Dark Hidden Origins of the Alexander Technique

In his recent best seller, The Myth of Normal, Dr. Gabor Mate describes the state collectively thought of as normal in modern society to be a disordered state caused by our maladaptation to the overwhelming stimulus of modernity. More than a century ago, Alexander wrote that modern humans behaved with faulty, overly effortful, reactive habits because of the rapidly changing environment and new, potent types of stimuli that humans are not evolved or adapted for. Alexander recognized somatosensory defects, which he called ‘faulty sensory awareness’ and sometimes more provocatively ‘debauched kinesthesia’ as diseases of civilization as early as the 1890s. At the heart of most modern cognitive therapeutic modalities is the idea that maladaptive responses from our biology, that result in accumulation of chronic stress (allostatic load), can be cognitively inhibited to alter behavior and/or improve functioning. At the turn of the 20th century the idea of diseases of civilization was well established and thought of as a probable cause of cancer and ‘degeneration.’

Degeneration theory was a major factor in medicine, especially psychiatry, from the second half to the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century. At the time, the theory was a popular hypothesis for the genesis of mental disorders and neurological diseases, as, in contrast with the other fields of medicine, no biological pathology for mental diseases could be found. Alexander adapted aspects of degeneration theory into his own theories, i.e. when someone had poor ‘use of the self’ ‘psychophysical degeneration’ occurred and he claimed his technique would produce the opposite effects potentially curing related diseases. Degenerate theory was closely interlinked with various other ideological theories that formed the background philosophy of natural science during the nineteenth century, especially the theory of evolution which in turn gave birth to the theories of social Darwinism, eugenics, genetics and biological-vitalistic approaches.

Alexander was in many ways a “vitalist,” which was the popular view in biology at the time. Vitalism was tied with social reformers who believed that humans could inherit the effects of a healthy environment and, by passing environmentally-induced modifications to their offspring, achieve continuous progress. Vitalism arguably birthed the current popular scientific viewpoint on consciousness, emergentism, in which the properties of a system cannot be fully described in terms of the properties of its constituents (Schultz 1998). Prominent vitalists included Louis Pasteur and Johannes Reinke, the latter’s work having influenced Carl Jung. Some AT proponents believe releasing chronic muscular tension and encouraging certain alignments of the head and neck increases vital energy flow and enables a higher plane of consciousness as well as a number of related health benefits.

Vitalism, sometimes called a form of bio-theology, is a now rejected tradition in biology which proposes that life is sustained and explained by an unmeasurable, intelligent force or energy. The supposed effects of vitalism are the manifestations of life itself, which in turn are the basis for inferring the concept in the first place; this circular reasoning offers pseudo-explanation. Vitalism has many faces and has sprung up in many areas of scientific inquiry (Keating, 2002).

In 1889, evolutionary biologist August Weismann’s germ-plasm theory signaled the beginning of the end of vitalism in biology and the birth of eugenics. Social Darwinism, a pseudoscientific precursor to eugenics that peaked in popularity during the 1870s, purported to apply biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology, economics and politics (Leonard, 2009).

Scholars of social sciences in response created theories of human progress in which the social environment had a central role and biological heredity was diminished, creating a new theory of social progress based on a concept called ‘social heredity’ (Raymer, 2018). In Britain, the most prominent and influential social Darwinist was Herbert Spencer who coined the term ‘survival-of-the-fittest.’ Spencer was a widely read and influential philosopher in England and America during the Victorian era. Openly racist views were common, but race had further reaching implications as ethnic groups (i.e. Dutch, English or French) were considered different races (Lewis, 2016). Alexander’s ideas of the cognitive evolution of consciousness control of the self were likely influenced by these veins of thought. 

Alexander’s teaching in Australia originally consisted of acting and Delsarte techniques. Ironically, it was the great success of Delsarte that was its undoing. By the 1890s, it was taught everywhere, and not always in accordance with the emotional basis that Delsarte originally had in mind. No certification was needed to teach a course with the name Delsarte attached and the study eventually regressed into empty posing with little behind it. Perhaps this contributed to Alexander’s noted debts, subsequent move to London and ‘AT’ developments around this time. Alexander’s teaching in London departed from his prior teaching of acting and Delsarte and likely heavily borrowed from Dr. Scanes Spicer (Staring & Bouchard, 2002).

Dr. Scanes Spicer was a consulting ENT surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital in London who was interested in all manner of the breathing practices that were practiced at that time. He noted that if patients did not have some kind of physical therapy their recovery took longer. Spicer had lessons from Alexander, approved of his method and sent him patients. Alexander helped Spicer with his patients’ therapy and Spicer helped Alexander build a teaching practice when he first arrived in London, especially among actors. This relationship lasted until 1908 when a split occurred (Staring & Bouchard, 2002).

Spicer argued against the prevailing ideas from anthropologist and anatomist Sir Arthur Keith, that breathing is dominant over posture. Spicer turned Keith’s argument upside down, asserting that if you have good posture you will breath well as an effect, presenting his theory in 1909. Alexander was working with the idea that posture and breathing are simultaneously reciprocal. There is no doubt from the historical record that Spicer presented his findings to the public before Alexander did (Staring & Bouchard, 2002).

Alexander’s reaction to Spicer’s articles (two pamphlets in 1909 and 1910), was to claim that Spicer had stolen the idea from him. However, the core observations of Alexander were first articulated by Spicer more clearly and in medical terms. The true history of who influenced or taught Alexander is difficult to determine. However, the commonly propagated myth that he invented the AT by looking at the mirror is obviously false. Possible influences and collaborators include Leo Kofler, Oskar Guttmann, William Aikin, William Shakespeare, and Major Reginald Austin (Staring & Bouchard, 2002). Anthropologist and Alexander biographer Jeroen Staring on Alexander, “He was someone who had a double consciousness with authorities, that you use them as long as they are helpful to you and then put them aside when they don’t help you any more.”

After the Pall Mall Gazette medical editor wrote an article on deep breathing and tuberculosis, competing schools of breathing in London at the time wrote articles to the editor promoting themselves. Alexander sent a letter to the editor trying to establish himself by attacking Arthur Lovell and the Ars Vivendi school in a dispute that continued in the press through the summer of 1908. The medical editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, which at the time was the most popular newspaper in London, was Caleb Williams Saleeby. Saleeby was the head of the Eugenics Education Society and very influential, able to recruit members like Sir Charles Sherrington. He also invented the word “smog,” but now is forgotten, there is no biography of him (Staring & Bouchard, 2002).

Saleeby was a propagandist for eugenic ideas. A front of eugenics advocated by Saleeby was ‘nurtural eugenics,’ which refers more to public health and preventive medicine than eugenics. Saleeby was also an editor at Methuen, the publisher of Alexander’s book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Saleeby favorably described people like Alexander who, in spite of not having medical training, had a positive health impact on people who came to him for lessons. If Saleeby were not a eugenicist, we might be reading his texts on preventive medicine as Saleeby was promoting quitting smoking and being exposed to the sun for health (Staring & Bouchard, 2002).

To be fair to Alexander and his proponents, it’s possible that Alexander’s writings on ‘race culture’ may have been an attempt to connect his ideas to Victorian pop-psychology for marketing purposes. Alexander’s ideas related to eugenics boil down to: if you help people change their habits, they can have better children. In any case, Saleeby helped Alexander fund, and most likely write Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Saleeby’s works and Man’s Supreme Inheritance share much in common. In Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Alexander asserted that modern man had evolved beyond ‘the savage’ whom Alexander described as being driven by instinctual reaction rather than conscious control.

In light of Alexander’s philosophy of mind-body unity he saw, ‘conscious control of the self’ (or ‘good use of the self’ etc.) as a moral issue and someone with ‘bad use’ was behaving immorally (unconsciously). Because Alexander’s thoughts on evolution of conscious control (essentially a racist ego development theory) he and Saleeby saw the AT as applied eugenics. In America, the decline of eugenics in the 1930s and 1940s was only one part of the increasing hostility to progressive era eugenics, scientific racism, race-inspired imperialism and the use of biology more generally in the social sciences (Leonard, 2009). Alexander’s teaching studio had a corresponding decline during those years and financial difficulties instigated the first teacher training course in 1931. Alexander’s later writings mostly avoided controversial views on ‘race culture.’

In 1944, a scathing critique of the AT, ‘Quackery Versus Physical Education’ was published in the South African Fitness Journal, Manpower. It insisted that research cited as supportive did not provide any evidence in support of Alexander. It also referred to Alexander’s ‘followers’ as a ‘head balancing cult’ and put their ‘belief’ down to ‘group hystero-neurosis typical of a new faith.’ The article contained a section, ‘The misquoted Sherrington’ which claimed Alexander had mischaracterized Sir Charles Sherrington’s research as being supportive to his work. Alexander sued the journal for defamation in 1945. Interestingly, Sherrington wrote a letter of support to Alexander that helped him win the libel case in 1948. The victory came at a significant cost for Alexander as the award did not cover his costs and the stress likely contributed to a stroke around this time.

Most AT teachers and students are unaware of this dimension and history of AT and perhaps should consider the historical implications when using concepts like evolution in any explanation of the AT. Alexander trained about 80 teachers before his death in 1955, these teachers mostly quietly overlooked Alexander’s eugenics ideas. The fact that his books were out of print for decades kept these shocking facts from being widely known, feeding the hagiographical myth of Alexander that’s typically propagated. Beyond being factually incorrect, Alexander’s racist and dehumanizing language is shocking today but sadly was not unusual for writings from that era and largely went un-protested during Alexander’s lifetime.

Today AT societies are openly anti-racist and the Judith Leibowitz Scholarship Fund provides scholarships ‘to empower BIPOC who want to train to become AT teachers and expand the AT teaching community.’ However, a long standing question as to whether or not to change the name of the AT seems as relevant as ever. As long as the work is labeled the ‘Alexander’ technique the community will have to deal with the baggage of the man. Alexander insisted he not be mimicked, never used the label AT, and his writings are far from textbooks on how to learn the AT. FM’s writings in many ways needlessly mystify the AT into postural metaphysics. Perhaps it’s time to stop telling the myth of Alexander, if not for reasons previously written, it makes AT appear cultish and turns off prospective students.

References:

Schultz S. G. (1998). A century of (epithelial) transport physiology: from vitalism to molecular cloning. The American journal of physiology, 274(1), C13–C23. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpcell.1998.274.1.C13

Leonard. (2009). Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 71(1), 37–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2007.11.004

Raymer, E. (2018). Human progress by human effort: neo-Darwinism, social heredity, and the professionalization of the American social sciences, 1889-1925. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 40(4), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-018-0225-y

Lewis H. (2016). CHAPTER 2: SOCIAL DARWINISM: A Brief Outline of Social Darwinism and Its influence on 19th Century Britain and Elsewhere. The Journal of Psychohistory, 44(2), 154–.

Staring J., Bouchard E. 2002 The Early History of F.M. Alexander: Jeroen Staring Talk at the American Center for the Alexander Technique 2/13/2002

Keating J. C., Jr. (2002). The Meanings of Innate. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association46(1), 4–10.

https://www.judithleibowitzscholarship.org/

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