disobedient and unreliable in carrying out their wishes, whereas nothing could be further from the truth.”  W. Carrington, Alexander Technique teacher (1994)


In an ashtanga yoga class, verbal instructions tend to be scarce and position-oriented: typically telling where to place the hands and the feet, and which way to look. A skilled teacher will then givethe right experience with their touch. Alexander’s directions are supporting this method of teaching because they are targeted to liberate postural reflexes, and the practitioner doesn’t have to know, how the body is sorting out all the details. While most yoga manuals are filled with photos of “correct” postures and minute explanations of how they should be achieved, keeping directions simple is practical in ashtanga where the asanas are performed in flowing sequences, rather than static postures. Telling myself where I want the hands and feet to be while the eyes are looking out, allows me to let go of trying to control the body by contracting it. Often just asking ”Am I shortening myself in order to reach better?” is working wonders. Occasionally I need to remind myself about the orientation of the body. For example up is opposite the floor, not opposite the feet, when going into an inversion. In  asanas that are likely to trigger a strong reaction, I use more specific directions. For example to keep not pulling the knees into the hips, when the challenge is increasing. It can be discouraging for an Alexander student to find out, that it is impossible to maintain the same level of ease during a session of yoga than during an Alexander lesson. Sometimes  Alexander Teachers use this phenomenon as proof of yoga being too big of a stimulus for them and their pupils. I find it helpful to take a non-judgemental approach. If I notice myself making too much effort, it is because I have an experience of doing less. Not so many years ago, I interpreted feeling heavy as me not being strong enough. Somewhat later I realized the feeling was connected with the way I was using myself, and nowadays I find myself increasingly able to work through that heaviness, not to sink deeper into it. In a way it is easier to apply the Technique in movement. There is no time to start feeling out if the directions are working. I’m often surprised by the effectiveness of just noticing misuse patterns and not trying to change anything. The awareness itself, supported by an understanding of what I don’t want to do, seems to be nurturing my practise and allows me to enjoy it. I find the skill of directing myself in activity getting stronger with practise. Introducing the classic Alexander directions too early can be confusing for a yogi. They will ask how the neck can be free, if they put a leg behind it, or how to apply directions like ”… to let the head go forward and up”, when the head is actually moving back and down in space. Some yoga teachers are convinced that the back should be shortening and narrowing when bending backwards, and the knees should be pushed together. Alexander used the terms primary and secondary directions. The primary being the preventative ones that support optimal coordination, and the secondary being the directions to actually move in space. When put into words, the primary and the secondary directions can sound like they are contradicting each others, even if any combination of them can be performed simultaneously. While practising yoga one frequently needs to think in terms of what I call absolute and relative directions. These are originally musical terms: the absolute ear denotes the “perfect pitch” way of listening, and the relative hearing a way of orientating according to the relationships between the notes. The absolute up is always the opposite direction of gravity, the relative being where the crown of the head is pointing at. When the head is not pointing up, one needs to know where the absolute up is in order be organised in terms of gravity. The relative up would then be to let the head release away from the feet, through the body,  in a way that does not interfere with the breathing. This will generate a lengthening and widening regardless of the shape the body is taking. In this connection it is helpful to clarify the preventative nature of the Alexander directions. For example in a back bending “to let the neck be free, to let the head go forwards and up…” can simply mean not starting the movement by actively pulling the back of the head into the shoulder blades. The directions will be growing in accuracy and meaning, when they are being practised. Bending backwards can be a good learning experience when a pupil starts to be able to discriminate between harmful and beneficial patterns. In this movement it is easy to notice how heavy the head becomes, when it is pulled out of balance – and how light it feels, when it is left balancing on top of the spine. “There is no such thing as right position, but there is such a thing as right direction” F.M. Alexander (2000) Photo: source missing, K. Macgregor on the left

The primary control

”… In this method you must be completely flexible and keep the three parts of the body – head, neck, and trunk – in a straight line. If the spinal cord bends, the breathing system is affected…”. P. Jois (Anderson, 1994)

“…the person who learns to use himself properly by relying upon the correct employment of the primary control of his use of himself will breathe to the best possible advantage…” F.M. Alexander ( (1941) 2000  p.144)


Ashtangis can be overly focused in their flexibility or lack of it. Introducing the idea of primary control will give them a measure of improvement that is not related with increased flexibility. Primary control refers to the idea that looking after the relationship between the head, neck and back can control human movement. With the back Alexander teachers mean the torso or a bigger entity, not just the backside of the spine. In small children the primary control is usually working beautifully, and some cultures are better than others in preserving their people’s ability to maintain a balance in their coordination. When we lose the optimal working of the primary control, partial patterns of the limbs start to dominate over the head, neck and back relationship. A good working of the primary control is characterized by smoothness and ease in movement. There is a spring in the muscles, and the body can seamlessly apply the optimal amount of effort to any given activity. This is accompanied by a sense of enjoyment and alertness. If the primary control is not able to work efficiently, movements become jerky or sluggish, sometimes over quick. There is a feeling of heaviness or not being grounded – even dizziness – accompanied by too hard concentration or mind wandering. Balancing becomes a matter of muscular effort, of holding rather than releasing. Restoring the functioning of the primary control is hard work. A yogi might feel more tired, fragile and emotionally vulnerable when practising with improved coordination, even if moving is effortless and enjoyable. Ashtanga yoga encourages practitioners to use their full range of movement. There are constant demands to reach with the arms, the head and with the legs, as well as focusing with the eyes to certain gazing points. If the ashtangi is not careful about their overall coordination, they will forget about the central importance of the head, neck and trunk. Trying to do an asana at any cost is not an unknown phenomenon in an ashtanga yoga class. By applying the Alexander Technique, each asana can become an opportunity to research habits of end-gaining. Instead of just doing lots of postures, the practise starts to reveal more delicate details. There are phases of critical moments, and there are moments of stillness.


1. F.M. Alexander, Aphorisms, 2000, London, Mouritz 2. F.M. Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of The Individual, (1923) 2000, London, Mouritz 3. F.M. Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, conscious guidance and control in relation to human evolution in civilization, (1910) 1957, Kent, Integral Press 4. F.M. Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, (1941) 2004, London, Mouritz 5. F.M. Alexander, The Use of The Self, (1932) 2001, London, Orion 6. W. Atkinson alias Yogi Ramacharaka, The Hindu-Yogi Science Of Breath: A Complete Manual of the Oriental Breathing Philosophy of Physical, Mental, Psychic and Spiritual Development, (1903) 2003, London, L. N. Fowler & CO., LTD 7. M. Balk and A. Shields, Master The Art of Working Out – Raising your performance with the Alexander Technique, 2007, London, Collins & Brown 8. W. Barlow, The Alexander Principle, 1978, London, Arrow Books 9. W. Carrington, Thinking Aloud: Talks on Teaching the Alexander Technique, 1994, London, Mornum Time Press 10. M. Knaster, Body Language, 2000, BerkeleyCA, Yoga Journal 11. P. Macdonald, The Alexander Technique As I See It, (1989) 2006, Brighton, Rahula Books 12. D. Moyer, The Pose of Marichi, 1987, BerkeleyCA, Yoga Journal 13. P. Räisänen, Astanga – joogaa Sri K. Pattabhi Joisin perinteen mukaan, 2009, Helsinki, Otava 14. P. Räisänen, Nadi Sodhana – astangajoogan toinen asentosarja Sri K. Pattabhi Joisin perinteen mukaan, 2008, Helsinki, Otava 15. M. Singleton, Yoga Body  – The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, 2010, New York, OxfordUniversity Press


1. S. Anderson, Practice Makes Perfect – An Interview with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois,1994, Yoga International Magazine 2. N. Arora, Yoga is a Complete Complementary System, 2004, Life Positive Magazine 3. Astangakauppa, Hengittämisen taito, 2010 4. Swami J. Bharati, Yoga Sutras 1.12-1.16: Practice and Non-Attachment, 2008 5. G. Donahaye, On Vinyasa: Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Public Talks on Ashtanga Yoga – France 1991, Saturday 24.8.91, 2007 6. G. Donahaye, On Pranayama, Bandha and Drishti: Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Public Talks on Ashtanga Yoga – France 1991, 2008 7. T. Feldman, Why alignment – why anatomy?, 2008 8. D. Garrigues, Ashtanga Foundations: Ujjayi Breathing Part 1, 2010a 9. D. Garrigues, Developing Practice with Yoga Images, 2010b 10. R. Morales, Questions to Gregor Maehle, 2010, Yoga Sanga Magazine 11. S. Rangaswamy, Insights, 2008 12. R.Rosen, Yoga instruction manuals BI (before iyengar: 1886-1966), 2010 Ashtanga Yoga and Alexander Technique

Bates and Alexander

Bates and Alexander

In this essay I am going to compare the work of F.M. Alexander and William Bates, to see how they overlap and reinforce each others’. At first glance, the approaches seem to be quite different: a typical Alexander lesson includes some chair and table work, a Bates lesson some sunning and palming, visualization and other exercises.

What I’m interested in, is the thinking behind these activities, which in both systems should be learned from a qualified teacher, who is able to give the student the right experience. Bates and Alexander both started to develop their methods to cure their personal problems.

Alexander’s discoveries stemmed from him loosing his voice whilst working as an actor. He started his career as a breathing and voice coach, and went on to make a connection between Alexander work and improved posture. The Alexander Technique deals with co-ordination, bringing awareness to the ways humans interfere with the best possible functioning of the organism as a whole, both physically and mentally.

The Technique can also be used to improve specific conditions such as back pain or stuttering. (BMJ 2008;337:a884, Alexander, 2001.) In fact, Alexander paid close attention to the way his pupils were using their eyes, and he reported the eyesight of some of his pupils having been cured in the process of learning his Technique. (Alexander, 2004 p.84, p.178-9, 2001 p.66.)

The Bates Method of natural vision improvement aims to reduce unnecessary tension associated with seeing.

Bates was a renowned ophthalmologist who cured his own eyes by studying what he was doing wrong with them, and in the process ended up questioning Hemholz’s theory of refractive errors. (Bates 2000.)

Bates compared the overall appearance of his patients before and after they had been cured, noting improvements in their posture as well as in visual acuity. Bates observed, how emotional struggles were contributing to the loss of vision, which led him to link thinking and seeing.

He found out, that eyesight fluctuated according to the situation, even with persons who had perfect eyesight. This led him to develop a method of undoing unnecessary strain connected with trying to see.

Alexander like Bates, was concerned about stopping whatever it was he was doing wrong, and stopping in a way that would not add any more effort to his system. (Alexander, UCL 2004 p.84-5, Bates, 2000 p.42.) The discoveries that were helping these men to cure their own ailments proved to have much wider fields of application than they had initially thought.

Bates expanded his method to cure a whole range of visual problems as well as learning difficulties. Alexander taught pupils from practically any walk of life. They both kept teaching and refining their methods until the ends of their lives.

Alexander shared Bates’ view of the eyesight being affected by ”the muscle pulls of the organism in general”, and even refers to it as a fact. (Alexander, CCCI 2004 p.161.) He also observed psychophysical manifestations of a person trying to concentrate, leading the reader to first observe ”the strained expression of the eyes, an expression of anxiety and uneasiness”, noting that ”the eyes might be distorted and the whole expression one that is recognized as the self-hypnotic stare.” (CCCI 2004 p.169.)

Correctly applied Bates exercises help the eye to release into movement, rather than them being stuck in staring. Bates didn’t design exercises to strengthen or stretch the muscles, but to counter-act ”wrong habits of thought”. (Bates, 2000 p.48.) Both men were aiming to stop people going wrong, rather than trying to do something to be right.

Bates’ method doesn’t include much of the means to encourage overall coordination of the person while they are working to restore their vision. Bates worked by vocally guiding his patients through the procedures he had developed, (Quackenbush, 2000) whilst Alexander taught by using gentle hands-on guidance combined with words.

Alexander also passed on this skill to future generations of Alexander teachers, while Bates trained only a couple of assistants. Therefore it can be valuable for students of the Bates Method to get an experience of physical guidance through hands-on Alexander work.

Aldous Huxley was a pioneer in combining these two approaches. He wrote a book that introduces the Bates method, informed by the Alexander Technique. He makes a distinction between ”passive relaxation” and ”dynamic relaxation”, which can be difficult to understand without any experience in the Alexander Technique. (Huxley, 1994.)

Bates developed a specific tool to achieve relaxation in the eyes, that he called imagination. He knew from his own experience, that a relaxed eye sees black, when there is no light coming into it. (Bates, 2000 p.121.) He also found out, that telling his pupils to imagine black would cause them to strain to try and see black.

Alexander called this phenomenon end-gaining. The term refers to the human tendency to try and get results directly, rather than using the appropriate means to achieve a goal. ”End-gaining” is characterized by unnecessary strain, whereas the ”means-whereby” approach implies a level of dynamic relaxation, while performing an activity such as seeing. (Alexander, UCL, 2004 p.11.)

It is very difficult for a beginner of the Bates method to accept being in a blur, whilst not straining to try and change it. Therefore Bates developed indirect approaches to encourage the kind of relaxation he found to be beneficial for people suffering from eye problems. (Bates, 2000, Quackenbush, 2001.) He could, for example, invite a person to imagine something pleasant with closed eyes.

Bates understood the pitfalls of imagining, he didn’t wan’t his students to switch off into day-dreaming. By carefully managing the process of visualization, he nevertheless managed to give his pupils an experience of actively resting eyes, that enabled them to see. (Bates, 2000 p.210.)
Alexander criticized attempts at visualizing a movement before doing it. (UCL 2004p.141.) His claim was, that ”such ‘visualizing’ or ‘sensing’ would necessarily be dependent on the same unreliable sensory appreciation (feeling) which had led to the errors it is desired to eradicate”. On the other hand, Alexander was interested in the idea of exercising children’s imagination. (1957 p.73.)
Alexander’s views on improving vision seemed to be, that the eyes will improve naturally in the process of classic Alexander work. (2001 p.66.) He could see very well, and didn’t develop any specific procedures to work with eyesight. Instead he did create procedures to explore his voice problems, or to focus on his co-ordination while working with his hands.
Interestingly enough, the ”whispered Ah”, which Alexander designed for vocal awareness, includes a genuine smile with the eyes. For me the procedure highlights the connection the eyes have with the voice, breathing and emotions.
The Alexander Technique and the Bates Method share the common interest of bringing people back into a more natural resting state.

The Alexander Technique and the Bates Method share the common interest of bringing people back into a more natural resting state.

The Alexander Technique and the Bates Method share the common interest of bringing people back into a more natural resting state. Both Bates and Alexander created practices relating to their own experience of physical disability. They also shared a philosophy of non-doing. From my own personal study of the Bates Method, I feel I have learned one more way to gain feedback about the way I’m using myself.

One can’t fake seeing, unless squinting, which adds quite an obvious strain to the eyes. Using the eyes as feedback is a skill that can be refined, just like using the hands or the mirror in The Alexander Technique, to detect minute changes in the relationship of the head, neck and back.

(c) Aino Klippel 2010 / 2012

5 Misconceptions about Breathing


1. More is always better

What you want is an appropriate amount of air in any given situation. Either more or less will cause problems. There is no value in deep breathing in itself, it all depends on what you are doing and how you perform the task.

2. Good breath control involves feeling the air

If you can feel the air streaming in and out, you are probably tightening and narrowing the passages. Feeling the air filling your lungs? What you feel is probably miscoordinated muscles pushing against each others.

3.Breathing excercises can fix bad breathing habits

Challenging your breath or even just paying attention to it, is bound to tempt you to interfere with the natural fow. Often breathing ecercises are based on false assumptions about how the breathing system works.

4. Supporting the breath is a matter of contracting specific muscles

For optimal breathing, the whole of you needs to work in harmony. Squeezing the air out means trouble when you need to breath in again. Saving air while breathing out has a lot to do with your ability of staying calm and alert.

5. Air is like liquid: fill in the bottom of the lungs first

Air is gas. It’s not dropping onto the bottom first, it fills the lungs a bit like a balloon would fill up.

How I discovered Alexander Technique

Already before school-age, I was told my posture wasn’t great and was adviced by a doctor to practice pulling my shoulders back. My parents didn’t encourage me to do these excercises. Nevertheless, I was suddenly made aware of my posture and tried to figure out, how to position the shoulders properly.

When I started school, the head master of the school gave a talk about how to sit on the school chairs. I remember my back was often hurting when I was trying to force it into the shape of the ergonomically designed chair that was properly adjusted to my size. My teacher’s view of good posture was including an over-arching of the back. Gradually my back grow in a peculiar shape that, as I was always reassured, was ”not a sway back”. I got used to be more or less in pain all the time and only bending backwards seemed to bring some temporary relief. My shoulders were tight and I was becoming increasingly short-sighted.

I started playing the clarinet at the age of ten, which was both hard work and rewarding. At home, picking up the clarinet often helped my shoulders to release, and breathing just seemed to take care of itself. I loved the rich sound of my instrument and enjoyed the effortless dance of my fingers on the silver-plated keys. Performing and even orchestra reheasals or clarinet lessons were compromising my playing quite a lot. When I was anxious to make a good impression, I was trying to both hold my breath and blow at the same time, which caused a lot of tension. I failed to maintain a steady rhythm and struggled with tongue and fingers.

When I began to study music, I moved from the country-side to Helsinki. Suddenly I had to deal with the constant noise of traffic, pavements and concrete, busy strangers and polluted air. My clarinet sound become narrow, I run easily out of breath and my back pain become more intense. Especially sitting through orchestra reheasals was a pain. I knew, I was doing something wrong with my back but nobody seemed to be able to show me how to go back to normal. My hands started to get cramps, sometimes I had to open the fingers of one hand with the help of the other hand. I got used to wake up with numb arms.

During this time in my early twenties, I heard about the Alexander Technique and read a book about it. Because I couldn’t find an Alexander teacher, I seeked for help from experienced clarinetists, massage and a physiotherapist specialized in musicians. I started to do specific exercices, stretching, running and swimming. The muscles in my legs and arms were growing, but I had no idea, how to use this newly acquired strenght for the benefit of my back. Trying to follow the physio’s advice and hold myself in a good posture was making my back hurt like nothing else.

I started to look for something else. My massage therapist recommended a yoga class for musicians which was very gentle and the teacher truly knowleadgeable. I liked his optimistic and educational approach and started to do yoga every day. It seemed to help me a little in managing pain and stress as well. I enjoyed working in silence, without my instrument.

Over several years I kept working with music and started exploring with increasingly challenging yoga styles. When I bumped into an Alexander Technique course for musicians, I was 27 and my only fitness-regime was daily ashtanga yoga. It suited quite well for a busy, young clarinetist: portable, rhytmical, combining breath and movement to gain flexibility and strenght. On the other hand this demanding practice was making me more tight, and now my knees were hurting as well.

The Alexander Technique was something totally different than anything I had tried before. My teacher had very sensitive hands, and she seemed to be able to almost read my toughts. She explained she could feel a certain kind of tensing, when I was still just thinking about standing up from a chair. If I would become aware of that reaction, it would lead me towards the more effortless way of being that I remembered so vividly from my childhood. The Alexander lessons were short but they really helped me to figure things out on my own. Furthemore, the Technique didn’t require long hours of practice. I could apply it anytime and anywhere.

My Alexander teacher always told me to ”pay some gentle attention to the lower back”. Gradually it dawned to me, how much I had been compressing that part of my back. Walking on the streets was different: I was looking at the sky as well as the pavement. Some colleagues made compliments about my clarinet sound. My yoga teacher mentioned, that there was a pleasant juiciness emerging in my practice.

After a year of Alexander lessons, a cycling accident left me with broken front teeth and a split underlip. Playing became a real struggle. Problems with my embouchure were challenging the whole of my body, and the fear of having to give up my carriere was also reflected in my back. Two back injuries from unnecessary harsh yoga adjustments also seriously compromised my breathing.

I decided to move to London and train at the Alexander Teacher Training School. The first year I hardly played the clarinet and I replaced yoga with long walks accross Hyde Park. I loved the training and learned something new every day. I was also frequently in pain, which lead me to gradually resume my yoga practice. It was exhausting to take regular ashtanga classes on top of a full-time Alexander training, but it really taught me how to look after myself in a demanding enviroment. Both my back and my mind became stronger and back pain became an exception rather than a rule.

DuringFirst year of Alexander Teacher training: many subtle changes came before my lower back changed it's shape the Alexander Teacher training many subtle changes came before my lower back changed it’s shape  If you are a constantly arching your back, you are also squashing the back of your ribcage. For a clarinetist this means reduced lung capacity, poorer tone quality and rhytmical inaccuracy due to uncontrolled tension in the fingers and the tongue. When I learned to release my back, it had a dramatic positive impact on my music.

Teaching the Alexander Technique is nowadays my main occupation, altough playing the clarinet feels easier than ever before. When I’ve been working hard, I have some pain but it won’t go on for days and weeks. I’m also more confident than I used to be, since I know that my back is supporting me.

Aino Klippel MStat 2012


What is the Alexander Technique?

Named after it’s founder, the F.M. Alexander Technique is an exploration into thinking and movement. Practicing the Technique starts with simple activities, such as sitting, standing and walking. Alexander Teachers are treating each of these acts as involving the whole person, their habitual ways of thinking as well as posture.

Learning the Technique changes the way one thinks and responds in activity. Gradually your awareness – and your stamina to stay aware – will improve, and you will eventually be able to apply this skill in ever more challenging situations.