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The Well-Tuned Body

Banish Back Pain With Gentle Exercises Based on the Alexander Technique

Penny Ingham & Colin Shelbourn, Summersdale, pbk, 192pp, 129x198 mm, ISBN 978-184024578-3, £6.99.

(First published in STATNews, January 2010)

Review by Anna Cooper


To do or not to do


A brave book indeed. The ultimate attempt to do what Alexander did, in words? The book sets out 30 exercises "based on Alexanderís principles", described as habit-breakers. It is a new edition of an attractive paperback, with cartoon illustrations, which has been translated into other languages. The writer offers "easy and effective solutions" for people with back or neck pain, tiredness, stiffness etc. but the book does not teach the Alexander Technique. Can it succeed? I asked a non-initiate to read some chapters and comment.


Scrupulously following several chapters of instructions -not easy when wearing bifocal specs -he reported feeling somewhat confused, stiff and getting a tight chest. Even doing semi-supine according to the book only left him feeling "faintly relaxed", but he had largely misunderstood some important details. He thought that section should have been broken up into smaller parts for greater clarity and benefit.  I then went through the same procedures with him, helping him to understand what was required. He barely recognised any similarities between the two experiences. With guidance he began to detect some benefit. Does this prove anything? Not necessarily. He found the introduction helpful and inspiring, but did not feel rewarded by doing the exercises on his own, nor inclined to read to the end. To do so, I feel, one would need to be very motivated and patient indeed, not to experience psychophysical indigestion.


After each set of exercises the author explains the principle behind them. I feel these sections are probably more accessible. And there are some refreshing concepts such as a friendly puppeteer helping the thinking up; visualising the sitting bones as little feet in your bottom; breathing out being long, in being wide; a raindrop-scattering game, and the Ďpost-ití thoughts for the day. There is a very good chapter on breathing, but it should be at the beginning not at the end. Once our novice stopped holding his breath his chest stopped feeling tight.


A problem that inevitably arises with guidance of this kind is the challenge of catering for a huge variety of readers. Perhaps itís more helpful to quote a range of book heights, as Iíve found these can vary by a factor of 3 or 4, and usually change within one session. And how, in one book, do you help people who wear bifocals, have different leg lengths and are advised to distribute the weight equally between both feet, have a concave thoracic curve or a pronounced kyphosis? Those on the edges will always be at a distinct disadvantage without a teacher.

Even though this work is "not the Alexander Technique"

(isnít it??), I missed any mention of freeing the neck or non-doing. Admittedly the whole book attempts to put those concepts into words, but in the end I felt it did not square that circle. The exercises would probably work best for someone with lots of Alexander re-education and kinaesthetic awareness, whereas the person most likely to buy it (or give it to an impecunious friend who canít afford lessons) is a very different animal.


To quote M C Escher, "Only those who attempt the absurd Ö will achieve the impossible." If you were attempting to describe the Alexander principles, The Well-Tuned Body is the book you would write. But will its readers experience the holy grail of Ms Inghamís easy and effective solutions or a well-tuned body? On a sample of one, I would say neither.


© Anna Cooper 2010




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