Alexander Technique

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The Times Article 'Put Your Back into it'

Janet Tappin-Coelho 4/12/2004 


Are you finding work and the gym a pain in the neck? Few of us realise that the way we use our body in everyday situations can be damaging, and not only to our backs. Janet Tappin-Coelho talks to three practitioners of the Alexander Technique who tell you what you need to know

Fifty per cent of Stephanie Smith’s client’s are office workers suffering from chronic back pain or repetitive strain injury (RSI). Smith, who works from her home in Theydon Bois, Essex, says: “Most of us don’t realise just how easy it is to put our bodies out of sorts simply using a computer.” The cause is often bad posture while sitting at the terminal. Many people lean into the computer screen as they concentrate on their work, which causes the body to slouch. And as the abdominal muscles curl, the back muscles tighten to counterbalance the forward pull, causing tension in the upper back and putting a strain on the shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.
“If we slump it means that we aren’t using the external support that’s available to us, such as the floor and our chair,” she says. “We are also not using our own internal support, the postural muscles that sit deep against our skeleton and hold us up against gravity. Instead we overwork the wrong muscles, our superficial movement ones, and use them to keep us upright.”
Students of the Alexander Technique are taught how to activate their postural muscles and to use their surrounding environment. The keyboard, however light, she claims, can also be used as a supportive tool. The aim is to learn how to use your sensory skills to direct the flow of support from the floor, up the legs to your hips and bottom where the support of the chair takes over.
Smith tells her students to think about holding their arms at 90 degrees to the floor when typing, without allowing their wrists to collapse — if neccessary using a wrist support. She also advises students to try to lengthen their fingers and to widen the palms of their hands, and not to be heavy-handed. “The support from the keys will then flow from the fingertips — giving lightness and ease of movement — up to the shoulders, which should free muscular tension.”
Other practical steps she recommends are to make sure that your chair gives you the right support; organise your desk so that you do not distort your body as you reach for a file; and never hug the phone between your shoulder and ear as this creates a tension in the upper torso. Both feet should also be placed squarely on the ground and you should not cross or wrap your legs round a chair. If you feel tense, don’t simply relax as that flops the body forwards, and don’t push your shoulders back as that narrows the back and tightens the shoulders. Reduce stress by regularly taking short breaks.

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Many gym-goers, according to Patrick Pearson, apply too much effort and exhaust themselves unduly. “They grip the handlebars, crunch up their feet in their trainers, clench their bottoms on the seats and generally tighten and hunch their muscles, so when they climb on to a piece of equipment their joints are restricted and their technique essentially hampered. The stress on the body makes the muscles work less effectively, he says.
“I show them that by releasing muscular tension they can improve their overall fitness and that with the Alexander Technique they can reach their training zone without overdoing it.”
Pearson, who is based on the Welsh borders, examines every aspect of an activity: how the hands hold the handlebars; how the feet are placed on the footplates; and how the torso is balanced in relation to the equipment. He teaches pupils to soften their limbs, feet, knees and fingers to the surfaces they touch — to use them as supports — so that they exercise more effectively.
For instance, using an exercise bike while maintaining the correct posture allows the spine to lengthen, eliminates an arched back and frees the rest of the body, making pedalling more efficient and easier. And once users develop their cognitive skills, they find they slip into a mode where their strokes on the rowing machine feel less strenuous, steps on the treadmill flow and glide, and co-ordination on the cross trainer is smooth and efficient.

Pearson says many users find that they don’t have to do as much to reach the same or higher levels of fitness, making the whole gym experience more enjoyable.

Colin Beattie teaches the Alexander Technique to all levels of swimmers — from beginners to competitive — at a private pool in Hitchin, Hertfordshire: “My main aim is to make pupils feel comfortable and effective in the pool. I also work on reducing fear and panic in the water, and show my students how to develop their breathing techniques and buoyancy.”
Many amateur swimmers get in the pool with the intention of improving their health and fitness, but most often fail to benefit fully from the exercise because of their anxiety and inhibited swimming style. Competitive swimmers may have a good technique, but years of ploughing up and down through the water can cause tension and strains in their back and neck muscles.
Beattie says that the Alexander Technique can make a significant difference to how an individual performs in the water and it can help them to gain more from the exercise without damaging their body. He films each of his pupils in the pool in order to analyse and correct his or her swimming habits. One of the most common offences is swimming with the head pulled back and out of the water, which puts unnecessary pressure on the muscles in the neck and back.
Using the core principles of the Alexander Technique, swimmers are trained to become more smooth and graceful in the water and to allow their head and neck to move freely in and out of it. Instead of speeding up and down the lanes, they benefit from a slower, more luxurious, relationship with the water, which ultimately improves their overall health and wellbeing.

THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE was developed by the actor Frederick Mathias Alexander who believed that correct alignment of the head, neck and spine would alleviate back pain, as well as breathing disorders and stress-related conditions. He claimed that the solution lay in re-educating people’s kinaesthetic judgment — the internal feedback which tells you where your body is in space and how it moves. This frees the neck of muscular tension and allows the head to move forward so that it balances lightly at the top of the spine, which encourages the back to lengthen and widen, giving the body freer movement.

SUITABLE FOR treating neck and back pain, poor posture, migraines and arthritis. It has also been found to be beneficial for asthma sufferers and can improve flexibility.
CONVENTIONAL VIEW It is increasingly accepted as useful for treating chronic problems such as arthritis, Parkinson’s Disease or back pain. Little good quality research exists but what does suggests there could be some merit for these claims.
COST Between £20 and £40 (depending on where you live) for a 50-minute session.
CONTACT the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (0845 2307828; ). All its members have completed a three-year full-time training course.

Janet Tappin-Coelho 4/12/2004