What is it? ∞
The Alexander technique is a way of becoming more aware of your balance and how you move. It's based on the premise that most people have bad postural habits that, over time, stop us using our bodies as easily and comfortably as we should. Wrongly used muscles contract and pull down, giving to the classic sign of bad use: head tipped back at the start of any movement, especially sitting or standing.
As well as the long-term damage to joints and cramped internal organs, poor posture is linked with respiratory ailments; people develop round shoulders from hunching protectively around their painful chests as they cough and wheeze.
Frederick Alexander believed modern living leads to bad postural habits; shoulders raised and stiffened by stress, neck poked forward over desk work, tired bodies slumped into saggy armchairs. Soon we've lost all sense of how we really are, so that what feels natural (because it's habitual) is widely out of line. That's why it's hard to correct our own posture without expert help.
The Alexander Technique aims to re-educate the body into moving more easily - relearning the natural grace all children have until they all go to school and start slouching over desks.
It's based on what Alexander teachers call 'good use of the body' - allowing the spine to regain its natural curves, holding the head effortlessly in the easiest position and distributing weight evenly over your feet. The bonus is that you look taller and feel lighter.
It's a hand-on teaching method, though you don't usually undress; after three years' full-time training Alexander teachers can use their fingertips to 'read' peoples muscles through layers of clothing. To start with you, and the teacher observe your stance and movements for some time, and the first shock is seeing how asymmetrical you are when you think you're standing straight. Then you're gently moved into a healthier position when you're sitting, standing and lying down.
As part of the learning process you stop to think before plunging into a habitual move, then make the move [ 1 ]Mindfulness)(mindfully. It feels odd to practice getting up and walking with someone's hand lightly holding the back of your neck, and even odder for the first few days when you keep making conscious efforts to do it the way you've learned.
And the homework couldn't be easier: for 20 minutes a day you lie on your back on the floor, with just enough books under your head to keep your neck parallel to the floor (so you can swallow comfortably), knees raised, feet on the floor hip-width apart and hands on abdomen.
When should you use the Alexander technique? ∞
Most obvious benefits are with back or joint pain, fatigue and respiratory problems. It's also widely used by actors, musicians and athletes to improve their performance. Since there are no risks involved, it's worth anyone's while trying it out.
Published studies verify the benefits of the Alexander technique for singing, playing musical instruments, stress management, breathing and pain relief, as well as balance and posture. A study of two matched groups of students at the Royal college of Music found that the Alexander group improved their singing and acting skills as well as their posture. Another study found that chronic pain sufferers rated it the most effective of 13 activities they tried on a pain-management course.
None. It's painless and non-invasive. But let your teacher know if you have anaemia, low blood pressure or anything that can make you lose your balance.
About £8-£15 for half an hour. It can also be learned in group classes, but it's worth having at least a few one-to-one sessions since it's surprisingly hard to feel when you're out of line. Practitioners recommend a foundation course of 20-30 lessons.
For a list of qualified practitioners and training schools, send an sae to: Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, 20 London house, 266 Fulham Road, London SW10 9EL, 0171-351 0828.
There are many books available including: /The Alexander Technique/ by Edward Maisel (Thames & Hudson, £8.95).