Alexander Technique exercises have different effects and intent to regular exercises. The three most important exercises are Semi Supine, Monkey and The Whispered 'Ah', but they come with a warning. They aren’t exercises in the same category as running or swimming. They won’t get you out of breath in the same way, but they can help you to perform at sports better. Calisthenics like push ups or sit ups again belong in a very different category. If you want to get maximum benefit from the Alexander Technique you are better off avoiding calisthenics entirely.
Before I start talking about these exercises it’s very important to remember that without the hands on guidance of an Alexander Technique Teacher you won’t be able to practice properly and these exercises will have little or no effect. Apart from semi supine perhaps.
You could make the argument that it’s better not to mention anything at all. That you’re better off not knowing. Having been taught that way myself, it lead to more questions and confusion. Alexander Technique Exercises are really worth mentioning because they will help you to understand what functioning you are trying to promote in yourself.
First and foremost Alexander Technique is a technique for living. It comes from the fabric of life. Processes that occur in the body under the right conditions are encouraged to happen by getting out of our own way. Once you take that approach everything else will follow and you will make gains. Ignore it and nothing will change.
“When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing we are doing in the work is exactly what is being done in Nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.” - FM Alexander
This is probably the most practical exercise because you are passively inhibiting your misuse. Put another way; you limit how far you go wrong by doing nothing. That’s not to say that you should use this exercise passively. You can be very active, telling your body what not to do. In Semi supine you have so many reference points in contact; the head resting on the books, back, upper arms and feet resting on the floor. It is so much harder to do something harmful to yourself in this position than any other. The benefits are many and wide ranging. You can find out how to semi supine here.
Also known as the position of mechanical advantage. You can see how this arrangement is utilised by skiers, wrestlers, ice hockey players to name but a few. They might not be performing it very well though! It's the practical consideration for anyone wanting to get themselves lower to do something to stress the back less and maintain tone. But it’s not just a case of bending at the knees. For many people with bad use, in particular back pain even when they bend from the knees or hip joint they still end up in trouble. Often they are bending from the waist (top of the pelvis) instead of the hip joint because of their established habit.
Monkey, used in practice of the Alexander Technique is a way to re educate these habits, redistributing the load of the spine so the joints hinge effectively and muscular release combines with a gathering of of the muscles to make this position more and more effortless. As mentioned before I cannot stress enough how important it is to be well set up before attempting this. If you find yourself trying to tough it out and stay there for longer, stop. You are missing the point. Monkey can be used like horse stance in QiGong and Kung Fu. With this idea that the longer you stay there eventually the muscles will strengthen up and keep releasing. This is rarely the case and just leads to more tightening up 95% of the time. This is not the attitude to succeed in Alexander Technique.
When you move from standing or sitting into Monkey you are encouraging all the same things to happen as before; allowing the neck to be free, in order to allow the head to go forwards (more like face forwards) and up, in order to allow the back to lengthen and widen. You must view monkey as a stop between sitting and standing. If you don’t have effective control over your neck, head and back, if the head isn’t leading and counterbalancing the spine to create an antagonistic stretch then it will become hard work for your joints and back.
With a good neck, head and back relationship Monkey will strengthen, firm up and emphasise the freedom and stability gained by the release. This should be an enjoyable and grounding process. You don’t need to spend a long time in Monkey. It can be effectively explored just by walking around, then stopping, then after going through the process going into Monkey. Remember Monkey is what you are inhibiting. You always have the option not to do it. And you can always choose something completely different.
You have to remember that these exercises or games are only there to emphasise the inhibition and direction already present in you. If it’s not there you can miss the point entirely, and in some cases make things worse. I cannot stress this enough.
This exercise comes with the most severest of warnings because it deals with your breathing. This is such a delicate area and easily misinterpreted. Most people’s breathing is too shallow. This is primarily due to the neck, head and back relationship. A consequence of this is fixed or held ribs. Most people’s breathing is too shallow. Our floating ribs still move but as we go higher up into the upper chest, armpits and upper back there is very little rib movement at all. The common remedy for this is to ‘take a deep breath’. However, this is not how your body is designed.
You can only take so much air in at a time. And if you take a deep breath, the startle pattern or misuse that creates in the body will reduce the volume of the air you are able to take in. This is something that many high level simmers and opera singers already know. So they don’t bother taking deep breaths. Instead they practice breathing out for longer. This is the underlying principle of the whispered ‘ah’. It’s how opera singers hold notes for what may seem an impossible length of time. It’s how wise swimmers are able to increase their fitness without moving faster. Once you have set yourself up, you must watch your breath like a surfer waiting for the right wave to come.
Point your tongue at your lower teeth.
Smile behind the eyes
Blow out making a whispered ‘ah’ sound
Keep blowing out to the end of your breath. But not so much that you start to lose your directions. It is very easy to blow out too much.
There will come a point where the breath will come back in without you doing anything. This is what makes it so hard to explain. If you blow out too much then it’s easy to pull down and fix your ribs, training your breathing to fix.
Think of a wheel that never stops turning. That's how the breathing movement should be. Your ribs need to constantly move, expanding and contracting. Never fix, stop or be hold the ribs in any way. This is more important that trying to make your breath last longer because this is what deepens your breathing and allows those things to happen without you having to try to get them. If you simply watch your breathing you will go a long way towards preventing your ribs from fixing.
To be honest, I barely ever use the whispered ‘ah’ because watching your breath and other basic fundamental parts of the Alexander Technique done well will go much deeper than any special Alexander Technique exercise. Especially when you start to realise how much you hold your breath. And that’s very difficult to explore unless you’re developing inner attention.
When I was part of a Toastmasters public speaking group I used the whispered ‘ah’ as a warm up before speaking so I could give a big ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’. But as I did these speeches more and more I found myself wanting to stop doing them. Instead, I just made sure I didn’t interfere with my breathing. I can remember standing there in front of everyone and gave myself permission to stop. It’s really tempting to just jump into a speech.
But I made a habit of giving myself time. It allows any fear to pass and to stop tensing up before I go to speak. It also made me aware that I wasn’t smiling! So I smiled and then started. My voice was actually louder, which was a little surprising. Not interfering with my breathing was more effective than using the Whispered 'Ah'. I found that I didn’t rush my words and my speech was clearer.
In terms of everyday use the whispered ‘ah’ isn't needed. It is useful, because it shows you how to project your voice and gives you an idea of what you're working towards. Watching your breath allows a deeper control of this and when you develop enough widening of the back you don’t even need to follow your breathing. On the other hand, semi supine is absolutely essential to me and I’ve used it many times to recover. Alexander Technique exercises are no different from anything else you have to work out when to use them.
Hi, I'm Edward Fisher and I believe that everyone can have a life free from back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain and many other musculoskeletal pain related conditions. I recovered from slipped discs and sciatica. I spent 10 months being unable to walk. After 3 months of Alexander Technique I was walking again. Now I show others how to overcome their own pain related conditions for themselves.
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