The Alexander technique is something you have to experience to understand. And even then you don't understand it û like many therapies, it's subtle. I was sure I wasn't learning anything new, and it felt like I wasn't doing anything at all at the start of my first Alexander session with Barry Kantor, chair of the South African Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (SASTAT). But I do know I left feeling lighter somehow, and completely relaxed. And I'm going back for more.

What it is
It's easier to explain what the Alexander technique is not. It is not a treatment or therapy, like physiotherapy or reflexology. Don't ex-pect to go to Alexander sessions to learn exercises or receive treatment to fix a stiff neck, or an aching back. Though Alexander work will help these problems, it's not about immediate fixing or doing, but rather about gradually undoing, or unlearning, a lifetime of bad habits that cause tension in the body. Instead of teaching new ways of moving, Alexander work is about becoming aware of what we already know û how to sit, walk and move the way nature intended.

How it works
Alexander work involves one-on-one, rather intimate sessions between teacher and pupil. It's important to feel comfortable with the teacher you choose, as he or she will touch you continuously during a lesson (you remain fully clothed), using their hands to listen and "direct" your body. A lesson includes chair work, which involves getting into and out of a chair with the teacher's assistance; table work, where the teacher helps lengthen the torso, arms and legs; and activities, like walking around the room. "It's not something you can do on your own," says Barry, "without a teacher you'd just be reinforcing bad habits."

The concept of the Alexander technique is tricky to grasp, and the work is very subtle. "I'd say it takes about 40 lessons before one can notice physical differences," says Barry.

Be patient û Alexander work has been found to have many benefits, including:

  • Easier movement and improved alignment, posture and poise
  • More natural breathing
  • Helps ease chronic pain, back and neck problems, repetitive strain injury, stress and depression.
Who needs it?
Everyone, really. We all have a tendency to do things with unnecessary tension and effort, and so we interfere with the natural working of the postural mechanism. Just learning to stand correctly will flatten your tummy and make a dramatic difference to the natural line of your body. According to some reports, the Alexander technique can even add centimetres to your height. Couldn't we could all do with a little more poise and grace?

Where to go
Lessons cost around R90 (for about 45 minutes) and as yet, medical aids don't cover the cost. For details of teachers, contact SASTAT on (021) 439-3440, or e-mail sastat@telkomsa.net
For further information, go to www.alexandertechnique.com or www.alexandercenter.com

The Alexander Technique by Jeremy Chance (Thorsons) is a good, easy introduction. (Interested in this book? Click here for more info)

Meet F.M. Alexander
F.M. Alexander was an Australian actor and teacher who developed his technique as a method of vocal training for singers and actors in the 1890s. Alexander initially focused on helping the breathing mechanism to function more effectively, but soon realised that breathing and vocalisation are more connected than anyone had realised to how the body functions as a whole. His experiments showed his voice functioned best when his stature lengthened û this could only be achieved when he used his head in a way he described as "forward and up" in relation to the neck and torso.

From this developed one of the fundamental principles of the Alexander technique: the relationship of the head, neck and torso (termed the Primary Control) is the primary factor in organising human movement. Alexander's students found that his vocal technique also helped other physical problems. Over time, the technique evolved from a method of vocal training to one of learning how to change poor habits of co-ordination, which include movement, posture and breathing.