Sir Colin Davis

Sir Colin Davis

It was with sadness that I heard that Sir Colin Davis, the internationally renowned conductor, has died at the age of 85 (14 April ’13). Sir Colin lived locally, in Highbury.

I remember him well from when I danced in the Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet during the 60’s, when he was the musical director of the Opera Company. Performances and rehearsals that Sir Colin conducted always had an extra edge of excitement about them, as he was an inspiring and charismatic conductor who wanted the very best from everyone under his baton – and he did not suffer fools gladly! Some people described him as a ‘firebrand’ in those days.

Sir Colin was well respected internationally, was the principal conductor and President of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years, plus conducted the orchestras of the Royal Opera House and many other famous institutions.  Sir Colin held the International Chair Conducting Studies at the Royal Academy of Music for 25 years.  

Less well known is that Sir Colin was an advocate of the Alexander Technique and must have encouraged many musicians to take Alexander lessons. It has been said that over the years Sir Colin mellowed and it may well be that the Technique helped him to bring about this change? 

Sir Colin’s second wife, Shamsi, trained as an Alexander Teacher a few years after me at Misha Magidov’s AT Teacher Training Course. Shamsi Davis later taught the AT at the Royal Academy of Music and over the years, both she and Sir Colin donated a substantial amount of money to the RAM Alexander Technique fund.

Sir Colin Davis has left a rich legacy of music making and will be very much missed.

Alexander Technique and Anxiety Conditions

Anxiety and Stage Fright

The Alexander Technique is well known for helping with our posture and with back problems but not so many people realise it is a useful tool to use in conditions of stress and anxiety. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of this and I personally know that it can help, from my own experience. However, there is little scientific evidence as yet to support this idea.   Some people that have for years found the AT can help with anxiety, are musicians and other performers, who have found the Technique invaluable to them in coping with stage fright.
William Hurt is one such artist who uses the AT to help with performance anxiety as quoted on the DVD shown below.
It’s not just performers that can benefit from the calming aspects of the Technique – we all can. Almost everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives and the strength of anxiety can range from situations when we are just mildly worried about things, through to conditions such as performance anxiety, panic attacks or post traumatic stress disorder.

Using the Alexander Technique during an eye operation.

A pupil of mine mentioned that she sometimes has panic attacks and one of the things we have been working on in lessons is the idea of not reacting to anxious thoughts by tightening up her muscles and restricting her breathing. This not only helps reduce tension but can help to stop the anxiety from building up. 
Shortly after starting AT lessons, this pupil had to have an eye operation for which she was sedated but only to the level where she could still talk – and she could still see the surgeon as he was performing the operation. This understandably lead to her feeling a bit anxious but she was pleased to be able to tell me that “When I used the Alexander Technique, I stopped myself from having a panic attack during the eye operation”.
It was quite impressive for her to be able to use the Technique so well after just 5 lessons. Fortunately, she was asked to lie down in the semi-supine position for the operation and the fact that she had been practising the AT lying down procedure regularly, in this position, would undoubtedly have helped her to remember what she had learned in her Alexander lessons. My pupil found she could use the AT during the operation in order to help herself stay calm, so that she avoided building up lots of tension and was able to keep her breathing more regular and easy. It also helped her that a nurse sat and held held her hand throughout the operation, something we could happily see more of in the NHS. 

At the Dentist…..

Another excellent time to use the AT is when we visit the dentist, where people experience different levels of discomfort and anxiety whilst receiving treatment. It can be very tempting to pull our head back with loads of tension in the neck, whilst holding the jaw open stiffly during dental procedures. However, we can use the Technique to keep our jaws more free, to look after our necks and backs and to help ourselves be calmer as we lie in the dentist’s chair.
Another bonus is that it’s helpful to have something else to think about, other than the drill or whatever bit of metalwork is filling our mouth at the time! 

After a diagnosis of long-term illness

It can be very reassuring to know that we can use the Alexander Technique to help us cope with a huge range of different situations and conditions. 
“My aching legs, though, were the precursors of a more serious, long-term endocrine condition.  My energy, memory, and stamina were affected and I had constant muscle pain. I continued with AT which helped me to cope with the worst.  Lying in the AT position made it less necessary to take pain-killers and helped me to be more calm and not to panic about the future of this illness”.
Individual lessons are regularly available. You can contact me here.

The ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ habit

Research shows the British habit of having a ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ may reduce Cancer survival rates.

The BBC cites research that indicates people in the UK tend to be slower to contact their doctors when they notice possible cancer symptoms and this puts them more at risk than patients in most other countries. As with most conditions, the sooner there is a diagnosis, the more treatment options are likely to be available. Delaying diagnosis can reduce cancer survival rates (as can a lack of NHS funding!)

The article says this is particularly true of Brits over 50 years of age, who often say they are embarrassed and don’t want to waste the Dr’s time. Researchers also suggest they still have a ‘wartime mentality’ and feel they need to be stoic. Money worries and the recession add to fears about losing jobs, so many people feel less able to admit to having a problem, so it is understandable why the ‘stiff upper lip’ comes into play.  How sad – if only they could allow themselves to seek help sooner.
A Stiff Upper Lip impacts on other conditions too

Some people come for AT lessons because their constant back problems or RSI (for instance) have become so painful that they are finally driven to seek help and come to the Alexander Technique. Often they have tried so hard to do their best that they’ve lived and worked through stress, pain or illness for months before deciding to address the problem, which usually makes their condition worse and can lead to more serious illnesses and ME, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. 
People often find great relief from their pain by learning how to use their bodies differently in AT lessons but the more entrenched their habits and the longer they have been around, the harder it is for change to happen and for healing to occur. When we are ready and willing to allow ourselves to change, change usually takes place – the earlier this process starts, the easier it is and the sooner we can feel more comfortable in our bodies. This isn’t necessarily age related. I have known some eighty year old pupils more open to allowing change than some fifteen year olds!

Don’t be so Stoic!

Most of the time we just don’t need to be so stoic (although very occasionally, it is a useful skill to draw upon).  It is important to know when we are stuck in a pattern that does not serve us so we need to stop working in the way in which we have been doing and to allow ourselves to ask for appropriate help. 

To illustrate what often happens, I will explore the problem of RSI. There are many people who constantly use computers or musical instruments and experience increasing levels of pain. They continue working right through the pain in order to meet deadlines and they stoically believe they have to keep on going, despite their discomfort. This is not a very pleasant way to live and yet many people ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ and keep working, getting caught in the mouse trap. Changing the mouse may help briefly but then the pain tends to come back with overuse – unless the way they work and use their bodies also gets changed. Far better to seek help quickly, as one drummer recently did, in the very first weeks of having painful arms.

It’s OK to seek help sooner ~ Know when to STOP

My second example is of a new AT pupil who described her experience of previously having ME – I’ll call her Mary. As a younger woman, she had been both working and attending college at the same time and was doing far too much. She also had a full social life and chose not to take any of her holiday for a full calendar year. Then Mary became ill with sinus problems which just wouldn’t go away but she ‘just kept on working’ through her illness – until she found she couldn’t walk. Mary ended up in hospital for a week and spent three months being ‘out of it’ and unable to walk. Her body had rather dramatically told her to stop being so stoic and to stop overworking! 

Mary began to recover and to walk again. She changed her attitude towards work and her studies, so that she did a lot less and did not overstretch herself. The ME lasted for four years or so, which is rather less than it takes many people to recover and this may largely be due to the fact
that Mary took her condition seriously and made important changes in her attitude towards the way
she worked, cutting out everything unnecessary and ‘extra’, which gradually allowed her body to heal and her health to improve.

Wisely, Mary has taken a sabbatical in order to avoid going back into her old patterns of overwork. She wants to stay in touch with what is really important to her and has started having Alexander lessons in order to enhance this process 
Many people over the years have found that learning the Alexander Technique can help them to manage conditions like ME, RSI and back pain, as they begin to fine tune their energy and tension levels and learn to pace themselves better. 
The Technique not a cure-all but most people find the work incredibly helpful in all sorts of different situations and conditions – it can even help you free your jaw, smile and begin to let go of a habitual urge to keep a stiff upper lip!

Frost and Ice

Frosted Poppy SeedheadSlippery Pavements

There are wet leaves on the paths and the first wintry frost is here, so it’s time to take care on pavements! If you are afraid of falling on ice, it is tempting to tense up all over but remember, you will have more sense of your balance and more control over your movements if you refuse to tighten but walk in an alert and free manner, using all you have learned in your Alexander lessons.

One wintry day last year when the pavements were covered with ice, I was tempted to tighten up my legs and hips in order to keep my balance. Then I saw a teenager running with ease along the frozen pavement, illustrating the fact that poise and free movements are the best way to maintain ones balance, even on slippery ice.

We do need to keep warm in order to look after our health but perhaps we can do our bit for the environment and start off by wearing an extra layer of clothing, rather than turn the heating up without thinking. Tensing up our our arms, shoulders and lower back against the cold really doesn't help to us keep any warmer, in fact it tends to restrict our circulation, which could make us feel even colder.
Also, have you noticed the weight of a winter coat? How much heavier winter clothes are than summer ones! It's tempting to let the coat's weight drag us down but if we gently maintain the length in our spines and allow an upward anti-gravity energy flow through us, we can still be poised - and somehow the coat tends to feel less heavy.

Cycling and the Alexander Technique

Alexander Technique can Help You Cycle Better
I had an interesting email from a pupil the other day (I’ll call him Fred) saying that since he had been having Alexander lessons, he felt more comfortable whilst cycling and that ‘over the year I have a particular proof
that I have recovered suppleness in my back’ .
Fred went on to say ‘I have had a bike for about 5 years which I was not able to ride hands free
like I used to. I thought it was a problem with the bike, as it was a budget non brand
roadbike. For 5 years previous to that I gave up cycling as I had a bad accident when
someone opened a car door on me and so I decided to stop cycling…’ 
Then Fred started having Alexander lessons with me. He developed his awareness about his body-use and learned to recognise habits that interfered with the way his body needed to function. He became aware that over the years he’d developed patterns of tension and contraction and these had become even stronger because of the way he reacted to stressful situations. He realised that the more stressful his work became, the more he reacted by tensing up – which resulted in developing severe pain in his neck and arms. This was not helped by tension he used to pull himself down and clutch the handlebars as he rode his bike – which then meant he crumpled his neck in order to look up to see the road and traffic, pinching his cervical nerves in the process.
Letting go of Habits Allows Room for Change
Fred has worked hard at applying changes to the way he habitually uses his body during daily activities and he regularly practices the constructive rest procedure. He has learned to stop reacting to work stress by immediately tensing up and was pleased to see that he’s become calmer and has stopped experiencing constant pain in his neck and arms. Fred now uses less tension and contraction whilst cycling so that he can be more aligned, allowing his neck and spine to lengthen out ~ and he’s regained his ability to be poised and balanced on his bike. 
Making these changes helped him realise that his previous cycling problems came from the habitual way he used to ride – ‘I now realise it was me ….as I can now ride
hands-free like I used to without there having been any changes made to my bike.

I think this is quite a handy anecdote about AT.’
Thank you Fred!

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

Bending Forwards with Ease

Bending Forwards

Children usually move around freely and are able to bend down with ease and poise but as they grow older, people often find that bending forwards becomes more of a problem. 
This is usually because of the habits we develop over time that distort the way that we move. When adults bend forwards, they often curl over or arch the back, in such a way that the back muscles work extra hard, put pressure on the spine and the intervertebral discs become compressed. This can be the route through to developing problems such as sciatica, as the compressed discs gradually impinge on the spinal nerves and cause discomfort then pain. How good when this can be avoided (Alexander lessons can help!).
I managed to get another great shot of this child as she bent down to see what the dog is eating. She is quite naturally using a deep version of what F M Alexander called ‘the position of mechanical advantage‘ – and what Alexander teachers now call ‘monkey position’. She flexes her knees and ankles and easily folds forwards from her hips joints whilst looking at the dog without shortening her neck muscles and this allows her whole spine to remain comfortably lengthening.
Child naturally using 'Monkey 'Position'.jpg
Hopefully, many children will be able to maintain a similar alignment and easy use of their bodies as they grow up, in which case they will be less likely to develop the problematic aches and pains that so many of us experience.  This will depend on a number of factors, such the types and sizes of furniture they have to use, the way they sit and use desks and computers, the attitudes and body-use of the people around them – and of course the way they react to the world, the activities they pursue and the habitual ways in which they pursue them…..
If children are fortunate enough to have some Alexander Technique lessons whilst young, they can learn how to avoid developing unhelpful habits, so they can explore the world in ways that allow them to retain their poise and ease of movement as they grow up into adulthood – ‘prevention is better than cure’ as the old saying goes
FREE Taster Workshop 7 October
Here’s a chance for teens and adults to find out more about the Alexander Technique at the Introductory AT Workshop on 7th October in Islington N1 – FREE event –  but please book so we know how many are attending.

Poised for Life

Poised for Life

We can learn a lot from small children if we take notice of how they use their bodies as they unselfconsciously move around. Unless they have some physical problems, most small children move about very freely, are alert, poised and ready for life. 
This one year old found a tortoise on the grass (an ornamental one, fortunately) and decided it would make a good seat, so she squatted down and started to look at it. This involved rocking forwards from her hip joints, with her hips, knees and ankles quite free and moveable, so that she could see and touch the tortoise’s head – she sat there for some time investigating the tortoise, with lovely poise and alignment.
Young Child Squatting.jpg
In Western societies we use chairs more and more as we grow up, so we often loose that lovely freedom in our hip joints that this child demonstrates. It has been interesting recently in London to see people from other cultures, who often sit in a squat whilst waiting at bus stops. Quite elderly people have maintained freedom in their hips and joints and are able to squat with ease and poise.
Many children in the UK begin to loose their natural poise as they get older. They slump as they watch television for hours, imitate the people around them and go to school  where they sit at desks for long periods of time – often with unhelpful chairs to sit on. All too frequently this results in children crumpling themselves over their work, which can contribute to back pain, headaches and other disorders, even at a young age.
F M Alexander was very keen to help children avoid developing unhelpful habits and he ran a school in which his Technique was taught as part of the curriculum. These days music and drama colleges often teach the Alexander Technique to their students but sadly there are too few ordinary schools that include the AT on the syllabus.
It is easier to prevent problems of mis-use arising, than to change our habits as an adult and many children have benefited from having Alexander lessons, so they learn to let go of habits that cause them problems and begin to maintain their naturally free movements, so that they remain poised for life.

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.