“Does Alexander Technique alter your personality?”

January 10, 2011

“WHAT did you just say?” Alexander Technique helps tame our immediate reactions, a by-product of the practice”. (Photo courtesy of lanuiop, Creative Commons Attribution licence)

In answer to a question I was asked the other day, I don’t want to navel gaze too much but there are a few aspects of “personality”, whatever that means, that seem to change as you learn to do things more easily and with less muscular effort. There are also one or two potential pitfalls that are maybe worth a mention.

My first impressions
The quality of your perceptions is very much bound up with what’s going on with your muscles and body, oddly enough, and this is something I noticed when I first went for Alexander technique, in London about 9 years ago. I was lying on the teaching table and suddenly became very aware that an overhead light appeared in sharper focus, as though the light coming from it was in higher definition or something – this was in addition to the overall feeling of calmness.

Because I was being shown how to do things without a lot of my habitual tightening and tensing, especially of the neck and shoulders, I also felt strangely vulnerable during the sessions. And when I went into work afterwards, I was sure I must appear an odd sight to other people. But I could see in the mirror that I actually looked quite poised and natural, for want of a better word. I somehow looked less affected, less like I was trying to assert some kind of “personality” or manner of who I felt I should be.

This was just an initial experience of the mind/body connection and how we can adjust its tuning, if you like. And at the time these effects were far less important to me than the apparently “physical” changes – the fact that after a session I found I could walk up stairs more easily and that the joint in my left knee no longer made a worrying clicking noise all the time.

As I continued to learn, these kinds of experiences seemed to plateau, as I became familiar with the new way of doing things, and then every so often they would intensify again as I went through another period of change.

Taming your reactions
A prerequisite for the powerful changes produced by the Alexander Technique is to learn how to quieten down your responses, to allow something different to happen – rather than just doing something in the old familiar way. In doing this, you exercise a mental faculty that Alexander technique teachers call “inhibition” – essentially, making a conscious decision to withhold a habitual response to something (i.e. to stop tightening your leg or abdominal muscles so much as you get out of a chair).

Practising the technique develops this mental faculty much more fully, and it can be applied to many other things than just movement and the use of the body. You get better and better at not reacting to things – or not reacting habitually anyway, but making your responses more considered, if you want to. Some people reflect that this has helped them become a less addictive personality, or less obsessive, with fewer OCD-type tendencies, for example.

By stopping every so often, rather than just being carried along on the wave of habitual responses and familiar behaviour, you can also cut down on the waste activities in your life, and channel more of your energies into the goals you want to achieve.

Exercising this faculty to stop instead of reacting habitually also (it could be argued) merges with the goals of many spiritual disciplines, which place an emphasis on becoming less habitual and robotic in our responses to life, cultivating greater spontaneity.

Paranoid Android
People who tend to think “I’m not creative” or “I’m not spontaneous” are often very interested to discover that they can work on this aspect of themselves, and surprised to find the means to do this in a discipline that appears to be all about posture and the body (well, which is all about learning to make less unnecessary effort at a mind and body level, just to once again be clear).

Learning anything new can be tricky though, and it’s important to go easy on yourself if you don’t seem to ‘get it’ straight away. Many people go through a phase with Alexander technique – more often nearer the beginning of the learning process – where they become even more watchful and careful and cautious about how they are doing things. This can make you seem like a bit of an android (or “Alexandroid” as AT parlance has it). This seems a phase that it’s sometimes necessary to go through, but it should definitely be a temporary stop-off point, and if it persists then you’ve likely missed the point of what the technique is about.

4 Responses to ““Does Alexander Technique alter your personality?””

  1. Terry Coleman said

    I can relate to this article from my own early experiences of AT. I began lessons in 1994 with Stephen Cooper at the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre in London. I had regular lessons over a period of eight years and AT was and is a valuable psycho/physical tool for my health and wellbeing. I do quite a bit of Pilates now and that is also very good.

  2. It’s very important to understand that you cannot change your personality: only your behaviour.

    If you have an adictive personality then AT won’t change that. However it will reduce your tendency to give-in to your adictions …. providing that’s what you want and you consciously choose to.

    Many people would fear anything that claimed to be able to change your personality because that would amount to brain-washing!

    Jeff Hall MSTAT

  3. Personality styles are pretty distinct, and chronicled now by several organizations: DISC and Meyers-Briggs, to name two. Styles relate to how we learn, process information, interact with the world and what our prioities are. No matter what the personality style of the individual is, however, there are healthy vs unhealthy expressions of it, as well as character traits, which are learned. Alexander Technique does not change personality, but rather allows for a healthier expression of that personality, unfettered by fear or mind-chatter.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I was just trying to use the term “personality” in its widest sense, referring to externally visible aspects of a person’s behaviour. But I take on board the potential danger with suggesting that AT can change someone’s personality. It’s not about brainwashing but about having a greater ability to choose how you react to things.
    As for personality types (as defined by Myers-Briggs and so on) I was always under the impression they were reasonably fluid and could change over time. I’ve known people to change noticeably in terms of traits like extraversion/introversion. But I must admit I’ve not read up thoroughly on this area.
    Recently re-reading Pedro de Alcantara’s The Alexander Technique: A Skill for Life, I noticed an interesting personal account (on page 64) by a woman, Liz, who relates how the technique has helped her put space between herself and threatening situations, and to cope with things in quite a different way.
    In terms of her interactions with others she says: “I no longer feel obliged to take on responsibility for others’ reactions to me… I can empathise or sympathise, I can give constructive help, yet I can refuse the agonising burden of responsibility which often leads to that destructive ‘I was only trying to help’ approach… I now relate to other people not in terms of the effect they have on me, but in terms of their own attempts to deal with reality as they perceive it. I can see past the surface words or actions, through to the basic elements of humanness we have in common.”

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