Alexander's Paradox

by Susan Perkins

(This article was originally printed in the Fall/ Winter 2006 issue of the ACAT News, © 2006 Susan Perkins)

To explain the Alexander Technique to someone for the first time, it might be easier to say what it isn't. Without being unduly negative, of course, it is helpful to understand what the Technique doesn't do, or what is not done in a lesson.


There is the first keyword: lesson. The Alexander Technique is not therapy; there aren't patients who come for treatment. The relationship is that of student to teacher. A student comes to investigate something about the Technique, and the teacher teaches the student the basic principles of the Alexander Technique.

Alexander students do not get a massage. The hands on work in an Alexander Technique lesson is gentler and lighter than a massage and is usually accompanied with verbal instruction. Clothes are not removed in a lesson, though it is helpful for the student to where non-restrictive, loose fitting clothing.

The technique is not a cure for diseases or infirmities. As one studies the Technique, symptoms of pain are often relieved, such as back pain, neck pain, sciatica, repetitive strain injury, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, etc.

The technique is not about fixing posture or breathing. However, those are usually two aspects of one's use of the self that are improved through study.

The technique is not about relaxation, though many experience releases of tensions and become more relaxed as they study the Technique.

The technique is not about getting in and out of our chair. This is a tool used by many teachers because Alexander used it himself to teach, and to change people's habits of use. In the act of sitting to standing and vice versa, most of the major joints of the body are used to some degree, such as the hip joints, knee joints, and ankle joints, etc. Alexander found that by using an every day movement, he could easily discover a person's particular habits of use and then teach them something about their use that would be helpful in bringing about a more efficient and useful way of moving.

So what does one do when one studies the Alexander Technique? Every teacher's approach is different but all teachers are instructing their students in the basic principles of the technique, and all teachers are practicing the technique themselves as they teach. What are the principles? There are three general principles: awareness, inhibition (pausing for stopping) and direction. There are also three important concepts: primary control, end–gaining, and debauched kinesthesia. Below is a brief description of the concepts and principles:

The Concepts

The first concept is something called primary control, which can be thought of as a state of coordination, that when this state is working well, there is the least amount of interference of the working parts of an organism. F. M. Alexander figured out that he could quickly change a person's way of moving by addressing a certain area: the dynamic balance of the head (skull) to the neck and back (spine). During his own development of his work, he discovered that if the balance point of the skull to spine during a particular activity is in its optimal range, the whole body is affected positively, with muscular effort and tension in its most efficient range. If the balance point of the skull to spine is off center during an activity, usually with the skull pressing back and down onto the spine, the whole body is affected negatively, with muscular effort and tension often increased in areas where it is not needed, and decreased in areas where it is needed. The place of choice to help a person changed their coordination for Alexander Technique teachers is at the relationship of the head and neck to the back (one change affects the other.) This primary control is central to the overall coordination of humans.

The second concept of the Alexander Technique is the term means and ends - something Alexander called "end-gaining," which is the extremely important manner in which he finally learned to change unconscious habits, over which previously no amount of will power would change them. He did this by learning to be in the moment, not focusing on his goal of his activity (end), but how he was doing it, his steps to get there, his preparation, is thinking, etc. (means/"means whereby").

The last concept is about one's physical sense of self in space being unreliable. Alexander had a term for this, too: debauched kinesthesia. It means one is so used to his habits and the way he does things, when something changes it feels wrong, or even impossible. It also means sometimes someone thinks he is doing one thing when he is actually doing something else. The Alexander Technique helps one become more aware of his kinesthetic sets, and importantly, how to discern and distinguish between habitual (old) and consciously controlled (new) ways of doing things.

The Principles

In order to change a habitual response to a stimulus (a habit), the first step is an awareness that one is responding somehow to that stimulus. Awareness Is learning or knowing what one is doing. Most people are not aware of their habits up unnecessary tension. In an Alexander Technique lesson, a teacher helps a student identify what he is doing that is preventing him from achieving his desired results, i.e. having less pain, a better performance, etc. Over time the student becomes more educated about his own use of himself and begins to identify previously unconscious habits.

After the student has become aware of the habituated response, he learns the next step in the process of change, inhibition. Inhibition is the act of stopping or pausing. Alexander discovered that will power alone was not enough to change the way he was doing a certain activity. His response to beginning a common activity, for example speaking, brought such a strong habituated memory of the way he spoke, he had to stop for a moment before continuing. If he didn't stop, the force of the habit took over. If he did stop, he was able to choose to do something different instead of his habit.

Doing something different instead of the habit became known as direction. Direction is the ability to use thought to do something new (non-habituated response.) Alexander learned to 'direct a new use of himself' after applying inhibition to a habit. He could perform the same activity, such as speaking, with improved use, or he could choose to do something entirely different in the moment of beginning to speak. He did this by consciously thinking certain thoughts about how he wanted the activity performs, i. e. with a neck free, head forward and up, torso lengthened and widened, etc. These thoughts produced the desired effect of decreased muscular effort, and an overall improved coordination.

The paradox of the Alexander Technique is that many things people think the Technique is about is not what it is about, although the Technique does the very things they think it is about. A few examples: it is not about re-educating the kinesthetic sense, but it does just that. It is not about curing pain, improving posture or breathing, or relaxing, though it does those things as well. It is not about getting a massage, though one lies on a massage table and receives hands-on work. It is not about getting in and out of the chair, though even Alexander himself said, "people will think this work is about getting in and out of the chair, but it's not about that at all." Another paradox is that the three main principles of awareness, inhibition, and direction are very simple and seemingly separate, but ask an Alexander Technique teacher to describe any one idea, and they may speak for five minutes and cover all the principles and the concepts of the technique. It is impossible to separate and categorize the work, because to do so compartmentalizes concepts are interdependent.

During my second year of training I made up some one-liners. Explaining the Technique to novices often eluded me, and still does. I began this writing in an attempt to simplify or clarify what it is we teach. I had hoped for one page and am now on the third, which is just a reminder of how all encompassing this work is.

The Alexander Technique is a way to be in the moment.

The Alexander Technique is a way to be easier with oneself.

The Alexander Technique is stopping the wrong thing, so the right thing can do itself.

The Alexander Technique is finding something new without looking for it.

The Alexander Technique is rediscovering our innate ability to be coordinated.

The Alexander Technique gives us conscious control, or choices, over the habitual, giving us more freedom to choose.

The Alexander Technique combines thought with movement.

The Alexander Technique is regenerative, rather than degenerative.

The Alexander Technique can be a way of living.

The Alexander Technique gives you more of your real self you forgot you had, and finally...

The Alexander Technique helps you change what you thought you were stuck with.

Susan Perkins.jpg

Susan Perkins graduated from ACAT in 2004. She currently teaches at Wake Forest University and Salem College in North Carolina. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University North Carolina School of the Arts and earned her Master’s Degree in Violin Performance from Florida State University. In 2001 Susan moved to New York City to study the Alexander Technique at the American Center for the Alexander Technique in Manhattan, a rigorous three year program entailing 1600 hours of study. As a Nationally Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique since 2004, Susan teaches the Alexander Technique to people who have back trouble, postural issues, musicians who have physical difficulties performing, or people who want to improve their overall health and well being. She completed John Nicholls’ post graduate course “The Carrington Way of Working” in NYC in 2016. In addition to maintaining a busy private practice teaching Alexander Technique and violin in Winston Salem, Susan is the Alexander Technique and Violin Instructor at Salem College, and teaches the Alexander Technique at Wake Forest University and University of North Carolina School of the Arts.


B.M., Violin Performance, University of North Carolina School of the Arts

MM, Violin Performance, Florida State University

MAmSAT, American Center for the Alexander Technique, New York

Finding my Inner Adult and other Adventures in the Alexander Technique

Finding my Inner Adult and other Adventures in the Alexander Technique

Most people consider the Alexander Technique a highly effective resource for improving posture, recovering from injury and managing the physical effects of stress, repetitive strain injuries and the demands of daily life. It certainly can provide relief and improvement in all of those areas. READ MORE

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What Do Chairs and Shoes Have in Common? Part 1

by Karen G. Krueger

One common side effect of Alexander Technique lessons is a need to change furniture. After a course of lessons, a lot of chairs that once seemed adequate or even comfortable start to be very annoying. No chair can make you sit well, but a bad one can make it impossible to do so.

I have come to believe the same thing about shoes.

You’re no doubt familiar with the still-controversial barefoot running movement. You may even run barefoot or in “barefoot” or “minimalist” shoes. But have you thought about the effects of the shoes you wear daily, and the shoes you have worn throughout your life, on the shape and functioning of your feet?

In this and subsequent blog posts, I will invite you to consider whether what you wear on your feet is helping or hurting you, and I’ll provide resources for further exploration.

Let’s start by taking a good look at some basic shapes. Here are the feet of a typical newborn baby:

Baby Foot

Baby Foot

And here are is a pair of adult feet that have not habitually worn shoes.

This adult did not wear shoes regularly

This adult did not wear shoes regularly

This is the natural human foot: shaped like a triangle widest at the toes. Each toe aligns with its metatarsal, and the metatarsals and toes spread out like a fan.

Does it surprise you to see the adult foot? Have you ever considered how a baby’s little triangles turn into the foot shape we think of as normal — widest at the balls, with toes pressed together and towards the midline? This striking photo suggests an answer:

The foot pictured below is that of an adult who had never worn shoes on the left; on the right, that of a boy who had worn shoes for a few months. (Source: Conclusions Drawn From a Comparative Study of Barefoot and Shoe-Wearing Peoples, The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery. 1905; s2-3:105-136.)

Left: never wore shoes; Right: wore shoes for a few month

Left: never wore shoes; Right: wore shoes for a few month

Now look at the shape of couple of major-brand running shoes (looking at the bottom of the soles):

Running Shoe

Running Shoe

Running Shoe, 2

Running Shoe, 2

Note that both are shaped nothing like a natural human foot. Rather than spreading out to the toes, each shoe gets narrower from the ball to the tips of the toes. And these are shoes intended for athletic activity! Dress shoes, whether for men or women, are typically even pointier at the toes.

How can it make sense to run and walk in shoes that compress the toes into a wedge shape, instead of allowing them to spread out? What is the long-term effect of immobilizing the toes in this position for hours at a time?

In my next post, I’ll look at some of the other features of conventional shoes that are at war with the natural shape and functioning of the human foot, and talk about the resulting deformation and de-conditioning they cause.

In the meantime, try going completely barefoot for at least a little time every day — really barefoot, not even with socks on. Spread your toes, rub and manipulate them with your hands, find out what it feels like to have them actively engaged on the ground as you stand and walk. If you are like me, you will find it very enjoyable.

This is the first of three posts about what I have learned from my experiences exploring the approach to foot health pioneered by sports podiatrist Dr. Ray McClanahan. For a wealth of relevant articles and videos, see:

1. Foot Help

2. Natural Foot Gear (Click on the “Learn” tab)

3. Youtube channel of Northwest Foot & Ankle

And for a broader perspective on movement that embraces bare-footing and natural foot care, see Katy Bowman’s website

Karen Krueger.png

KAREN G. KRUEGER became a teacher of the Alexander Technique after 25 years of practicing law at two major New York law firms, receiving her teaching certificate from the American Center for the Alexander Technique in December 2010. Her students include lawyers, business executives, IT professionals and others interested in living with greater ease and skill. Find her at her website.

Alexander Technique applied to weight management

Like many of my friends and family, with age my metabolism has slowed down. Once I could eat whatever I wanted, and as much as I wanted, and my weight was stable. In my mid-thirties, I noticed a slow but steady weight gain. At one point, I was 25 pounds heavier and decided I would need to change my habits.

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Training Journal: Classes with Judith Leibowitz #5

Training Journal: Classes with Judith Leibowitz #5

Bending and picking up an object:

Torso lengthening and widening

  • Stance appropriately wide to height of person

  • Releasing into monkey with no goal in mind

  • Maintaining shoulder width against gravity's tendency to pull shoulders in as torso bends, releasing shoulders out without contracting in the back

    Read more…

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7 Tips for Bringing Alexander Technique Awareness into Everyday Life

7 Tips for Bringing Alexander Technique Awareness into Everyday Life

Private lessons are a great way to understand your own habits and how Alexander Technique tools can help you find greater ease in daily activities, and specialized skills. We refer to our clients as students because we are teaching skills that offer independence outside of sessions.

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Organization: start with yourself


"When we have our body and mind in order, everything else will exist in the right place, in the right way.  But usually, without being aware of it, we try to change something other than ourselves, we try to order things outside us.  But it is impossible to organize things if you yourself are not in order.  When you do things in the right way, at the right time, everything else will be organized. "   -- Shunryu Suzuki (Japanese Zen Master)

When I read this quote, I saw the Alexander Technique.  Our reaction to our environment is to be pulled in by it, losing our connection to our support - quite literally, the support our skeleton offers us.  Much of the time, we are pushing ourselves out into the next moment, and falling off of our bones.  Our muscles come into action, gripping to hold us up, while trying to move us at the same time.

  • How often have you spoken only to wish you had taken time to think more fully about your response?
  • How many times have you worried over something that never came to be? 
  • How often have we missed the mark, whether bowling, playing pool or golfing, not having taken the time to allow our body to coordinate with our eyes?

While I cannot say that everything in my life is existing in the right place, in the right way all of the time, when I slow down and come to a place with more stillness and presence, I can feel tension and pain ease in my body, I can enjoy a sunny day in the middle of winter, I can delight in my cat playing "hockey" with his bottle caps.

Perhaps our internal state is more a predictor of our quality of life in any given moment than our circumstances.  How many times have you met someone who has things your wish for (a happy relationship, a beautiful home, physical health, artistic skill) and they are stressed and unsatisfied with their conditions.

Try This:
Can you find a way to be present to whatever abundance there is in your life?  Take 2  minutes now to find something in your immediate environment that reflects something you've created, or brought into your life that brings you pleasure, contentment or joy.  What is it like in your body and mind now?

(Originally Posted at 3/13/18)

N. BROOKE LIEB, Director of Teacher Certification since 2008, received her certification from ACAT in 1989, joined the faculty in 1992. Brooke has presented to 100s of people at numerous conferences, has taught at C. W. Post College, St. Rose College, Kutztown University, Pace University, The Actors Institute, The National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Dennison University, and Wagner College; and has made presentations for the Hospital for Special Surgery, the Scoliosis Foundation, and the Arthritis Foundation; Mercy College and Touro College, Departments of Physical Therapy; and Northern Westchester Hospital. Brooke maintains a teaching practice in NYC, specializing in working with people dealing with pain, back injuries and scoliosis; and performing artists.

Rate of Change

Rate of Change

8/8/2005: When people begin studying something new (especially if it's helping them feel better), it's natural for them to want to learn all they can, right away and be a model pupil. Often, my clients get a great deal of relief when they first start to study, and because they have been in discomfort, they want to do all they can to hold onto the new state they are in. Unfortunately, you cannot hold on to a release. I am not just referring to a muscular release, I'm also referring to a release of a pattern or habit of attitude, perception or behavior.


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