Category Archives: Health

Hearts and Minds

Heart v Mind: What Makes us Human?


This is an excellent programme shown on BB4 0n 10 July 2012, so it will still be available on iPlayer for a while to come.

David Malone explores our society’s conflicting views of the heart, with the view from people with a poetic sensibility describing the heart as being central to our emotional states, whilst a more anatomical, mechanical approach sees the heart purely as a pump which is part of our physical make-up.

Contemporary research is taking place which bridges this gap and shows that the physical  heart has neurones that bring about changes, for instance in the heart-rate, in response to our empathic and emotional reactions.  

This is a fascinating programme that questions the mind-body split that F M Alexander was always challenging in his writing and when teaching his Technique. Keeping an awareness of these issues during Alexander lessons will surely enhance both the teaching and the learning experience.

This programme is well worth watching. Visit iPlayer to see it here 

Tain’t what you do but the way that you do it….

Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Tain’t what you do but the way that you do it’ 


Now that’s a great song and it has been suggested that it could be called ‘a hymn for the Alexander Technique’. Thanks to Margaret Almon ( US mosaic artist) for that great idea.

One of the main tenets of the Technique is precisely this, to be conscious of the way we perform our various activities, so that we can choose the most free and easy way of using our bodies for the task at hand. F M Alexander used to refer to the ‘means whereby’ we perform an activity as being crucial to the health of our bodies. He was adamant that when we get caught up in ‘end gaining‘, for instance when doing something like dancing or playing sports, we very often injure ourselves because we forget to pay attention to the way we do it and then self-medicate to cope with the pain we feel as a result..
This isn’t just something for high flyers to think about, it applies to everyday actions too. A pupil who came to me after a nasty bike accident, which had resulted in her experiencing lots of pain, said to me after she’d had a number of lessons and had taken herself off painkillers:
I now think painkillers are like evil tempters into end-gaining. It’s as if they say to you “go on, take me and do it all anyway” even when you know it would be best to stop that activity because it will hurt if you go on.’ 

Well put!
Think about how you work. When you sit at a desk, you can have the ‘perfect’ chair, desk and set-up at your disposal but if you sit in a distorted, collapsed or tense manner, giving yourself too few rests and keeping on working in order to to complete the latest deadline, you are likely to give yourself aches and pains – or may even develop more serious problems. However, when you learn to act with awareness and consciously use your body in a more balanced, poised and freely relaxed manner, pacing your work to a suitable level for your own needs, you can look after yourself and help prevent problems from developing.
If you would like help in finding out how to do this, you may like to try some Alexander lessons where such issues can be explored and worked on. 
You could also come to my next Taster Workshop on 21st April and find out more about how the Technique can help you if you learn it.
There’s a lovely version of Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Tain’t what you do but the way that you do it’
on YouTube but for some reason I’m unable to link to it here, sorry.

Ban Backward-sloping School Chairs

One Cause of Back Pain
 
Richard Brennan, an Irish Alexander Technique teacher has created a petition which I fully support, that asks for backward-sloping school chairs to be made illegal in Ireland. However, I would also like this to happen in the UK – and elsewhere.
 
Why? Well the backward slope of the chair offers poor support to children’s backs and the backward angle of the seat encourages the child to curve their spines over their work, rather than to hinge forwards from the hip joints – a movement that allows the spine to remain lengthening. A long spine is a strong spine.
 
Backward Sloping School Chairs Cause Back Pain
 
BackCare UK and STAT argue that these chairs are a major cause of back problems in adults, as a result children using them for hours on end at school – because curling forwards in this way for hours on end encourages the mis-use of their bodies which causes damage such as kyphosis, resulting in back pain for many people later in life. (If you would like to see what kyphosis looks like, see my previous Blog entry here.)
 
Photos Copyright: Richard Brennan
 
Richar Brennan seated.jpg
Children who end up curving down over their desks may be learning with their heads but their bodies are being badly educated! Our language encourages a downward contraction as we work – for instance ‘Nose to the grindstone…. Getting down to work… She had her nose in a book…  I must say that adults have similar problems when using backward sloping chairs, whilst many pushchairs that crumple up a baby’s spine are problematic as well.
 
brennan4.jpg
Using a seat wedge can help a child remain poised even in a backward sloping chair but how much better if the chairs were designed for people, not just for stacking.
 
 
Child Sitting.jpg
 
Of course, children can still slouch and end up with back pain,  even if they have the ‘perfect’ chair and desk to sit at and ultimately it is the way they sit and use their bodies that is crucial. Children can learn the Alexander Technique, which will help them to minimise the problems associated with poor body-use and this will help them avoid pain in the future. This process will be so much easier if children are also given decent seats to sit on whilst they are growing up, developing their own posture and learning how to use their bodies.
 
Sign the Petition
 
So please support Richard Brennan’s petition. Visit the URL below, Sign up and draw this issue to the attention of policy makers:
 
 
 

Is the Alexander Technique about posture?

The Alexander Technique’s about posture isn’t it

Well, not really! 

It’s true that changes in posture do come about as a result of using the Technique and this photo of fellow Alexander teacher Refia Sacks, out and about in South Africa, illustrates that a nice easy poise is one of the benefits of learning to use use our bodies more freely and effectively in our everyday activities. However, the aim of Alexander Technique lessons is not about improving posture.

 
Refia.Sacks jpg.jpg

Refia Sacks – sitting with casual poise

In AT lessons, we learn how to move around and use our bodies in a coordinated way without tension and it is the quality of our body-use that is all important. As we allow our bodies to work the way they are designed to, our posture does tend to improve. But that is an outcome, not the aim.

Some people manage to retain their good body use into adulthood, without ever having an Alexander Technique lesson. However, most adults lose the free and often graceful movements that we had as children and often end up rather ‘crumpled’, with a variety of aches and pains. One of the joys of having Alexander lessons is that we can often regain – or find – some of the co-ordination and freedom of movement that is more natural to our bodies.

Natural, easy poise whilst working

I watched this woman in Mexico as she sat quietly working away at her knitting and she demonstrates that adults can indeed sit and work in a relaxed manner, with a lengthened spine and good posture. As she sits in the café, she has a lovely strong back and quiet poise, which allows her arms to move freely as she concentrates and works on her task. Too many people drop their neck and head forwards to do knitting, computing and similar tasks, The result is that they get neck and back pain from their mis-use and from the weight of the head dragging down towards their hands. Such poor posture and body-use can contribute to developing RSI, particularly if there is lots of habitual muscle tension.

I doubt this woman has had AT lessons and there is no knowing how much attention she has paid to thinking about how she uses her body.  This woman appears to be comfortable in her body. How many people do you see sitting at desks, pianos and computers, who have a similar free and easy poise and balance in their body as they work?

If you want to re-find your natural poise and freedom of movement and would like to prevent having pain whilst you work, come and try some 1:1 Alexander Technique lessons.

Yoga Aids Back Pain – but not as much as 24 Alexander Lessons

University of York Research Finds Yoga Aids Chronic Back Pain

More good news for back pain sufferers and for complementary therapists!  Another interesting research trial at the University of York, funded by Arthritis Research UK, has found that yoga helped people with back pain more than conventional GP treatment.

These results were then compared with the findings of the ATEAM Trial into treatments for chronic back pain (in which the Alexander Technique was found to be more effective than either massage and GP treatment) and it was found that:

‘The results suggested that the 12-week yoga group programme may improve back function more than exercise and manipulation, cognitive-behaviour treatment and six sessions of 1-to-1 Alexander technique, but not as much as 24 sessions of 1-to-1 Alexander technique’.

Interestingly, the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique Scientific Research Committee have pointed out that the ATEAM Trial also found significant reductions in pain experienced by the subjects having Alexander lessons, whereas the Yoga Trial did not report a significant level of pain reduction.

It is good that a body of research into the Alexander Technique and other disciplines is growing and that the findings are very encouraging and support our work as Alexander teachers.

As the comment below describes, people who just rely on drugs become habituated to them and then the drug don’t work. Learning techniques such as yoga and the Alexander Technique  gives people tools that they can use throughout their lives to improve their body use and to lesson problems such as back pain.

High Heels are Damaging Women

‘A Modern Torture’ is how Polly Vernon describes the wearing and ‘Invasion of the Killer Heels’ in The Times Magazine on 22.10.11. It’s a excellent article to read, with graphic illustrations of famous women falling off their high heels in public.

You can see an X Ray photo of a foot coping with being in a stiletto here.


As an Alexander Teacher, I have worked with several women who have back pain and problematic feet because of distortions in their posture which have mainly been created by wearing high heels continually.
The good news is, it is possible to undo a great deal of the damage, if women are willing to give up wearing high heels all the time and learn to use their bodies differently, by having Alexander Technique lessons.
You can read more in my article on Back Pain and High Heels

More Research Into the Alexander Technique

Fascinating Research Trial into Standing
Recently, I was delighted to be a research subject at the prestigious UCL Institute of Neurology, Queen Square London. 
The research study, which is run by Prof. Brian Day’s Whole Body Sensorimotor Lab is investigating whole-body actions and the neural processes that control them.  Dr Tim Cacciatore is looking at the way Alexander Technique Teachers use our bodies when we move, compared with the way matched members of the public, who have never had any Alexander lessons.
For the research, I was all wired up with infrared body markers on my arms, legs, spine and skull and signals from these were picked up by sensors as I moved. I also sat and stood on some force plates, that measured my force levels as I moved. 
Gradually an outline of my skeleton appeared on the computer and I could observe the way I had been moving. Dr Cacciatore has already published some findings related to this type of research and it was fascinating to be involved. I shall be very interested to find out the results of this study when it is published. Watch this space for further info about this research trial.
This type of research not only increases our understanding of the Alexander Technique but its findings may eventually be used to help people who suffer from disorders resulting from damage to the central nervous system.
Information about a previous study by this research team may be found here.

Alexander Technique Research to Help Neck Pain

Research to Help Chronic Neck Pain


Another major research trial into the Alexander Technique has just started at York University, funded by Arthritis Research UK.

The 3 year randomised controlled trial will compare the Alexander Technique, Acupuncture and regular GP care in the treatment of 450 people with chronic neck pain. Once the results of the trial are available, it is hoped that this will enable recommendations to be made about the most suitable treatment/s for neck pain to be used within the NHS.

It is already known that both lessons in the Alexander Technique, or having some Acupuncture treatments can be effective in reducing problems such as neck pain but this has not been backed up by clinical research, so this is a very welcome study. 

Long Work Hours Increase Heart Attack Risk

Research shows that long working hours increases the risk of having a heart attack by a staggering 67%!

Now this is something that seems obvious to me as an Alexander Technique teacher but it is good to have some formal research published on the topic. There have been many occasions, unfortunately, when I have seen people overworking for long periods of time until they get really ill – in a variety of different ways it has to be said. At this point, they often have to stop work altogether for a while. But the good news is that they usually find that the Alexander Technique can be a very helpful tool to use to aid their recovery.

The lead researcher in this study of using information about working hours as a method of predicting heart attacks, Professor Kivimäki of UCL Epidemiology & Public Health, reports that people who worked more than 7-8 hours a day were 5% more likely to have a heart attack than people with a similar health background and heart risk level. Those that regularly worked 11 hours or more, increased that risk to a dramatic 67%.

Is working overtime really worth that level of risk?

The research suggests that Doctors need to include questions about work hours and lifestyle when assessing heart risk factors. It also encourages workers to look after themselves and to keep their working hours to around 7-8 hours a day.

Alexander Technique lessons
can help people become more aware so they can modify the impact of overwork on their general health and wellbeing. Importantly, the Technique can help people avoid their own habits of overuse and misuse of their bodies, which can help the nervous and cardiovascular systems to calm down.  As one consultant cardiologist put it:

‘The Alexander Technique is a realistic alternative to beta blockers in the control of stress-induced high blood pressure’.

Dr Bent Ostergaard – Consultant Cardiologist

The Alexander Technique and the use of your mobile phone.

How do you use your mobile phone?

I’m not talking about which button you press…  Rather, do you think of applying the Alexander Technique to the way you use yourself when using your mobile?  Watch other people using a phone, it can be an eye-opener. You may well see habits that you can recognise as being similar to your own, so that you can learn from them about your own use (and mis-use).

The phone between shoulder and ear

The most exaggerated way of mis-using yourself when phoning, is to clamp the phone between your ear and your shoulder whilst you continue another activity with your hands free.  With this habit, it is usually the same shoulder that always gets scrunched up. Just think about what happens to your neck, as you continually compress down on one side of the vertebrae. Neck and shoulder pains will soon be on their way, if they are not with you yet, unless you stop this habit.

Making a ‘private’ space with our body

Another common form of mis-use, often seen in busy open plan offices and noisy public places, is to thrust the neck forwards, curling in and downwards whilst talking, in an attempt to gain some sense of privacy. This is a particularly frequent form of mis-use seen in mobile phone users. This cannot create the private space we would like but it does create tension and problems in the neck, shoulder and upper torso. These become very tight, stiff and pulled down into a forward curve as we box ourselves in, often resulting in back and shoulder pain as a result of developing a pronounced kyphosis.

Our sensory appreciation is often faulty, so we can be unaware of such habits of mis-use, even when we are conscientious about applying the Alexander Technique in other areas of our life.

Habits

One young woman realised that this habit was so strong that it felt impossible for her to use her left hand and ear during a phone call, even though her hearing functioned perfectly well in both ears. Now that’s a strong habit that was purely built around her perceptions. However, once aware of her pattern, the young woman could begin to let go of it and work to improve her use, both during Alexander lessons and during her phone calls.

This sort of habit is a good example of how our thoughts and attitudes
get played out in our bodies, illustrating the way the body and mind
interact and work as one.