The Alexander Technique has helped actors and musicians achieve their performance potential for over a hundred years. Jill Sharp investigates the Alexander phenomenon and interviews an experienced teacher of the Technique.
Ever since early humans shifted their weight from four legs onto two, it's been nothing but a pain in the neck - not to mention the back, hips and knees. We're the only animal to have done this, and the consequences for our health have been enormous. An ability to see further and develop the use of our front limbs may have made us top of the food chain, but it's put a strain on our skeletal systems that now costs millions in lost working days every year.
But it doesn't have to be 'four legs good, two legs bad'. It is possible to learn to use our bodies so that we can defy the grooves of habit and the laws of gravity, and the Alexander Technique (AT) is a method for doing just that.
AT has been going in Britain for a hundred years - yet it's still relatively little known and practised. Not a therapy or diagnostic tool, AT is actually a way of re-educating the individual in the use of their own body. Sessions are called 'lessons' and the practitioner is a 'teacher'. By the strategic placing of hands on the pupil and a series of verbal prompts, the teacher helps the pupil to inhibit old habits of movement and allow a better use to take place.
The technique was evolved by an Australian actor in the 1880s. Frederick Matthias Alexander earned a living doing one-man recitals, but began to experience persistent hoarseness. When medical advice proved useless, he tried observing himself in a mirror and noticed that when speaking he was stiffening his neck muscles and pulling back the head, putting pressure on the larynx. Alexander continued to observe his everyday actions and concluded that a free neck and poised head were important to all aspects of physical activity.
By learning to pause, free the neck and direct the head Alexander not only cured his hoarseness but began to enjoy better general health. He devised a way of teaching others how to put his technique into practice, and started teaching in London in 1904, when George Bernard Shaw was among his pupils. Then, in the 1930s, he set up a training course to instruct others to become teachers.
Stephen graduated from the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique's (STAT) three year full-time training course in 1983, and after 20 years as a teacher he is very enthusiastic about the benefits. 'I've seen people change their shape completely,' he says. His pupils have been mostly women, not because they have more problems with back pain but because they are often 'more pro-active in seeking help for it.'
He's worked with men and women of all ages, including children, and is impressed by the way people learn to incorporate AT into their working lives. 'A cellist came to me because she couldn't sit through an orchestra rehearsal without pain. After several months of lessons, by putting the technique into practice, she was able to play for hours without discomfort.'
Stephen has worked with performers and artists in many fields, and is pleased that the technique seems to have been so beneficial so often. 'It's a simple process,' he says, 'but when put into practice it's very powerful.' The technique can help with rehabilitation after surgery, injury or illness, as well as during and after pregnancy.
STAT recommend a series of 30-40 lessons, and they cost about the same as a session of massage or reflexology. Once the principle has been learned, though, it can continue to show benefits for the rest of your life. 'It's about learning to pay attention,' says Stephen. 'Once you become aware of your bad habits you can let them go and allow the body to work differently.'
There are introductory sessions in AT at Adult Education Institutes across the country, but ideally the technique needs to be taught individually. Pupils wear loose comfortable clothes, preferably trousers, and can expect to spend much of each lesson getting into and out of a chair. The teacher also works on the pupil as they lie on a table, and there are various games to develop better practice. There is also daily homework - but of an unusually enjoyable kind. Known as 'semi-supine', it involves lying on the floor with knees raised and hands resting on the abdomen, for 10-15 minutes.
Children can also benefit greatly from AT, and some schools are already incorporating aspects of the technique into their Healthy Schools Programme.
With a £1 million government study currently taking place at Southampton University into AT's application to back pain, it seems likely that many more GPs will be referring their patients to STAT recognised teachers. Dame Judi Dench, Michael Palin, Jennifer Saunders and Ruby Wax are among those who have long been practising the Technique.
During Awareness Week there are talks and demonstrations taking place across the country. For details of all these activities, or to find your nearest teacher, go to the excellent STAT website at www.stat.org.uk.