Is The Alexander Technique Alternative Medicine?

I noticed that earlier versions of the Wikipedia entry for “Alexander Technique” listed it as an “alternative medicine.”

I do not agree for many reasons. For one thing, the Technique is not a medicine. Nor is it a therapy. It does not fall into the medicinal model. You don’t go to an Alexander teacher and get cured or fixed. Instead, you get taught a technique that will help you do the tasks of daily life more easily. If you are having problems that come from a poor use of yourself, then diligently pursuing Alexander Technique will help you reduce and even eliminate those problems.

If you have pain from other sources than your own use of yourself, Alexander Technique lessons may or may not help you. If you are unable or unwilling to do the mental, emotional and physical work required by the Technique, it is not going to help you.

Despite all these rational reasons for not lumping the Technique in with “alternative medicine”, I accept that many people will still do just that.

I don’t see anything “alternative” about the Technique. It is mainstream instruction at all of America’s big acting and music schools.

In her sociological analysis of parts of the London world of Alexander Technique, LSE’s Jennifer Tarr found that Alexander pupils loved the Technique for being a form of alternative medicine while Alexander teachers had a more positive relationship to the medical world and preferred to think of the Technique as complementary medicine.

Dr. Tarr writes:

The Alexander Technique is often categorised as a form of complementary and alternative
medicine (CAM), although this relationship is somewhat ambivalent. Coward (1989) includes the Alexander Technique in her study of alternative health because it shares similar ideas,
such as an emphasis on one founding figure and on being ‘natural’. Sharma (1992: 4), on the other hand, excludes the Alexander Technique from her own study of CAM because it does not purport to cure disease, but only to re-educate people to use their bodies more efficiently.

For her, the defining characteristics of complementary or alternative medicine are that it claims to be curative, has some body of knowledge or theory about health and illness, and requires some kind of expert intervention on the part of a practitioner (1992: 4). Here, this study takes the position that although it is not curative or a form of medicine as such, the
Technique shares some characteristics with CAM as a health practice operating outside mainstream health and social care, making research in this area relevant to it.

…Among teachers of the Alexander Technique, proximity to Alexander and⁄or the teachers he trained is considered a mark of distinction. A teacher who trained with someone who was taught directly by Alexander has higher status than someone who is more removed from him.

This is not simply because the former are likely to have more years of experience, but also because the work is seen as most authentic at its source. This is not only the idolisation of the founder which occurs in many forms of complementary and alternative health (Coward 1989:
36). It is also that the work is transmitted physically, and it is only through physical work on the body that it can be understood. If Alexander’s hands are believed to have held unique skills, then access to others who have been worked on by him ) that is, to whom the work
has been transmitted through his hands ) is a way of accessing higher quality work. This, however, ignores the ways in which the Technique has developed since Alexander’s time, and
the possibility that very experienced teachers may have skills as good or even better than those of Alexander himself. For instance, sedimented years of experience with a variety of
teachers might lead to a wider range of skills and abilities in transmitting the Technique to others.

…Nature and evolution thus function as modes of subjection, or authorities, to which the Technique appeals to justify its practices. Alexander himself is presented as having unique
insight into these practices; Coward (1989) notes of alternative therapies more generally that there is often ‘a push to establish the therapy as deriving from a founding master, usually in the previous century. These founding figures then acquire … the status of one who understands and interprets natural truths’ (Coward 1989: 36). The critical role played by
Alexander as a founding figure further justifies the importance teachers place on lineage in teacher training.

Being unwilling to let go of the authority of Alexander and his discourses of nature and evolution, where proper order will be restored through the application of conscious control to the self, inhibits the Technique’s more mainstream adoption. Further, while the Technique
may be ‘natural’ in the sense that it does not involve chemical or surgical intervention on the body, it is nonetheless a culturally situated technique which draws heavily on the historical discourses of its time for its self-justification.

…In interviews, participants were asked about the relationship between the Alexander Technique, biomedicine and healthcare. In the responses, there was a clear division between
patients and practitioners, particularly those teachers who had been involved with the Technique for some time. Pupils tended to be attracted to its ‘alternative’ status, and to see it
as squarely outside mainstream healthcare because it addresses the whole person. Of the eight
pupils interviewed, none seemed to hold biomedical practice in high esteem. Many had suffered an injury or illness which the medical profession had failed to adequately diagnose
or treat. In some cases, this was what had led them to the Alexander Technique, as with one pupil and two teachers who suffered chronic pain while playing the violin which had drawn them to the work. As one pupil described, in relation to her disillusionment with biomedicine:

“We’ve gotten too clever for ourselves haven’t we? We love mapping out things and deciphering things and this is caused by this, and what we’re doing is that we’re separating
everything, and we rejoice greatly in mapping out those things and diagnosing things, but sometimes I think the diagnosis becomes the aim rather than the cure. So we’ll rejoice in saying, ‘yes it’s this that’s wrong!’ Great, now what? ‘Eat some pills’, you know, wonderful” (Ingrid).

On the other hand, teachers tended to stress the potential positive relationship between the Technique and healthcare, and to emphasise its complementary nature. Saks notes that ‘those practitioners most willing to adopt the term ‘complementary’ rather than ‘alternative’ medicine are those most likely to have political⁄ ideological reasons for co-operating with medicine’ (1994: 90), and greater co-operation with medicine would certainly serve the Alexander Technique well in terms of increasing its profile and attracting more pupils.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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