Category Archives: Health

How Best to Carry a Baby?

Carrying styles affect a baby’s spinal development

There is an interesting illustrated article about a baby’s spinal development and how it is affected by the manner in which the baby sleeps in strollers and car seats, or whilst he is carried by adults – well worth reading if there is a baby in the household.

The main theory put forward in the article is that the best position for the baby is to be carried in a sling facing into the parent’s body, so that the head, neck, back and legs are supported and are therefore in a good position for their correct development. This position allows the baby to have close physical contact with a parent which aids good psychological development. It also lets the baby move and make body-adjustments in response to the parent’s movements and this develops the baby’s musculature. Being held in a more upright position also allows the baby to see and learn about the outside world. 

Strollers and Car Seats can leave Babies Crumpled

Interestingly, the article suggests that even laying babies flat on their backs is unhelpful. I agree that if babies spend a lot of time on their backs in strollers and car seats, their movements are very restricted and they are unable to move around much, so they cannot develop the necessary muscle-use in their necks, spine and legs. But, in my opinion, babies in so called ergonomic strollers are rarely ‘flat on their backs’ but are often left (by their parents) helplessly ‘crumpled up’ which could damage their their spines – and cannot help their breathing and digestion, come to that. How aware are you of your baby’s back and neck when you carry him, or leave him sleeping in a stroller? Do you check to see if he needs to be re-aligned, so that he’s not left sleeping in a contorted or crumpled position?

A baby lying flat in a cot has ample room to move around freely when she wishes to, so she can move into all sorts of positions. This is also true when a baby is allowed to lie on the floor to play, where she can explore the world and develop appropriate muscle strength and a capacity for exploration. I know one toddler who spent so much time in a stroller or being carried around that she’s very passive, does not show much curiosity about the world and was slow in trying to walk.

What about the Parent’s Back?

What isn’t mentioned in this article aimed at encouraging people to carry babies in slings, is the state of the parents’ backs when carrying a baby this way for long periods of time. I have taught parents and grandparents who have come for AT lessons because they have developed lower back pain and shoulder ache, partly through carrying an increasingly heavy baby around in a sling. This can happen because they have not been aware of their own body use so have not maintained the length in their own lumber spine, which can then become over-arched, compressed and tense, causing pain.
It is so easy as a new parent or grandparent to put all’s one’s attention on the baby and to forget to look after your own body as you lift, carry and bend over those precious but heavy and wriggly little bundles. This gets particularly difficult if you are feeling sleep-deprived and exhausted! How aware are you of what happens in your own body when you bend over to attend to your baby, or carry her, or anything else that is heavy that can put pressure on your spine? 
If you have some AT lessons, you learn to become aware of your own body use and how to maintain a freely lengthening back during all your daily activities and it can become possible to carry a baby in a sling in an appropriate way, look after the baby’s wellbeing and look after yourself at the same time. That has to be good – and I wish I had learnt the Technique when my children were babies, so that I could have looked after my own back rather better than I did.

Guidelines for Treating Back Pain?

New US Guidelines for the Treatment of Lower Back Pain

These new guidelines are medically-based, as would be expected but there is a welcome emphasis on encouraging the reduction of invasive procedures and the use of steroids and narcotics to reduce the symptoms.

I haven’t read the whole paper but I thought it was unfortunate that this abstract makes no mention of the use of the Alexander Technique to treat back pain – which has been shown in a major Research Trial published in the BMJ in 2008, to be more effective in helping people with chronic lower back pain than were massage or even a Doctor’s standard back care regime!

I was one of the STAT registered teachers selected to teach on the ATEAM trial and have worked with many people with back pain amongst other problems that bring people to me to learn the Technique.  In Alexander lessons, people learn to use their bodies in a more balanced and less tense manner whilst performing ordinary activities, so that their backs are more aligned and able to lengthen out, which gradually reduces problems such as lower back pain.

The fact that the AT really can help reduce back pain on a long term basis was scientifically proved in the research study and the conclusions of the ATEAM Research Trial were that One to one lessons in the Alexander technique from registered teachers have long term benefits for patients with chronic back pain’.

BMJ 2008;337:a884

Headache Prevention

Headaches are discussed in the media

The fact that the frequent use of painkillers can actually give us headaches, is once again being brought to the attention of the public – and a good thing too. ‘Medication overuse headaches’ is the term given to describe the preventable condition, in which we can become habituated to the painkillers so we try taking more in order to bring about relief – but only end up by making the situation worse.

It is therefore necessary for people who have been constantly taking painkillers to come off them but, like coming off other drugs, there are withdrawal symptoms and as the BBC news item put it ‘this will lead to about a month of agony as patients contend with regular headaches without pain relief, until symptoms eventually improve’.

This is obviously a situation worth avoiding!

So what can people do, other than reaching for drugs when they first get headaches? Well, using the Alexander Technique can be amazingly helpful here, particularly if the headaches have been brought about through stress, poor posture and/or general mis-use and tension. 
What Pupils Say
A new pupil told me yesterday that ‘I sat waiting for a train and thought about freeing my neck and my jaw and I actually managed to stop my headache from developing! So I avoided taking any paracetamol, which is what I would have done before I started having AT lessons’. This way of reducing headaches is surely preferable to using painkillers, if they can be avoided.

Another pupil, who came to me after having had major brain surgery also described, in her testimonial, how the AT had helped her with her ‘horrible headaches’  that she’d had since childhood. This pupil had previously ‘tried many things over many years to help reduce the frequency of the headaches’ and she said that taking Alexander lessons with me had changed things for her so that ‘I rarely get headaches any more because (Hilary) helped me teach my body to relax away from the bundle of tension it had become’. 
It would almost certainly have helped this pupil to avoid years of headaches, if she had been able to have AT lessons as a child, which would have helped her avoid the tension patterns and postural problems that she had developed as she grew up.

Working out why we get headaches, is an important part of being able to avoid them and factors such as tension, the way we use our bodies and even what we eat can play a part in bringing about headaches. Severe or frequent headaches can be a symptom of a medical condition that needs treatment, so do consult a Doctor in such cases. 
However, for the headaches that most people experience, learning the Alexander Technique so that you can use it as an invaluable first step to take and is far more beneficial to use it rather than automatically taking painkillers that have been shown to work less and less well over time, until they cause pain and many problems. Use the AT regularly and save painkillers for occasional use – they will work better for you and you will feel healthier.
International Alexander Awareness Week Taster Workshop ~ 7 August 
If you would like to find out more about the Alexander Technique I will be running a free Taster Workshop on 7 August in Islington N, as part of International Alexander Awareness Week. Individual lessons are regularly available in Stoke Newington N16.

The Alexander Technique and Gardening

Apply the Alexander Technique Whilst Gardening
Gardens keep on growing and there are lots of plants needing to be tidied up, cut back and pruned. And the grass needs mowing too….
Gardening involves using our bodies in ways that many of us just don’t do in our daily lives. People often spend days sat at a desk, then do a sudden heavy bout of gardening, which can involve movements such as:
Stretch, reach, twist, bend, kneel, climb, balance, cut, saw, chop, dig, push, pull, carry, and finally sweep…

Quite a work-out – and it can be easy to strain muscles or hurt your back doing all this work. So when you are involved in activities such as gardening, be aware and remember what you have learnt in Alexander lessons. Don’t rush into things but pause, take a moment to think about how you are going to use your body when doing the next job. Give yourself directions, remind yourself not to tighten everything up ( tension is not the same thing as strength). Avoid pulling your head back but to allow your spine to lengthen into all your movements, so that you protect your neck and back.

When you need to bend, be aware of your movements and hinge forwards freely from your hip joints, adapting the monkey position as the woman in this (un-posed) photo is doing (although ideally the movement is made without a hand on the knee) and you will be more likely to avoid the back pain that so often happens after spending hours bending, mowing and digging.

Monkey whilst gardening 23-07-2012 .jpg

Equally, take care when you have to reach and to look up, in order to prune trees and bushes. Allow your neck to freely maintain as much length as you can, regularly undoing any contracted muscles whilst working. It’s great to use the active rest procedure afterwards, to allow your body to let go of any tensions that have built up whilst working.
Look after yourself and you will enjoy your gardening – and your garden – even more!

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. 
 
Refia.Sacks jpg.jpg
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.
For a fun and very informal view of how learning the Technique can help us to think about our bodies, you might like to watch this video produced by teacher trainee students at the Cumbria Alexander Training Course:
Just don’t expect your lessons to be anything like this though!
If you would like to discover more and want to try the Technique out, introductory Alexander lessons with Hilary are available on a regular basis.
Taster Workshop on Saturday 28 January – FULL
As this is for a Small Group, it is essential to enrol in advance.
You are welcome to phone for further info:
020 7254 9206

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