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Back in balance: Use the Alexander Technique to Combat Neck,
Shoulder and Back Pain
Richard Brennan.
Healing Arts Press,
London: Watkins, cop. 2013
ISBN 978-1-78028-594-8
Review by Judy Vigurs. First published in STATNews, September 2013

Richard Brennan’s seventh book is aimed specifically at readers with back pain (or “back pack” as it says in the very first sentence of his Introduction!) He argues strongly that most back pain is caused by excessive muscle tension, which is caused by poor posture and that this is largely caused by sitting badly and in particular sitting for long hours at school on badly designed chairs.

The message may be a little over-simplified in places, but the book’s clear focus on what people do to themselves as a major cause of back pain is undoubtedly useful.

The author introduces the book with an account of his own experience of years of back pain while working as a driving instructor. He follows this with several good chapters describing the key features of the Alexander technique, including a chapter on the whole self, touching briefly on the mental, emotional and even spiritual aspects of back pain.

Richard Brennan gives plenty of suggestions for how readers can work on themselves. He recommends wedge cushions to improve sitting position and a range of “barefoot” shoes designed by his own son. He also writes at length about the problems with school chairs. He encourages readers to lie in semi-supine and try out inhibiting and giving directions.

The idea of a self-help book about the Alexander technique can send shivers down the spine of an Alexander teacher. But I think here the author has successfully struck a balance between just flatly saying “You need Alexander lessons for back pain” and suggesting ways in which back pain sufferers can change their experience by exploring for themselves. That a reader is unlikely to be able to improve their use much  without some qualified help doesn’t matter, because Richard Brennan is quite clear that Alexander lessons are essential.

The last 50 pages of the book give an account of the medical and scientific world’s response to the Alexander technique from Alexander’s time to the present day, followed by an number of personal histories. This all makes interesting reading.

The book is written in a way that is generally interesting and easy to understand. The writer is good at using everyday language to write about the Alexander technique.

There are some slightly muddled sentences:

“Then, while sitting, standing or lying, your teacher may use their hands to gently move a limb or head.” (page 44)

I think this could be quite alarming to some new pupils – is it the teacher who’s going to lie down? Not to mention the idea of the teacher moving “a head”. How many heads is a pupil likely to have?

But fortunately there is not too much of this kind of thing.  So for a reader looking for help with back pain I think the author’s message will come through loud and clear.

There is a usable index which makes it possible to refer back to specific points at will, increasing the usefulness of the book considerably. Writers of other introductory Alexander books please take note!

A few quibbles: the illustrations are slightly underwhelming. What looks like a nice photo showing natural good use in a small child (page 26) is too dark to see properly, which is a pity. A drawing of the pelvis on page 54 is clearer, but unfortunately although the accompanying text (page 53) says “you will see that the top of the hips is directly in line with the disc between the vertebrae lumbar 4 and lumbar 5” you won’t, because the disc is not labelled.

However these are minor annoyances. Two new pupils have told me recently that they have read a book by Richard Brennan. My feeling is that he’s reaching the public and getting his message across.


© Judy Vigurs 2013

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