A straightforward, down-to-earth technique could make you taller and slimmer. It can help silence stress and banish the blues. It can even give significant relief from back and neck pain and the ache of arthritis. Yet this technique is no new wonder-therapy, no esoteric healing – it’s been taught in this country for years. It’s called the Alexander Technique. In the past the Alexander Technique has suffered from an image problem. People equate it with “learning good posture” and it is seen as rather staid and boring. That view should change because although Alexander does take time and patience to learn properly, its effects can be nothing short of miraculous. A host of celebrities have used it – from John Cleese to Paul Newman and it is lauded by actors and dancers who need to be able to use their bodies to the optimum.
The technique was developed by Frederick Mathias Alexander, an Australian born in 1869. Alexander was a successful actor – until he started to lose his voice during orations. A host of doctors and voice coaches could find nothing wrong with him so Alexander reasoned he had to be doing something during his performance to cause the problem. Setting up a series of mirrors, he analysed his movements and discovered that he was pulling his head back and down onto his spine with an enormous amount of tension. The tension was impairing his breathing and causing constriction of the larynx.
Alexander began to experiment and finally came up with a solution for the tension. He gave his body three main orders: “Allow the neck to be free”; “Allow the neck to go forward and upward” and “Allow the back to lengthen and widen.” These mental instructions relaxed the tension and freed his voice. In addition he discovered that the asthma he had suffered from since birth also vanished. Alexander was so intrigued by his findings that he developed an entire system which would enable almost anyone to return to the comfort and ease they enjoyed as babies and small children.
“Those of us lucky enough to be born healthy have perfect posture when we’re small,” says Kate Kelly, an Alexander teacher who gave me my first introduction to the technique many years ago. “We lose it because we’re not really evolved to cope with the twentieth century. We begin to lose our easy freedom of movement when we start adapting ourselves to our environment – we use furniture which is not very well designed for us. Plus we unconsciously imitate adults around us.”
Our bodies will cope with these abuses for some time but then, generally in our 30s to 50s, they start to complain. “This is the time when the body will no longer put up with what Alexander called “misuse”,” says Alexander teacher Gail Barlow. “The body will no longer be resilient.” She explains that it is then that we develop neck and back pain; start getting headaches or migraines; feel permanently tense and stressed and have trouble sleeping. Some of us develop breathing problems because our lungs are cramped; others suffer digestive problems because we are squashing our colons.
Alexander Technique offers a solution, teaching us how to unravel taut, tense bodies. Teachers of the technique insist they are not therapists but do admit that the process can be highly therapeutic. “We would never say we could cure because we are not medical,” says Kate Kelly. “If someone comes with aches and pains I can’t guarantee anything.” However many people (especially those with neck and back pain and arthritis) are referred by their doctors while many psychologists agree that Alexander can often help to clear depression. But Alexander is not just for those with serious problems. Gail Barlow says that 97 percent of us have lost the easy co-ordination of youth and could benefit from learning Alexander. There are highly pleasant side-effects as well. Students regularly report they feel easier in themselves, that they have more energy and less stress. And yes, many people do actually grow.
Richard Brennan, author of several books on Alexander reports that, “Teachers advise students not to buy new shoes or clothes until nearing the end of their course of lessons. It is common for pupils to grow in height by as much as an inch and a half; and they appear to lose weight at the same time. Because we have a tendency to sink down into our hips, by allowing a lengthening of the torso, a redistribution of fat tissue takes place and the pupil becomes taller and thinner.” The technique is usually taught in individual lessons or small classes. Your teacher will painstakingly observe how you use your body, whether standing, sitting or walking. Then he or she will teach you how to subtly change your patterns of movement to restore your body to its natural balance.
Don’t expect miracles overnight – a basic course will consist of around thirty lessons and many people go on to take many more. Equally some people might find the minute attention to detail almost irritating. But persevere. Alexander technique is not exciting or trendy but it does work. And once you have learned the technique it is yours for life – along with all the benefits of a body which is deeply relaxed and comfortable in itself. “Do we need to go into old age with aches and pains, stiff and bent?” asks Gail Barlow, “It isn’t necessary. Alexander discovered a way of taking those bad habits away so we are left with that delightful co-ordination we are all born with.” As comfortable and relaxed in our bodies as a small baby? What a wonderful thought.
SIMPLE ALEXANDER TIPS FOR BETTER BALANCE
Sitting (at work): Don’t just throw yourself into your chair – this causes stress on the neck which can cause neck and back problems, even migraines and headaches. Bend your hips and knees so that your body is balanced until you reach the chair. Think about balancing on your chair. Keep both feet firmly planted on the floor. Is your seat high enough for you? If not, add a few telephone directories. Hunching over your desk affects breathing and all the internal organs. It’s far better to lean forward from your hip joints, so you lengthen your whole body.
Sitting (relaxing): Slumping is terrible for your body. It may feel comfortable but you are putting pressure on your digestive system, your heart, your lungs – your internal organs cannot work as effectively as they should. Alexander teachers say they don’t expect people to sit bolt-upright while watching television or reading but do prop yourself up with cushions to give your back support. When you get up from a low chair or sofa, come to the edge of it before attempting to stand.
Standing: Think of standing balanced equally on both feet. Don’t slump onto one leg. Don’t strain – just find your own point of balance. Become aware of your feet and where your body weight is being placed. Can you feel more weight on your toes or your heels? Is more weight thrown onto the inside or outside of each foot? For maximum stability you want the heel, the ball of the foot and the point just below the big toe to be in contact with the ground.
Driving: Car seats are designed for safety, not your postural health. Try putting a wedge in the back of the seat to stop you from sinking right back. Many people also give themselves injuries when they twist their heads round to reverse. Instead drop the tip of your nose to your shoulder and then turn round – it helps the spine to lengthen.
Carrying: Try to avoid heavy shoulder bags. They make your shoulder pull up to compensate for the weight which, in turn, makes your whole body re-align. A bag which can be carried like a rucksack on your back is best or use a small trolley.
RELIEVING TENSION IN THE BODY
Richard Brennan describes this simple Alexander exercise to relieve muscular tension. It involves lying on the floor with your head supported by a small pile of books. The number of books you will need will depend on your height and the curvature of your spine. Stand normally with your heels, buttocks and shoulder blades lightly touching a wall. Get a friend to measure the distance between your head and the wall and add about an inch to the measurement – this is the height of books you will need. Choose paperbacks (they’re much more comfortable!).
1. Get to the floor by getting onto all fours and gently rolling onto the books. Bring your feet as near to your buttocks as is comfortable, so your knees point to the ceiling. Your hands should gently rest on either side of your navel.
2. Lie like this for about twenty minutes. During this time try to become aware of any tension in your body: Is your back arched so it is not fully in contact with the ground? Are your shoulders hunched? Are your shoulder blades not fully in contact with the ground? Do the books feel hard because you are pulling your head back causing tension in your neck? Can you feel one side of your body more in contact with the floor than the other? Can you feel tension in either leg – do they want to fall in or out to the sides? Can you feel more pressure on the outside or the inside of your feet?
3. Don’t move or try to correct any problems – that will only make them worse. Instead apply conscious thought to help release tension. If your back is arched think of it lengthening and widening. If your shoulders are hunched imagine them falling away from your ears. If your leg wants to fall out then think of your knees pointing up to the ceiling.
4. Before getting up from the floor, pause for a moment – think about a less stressful way of rising to your feet. Roll over onto your stomach and go on all fours. Assume a kneeling position and then put one foot in front of the other to come back into a standing position.
The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT): http://www.stat.org.uk/