Sunday Business

September 2001

There’s no place in our cut and thrust society for shrinking violets, which is why the movers and shakers are standing tall

Like most people who live an excessive lifestyle, I am excessively stressed all of the time and am super-excessive about all-purpose, all-cure stress treatments. I notice, for example, that more and more people are recommending the de-stress-while-you-sleep magnetic mattress, which I thought I had exclusively to myself. The trouble is, once you’re addicted to something, it’s not enough to get your fix when you’re asleep. You like to have it when you’re awake too.

Nothing makes me feel more excessively stressed than when I’m on the phone, in a taxi, reading proof pages while hurrying to some kind of massage-type treatment where I’ll promptly fall asleep for half an hour. When I wake up, I rush away in another taxi, making twice as many phone calls to make up for the ones I missed during my very expensive nap.

I think I was always addicted to pampering but I do blame California for encouraging this in me, or rather, one new friendship in particular. I became big pals with PR guru Lynne Franks, who supposedly inspired the Jennifer Saunders character Edina in Ab Fab. She made it all seem so normal to have a man come round and walk on my back, massage me with stones, have my body wrapped in a million bandages, sweat buckets while in giant clingfilm and to be restructured by the goddess-builder, Lena, who promised to make me leaner with her strange mixture of pilates, psychology and psychic stuff – and all in one day.

I don’t know if my body got restructured but it took my mind off deadlines for a bit and sated my desire for instant gratification. I had yoga ache, temporary inch loss – and that was just when I was supposedly relaxing. Then the whole work process would start all over again.

When I came back from LA, I no longer had access to the healing guru inner circle that I’d once had and I was on the lookout for all¬ purpose gratification. You know – someone who would make me taller, thinner, happier, but without me actually having to do anything. Besides, I had two new problems: backache and a hump. Not a Quasimodo-style hump, but a sort of potential witchy old hag look.

To top it all, one breast sagged more than the other – and no, I wasn’t imagining it. I had it confirmed by Gina in the Agent Provocateur changing room. Naturally, I was bemoaning this to my friend Nancy who I happened to notice was looking taller, tauter, altogether more upright than ever before, and she said it was all due to the Alexander Technique.

I’d heard only vaguely of Alexander and his technique. Actors from my class at school had done it to improve their presence and another older lady I knew went to be stretched. So off I went to Noel Kingsley in Cavendish Square, where I was most alarmed to find a saddle in his consulting room. I felt I’d stepped on to a Helmut Newton set, but no – this Glaswegian of quiet charisma assured me he could change me, improve my posture and improve my life.

The good thing about the Alexander Technique is that you don’t have to do much at your lesson. It’s not quite a massage. It’s a super-subtle manipulation and I have to say it works like a kind of magic. I think part of the allure is that you’re not meant to understand fully what it is that Noel is doing with your neck, back and legs. But basically, it seems as if he is slowly, painlessly and stealthily stretching every muscle, every limb, one by one. It’s a strain to stay conscious, and afterwards, I felt truly spacey, as if I’d left my body and I couldn’t quite find it again. I noticed I began breathing in very deep sighs – this was me adjusting. He told me that if you breathe deeper, you let go and function more effectively in every way.

Noel claims that on average, people can grow up to two inches. For that, you need about 20 sessions but you start seeing the difference more or less straight away. He first got into Alexander Technique to help him project himself. He worked in marketing and used the technique to give him confidence and presence. It helped him with speeches; it helped him handle his authority. The man who taught Noel was a pupil of F Matthias Alexander himself, the Tasmanian actor who devised the technique after he started to go hoarse before appearing on stage. Alexander discovered that a series of movements helped his voice and his general appearance. Studying his reflection in a mirror, he identified these beneficial movements were linked to his posture.

Noel became a full-time Alexander technician in the 1980s. His wide range of clients want to improve their sporting prowess, ability to give good meeting, or any other kind of performance. He showed me pictures of children with their heads held high and long and loose limbs, and said, “We’re all born with great posture but we develop bad habits. It seems we literally shrink from the stress of daily life, become tighter.”

I think I must have started shrinking very early on because I remember my mother always complaining about my bad posture before I even knew what it was. I’ve always seen myself as a sloucher with the kind of reticence that sometimes makes me recoil completely so that I feel like a big old snail. It’s a very ugly thing when you think about it, to try to shrink from yourself. Even though you’re pretending you’re not, your body can’t lie to the world. Somehow, the notion of changing your body and there¬by your attitude to yourself without having to diet is really radical and good.

On Noel’s calling card is a picture of a meerkat, a rat-like creature that stands tall and has perfect posture. Inside his booklet, a 103-year-old woman says she’s now feeling tall and another thanks him for getting rid of her backache. Certainly, I have had no backache since going there and I once went in with a cold that was gone when I came out. He says, “I create a stimulus with my hands and encourage you to let go of habitual muscle tension,” but I still don’t quite know how he does it. While you’re lying there, he’ll be telling you, in his mesmerising way, how we love to hold on to things because it’s what we know and it makes us feel we know ourselves.

Now, I’m not exactly sure what it is that we’re letting go of, but I know the letting go has happened when my breathing become fulsome rather than throaty and tight. And of course we all know that when the body is physically balanced, it becomes emotionally centred – or is it the other way round? Anyway, it’s so much nicer to have someone do it for you than encounter all that competition in a yoga class.

Noel is literally hands-on. There’s not much psycho-babble; he’s very practical and straightforward. That’s how you get hooked. Then he tells you it’s all about making the most of yourself. It’s going to make you breathe better, live longer and grow taller. And although such things have been said to me before, and not only by the Hawaiian man with the stones, at least with Noel my desire for instant gratification is satisfied. I do have an unprecedented feeling of calmness and uprightness and the only thing shrinking is my hump. At £65 for 45 minutes, it’s the most liberating way to let go of a pound a minute.

Alexander Technique, Noel Kingsley