A recent NPR program reported on the work of “posture guru” Esther Gokhale. I received several emails alerting me to this article, and I’m thankful for the chance to clarify both differences between Alexander Technique and Esther’s method, and some misconceptions in her work.
While Esther has some valid observations about contrasts in postural comportment between indigenous or non-industrialized cultures and those living modern lifestyles, I see some serious flaws in her approach.
1. Mimicry and effort versus freedom. Everything Esther recommends is something to do, a remedial activity of effort designed to physically mimic what indigenous people are naturally embodying with ease. While many of her suggestions appear to fix the typical slump and contraction patterns exhibited by Westerners, they are also another example of the Western mentality of believing there is something to do — something that requires effort, to “get it right.” But if you consider the examples she provides of indigenous people with great posture, they are not doing anything to have good posture. These people with open, wide shoulders are not rolling their shoulders back, as she recommends; they are not interfering with the natural, good design of shoulders to be open. Your average Westerner is, in fact, actively rolling their shoulders forward — and until that person learns to STOP doing that, rolling their shoulders back is simply an additional effort on top of the original tension pattern… which explains why most people find they cannot sustain their attempts to take on “good” postural habits. Without alleviating the original conditions of misuse, which is what the Alexander Technique teaches for the kind of sustainable results reported in the British Medical Journal, it’s a struggle to hold the new standard.
2. Making it all physical. Alexander’s insight into what he named The Use of the Self is the mental/emotional component to psychophysical coordination. Unlike us Westerners, these good examples Esther cites are not watching the clock, trying to impress, pressurizing themselves with deadlines or thoughts and attitudes of “having to” get this done, make this happen, get it right… The Alexander Technique works specifically at the juncture of thought and action, body and mind, recognizing that it’s not possible to change one without changing without the other. The Technique supports investigation into, and choice at the deepest level of, our preconceived beliefs and reactions to everything that happens in life. That’s why the Technique is revered by performing artists and especially actors, who need freedom of expression rather than stereotyped responses. The Alexander Technique offers a way to deal effectively with anxiety, fear, and pain, and conditions where good posture is not available – such as for actors playing emotionally and physically contorted characters.
3. Quick fix versus open-ended inquiry. While some consider it a good thing that Esther’s method claims to fix the problems of poor posture, from an Alexander perspective this seems presumptuous: can we really, so quickly, presume to know what’s going on with someone’s “poor posture” — and how to fix it? The Alexander Technique is about removing interference, of getting out of the way so that the intelligence of the body can resolve issues, rather than imposing a predetermined solution to a situation. The Technique looks for what there is to STOP doing — narrowing the shoulders, stiffening the neck, tucking the tail, unbalancing the head, over/under focusing the eyes, exaggerating lift, constraining the breath, tightening / stiffening / pressurizing / depressing… Once we STOP doing all these habits of tension, we liberate the natural buoyancy of the human design and allow it to be upright and mobile according to its design.
4. Primal Posture versus Conscious Awareness. Yes, making changes in your posture affects your attitude. But taking on aspects of “primal posture” falls shy of the (typical) kind of insight that an Alexander student of mind recently reported, where making new choices about how she responded to her own internal pressure freed her up to realize that she didn’t have to worry herself about her son’s new business venture. Don’t you think that relaxed her shoulders more than a roll-back? And was good for him, too??
In sum: if you are misusing yourself in typical Western ways, Esther’s method will show you better patterns of posture and movement, as something you can do. But if you want to challenge and change your thinking, question your preconceptions, engage in a lifelong investigation into the ways we obstruct — and can consciously liberate and embody — our freedom to be present in the moment, call your local Alexander teacher.