10 TALKBACK FEATURE
The Alexander Technique and Health by Korina Biggs BScEcon MA MSTAT What does being in good health mean to you? Is it simply an absence of physical illness or does it include psychological aspects or successful ways of being and relating in the world? A new client came to me recently for Alexander Technique lessons because she had been in hospital and in the next bed was a woman in the last days of her life. She was struck by how calm and poised the woman was, despite the invasive procedures and the patronising attitude of some of the staff. The dying woman said she was applying the Alexander Technique. She was obviously not healthy in the narrow sense of the word, but something about her state of being was healthy and inspirational. A health visitor colleague of mine connects the Alexander Technique with a healthcare concept called salutogenesis. It comes from the Latin salus meaning health and the Greek genesis meaning origin. It rejects the traditional separation of health and illness, instead describing a health continuum, and focuses on people’s resources and capacity to create health rather than on disease1. Internal resources include ways of being and acting – and this is where the Alexander Technique comes in. Through the Alexander Technique we can develop the skills to recognise and change habitual responses to all stimuli – whether that be simply gravity, a stressful situation or the experience of pain. We can learn to be able to choose either to carry on with the same response, not respond at all or to respond differently. As Dr Wilfred Barlow, an Alexander teacher and medical advisor, put it: “Health involves many things at many levels but full health is impossible unless we maintain a balanced equilibrium in the face of forces which tend to disturb us.”2 My client Tara says: “I’d always say that I had a bad back – it was painful and it felt like the bones were locked up my lower back, but then, after taking
TALKBACK l ISSUE 3 2014
about six months of Alexander lessons, I noticed I’d stopped saying that I had a bad back. I know how to move and use myself better and I do have more confidence to do things. If I’m trying to walk somewhere really quickly I think ‘light and swift’ and instead of everything being heavier (because I’m trying to be quicker and pounding the pavement) it’s actually much lighter. I experience health differently as I have a lot more freedom in my body. I’m less constrained. The Alexander lessons always put me in a better space – emotionally as well as physically.” Cathy, who has osteoporosis, says: “I’m very conscious that your mind affects the way you use your body. I stand hunched much less now and it’s had an effect on my confidence, particularly when I look at elderly ladies with dowager’s humps. It gives me an incredible boost to think that I have reduced the hump, and that I have the possibility of avoiding it being as severe. Learning the Alexander Technique is an absolute lifeline for me, a pathway has opened up in which I feel empowered to tackle an illness. The quality of pain is vastly different – some of that is a result of the surgery and some of it is this awareness of moving upwards and being in my body and not just busy outside it. I do
feel that I’m seeing myself and the ways in which I inhabit the world in a different way.” To sum up I shall quote Alexander Technique teacher Miranda Tufnell who writes: “To look at our lives differently, to find the possibility of change, requires first that we loosen the reflex of habitual responses – the shapes, postures and judgments which order our lives. In the Norse, ‘haelen hal’ health means ‘wholeness’, a call to move more fully into life. Our health is the art of living, an awakening to a more fluid and creative part of ourselves that in turn expands and changes the quality of our lives.”3 You can find a qualified teacher near you by contacting the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT), www.stat.org.uk; tel: 0207 482 5135.
References 1 Salutogenesis was a term coined by medical sociologist Aaron Antonovsky who wrote Health, Stress and Coping San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers (1979) and Unraveling The Mystery of Health – How People Manage Stress and Stay Well, San Francisco: JosseyBass Publishers (1987). 2 Barlow W (1984), The Alexander Principle. London: Arrow Books, p47. 3 Tufnell M (2000), Beneath Our Words in P. Greenland (ed.) What Dancers Do that Other Health Workers Don’t…, Leeds: JABADO, p12.