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Alexander Technique Helps Me Manage Parkinson’s

Parkinson’s Diagnosis

I heard about the Alexander Technique some years ago from my piano teacher who suggested that it could help me to improve my posture and to relax more when playing.

When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 4 years ago, after developing a tremor in my left arm and hand, I decided to follow up on my piano teacher’s recommendation.

Group Lessons Followed by One-to-One Lessons

I began with group lessons led by Hilary which demonstrated the potential of Alexander to help me manage my condition. I moved to having individual Alexander lessons with Hilary in which I have benefited enormously from her sympathetic, practical and clear support. She is always responsive to my particular needs.

Benefits of Having Alexander Lessons

As a result of my lessons with Hilary on the Alexander Technique:

  • I have learnt how to relax my mind and body quickly, any time any place – for example standing on the tube; sitting in the theatre; playing the piano.
  • This not only helps to reduce my Parkinson’s tremor – it also has a more profound calming effect on my whole nervous system, improving my confidence and general ability to cope.
  • My posture in walking, standing and sitting, and my general self-presentation have all improved.
  • I am more aware of, and, through the Alexander Technique, have the ability to correct bad habits – such as hunching over the computer and stiffening the neck and shoulders in response to stress.

Alexander Technique is Integrated into Everyday Life

A great advantage of the Alexander Technique is that it does not require any special equipment or time at the gym. It is integrated into everyday life, shaping how we sit, stand, walk and rest.

I have no doubt that the Alexander Technique is playing a significant part in helping me manage my condition successfully. While it was my diagnosis of Parkinson’s that led me to Alexander, my experience suggests that the Technique can contribute to the mental and physical well-being of anyone, of any age with any health issues – or none.

Helen Forrester CB    November 2022

The Alexander Technique is a Skill for Life

Teaching for 35 Years

This year I have reached a milestone. I have now been teaching the Alexander Technique for 35 years. I am grateful that I have been able to help hundreds of people over this time. Also, the Alexander Technique has been such an invaluable asset for me and it really is a skill for life. Not only is my work something that I love doing (and pays my bills) but it also helps me personally whilst I teach it. How does it do that? In order to convey the idea of Alexander work through my hands as I touch clients, I need to simultaneously think about my own body use.  The AT is a great example of self-care and lifelong learning.

Alexander teachers think about our own body use whilst teaching others

Self-Help Skills

Over the years, the Alexander Technique has been a wonderful tool I have used to help myself. When I started learning, as a mature student and single parent doing a degree, the AT helped me manage my stress levels and a back injury I had gained as a teen during ballet training.

Some years after I qualified as an Alexander teacher, I had a major operation followed by a long period of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, CFS. Being able to use the technique aided my recovery and helped me avoid getting into lots of unhelpful habits of body use whilst being so depleted.

Do You Experience Shoulder Tension?

Another example of how the AT can help me personally is during the act of teaching. Most people experience shoulder tension at some time and many pupils come to me hoping to reduce theirs’. I am far more likely to help them if I can let go of my own tension first, by working on myself. So I need to be aware of my own habits of misuse and constriction, then let these go, so that my hands do not communicate my tension to the pupil.

As I teach I think about my own body use. I remind myself to let my movements be free and easy, so I avoid creating tension as I work. Consequently, I look after myself at the same time as I help someone else. As a result, the quality of my teaching is improved and I protect myself from developing strains. It really is a win-win situation!

Learning the Alexander Technique Gives You a Skill for Life

Learning the Alexander Technique helps us become aware of our unhelpful habits and then we aim to avoid getting into them them during our activities. By using our thinking and applying the AT in our lives, we reduce strain and move more easily. Gradually this becomes a way of life.

I recently went to a concert and was pleased to meet a musician who had been my client about twenty years ago. He had come to me with shoulder problems associated with playing the violin and had found the AT very helpful. It was really affirming to hear him say ‘Alexander work has stayed with me all this time. I still think about it and use it on a regular basis’. When people like him take responsibility for their learning and apply what they learn, they can gain a skill they can use throughout their life. It is important to remember that the Alexander Technique is a form of learning, not a treatment.

Alexander Technique Introductory Books

There are an increasing number of excellent books on the Alexander Technique and its application to many aspects of our lives. A  good number may be found in my bookshop. One introductory book happens to be called ‘The Alexander Technique: A Skill For Life’. Author Pedro Alcantara obviously agrees with me!

Hypermobility Syndromes

Joint Hypermobility Syndromes

The term Joint Hypermobility Syndromes, JHS, refers to the condition where a person’s joints are unstable because their ligaments are weak and loose (‘hyperlaxity’) and they may have poor muscle tone.  This means that joints tend to bend beyond the typical movement range. The Alexander Technique can help people with this and many of the other problems associated with joint hypermobility syndromes.

There are a number of diagnostic terms used to describe the various manifestations of the condition.  For these terms and further information on joint hypermobility syndromes visit the Hypermobility Syndromes Association, HMSA

Joint hypermobility can be a heritable disorder.  It can also develop through repetitive stretching as can be seen in dance, yoga and athletics training.

Asymptomatic Hypermobility

Roughly 1 in 10 people have some level of hypermobility but only some would call themselves  ‘double-jointed’.    Like many conditions, hypermobility syndromes come over a wide spectrum, from minimal to severe enough to be disabling.  However, most people experience very few problems and they have ‘asymptomatic hypermobility’.

Some Signs of Joint Hypermobility

This photo shows some mild joint hypermobility in the shoulders, elbows and thumbs

Symptomatic Hypermobility

A smaller number of people have ‘symptomatic hypermobility’.  Symptoms include:

  • Joint instability and hyper extension. This can lead to subluxations and even dislocations
  • Constant pain, with a tendency towards sprains and strains
  • Poor proprioception, balance and coordination. People often have flat feet and feel rather clumsy
  • Thin, stretchy skin that bruises easily and takes a while to heal
  • Bowel and bladder problems
  • Autonomic disfunction with dizziness and fainting, particularly when standing up quickly. (PoTS) . they may also have poor temperature regulation
  • Chronic fatigue

Hypermobility Syndromes and the Alexander Technique

Alexander lessons can help many people with hypermobility issues, particularly those to do with proprioception.  Gaining more sense of where our body is in space can help improve our coordination, balance and confidence. Learning how to reduce tension can also reduce our pain and help improve energy levels.

I personally have taught many pupils with general hypermobility syndrome. One pupil could stand with his body facing me but have his toes pointing behind him! An interesting example of unstable joints and hyperlaxity.  I have also taught clients with Ehlers Danlers Syndrome, EDS, and Marfan Syndrome, MFS, which are two of the more severe forms of JHS conditions.

The NHS Consultant Rheumatologist Dr Philip Bull FRCP, who is on the HMSA Medical Advisory Board, is a great advocate of using Alexander Technique lessons for hypermobility patients, often alongside Physiotherapy.  He has seen how hypermobility syndrome patients are helped by learning the Alexander Technique and has written articles on the topic. Dr Bull states that ‘patients with hypermobility found it particularly helpful; some even life changing’ .

You may read and download Dr Bull’s article about Hypermobility Syndromes and the Alexander Technique  here.

 

 

Have You Noticed Your Reactions When Taking a Covid-19Test?

What is your reaction when you think of having to take a Covid-19 Test?

I was surprised to notice my reactions when taking a Covid-19 Test today. I have taken dozens of Lateral Flow Tests, yet still have a low level of anxiety at the thought of taking a test!

What is your reaction when you see a Covid -19 Test?

My anxiety reactions were more obvious recently, after I discovered I had been in contact with someone who’d tested positive. I had a sinking feeling deep in my belly and my back and neck muscles tightened up. Despite my being triple vaccinated, wearing masks and being very careful, I do still worry that I may catch Covid.

I thought I was relaxed about Lateral Flow Tests but noticed I tensed up merely at the thought of needing a test.  My reactions were stronger when I recently had to have a PCR test as well. Thankfully it was negative again.

I take regular tests for my teaching and I can also get a bit blasé and fall into end gaining. When I do this, much of my awareness can vanish.  ‘Let’s get this out of the way’ sort of reaction kicks in. I often tighten my neck and jaw as I wipe the swab around my nostrils.  Do you notice doing that and if so, can you choose not to? At least with these new test kits, we don’t have to wipe our tonsils as well. I had to be very thoughtful doing that, to avoid tightening my neck as I looked at my throat in the mirror.

Waiting for the Test Results

If I go into automatic or anxious mode, I tend to curl down to peer at the test cassette. Firstly, in order to drop the liquid into it, then to read the results. That is not looking after my neck or back!  Why do I contract down, rather than using an easy folding movement?  Also, why do I rush to set the timer, to tell me when to check the results? Rushing does not help in any way. Have you noticed how you react  when you perform Covid-19 tests?

It is interesting to be reminded of how old unhelpful habits tend to return under stress

Preparing for My Next Test

So next time, I will pause briefly before getting out a Lateral Flow Test and will aim to avoid that unnecessary tension and end gaining. Being more aware should help make the testing process easier, more comfortable and less stressful. After all, I’m going to have to take many more in the future, so let’s make it a more positive experience!

Alexander Technique Offer for NHS Staff

Alexander Technique lessons offer for NHS staff

Alexander Technique lessons Offer for NHS staff: 10% reduction.  Just contact me using an NHS email address.

During the lockdown, I offered NHS staff six free Alexander lessons as a thank you for all their dedication and hard work during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am pleased to say that several doctors and midwives took up that offer.

Other people are of course welcome to have Alexander Technique lessons and are charged the usual rates for these.  Online lessons usually take place on Zoom. Face to face lessons include the hands-on element of Alexander work and take place in a Covid secure environment. I am registered with both STAT and the CNHC and have an enhanced DBS certificate

The Constructive Rest Lying Down Procedure

Learning the lying down procedure, for instance, gives us a tool we can use to relax, reduce tension and pain, plus recharge our batteries.  Using this procedure daily can help us avoid burnout through stress and overwork, whilst reducing problems such as back pain.  Is is such a refuge!

In lessons, we also begin to recognise our habits of body use that cause us problems.  When we learn to let go of unhelpful habits and reactions, we can move and act more mindfully in the world, enhancing our wellbeing.

Testimonial from a GP

You may like to read a testimonial from a student of mine, a GP and amateur musician:

 “A very committed and experienced teacher

… As an amateur musician with problems of tension getting in the way of performance, I was delighted to discover that (Hilary) had experience with helping musicians, but I can thoroughly recommend her to musicians and non-musicians alike. She is a very committed and experienced teacher. I have found it fascinating to explore with Hilary the more general applications of the Alexander technique. This has led me to some important insights about the relationship between my mind and my body… An excellent listener, she is able to focus on whatever problem I bring with kindness, encouragement and gentle hands-on expertise. She always strives to find the root of issues of bad use of the body, with suggestions on how to work on them…  When it is time to leave, I always feel revitalised both in mind and body. Dec 2018. “

Martha ~ Doctor and Musician

Contact me   If you are an NHS staff member, please use your NHS email address

What Goes on Under the Mask?

So We’re Back to Compulsory Mask Wearing!

What is your reaction when you think of having to wear a mask again when you go into shops?  For myself, there is little change, as I have continued to wear a mask in crowded places. However, many people have stopped doing so for a while, so things will be different for them.

Mask wearing is likely to be with us for some time to come, so it will be useful for us to notice which of our mask-related habits are unhelpful – then we can avoid them.

The Mask!

What is your reaction when you think of having to wear a mask again? Do you accept masks, as a protection for yourself and others? Or do they trigger anxiety and maybe seem claustrophobic? Or perhaps you feel angry that you have to wear one? Whatever your thoughts, there will be a corresponding physical reaction, often expressed as some sort of tension. We are all, as individuals and as societies, developing new behaviour patterns and habits as a result of Covid-19. It’s an interesting social phenomenon that we are all adapting to.

Initially, in 2020, I was quite anxious every time I needed to wear a mask, as it highlighted the fact that Covid-19 was dominating our lives. I probably frowned and I definitely tightened my jaw. My breathing was restricted and I often breathed through my mouth. Some early masks sucked in over the nose each time I inhaled, which didn’t help. I felt I couldn’t get enough air. I often tensed my neck and shoulders because it felt risky going out to do shopping. It was all part of my reacting with a ‘Covid crunch’ as I call it.

Added to all the Covid problems, I’d moved house just before lockdown and this intensified the sense of isolation and strangeness. Old ways of doing things felt unsafe and needed to be done differently. Too many changes happened all at once and that can be very stressful!

How do You Smile in a Mask?

I realised that if I smiled at someone, it couldn’t really be seen, so new strategies of communication were required. Exaggerating my eye movements and expressions were one way but sometimes this felt awkward and tense. Nodding my head to say hello was another strategy.

Talking can be problematic too as I needed to project my quiet voice more strongly, so that I could be heard clearly. Voices become muffled through masks, so hearing people can also be difficult.

How often do you see people straining to talk, pushing their head and neck forwards in order to hear and be heard? This doesn’t help much , especially if you having to wear masks for long periods whilst working. Some people end up with sore throats, croaky voice and a blocked nose.

Some of these problems can be avoided if we let go of our unhelpful habits of tension. These days I am more aware and less reactive to masks.  But do you know what your reactions are?

Experiment

Why don’t you try an experiment? This is the sort of this we explore in Alexander lessons.  Masks are always worn for face to face lessons but one of the nice things about online lessons is that we don’t need to wear masks! However we have to do so for many occasions, so let’s explore your relationship with masks.

1 Go and collect a face mask and as you pick it up, notice any reactions you have as you see it. Put it on, walk around and notice your reactions, both physical and emotional.  After a while take the mask off and think about what you noticed.

2  Later,  do the same thing with awareness. Prepare yourself in advance of putting on a mask and see if you can accept it as something to protect you. Pick it up, avoid any tension and put it on gently. Experience it as a way of caring for yourself. Walk around, then after a while take it off again, gently.  Notice your reactions – are they the same, or have they changed?

Changing our thoughts and letting go of our habitual reactions of tension alters things.  Many people find they reduce jaw and facial tension plus feel less claustrophobic, if they welcome mask-wearing rather than rebel against it. In this cold weather, they can also add a welcome bit of extra warmth!

What did you notice?  Such a simple change as altering our attitude and body-use can make a big difference to our everyday experience of using masks!

Thinking with every muscle

The Thinker

I went to Tate Modern recently, to see ‘The Making of Rodin’ exhibition. This was the first time I had been to a Gallery for some time, because of Covid restrictions.  It was so good to see art again!  Rodin’s plaster models experiment with portraying movement and form.

‘The Thinker’ by Rodin illustrates the concept that bodies express our thoughts and feelings, that our mind and body work together as one unit. This concept underpins F M Alexander’s technique that we still teach today. Many people just associate the Alexander Technique with issues such as reducing back pain, which it has been proven to do. But AT work goes far deeper than people realise. For instance, when we react to stress, we often tighten our necks and backs, thereby contributing to painful problems there.  We can learn how to avoid doing that….

Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ at Tate Modern 2021

I was interested to see a great quote from Rodin on the wall. This reveals how Rodin made the Thinker think with his whole body:

‘What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fist, and gripping toes‘. Rodin.

Alexander would have appreciated this statement as he believed we tend to ‘translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension’ (Aphorisms). However Alexander realised this tendency can be modified by our conscious control. We can re-educate ourselves to respond differently.

Psychophysical Re-education

Alexander used the term ‘Psycho-physical‘ to express this mind-body unity:

The term is used…. to indicate the impossibility of separating “physical” and “mental” operations in … the working of the human organism’ .  Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual 1923.  

Alexander said he was forced to use the words ‘psycho’ and ‘physical’ because there is no other word that expresses the amalgamation of both concepts.

If Rodin’s Thinker was having Alexander lessons  his teacher could explore how much pain he experiences in those scrunched up feet, neck, shoulders, wrist and back. How often does he assume that position? Is it a habit, or a one-off expression of internal turmoil? Can he re-educate himself, let go of his habit and learn to change the way he reacts to situations? If so, he can learn how to continue his thinking but without reacting in that way and creating more pain.

Psycho?

Unfortunately Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Psycho’ has greatly contributed to ‘psycho’ being associated with mental instability and psychosis. This can create a misunderstanding when AT teachers use the word psychophysical! But the AT is not to do with mental illness.

Alexander described his work in a rather heavy-handed Victorian style. Unfortunately, this also includes some passages that are considered offensive and racist today. Thankfully, at the end of his most popular book, ‘The Use of the Self‘, Alexander states he deplores prejudice, ‘racial or otherwise’. Teachers are searching for a new vocabulary to express Alexander’s ideas and his books are gradually being edited to make them easier to read and more acceptable for all audiences. The essence of Alexander’s discoveries is still valuable today, so it is well worth reading his books, with an understanding that present day teachers do not hold his Victorian views of the world.

All Aspects of our Being

An important part of Alexander lessons is when pupils begin to understand this concept of psychophysical unity, of how our minds and bodies work together.  When we accept and embrace this fact, changes can take place.  This can be very healing, as can be seen in this testimonial:

‘Having someone remind me how to connect with myself again and to be aware of how I use all aspects of my being was exactly what I needed’ 

The Jigsaw Challenge

The Jigsaw’s Out of it’s Box

It’s that time of year. Out comes my new jigsaw and now I have several challenges. The first was to decide if the table should be covered with jigsaw pieces. With Covid around, there will be no guests at Christmas, so yes, the table can hold the jigsaw.

The second challenge is to find all the edges and line them up where they might fit. I’ve started hunting and I gently rummage around in the box. I explore carefully, so I don’t break any of the jigsaw pieces.  I’m already confused because the corner pieces are different colours from the image on the box!

 

So many jigsaw pieces to hunt through!

I’ve not done a jigsaw for a long time and I need to get my eye in. It’s hard to find what I’m looking for. I notice my shoulders and upper back are beginning to ache a little – that didn’t take long to happen! So what was I doing to cause that?

I had got lost in the activity and I had begun curl down over the table to see the jigsaw. So I’d started getting a bit tense and then achy. How easy it is to lose awareness of our body use when we get engrossed! It’s not surprising I was a bit achy, when you remember that our heads weigh approx 5 kg or 11 pounds. Our heads are so heavy, if we don’t support them with an easy poise and balance, the weight will drag us down.

My grandson is a good teacher! See how freely and easily he looks down

My grandson is a good teacher for me and when I see how he moves, it reminds me to come back myself and think of my own body use. He has such a lovely easy way of moving. Here he is looking down, yet he is not dropping his head and neck forwards as I had just done. He is folding forwards from his hip joints and his muscles are working together in a quiet and balanced way – just as I teach people to do in Alexander lessons.  (Teacher teach thyself!) You can sense the connection from the top of his head, along his spine and down to his coccyx and sitting bones.

So my third and most important challenge is that when I do my jigsaw, I will to do so with more awareness. I’ll hinge forwards from my hip joints so that I can see what I’m doing and take frequent breaks – as I do when I’m working at my computer. Maybe I don’t need to play so intensely (in-tensely – got it?).  Just because I’m having fun and supposedly relaxing, it doesn’t mean that I don’t need to look after myself.

The Developing Self

The Developing Self  is a pioneering organisation that actively promotes the Alexander Technique in education.  The Developing Self team offer specialised Postgraduate Training in the UK and USA, for qualified Alexander teachers who want to bring the Alexander Technique to children and into into schools and colleges. There is now a growing number of primary, secondary and tertiary colleges that include the Alexander Technique in the curriculum.

The Little School – where the Alexander Technique was embedded into Education

The Developing Self movement found its inspiration from F M Alexander’s work with children. Alexander believed it was essential to help children avoid developing poor psychophysical habits and misuse. To this end he ran The Little School from 1924 until the Second World War, when it was transferred to the US. At this  school, they applied the principles of the AT to all lessons and activities.  Today, Educare Small School in Kingston -upon Thames, is run in a similar way. It ensures that ‘principles of the Alexander Technique are woven seamlessly into each school day’.

The Developing Self Resources

There are several excellent books on aspects of the Alexander Technique in Education. These have been written by the Developing Self team, particularly Judith Kleinman and Sue Merry.

The Developing Self website offers a number of free resources, including some lively and informative videos of presentations at the 2021 and 2020 Conferences .  If you are interested in  bringing the Alexander Technique to children and into educational settings, the videos are a great way to explore the topic.

Kyphosis

Kyphosis

Kyphosis is the term given to an exaggerated dorsal curvature of the thoracic region of the spine. It can be a congenital condition that is present at birth.  Kyphosis can also develop, for instance, through curling over a screen for long periods of time, or by constantly bending down towards small children or work surfaces.  This curvature causes the heavy head (approx 5kg) to drag downwards, which eventually tends to hurt.  The more off balance the head becomes, the more the spine curves.  This compression tends to restrict the functioning of the lungs and other internal organs. The curvature of the upper back and chest can also put pressure on the nerves of the upper arms and contribute to problems such as RSI.

The imbalance created by this curvature in the upper body, is often compensated for by the spine which develops lordosis, an exaggeration of the lumbar curve in the lower back. This results in an obvious ‘S’ shaped appearance of the spine.

Prevention is Easier than Cure

It is often possible to prevent kyphosis from developing, if we learn Alexander Technique early enough.  Later on in the condition’s development, the AT can help free up the musculature and improve kyphosis and, importantly, reduce further degeneration.  Avoiding habits that cause compression can help enormously.

Kyphosis Shown in Art

I love this sculpture called ‘The Scholar’ by Tapfuma Gusta, which I discovered in Cape Town, South Africa. It clearly shows the upper spine and body curving forwards and down, with the head pulled off balance. The Scholar presumably bent over towards his desk for years whilst writing and reading many many books. Fortunately, with the AT, we can learn how to read without putting such pressure on our bodies.