PERFECT POISE COULD BANISH MY BACKACHE
Simon Edge has a lesson in the disciplines of the Alexander Technique from practitioner Noël Kingsley
Tuesday March 8,2011
By Simon Edge
An entirely mental discipline can have an impressive effect on chronic spinal pain…
THE second-best thing about learning the Alexander Technique with Noël Kingsley is that you get a lot of congratulations for tiny things. I am sitting in an ordinary chair in his consulting room in London’s West End and he is gently prodding the back of my neck and shoulders.
He wants me to think “lead with the head”, just think it not do it, as he nudges me forward. I hinge at the hip and end up in a standing position. “Well done,” he exclaims. “Good thinking.”
A little later lying on my back on his examination table with my head on a small pile of books and my legs bent at the knee, he nudges at my shoulders, gently teasing them apart with his fingers and urging me to relax them with every touch. “Well done,” he says again. “That’s really good.” If the lavish praise is the second best thing about Noël’s lessons the best thing may be that they actually work.
I’m here because I have suffered debilitating backache in the past three years. My GP told me I had an incurable skeletal disorder called Scheuermann’s disease and all I could do was manage it with painkillers and physiotherapy. I did the physio but I also took up Pilates and renewed a connection with a trusted osteopath.
Both he and my Pilates teacher said the doctor’s diagnosis was nonsense and that, with work, my problem could be resolved.
For years I have been slouching in chairs so I have a straight lower back where it should curve inwards. The task is to restore that curve. Now thanks to Pilates three times a week, a big effort to overhaul my posture, a strict programme of stretches and regular osteopathy, things have improved hugely.
Yet the problem hasn’t gone away completely and when I’m offered the chance of Alexander consultations, I jump at it.
Several friends have recommended this mysterious discipline in the past couple of years but all they’ve managed to convey is that the process is hard to explain. So I’m curious.
“It’s a thinking method not a doing method,” says Noël, who explains the technique in his new book Free Yourself From Back Pain.
“There are no exercises unless you count lying on the floor as an exercise which means that people of any age can do it. Exercises mean strengthening and most people don’t need strengthening. They need to do less with their muscles because they’re already overusing them. It’s always down to co-ordination.
“Through the Alexander Technique we are retraining the muscles and the co-ordination of the muscles to revive the instinctive poise you had as a child.”
The technique was devised by F Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor who started to think seriously about posture in the early 1900s after doctors failed to treat his problems.
He observed that small children hold themselves much better than adults. One of the earliest things toddlers must do if they want to stand up is learn to balance their head, the heaviest part of the body. They manage it without having strong neck muscles. It seems to be a matter of instinct which animals also display. Just look at a foal getting to its feet as soon as it is born.
“Unfortunately from the age of three or four onwards we pick up habits such as hunching, stooping or slouching and we disengage muscles in our backs that should by nature be expansive,” says Noël, who trained under a protégé of Alexander.
“Repeat that process of disengagement a few times and it starts to become second nature. By the time you’re 30 or 40 you will be looking for help and we have to try to retrain the muscles.”
He does this by working with his fingers to feel for downward pressures and unnecessary tensions and to try to communicate a sense of lengthening and widening to the nervous system.
When he tells me to think about sending my head upwards he doesn’t want me to make any physical adjustments. “It’s like a wish, a clear intention, deciding that your head is going to go up,” he says.
It may sound dangerously akin to the quack therapies that say you can banish cancer with positive thoughts but it’s actually very rational. If you try consciously to stand taller, you may use the few muscles you might guess are relevant but ignore others (we have around 500 in our bodies) that ought to be involved.
S ending the message to the brain without doing anything is the first step towards letting instinct take over again. “When we start to loosen the neck, let the head go up and the back lengthen and widen, the muscles start to synchronise and you get the support you want because that is nature’s design,” says Noël, citing research to back up his claim.
Two years ago a study of 500 patients published in the British Medical Journal found that one-to-one Alexander lessons provide significant long-term benefits for chronic low-back pain.
At the end of each of my three sessions I feel oddly floaty and I don’t have any discomfort in my lower back. That may be because I’ve been sitting or lying in a restful position for most of the lesson but I also have a pain-free weekend.
You know how you don’t notice absence of pain and then you suddenly remember it used to be there? That’s what I get, balanced by an achy neck as if new muscles are getting used to doing more work.
I’ve learned from bitter experience that breakthroughs can often be followed by setbacks but this really does seem to be worth pursuing. Noël usually recommends at least 15 lessons to get a lasting benefit and I have now signed up. Wish me luck.
Contact Noël Kingsley at www.alexander-technique.com or call 020 7491 3505. To find a qualified Alexander teacher in your area, visit www.stat.org.uk or call 020 7482 5135.