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Health

Maximum energy, minimum effort

Musicians, sportspeople, pilots and actors are among those who have improved their performance through the Alexander Technique

Some people make it look easy... 'It' being anything from running to climbing stairs, stacking shelves, even sitting at a desk.

There's a natural grace, an economy of movement, a balance, an energy, which somehow the rest of us have lost along the way. Yet we all may once have had that natural grace- and can relearn it, according to Margaret Farrand-Fleischer, a West Lancashire-based teacher of the Alexander Technique, a system of restoring natural movement created by Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s.

Alexander, a young actor, had recurring vocal problems which he solved by identifying and correcting muscular tensions. The system he went on to develop now has more than 2500 qualified teachers worldwide.

Margaret came to the Alexander Technique decades ago when a friend strongly recommended it. Having a scholarship to the British School of Osteopathy but apprehensive about a weak back, Margaret went along to an Alexander Technique lesson- and was so impressed that she switched careers, taking the three-year full-time training course to become a teacher of the technique.

Basically, she explains, it's all about becoming aware of how we a re doing everyday things- sitting, standing, walking- and learning to do them in the most natural way until it becomes second nature. 

"This is what we want," she says. "It's not just about looking good or having good posture, as is often thought.  It's about restoring the natural functioning which gives you maximum energy from minimum effort."

Twenty to 30 lessons, each of around 30 to 45 minutes, are recommended. 

"That sounds like quite a commitment," says Margaret, "but I tell people to take it one lesson at a time, and they notice the benefits so keep coming back."

An Alexander Technique lesson is usually one-to-one, as the teacher will guide you through simple movements and show you how to adjust to a more natural style; you may also spend some time lying down in the classic semi-supine position (see bottom of page 'Try this at home') 

This positions can be done as 'homework' between lessons, and, says Margaret, "it gives rest sand recovery to the system which supports the changes that are happening".

With proven benefits for neck, back and joint pain, as well as reducing muscle stiffness, breathing problems, poor posture and anxiety, the Alexander Technique is gaining a higher medical profile- although it has been a staple for many years in music and theatre schools.

Time taken to notice benefits varies from person to person. Some will find relief from problems almost immediately, while for others it's a longer process. However, says Margaret, it's an enjoyable journey , as we are learning to unravel the secrets of nature, of how our own neuromuscular system naturally functions. Importantly, once learned, it's something we can do for ourselves daily.

"We want to teach people the technique so they can use it for themselves," explain Margaret, "Although we recommend 20 to 30 lessons, right form the start people are able to apply it to their daily life, and start getting benefits from it- increased energy, calmness, and all the things that come from having a more settled system and better functioning."

Science says...

There's extensive research validating improvements in a wide variety of areas from the Alexander Technique. These include improvements in back pain, back pain, balance, movement co-ordination, musical performance, osteoarthritis, and general wellbeing. The published studies include:

          1) A randomised, controlled study published in the British Medical Journal                in 2008 compares lesssons in the Alexander Technique, massage, and                    exercise in alleviaing lower back pain. Twenty-four Alexander Technique                lessons proved to be most beneficial- after one year, those who had                        Alexander Techniquelessons had an average three days' pain per month                compared with 21 days per month with usual GP care.

           2) A large randomised trial in the North of England compared Alexander                    Technique Technique lessons (600 minutes total) plus GP care,                                 acupuncture sessions (also 600 minutes total plus GP care), and GP                       care alone, for 517 patients with chronic non-specific neck pain. In both                 the Alexander Technique group and the acupuncture group, participants                 experienced nearly a third less pain and disability at the end of the year-                 long study compared with the start. The study was published in the                         Annals of Internal Medicine in 2015

           3) Twenty-one people with diagnosed arthritis in their knees attended 20                     Alexander Technique teacher (as in all of these studies). They achieved                   an average 56 percent reduction in pain following the lessons, a result                   that was maintained long-term as monitored by a 15-month follow-up.                     Most of those taking painkillers were able to stop or reduce the dosage                   after the lessons; and an abnormal pattern of leg muscle function,                           commonly observed in the group, improved and bacome more like that                   of a healthy control group. Musculoskeletal Disorders, 2016. 

Try this at home

The regular practice of lying down in the semi-supine position will help in encouraging the changes sought with the Alexander Technique, and it invaluable for maintaining a healthy spine. It is a way of giving yourself a 'little Alexander lesson'.

Lie down on a fairly firm surface, such as a mat or rug, with a couple of paperback books under your head to raise it slightly.

Bend your knees with your feet flat on the floor about shoulder width apart. Take some time to allow yourself to 'arrive' and settle in this new position.

Notice how you are in contact with the floor and your head with the books; notice the main weight-transmitting areas- the back of your head, the two shoulder blades, the back of your head, the two-shoulder blades, the back of the hips an the feet. 

Quietly notice what is around you; what noises can you hear inside and outside the room, what can you see? Notice those shapes, forms and colours to the sides, above and below (it doesn't matter that they're not in focus.)

Each time your mind starts to wander, gently bring your attention back to where you are here and now, simply noticing what you can see, hear and feel. 

Try these thoughts (remember they are just ideas, never actions to do):

Be aware of the direction of the crown of your head towards the wall and of your feet towards the opposite wall; also, of your right side out to the right, the left out to the left, and of where up and where down is.

Think of the whole of your back, starting at your tailbone and gradually working all the way up to the top of your spine, with the idea of a gentle unfurling all the way up, together with an expansion or widening of your torso.

Since your hips and feet are fully supported by the ground, you can imagine your knees being so free that they could just float up away from your hips towards the ceiling.

This position gives the best support and rest for your back and is the perfect way to de-stress, refresh and feel energised. 

(Reproduced with permission from the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique- STAT)

Find out more

Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT) www.alexandertechnique.co.uk

Margaret Farrand-Fleischer, email: margaretfarrand108@gmail.com

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