NHS Overview of Alexander Technique

NHS Choices

It is encouraging that the NHS website includes an overview of the Alexander Technique in the ‘Choices’ section of the site. This gives a description of the AT and also includes details of some research studies which have investigated aspects and outcomes of having Alexander Technique lessons. 

NHS Choices states that there is evidence the Alexander Technique may help to relieve long term back pain and acknowledges that there is preliminary evidence to suggest it may help with Parkinson’s Disease, depression, avoidance of falling, improving respiratory function and stuttering. 

Anecdotal Evidence and Support from the Scientific Community.
There has always been support for the Alexander Technique from members of the medical profession and the scientific community. When F M Alexander was developing the Technique in the 1920’s, he had the support of eminent scientists such as the psychologist and educational reformer Prof John Dewey, the anatomist Prof Raymond Dart and the neurophysiologist Sir Charles Sherrington. When F M was establishing his first teacher training course in 1930, he was also supported by a large number of doctors who respected and valued his work. Still later in 1973 when Nikolaas Tinbergen became Nobel Laureate for Physiology and Medicine, he devoted a section of his acceptance speech to describing the benefits of the Alexander Technique.  

There is by now a wealth of anecdotal evidence re the benefits of learning the Technique, such as can be seen from the Testimonials section of my website. Conditions which people mention as having improved with learning the AT include:

  • Back Pain
  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Posture
  • Repetitive Strain Injuries
  • Stress
  • Whiplash

Students also found AT lessons aided: recuperation; reduction in the use of pain relief medication; pregnancy and childbirth; general wellbeing; confidence; musical performance; running marathons! These are just some of the ways in which people have found the AT has helped them and an exploration of the literature available about the Alexander Technique will reveal many other conditions, activities and lifestyles that have benefited from the application of AT work.

Research based Evidence 

As yet, only some aspects of the Technique have been researched and only a few large scale clinical trials have taken place but an increasing amount of research is being undertaken to investigate the effectiveness of the Alexander Technique.  The NHS considers some of these studies robust enough to scientifically support the claims that both Alexander teachers and their pupils have made about the Technique and includes references to these in their article, including the ATEAM Trial  in which the AT came out as the most effective treatment for patients with chronic and recurrent back pain.

If you would like to find out more about more research that has been done, The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique website lists a much wider range of studies than does the NHS site, including the major studies and some of the small scale preliminary ones which have begun evaluating the Technique. These studies indicate a wider range of possible benefits to be gained from taking AT lessons and further research into these topics would be advantageous. Of course funding is an issue as large scale clinical trials are costly but STAT’s Research Group is keen to support and promote further AT research within academic institutions.

Sitting Can Damage Your Health

The Health Hazards of Sitting


This is the title of an article in the Washington Post which aims to address some of the health problems associated with sitting, particularly for long periods of time. Whilst many of these problems were familiar to me as an Alexander teacher, I was rather surprised when I saw that over-sitting increases your risk of mortality. 

A research study of people watching TV over a period of 8.5 years, showed that those who watched for 1-2 hours a day had a 4% risk of dying, whereas people who watched 5-6 hours had a 31% risk – and over 7 hours a day resulted in a massive 61% risk of dying. Of course many office workers also sit at their desks for over 7 hours a day – so beware.

Some of the health hazards listed that are associated with too sedentary a lifestyle are organ damage, poor circulation and brain function, muscle degeneration, soft bones, strained necks and bad backs. Quite a list!

What Can We Do to Avoid Problems?

So what does the article suggest people can do about this if they have to sit or use desks for long periods of time? Some gentle exercises are mentioned and these may well help, depending on how they are performed.

One suggestion is to sit on something wobbly (intentionally wobbly, that is).  I understand Google has supplied them for their staff to use, which is great. I must say I do love sitting on my exercise ball whilst computing and I am doing so right now.

I agree that using a ball in this way can help us stop fixing our bodies which in turn helps to keep our musculature active and flexible – and it’s hard to slump when sitting on a ball. But some people start locking their hip and leg muscles when on the ball, perhaps because of fearing falling off, so it can help them to learn how to avoid that tension reaction and allow themselves to sit freely, despite the constant movements. Balls can also be used for gentle exercises and for having a good stress-busting bounce occasionally (like a grown-up Space Hopper). 

Another good suggestion the article made is to use desks that enable people to alternate sitting and standing. One of my pupils had an adjustable desk at work and it did help her manage her back pain – but of course she also had to learn new ways of sitting, standing and moving around in order to make best use of this facility because previously, using the desk on its own had not get rid of her back pain. That’s where learning the AT can be so very useful, because applying the AT whilst working and living her life, my pupil gradually got rid of her debilitating back problems and then joined a dance class for fun – she could not have done that before!

The article also illustrates some of the impacts of slumping at a desk and makes it very clear how unhelpful this can be, showing a woman sitting in a collapsed position. However, the text here is somewhat misleading as it seems to suggest that we avoid using our sitting bones:

People who sit more are at greater risk for herniated lumbar discs. A muscle called the psoas travels through the abdominal cavity and, when
it tightens, pulls the upper lumbar spine forward. Upper-body weight rests
entirely on the
ischeal tuberosity (sitting bones) instead of being distributed
along the arch of the spine. 

But we do need to sit on our sitting bones! The main illustration in the article, of the slumped woman, does show too much weight going through the rear part of the sitting bones, which is not helpful and would be likely to cause lumbar back pain. However, if the pelvis were realigned to be more upright, the weight could be distributed through the spine, then transferred through the pelvis and into the central part of the sitting bones, or into the legs if standing.  

Strangely, the illustrations showing people the ‘correct’ way to sit and stand, omit showing the pelvis and sitting bones altogether, so the person appears to be finely balanced on thin air and the tiny coccyx. 

“There’s No Such Thing As A Right Position” FM Alexander

It is so easy to fall into wanting a quick fix and assume that standing or sitting up straight for sensible amounts of time and then taking exercise, will solve all problems. Well, while this strategy may help a bit, it’s quite possible to sit and stand in a rigid manner, for instance, which can build up tensions, restrict our breathing and may lead to other problems in the future. Stiffening like this is tiring and people usually can’t keep it up for long.

As Alexander himself put it when teaching:

I am putting into gear the muscles that hold you up, and you are putting them out of gear and then making a tremendous effort to hold yourself up, with the result that, when you cease that effort, you slump down worse than ever”. (FM Alexander Aphorisms) 

So it is not just about the positions we sit and stand in, but the manner in which we use our bodies during our activities that makes the biggest difference of all. We can learn to be aware of our body use, gradually putting our muscles ‘into gear’ so we find an easier and more balanced way of sitting and moving around that enhances, not damages, our health.

Applications of the Alexander Technique: Luggage

Everyday Activities:- Pulling a Case or Trolley

 
One of the activities that people sometimes ask to explore as part of their Alexander lesson is “How is the best way to pull luggage around and avoid getting backache?”
 
These days we are fortunate to have roller luggage and laptop cases that dramatically redce the weight that we have to deal with when travelling and commuting. Despite this, many people still end up with back ache or sore shoulders after pulling bags around, so it is really helpful to think about how to apply the AT to this and other everyday activities. 
 
As usual, it is important not to assume that good equipment will solve the problem on its own – we still need to think about the way we use ourselves as we manoeuvre heavy cases through crowds of people…..
 
We can learn a lot from the way this little girl is moving. She is alert, poised and aligned; her head is balanced as it leads her into movement; her upper chest widens out comfortably as her right arm reaches back and pulls the handle of her trolley. This child is not consciously aware of how she is using her body. However, as we get older we can learn to develop mindfulness and be aware, so we can give ourselves more choice as to how we move and act in the world.
 
Child with trolly .jpgAwareness and Choice
 
Some frequent but unhelpful habits to notice and to ask yourself about:
  • Do I hold the luggage handle at the right height for me?
  • Do I twist my torso as I drag the luggage behind me?
  • Do I pull down on one side of my body?
  • Do I rush through stations and airports tensely, carelessly, or with awareness?
  • Do I grab the luggage, or thoughtfully take hold of it – and how do I lift it?
  • Do I remember to stop and think before pulling or lifting something heavy – am I evenly balanced with a lengthened spine when I move or lift?
When you develop this type of Alexander Technique self-awareness, you can begin to answer some of these questions, so that you can have more choice about how to perform any activity. By  taking a moment to think about your body use and applying the AT to something like pulling your cases, you can help yourself avoid over-tiring, straining or even damaging your neck / back / hands / arms as you travel around. This process of noticing unhelpful habits can be easier with your AT teacher and some fruitful work can be done with this sort of topic in Alexander lessons

Improve Your Sleep

How Much Sleep do We Need?


The recent TV programme ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor‘ on BBC2 discussed, amongst other things, the issue of sleep and an experiment that is researching the question of how much sleep people need. It has been shown that people who have six hours sleep were sleep deprived and did not function as well when performing mental tasks, as those who had seven hours sleep. Also, that tests revealed a number of genes related to illnesses such as heart disease, were found in greater numbers in those research subjects that had less sleep. So it is obviously a good idea to aim to have at least seven hours sleep, in order to remain in good health.

It wasn’t just the length but also the quality of sleep that was discussed. High levels of alcohol can disturb our sleep and using computers which produce a blueish light from the screen late in the evening tends to over-stimulate our brains, resulting in poor sleep. Apparently you can download an App that changes the temperature of the screen to a more yellowish glow, which is less stimulating, so computer users might like to try that to see if it helps.

Improve the Quality of Your Sleep with the AT

There were not many suggestions as to how we can go about improving the quality of our sleep. However, there was a moment of synchronicity for me, as so often happens, when an AT pupil of mine came in the next day talking about the same issue (not having seen the programme). He said that since he started having Alexander lessons, ‘The quality of my sleep is much better and I’m less stiff in the mornings’.

You may ask, why is this? The fact that he is thinking more and more about the AT during his working day and that he regularly uses the lying down procedure, means that he is less tense and stressed at the time of going to sleep than he used to be. Using the lying down procedure just before going to bed can help us let of of the day’s tensions and can set us up for sleep. This allows us to enjoy a deeper and more refreshing sleep without the help of any drugs, which is great.

Unwinding

Many people ask me ‘what’s the best way to sleep?’ and I think this is a difficult question to answer as many people find they can only fall asleep in one particular position. Sometimes these positions may be very tightly curled up and actually cause discomfort by the morning. 

How do you sleep? If you curl up tightly, the first thing you can begin to change, is to allow your body to soften and lengthen out within the position you are used to then, over time, you can learn to adapt how you go to sleep. Lying on the back allows your body to unwind and lengthen out without putting pressure on shoulders, your neck or your lower back – but don’t lie in semi supine to sleep, as bent knees will restrict the circulation in your legs if you stay like this for too long. 

As you begin to drop off to sleep, you can think of your body becoming softer, freeing up your muscles and allowing yourself to unwind and lengthen out, taking a lovely gentle quietness with you as you drift off – you will probably sleep a lot better as a result.


Alexander Technique Helps Accidents and Shock

Using the Alexander Technique Helps with Accidents and Shock


Two of my pupils have. unfortunately, had accidents recently in which they fell and experienced shock as a result.  Sensibly, both of them used the Alexander Technique to help them handle the situation and found that it was very beneficial and reassuring to use.

Concussion and Shock

The first to fall was a woman in her 60s, who who fell in the Paris metro and the doors struck her head, giving her concussion and she experienced a shock reaction. However, whilst she was receiving first aid and then whilst waiting in A & E, she began to use the AT in order to help herself return to a calmer state and to avoid tension building up. The AT helped when she was left alone for some long time, as she waited for a consultant to examine her and she was wondering just how bad her injury was. 

She was diagnosed with a sub dural haematoma, which is a serious condition as it is a bleed between the brain and the surrounding membrane, so she was kept under observation in the intensive care unit for a couple of days.  During this time she was propped up in a sitting position in her bed and was unable to move around. However she often reminded herself to allow her neck and body to freely release and lengthen out again and she used the AT to help her to be more comfortable.    

Once out of hospital, my pupil experienced a number of headaches and was unable to lie down or bend over for some time, but she could keep working on herself with AT whilst sitting up and she found she could comfortably and safely use monkey position instead of bending right down, which would have put pressure on her healing wound.  I am glad to say that she has made a full recovery and has been given the ‘all clear’.

Falling from a Bike

My second pupil had a fall from her bike – on the way to her AT lesson with me! Her face was bleeding, her head had been knocked and she felt shocked and ‘shaken up’.  Unfortunately she had to miss her lesson as she needed to go home and possibly the doctor. I encouraged her to use the lying down procedure when she got home, in order to both calm her nervous system and to help her re-align herself.  I was glad to hear later that lying down in ‘semi supine worked wonders’ and she was later able to take herself into work.

Using the AT in this way, immediately after an accident, can be really valuable. I remember one of my AT teachers telling me how he had been thrown from a horse and he was very worried about the impact the fall had had on him. As soon as he got home he lay down and worked on himself in semi supine for an extra-long time and when he got up, he found he actually felt OK once again.  

Alexander Technique as part of Your First Aid Kit

As Alexander teachers, we are used to working with people who are recovering from accidents, injuries and illnesses and we know that AT lessons can help people a great deal. It is also important to remember that we can use the AT as part of our first aid kit and that using the lying down procedure, or simply using the AT in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, can immediately begin to calm the nervous system and we can use AT to help our body to re-align itself  – and in so doing, we can aid our recovery. 

It is also reassuring to know that we have a tool that we can use to help ourselves with, both in emergencies and in the long term – and this can help to empower us in crisis.

Elisabeth Walker

Elisabeth Walker ~ December 1914 – 17 September 2013

 
It is with great sadness that I heard of the death of Elisabeth Walker, an inspiring teacher and the last of the first generation of AT teachers who trained with F M Alexander himself.
 
Elisabeth ran an AT Teacher Training course in Oxford for many years with her husband Dick Walker and she was a guest teacher and speaker at many international Alexander Conferences and events. Her fascinating memoir ‘Forward and Away’ shows us just how important her family and her life as an Alexander Teacher were to her. Thankfully we can still watch a valuable record of her teaching on various videos on YouTube.
 
In 2004 an extremely youthful Elisabeth Walker attended the 7th Alexander Technique Conference in Oxford and was seen cycling to and from the Conference each day – at the age of 90!
 
Elisabeth Walker.jpg
 
Elisabeth will be missed by many people and I would like to offer my condolences to her family, particularly to Lucia Walker and Julia Cowper, who are both Alexander teachers. There will be a memorial and celebration of her life, some time next year.
 
Elisabeth
will be buried at Westmill Woodland Burial Ground on Friday 5th October.  

Alexander Technique Videos

YouTube as an AT Resource


I have just been watching ‘A Conversation With Marjorie Barlow’ on YouTube and it was good for me to be reminded of the wonderful AT lessons I had with this ‘first generation’ teacher. I also realized yet again just what a valuable resource YouTube can be for people interested in the Alexander Technique. There are videos suitable for complete beginners, right through to videos that are a useful resource for teacher trainees and experienced AT teachers.

Marjorie Barlow was F M Alexander’s niece and she trained as an AT teacher with FM himself. Later, she was one of the first people to start training AT teachers and she ran a training course for many years with her husband Dr Wilfred Barlow.  

In the video, Marjorie Barlow maintains her quiet poise throughout and her face frequently lights up with smiles and laughter as she shares some of her extensive knowledge of the Technique.  She stresses how important it is for each of us to ‘think in activity’ and that using the Technique is an attentive process. Whilst she encourages people to apply the Technique to many activities and acknowledges that each teacher will bring their own personality and experiences to the work, Marjorie Barlow encourages us to maintain the Technique in a ‘pure’ form and not to mistakenly ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ by diluting it too much – something I very much aim to do in my own teaching.

This YouTube video is particularly valuable for teachers or anyone thinking of becoming a trainee. 

Body Flexion in Alexander Technique

Body Flexion – Used When Fishing

 

The term ‘Monkey Position‘ is used in the Alexander Technique to describe a way of bending forwards by flexing the body, bending the knees and folding at the hip joints so that the spine can continue to lengthen rather than curl and shorten. It’s a great way to bend forwards, whilst making sure we protect our backs.

 
Some people feel awkward using this ‘new’ movement but they don’t realize that they already use something like it during many of their activities – for instance as they flex their bodies in order to sit and stand, or bend over to put shoes on and off. In Western society where we use chairs so much of the time, many of us forget that we can use the big hinge of our hip joints to fold – and then wonder why they gradually stiffen up.
 
In AT lessons, we aim to make this flexing movement more refined and more conscious, so that we can avoid just curling forwards using tension and contraction, which puts strain on our spines – and squashes our internal organs!
 
I was going for a walk with friends and we went to Walton on the Naze where we watched a man fishing over the side of the pier. I just happened to photograph him as he went to arrange his fishing gear and he quite naturally bent his knees and flexed his hip joints, using a deep ‘Monkey’ like movement to bend forwards. I have no idea if he has ever had any AT lessons…
 
 
Fisherman using monkey movement 27-07-2013.jpg
Learn by People Watching
 
I find it fascinating to observe people (in a friendly and non-invasive way) during their everyday activities. It can help us understand more about our own body-use and habits when we see how other people move and use their bodies. The fisherman looks completely comfortable using this flexing movement whilst keeping a lengthened spine and for people who find it strange to bend over in this ‘new’ way, it can help to see others using it in their everyday lives. Cricket, tennis and golf fans, plus anyone who has seen young children bend over, can see this type of movement being used over and over again! 
 
So what do you notice and what can you learn about your own habits, when you watch people around you – do you sit and move around like the people you can see?  If you keep your eyes open and discretely observe others when you are out and about, you will learn a lot about how we all use our bodies. You will see some easy and natural movements being made with poise and you will also see many awkward, unhelpful ways of moving and sitting. Can you get more of a sense of how your various habits of use and mis-use might impact on your own body? 
 
Learning from others in this way also makes activities such as sitting in meetings or travelling on public transport, far more interesting!  If we are attentive and think about how we move and what we are doing, we can learn so much about our own use when we see it mirrored in other people. 

Grow Taller Using the Alexander Technique

‘I was taller after my Alexander lesson!’


This has been said by many pupils over the years and indeed people often do ‘grow taller’ in AT lessons, as a result of undoing the tension that compresses them, pulls them down and ultimately shortens their stature. When they stop pulling down, they can begin to assume their full height.

Our habits of contracting and shrinking into ourselves develop as we express our attitudes and emotions. Thought patterns are very often expressed in the language we use with terms such as ‘getting down to work’ and thinking we need to put our ‘nose to the grindstone’ as we deal with ‘weighty issues’ imply that work requires intensity (in-tense-ity) and a rather heavy-handed approach in order for us to be able to function well. But is this really true?

We also talk of avoiding trouble by ‘keeping our heads down’ and we avoid difficulties by ‘burying one’s head in the sand’. We can feel ‘down hearted’ or ‘down on my luck’….. and so on. Just reading all these idioms which include a ‘down’ concept encourages a heavy and somewhat negative feeling in me! Does the same happen when you read them?

How different my internal experience is if I think in terms of people being ‘poised and ready for action’, alert, aware and focussed so we can work well and ‘lighten the load’. How much nicer to feel ‘upbeat’ and ‘buoyant’ so that we are able to ‘think tall’ and ‘rise above our difficulties’. 

When I asked a pupil recently how her week had been she replied ‘ oh, up and down’ and when I enquired if she meant emotionally or physically she realised that she had meant both and saw how her varying emotions had been expressed by her body, which had been literally going up and down, so that she was shorter when she felt ‘low’ and was taller when her ‘mood lightened’. This is a very clear example of the mind and body acting as one unit, not as two separate parts of us.
Of course we can also contract down into ourselves as a result of an accident or illness and our habits can often add to this problem. I had a pupil who’d had a collapsed lung and he found it hard to maintain an expansive length in his body and he would ‘grow’ about 2 inches (5 cm) in his AT lesson. An important part of his learning was to find out how he could avoid contracting down again during his everyday life, so that his lungs had more chance to expand fully and continue the process of healing. 
Think Tall
I decided to Google the term ‘Think Tall’ and came upon an interesting piece of research by Cornell University that showed people who feel powerful tend to perceive themselves as being taller than they really are.  The research also suggested that people tend to think of tall people as more powerful than their shorter peers – who sometimes get called ‘The Small People’, with rather negative connotations . 
So what happens to us when we pull down and shorten ourselves? Do we unconsciously diminish ourselves and as a result feel less powerful? Or do we in fact shrink ourselves because we feel rather powerless and miserable? Probably both but we do not have to shrink for anyone!
But what happens when we change our habits and stop contracting down, allow ourselves to think ‘up’? Do we begin to feel more powerful as we expand into our true height again – or possibly find our full height for the very first time? Certainly one pupil gave a presentation for work and was consciously using the AT to help her. She was far less anxious than she had been on previous occasions and she was surprised to discover that she felt taller than usual at the end of it! Perhaps she found herself feeling more powerful than before?
By learning and using the Alexander Technique we can become more self-aware so that we can more easily answer questions such as these and have more skills to help ourselves maintain our full height – something that is also important as we get older. Even when life is tough, we can choose not to crumple but remain poised and balanced. And if you want to step into your power, think tall!

Sitting with Poise

Can we sit like this child?

 
The child below was photographed as she played with her friends. She was not posing for the camera and she displays a natural, lively, free and easy balance that she is unconsciously using. Children can very often sit like this for long periods of time without any strain but unfortunately many tend to lose this easy poise as they grow older. 
Why does this happen? Well, children can get bored or upset and express this in their bodies by tensing and crumpling up into themselves. The furniture they use may be unsuitable, like the backward sloping chairs that are often used in schools which many AT teachers and others are trying to ban. Children may grow suddenly, so they don’t quite know how to use their bodies because they can’t work out how big they are. They can spend hours slumped in front of the TV…. there can be many reasons for developing habits that disturb our balance and poise!
In Alexander lessons, we aim to help people to consciously find an inner balance within themselves so that they can sit and move around freely and easily like this child. Knowing our own habit patterns can help us let go them so that we can return to, or create, an easier poise that we can enjoy during daily activities such as computing or playing the piano (below).

 

 
Child sitting, alert and poised.jpg
 
Sitting at a Piano
 
A young woman came for AT lessons recently and one of the things that brought her to me was that she had a lot of pain in her upper back when she played the piano, which she loves to do for relaxation but the pain was making it less enjoyable. 
 
During lessons it became clear that she had a habit of over-tensing her back muscles as she lifted her arms up when she pretended to use a keyboard. Interestingly, her back was much tighter when she thought of playing the piano, compared to when she thought of using a computer, even though the initial arm movements were so similar. This beautifully illustrates how our thoughts and attitudes influence the way we use our bodies.
 
After having just a couple of lessons, this student was pleased to report that the pain in her back was already much less. This was great to hear and it was clear that this young woman has really begun to take the AT work on board, has been observing herself as she played the piano and has regularly used the lying down procedure, all of which has helped her to begin to change her habits really quickly.
If we can all sit at desks and pianos with the easy, fluid balance that the child displays in the photo, we shall all be a lot happier in our bodies!