Category Archives: Alexander Technique

Lower Back Pain linked to Chimpanzee Spine Shape?

Research Study 

A BBC article discusses a Research Study by scientists from Scotland, Canada and Iceland which has been published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, which suggests that some peoples’ lower back pain may be caused by the shape of their vertebrae.
When the scientists studied the skeletons of ancient humans, chimpanzees and orangutans they found that some human skeletons that showed evidence of intervertebral disc herniation, had vertebrae more similar in shape to chimps than to other humans without disc damage. Chimps do not walk with an upright stance as we do and the argument put forward by the researchers is that in some people, the evolutionary development of the spine contains “pathological vertebrae” which “may be less well adapted for walking upright”.
Photo: BBC
It may well be that some people are genetically more predisposed to having lower back pain than others but there seems to be little mention in the research paper of the impact of our body-use and habits of mis-use that contribute to back problems such as a ‘slipped disc’, other than saying that they appear to be caused by strain and stress on the pathological vertebrae which cannot support the downward compression, so cannot protect the discs. If some people do have spines that are more vulnerable to the sort of compression and distortion that contribute to having a ‘slipped disc’, then it is surely even more important that they learn to use their bodies in the most aligned and effective manner, in order to protect the discs and prevent their herniation.
Habitual Mis-use
When we curl over, the vertebrae and discs contract down on one side and can push the soft tissue of the discs so that they bulge out, or herniate. This is not just a problem for the lumbar region of the back but we can get slipped discs in the neck and other areas of the spine as well, if they are continually compressed with habitual mis-use, or as the result of an accident. This wooden dummy does not have vertebrae but the discs of wood representing the torso can be seen to be angled, narrowed and compressed on one side, just as the vertebrae and the discs between them would be. 
Bending curling 2.jpg
Monkey Position
This research paper gives a new slant on F M Alexander’s concept of using ‘monkey position’ or ‘the position of mechanical advantage’ as he called it, which allows us to bend forwards from the hip joints, thus allowing the spine to remain lengthening – which protects the vertebrae and the intervertebral discs from compression and distortion. You can see in this photo which is illustrating ‘monkey position’ the wooden discs forming the body are more evenly spaced and opened out – if these were our vertebrae, you can see that this allows more space between them, which would not compress the discs in the same way as above.
Monkey model 1.jpg
Nature or Nurture?
This debate about the impact of our genetic inheritance and the impact of our learning throughout our lives will continue. I suggest that for most conditions, it is an interplay between both that we have to live and work with. Fortunately, most of us do have choices available to us about the way we live, use, mis-use or even abuse our bodies. As the BBC puts it ‘Back pain is a very common issue in humans’ – but many hours lost at work through back pain could be avoided, if people learned how to move differently, so that they protect their backs as they sit, walk and work throughout the day. It can be done, as the ATEAM Research Trial showed, which found that Alexander Technique lessons significantly reduced chronic lower back pain and was more effective than either massage or a Doctor’s exercise prescription.

Out and About with the Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique is far more than ‘relaxation’ or stress management, although it can help us in both ways. When we include using the Technique during our everyday activities, it can help us unwind and to avoid slipping back into habitual reactions that create tension, distortion and discomfort in our bodies.

If you keep being aware of your use during activity and regularly practice the lying down procedure, your body- use is likely to improve and your movements will tend to become more free and easy than they have been for some time. It really can increase your wellbeing, so why not reward yourself.

Some people say that they don’t have time to practice this procedure, which is sad. If they allowed the time to do this regularly, they would realise just how enjoyable it can be useful it is as we unwind and come back to ourselves and they would also see just how much we can learn about ourselves in the process. We often work better afterwards, too.

Lying down and working on ourselves can become like a safe haven to return to in the middle of our hectic lives – or when out enjoying yourself but back pain threatens to spoil the day.
Semi-supine in the woods.jpg
The photo was taken in the New Forest, where this man suddenly lay down in semi-supine, right in the middle of the ride, to ease his back pain. He’d only had a couple of AT lessons and was not lying with the ideal height of support under his head, so his neck is still a bit contracted and arched – but we don’t have to be perfect, anyway! It was great to see the Lying Down Procedure being used so naturally – and in such a beautiful setting. It can only improve our health and the quality of our lives.
Now I shall lie down and work on myself……

More Thoughts on the Active Rest Procedure

Ah the joy of lying down in Semi-supine!

When we lie down in semi-supine with a book under the head and knees bent, this allows our spine to gain maximum support and our nervous system to calm down. This wooden model would not let me bring the feet any closer to its body but for most of us, this position has the feet too far out, so they will tend to slip away. Also, the weight of the legs tends to drag on the pelvis, contributing to creating an arch in the lumbar region, the lower back, which can be uncomfortable, particularly if you have back pain. If the heels are just in front of the knees, this usually works better – unless you have a restriction in your knees in which case bring the feet in as close as is comfortable for you, without forcing the position.

Semisupine model.jpg
If you place your hands somewhere on your torso, with your elbows easing out away from your body, this allows your shoulders to drop into place more easily.  Again this model would not let me put the hands on the ribcage, which is where many people find is a good place for them to be.
Semisupine from above.jpg
A variation on the lying down procedure is to place the feet on a chair, so that the legs are more or less at right angles to the body. This is great if you are finding it hard to balance the legs without using lots of muscular effort, as you just don’t have to worry about balancing them when they are supported on a chair. It can also be good to use this position if your lower back is feeling very contracted and tense. Just make sure that you are not restricting your circulation behind your knees. You can then add this variation on the lying down procedure into your repertoire of tools to use to work on yourself.
Feet on a chair.jpg
Whichever position you use, enjoy the process of unwinding and easing your body into its full length and width and experience being in a quieter, freer and calmer state. Then allow that calmness and expansiveness to still be with you when you get up from the floor and begin your next activity, whatever that is.
One pupil got up from lying down on the AT table and caught site of himself in the mirror and exclaimed “I look taller and broader than I did before my lesson!” It works…..
For more info, you might like to read the notes on the Lying Down Procedure.

Standing with Ease

Standing with Ease Using the Alexander Technique

In Alexander lessons, we really can learn how to feel comfortable when we stand for long periods of time, rather than ending up with back pain. 
When we allow ourselves to balance on our feet in a coordinated manner without bracing and locking our legs and backs, we can support the weight of our upper body whilst using far less effort. In so doing we reduce the downward pull of gravity – and we are less likely to sag.
I often used to have an aching lower back even when a child, as I trailed around shops or art galleries. Despite being trained in ballet, I still used to sink down into myself and put pressure into my lumbar spine. This would be worse when I was tired, or bored, or when I was trying to look shorter than I really was. Thankfully I changed these habits when I learned the AT, so I stopped getting that heavy back ache – and art galleries are far more enjoyable now!
This sinking down into oneself is graphically shown in a sculpture by Francesco Messina. Many people will just see a curvaceous young woman called Maria but I see a familiar distorted pose, with the body’s weight mainly taken on Maria’s left foot, which throws her off balance and displaces her pelvis. Her weight is pushed down into the lumbar area of her back which over-arches (Lordosis) and cannot properly support her upper back and head, so thrusts her neck forwards and curves her upper back, making a pronounced ‘S’ shape (which could develop into Kyphosis)
Thumbnail image for Lugano Statue Maria Grazia .jpg
Maria Grazia by Francesco Messina – Lugano
This posture of sinking down onto one hip is frequently used, particularly by women. Standing on one foot may look non-threatening, even vulnerable and is sometimes thought of as feminine. ( But do many women want to look vulnerable these days? )
If we just move briefly through this sort of off-balance position, little harm will be done – but if this is a habitual posture, we will probably end up with hip and lower back pain and problems such as Sciatica. By changing our habits in AT lessons, we can often avoid contributing to such conditions.
Maria Grazia by Francesco Messina 1967 front 10-08-2008.jpg
When we have to stand for long periods of time, as I have to as an Alexander teacher, it does make a huge difference to our general well-being to be able to stand freely and easily, sharing the body’s weight on both feet, with the head balanced on the neck, creating an alignment through the whole body from the ears right down to the ankle joints. In this way we can fine tune our balance, adjusting to even small changes in our body as we stand and move.
This balanced way of standing and using the body may be seen in the photo of an artist’s wooden model. I had fun trying to make it stand do so was when everything was in alignment and balanced. It underlined for me just how much we as humans pull ourselves and our skeleton off balance with our poor body-use, so that our muscles have to work extra hard in order to let us stand up at all.

Learning the Constructive Rest Procedure

IWD Workshop ~ Learning how to do the Lying Down Procedure

As part of any Introductory AT Workshop, I always include some time to introduce the Lying Down Procedure to participants. This is performed in a semi-supine position, which allows the back to have maximum support and the spine is as near to being in a straight line as it is likely to get.
In the first photo, you can see some of the women following my instructions and using their hands to gain a sense of their head-neck-back relationship, in order to roughly work out what height books they would need under their heads. Both myself and Deena Newman, who assisted me, then went around and adjusted the books if necessary, as different people need different height books to rest on. If the books are too low, the head drops back and down to the floor and the neck curves into a banana shape, so cannot release and fully lengthen out. However if the books are too high, the throat can be constricted and pressure can be put onto the vertebrae at the base of the neck. So it is worth taking care when choosing the height of books to use under our heads.
IWD Workshop '15.jpg
Once people were lying appropriately, we then gave everyone another brief experience of some ‘hands-on work’ – as you can see in the second photo, which shows Deena putting her hands on a participant’s head and neck, encouraging her to release any muscle tension and to have a ‘free neck‘. During individual lessons, this usually takes place on a table, which makes life rather easier for the teacher!
Thumbnail image for Deena Newman working with a workshop participant.jpg
Why do we use books? 
Soft cushions and pads give way and get compressed under the weight of the head but paperback books give us a firmer support – without being as hard as hardback books! In the same way, we always lie down on the floor, rather than a bed, so that our bodies can have maximum support and more of a chance to let go of contractions and ease out into into a more lengthened and expansive state.
There was a brilliant and relevant quote in a recent Guardian Interview when Jonathan Price, the actor, was asked Which
book changed your life?

‘The one the teacher put under my head during the Alexander Technique
 sessions at Rada. I grew an inch and a half.’  Jonathan Price  Guardian Interview 7 March 2015

Article on Using the Constructive Rest Procedure
If you would like to read more about using this incredibly useful, calming and enjoyable procedure, you might like to read my article on the Lying Down Procedure
Even without going to Alexander Technique lessons, this procedure can be used for relaxation and to help you de-stress – but with the help and guidance of an AT teacher, you can learn how to make the lying down procedure far more effective! It can help you let go of tensions, calm your nervous system and importantly, can set you up to perform your next activity more freely and easily, whatever that activity may happen to be. It is a valuable tool to use throughout your life.

Introductory Workshops

My Intro Workshop for Women and Teenage Girls, celebrating International Women’s Day 2015.
Although this particular workshop was just for women, it followed a similar pattern to the mixed workshops that I run at other times. Deena Newman, a graduate from the London Centre for Alexander Teaching and Training, kindly assisted me. We had an enjoyable morning introducing the AT to a group of women who were aged from a 17 year old, right through to a Senior, which was great. 


These intro workshops give people a chance to try out the Alexander Technique and to discover how we can begin to reduce stress and discomfort, whilst becoming more poised and increasing our sense of wellbeing. Some aspects of the Technique were explored through a mixture of experiential games, discussion and hands-on work whilst sitting, standing, walking and bending over to pick things up. 


One of the procedures that was learnt in the workshop was the Constructive Rest procedure, which is performed in a semi-supine position, as in the photo which shows some of the workshop participants lying down. (Many thanks to the women for allowing me to use this photo). This is a great technique to use in order to develop self-awareness and learn about ourselves, to help us calm down, to free up and to look after our backs. It is also something that people can start using to help themselves, immediately.

When people start having 1:1 AT lessons, this procedure usually takes place whilst lying on a table, rather than the floor, whilst the teacher uses her / his hands to give feedback and to indicate to the pupil how to free up and make the best use of the process. Pupils are asked to practice this every day in order to develop the skills that make this a very powerful tool to use in our everyday lives.

There is more info about using this lying down procedure here.

Semi-supine IWD '15 07-03-2015 12-08-30.jpg

One participant contacted me after the workshop and told me that she was in the middle of moving house and that ‘I had to move a vanload of stuff after the group session – (the workshop) was ideal preparation’.  It’s great when someone can have an immediate realisation like this, as to how useful the AT can be, for instance when picking up and carrying boxes in a way that can protect our backs! 


This IWD workshop was held in The Green House N16, which is an exciting new venue on Green Lanes and it is a co-working initiative.

My next Intro Workshop is for both Men and Women 25th April 2015

Alexander Technique Transformed my Life

What a Great Recommendation for the Alexander Technique!

I recently received this email from a pupil of mine who was asking to have some more Alexander lessons with me after taking a break for a couple of years. She has kindly given me permission to use her words, so that other people can hear how helpful the AT can be. I’ll call her Mary.

When Mary first came to me she was ‘fed up’ with continual back pain that she’d had from having a slight scoliosis and a prolapsed disc, which had been troubling her for 10 years despite seeing an osteopath and a physiotherapist. 


” It has been a long time since I have been in
touch with you, and I hope that you are well. I spent this evening with my
friend who came to see you for quite a while, and
that reminded me that I should write you the email that I have been meaning to
write for a while. I am pregnant – in fact I am very pregnant – 39 weeks today.
My back has been giving remarkably few major problems during over the past nine

I don’t know if you remember but when I came to see you I expressed
concern about the eventuality that were I ever to have a child I feared it
would do terrible things to my back. I think that, largely because of the
miracle that coming to see you worked on my back, in a long term way I have been
spared that which I feared – though I have not of course as yet started the
whole business of carrying a child around the whole time.

The pain that I have had during the pregnancy is a lot less bad than I had feared, and it has
not incapacitated me. 
Yes, the AT work has transformed my life. It is amazing, particularly as I have never been good at disciplining myself to do the semi-supine position… but something essential in the way I hold myself and move must have shifted.  I will, however, try to do a bit of lying down in semi-supine now, though I can no longer lie on my back for an extended period….

‘Something essential in the way I hold myself and move must have shifted’. 

It is really good to hear how Mary has taken the AT work on board and has changed her body-use throughout her everyday activities, which has protected her vulnerable back. Returning to AT lessons at this point is a very good idea, so Mary will be able to think about how she can use the Alexander Technique to help her as she does the variety of new activities that having a baby entails and that challenge many women’s backs and arms, even if they didn’t have problems before pregnancy –  of course childbirth itself, followed by lots of bending over, picking up, feeding and carrying her baby around with her. 

Women’s bodies go through major changes and challenges when they have babies and the Alexander Technique can offer them a brilliant tool to use with which to help themselves, not just at this time but throughout their lives. Of course men can benefit from learning the Alexander Technique and it can help them too when, hopefully, they will also lift, feed and carry baby – but they don’t have the extra challenge of pregnancy and childbirth!

Do You Look After Your Back When you Hold a Baby?

The Henry Moore exhibition at Kew Gardens in 2007, still leaves me with a wonderful memory. How exciting that Henry Moore returns to Kew this September – I really look forward to that.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Henry Moore 8 Kew March '08.jpgMoore’s Mother and Child, although very abstract, evokes a strong sense of calm tenderness. Mother is portrayed holding the baby in a way that allows a safe, intimate connection with her.

I can also see the sculpture from an Alexander Technique perspective, as illustrating a common habit that many men and women have: contracting down on one side of the body and looking down with the head and neck to one side. Such patterns of contraction and mis-use can also develop when breastfeeding, writing, playing the violin or guitar, using a mouse and using a car’s gear stick, for instance.

If people habitually assume lop-sided positions, an imbalance in muscle use occurs, subjecting the vertebrae and intervertebral discs to an uneven, downward compression. This can cause neck and back pain and can eventually result in problems such as scoliosis and sciatica.

So do continue to keep a tender intimacy when you hold your child but remember to look after yourself at the same time. It is possible to learn how to protect your back whilst performing everyday activities and observing how we are using or mis-using our bodies is a good place to start – and if a great work of art can also remind us to be aware of our own body use, that is an unexpected bonus!
Individual AT lessons for both men and women are available on a regular basis.
Next Workshop for Men and Women 25th April 2015
Henry Moore ~ Mother and Child ~ Kew Gardens 2008

Alexander Technique for Women ?

Why put on an Alexander Technique Workshop just for women?

Well, in the first place, some women just feel more comfortable attending this type of workshop if it is for women only and for some, their cultural background encourages them to attend classes in an all-female environment. 
Also, women do have some specific issues such as wearing high heels, pregnancy and childbirth, all of which can be thought about within the context of the Alexander Technique. For instance, many women experience back pain during pregnancy, or as the result of their habits or wearing stilettos  – all of these can compress the lower back, which can create an exaggerated lordosis, often leading to pain. By learning and using the Technique, which can help women use and carry their bodies differently, many such problems can often be alleviated.
Childbirth itself can be helped by using the Technique, as can carrying the baby once it is born – although this latter is (hopefully) not exclusively a woman’s activity! One pupil said this:
“I wanted to thank you for all that you taught me over the 9 months of my pregnancy. My weekly Alexander Technique lessons with you were so valuable and I feel contributed hugely to my healthy pregnancy and were so helpful in preparing for the birth”. 
A lovely little sculpture I saw in South Africa shows a baby being played with whilst the mother lies in semi-supine position, in a similar manner to how one uses it in the Alexander Technique (although the angle the woman is holding her head would probably be modified in an AT lesson). Lying in this position offers people a chance to let their spines lengthen and for their nervous systems to quieten down and this is a procedure that people are encouraged to practice every day as part of learning the Alexander Technique. (We don’t usually lift babies above out heads during the constructive rest procedure though!)
This position can also be used more casually as in the sculpture, allowing parents an easy way to be in close relationship with baby, whilst looking after one,s back. Older babies will climb all over you but this can add to the joy – and your back is still being supported and protected.
Thumbnail image for Woman & Baby sculpture A .jpg
Andrew Gibson – Woman and Child ~ The Annexe, Kalk Bay S.A.
Would you like to find out more about the Alexander Technique?
Individual lessons  ~ for both men and women ~ are available on a regular basis.
Next Workshop for Men and Women 25th April 2015

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Are You Sitting Comfortably? No? 

Then your first step is to make friends with your Sitting Bones.
I had some fun setting up and taking these photos of Skelly, who usually hangs on a stand but I wanted him to sit, without an Xmas hat on this time.  Interestingly, the easiest way for me to set him up was balancing him right over his sitting bones, just the way I wanted him to be – which is the way our bodies are designed to sit. When Skelly was not put in an upright position, he just overbalanced. OK he’s only a plastic skeleton without muscles but he gives us a good idea about our bony structure and the way our bodies are designed to work. ( Not many arms will bend backwards like his though! )
However you can see the chunky rockers of the sit bones at the base of the pelvis, which are planted firmly on the surface so they can take the weight of the skeleton above. You can create an imaginary line through the skeleton from where the ear would be (near the hinge of the jaw), which is aligned above the shoulder and top of the arm, which in turn is lined up with the sitting bones. In this way the large weight of the head is balanced centrally and is supported, because it gets transferred through the spine and skeleton, right down into the sit bones.
An average adult human head weighs about 4.5 kg – 5 kg (9.14oz – 11lbs). It is heavy and it needs proper support!
Sitting Skelly 03-01-2015.jpg
I thought I would also try getting Skelly to lean – he cannot slump and collapse as real people do because he is too rigid but I did eventually get him to balance briefly, as if leaning backwards. One of the interesting things about this image is that it not only shows the sitting bones but clearly shows the tiny bone of the Coccyx at the tail end of the spine – which is not designed to take any weight but often is forced to do so because of the way the pelvis tilts when someone slumps in a chair. When this happens, the Coccyx is put under too much pressure and can be damaged, along with some of the vertebrae and discs. Also, the skull is left unsupported and the neck muscles end up by overworking in order to maintain some sort of balance and the breathing will be restricted….. and people wonder why they get problems such as neck and lower back pain
This is a good example of how our ‘use‘ or ‘mis-use‘ affects the way our body can function.
Skelly Leaning 03-01-2015.jpg 
So balancing over our sitting bones as we sit, allows our bodies to function more efficiently. One of the great things about Alexander work is that people usually do end up by sitting more comfortably, as they let go of habitual actions and reactions and learn a new way of using their bodies. 
This pupil quoted below was very grateful for her AT lessons but her rather sad words illustrate how many people experience being taught how to sit as a child. However, they do at least have the option of learning the AT,  and rediscovering the joy of sitting comfortably as an adult:
“I wish I’d been told about my sitting bones as a child instead of being hit and told to ‘sit up straight’. It’s so much more comfortable!”
Next Step?
If you would like to find out more about how the Alexander Technique can help you to sit, walk and move around more comfortably, individual lessons are available on a regular basis.
Next Workshop for Men and Women 25th April 2015