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The technique given in this article is not our own, but we are presenting it because it is so useful and simple. It is called the Alexander Technique after its discoverer, and for over a century has improved the lives of numerous people including our own and, we hope, will improve many more.

In fact, it personally helped a Nobel Prize winner (Professor Nikolaas Tinbergen who, with two others, won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1973) so much that he used a major portion of his acceptance speech to extol it! Numerous other medical experts in the field have endorsed it, often after initial scepticism, and their findings can be readily found in the best medical and scientific publications.

The technique was discovered by F. Matthias Alexander while attempting to cure himself of a serious spine-related ailment, and with it he succeeded where conventional medicine had failed. He was fond of remarking: 'Anyone can do what I did, IF they will do what I did'.

Clearly back pain occurs because things are not where they should be - they are misaligned. Physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy are used to try to correct this, but sadly are often ineffective.

Current medical thinking and practice is that the vast majority of back injuries will settle with time, and the worst treatments involve inappropriate physical manipulation or immobilisation, with surgery definitely to be avoided except, if at all, in very rare cases. Instead, gradual mobilisation within the limits of pain is considered best, and the Alexander Technique does just that.

The Alexander Technique

The purpose of this article is practical, not historical. There are many books and therapists teaching the Alexander Technique and recounting its interesting history or 'back story' (!), but here you will find all you need to know. The technique we describe here is the Alexander Technique refined to its utmost simplicity - no more is necessary.

The Alexander Technique can be used at any time, even for very short periods - walking, running, standing, sitting or lying down - and requires no therapists, trainers or equipment. It costs absolutely nothing. And, after the pain is gone, the technique remains a friend for life as it can quickly ease neck and back tension, and correct slouching and poor posture, such as from extended computer or TV use or concentrated reading or study.

How to do it

What the Alexander Technique does with brilliant simplicity is to connect your mind with your body using an easy visualisation. And here it is:

  • Imagine your head is a balloon and your spine is a string attached to it.
  • Now gently let your head rise from your shoulders like a floating balloon drawing the string - your spine - along with it.

That is all. You will feel lighter and your back pain will instantly ease as your spine is drawn out and straightens up. Because it feels so good you will want to maintain the feeling, so promise yourself to remember how good it feels and how easy it was.

In the picture, the figures' spines are represented by red lines. The spine of the figure with the balloon is properly elongated - relaxed and neither slouched nor ramrod-straight.

You can use the technique in any position - just imagine the 'balloon and string' moving in the direction your head is pointing. Always lead with your head whatever you are doing, whether walking, running, bending over, opening a door, sitting or lying down. As well as properly elongating your spine, this also simultaneously relieves unwanted pressure on your inner organs.

It is important never, ever to strain - forget that "chin up - shoulders back" nonsense! Relax.

Do it whenever you think of it (clearly you will not constantly be thinking of it). Don't wait for pain - use it to relieve neck and back tension and to improve posture when you find yourself slouching. It is indeed a friend for life. If you do it while walking, you will feel almost as if you are gliding along. Don't lurch into it - do it easily. Float!

The Technique is just as much about the mind as about the body - imagining you are leading with your head to decompress, straighten and ease your spine will prompt your body to willingly follow.

Any amount of using the Alexander Technique - training the spine to align - is beneficial.

Learn from the professionals

In top sprinters, you will notice head and spine are in a straight line as they sprint; top sprinters lead with their heads. Recreational joggers, on the other hand, often hunch their shoulders as they go. Watch cheetahs or racehorses or other animals sprint - they likewise lead with their heads, almost as if they know the Alexander Technique! But of course they do it naturally, whereas we may need to re-learn it. Top athletes in any field, and dancers as well, either learn it or do it naturally - observe them and do likewise!

Athletic grace (or simply 'athleticism'), like elegance generally, involves using the minimum energy and exertion to get the desired result.

Good sprinting: spine is lined up with head

Links to the past

Our distant primate ancestors did not walk upright as we do, but moved rather like chimpanzees or crawling infants. This is ascertained by anatomical analysis of fossils. Moving upright as we do causes our heavy head to bear down on our spine and compress it. The weight of our upper body also puts pressure our hips, legs and feet. Consequently modern humans suffer ailments in those areas which our primate cousins which do not walk upright do not. You are taller when you arise from sleep than when you lie down to sleep (assuming you sleep lying down and walk around upright) because your body compresses under its own weight when upright. So we slouch and our spine gets misaligned. The Alexander Technique corrects this by gently stretching and elongating the spine.

An obvious fact that never seems to be mentioned - and hence never therapeutically employed - is that there are other ways of taking the head's weight off the spine than merely lying horizontally. Reclining backward or forward, or propping up on an elbow, or cradling and supporting the inclined head in the palm with the elbow resting on something, are just three ways of avoiding the head's weight bearing down on the spine. We often do these 'automatically' to feel more comfortable, but can use them deliberately, and frequently, to great effect. They are all simply non-slouching positions where the head is not vertically above the spine, which is also the case in exercises such as swimming and some hatha yoga asanas (positions, postures and movements which often are named after animals they mimic), perhaps accounting for a good deal of their beneficial effects.

How sufferers resist using the technique

People often resist or disbelieve any notion that their agonising back pain can be easily relieved without drugs. This is quite understandable, as is their irritation from believing their condition is being trivialised by such a suggestion. Even if they try the technique and it gives them relief, they may talk themselves out of continuing it. We give four scenarios below, to warn sufferers not to make such errors to their own cost, and also to forewarn helpers of the resistance they may expect from sufferers.

'It can't work, therefore it won't work.'

Some time ago, a friend was complaining of back pain. We told him he could get instant relief using the technique, and told him how ('imagine you head is a balloon . . .' etc.). He did as we said and, to his amazement, felt instant relief. Some days later we saw him again - and again he complained of his back pain. 'Have you been using the technique?' we asked. Irritably (he was a friend, you see!) he snapped back: 'Listen, the discs of my spine have been crushed - that's not going to work!' We asked him never to mention his back pain to us again.

'The experts can't fix it, so how can you?'

Well, if the experts can't fix it, what do you have to lose by trying this simple, free technique? The trouble is, people invest much money, time and hope in the experts, and are not prepared to admit it was all wasted, where a simple, free technique would have worked. This is an example of cognitive dissonance, where the more that people invest in something, the more they are inclined to believe in it and justify it, often denying their investment was poor and even increasing it, unwilling to seem foolish or admit failure to themselves or others.

'I never remember to do it.'

This is of course understandable, but is certainly not helped by telling yourself that you never remember, and implying this won't change! Tell yourself that you do or will remember - not that you don't or won't.
(See end of this article.)

Whenever you think of it, do yourself a favour and tell yourself you will always remember it when in pain. And whenever you remember it, whether in pain or not, you will most likely benefit by using it then and there to improve your posture while relieving tension. Only a few seconds of doing it is far better than nothing.

Finally, back pain can become so much a part of a person's life that they see it as part of their identity. It seems that some do not want to be rid of it, and may use it to get attention and sympathy, or even insurance payouts or government support.

Do yourself a great favour and try the Alexander Technique, as many thousands have done to their relief and continued benefit.

Let Alexander lift the weight from your shoulders!

A look at pain

Now, what follows may appear strange in an article devoted to eliminating pain - we point out the value of pain generally. The point is this: it is not pain which is the enemy, but whatever prompts the body to produce pain. The Alexander Technique is an amazingly simple and effective method which relieves back pain by correcting what causes it.

It is helpful to realise that pain actually originates in the brain, which sends our consciousness signals of pain designed to protect the afflicted body parts, either by making us recoil from what causes the pain, and/or by forcing us to rest those parts while they heal. And just as a red traffic-light is a warning to stop, to avoid potential danger, pain usually exists to alert us and guide us back to safety or good health. Generally, pain is a teacher or guide - it is a friend, not an enemy, although it is a friend best avoided! Almost always, pain is meant to help long-term, whilst alerting or immobilising short-term, like a 'wet paint' sign.

Pain has saved and continues to save countless people (and animals) from serious injury and death. We would not survive very long without it - children would seriously burn themselves on hot objects, etc. etc. As well as pain causing us to recoil from danger, or forcing us to rest so we can heal, the mere memory of past pain reminds us to avoid repeating the dangerous behaviour which caused it. Generally, pain is for protection - although there are exceptions such as pain associated with arthritis, cancers and cramps.

The brain also delivers pain-killers, called endorphins, particularly when an injury or illness is severe, which enable the body to continue basic functions without being overloaded and immobilised by pain. Often the most superficial wounds, such as a grazed knee or shallow cut, can be very painful because the brain knows they can be easily rested and thus healed, and does not 'prescribe' endorphins.

'No pain - no gain'?

Whoever came up with the slogan 'no pain - no gain' in relation to exercise is/was an ignorant fool. The optimum amount of exertion, after which muscle tissue becomes damaged and needs to heal, is about sixty percent. There is no gain - only damage - beyond this point, as was established years ago at the esteemed Max Planck Institute in Germany.

So, to get maximum benefit from exercise, keep it below sixty percent effort and, if you are doing physical work and using more than this, you are doing it wrongly or are using the wrong tools, except of course in an emergency where there is no alternative. And if it causes you to feel pain, your brain is warning you to stop.

Unfortunately some people become addicted to the endorphins (which are opiates) and the adrenalin which accompany painful exercise, causing them to repeatedly seek that 'fix' just as heroin addicts do.

Work smart - not hard

We will now go off slightly on a tangent, and deal with the ridiculous notion that 'hard work' is inherently 'virtuous'. Hard work is less than useless if it is not also good work. Efficient work is better and less wasteful than unnecessarily laborious work. There is nothing virtuous about a diligent and hard-working mass murderer or thug or con-man. There is nothing virtuous about injuring your back through over-exertion.

The history of civilisation is about learning how to 'work smart', not hard, with endless tools, inventions and procedures devised to make things easier to achieve. In fact, we could say that 'progress is ease'. We do not see those who simplistically advocate the virtues of hard work, usually politicians and employers, ditching their labor-saving devices, such as washing-machines, lawn mowers, kitchen appliances and vehicles, to make themselves more 'virtuous'!

Your subconscious mind believes literally what it hears from you - it does not understand irony or humor or turns of phrase. It believes literally 'I never remember to do it', and adjusts accordingly. We must be very careful of what we say, particularly in saying that we 'cannot' do things. This is the basis of affirmations ('self-talk') and hypnosis, and is often called the 'as if ' technique - speak and act as if you can do what you want, rather than assuming failure with an 'if only' attitude.

What we have identified is a common problem where people throw obstacles in their own path. The problem largely arises as a result of the language we inherit and the way we say things. We say 'I can't do this' when we mean 'I have not yet done this'. So our subconscious hears 'can't' where it should be hearing 'not yet'. Be honest and accurate - speak of the past as the past, not as the future.