Evening Standard – March 2011

Bad posture is a pain in the neck

Olivia Cole

3 Mar 2011

After hours of writing, I can set the clock by the pain at the top of my shoulders and around my neck. It goes if I avoid my desk but returns the minute I sit down again in front of the computer.

Barring some kind of psychosomatic allergy to working, clearly my posture is to blame.

I am five foot 10 and a half, short-sighted and prone, through over-concentration, to not giving a moment’s thought to my posture. This is what back expert Noel Kingsley, who has just written an acclaimed book, Free Yourself from Back Pain – A Guide to the Alexander Technique, would term “present in the mind, but absent in the body”.

If there’s a consolation, it’s that I am not alone. Women today aren’t taught to walk around with books on their head. Actresses such as Emma Watson, Anne Hathaway, Gwyneth Paltrow and Keira Knightley have all been spotted recently looking fabulous but seemingly ill at ease on the red carpet.

I don’t think of myself as the Hunchback of Holland Park but my colleagues say I seem to curl up at my desk and certainly my aching shoulders and massage addiction tell a different story. As I turned 30, my editor (herself a convert to the Alexander Technique) accidentally copied me in on an email to Kingsley in which she described my posture as “ruining my whole look”. And so it is that I come to be standing in front of Kingsley, a sprightly Irishman with, of course, a ramrod-straight spine and an unfailing optimism about human posture: “I’d like to get my hands on Keira Knightley’s neck,” he observes.

Kingsley, whose own tutor was a protégé of Alexander, has a practice in Cavendish Square. The first lesson is that I am a pupil to be taught, not a patient to be cured or a body to be massaged. Early in our sessions he asks if I would mind being an inch taller? No. Two? Er, well, maybe not.

The first half of my 45-minute session is spent relaxing, imagining my head resting perfectly on the top of my spine. The remainder I spend lying down on a table while the relevant muscles are manipulated. Post-stretch, the backs of my bare feet tip just over the edge and I can feel that my legs are in a different place in relation to my hips.

After my initial complaints, I start to enjoy being stretched every morning. Miraculously, my shoulders stop aching after a couple of sessions. Posture clichés turn out to be useless: you can forget “sit up straight, shoulders back”. It turns out that aping good posture is as likely to store up just as much trouble in your muscles as standing or sitting around sloppily.

Unlike the “crack crack” of an osteopath, the manipulation in an Alexander lesson is comparatively gentle. Sessions use a combination of simple movements, such as getting in and out of a chair (but in the right way) and gentle manipulation.

To feel the muscles uncurling in my shoulders is a revelation: deep inside I can feel it and, in my mind’s eye, imagine myself being like one of those paper flowers that unfurl in water.

The basis of the technique is that young children and animals, who haven’t adopted bad habits, have innately great posture. The Alexander Technique, named after its Australian creator Matthias Alexander, who lived in the late 1800s, is still beloved of performers.

On a Friday night at my friend Louisa’s birthday party, as I wonder at the horrors high heels are inflicting on my back, I grill a friend, actor Alan Cox. He sees it as “the neutral gear from where you can then go places”. Increasingly stretched, it’s also, I start to think, why actors often seem tall. They are so relaxed that they project a far more forceful presence than they physically possess. The trick is to encourage your muscles to remember to do things differently. The science of “muscle memory” is sound. The diligent pupil is encouraged to direct the muscles to open out.

Within a week, I am remembering to sit with my “sitting bones”. I never knew I had them. Three weeks on and my shoulders have moved into a different place and my extra height and new-found poise are provoking comment.

Midway through my course, I watch Jesse Eisenberg on YouTube talking about his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network: “To play Mark, I used very, very, short sentences. And I didn’t move my neck,” he said, hunching his shoulders up around his ears. He did an exact impression of Zuckerberg as the permanently tense über-geek and, it has to be noted, resembles the way I used to look with an approaching deadline. I am a convert – it is not a good look.

Noel Kingsley, London,  www.alexander-technique.com . Free Yourself from Back Pain – A Guide to the Alexander Technique is published by Kyle Books