Category Archives: Health

Don’t “take a deep breath”

Person blowing out a candleOne thing you’ll never hear an Alexander teacher say is ‘Just take a deep breath’.  Alexander teachers help thousands of people with their breathing and voice issues. They enable people to discover how to restore easier breathing and stronger, clearer voice. In the process, people also tend to feel calmer and more confident. How is this achieved? Not by trying to work out how to ‘breathe or speak better’, but by becoming more self-aware and reducing any habits that are getting in the way of our natural overall functioning.

Breathing is an amazingly complex and wonderful system, finely tuned by a myriad of automatic processes to ensure that the appropriate amount of air is delivered exactly when it is needed. There is absolutely no way that our conscious mind could work out how and when to breathe, moment by moment! In other words, we can’t ‘do’ breathing. If we try and control our breathing in any way, then we cannot avoid micro-managing and interfering.

Aside from mistaken attempts to ‘breathe correctly’, we also interfere with our natural breathing in many sub-conscious habitual ways. Some of our most common habits are:

  • Holding the breath – particularly when we’re concentrating or doing something effortful
  • Breathing shallowly and rapidly
  • Actively taking a breath (over-riding the natural rhythm by deliberately breathing in, rather than just letting it happen automatically).

One of the difficulties in working with the breath is that, because it is such a fundamental process, even the simple fact of bringing our attention to it can cause interference. It certainly took me a long time to be able to simply observe my own breathing without this bringing on a feeling of ‘I don’t have enough breath’.

That’s why it’s so helpful to work with an Alexander teacher. A teacher will guide you to an experience of easier breathing and stronger voice, and show you how to reduce your habitual interferences with these in your daily life. The Alexander Technique does not teach you how to breathe well – you know already, it’s just buried under years of habits.

Through experience, you can begin to trust that the in-breath can always be relied on to happen when it needs to, it ‘does itself’. It is the single most reliable thing we have – it will continue to occur whenever needed until our last day. So we never need to ‘take a breath’.

What is the outbreath for? Obviously, it expels carbon dioxide etc and empties the lungs in readiness for the next inbreath. But it’s also what we use for speaking, singing and making noises. The outbreath is infinitely adaptable so that we can both breathe and communicate. An Alexander teacher will share many rewarding ways with you of working with the outbreath, with the benefits of reducing anxiety, coming to present, and finding your natural voice.  

Alexander work is based on practical knowledge and skills, although a little theory can be illuminating. For example, when we speak or sing, it’s sound waves (oscillations in the air molecules) that carry the sound away from us. You can get an idea of this by lighting a candle or match and holding it in front of you. You’ll find that you can easily extinguish the flame by gently blowing on it. However, speaking or even shouting will have little effect (unless it’s a very ‘breathy’ sound). In other words, we don’t need to ‘push the sound out’.

In these Covid times we may not have opportunities to chat to friends in a noisy pub, or sing in a choir, or give a presentation to a group of people. But the next time that you do, just remember this experiment which demonstrates that you don’t need to make more effort in order to be heard! Working with an Alexander teacher you can discover this in practice, finding your own voice and experiencing more joy in singing and speaking.

So the next time that you’re feeling a bit anxious or worried see if you notice a difference in the effect of taking a deep breath or letting a (deep breath) out.

Stop the world, I want to get off!

The Earth with the word Stop above it In tumultuous times such as these, we often turn for guidance to the works (books, poems etc) of individuals who experienced the major world events of previous eras. FM Alexander lived through two world wars and it is clear from his writings how much this experience influenced his work. In his second book, first published in 1923 and updated in 1946, he said:

“I venture to predict that before we can unravel the horribly tangled skein of our present existence, we must come to a full stop, and return to conscious, simple living, believing in the unity underlying all things, and acting in a practical way in accordance with the laws and principles involved.” (Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Mouritz, p52)

His method, which we now call the Alexander Technique, was developed as a solution to a voice problem that was threatening his career. This practical method enabled him to free himself from his habitual reactions to everyday activities such as speaking that he found lay at the route of his problem. Through practising his method, he not only resolved his voice issues but discovered profound benefits for the whole of his life.

At the heart of the Alexander Technique is the ability to give ourselves more time, so that we are able to make different choices, rather than simply be ruled by our habits. In our busy lives, it can seem like even the concept of giving ourselves more time is ridiculous. However, we can all take time to stop when there is an immediate danger to avoid. Take the example of crossing a busy road. We stop, look and listen before stepping out. This everyday behaviour is seen as common sense – after all, oncoming vehicles present an immediate threat to our life and health. However, few people pay much attention to how they pick things up, reach up for something, or sit on their sofa. Perhaps that is because it’s so much harder to imagine any potential negative consequences, particularly as these are likely to appear later on in life (it’s unusual to experience an immediate negative impact of such acts).

Yet, the cumulative effect of how we’ve lived our lives moment-by-moment up to this point will manifest itself in the state that we now find ourselves in. Our current state directly reflects our life’s experience. So, if we consider our long-term health and functioning, then how we are carrying out all our acts of daily living, is just as important as taking care when an immediate danger is present.   

Learning the Alexander Technique enables us to develop greater self-awareness in our daily lives. Being more present and embodied is always a challenge, as many of us tend to ‘live in our heads and in the future’ – we’re always thinking ahead. But through the technique we discover how to become present as a mind-body whole. Because we develop skills in this practical method for change, we find more freedom in choosing how we wish to lead our lives. Paradoxically, by being more present we can better deal with long-term challenges.

Along with all the trauma and tragedy of the Coronavirus pandemic, some good things may also come out of this global experience. In the face of the immediate threat of Coronavirus, governments and populations across the world have shown they can make extraordinary changes that are impacting on almost every aspect of everyday life. Climate change also presents a very real threat to our existence but the danger has mostly not been so immediate and therefore not felt so real. Perhaps we will take stock of ourselves and emerge with the ability to make more positive choices, both for ourselves at the individual level, and for the planet as a whole?

‘What is’ versus ‘What if’ thinking

Humorous cartoon to illustrate What if thinking

For many people, ‘what if’ thinking is already a familiar experience. When we’re doing ‘what if’ thinking, we’re looking ahead to what might go wrong, with one imagined event leading to a runaway chain of negative consequences. It causes anxiety and distress and can become compulsive. It’s also called catastrophic thinking, or catastrophising.

Current times are bringing huge challenges, with more health and money worries, social isolation, exhaustion, and anxiety about friends and family. Enforced social isolation can create the perfect environment for completely understandable worries to continue to magnify and transform into unmanageable anxieties.

The Alexander Technique is a powerful embodying method for dealing with anxiety and catastrophic thinking. It enables us to bring ourselves, as a mind-body whole, more fully into the present moment. We learn how to bring our attention to ‘what is’ now, to our physical and thinking selves, our breathing, our surroundings. In so doing, we can lessen the tendency to be always looking ahead to what may or may not happen, and we can use the Technique to interrupt such unwelcome thoughts when they do creep in. Engaging in ‘what is’ thinking doesn’t leave so much mental space for the ‘what if’ thinking to occur. Through our Alexander practice, our over-active state will gradually quieten, our breathing will become calmer and we will feel less tense, and more in control.

Like so many people, I’m no longer able to work as I usually do, and have temporarily switched from face-to-face Alexander lessons to online. Pre-Coronavirus crisis, such a move would have been unthinkable for me. However, I’ve been both surprised and gratified at how beneficial people have been finding these lessons delivered through video conferencing. Online Alexander teaching can never be a complete substitute for hands-on work. So much of the learning is experiential and relies on guidance from the teacher’s hands. But, as a temporary substitute in these extraordinary times, online teaching can work well – at least for those people who already have some existing Alexander experience.

We’re all having to find ways of adapting to these challenging times. The Alexander Technique is my best coping strategy.

Hypermobility & the Alexander Technique

Over the many years that I’ve been teaching the Alexander Technique I’ve learnt a great deal from working with people who are living with hypermobility. Hypermobility is a term that covers a huge spectrum, from simply having increased flexibility with no negative consequences, through to more complex and challenging conditions such as hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (hEDS).

One of my clients with hypermobility, Daisy has agreed for me to share her experience of learning the Alexander Technique. For several years, Daisy had been living with persistent pain, fatigue and weakness but she has not yet had any medical diagnosis (unfortunately it is common for people to have to wait years before receiving a correct diagnosis, reflecting the complexity and often poor understanding of hypermobility conditions).

Daisy began Alexander lessons as a way of looking after herself better. Right from the start, she found she was able to apply some of what she’d learnt to help herself in her everyday life. Here are some snapshots from her Alexander journey:

In Daisy’s first lesson, she was already getting more of a sense of embodiment and ‘wholeness’; this was despite her description of herself as being a “live in my head type person”.

Second lesson: Daisy reported that her Alexander lying down practice had helped her deal with pain. “I had a busy, stressful week and got myself into a mess again but doing my Alexander lying down helped me get out of it”.

Third lesson: We were exploring standing, and Daisy realised that her habitual way of doing this was putting stress on her joints. Through the hands-on work, she had an experience of standing in balance pretty effortlessly. She said “I realised I’m trying to balance & that’s making it difficult – I don’t need to try, and my legs now feel more stable”.

Lesson 5: After years of constant pain and discomfort, Daisy was delighted to report that she’d had a pain-free week.

Lesson 6: The week in between lessons had brought a reminder of the need to keep the Alexander thinking and awareness going, or old habits are likely to return (particularly during early lessons before changes become fully established). Daisy had been away with work for a few days and “not thinking about the Alexander Technique and my neck & shoulder tension returned”.

Lesson 10: Daisy said that “The Alexander Technique has given me the means to self-manage, rather than having to always be seeking help from others”. This nicely illustrates the self-care nature of the technique.

In lesson 14, she mentioned “This way of moving feels really good and right”, reflecting an experience of moving that was better coordinated, in balance and therefore less effort.

Lesson 15: Daisy reported that “I’ve been applying the Alexander Technique more and finding standing quite a bit easier”. She also said she’d realised that, even without thinking about it, she was often now staying in balance when moving and standing.

The all-encompassing nature of the Alexander Technique (mind-body) was illustrated well in lesson 16 with Daisy’s comment that For the past 5 years, I’ve been going to psychotherapy – my progress has become much more rapid since I started learning the Alexander Technique”.

In lesson 18: Daisy said “I’m now often aware when I tense unnecessarily. I’ve been trying out the stuff we did last week and found it releases tension in my jaw”, showing how self-awareness increases and again how the Alexander Technique enables people to sort themselves out.

Lesson 19: “I’m thinking about the Alexander Technique quite a bit in between lessons. Now it actually feels wrong when I bend over in my old way”. Here we can see how we can overcome unhelpful habits through Alexander lessons.

In her 20th lesson, Daisy said “The Alexander Technique gives me a sense of joining myself up”, demonstrating the embodying nature of the Alexander Technique, giving us a better sense of self.

Daisy can still have relapses of pain and it’s usually when life gets on top of her but she finds now she usually knows how to get out of the mess – this ability has brought greater self-confidence in managing the symptoms of her hypermobility. For example, in her 22nd lesson she said “I had neck pain and stiffness after an emotionally challenging week – but I managed it and I’d completely recovered within the week”.

So how did these changes come about for Daisy? What is it that she is putting into practice? Alexander lessons are based around experiential (hands-on guidance) and cognitive learning (thinking in a less reactive and more embodied spatial way). The aim is to enable people to quieten an over-active mind-body and improve their general standard of functioning – breathing, postural support, balance and movement. In so doing, people usually discover a different sense of themselves.

If you would like to try an Alexander introductory lesson to see if it’s an approach that suits you, I would recommend looking at the websites of local Alexander teachers and calling up a couple for a chat, as we’re all different in the way we teach. I suggest asking if they are happy to work for integration and connection and not for release or lengthening, as this should give a good indication of appropriate experience of working with people with hypermobility. You can find a directory of registered UK teachers at: www.alexandertechnique.co.uk.

Learning from my little finger

This post is taking a little longer to write than usual as my touch typing is somewhat hampered, having broken my little finger 2 weeks ago. Learning the Alexander Technique leads to many benefits, including greater self-awareness and better balance. So what’s an Alexander teacher doing breaking her finger? And, why am I quite so grateful to the Alexander Technique at this moment?

x-ray of my broken finger
My broken little finger after my fall

I was out walking by the sea with a friend, when I ended up having to climb down a sea defence barrier to get nearer to my dog who had wandered ahead out of earshot. I’ve happily clambered up or down these massive boulders several times before – I’m no climber but I do love scrabbling around. Knowing that everything was very wet from recent rain, I was actually looking forward to the mini challenge of navigating myself safely down. However, halfway through, I allowed myself to be momentarily distracted when my friend called out to me – ironically to ask how was I going to manage the bottom section which was covered in seaweed? As I looked up to answer I wasn’t paying attention to the step I was then taking and I soon realised that my foot was rapidly sliding underneath me.  

Probably everyone has had the experience of time appearing to slow down as an accident unfolds. What the Alexander Technique offers in such a situation is the ability to avoid simply going into panic or freeze mode but instead to give yourself time to figure out how best to respond in the moment. So when I first realised that I was slipping, I knew how I could allow myself to descend fairly smoothly and safely. However, as I was coming gently into contact with the rock underneath me, I realised that now my whole body was sliding on the slippery rocks and I was heading towards a large gap between the boulders. Falling down there could easily result in my head banging against the rock walls, so I threw my arm out to stop myself. No harm done except for my little finger which immediately began to throb insistently. Assuming it was just a sprain and stupidly feeling rather embarrassed, I didn’t tell my friend that I’d hurt myself. Later on though, my partner made me go to the minor injuries unit and I was shocked to see the x-ray of my finger with a very obvious fracture. 

My finger is recovering really well and I’ve been musing on how different everything would have been without the Alexander Technique. Of course I can’t know for sure, but I think it’s very likely I would have ended up with a worse injury. I certainly would have felt a real flash of fear while falling and tightened every muscle in my body – a reaction which is more likely to lead to injury (we’ve all heard about someone who has fallen over when drunk without hurting themselves because they were so relaxed). But perhaps more interesting than this is my attitude after the event, which has been very different to my pre-Alexander days. In fact, the reason I first began Alexander lessons all those years ago was fear about my future long-term health because of a family history of back and neck problems. All my life I’d perceived myself as primarily a thinking mind, with very little awareness of my body, which almost seemed ‘other’ to me. In those days if I’d broken a finger I would have spent my time worrying about whether it would heal properly and whether I’d end up with osteoarthritis in the long term. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that I had any real role to play in my own recovery. Now I have a better understanding of myself and more confidence in the natural healing process. What’s more, I know how to use my Alexander thinking to help this process along. On a practical level, I have a good sense of what activities will be ok for me to do, rather than my previous attitude of just being scared that I might make the injury worse by inadvertently doing something I shouldn’t. So, through my Alexander training, I’ve gone from a position of fear to one of self-confidence.

Training in the Alexander Technique certainly doesn’t make you invincible but it does give you the means to take better care of yourself. I’m sure that, compared with how one was before, the overall risk of injury must be reduced when one is more self-aware, more present and more in balance, more of the time. This will be true across many areas – whether it’s falling, doing DIY, or just ‘overdoing it’ during exercise.

So, through the Alexander Technique I’ve gained confidence in being better able to avoid an accident from happening, in responding appropriately in the event that it does, and in recovering from it afterwards. Of course one doesn’t want to be over-confident – after all, they do say that pride comes before a fall!

Why hands-on in Alexander teaching?

Alexander Technique hands-on teaching The Alexander Technique is essentially a self-help method for positive change that involves discovering how to think differently. So why do Alexander teachers use hands-on work to help people learn the technique?

Touch can provide a subtle yet powerful means of communication. Hands-on Alexander work uses a gentle, reassuring, instructive, non-judgemental and unique quality of touch that requires at least 3 years of training to acquire – and which then continues to be refined over a lifetime of teaching. Here are the main reasons why we use hands-on work (not mutually exclusive):

  • Helping people become calmer, more present and more alert. When the whole mind-body self quietens, the best conditions possible are created for positive change and learning
  • Aiding the development of greater self-awareness
  • Providing abundant opportunities to help people develop and practice core Alexander skills, such as giving oneself time to make conscious choices over whether and how to respond to any given stimulus (rather than just reacting automatically)
  • Enabling people to discover a clearer sense of embodiment – the sense of self as a whole, rather than as a mind linked with a body
  • Helping people to develop greater integration, coordination and stability within themselves
  • Encouraging the development of better postural support and balance
  • Guiding movement to enable people to have an experience of more fluidity and less effort than they would otherwise have been able to achieve
  • Helping people become aware of habitual tension patterns, and to let go of excessive muscle tension
  • Enabling people to better manage and reduce pain
  • Assessing what is happening within people, to provide feedback and to guide and tailor the teaching to the individual.

Hands-on Alexander work can bring about a profound sense of well-being. When someone leaves an Alexander lesson they generally feel more relaxed, yet alert, and more in control – strong motivators to continue to apply the technique in their daily life.

The majority of Alexander teachers combine their hands-on work with spoken guidance and dialogue. This synergistic combination creates the optimal learning environment for most people, equally engaging both experiential and cognitive learning.

If the spoken guidance element of teaching is lacking, it’s much harder to enable people to think differently and to ‘gain all the tools’ needed. Outside of the lesson, people are then less equipped to be able to work out for themselves how to apply and develop the Alexander Technique for themselves. As a result they may remain more dependent on the teacher than they need be.

At the other end of the spectrum, a small number of Alexander teachers claim that it is possible to predominantly, or even solely, teach without the use of hands-on work. This is sometimes now taking the form of online teaching. Perhaps remote teaching can provide useful supplementary support for people who already have a reasonable amount of Alexander experience. However, and particularly for those beginning lessons, the teacher’s guiding touch provides an invaluable help in developing the core skills, such as the ability to not just react unthinkingly but to pause to choose whether and how to respond to a stimulus. So, not using any hands-on work makes learning harder but it will also leave people short-changed of the full potential of the Alexander Technique to transform their lives. An article by Alexander teacher Joe Armstrong, eloquently discusses the importance of hands-on work in enabling the longer-term and life-transformative changes that can occur as a result of Alexander lessons.

Another important consideration is that, to date, all of the Alexander teaching in clinical research trials has consisted of hands-on combined with spoken guidance. This research provides good evidence that one-to-one Alexander lessons using hands-on work together with spoken instruction are effective in reducing pain and disability for people with chronic pain (back or neck), as well as enabling people with Parkinson’s to manage the associated disability. In contrast, there is currently no research evidence that either hands-on work alone, or spoken guidance alone are effective. It is also worth remembering that when FM Alexander began teaching his technique to others, he started out using just spoken guidance. But he then brought in hands-on work because he discovered that words alone were rarely enough to convey his meaning. This nicely reflects the practical and experiential nature of the Alexander Technique.

So I would argue that combining hands-on and spoken guidance together is essential if we want the teaching process to be as effective as it can be. In this way, people will be equipped with the necessary skills and understanding to be able to apply the Alexander Technique for themselves, as well as to continue to learn and develop it for the long term.

Enjoying the simple things in life

One of the many things that I really appreciate about the Alexander Technique is that it enables me to turn the mundane into the pleasurable – or at the very least, into something better than it would otherwise have been.

Woman squatting to load washing machine
Finding balance in squatting to load the washing machine

Whether I’m standing at the bus stop, doing the ironing, or waiting in a queue, these days I am rarely irritated and never bored. This is in stark contrast to my former self, before I began lessons in the Alexander Technique and later went on to train to be an Alexander teacher. I was always in a terrible rush, wanting to be somewhere I wasn’t yet. While sitting at traffic lights, I had an overwhelming urge to be getting going to reach my destination and this fed into a sense of mounting tension. At the checkout queue I often felt impatient whenever the person in front seemed to take ages to pack and pay. And with a demanding job that seemed to suck up nearly all of my time and energy, I resented every moment when I was ‘having to’ put out the bins or do the washing up. I just felt that this was all ‘wasted time’, when I could be doing more interesting or important things.

I’ve now been teaching the Alexander Technique for many years, sharing this wonderful secret of finding more contentment as we go about our daily lives. Through learning how to think, move and ‘be’ differently, we gradually become more present and aware. Like me, you need never be bored again, there’s a whole world of awareness, balance and simple movement to playfully explore.

Through the Alexander Technique I have found a profoundly greater peace of mind/body. It’s true that old habits die hard and I do still have a tendency to be thinking ahead, living in the future. But now I always have the capacity to bring myself back to the present, my embodied self, and to a greater sense of calm and happiness.

When less is most definitely more

Skeleton brushing teethDo you get mouth ulcers? Apparently, 2–10% of the population suffer from frequent mouth ulcers with no obvious cause [1]. If you often have mouth ulcers, you may well have tried treating them with different gels or creams. If that’s the case, have you ever considered if there might be a different way of addressing the problem? Whether there might be something that you could stop doing, something to take away, rather than the usual approach of adding a treatment, or working out what you need to do?

Of course, there are many different reasons for getting mouth ulcers [2] but it now seems that one factor could be toothpaste, or rather the sodium lauryl sulphate that is an ingredient of most toothpastes. Using such toothpastes might be causing mouth ulcers in some people and/or making their ulcers last longer and be more painful [3–5]. So if you frequently have mouth ulcers it might be worth finding out if they improve if you stop putting sodium lauryl sulphate in your mouth (several brands of toothpaste are available that don’t contain this ingredient).

What a lovely commonsense solution – to stop doing the thing that might be causing or exacerbating the problem. A logical solution yes, but it does fly in the face of our usual approach. Because, in general, we try to work out what we need to do to try and solve a problem, rather than asking what we could stop doing. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use this approach of simply taking something away to tackle other problems in life?

Well the good news is that just stopping what we usually do can be a highly effective approach for a great many of the issues we face. Whenever the problem is caused by, or aggravated by, the way in which we do things – and we do most things in an habitual fashion – then reducing or stopping that habit is likely to be beneficial. This is the basis of the Alexander Technique, asking the question, what might I be doing now that could be causing or contributing to this problem? And then using the technique to prevent or reduce the habit.

One example is back pain. For the majority of people with back pain there is no underlying medical condition, so a visit to the GP is usually followed by a diagnosis of ‘simple’ or ‘non-specific back pain’. The GP’s diagnostic process is essential in order to be able to rule out any more serious underlying medical issues. But when there is no obvious medical cause, doctors can struggle to identify the root cause of the problem. However, the good news is that GPs and other healthcare professionals are increasingly realising the pivotal impact of the way in which we lead our lives on our overall health (and not just in the obvious examples of diet and ‘lifestyle’).

US biomechanist, Katy Bowman [6] has comprehensively researched and written about the huge impact on our long-term state of health and functioning, of the way in which we move about while carrying out our everyday activities. It’s something that FM Alexander worked out more than a hundred years ago when he developed his technique in order to resolve his voice problems. It’s only more recently, however, that insights from research in biomechanics, neuroscience and clinical trials validate what Alexander discovered for himself over many years of experimentation and observation.

Back pain is the most common reason that people begin Alexander lessons [7]. And what do people learn in these lessons? They learn how to become more aware of their habitual ways of standing/sitting/walking/carrying/texting etc, and how these ways of doing things tend to put unnecessary strain on their back and joints. Through gaining an experience of doing things differently in a lesson, they discover how they can reduce or stop these habitual interferences with their natural movement coordination and balance.

Of course we didn’t start out in life with these habits but we developed them as (usually) subconscious strategies in adapting ourselves to our environments and largely sedentary lifestyles. Watch most 2–3 year-old children and you’ll see fluid, effortless movement and easy balance. That’s because nearly everyone is born with the potential for good movement coordination, balance and postural support. However, this inherent capacity becomes ‘buried’ under accumulated years of habitual responses. If we can learn how to prevent or reduce the habits that are getting in the way, we’ll tend to regain some of that natural poise and ease of movement. So if our back pain is caused by, or aggravated by, an overall tendency to contract in any movement or in just sitting or standing, then as we gradually reduce the strain on our spine, muscles and other tissues, our back problem has more of a chance to resolve itself.

Two large randomised controlled trials have demonstrated that one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons from STAT-registered teachers are effective, long-term solutions for the pain and disability associated with persistent back or neck pain [8,9].

So the next time you are faced with a problem, just take a moment to consider whether ‘just doing something’ is really the most effective approach. Or whether it’s time to find yourself an Alexander teacher to discover the truly groundbreaking and challenging skill of not just reacting like we usually do!

 

  1. Altenburg A, et al. The treatment of chronic recurrent oral aphthous ulcers. Deutsches Arzteblatt International 2014;111:665–73. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2014.0665.
  2. NICE recommends that if you keep getting mouth ulcers, do mention it next time you see your GP, and to be aware that you should see your doctor without delay if you ever have a single ulcer that lasts for more than 3 weeks (just in case it’s malignant) https://cks.nice.org.uk/aphthous-ulcer#!topicsummary.
  3. Herlofson BB and Barkvoll P. The effect of two toothpaste detergents on the frequency of recurrent aphthous ulcers. Acta Odontol Scand1996;54:150–3.
  4. Chahine L, et al. The effect of sodium lauryl sulfate on recurrent aphthous ulcers: a clinical study. Compend Contin Educ Dent 1997;18:1238–40.
  5. Shim Y, et al. Effect of sodium lauryl sulfate on recurrent aphthous stomatitis: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Oral Diseases 2012;18:655–660.
  6. Bowman K. Move your DNA. 2017. Propriometrics Press.
  7. Eldred J, Hopton A, Donnison E, Woodman J, MacPherson H. Teachers of the Alexander Technique in the UK and the people who take their lessons: A national cross-sectional survey. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 2015;23:451–461.
  8. Little P, Lewith G, Webley F, et al. Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain. British Medical Journal 2008;337:a884.
  9. MacPherson H, Tilbrook H, Richmond S, Woodman J, Ballard K, et al. Alexander Technique lessons or acupuncture sessions for persons with chronic neck pain: A randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 2015;163:653–62.

‘Core strength and stability’?…but we’re vertebrates!

Skeleton doing plankYou won’t find many Alexander Technique teachers talking about ‘core stability’ or ‘core strength’. This is the notion that a core group of abdominal muscles exists that can be strengthened through specific exercises to provide us with better posture and a ‘strong and stable back’ 😉. The idea arose in the late 1990s and seems to have found a place in mainstream thinking. This place, however, is not deserved as researchers and health practitioners from a range of different disciplines now believe that ‘core stability’ is something of a myth (see the links at the end of this post).

For sure, so-called ‘core strength’ exercises can help you look more ‘streamlined’ if that is what you want, but there is very little evidence to support the idea that targeted ‘core strength and stability’ exercises are particularly good for back pain, or for our general health and well-being. Instead, the focus on bracing and pulling in the stomach may make things worse – encouraging us to hold even more muscular tension and placing destabilising forces on the spine.

It is now well accepted that it’s actually exercise in general and everyday activity that helps people recover from and prevent back pain. Of course, Pilates or yoga can be a great help here; just be aware that in a well-taught class you are unlikely to find a focus on ‘core’ or other specific muscles. There is also good evidence that Alexander Technique lessons are an effective approach for long-term resolution of back pain.

From an Alexander Technique perspective, we are intricate, finely tuned beings that work best when we allow ourselves to function as an integrated mind-body whole. We are also a lot stronger when we use ourselves as an interconnected whole rather than as if we consist of ‘separate parts’, which is a common concept of ourselves. So here’s one example – if I want to push open a heavy door and my underlying, largely subconscious, concept of strength is that it’s my arms that do all the pushing, then I’m going to find it harder work than if I simply put my arms out and use my body weight to send the door out of the way as I walk through it. In an Alexander lesson, we become aware of the countless ways in which we tend to make life harder for ourselves through our habitual ways of doing things. We also discover how everything is a lot less effort when we are shown how we can allow ourselves to work in a more integrated, coordinated and balanced way.

Humans are vertebrates, just like dogs and horses, and so at the physical core of our whole being you’ll find our spine and skull. Alexander teachers are interested in how well a person is working as a whole, and the head / neck / back dynamic relationship is a good indicator of this. Our head and spine constitute our central coordinating axis – and it was FM Alexander who discovered that, in this respect, we’re just like other vertebrates. Think of a deer or cheetah running and you’ll see a beautifully poised head leading the movement and the body seems to just flow along behind. Even though we are on two feet rather than four, the same principle applies. Most of us start out with pretty efficient, well-coordinated movement (think of the free, easy movement and balance of most 2–3 year-olds). However, we tend to lose some of this coordination and balance as we gradually adapt ourselves to our environment, which is usually a largely sedentary world of chairs, tables and computers. We tend to get stuck in habitual ways of doing things, including over-use of our arms and legs, which compromises the natural length and springiness of the spine.

The ideal situation is that all our muscles are doing the appropriate amount of work required for any given task at any given time, so we need to be able to continually adapt according to what we’re doing. In general, however, our muscles tend to be doing too much work, as holding tension is a very common habit. In contrast, the system of deep muscles associated mostly with the spine and head that provide us with postural support is usually in need of a bit of waking up. It’s all a matter of balance and, with such a complex system, there’s no way we can directly bring that balance about through any specific exercises. Alexander lessons provide a practical and effective approach to this problem. Through learning greater self-awareness and from direct experience of guided movement we can re-discover the central coordinating role of our ‘true core’, the healthy dynamic relationship between our head and spine. When this is working better, we’re more able to let go of unwanted muscular tension and discover easier, freer movement.

So, if you’re a vertebrate and would like to discover how you can access your ‘true core strength and stability’, find yourself a registered Alexander Technique teacher – feel free to get in touch if you’re in the Edinburgh / East Lothian area or search find your local teacher here.

Read more about the myth of core stability:

Eyal Lederman: http://www.cpdo.net/Lederman_The_myth_of_core_stability.pdf

Peter O’Sullivan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YezBG_NdLgs&feature=player_embedded

Emma Wightman: http://www.stockbridgeosteopathicpractice.com/the-myth-of-core-stability-part-1.html

https://trustme-ed.com/blog/the-problem-with-core-stability

Prevention is better than cure

Alexander Technique as health and safetyIs it just me, or do you find when looking for car insurance that none of the categories in the online drop-down employment list accurately describe your job? Not surprisingly the category I wanted (‘Alexander Technique teacher’) didn’t exist, but none of the available options seemed even remotely relevant to what I do. When I came across the category of ‘health and safety consultant’ I immediately thought of someone on a building site wearing one of those bright yellow hard hats. But then it dawned on me that ‘health and safety consultant’ is actually quite a good description of our work as Alexander teachers – helping people to look after their health and wellbeing, and prevent injuries and accidents in everyday life.

In a previous post I talked about how I use the Alexander Technique to help keep me safe day-to-day. Here I’ll say a few things about how learning the Alexander Technique can benefit our long-term health.

Although I’ll never be able to prove it, I am convinced that I’d be in a bit of a state by now if 20 years ago I hadn’t decided to take up the Alexander Technique. I do know that at that time I had daily low-level neck ache and the beginnings of RSI linked to extensive computer use and, more worryingly, I had a family history of severe neck and back problems. When I decided to begin Alexander lessons I was seeing it as my attempt at an ‘insurance policy’ for my future heath. It’s very clear to me now that the Alexander Technique is essentially preventative in nature – promoting health in its broadest sense, rather than treating specific issues. At that time, however, I didn’t know much about it and I don’t even remember how I first heard about it – all I remember is that I was scared that I might end up with similar problems to my mum and brother and was willing to try anything that might help me protect my long-term health.

So how can learning and applying the Alexander Technique impact on our health over a lifetime? Anyone who has had a reasonable number of Alexander lessons will be very aware of, and enjoy, how differently they move, sit, stand and even breathe, compared with their previous habitual ways of being and doing. They’re also likely to notice a tendency towards a calmer, more open, and more self-confident attitude to life. Our current physical and mental state is a reflection of the cumulative conditions of our existence/experience leading up to this point. So it’s easy to see that if, for example, we learn to move more effortlessly with less stress and strain on our back, neck and joints, that this might have beneficial consequences over the long term in terms of flexibility, aches & pains and so-called ‘wear and tear’ conditions such as osteoarthritis. One of the more subtle and intangible benefits, however, is the greater understanding and acceptance of oneself that comes from taking on board the Technique. This is accompanied by a growing sense of oneself as a whole, rather than having a concept of ‘self’ as essentially being the mind, which is then carried around by a separate (and not always trustworthy) body.

One evening last week I found my right knee suddenly really jarred when I was going upstairs. I immediately stopped and considered the situation – was it something I’d done in that moment of climbing the stairs? And/or, had I slightly twisted and injured my knee without realising it when I’d been clambering over the rocks at Joppa beach earlier that day? Not knowing the answer to these questions, and certainly not wanting to make the situation worse, I was left with the fact that all I could usefully do in that moment was to apply my usual Alexander thinking and see what happened. So I gave myself a few seconds to bring my awareness back to myself, noticing my contact with the supporting surface of the step beneath me and thinking of the direction upwards, all the way up my spine through the top of my head up towards the ceiling, and the idea of my knees going ‘forwards and away’ (‘classic’ Alexander thoughts – or directions as we like to call them). I reminded myself that I was likely to automatically anticipate another experience of pain with my next step, and so invited myself to put such thoughts aside. Then, mindfully, I took another step – wow, no pain at all, my knee was fine!

We have three flights of stairs in our house so as I gradually continued up towards the top, I had plenty of time to find out what effect my thinking was having. Half way up, my mind wandered onto something else and then suddenly ‘Ouch’ again! So, giving myself a moment to renew my Alexander directions, I set off again and was fine all the way up to the top floor. In the course of that evening I found that each time I went up or down the stairs, or crouched down to pick something up I had no knee pain – but only as long as I remembered to think my Alexander directions; otherwise, each time that I didn’t stay ‘present’, it hurt!

I don’t always have such a clear-cut experience of the power of thought – Alexander-informed thought. It’s usually much more subtle e.g. walking might seem to become slightly easier and smoother when I change my thinking. But it did make me realise how important is the way we respond in that first moment of something going wrong. Our response can significantly influence the longer-term outcome, either aiding a speedy recovery or (unintentionally) predisposing to a worsening of the situation.

Now of course pain is a very useful immediate reaction whenever we encounter anything that is harmful. It’s how from a young age we learn to protect ourselves by knowing what to avoid etc. But a pain response can sometimes become entrenched unnecessarily. An experience of pain makes us anticipate pain again whenever we repeat the same action/are in the same situation. However, pain anticipation results in a whole-body/self response that includes tightening up and this in itself makes it more likely that pain will recur. So we can get stuck in a vicious circle of pain which can become persistent and remain long after any original tissue damage has healed up. There is now a lot of research on persistent (chronic) pain and ‘brain plasticity’, and one helpful and accessible insight into this is Steve Haine’s booklet, Pain is really strange.

My experience of knee pain that day led me back to memories of times prior to learning the Alexander Technique and the way I would react whenever anything went awry. Typically, any experience of unexpected pain or discomfort would unleash a stream of ‘what if’ thinking – for example ‘is this the start of osteoarthritis?’. But now, using the practical thinking skills I’ve learnt, together with a more accepting and curious attitude to the current situation, I was able to work through the present problem. I presumably had some kind of minor injury but preventing my reactions from making it any worse allowed my natural self-healing capacities to do their stuff. After a couple of days I didn’t even have any twinges in my knee.

Of course I can’t ever know for sure if my Alexander thinking had any role in preventing a minor injury potentially turning into something more serious or long-term – but I’ve had enough similar experiences over the years that I’m convinced that the Alexander Technique has had a major impact on protecting my health for the long-term. And of course there are now several clinical trials that back up my own personal experience, with evidence of how learning and applying the Alexander Technique can impact on some long-term health conditions.

If you’d like to find out more about how you can use the Alexander Technique to help protect your long-term health do get in touch if you live in or around Edinburgh, or look for events or teachers in your area.