Evening Standard

October 2008

Alexander’s Secrets

The British Medical Journal recently claimed that the Alexander Technique could not only reduce back pain but also enhance your quality of life. Here Jackie Annesley gives her verdict on lessons that could create a lasting change

THE last time I grew an inch in height was in about 1974. The economic climate may be as bad today as it was then, but 34 years on, you don’t expect any major bodily improvements without recourse to a scalpel. Yet it is difficult to overestimate the effect that 30 lessons of Alexander Technique can have on your life. The British Medical Journal published a survey recently confirming that AT lessons had “enduring benefits”, specifically for sufferers of back pain (24 lessons led to a fall in the number of days in pain from 21 a month to just three) but also in other areas of life. In the past seven weeks, as well as managing to unfurl an inch, I’ve improved my sleep pattern, felt less stressed, been more patient with the children, played perceptibly faster tennis, gained a better complexion and reduced the shoulder tension that invariably led to migraines. I’ve also managed to do a full body squat without lifting my heels from the ground, about which more later (try it, it really is a challenge).

The man at the centre of this transformation is an instantly engaging Scotsman called Noel Kingsley. Operating out of a cosy room on Cavendish Square, W1, Kingsley was taught by Walter Carrington who was tutored by the great Alexander himself (see box on Page 36). Kingsley’s challenge was to reform a middle-aged mother of three who’d always had round shoulders and who would, when faced with conflict or stress, hunch them and arch her neck back. It is no wonder that for the past 16 years I’ve suffered from chronic migraines. In lesson one, Kingsley targeted my clenched neck. By getting me to drop my chin and widen my shoulders, my whole posture instantly improved. By the following day, rarely used muscles were already complaining. As time went by, the 45-minute lessons would take on a familiar pattern: the first 10 minutes were spent retraining the muscles by sitting down and standing up from a chair with Kingsley’s hands guiding me. The next 20 minutes, my favourite, were spent lying down in the “semi-supine position”, legs bent, hand resting on hips, head on a book, neck completely free. My limbs, head, shoulders and back would be manipulated very subtly. We would often end the session with an assortment of challenges including breathing exercises — “whispered ahs” in which you relax your jaw and throat and breathe out the softest, lowest sound you can. One of the biggest thrills was going down into a full squat, heels on the ground, and springing back up like a Cossack dancer, something I protested I simply couldn’t do.

But Kingsley doesn’t do “can’t”. For him, everything is possible, and he has the clients to prove it. There’s the society beauty who couldn’t even turn her head, the writer with chronic RSI who said the effect of AT “is the human equivalent of adding oil to a car engine” and the young London singer who’d lost her voice for two years. Kingsley worked with the latter, for virtually nothing, convinced he could help. JuJu, as she is known, is now the lead singer of Little Fish, is recording her first album in LA and has been called the “new Patti Smith” by Gaz Coombes of Supergrass. Of my progress during 30 lessons in seven weeks, Kingsley says: “Your poise is now free and upright; your shoulders are more open and you carry yourself with more ease and fluidity. You are breathing more freely and this will be helping your internal functioning, circulation, digestion and tendency to headaches. I don’t believe you will ever go back to the way you were.”

The headaches haven’t gone completely but they are a lot less frequent — and bizarrely people kept asking if I’ve lost weight, a common side effect according to Kingsley. The truth is I’m still more than 10st, I just stand taller and more broad-shouldered. AT is a bit like learning a language — throughout the day, you have to be prepared to implement what you have learned in the lessons. But the more effort you put in, the greater the rewards. For the price of a good holiday I feel Kingsley has taught me something with a rare quality — a lesson I carry with me, and which can benefit my health, for the rest of my life. For your nearest AT teacher contact www.stat.org.uk