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.

Alexander Technique Gift Vouchers

Give someone the chance to enjoy some Alexander Technique Lessons

Alexander Technique Gift Certificates make great Christmas, birthday or other presents!  They are available for 1:1 Lessons or Introductory Workshops with Hilary in Harringay, N4.

The Gift Vouchers come in various denominations and can be custom made to suit you, with the name of your friend added onto the Certificate.

You could buy a Voucher for:

  • Introductory Lesson or Workshop
  • A group of 4 lessons.
  • £40, £20, £10 and £5


Please contact Hilary for full details

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.

Leonardo da Vinci Anatomy Drawings

Leonardo da Vinci Anatomist Exhibition

There is a wonderful exhibition on at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomy drawings and if you are interested in art or the workings of our bodies, this exhibition is not to be missed! 

I have been very fortunate to have visited the exhibition as part of Clod Ensemble’s ‘Physical Thinking’ course. This allowed us, as course participants, to view the drawings after the Gallery had closed to the general public. What a privilege to be able to see Leonardo’s delicate, precise and beautiful work close to, without having to peer through crowds of people! He turns anatomical diagrams into fine art.

As an Alexander Technique teacher and ex-dancer, I find the short course both informative and fascinating, as Suzy Willson of Clod Ensemble leads the sessions and encourages us to find the movements suggested within Leonardo’s drawings of bones, internal organs and muscles, then to express those through our own bodies. It’s a very special experience to be exploring our body movement whilst surrounded by Leonardo’s works.

The Leonardo da Vinci Anatomist exhibition continues until 7 October ~ catch it while you can!

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!