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Free Yourself from Back Pain

A guide to the Alexander Technique

Noël Kingsley, Kyle Cathie Ltd, February 2011, pbk, 160pp, ISBN 978-1-85626-956-8, 250x210mm, £14.99. 45% discount & free postage to STAT members, contact Lisa Brown: tel. 020 7 692 7224, lisa.brown@kyle-cathie.com  (First published in STATNews, May 2011)

Review by Roger Kidd

Free|Yourself From Back PainThere is a lot going for this book. It reads well, it has a very attractive layout and design, and a clear structure for the chapters, which are further divided into digestible subsections. The photographs are superb, especially the ones of the kids showing their natural poise. These photos work very well with the natural poise theme running through the text. The ‘mad staring eye’ count for the adults is, thankfully, zero. (This is a particular bugbear of mine in Alexander publications.)

In general the Alexander Technique is very well explained, and right from the start it is repeatedly emphasised that the book is best used in conjunction with lessons. Even though the intended audience might have one end in mind, they are frequently reminded that there are other benefits to be had from, and other reasons for learning, the Technique. Picking out some particular bits, I thought the getting up from semi-supine useful.

The section on core strength is particularly good: "the exercising and strengthening of muscles does not mean that they will work together in a co-ordinated way to support us in daily life." I loved the section on learning in later life: "no matter how ingrained our habits are from years of poor posture, they are not an intrinsic part of us. We have an instinct for healthy poise … and it remains with us throughout our lives. Deep down the body knows what to do. We just need to allow it to work." And later in the same section: "By improving your balance and co-ordination you can create the conditions under which your body can heal and better functioning can be restored, so we can enjoy being more active and fitter for longer. It's never too late." I have a few small quibbles about the explanations of the key concepts, but nothing major. Kingsley uses an Alexander quote in the section on unreliable sensory appreciation: "You can't know a thing by an instrument that is wrong." He misses an opportunity to expand on this, with Alexander's clear analogy of a ship's compass. However, in the muscle memory section he contentiously recommends copying your chosen mentor’s use. Now he does describe a mindful way of doing this, but he doesn't mention the problem that you might bring your habits and preconceptions to this copying process, and that it's much easier to copy what someone does than to copy someone not interfering with their good use. Even though reminders to breathe are there throughout, the chapter on breathing is tucked in at the end, and looks as if it was included because it would have looked bad if it wasn't. I appreciate it is one of the more difficult subjects to write about, but given that those in pain might well be gripping and interfering with their breathing in an attempt to stave off pain, it could have been placed more centrally.

Some `scientific facts' are wheeled out to lend credibility to the arguments. These needed to be edited out or more thoroughly checked. For instance: "Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen and hydrogen binds our atoms together." The section on evolution is in fine Alexander tradition, i.e. suitably muddled. More serious points are that it is the red muscle fibres which use glucose from the blood, and so are relatively inexhaustible, whereas white muscle fibres use glycogen stored in the muscle, which takes time to replenish, and so are relatively exhaustible. Also, he writes that the nerves supplying the muscles of the eye pass through the muscles of the neck before going into the spinal cord. They do not do either -they are cranial nerves and so emerge from a higher level than the spinal cord.

I found the tone of the book slightly too mechanistic. Even though it is stated often that the Alexander Technique is a thinking technique, the thinking and observation are mainly directed at physical tension and balance. This means the idea of misuse is focussed on the physical, and the wider notion of preconceived ideas getting in the way is not given much space. This approach may have been a conscious one, given the intended audience of the book. After all, one has to meet people where they are coming from and capture their attention before you can begin to guide them through an alternative way of thinking.

Overall I'm sure this book will bring people to the Technique, and I would be happy for a pupil of mine to use it as an aide-mémoire and workbook.


© Roger Kidd 2011




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