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The Alexander Technique and the endless learning of freedom in motherhood (a personal experience)

(A number of years ago I was at a friend’s house when I noticed that one of the other women there was sitting so upright and straight that I assumed she must be uncomfortable; but in fact she looked totally relaxed and more at ease in her body than anyone else in the room. She had studied the Alexander Technique.

The Alexander Technique, teaches you to use your body in such a way that effort is minimised. For example: if your head is correctly balanced in its place on the top of the vertebral column, then your muscles don’t need to do extra work to keep it there. However, if it is not balanced, some muscles will be unduly contracted just to maintain it in its place. This leads to tension. We learn poor posture and movement over our lifetime as a result of our environment and experiences; and very often we are not even aware of it until we have a problem (often with our back or joints). The Alexander technique, developed by FM Alexander from the 1890’s onwards, teaches you to let go of these learned tensions and to allow the body to be and to move freely.  Editor)

At the age of 38, after several years as an Alexander Technique teacher, I had the joy of bringing a child into the world. This intimate experience is different for every woman; but I would like to tell you about how the Alexander Technique helped me enormously throughout my pregnancy, during the birth of our son, and afterwards.

In brief, the Alexander Technique teaches us a better way of using ourselves for everyday actions like walking, talking, eating, as well as for more specific skills such as writing, using a computer, or dancing, singing, playing a musical instrument etc. It is based on certain basic principles:

      - Psycho-physical unity. What we think is what we do. Wouldn’t it be better if we could make our choices more consciously?

  • Time.  Therefore, instead of reacting quickly and without thought, we should give ourselves time to choose a suitable response to any stimulus. Alexander said "The right thing does itself" and this is often true, provided we can avoid a reaction that is too speedy and unconsidered.
  • Co-ordination. Certain key relationships between parts of the body affect the co-ordination of all the rest. For instance, total co-ordination suffers if the head is not freely poised on top of the neck.
  • Means and end. We should think more about how we use ourselves rather than what we are trying to achieve with any movement, understanding that a well-directed intention (it may seem like "only a thought") can guide us into freedom of movement.


Growth in pregnancy happens gradually, allowing time to adapt bit by bit to the changes of balance. As the forward weight increases, many women tend to compensate by taking their upper body backwards and collapsing their neck forwards, so producing a hollow back and potential back problems. By thinking about the width across and between our shoulders, back and front, and allowing our ankles to be free, we can allow our back to become fuller and stronger as it responds to the new demands on it.

Instead of a hollow back, my balance adapted so that I carried my baby not “in front of me” but “in me”. Thus the baby had the chance to rest comfortably in what I think of as a little "hammock" of abdominal muscles, indirectly suspended from my head and shoulders.

Being aware of the importance of "staying in our back”, of maintaining good contact with the ground while allowing our back to have all its length and all its width, preserves space for the baby and for ourselves; which then helps to limit digestive problems and breathlessness.

By doing this, I was not "weighed down" by the baby's increasing weight. Walking remained a pleasure; as did going up and down stairs. Carrying life within me offered a splendid opportunity to think about my use of myself; both for myself and for the child I was carrying. I didn’t suffer from aching legs, back pain, digestive problems, poor circulation, breathlessness.

What is more, the Alexander Technique, by reminding us that we can take our time, that we can choose not to go forever headlong towards our various "goals", helps to maintain balance, mentally as well as physically. During this period when one can be emotionally fragile, the Technique offers tools for remaining calm and restful; physically making space for the growing baby, while mentally preparing to welcome him.

Giving birth (or letting the child come into the world)

In my experience it was essential to let things happen and not to interfere too much in this natural process; to let the contractions do their work, to let small opening-up movements happen when and where they must, to make way for the child.

In this process, fear is the chief enemy. Pain-engendered fear stops one allowing the contractions to do their work. Fear has a stiffening effect, which causes additional suffering, which in turn increases the fear: a vicious circle that blocks the flow of our own natural painkillers. It is important to be aware of the pathway followed by the baby as he makes his way into the world and to understand how indispensable it is to remain available to the internal opening-up process which allows the baby's head to make its way through the birth canal (1) (ie. making welcoming movements such as squatting or crawling, and avoiding lying down on one’s back).

This is a time when the emotional element is enormous and the sense of being well supported is correspondingly important. I felt myself loved and encouraged by my husband and totally confident in the professional team around me.

I needed all that confidence in order to be able to accept the pain, to accept the contractions without stiffening with fear when I felt them coming, thinking of letting go, of letting things happen, of allowing my neck to remain free. When I thought of letting my neck be free, I found that my whole body released its tensions, and the wave of contractions could break over me without drowning me.

The choice not to tense up, not to stiffen my neck and hence all the rest of me, enabled me to live this birth to the full.

Preparation with an excellent physiotherapist, combined with my own practice of the Alexander Technique, helped me to direct my pushing to the best effect while at the same time continuing to think of my head going in the opposite direction, (thanks to the freedom of my neck and thus of my back and pelvic region). All this helped me not to get out of breath. The physiotherapist told me – echoing Bernadette de Gasquet (2), who had trained her – "it's a bit like easing a glove off your hand!" That is to say, instead of expelling the baby, my task was to retreat to allow him to enter the world.

Confidence in the mother in me, confidence in the child who guides me

The work of the Alexander Technique does not stop once the child is born. All the principles involved are precious allies in motherhood.

First of all, confidence: confidence in oneself, confidence also in the "competence of the new-born child" as Brazelton says (3). Not wanting to do everything too well, which implies a fear of doing things badly, and allowing the necessary skills to develop naturally. Our paediatrician says "Don't do too much, don't try too hard." So, let me be, in Winnicott's words, "an ordinary, normally devoted mother" – no more! (4)

Faced with this little person, my desire to get everything right is such a strong stimulus. I have discovered that time given to myself, when responding to the stimulus to take care of him, is also time that I offer to him. If I can avoid rushing into action, perhaps patience will be easier for him too? At least, he will not be living with a continuous impression that I am under stress, that everything is urgent.

This also gives me the chance to "listen" better, to be more aware of all the information my baby can give me. He tells me, in his own gentle way, Don't hurry, look at me, we are fine like this, don't worry, stay here quietly and enjoy this moment…Giving him time, to play with him, to rock him, to enjoy him in all sorts of ways, being available to him and at the same time learning to give myself time for me… that's how he will learn that we can all be good to ourselves, and that it can sometimes be really fun to play all alone.

Besides all that, I can benefit from mistakes: it is in recognizing them that one learns. Being aware of mistakes helps us not to repeat them.

One's own co-ordination is reflected in the relationship with the child. Winnicott underlines the importance of "holding" and "handling". The way in which a child is held, carried and handled is linked to the way one "holds oneself", it is linked, too, to the fear, or its absence, of letting him slip. When his father or I carry him, it is important to support him well so that he feels safe enough to get acquainted with gravity. On the other hand, we must leave him enough room, not clutch him tightly as though he were constantly in danger of falling. He should feel that we are sure of ourselves and of him.

My own psychophysical co-ordination, reflected in the way I carry my baby, has an effect on all the movements I make so many times every day. The bending and straightening that are involved whenever I take him in my arms to change him, to give him his bath, to feed him, to put him to bed; or when I hold and cuddle him: all these activities could become painful if I don't take care of my own co-ordination. Now he is carried, no longer "in" me, but against me, all I learnt during pregnancy is still so useful: I know better than to lock my joints, I know the dangers of leaning backwards from the waist with my hips pushed forward; I have learnt to leave my shoulders quiet and not lift them or my elbows when I'm carrying or breast-feeding him.

I am sure that at each stage we come to with our son, the Alexander Technique will accompany his father and I faithfully; teaching us to have trust in ourselves and in him, helping us to be at the same time firm and reassuring. Each day with him, we continue to learn a bit more: all three of us are learning that freedom goes hand in hand with responsibility, and above all, that we can make choices that help our life to be delightful, amusing, tender, and light-hearted.

Claire Destrée


(published in Small Talk, the BCT magazine, October 2007)


(1) This is well explained in Blandine CALAIS-GERMAIN, Le périnée féminin et l’accouchement, éditions Désiris, 2000.

(2) B. de GASQUET, Bien-être et maternité, Editions Implexe

(3) T.B. Brazelton, On becoming a family, Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1981

(4) D.W. Winnicott, Babies and their mothers, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Inc., Reading, MA, 1987

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