Use of the Self
As you read this page, you may ask yourself: “Am
I aware of how I'm sitting at the computer?
Where are the contact points of my body and the
seat pad? How much force is used by my fingers
to operate the keyboard? Are only my eyes moving
when I read or does my head move too? Is there
tension in my back, my shoulders, my legs or my
jaw? How do I focus on this activity? How do I
Do I try to change my internal and external
posture based on these perceptions, and how do I
do it? Does this change bring me any relief or
additional strain? How do I feel with this?“
These are the questions handled by the Alexander
Technique. The way we use and utilize our bodies
in everyday situations is referred to as "Use of
the Self". Any object or device comes with
certain basic equipment. The effective use of
this object is derived from this basic version.
Similarly, the effective use of the self of us
people is determined by our biological and
mental basic equipment. If we use ourselves in
accordance with our natural basic equipment we
speak of “good use of the self" - the aim of any
Alexander Technique work.
A good use of the self must not be misunderstood
as taking an optimal static posture in a
Use of the self refers to the man in his
wholeness as a physical being, but also to his
thoughts, perceptions, emotions and impulses.
Since these phenomena change from moment to
moment, the concept of the "Use of the Self"
also accounts for the processuality and the
dynamics of life.
Use of the Self and Function
“The use of the self determines the function",
that is what we say in the Alexander Technique.
In other words, a poor use of the self exercises
in the course of our lives an ongoing negative
influence on us and therefore reduces our
overall level of functioning. In mild cases, we
simply keep more tension in our bodies than
necessary and our mental and physical
coordination and capacity is reduced accordingly.
If the negative impact of a poor use of the self,
however, continues over a longer period of time,
typical civilization problems, such as back and
joint pain, arthritis, headaches, constant
fatigue, breathing difficulties or depression,
Our back hurts not because our muscles are not
strong enough, but because we use our body in a
certain way - whether sitting at the desk, when
washing dishes, walking, playing an instrument
or in sports. Training, gymnastics or swimming
do not necessarily eliminate the back pain,
because the use of the self remains unchanged.
It's about doing things in a different way,
regardless of what we do. A slim African woman
with little muscle power can sometimes regularly
carry heavy loads over long distances without
getting back pain, because the way she does this
is determined by a high quality of physical and
A good use of the self has a constant positive
influence on our functioning. The pressure on
bones, joints, muscles and organs is reduced to
a minimum. The neuro-muscular system works well
coordinated and efficiently. The body is
characterized by dynamic balance, alertness,
relaxation, vitality and high learning ability.
The Alexander Technique promotes good use of the
self, with the means of "inhibition" and "directions"
Our use of the self is largely determined by
habits. In the course of our lives we developed
the habit of walking, to reach for an object or
to get up from a chair in a very specific way.
We may have the habit of being constantly in a
hurry, and being often afraid can be a bad habit.
Our habits make us automatically respond to the
demands of life. Everyone has experienced
countless times that it is very difficult to
give up a bad habit. Something draws us always
back to the old habit like a rubber band.
Why? Because the old feels right and our sensory
appreciation signals that there is no better way
Change often tries to directly introduce new
behaviour patterns and ignores that the old ways
do not "disappear" at the same time. The new is,
so to say, laid over the old, and both form up
to a condition that is often more complex, more
tense and more inappropriate than the old.
The Alexander Technique is therefore first and
foremost all about discarding reactions which we
have recognized as inapt. This is known as "inhibition".
Inhibition is not repression. Inhibition is the
conscious identification and stopping of
inefficient, limiting habit patterns so that the
body can develop naturally .
A small practical example: For most people,
getting up from a chair is connected to tension
in the legs, which corresponds to a multiple of
the necessary. Although the Alexander Technique
teacher points this out to the student, this
behaviour cannot be prevented in most cases,
because the habit of doing the old (straining
the legs when standing up), is so big. The
teacher does not show the students initially a
new technique that allows another form of
getting up from the chair. The teacher rather
encourages the student to abandon the old
reaction (inhibition). If this finally succeeds,
the movement is connected with less
neuro-muscular tension and is therefore easier
and more natural.
Behaviour that is accompanied by inhibition
allows our reflexes to work undisturbed and
helps us upright effortlessly against gravity.
This is how F.M. Alexander (the founder of
Alexander Technique) was able to say: “If you
stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing will
Inhibition is the central issue, which is
trained in the Alexander Technique. In the
modern world that is characterized by sensory
overload, inhibition brings the valuable skill
not to automatically and routinely respond to
stimuli. This creates space and peace for a
fulfilled being. Conscious learning and
adaptation processes can unfold in their own
In addition to the inhibitions, "directions"
constitute the second major practice concept of
the Alexander Technique. Directions are one way
to adjust ourselves at an enjoyable and
meaningful way, mentally and physically.
In our daily activities we do this all the time
- more or less conscious and more or less
effective. For example, if we sit on a chair, we
focus on sitting. We perceive that we have taken
a slumped posture. Maybe we feel a lot of
tension or even pain in the back or shoulders.
Then we say to ourselves: "I should sit up” and
try to put our idea of "sitting up" into action.
By and by, sitting upright feels tiring,
breathing becomes shorter and we are soon back
in the old slumped position. Obviously,
something is wrong with the way in which we have
positioned ourselves, that is to say, with the
instructions that our nervous system gave to the
The Alexander technique attempts to control
these tasks with more awareness, efficiency and
This is where the concept of the directions
begins. It gives practical answers to the
question of the qualitative development of the
thinking activity. In the Alexander Technique
work, directions are to be understood as an
expansive process. They broaden us, take
unnecessary tension from the body and prepare
the respective activities immediately before and
/ or effectively accompany them.
The quality of directions can be better
described by terms such as "letting it happen",
"allow" or "allow energy flow directions" rather
than with "doing". The idea of directly taking a
certain posture is per se already too much
doing-oriented and fixed. We put in additional
tension to get ourselves in a well-reviewed
external position. However, there is no proper
posture as a static concept; there are only
right directions that can bring us natural,
dynamic balance. This means "letting go in a
good orientation." The ability to do so is
systematically trained and experienced in the
Alexander Technique work.
This makes it clear that directions are
inextricably linked to inhibition and are both
intended to improve the use of the self .
Frederick Matthias Alexander – the
founder of Alexander Technique
Born in Tasmania/Australia, Frederick Matthias
Alexander (1869-1955) was the founder of the
so-called Alexander Technique. He was a rather
sickly child and suffered, among others, from
As a young man he followed his passion and
became an actor and reciter. After a short time
he became a household name in Australia as a
performance artist. But soon he was confronted
with an existential crisis that was to give his
life a decisive turn. During his appearances,
hoarseness and difficulty in breathing were
increasingly emerging, progressing finally so
that his career came in serious danger. In
desperation he turned to doctors and vocal
coaches. But all recommended therapies and
exercises, as well as the temporary sparing of
the voice brought no success. The fact that
Alexander's voice worked much better in everyday
life and also before the performances than
during the performances, earned him a key
finding: His voice problems had to be connected
with something he “did” when he was reciting. He
stopped all therapy attempts and was determined
to solve the riddle himself. That was the start
of Alexander's unique, scientific discovery,
which not only solved his own problem, but it
also made him develop a comprehensive
Alexander set up mirrors in his apartment and
watched himself again and again while reciting,
in normal speech and when he was doing other
tasks. He firstly noticed three things in the
manner in which he recited that occurred much
weaker during normal speech:
• He stiffened his neck and pulled his
• He pulled together his larynx.
• He breathed in with an audible sound.
Occasionally, he succeeded to alleviate his
habit to stiffen his neck, whereupon his voice
quality temporarily improved. This observation
confirmed him that his voice problems ("function")
are caused by the way he recited ("use of the
self”). He also noted that a less stiffened neck
had a positive impact on the contracted throat
and the breathing. Conversely, he could not
directly influence the contraction of the larynx
and the sucking in of the air while reciting.
Alexander concluded from this that the stiffened
neck had to be a primary, superior factor of his
Inspired by these findings, Alexander continued
his scientific research experience. The
stiffened neck and the thrown back head were
identified as key issues, and so he kept trying
to get his head forward in a more favourable
position. To his disappointment, he noted
however when looking in the mirror, that he
withdrew his head further, although he thought
he was doing the opposite. Also the pressure on
the larynx and the suction of the air has been
negatively affected by his efforts. His sensory
appreciation did not show him what actually
happened, but misled his correction attempts ("imperfect
This led Alexander to the comprehensive question
of how he could efficiently control himself
while reciting (or doing other activities). In
the course of many years, he developed the above
described system of inhibition and directions.
He called it "Thinking in Activity": In the
heart of the matter, certain beneficial
directions are rather thought or admitted, than
Alexander also became aware that the tensions he
discovered (e.g. neck stiffening) were only part
of a broader pattern of tension, and that these
patterns were observed not only during
recitation, but also in other activities in an
attenuated form. Part of his "Use of the Self"
was, among others, pulling up the chest,
curvature of the spine, the pushing forward of
the pelvis, an over-tension of the legs and the
clawing of the feet into the ground. All these
factors influenced each other and had a limiting
effect on his balance and movement.
Alexander realized however the dynamic
relationship of the head, neck and torso as
primary for the quality of the use of the self.
This relation determines overridingly the
general coordination of the human body ("Primary
Working on himself changed Alexander
fundamentally. His voice problems and asthma,
that had plagued him since childhood,
disappeared. The ease of his movements and his
charisma impressed people.
Many came to him and wanted to learn from him or
get rid of their various ailments. Alexander
soon realized that his discoveries were of
universal nature, and in the course of decades
he differentiated his scientific system more. In
1904 he moved to London, where he continued his
extraordinarily successful teaching. Among his
students and supporters were writer George
Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley and the great
American philosopher John Dewey. Alexander wrote
four books and trained from 1931 many teachers
who carried on the work that is now called the
In 1955, Frederick Matthias Alexander died after
he had given a few weeks before his last lesson