Category Archives: Health

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.

The Alexander Technique keeps me safe

Stay safe with the Alexander TechniqueThis past month I’ve spent a lot of time driving up and down between Edinburgh and Bristol due to family illness. During this time I often found myself thinking ‘thank goodness for the Alexander Technique, I’m so lucky to have this skill!” – I was able to stay calm, aware and focused throughout, even when I’d had very little sleep and the road conditions were awful.

There have been countless times in my everyday life – for example, picking up something heavy, climbing a ladder, walking on uneven ground – when I’ve used the Alexander Technique to help me stay safe. How does this work? – by becoming more aware of oneself and what is happening moment by moment, and being able to give oneself a little bit of space and time in which to consider how best to respond in any given situation. So, for example, if I’m climbing up a ladder to wash the windows I’m very aware of my changing balance with each step – not trying to control or micro-manage, just staying present and paying attention to what I’m doing with myself rather than solely focusing on cleaning the windows. So if, for example, a rung is slippery I’m more likely to be able to adapt and stay in balance and so stay safe.

Less obvious perhaps but equally as important, is how learning the Alexander Technique is helpful for safety in its broader sense, particularly over the long term. So it’s not just about in-the-moment avoidance of accidents or strain – I’ve also protected my long-term health and well-being through the Technique. I’m convinced that without it I’d be a bit of a wreck now with neck pain and RSI – I was beginning to get signs of these developing before I started Alexander lessons. Through the lessons and my subsequent training to be an Alexander teacher, I’ve integrated the Technique into my daily life for better balance, movement coordination and mindful calm.

“Really uplifted by it, really empowered by it…”

Embodiment and self efficacyThis description of an experience of learning the Alexander Technique comes from one of the participants in a large randomised controlled clinical trial for people with chronic neck pain. It is from a series of in-depth interviews that were carried out with some of the trial participants and which form the basis of a new publication by myself and other members of the ATLAS study team [1]. Our analysis explores the participants’ experiences of learning the Alexander Technique (or of having acupuncture, the second intervention evaluated in the trial) and contrasts these experiences with their previous medical care. The participants’ accounts of their experiences help to explain the basis for the observed clinical benefits in the trial of long-term reduction in neck pain and associated disability following Alexander lessons or acupuncture [2]. They also complement the trial findings of participants developing greater self-efficacy [3].

Here I look at the experiences of the participants who attended Alexander lessons. They reported that learning the Alexander Technique led to greater self-awareness, and they explained how applying the Alexander thinking skills led to a sense of more control over managing and overcoming their neck pain. Participants’ reflections include:

“Really uplifted by it, really empowered by it and really surprised at, at what I had experienced.” (Female)

“…you don’t really have to physically do anything, you’ve just got to think it… So you can be walking down the street and you can put it into practice, I can be at work…I had made my muscles go soft that for ten years hadn’t been, and that was just from my teacher just explaining what to do and just very lightly touching my shoulders and just…talking me through it.” (Female)

“You’re in control, you know.” (Male)

For many participants the increased self-awareness and a sense of interconnectedness and embodiment were integral to the transformative process they experienced. The perception of ‘neck pain’ could no longer be reducible to a ‘body part’.

“She looked at me as [a] whole rather than as a shoulder and a neck … And I’m not just learning to relax certain muscles that were the problem, it was everything, which, I suppose in some respects, just balanced, balanced me a lot better.” (Female, Interview 2)

“I’m a much calmer person, it’s taught me how to take a step back and assess a situation rather than jump straight in … because I’ve learnt how to do it, I’ve learnt how to take a step back, I’ve learnt how to relax my body.” (Female, Interview 1)

Participants described how they continued to use the understanding and skills they had gained, after the Alexander lessons had finished, to sustain and in some cases further improve their reduction in neck pain. For example, one participant said:

”The positive thing about [the Alexander Technique] is you can carry on doing the things that the teacher’s taught yah to help yah, and I do. And gradually it’s just got better and better, you know. And as for life changing, probably the Alexander’s changed me because I never used to realise it, but with being in pain you used to tend to be a bit short tempered and…. grumpy.” (Male, Interview 2)

Find out more

Our article is published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, read it here.

More on the ATLAS trial

ATLAS was a randomised, controlled trial that recruited 517 patients with chronic neck pain and evaluated one-to-one Alexander Technique lessons with a STAT-registered teacher, or acupuncture, each plus usual care, compared with usual care alone. The main clinical findings of this trial are published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine [2]. The trial demonstrated statistically significant and clinically meaningful reductions in neck pain and associated disability for both interventions compared with usual care alone. Read more about the study here.

  1. Aniela Wenham, Karl Atkin, Julia Woodman, Kathleen Ballard and Hugh MacPherson. Self-efficacy and embodiment associated with Alexander Technique lessons or with acupuncture sessions: A longitudinal qualitative sub-study within the ATLAS trial. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 2018;31:308–14.
  2. Hugh MacPherson, Helen Tilbrook, Stewart Richmond, Julia Woodman, Kathleen Ballard, 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.
  3. Julia Woodman, Kathleen Ballard, Catherine Hewitt, Hugh MacPherson. Self-efficacy and self-care-related outcomes following Alexander Technique lessons for people with chronic neck pain in the ATLAS randomised, controlled trial. European Journal of Integrative Medicine 2018;17:64–71. 

 

Is ‘text neck’ real?

Text neckI saw a recent newspaper article claiming that there is no such thing as ‘text neck’, saying that research has dismissed any link between use of mobile phones and neck pain. As is often the case with mainstream media, the journalist was basing this rather bold statement on the findings of just one small study [1].

The problem with this type of journalism is that large claims are based on small amounts of evidence, without taking into account the bigger picture. Had the journalist taken the trouble to look further, they would have discovered that quite a lot of research has already been done in this area. While the jury is still out, the weight of evidence is pointing towards the likelihood that there is a link between mobile technology use and neck and shoulder pain. For example, research published in 2017 reviewed all the studies to date that had examined a possible relationship between mobile touch screen technology use and musculoskeletal problems such as neck pain [2]. The researchers’ analysis of the 45 studies identified led to their conclusion that there is some (albeit limited) evidence of musculoskeletal problems, particularly neck and shoulder symptoms, associated with mobile technology use. They stressed that the evidence is limited, largely due to the lack of controlled and long-term studies, but they were sufficiently concerned to issue guidance, including reducing excessive time using mobiles [2].

We evolved in an environment very different from that of today. We were, no doubt, well adapted to that environment, moving through it with our heads beautifully ‘supported and suspended’ as part of our whole springy and dynamic upright structure. In this scenario, the considerable weight of our head (4.5kg or so!) did not cause us any undue strain, passing ‘straight down the plumb line’ into the ground rather than pulling the rest of our body down.

However, since the Industrial Revolution our environment has changed beyond recognition. The current world of seats, tables, cars, computers and mobile technology has changed how we spend our time, fundamentally restricting and constraining our everyday (moment-by-moment) movement into an uncomfortable mix of stasis and repetitive actions. We have developed an array of subconscious habits to try and adapt ourselves to this environment, and these are interfering with our natural movement coordination, postural support and balance. If you watch most people using a mobile, reading a book, or just looking down, you’ll see their head hanging forwards from the spine rather than pivoting at the joint at the top (see my article in TalkBack magazine for more on this [3]). With 4.5kg of weight pulling downwards for large parts of the day, it seems foolish to dismiss the possibility that neck and shoulder pain may result over the years.

While there is now a lot of attention paid to the amount of time spent on our mobiles, it may be more important to focus on how we use it – what do we do to ourselves while we are ‘lost’ in our virtual world? Why not conduct a little experiment – pick up your mobile and start reading a text or looking at social media. Ask yourself what gradually happens to your neck and shoulders, to your breathing, and to your awareness of the world around you? My belief is that – without an ability to avoid the usual habits around mobile phone use – it is likely to predispose to neck and shoulder pain over the long term. But it’s not just about biomechanics. Losing awareness of what’s around us and instead focusing our attention narrowly on our mobiles, we tend to become tense and rigid, affecting our breathing, balance and our sense of being ‘grounded’. So paradoxically, even while we are rushing about our busy days, on the move and on our mobiles, we can actually become quite frozen and fixed.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I help people recognise what’s happening to themselves as they use their mobile, or indeed as they carry out any activity (sitting, lifting, walking etc). I then show them how they can reduce unhelpful habits so that they can lead their daily lives with more poise and freedom, and less effort. Using a mobile well

Consider finding out more about the Alexander Technique if you’d like to be able to look after yourself better and stay grounded in the real world – and not just when you’re using your mobile.

 

  1. Gerson Moreira Damasceno GM, et al. Text neck and neck pain in 18–21-year-old young adults. European Spine Journal, January 2018;1–6.
  2. Toh SH, et al. The associations of mobile touch screen device use with musculoskeletal symptoms and exposures: A systematic review. PLoS One, August 2017;12(8):e0181220.
  3. How the Alexander Technique can help you avoid ‘text neck’, Julia Woodman. TalkBackquarterly magazine of BackCare. Summer 2016 Issue; 20–21 (or click here for PDF; reproduced with kind permission).

How can I change?

Choose change

It’s the beginning of January and some of us may find ourselves struggling to put into practice our New Year’s resolutions. Resolutions usually involve a desire for change – to either achieve or to be something different to now. We start off with good intentions but then find that making change happen can be incredibly difficult, particularly if it’s to be long-lasting. If we fail, it’s very easy to believe that it’s due to a lack of ‘willpower’, or because of factors that are beyond our control. Well, of course we can’t do much about factors beyond our control but we can take a look at ourselves and ask the question of what does it really take in order to be able to change?

The Alexander Technique is a method for self-change. It provides us with the thinking tools to become more aware of ourselves and our habits, and gives us a practical, thoughtful and embodied approach to bringing about change. It works with the way we think, react, act, move and be – and, because we’re dealing with such fundamentals, it gives us a process for getting to the real root of a problem. Instead of fixating on the desired goal, we learn to give ourselves time and to pay attention to how we go about achieving the goal. This also means we are more likely to set realistic goals and so are more likely to achieve them. The approach is to prioritise looking after ourselves throughout the process of working towards our goal. It’s a more sustainable approach than the ‘all or nothing’ attitude that often leads us to give up at the first hurdle.

The Alexander Technique can be applied in every aspect of life, helping us to make the changes that we want to make – from learning how to exercise without injury to reducing postural and movement habits that might be the cause of back or neck pain. Some of the hardest habits to shift can be thinking habits, and learning the Alexander Technique helps us to change our thinking. The American philosopher and educationalist John Dewey found that it enabled him to change his intellectual position on an issue whenever new evidence emerged to challenge it – he contrasted this with other academic thinkers who continued to hold rigidly to one position come what may [1].

If you’d like to find out more about how the Alexander Technique can help you make changes, consider booking an introductory lesson. Be sure to choose a qualified, registered teacher – members of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) have undertaken 3 years’ full-time professional training. If you live around Edinburgh you might like to consider myself or one of my colleagues. Visit the STAT directory to find a teacher local to you.

  1. Frank Pierce Jones. Freedom to change. Mouritz, London, 3rd edition, 1997; p97.