Borderline Woo: The Alexander Technique Vol. 3 / No. 24.1

This Alexander Technique does not involve attempting to conquer Asia Minor | Photo: Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0


So in my travels about the interwebs this week, I stumbled upon something calling itself “The Alexander Technique,” and while it may not be entirely woo, it sure sounds like it.

The Alexander Technique appears from the websites of its proponents to be totally nuts. It has all the signs: HTML from 1995, a pay-for lessons system, unreliable health claims (like that it cures asthma), and naturalistic fallacies (“we show our students precisely what they are inadvertently doing to themselves that gets in the way of their natural functioning” [emphasis mine]).

But from what I can gather, it’s another case of the dose making the poison.

Some of the more sensible-sounding proponents of the “technique” say it’s basically about learning to correct your posture, stop holding your body in learned ways that could lead to back pain or RSIs, and (especially for musicians and other performers) optimize your lung capacity by sitting and standing straighter. Basically, it sounds like physical therapy for stage performers with an added dash of mindfulness, and a lot of extra woo packaging.

A recent study actually found lasting benefits for sufferers of chronic back pain who had six lessons — though the researchers also concluded that only 6 lessons plus exercise had basically the same effect as 24 lessons without the exercise. I’d have liked to see a study that involved regular old PT as well, but we can’t have everything we want.

The logic seems, well, common-sensey: if you pay attention to the way you use your body, you might start noticing that hey — I stand/sit/use my arms in ways that make me hurt over time. I shouldn’t do that. I’ll sit differently instead.

But then of course there’s the unsubstantiated medical claims, like (as I wrote above) that it can cure asthma. Do not use this as a cure for asthma. There is no evidence to support posture or RSIs as having anything to do with asthma. We don’t know exactly what causes it, but its lacking prevalence in Amish communities suggests either a genetic component or something to do with the immune system.

Asthma can kill people: seek proven medical care and not help with your posture. Remember, in the case of substituting interventions that don’t work for interventions that do, pseudoscience kills.

So there it is: The Alexander Technique. A little pseudosciencey, and probably not covered by your insurance the way PT is, but maybe not total bunk if you want to relieve muscular-based back pain through better posture and need someone to tell you how to pay attention to the way you use your body. The chances of it curing your asthma are rather less positive.

Happy Monday, everyone.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.