High Heels – the Inside Story

High Heels? How can people feel comfortable in them? 

An Alexander Technique teacher trainee at LCATT sent me this X Ray photo of someone’s foot inside a stiletto shoe, which he had found on the AT Global page on Facebook. I find this photo very uncomfortable to look at, realising just how much damage is being done not only to this woman’s (?) foot but also her back.

When I was a ballet dancer and was regularly doing pointe work, my feet would have undergone similar distress, although the toes would have been lengthened out and we were taught how to use pointe shoes and how to look after our posture – and we didn’t walk around on our toes for long periods of time! Even as a young dancer, I would never wear stilettos.

Thankfully, when I stopped dancing I began learning the Alexander Technique which, amongst other things, helped my feet to free up and my potential bunions began to right themselves enough not to be a painful problem.
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Feet that are squeezed into pointed high heels as above, day after day, do tend to get damaged and the whole body gets thrown out of kilter, causing many problems. A good number of women have lost their balance and fallen off their high heels, spraining and even breaking their ankles. The Achilles tendon can shorten so the foot cannot rest on the ground fully, the woman’s posture can become distorted so that an over-arched spine or lordosis can develop, creating backache, plus toes can become quite mal-formed and painful….. and more
Is all the damage to our bodies really worth it, just for fashion?
For a further discussion on this topic, you can read my article Back Pain and High Heels.

Using Monkey Position

Monkey Position – or Monkey Movement – or even Monkeying About?

The use of the term ‘monkey position’ in the Alexander Technique has perhaps led to people thinking of this as a held position, when in fact it is a very adaptable movement and a useful way of using the body in many different circumstances. (This AT use of the term has nothing to do with the term as used in the Kamasutra!).
Of course one may choose to hold this position for a time but it’s also possible to move through monkey to a lunge and back to monkey very smoothly and fluidly, for instance. F M Alexander called this ‘The position of mechanical advantage’ and it is indeed a functionally very good way of using the body, particularly for bending forwards in a way that protects the back.
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‘Monkey’ Used in Activity
The fact that monkey can be used in activity is shown in this photo of an eight year-old child having fun playing on a bouncy castle and she quite naturally uses monkey position as she lands from a jump. Her spine is lengthening beautifully and she is aligned and all ready to bounce upwards again, once she has completed landing. She will be able to let her head lead her into an upward movement with very little effort.
In Alexander lessons, it sometimes takes adults a while to re-find this free way of allowing the hips, knees and ankles to work together in order to allow themselves to bend forwards whilst maintaining the length in the spine – but it is such a useful action that it is well worth working on, particularly for people that experience back pain, as using a monkey position protects the spine whilst bending.
This is such a useful way to use the body for many activities in everyday life e.g.:
  • Small monkeys are useful when chopping vegetables, washing up, cleaning our teeth
  • Deeper monkeys are great to use when picking things up from the floor, putting our shoes on and gardening, for instance;
  • A modified monkey position is helpful when riding a bike, rather than curling down over the handlebars in a crunched-up manner………
As an Alexander teacher, I use monkey position and lunges a lot when I’m giving lessons, particularly when I’m working on people on the table during the active rest procedure.  This helps me look after my own back and use, and it is far less tiring to move around in this way, rather than just contracting myself down as I bend over my pupils.
Importantly, the way I use my own body affects the quality of my teaching, so it is important to maintain my own body use – and this is an vital part of the learning that every Alexander Technique teacher trainee has to take on board, before they qualify as teachers.

BBC Interview with Sir Colin Davis

‘Sir Colin Davis with Love’
The BBC produced a moving tribute to Sir Colin Davis, with two programmes, the first showing him conducting part of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the LSO in 2011, followed by an interview with John Bridcut, made shortly before Sir Colin died.
For anyone who knew Sir Colin, and anyone interested in conducting, this is a programme to watch and is still available on iPlayer until 10 May ’13 : 
Sir Colin was touchingly frank about his life, his conducting and his thoughts about dying. The programme mentioned how he was ‘almost self-taught’ as a conductor and how, as a young man in the 1960’s, he was fierily passionate when conducting. As an Alexander Teacher, I was pleased to hear Sir Colin recounting how the eminent conductor Sir Adrian Boult came to speak to him after an orchestral performance and gave him some valuable advice about the way he had been conducting – ‘My dear boy, you’ll be a cripple if you go on like that! You must go and see Dr. Barlow’  ( Dr Wilfred Barlow trained as a teacher with FM Alexander and taught near the Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music, and musicians were amongst his many pupils ) – and that was how Sir Colin ‘started my acquaintance with the Alexander Technique’.

The AT became an important part of Sir Colin’s life, with both he and his wife Shamsi (an Alexander teacher) supporting the Royal Academy of Music Alexander Technique fund for many years and they were both patrons of the Friends of the Alexander Technique charity.
If you read the comment on this entry by Robert Rickover, you can follow the link to hear an extended, philosophical and fascinating interview with Sir Colin Davis (and this will be available for a long time ). 

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 Panic Attacks

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. Some people that have for many years found the benefits of using the Technique to help with anxiety, are musicians and other performers, who have found the Technique invaluable to them in coping with stage fright.

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! 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.  

Next Intro Workshop for Women & Teenage Girls 9 March.  Booking and info here.

Individual Lessons regularly available. You can contact me here.

Alexander Technique Intro for Women & Girls

Introductory Workshop for Women & Teenage Girls 
Saturday 9 March ~ 2.0pm – 4.30pm
Fundraising for Mary on the Green 


Reg Charity: 1087866

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All fees will be donated to MOTG, towards erecting a monument to the pioneering feminist and human rights activist
Mary Wollstonecraft, here on Newington Green 
This Workshop is linked to International Women’s Day, giving women and girls a chance to try out the Alexander Technique in a small friendly group. There will be some gentle experiential games, demonstrations, hands-on work ~ plus a nice cup of tea or coffee. 
020 7254 9206
A Reduced rate 1:1 lesson will also be available to participants
Mary Wollstonecraft
But with awareness and AT lessons, we can free ourselves from this prison!

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.