Bad posture which often starts in childhood upsets the delicate balance of head, neck and torso, say teachers of the Alexander technique. Francesa Wolf reports on lessons in schools which are helping children avoid long-term problems. Last year 17-year-old Suzie, a talented violinist, won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. But she developed such crippling pains in her wrist that she could no longer play the instrument and would, it seemed, have to forfeit her place.
Her parents sought help from various specialists, with little success. But after working for some time with an Alexander technique teacher, the pain lessened and she could again play and perform in public.
"The pain was linked to nerves, physical stress and tension," says Trish Hemingway, her teacher. "Fear makes the body close down. But the technique can open up the body and help us regain the ability to move effortlessly and without fear".
The Alexander technique is hard to define. It is more sophisticated than posture or relaxation training, but not (another misconception) a form of yoga or massage. It is concerned with the relationship between the head, neck and back (the area of "primary control"), but equally focused on attending to means rather than ends.
Gertrude Stein's brother Leo called the technique "a method for keeping your eye on the ball applied to life". It aims to sharpen senses and mental awareness of how we use our bodies and our habitual patterns of response. It can then help change these - by rejecting the harmful and choosing a more conscious, flexible way of behaving.
An Australian actor F M Alexander, who died in his eighties in 1955, developed the technique after his voice failed during a performance. It was taken up by musicians and actors and has remained popular in the performing arts, being taught in music and drama colleges such as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and the Purcell School.
In other fields, its principles are mostly studied by adults. Yet they can help children too, although the focus is more on preventing bad habits happening in the first place.
Bad posture starts in childhood. Habitual bad use - such as a hunched back or shoulders - eventually disturbs the delicate balance of head, neck and torso, say Alexander teachers. In the long term this may cause physical symptoms such as headaches or back pain, affect breathing, the voice, energy and digestion (due to compression of internal organs) and create a tense, inflexible attitude to life.
Working with the young is still fairly rare and largely confined to private lessons - individually or in independent schools.
Few Alexander teachers work in state schools (the curriculum is too tight, money too short, it's almost impossible to teach individually, and any "hands-on" work is taboo), though there have been several initiatives.
One such scheme in the early 1980s was funded by the Surrey Back Pain Association. A team of Alexander teachers observed and worked with 4 to 13-year-olds and their teachers in junior and middle schools in Redhill.
Sue Thame, one of the team, noted how quickly children at school lose "good use". The nursery children used their bodies in a natural free way and were quite well integrated. But by 7, they'd lost it, and by 11 postural integration had deteriorated more.
"I watched them learning to write: they collapsed, screwed themselves down on to their desks, their little mouths as close as possible to their fingers - a whole process of contraction happening at a very stressful time," says Sue.
She noted the tension produced by wrong-sized furniture; the emphasis on finished work ("end-gaining") rather than process (the "means-whereby"); and how teachers themselves suffered stress because of noise, lack of space and overcrowding.
The Alexander team made four videos and ran workshops and evening classes for the teachers, training them in awareness both of their own body use (children imitate adults) and to see what the children were doing. They were shown how to get the class "lying down" for a few minutes each day, games to teach principles of "primary control", and how to check children verbally to build in good habits so they didn't collapse or get scrunched up. A skeleton was used to convey anatomical information.
Earlier this year Sue Merry, an Alexander teacher, ran a project at Latchmere Infant School in Kingston. Initially the head invited her in to talk to teachers, but the project snowballed into a "whole school" approach and was written up as a paper for governors.
She, too, found general deterioration in body use between nursery and Year 2 children. She noted that chairs were often too big so children had to sit on the edge or with legs unsupported putting strain on the lower back - a poor position in which to learn the new and tricky skill of holding a pencil. Concern with performance exacerbated tension: "We are encouraged to do and do well, often with no awareness of what we are doing to achieve our ends, " says Sue.
She did "body thinking" with the children, using phrases like "I let my neck be free" or "allowing your head to be like a floaty balloon" to help them keep the relationship between head, neck and back natural and fluid, and encouraging awareness of "good use" - such as squatting to pick up a book or "sitting in a tall and free way". Telling stories and drawing pictures about "Little Miss Up and Little Miss Down" reinforced the message.
Sue also ran workshops for staff and now gives short individual lessons at lunchtime to about eight teachers-a fruitful approach, she feels, which makes them more observant and feeds down to the children. The Alexander technique can also help the teachers with voice problems, breathing, co-ordination, and stress.
Trish Hemingway, an Alexander teacher, works with secondary pupils in the independent sector. She taught the technique for seven years at Wells Cathedral School and now works as a peripatetic teacher at Bryanston School and Leweston School in Dorset.
It is, she says, "a privilege to work with children because they take it into life and can always come back to it". Teenagers, Trish says, enjoy the fact that there is no syllabus, no pressure and lots of humour. Exams and performance stress can overload pupils, she believes, and the technique, "stabilises them and helps with things like a bowing arm that shakes and examination nerves.
"But most important is the connecting and understanding that they themselves are instruments, that they must tune into themselves as well as their instruments. It helps them integrate their emotions with their mental and physical state. It gives them themselves back again."
At Bryanston Trish first gave open classes. "People came and went as they wished and I got all kinds, from musicians to enormous rowers, curious as to how it would help their sport."
Group work included juggling sessions where balls flew all over the room but no one got hit or hurt ("a good example that, with discipline, freedom doesn't mean chaos"). Trish enjoyed group work and children helped one another, but she now usually teaches individuals or in pairs.
Individual lessons include lying down and performing simple actions. If they are musicians, Trish doesn't involve instruments for some time, "because children often hide behind them".
She says anorexic girls often show interest, because it helps them feel more in control of their bodies. And one boy she taught, who later had a car crash and was told he would be confined to a wheelchair, told her he used the technique as a mental discipline to help him walk again.
Advocates claim it helps many disorders, and there are strong success stories. But it is subtle, not a miracle cure-all.
The Teacher. Kathryn Sandiforth taught for 10 years in a junior school before her son was born. Then, in her early 40s, she trained as an Alexander teacher. She returned to the classroom and, although she does not teach the technique directly, she finds it affects every aspect of her work.
"Physically, it changed the way I speak and move. My voice is more relaxed and I use a lower pitch and think how I am using it, so I no longer have throat problems.
"I squat or do a 'monkey' position rather than bend over low desks and tables, so my back is better. I sit straight: this affects how the children sit too. And I suffer less from stress, which makes for a calmer classroom."
Working with a reception class learning to write she looked at their whole head, neck, shoulder and back relationship, not just the way they gripped the pen. "Children twist into impossible positions when writing - out of fear and because the furniture is often the wrong size. This can become a habit, and may later cause physical symptoms such as back pain, RSI, or a twist in the spine."
The Alexander technique, says Kathryn, is a "psycho-physical technique based on altering the action of the muscles through thought". She doesn't tell slumping pupils to sit up straight, or tense ones to relax but she asks questions to get them thinking about what their bodies are doing: "Do you notice what you are doing with your shoulders? Can you do this any other way?" Teachers of Alexander technique must have completed a three-year training recognised by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique (STAT). For further information and a list of teachers send an SAE to: STAT, 20 London House, 266 Fulham Road, London SW10 9EL The Lesson. This afternoon Sue Merry is working with Lucy Wayman's Year 2 class at Latchmere Infant School, Kingston. Lucy has just had an individual Alexander lesson during her lunch break - "refreshing in the middle of a teaching day."
Now Sue is chatting to 10 seven to eight-year-olds on the red table, exploring and adapting Alexander's ideas rather than giving a formal lesson in the technique. She asks what they remember from last time.
"Our heads were like floaty balloons," says Lawrence.
"I looked at how my mum sat later," says Nicola.
Sue says today they are going to think about how they sit in their chairs and that she has an assistant, Arthur (her six-year-old son). She puts a chair on the table: "Arthur is going to sit in it." He sits in three ways: "All scrunched up,"says Sue (he slumps). "Tight," (he contracts stiffly). "Tall and free with your head like a floaty balloon." The children have to guess and describe which way he's sitting.
Arthur says: "If you sit scrunched up, when you are old you'll stay like that." "And your writing goes all funny too," adds Marianne.
"What happens when you sit tightly?" says Sue.
Ten little bodies stiffen in their chairs, arms tight by their sides, rigid with tension. "I can't breathe properly," complains Lawrence.
"Now," says Sue, "Can you sit straight, and let your neck be free?" She moves round the table checking their feet. "With your feet on the floor and your bottom on the chair, let your shoulders melt and your head be like a floaty balloon." Sue gently puts her hands on each child's shoulders.
"Do you remember what we call this work?" asks Sue.
"Body brain?" says a little boy.
"Nearly," says Sue. "Body thinking."