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The Alexander Technique - A conversation with Nigel Hornby
Christian Paaske, November 24th, 2002
 



For a long time the Alexander Technique has been a bit of a mystery for me. Whenever I spoke to people who had tried it, they didn't seem to be able to explain it very easily, but were obviously impressed. I got a vague idea it was about body posture and how to avoid too much tension and stress in the way we used our bodies. A lot of musicians, strained in their arms or back from practising many hours a day, have recourse to the technique. Actors and singers too use it to learn to use their voice more freely; and a friend of mine with neck problems found it very helpful. But what better way for me to find outmore about it than to try it for myself....

Nigel Hornby came to Norway in 1983 and for a long time was the only Alexander Teacher in Norway, (there are 7 altogether now). Originally from England, he runs a practice in Oslo, (and Stavanger, which he visits once amonth). He works with actors, singers, musicians, and all kinds of people who want to improve their posture, be straighter, and more at one with their bodies. He is a peaceful man. But where does the peacefulness come from ? Does it come from a naturally relaxed body ? Or has he developed this calm and helpful nature after somany years of taking care of Norwegian people's muscletensions.

Nigel welcomes me in a friendly way, asks me to stand in front of a chair and we are ready for my first lesson. Nigel tells me that this is partly a nonverbal process of learning and that he doesn't say so very much at first. He explains that the pupil must get used to a quiet way ofworking as the teacher communicates a lot with his hands; and the pupil has to learn to listen.He puts his hands on different places on my body, then guides me through very simple everyday movements like going in and out of a chair. It is soon apparent that the movements are a little different from the usual, and that he is encouraging greater awareness partly through slowing the movements down.

After 45 minutes the lesson is over and we've hardly exchanged a word. To an observer it might seem that nothing much has happened. Nigel has put his hands here and there, lifted a leg or an arm, seemed to adjust a hip very slightly, and had me moving in and out of a chair a few times. But I sense I am straighter, more relaxed and more integrated. 'But during the following days I experience some surprising reactions. I notice that I am suddenly more upright in my movements. I lift things more concsiously and carefully,and am definitely more aware of my sitting positions. And it seems as if my body has learnt new ways of movingwithout my knowing how. In addition my muscles feel stiff in several places. This was strange since very little effort had been involved during the lesson.

One wouldn't call Nigel a witch doctor, but he uses a system which gets results. I'm already looking forward to my next lesson.

Question: How did you get interested in the AlexanderTechnique?
I came across a book on the AT (Alexander Technique) which interested me a lot. At that time I was living in Paris. By a curious coincidence I soon after heard about an Alexander Teacher there. She was the only one in Paris in those days, in the 1970s. I tried some lessons and gradually began to understand that this was going to have great meaning for me. Not just me either, I thought the technique had a wider significance. In those days I thought the whole human race could benefit from learning it !

At this time I was 28, and living a rather stressful life. With two friends I had established and helped run a language school. I didn't think too much about how I was"using" my body, but I felt extremely tense and had a worrying back problem that came and went without my knowing much about why. I had headaches and problems with concentration and tiredness. In addition I had an anxious nature, lacked selfconfidence and was shy and nervous. So I needed help!

Right from the first few lessons, I somehow sensed the technique was going to help me change.

Q: In what way?
It gave me a diferent feeling about myself. It seemed the teacher's hands were cutting in on pretty unconscious physical and mental habits and influencing them (or me!) for the better. They were teaching me in a gentle way, that I didn't need to be so tense, so afraid; that it coud feel nice to be me! I found I began to stand and sit in a comfortable way I had never remembered experiencing before though I must have done when I was a child.

I continued to have lessons regularly once a week for thenext 8 years. After that I decided to give up an otherwise successful business in order to study this fascinating Technique, and started a 3 year training in London.

Q: What did you get out of the training?
It gave me a glimpse of my potential. Always after alesson I felt a quietness and peace I had not experienced before and which of course I longed for. I began to feel more together, more one person, more able to see beyond myself in a way, and at the same time more able to focus my mind and concentrate. It gave me something fantastic I had missed. It was very pleasant to be in the body for a while at least. But the special effect didn't last much more than half an hour, and then I gradually got caught up in the daily stress. Each lesson I experienced as being very different from the one before. This was a strange phenomenon, as the procedures didn't seem to be so different. I think there was a constant development, and I was changing in subtle ways. And also experiencing myself differently. My selfconfidence increased. My body grew straighter and my backproblems gradually disappeared. I began to relate to others from a better position and I definitely had more contact with my feelings. I could feel them more for one thing. Everything went gradually in the right direction. Life didn't seem quite so terrible! I began to find my energy back. And another thing, Ibegan to feel softer inside. This softening seemed to besomething to do with spiritual things. In my hard stressful life I didn't really believe much in anything. It was about this time I began to think there was a God,a nd perhaps was able to sense that, at least a little.

Q. After the training you set up your own practice in Oslo. Why Oslo?
I knew there was a small group of people interested in having a teacher in Oslo. Someone kindly sponsored me. I like living in foreign lands and was actually rather interested in meeting a people who lived in a hard cold climate. I thought the challenge might give people a special strength and energy. I wasn't disappointed in fact. I have been married and have a son, so I have roots here now.

Q. You mentioned the AT helped us in a personal way, but also that it was important to the human race.....in what way?
So far civilisations in the past have risen and fallen and then become something else. May be ours is no exception. I think most people would agree that in this century there has been a gradual deterioration in the way we hold ourselves up. I mean physically, referring to our bodies,..but of course there are other implications. The social ideal of today is to look relaxed, but one can observe the subtle collapse of the spine around the shoulders and head and neck, with consequent strain in the lower spine. If the mind reflects the body and the body the mind, then, looking around us, we might conclude that we are losing our spirit and energy.

The over relaxed body ideal of the 2nd half of the 20th century seems to be a social reaction against former idealogies, the old world, military aggression, discipline, old moralities,the church and so on; but it can't be right to go against the laws of nature. The spine is meant to be straight look at little children andAlexander found a way of straightening people's bodies in an inspiring and pleasant way, and teaching them to maintain it without strain. People's unconscious misuse of the body is widespread today and 70% of the population have some kind of backproblem. Technological development and scientific research, marvellous though they are, are not going to develope our sensory appreciation of exactly what we are doing. I think the AT does that. It is going to become increasingly important in the next century as a way backto a healthier and more natural use of the body.

Q: How will the Technique achieve this?
By reminding people how to use themselves and their bodies more efficiently. The way most people move aboutis not exactly according to Nature ! Nor is there anything "natural" about collapsed sitting or lounging around. It's only really in the luxury of an advancing civilization that anybody has the time or space to lounge about and collapse the spine. It has become kind of fashionable to do that. But here in lies the very seed of our possible future decline. When a nation is groaningunder the strain of supporting and propping up a large proportion of the population, struggling with painful bodies that are out of shape, it may not survive too well....at least to pay for it all !

There is a growing understanding today that trying to alleviate people's symptoms is only a short term solution to our problems. There must be better ways. I believe the AT is one of those ways with its emphasis on reeducation. We need to be trained and educated as well as relieved.

If you wish I could try to explain a little more here about muscle fibres and so on, if it's not too boring. We know today that there are 2 types of muscle fiber inthe body, so called red and white. The red, controlled by the lower brain, never get tired and are designed to hold bodies up and keep them integrated, and also to move them around when the movements are unstressful. The white are stronger, and faster and controlled by the higher brain and we use them especially when we are in a rush or stressed, or have to do something demanding much precision or strength. The whites are very popular of course, but one problem is that they can and do today very much begin to dominate over the reds and take control of the body. They also begin to hold it in many places, too tightly. They work by strong contractions which take time to release, and have a tendency to gradually shorten the body if over active. They also get tired, and strained being not designed for holding.In Alexander's long study he seemed to have understoodthis problem instinctively red and white muscle fibres were not discovered in his day and found a way of communicating consciouly with his body which he called"directing", and which encouraged the body to loosen and straighten. The white muscle fibres, being controlled by the higher brain, are susceptible to some form of mental contact.His technique seems suited to the modern problem of distinguishing between holding the body straight but stressfully,(like soldiers do, with a lot of white fibre), and holding it straight but with very little stress, like little children do....and like we were meant to do. This may sound complicated, but he managed it by focusing mainly on his head and neck.

Q: How would you compare the AT with other methods, such as Yoga for example?
TAI CHI for me is interesting. I took lessons for 2 years. The slow meditative movements may reduce white musclefibre tension. When the overactive white fibres calm down a bit, loosen and lengthen, so the red fibres can do more for us. Hold us more freely for example. That is so much better for us as they never get tired, and is one of the things the AT can help us with too. The growing popularity of TAI CHI may be due to the fact that folk make better contact with the red muscle fiber for the first time since they were children. I'm afraid I know much less about Yoga, which I have only just begun to study,...with you !

One important feature of the AT is that Alexander learnt how to control the overall tension of the muscles in the body by focusing on the relationship between the head and the spine, "directing" the muscles in the back of the neck to be free. I mentioned this just a moment ago, but it's' an important aspect of the AT. He called that the Primary Control. I think this could be a help to Yoga students. But Yoga seems to be working in a very different way to the AT: working more on stretching.

Q: What is the essence of the AT?
I think it is about being "up". Erect. It's natural for the body to be upright and erect. But being "up" is more than a physical direction. When we are depressed we pull down. So it's when the body AND mind are freer and the energy flows. It's about directing the flow of energy really. It's not about holding or straining or forcing oneself to be erect. The best example for us are little children. They illustrate best the essence of the AT.

Q: How do you work as an AT teacher?
I work with my hands. I can easily feel the areas in thebody where there is unuseful tension. My hands bring the pupil in touch with these places at the same time as I help the muscles give way a little. This releasing process is a little mysterious and difficult to explain. The pupil doesn't have to understand it, but they can sense they are a little more free, and straighter and that also it is their OWN process; I am just helping them find it out for themselves. By becoming more aware they can gradually work it out for themselves. I always begin in any case with the head and neck. If we can release there a bit, the rest of the body begins to straighten.

Q: Do you give the pupils anything specific to work on outside the lessons?
Oh yes! They will be working on a series of mental and verbal instructions (directions) designed to focus on places in the body. Their powers of observation will be encouraged and awakened, both through their growing sensory appreciation, but also through their intellectual curiosity, and through their determination, persistence and motivation. It is quite a discipline, the AT afterall. They can also be more conscious of and work out many different everday movements, (following the principles of the technique), such as lifting, bending, sitting, standing, walking and many others. Everyday movements, and also movements related to a pupil's special interestsor needs...professional or otherwise.

For example working on a musical instrument or a machine of some kind, working on dance steps, TAI CHI forms, or even Yogapositions for that matter!'

THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
Frederick Matthias Alexander was born in Tasmania, Australia in 1869. In his twenties he moved to Sydney and became a professional actor, specialising as a reciter of dramatic pieces. After almost completely losing his voice he pioneered a method of improving the "use" of his body musculature in all positions and movements. Having cured his vocal problems without medical aid, he began to look around him and discovered that the majority of people stood, sat and moved in an equally defective manner. It occurred to Alexander that incorrect "use of the self" might be the cause of much human suffering.

Encouraged by a doctor in Sydney, he set out to teach his methods and became a kind of missionary. He moved to London and established a school, publishing several books and achieving some success, with recommendations from famous contemporaries such as Aldous Huxley, Bernard Shaw and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Alexander died in 1955 but his`principle' lives on through the work of many teachers of his method.

The Alexander Technique is today recognized to be one of the most sophisticated and powerful methods of personal transformation available. It has a long history of helping people improve their posture and coordination and it has proven to be an extraordinarily effective way to relieve stressrelated conditions such as backache, depression, migraine, asthma and many forms of muscle related troubles.

Other sites on Alexander Technique:
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique
 
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