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Alexander Technique: Diary of a Medical Student

Introduced by Peter Ribeaux
(First published in STATNews, May 2012) 

  

In September 2002 an optional special study module (SSM) in the Alexander Technique (AT) was introduced at St Georgeís Hospital Medical School (now St Georgeís, University of London) for 3rd year students as part of their curriculum.  The AT module was five weeks in duration, with the students attending the AT teacher training course at the Centre for the Alexander Technique in  London (Heads of Training, Ellie and Peter Ribeaux) 4 mornings a week. For a fuller description please see the September 2003 edition of STATnews.

The module grew out of workshops run by  consultant ophthalmologist and Alexander teacher, Medea Frangoulis. These workshops, which took place during 3rd year studentsí 5 weeks on the speciality of Ophthalmology, ENT and Dermatology, were of one-hour duration and were organised by Medea who was the clinical tutor for ophthalmology.

The 8 to 10 student group were taught by 4 AT teachers, Gill Birchall, Rome Godwin, Paul Leadbeater and Michael Meeneghan, with occasional help from Eric Barrington, Nick Martin-Smith and Yoshi Inada. Medea has now retired from her hospital role but still plays an active part in the running of the Alexander Technique module.

The present module has been expanded by one week and has gone through some changes over the years but retains the same basic structure. The medical students spend six weeks on the Alexander Technique Teacher Training Course alongside Alexander students. This makes for a stimulating experience all round.

As part of the module the medics are required to complete a diary in which they describe their experience. Of course these vary in interest and quality. Hopefully you will find this one entertaining as an insight into the sometimes parochial world of the Technique as seen by a newcomer.

Week 1

I assumed weíd be taught in some cold, sterile building, so I was very surprised when the "Alexander Technique Centre" turned out to be someoneís home. It felt very odd, as if we were a group of intruders, despite the fact that Peter and Ellie were so welcoming. In a new situation I tend to be relatively quiet and shy, but it seemed like the whole group was -when poor Ellie was asking us questions we all sat silently like complete numbnuts. Maybe the Technique can help me with this?

First session

Peter was the first person to work on me. He said "we wonít do anything as complicated as getting out of a chair yet", which sounded both amusing and depressing. I already feel I am relearning everything in medicine -how to talk in "medspeak", how to act, feel, etc -now I have to relearn how to get out of a chair?  Uh oh. It was great though -I have no clue what Peter did, but at the end he marched me around the room -I felt like a hunched over robot, walking very stiffly, but when I passed a mirror I saw I was straighter than I had ever been in my life. Peter said "remember this, this is called...", so of course I forgot immediately. I THINK it is "faulty sensory appreciation" -very odd.

Tired!

After three days of this I feel absolutely knackered -at first I thought it was too many late nights, but the other people in the group feel the same. You feel disproportionately tired, compared to the amount of work you are doing. Maybe my body just isnít used to being in this "state", or maybe my muscle tension is being released?  Medea gave us some Alexander Technique books, I shall do some research.

Week 2

Getting used to it!

I was surprised at how much easier this Monday was, compared to last week. My body doesnít complain quite as much at being moved into difficult (or what feels difficult) positions. Even though it is not something I have worked at (can you work at it?), it feels good!

I was very relieved that by day two we were doing chair work, but now I am beginning to realise that the aim of using the chair isnít just so that we know how to stand up and sit down. It seems like the chair is an instrument more than anything else, to get used to moving our bodies differently, e.g. to use our hip joints as "hinges."

Not doing

Iím finding it easier to "not do" (if that makes sense?) than last week. Itís very strange to stay relaxed yet receptive without actually intentionally moving. Especially when you are given direct commands like "relax your knees", which I thought meant "bend them". At the moment I donít think I appreciate the use/value of thought direction, but hopefully I will eventually.

Alexander Technique books

I was reading a book of diaries of people who had Alexander Technique sessions and am relieved that they found "not -doing" as difficult at first as me!

Unexpected reactions

Today Ellie was doing a simple exercise with another member of the group when he suddenly looked faint. He sat down for a minute, before rushing off to throw up. Ellie told us that this can be caused by the release of emotional tension. The idea of a physical counterpart to emotional stress really fascinates me. Some people might say it sounds like ancient beliefs of personality according to body fluids (phlegm, bile etc), but itís a fact that we get muscle tension with emotional stress -why not anything else? If there was a way to research that Iíd love to do it someday.

Week 3: Force of habit

Today while doing chair work Ellie moved my hands apart, so that theyíd be resting on my legs. Within one minute I had moved them back without realising and when she was looking at them pointedly for me to move them back, I had no idea what she was looking at! I never noticed this habit -either my hands go in my pockets, or are clasped in front of me. Maybe it is a defensive mechanism.

I spent the rest of the day paying attention to my hands and trying to keep them at my sides. When I kept them there I was surprised to find that I felt really irritated. It wasnít a slight thing, but a really physical feeling of irritation somewhere behind my chest. It could be because I was focusing on my arms, but I donít think so. From now on Iím going to keep my arms at my sides and see if this feeling disappears.

At home

When I sit in front of my computer (I donít have a computer chair, I use my old dining chair), completely collapse sideways into it. I have always thought it was bad for my back, as it is badly scoliosed, but now I actually feel  uncomfortable when I do it. Itís similar to the irritation I feel when I keep my hands at my sides. So I put a box and a pillow on the seat and sat up straight and felt much better! I thought that I am such a lazy person; Iíll lose any benefits of this SSC after I finish it, but it seems my body is way ahead of my (lazy) mind. Wow. All I have to do is listen to it.

Week 4: Sitting up straight

Today Ellie worked with me for quite a while in the chair. She then brought a mirror over and I was literally amazed -I can sit up straight! So happy!

Think feet

Iím struggling to work my feet into the ground. Whenever I try I feel like Iím slipping on ice. I know now that the muscles of my thighs are contracted and tilt my pelvis, so I need to move my pelvis to work my feet into the ground. I donít think I have made much progress.

Floor work

Ellie advised me to spend ten minutes a day doing floor, but Iím finding it difficult to incorporate this -itís such a short amount of time, yet there is always something else I should be doing -revision mainly. I guess I need to prioritise these ten minutes and perhaps force myself to lie down before doing revision (as long as I donít fall asleep).

Week 5

I feel shy standing up straight

Over the weekend we took our car for an MOT. Standing in the garage I imagined my head floating up etc, etc...and suddenly felt very self conscious. As I was wearing high heels and my Mum is tiny I was feeling very tall (that doesnít happen often!) and exposed. I suppose my defensive pose is to shrivel up (which makes me sound like an old prune...). I need to force myself to stand tall until it becomes a habit, whether I feel self conscious or not.

I changed a habit

I usually sleep with two thick pillows under my head. This used to be due to my asthma, but now it is just habit and with one pillow I felt like I am tilted backwards. Over the weekend for some reason I felt like sleeping with one thin pillow and surprisingly it felt more comfortable than with two. Iím going to keep this, as sometimes I whiplash my neck when I get up in the morning and I donít think Iíll be able to do that with one pillow.

Peter + shoulders = pain

Although it is agony when Peter does stuff to my shoulders, as soon as he stops the pain is replaced by such a nice sensation -maybe itís just relief, but I think itís the release of tension. Or perhaps the shoulders like the new position they are in. Either way, you come away from a session with Peter feeling like there has been a very obvious physical improvement.

Shoulder pain

Asked Peter today why the tops of my shoulders are extremely painful after anyone has worked on me. They give me trouble in everyday life too -I only have to hold a bag for five minutes before they begin to ache. He doesnít really know the answer, but told me as a cheap trick to wave my arms around (which makes me feel like an extra in Harry Potter) and then he lifted up my pelvis. To my surprise, my arms felt much lighter. He suggested that my primary control isnít head -neck -shoulders -back, but perhaps head -neck -shoulders -back-pelvis -legs. Today I have been noticing my hips more and am finding that I stick my backside out far more than I would have expected. Iím going to try to keep it "lifted" up and see if it affects my shoulders.

Last day

Today is the last day of the SSC, but hopefully not the last time I practice the Alexander Technique. I think parts of it are already incorporated into my life, but I need to do much more to maintain the work other people have put into me.

Thank you so much to Ellie and Peter for this experience, to Medea for her advice and lifts(!) to class and the students, not only for helping us so much, but for the lovely food they brought in every break time!

Seriously, it has been one of the most personally rewarding experiences I have ever had and I feel incredibly grateful -thank you so much! 

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