May 2000

“Could I Grow Taller, Leaner and Younger?”

Every family has its little joke and in my family, I’m it – little and joke rolled into one. I’m not that little – 5ft 5in – but I slouch, I slump, I droop, I stoop. My posture is so terrible that it chops a further two inches off my height. In a family of tall, straight-shouldered giants it was inevitable that my nickname would be Dwarf.

Although I’d never done anything about my poor posture, I knew there was an answer to it. If you spot someone with gazelle-¬like grace, chances are they’ve found the Alexander Technique. This is a complementary therapy that, quite literally, leaves you walking tall. By working on your posture, you enjoy a wealth of other health benefits – an end to back problems and less stress, for starters. Those who practise the Alexander Technique appear to grow taller, leaner and younger. The last two appealed somewhat. When I reached the stage where my stomach hung low enough to keep my knees warm, I felt that it was finally time for action. With high hopes I booked my first lesson. Alas, it was doomed to disaster – and it was all my fault.

I had broken one of the cardinal rules of visiting a complementary therapist. These are: never wear thong underwear – inevitably, you’ll be asked to bend over; never admit how much you really drink – what to you is a carefree bottle of Chardonnay translates into a crack cocaine habit; and never, ever wear trainers to an appointment, because you’ll have to take them off. Since therapists invariably ply their trade in rooms so small the Count of Monte Cristo would get claustrophobic, you’ll end up well embarrassed.

The whole point is to relax but, given the aroma from my feet, relaxed I was not. But respect to Noel Kingsley, my teacher. His disgust was only vaguely perceptible by a sudden quick intake of breath. Which I can’t help feeling was a mistake in the circumstances.

Soon enough, however, I was concentrating so hard on “unclenching” my neck I didn’t care. This isn’t as grim as it sounds – it doesn’t hurt for one thing. I sat on a chair while Noel laid his fingers down one side of my neck, and his thumb along the other – and, well, that’s it. He didn’t pull, manipulate or stretch. But gently, slowly and without me really knowing how he did it, my neck felt looser, my head lighter, my back longer. Loosening the neck is paramount. Our heads weigh 11lb, says Noel. “Here.” He thrusts a yellow plastic sack at me. “That’s what it feels like.” ‘It’ feels very heavy, and for a horrible moment I think it really is a head in there. Seeing my queasiness, Noel quickly reassures me that it is, in fact, 11lb of sugar. His amused expression hints that anyone with feet as gross as mine should find encountering a head in a sack before lunchtime a breeze.

But I get the point. Our heads weigh a lot and given the careless way we carry them about, it’s not surprising so many of us suffer from bad backs, stiff shoulders and headaches.

At the second session, I really began to feel a difference. I sit, I stand. I lie down. All the while Noel presses various muscles – very gently. I have to imagine my head is floating from my neck like a balloon. Amazingly, the thought is enough to make a difference. Then I imagine my spine is lengthening and my shoulders and chest are opening and broadening out: “Relax. Float. Lengthen. Broaden,” Try repeating it yourself. It’s amazing how this mantra helps you “grow”:

If you’ve ever admired the heartbreaking grace in the perfectly arched spine of a young child, you’ll know what Noel is aiming to teach me. Mentally, it’s exhausting – you have to concentrate to stay relaxed and loose. But by the end of the second session, I have got it, albeit briefly.

I strut around Noel’s office feeling centred, balanced. And very odd. Apparently, I have a bad habit of throwing my head back, putting strain on my neck.

Noel unclenches it, so my head falls naturally forward. I feel like a Neanderthal – head forward, knuckles grazing the ground. Noel tells me to glance in the mirror. I gasp. For the first time since infancy I look perfect – straight, tall, elegant. It’s incredible. I feel like an ape. I look like Audrey Hepburn. (If she was a blonde dwarf.) I walk back to work on a cloud, glancing at my new silhouette in every shop window. You’d never suspect that graceful woman of having a trainer problem, I tell myself smugly.

“It’s a case of remembering what you used to know,” Noel tells me at our third meeting. I have signed up for a dozen lessons. Besides feeling great, what convinced me was a recent visit to register with a new GP a couple of weeks after I’d started my sessions with Noel. “What height are you?” the practice nurse asked as she lined me up against her tape measure. “5ft 5in.” Pause. “No you’re not, you’re 5ft 7in,” she said.

Relax. Float. Lengthen. Broaden… Fantastic.


Noel Kingsley, Alexander Technique,