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

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.