The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique celebrates its golden anniversary this year. During Alexander Awareness Week Health Editor Barry Nelson focuses on this intriguing approach to health.

SCEPTICS who tend to dismiss alternative health as mumbo-jumbo were taken aback earlier this year. A scientific study published in The British Medical Journal, looking at effective ways of treating patients with chronic back pain, found that therapists using the little-known Alexander Technique were highly successful in controlling pain.

Alexander Technique advocates have sometimes been dismissed as advocating a ‘mind over matter’ approach, but the BMJ study proved that their approach does work.

The clinical research, led by Profession Paul Little from Southampton University, found that chronic back pain patients who had a course of 24 Alexander Technique lessons from a qualified AT teacher had an average of three days of back pain per month, compared to another group who had no treatment who had 21 days of back pain per month.

The result has been hailed as a breakthrough by AT teachers in the North-East who feel they have been vindicated by this study.

Since 1958 the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, known as STAT, have been trying to persuade the public at large to recognise the effectiveness of their unusual approach to health, particularly treating persistent back pains.

TO the uninitiated, watching an Alexander Technique practitioner at work can appear deeply mysterious.

Unlike physiotherapy, where a patient is usually wearing little but a towel and the therapist is exercising a fair amount of muscle power, the Alexander Technique client usually remains fully dressed and the therapist appears to be merely passing their hands over the body of the client, without making much contact.

According to the STAT website, the technique teaches the ‘use of self’, how to move, how to stay still, how to breath and how to react to different situations.

A key idea behind the technique is to re-establish the natural relationship between the head, the neck and the back – the core of the body which supports the limbs and which provides the structure for breathing and for the internal organs. This relationship is usually very good in small children, but many adults are seriously out of kilter, making them vulnerable to problems and injury.

The technique itself was invented by Australian actor Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) who developed this approach to ‘muscular re-education’ after linking his own poor posture with the loss of his voice. Advocates today include Paul McCartney, Sting and John Cleese.

Alexander Technique teacher Hilary Cook, 53, who lives in Skeeby, near Richmond, North Yorkshire, became an enthusiastic convert to AT after going along to classes to try to sort out a serious back problem.

“I got into Alexander Technique from having a very bad back,” says Hilary. “It was about 18 years ago, I was digging in the garden when my back really went. I went to see my GP and all I got was painkillers.”

In her late 30s at that time, with two young and demanding children at home, Hilary says her life was “hell” because of her disabling back problems. “I wasn’t even 40 and I actually felt about 90.”

She put up with this for around a year before a physiotherapist advised her to join an Alexander Technique class at Darlington Arts Centre.

Hilary took to AT like a duck to water and was so impressed at the difference the technique made to her bad back that she decided to train as an Alexander Technique teacher herself.

“I firmly believe that without the Alexander Technique my life now would be absolute hell. I would probably be in a wheelchair. Instead, I have become an Alexander teacher, I live a full and active life and I have travelled the world and trekked in the Himalayas.”

Hilary trained at the Fellside AT school in Kendal and feels happy she can pass on the benefits of the technique to clients, or ‘students’, as AT teachers call them.

A typical AT lesson would involve assessing the lifestyle of a client, how they sit, how they stand and move around and whether they spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or behind a steering wheel.

“My trained eye will see how they hold their head, neck and trunk and whether they are properly alligned,”

says Hilary.

“I will then work with the client to try to improve the way their head, neck and trunk relate together.”

This is where the AT approach challenges anyone who might be sceptical. Hilary’s hands will pass over various parts of the client’s fully-clothed body while she focuses on encouraging the muscles to change shape and lengthen.

“My hands will help to lengthen people’s muscles. I have a sense of what is happening in their body,” she says. “I am thinking the Alexander Technique thoughts that help to lengthen the spine. The aim is to get the client to think the same thoughts.”

Another key aspect of AT teaching is to encourage adherents to take at least one and preferably two tenminute breaks when they adopt a recommended semi-supine position on the floor. “If you are lying down you are calming down, reducing the adrenaline in your system. Your spine starts to re-align itself,” says Hilary.

ONE of her regular clients, Carolyn Craggs, a freelance statistician from Egglestone, near Barnard Castle, says her health has been “excellent” since she started having AT sessions to treat back pain.

“It makes me much more aware of how I use my body. It makes me stop and think, is this the best way to do this?.”

Carolyn, who spends a lot of time behind a computer sitting at a desk, also finds the ten-minute ‘time-out’ on the floor to be a great stress buster.

Another North-East AT teacher, Judith Brennan, 59, from Greencroft, near Stanley, County Durham, believes that the technique has changed her life utterly.

“I got into AT after a bad fall from my horse. Now I don’t think I could manage without it,” she says.

“It helps you to look after yourself while you are keeping fit. I ride a lot better now than I used to. If you do anything according to the principles of the technique you will do it better.”

■ Anyone interested in more information about the Alexander Technique should either ring 0845-2307828 or visit the