LEARN TO WALK TALL
Hollywood glamour girl Hilary Swank is certain that perfecting your posture will always add instant impact the moment you glide down a red carpet. The Oscar winner is a firm fan of the Alexander Technique, which teaches postural awareness. Lucy Miller finds out how it has given Hilary A-list poise to match her A-list status.
How does it work? How perfect is your posture? Are your shoulders somewhere up around your ears? Are you more likely to slouch than to sit up straight? Are you sure you are walking tall? Good posture can be difficult to attain. Over the years, bad habits cause muscles to tighten and poor posture becomes so ingrained that it’s often difficult to correct.
The Alexander Technique aims to unravel all the years of tense muscles and banish all the bad posture habits you’ve gradually accumulated. It focuses on the way you hold your body and puts you more in tune with the way you move so you can avoid putting it under unnecessary strain.
The Technique was the brainchild of Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian actor who devised it in the 1890’s. He had starting losing his voice during performances and discovered that a series of movements linked to posture not only stopped his loss of voice but also helped him to appear more relaxed on stage. He soon switched his focus from performing to teaching the Technique and later came to Britain, where one of his pupils was George Bernard Shaw.
The Technique, now practised all over the world, is still popular with actors and musicians who use it to help with breathing and pre-stage anxiety, and it is now part of the curriculum at many drama schools.
What is it good for?
The Technique is excellent for posture, muscle-tension relief, back, neck and shoulder pain, repetitive strain injury, stress, vocal or breathing disorders, migraines and tension headaches. It can help people recovering from surgery or a stroke.
It also teaches how to avoid putting your body under unnecessary stress doing everyday tasks such as driving and sitting in front of a computer.
Although Alexander Technique teachers are highly trained in the system, they are not medically trained and cannot diagnose health conditions.
How else can it help me?
“It can take 10 years of you” says Alexander Technique instructor Noel Kingsley. “We can all age ourselves dramatically by tensing and stiffening. The Alexander Technique will help you to feel lighter, looser and freer”.
“It can also make you up to two inches taller. Hunching, stooping, tensing and stiffening all shorten us. The spongy discs of cartilage in the spine can become compressed over time and increased curvature will reduce your height but the Alexander Technique helps you to regain natural posture. Release the tension pulling you down and you’ll go up”.
Followers of the Technique argue that it will also allow your internal organs to function better because they’ll be given more room in which to do so.
One of the key exercises you’ll learn is how to loosely balance your head rather than “holding it”. This will cause a natural lengthening of the spine which in turn releases muscles and joints.
“Our head weighs between 10lb and 12lb, the equivalent of five bags of sugar” says Noel”. “The balance of your head is crucial to the performance of your whole body. If it’s off balance, it immediately affects your neck and shoulders and puts pressure on the spine.”
What can you expect?
Follow the Alexander Technique and you’ll learn how to sit, stand and bend correctly and how to walk and move gracefully. One-to-one sessions are usually recommended because you and your teacher work together closely to solve your particular posture problems.
“The first thing I do is ask clients about their lifestyle, any past or present problems and what they want to learn” says Alexander Teacher Marguerite van Boetzelaer, who teaches at the Hale Clinic in London.
“Then I ask them to sit or stand and observe which parts of their body are really active. The chances are that they exert more effort than necessary. I may ask them to show me how they sit when they work and how high their desk it”.
Your teacher may also touch you to assess where your tension is focused. Alexander sessions are carried out standing, sitting, bending and lying down. You’ll be asked to do simple movements, while the teacher uses his or her hands to guide you and demonstrate how best to move without placing any unnecessary stress on your body.
“We gently encourage the body into its natural posture with small movements”, says Noel. “Most people leave the first session feeling lighter, taller, looser and calmer.”
It’s not a quick fix. The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique recommends a course of at least 20 sessions to get to grips with it and says the system should also be practiced between lessons.
One of the most effective things you can do at home is to lie on the floor for five to 15 minutes a day with your feet flat and your knees bent.
Have your head on a pile of paperbacks about two to three inches high. This gradually allows your spine to lengthen.