Sit up straight like your mother told you and ease your tension
The recession was bad news for builders but it allowed one Tyrone man Peter Barker, to address the neck and back pain he had suffered at work. Now a practitioner of the Alexander technique, he gave Jenny Lee an insight into improving posture and reducing stress
WHEN it comes to reducing backache it's a case of sitting up straight like your mother told you and that other maternal advice: 'less haste more speed' to give you a tension free, perfect posture.
It is believed that 8% of all people living in the West will suffer from disabling lower back pain at some point in their lives.
Unfortunately many people carrying unnecessary pain do not realise that anything can be done about it.
The Alexander technique, named after Australian actor Frederick Matthias Alexander, is a drug-free way of teaching people how to avoid unnecessary muscular and mental tension.
Its purpose is to help people unlearn bad physical habits, such as standing or sitting with your weight unevenly distributed, and return to the balanced state of rest and ease of movement you had as a child.
So sitting up straight like your mother told you as a youngster, can ease your tension as an adult.
A Shakespearean orator, Alexander developed the technique's principles in the 1890s as a personal tool to alleviate breathing problems and hoarseness.
After doctors found no physical cause, he self-observed himself in multiple mirrors and discovered that he tightened his neck, pulled his head back and contracted his whole body in preparation for his verbal delivery.
Many other performers have taken aboard Alexander's findings in order to help their careers, including Michael Caine, Judi Dench, Hugh Jackman, Madonna and Paul McCartney.
Like many, I believed the Alexander technique was about learning to sit and stand straight and move properly.
But during two visits to Peter Barker, a qualified Alexander technique teacher from Dungannon, I quickly discovered it was much more complex, that the mind and body are integrally linked and that by changing our mental and emotional habits our posture is instantly altered.
A former builder, Peter turned to the technique following regular pain in his neck, lower back and hip.
The recession and downturn in the construction industry led him to spend three years training at the Alexander Technique Training College in Galway.
In his clinic Peter uses the same three-way mirror system that Alexander did for examining and correcting posture.
He also uses some sophisticated video-linked exercise equipment to help people avoid injury while exercising and has various hand-crafted forward-slanting stools and an adjustable computer desk.
Peter shows me through various illustrations how a toddler has a perfect posture and suggests that sitting bent at the school desk is the starting point for our slouched shoulders and humped back.
"Young children have a great posture and they aren't doing anything to achieve it.
Over time people get into the habit of stiffening their necks, shortening their spine, restricting their breath, twisting and pulling their limbs into themselves," he says suggesting that adjusting the heights of computer desks, using tablet holders at eye level and forward-slanting wedge on our chairs can help eliminate some of the damage that our working environment places us in.
The Alexander technique is normally taught on a one-to-one basis with the teacher observing your movements and showing you how to move, sit, lie down and stand with better balance and less strain. The freedom of the neck is of primary importance and they'll use their hands to gently guide you in your movements.
The first task Peter assigned me was to sit down and I soon discovered it was more difficult than it sounds. When moving from standing to sitting, many of us jar our necks backwards, our shoulders hunch and the back over-arches.
This is what Alexander called our fear reflex, caused by the body sensing that it is off balance and trying to protect itself.
The natural way to sit down is to allow the head to move forward and at the same time to bend the hips, knees and ankle joints so that you descent in perfect balance. Then you have to roll backwards and find your sitting bones.
At first this feels very strange and you feel like you are going to miss the seat. But if you learn to lower your eye-line while sitting it is actually quite comfortable.
When it comes to standing, I was in the habit of putting the weight on to one foot. This is only asking for problems.
Peter explained that when standing we need to put "50 per cent of weight on balls of your feet and 50 per cent on heels". And we should forget about the old schoolmaster who shouted at us to 'stand up straight'. The effect of deliberately pulling our shoulders back actually pulls us off balance and is detrimental to good posture.
Another key part of the Alexander technique is constructive rest which is a form of mindfulness practised lying on your back with your knees raised pointing upwards, feet flat on the floor and your head supported by something firm, like a book.
It's purpose is to make your aware of muscle tension and allow yourself to release it. I did this with Peter's assistance and was amazed to witness the tension physically leave my body and my arms and legs feeling as if they had lengthened.
So how long before you can see the benefits of this practice? "It takes commitment and for the person to take responsibility for their own body. But when you do make the effort the results are worthwhile, both physically and in terms of stress relief" says Peter who recommends an initial course of at least six lessons.
The Alexander technique is more of an educational process rather than a relaxation technique or form of exercise and what this brief introduction to the therapy highlighted to me is the need to be more mindful about the way we go about our daily activities.
As I rush to collect my child from school or worry about meeting a deadline in work, now I can feel my shoulders hunch, my neck tighten, the weight increase in my limbs and even my jaw tense.
Rushing can cause anxiety and through habit we often forget how to relax. So, whether it's flopping into our armchair or exercising in the gym, it's important to differentiate between doing things quickly and rushing our movements and to, as Peter says, "use a little bit of consciousness to unlearn bad habits".
- For further information visit alexandertechniqueni; to book a one-to-one class contact peter on 0777 5641 897. An introductory Alexander Technique group class will commence on November 2 in Ballysaggart Business Park, Dungannon. For other approved teachers visit www.isatt.ie.