You’re hired! Why FM Alexander would win The Apprentice


The BBC TV series The Apprentice is my not-so-secret obsession. I love watching it. There is much that this programme can teach you about how (and how NOT) to set up and run a business, and how to deal with people. For those of you who don’t watch the show, this is how it works. At the beginning of the series, sixteen candidates come to London to vye for the chance to run a business (and a £250 000 investment) with entrepreneur Lord Sugar. Each week the candidates are split into two groups and given tasks relating to selling, branding, marketing and entrepreneurial skill. And each week one candidate from the losing team is fired.

While watching the most recent series, I’ve come to notice something very important. I think I’ve found the secret of Apprentice success. It’s the reason why so often the candidates fail in the tasks set for them by Lord Sugar. It’s the reason why FM Alexander, were he alive and interested, would be a strong contender to be hired. And, even more exciting, it is a secret of success that transcends mere televisual entertainment.

Have I got your attention yet?! Good!


First … Why the candidates fail.

Every week’s Apprentice episode begins with Lord Sugar calling all the candidates together (usually very early in the morning) and explaining the new task to them. He does this succinctly, carefully and thoroughly. For example, in last week’s episode, the candidates were called to a warehouse, and the teams given pallets of goods to sell. These are the instructions Lord Sugar gave the six contestants:

I’ve got you an arrangement of goods over here… I expect you to sell that stuff as quick as possible and smell which item is the best seller. Come back to places like this and buy some more and just keep going… At the end of the two day period you’ll have some stock left over, which is fine. We’re gonna count the value of the stock and the money in your hand and at the end of the task the team that has the greatest amount of assets left will win…It’s the simple principle of business – turning your money over, increasing your assets.”*

Clear instructions. A simple task, yes?

No, apparently not. Both groups strayed from Lord Sugar’s instructions. They variously failed to reinvest, or didn’t restock the bestsellers, or decided to sell to high street retailers instead of the public, or stopped restocking from fear of being left with unsold stock at the end of the task. And this isn’t an uncommon experience – it happens almost every week!

So what happens? Why do the candidates fail to follow Lord Sugar’s instructions? As far as I can see, the answer is very simple. They allow their enthusiasm to dominate their reason.


Enthusiasm vs. Reason.

FM Alexander recognised as early as 1910 the danger of allowing one’s enthusiasm to run away unbridled. Recalling his creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique, he wrote:

“one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm… I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.” **

A £250 000 investment is a strong motivating factor for any individual. I suspect that, in their efforts to stand out from the crowd and (hopefully) please Lord Sugar, the candidates let their enthusiasm run away. They forget about the task. They forget the instructions. Each week one candidate or another becomes fixated on an idea or concept (in episode 7 it was Melody and Helen wanting to sell to retailers instead of the general public), and allows this to skew their decision-making processes to the point where the original goal of the task is totally lost.

This is, of course, what makes the programme such good viewing. We love to see Lord Sugar’s aides Nick Hewer and Karen Brady shake their heads in amazement at the bizarre decisions that are made. Indeed, we enjoy it so much that when one of the contestants, Tom Pellereau, began the series by taking notes during Lord Sugar’s opening address, the viewing public mocked him mercilessly.

But aren’t we all guilty of this, at least on occasion? How many of us lose sight of our goals, allowing our enthusiasms and transitory whims to sidetrack us and take us away from what we really want to achieve?


Simple Steps to Success… FM – You’re Hired!

So why would FM Alexander be such a strong candidate on The Apprentice? Because he kept his enthusiasm in check. He never lost sight of his goal, and worked according to principle.

What does this mean in practice? Well, I can imagine FM sitting neatly on the packing cases in the warehouse. He would listen carefully – very carefully – to Lord Sugar. He would take note of the goal of the exercise. Then he would analyse the conditions present. He would look at the stock on the pallet, and take note of the location of the selling pitches. He would take note of warehouse locations.

Then he would start to plan the steps that would lead him to his goal of having the most assts. He would take care to send stock to each location where it would be most likely to appeal to the passing customers. When stock began to sell, I can imagine FM sending one of his team off to the warehouse to purchase more. And if circumstances changed and items began to stagnate on the stalls, I can imagine FM being flexible enough in his thinking to alter his strategy to make the best of the current conditions.***

So these are the steps to success:

  1. Keep your goal in mind.
  2. Analyse the conditions present
  3. Construct a series of steps to lead you from the conditions present towards your goal.
  4. Carry out those steps, but be flexible enough to change if circumstances demand it.

What is your goal? What are your present conditions? What is the first, smallest step you can take towards your goals from where you are now? Tell me in the comments!



* Transcribed by me from Episode 7, Flip It. See for episode details.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition of Alexander’s books, p.90.
*** I apologise if you find my use of FM here a little flippant, or not sufficiently respectful. From my reading of Frank Pierce Jones and other authors, I have a strong faith in FM’s sense of humour. I hope he wouldn’t mind!

Turning Off Your Limiter


Yesterday, I was working with one of my students – a lovely man called Ian – on standing and looking up to the ceiling. To begin with, Ian’s head came forwards to look at the floor quite happily. Looking up to the ceiling, however, was a different matter. It just didn’t happen. His neck wouldn’t extend at all. After some discussion about necks and what they are capable of (in theory, you understand!), a bit of hands-on work and some gentle cajolery, Ian’s neck extended just a little, and he looked in the direction of the ceiling. Wht follows is what happened next, as closely as I can remember it.*

“What do you notice about that?” I asked.
“Someone’s pushed the red button,” Ian said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“On the electric shower. The shower has a limiter to stop the water getting too hot for children. If you want warmer water, you press a red button and the limiter turns off.”
“Ah,” I replied. “So your neck had a limiter?”
“And it’s just switched off?”
“Yes,” Ian said.

What a great image this is. Ian had a ‘limiter’ that impeded the flexibility of his neck – but it wasn’t hard-wired  like the limiter on the electric shower. Ian found that he had a limiter in his thinking. For whatever reason, he had developed a belief that he couldn’t move his neck in such a way that he could look at the ceiling. The belief led to the impeded movement.

FM Alexander talked about exactly this phenomenon in 1910. He said, “the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of though quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence.”**

So how do we turn off these ‘limiters’, these “trifling habits of thought” that stop us from moving as freely and flexibly as we’d like? Today I want to give you a couple of warnings of things that DON’T work, and pointers on something that DOES.


Things that DON’T work: Try Harder!

It is really tempting, when faced with a limitation, to just throw more energy at it and hope that it works. This is the strategy I used to use as a musician when faced with a musical phrase that was too tricky for me to play. I’d worry about it all the way up to the troublesome phrase, then just go faster and throw more energy and muscular effort into my fingers and hope that it would work.

It didn’t.

Alexander says that this is a little like placing dependence upon a thermometer that we know is defective. It’s human, but it’s not sensible.


Things that DON’T work: Finding out WHY…

When faced with a seemingly random and puzzling limitation – like an inability to turn one’s head towards the ceiling – some students become fascinated with the origin of the limitation. “Why do I do that?” they ask. I don’t know why they do it. More to the point, I don’t really care.

Now, before you accuse me of callousness, let me explain why I say this. You see, knowledge of WHY doesn’t help the behaviour to go away. Stopping the behaviour helps it to go away. My experience as a teacher is that the students who become most obsessed with why they do the things they do, take longest to stop the limiting behaviours and improve. The search for why turns into a “fascinating bypath” (Alexander’s phrase) that leads nowhere useful.


Things that DO work: Using Your Head

Alexander comfortingly says that there isn’t a single habit of mind (or resultant habit of body) which may not be altered. Great! But how? By the inculcation (learning) of the principles concerning the true poise of the body, and using them in co-operation with an understanding of the powers of the objective mind. Put simply, we need to learn just how powerful the mind is, and put it to good use.

Most of us never really think too much about the things that we do as we do them. When, for example, was the last time you thought about how to look up to the ceiling, or get out of a chair, or walk, before you did them? But this is what Alexander asks us to do. He asks us to actually pay attention to what we do and how we do it. He asks us to use the power of our objective minds to analyse and plan our movements, and then to follow the plans we’ve devised. If we use our reasoning powers, we will begin to experience the power of the principles that underly all easy and efficient movement.


Is it hard work? Sometimes. Is it infuriating? Yep, sometimes.

But does it bring rewards? Yes. Definitely yes. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my student Ian.


* A couple of points about this. First, it’s part of the training I received as a teacher in the Interactive Teaching Method for the teaching of the Technique of FM Alexander (ITM AT teacher for short) that accurate recall of a student’s words – or even whole exchanges – is considered essential for good teaching. If you want to know more about this, just email and ask me.

Second, I asked Ian’s permission to quote him and credit it with his name.

** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.52.
Image by Alex France, stock.xchng

Why exercises won’t help (and three things that do!)

When I was younger I was a devotee of aerobics. I was far too embarrassed about my body to actually darken the doors of a gym, so I used to watch a TV programme called Aerobics Oz Style. Each day I’d get myself into my exercise shoes, turn on the TV, and prance up and down to the music, doing my best to follow the commands of the instructors.

Each episode of the show would have one instructor and at least 2 other people (usually female, often blonde) helping to demonstrate the movements. It was a well-produced programme, and the producers chose their instructors and demonstrators well – they were qualified, well-regarded within their profession, and frequently had been competitors and even winners of Aerobics Championships. (Yes, there really is such a thing!)

This was long before I had even heard of the Alexander Technique. But even then, as a wannabe actress, I had sufficient powers of observation to notice something really interesting about the instructors on the show. They were all doing broadly the same movements at the same time. But they didn’t look the same. In fact, if you looked closely, sometimes you could see that they weren’t really doing the same movements at all. And if you experimented and tried out the different movements – say, with a particular armline – you would realise that the different ways the instructors were moving their arms would actually cause different muscles to be exercised.

The instructors were not deliberately doing slightly different things. I think they genuinely and honestly thought that they were all demonstrating exactly the same movement. And yet they were different.

Why does an exercise give different effects on different people?

Simple: because they’re different people. There is a section of FM Alexander’s fourth book where he discusses exactly this point: that a set of exercises could be responsible for different effects in different people. “how could it be otherwise?” Alexander asks.They exist in different private universes, and have different ideas about how their bodies can and should work.  So just as different people walk and speak differently, so they will carry out a set of exercises differently, and will receive different effects as a result.

So why don’t I give out exercises?

Because it could do more harm than good.

Even if we stuck with the basic principle that giving a specific exercise for a specific problem could help that problem directly (and FM has a lot to say about that), there’s still the problem of the private universes. If it is true that every person will have a slightly different conception of how their body works, what the exercise involves, how to do it, etc., then everyone will do the exercise differently. And I as a teacher can have no real idea of exactly what effects my student will get. I woul be a poor teacher if I recommended something and didn’t know if it would work!

If exercises don’t work, what does?!

In his fourth book, at one point Alexander likens humankind to ill-controlled pieces of machinery. He says that “in ordinary mechanics, if we knew that the control or controls of  machine were out of order, we should at once decide to have them put right before expecting the machine to show the mechanical stability and usefulness of which it is capable.”*

In other words, we don’t need to load ourselves up with more things to do – we need to fix the controlling mechanisms, and get the gremlins out that are causing us to malfunction. And how do we do that? Here are three ideas:

1. Paying attention to what we are doing. How often do you actually notice what you do with your body when you are walking or driving a car? One of my students was shocked recently to discover how tightly he gripped the steering wheel.

2. Having a plan for what we’re doing. Have you ever thought about what you actually need to do to walk, or use a computer keyboard?

3. Not leaping into action. Do you jump up as soon as the phone rings? What about trying to receive that stimulus, refuse to do anything immediately in response, and then think about whether you really want to answer?

Alexander wanted us to think. He wanted us to have conscious reasoned contol of our potentialities. With the best will in the world, exercises aren’t going to get us there. But trying out the three ideas above just might.

*FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.561.

Dodging the perfection trap

How good are your worst days?

I fell to thinking about this after experiencing a crummy day. The low part of the day occurred when I arrived at my son’s school to pick him up for his cello lesson; only then did I realise that I’d left the cello on the other side of town, and that there was no way of going back to get it in the time available. And the teacher wasn’t answering her phone. Oops.

Some of my students have been having crummy days too. Sadly, theirs have been a little more serious than mine. External circumstances have knocked them sideways. One, for example, had to deal with a minor crisis that entailed both emotional upset and a degree of hard physical work that would ordinarily have caused significant back pain.

When this student came for her lesson, she told me how bad her week had been, and about how difficult it had been to keep thinking ‘Alexander’ thoughts in the midst of all the upheaval. So I asked her about how she’d handled the incident. My student then explained about all the planning she’d done so that her life was disrupted as little as possible, and that she’d done all the physical work. And, she said, oddly, she wasn’t as tired or sore as she’d anticipated.

“So did you use Alexander thinking to help you?” I asked.
“Well, yes,” she replied.
“And did it help?”
“Well. Yes. But I couldn’t keep it up all the time.”
“Ah,” I said. “But isn’t that a very high standard to set when you’re in a crisis?”

From where I was sitting, my student had achieved significant success. She’d experienced the crisis but hadn’t reacted in her usual (old, habitual) way either to the emotional stimuli or the physical work that came afterwards. She had taken care of herself wonderfully. In my eyes, she had done brilliantly. In her own eyes, however, she hadn’t done as well as she had been pre-crisis, and was therefore a failure.

 There’s such a temptation to judge our progress and our success using our good days.  Musicians are brilliant at this. ‘I could play that obscenely difficult semi-quaver run on Monday, so that’s now my minimum standard for success. If I don’t get that run right, I’m a failure.’ That’s the sort of thinking I used to indulge in on a fairly regular basis.

Sportspeople do it too. Snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan is a classic example. At his best, he plays the game at a standard that is truly near perfection. Indeed, Ronnie strives for and expects perfection. So when he has an off day and plays only excellently, he often gives post-match interviews where he expresses great dissatisfaction with his ‘poor’ play.

Looking for perfection is the only way to motivate yourself… Sometimes people get excited about shots I play, breaks I make, and I think it was terrible. I’m my own worst critic.”*

Perfection is a tough standard to set for yourself. It is, pretty much by definition, unachievable. If we try to judge our progress by our good days, we are falling into a less extreme version of the trap of expecting perfection. If we take this path, we are more likely to discount our successes and, like my student, judge our efforts (and ourselves) as failures.

When life throws you something difficult to handle, it’s going to be harder than normal to keep your head and keep thinking constructively. That’s why we spend time in Alexander Technique lessons practising thinking constructively around simple activities like walking, or sweeping, or raising an arm (I once had a lesson about lifting a teacup). By working on activities like these, we are creating the building blocks that can lead to success in activities and situations that are a bit more complex.**

What would happen if we gauged our progress by how well we get through our crummy days? Is your worst day less worse than before? Then rejoice! For if we all rejoiced a little more, wouldn’t that do a lot to change our view of ourselves and our world?


*Quotes from an interview with Brian Viner, The independent, 7 January 2010,

** cf. FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat collected edition, pp.588-589.

Is it okay if you change?


I’m a very lucky person in many ways, and one of the areas of my life in which I am most fortunate is my work. I love my job. I believe that teaching the Alexander Technique, helping people to improve their thinking, their movement, and their lives generally, is just the best job in the world.

One of the aspects of my job that I love most is meeting new students. Because I teach courses at a couple of different locations on a termly basis, I see groups of new students fairly regularly. In the past week, for example, I’ve met and worked with three new groups of people. Two of them were at the Folk House in Bristol, and the third was a group of students from the Young Actors Studio at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

One of the questions that I (and many of my colleagues) typically ask a new student when working with them for the first time is: “Is it okay if you change?” The range and variety of answers I hear to this question never fails to excite me. “Yes!” says one student. “NO,” says another in a decisive tone. “What?!” exclaims another. “What, my clothes?” asks another. “Hm, maybe…” says another. Lots of different answers.

In my class at Royal Welsh College last Sunday, one of my nw students countered my question with another question. The exchnge went like this:

Me: “Is it okay if you change?”
Student: “Ye- … Hang on. Why are you asking me that?! What’s that got to do with the Alexander Technique?”
Me: “That’s a brilliant question.” I turned to the group. “Why am I asking that question? And what’s it got to do with the Alexander Technique?”

And now I’m asking you: why do I ask if it’s okay if you change? I’ll give you a minute to think of an answer.


There. How did you go? There are all sorts of good reasons why I use the question. But the one that most intrigued my Cardiff students is the one I’m going to talk about today.

So why do I ask about change? Well, it all comes back to what my job is about. Most, if not all, teachers in the Interactive Teaching Method give a standard definition of the Alexander Technique as a part of the introductory class. We say that the Alexander Technique is the study of the relationship between thinking and movement. We talk about the fact that, physiologically speaking, thinking precedes and controls movement – you can’t have a movement without some sort of thinking happening first. Put very simply, this means that, if you want to change the way you move, you need to change the way you think.

If the Alexander Technique is about thinking and movement, and my students (on the whole) want to change something about the way they move, what’s my job? Well, my job in some sense is to help my students change, by encouraging them to change the way they think (or, as my Cardiff students would have it, to ‘mess with their heads’!).

This is what I try to do with that opening question ‘is it okay if you change?’ I want to start the process of change by prodding their thinking – their thinking about change.

My teenage students in Cardiff, I realised, on the whole don’t have a problem recognising change happens. Their lives are full of change: exams, fashion, music, college, university… Everything in their lives is constantly, and visibly, on the move. For the rest of us, change can be a far more slippery concept. We get up, we go to work. We come home. We eat, we sleep. We have hobbies or evening classes we like to go to. We watch the TV programmes we like. Our lives follow a broadly similar patterm. Change, if we think of it at all, becomes something almost to be feared.

When I explained this to my teenage students, their faces became very sad and serious. “But that’s terrible,” they said. “How could anyone live their life like that?”

The thing is – change happens. It happens to all of us. It is in the nature of life that things change. We can deny it, hide from it, dull our perception until we can’t see it any more, but it is still there. Change will happen. Either it happens with our passive consent, or with our active involvement. So why not open our eyes, use our minds, and work on what Alexander calls “the never-ending intellectual problem of constructive control, which, instead of destroying, develops the interest and general intellectual pleasure in even…ordinary acts”?*

So… Is it okay if you change?

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat collection edition, p.308.



Can’t they see I’ve changed?

For my article this week I am again shamelessly pillaging from Chris Guillebeau, superb blogger and traveller and speaker of many truths. Specifically, I’m going to bounce my ideas off his excellent article Homecoming and the Adventure Detox.

In the article Chris talks about the strange decompression effect that can happen when you come home from a trip. You’ve seen and heard new things, and these things have changed you. You want to share them with friends and family. But friends and family may not be interested in what you have seen or heard. They’ll listen politely, but actually they’re keen for you to engage back in your home world – “Have you seen what’s happening with American Idol?”. Anyone who has travelled and had deep or memorable experiences can testify to the disconcerting and deflating nature of this ‘decompression’ experience.

The reason why I’m talking about this article by Chris, apart from the fact that it’s excellent, is that it so neatly describes what is happening in the lives of a number of my Alexander Technique students just now. One student in particular has undergone a lot of changes as a result of working with the principles and tools that I’m priveleged to share with them. In the 18 months or so that this person has had lessons with me, they have changed radically, both physically and in the way that they relate to the world around them. But it is only now that friends and family are starting to notice that they are different. Why?

Why is it that even those who are nearest and dearest to us are not able to see when we have changed? I think there are two issues that contribute to the problem.

Knowing how to look

From working with young actors, I’ve learned one basic fact. Observing is a skill, and most people don’t have it. They’ve never been taught how to look, to really look, at anything.

This problem is compounded when we are asked to look at people. In Western culture we are taught that it is rude to look at others. “Don’t stare!” we are told as children. So we begin to look away, to keep to ourselves. We sneak glances at others, on the pavement or on the train, but we don’t look for long, and we certainly don’t make eye contact! In effect, far from encouraging observation skills, in effect we are taught from childhood NOT to look.

If we don’t, can’t or won’t look, how will we ever see what is different? In fact, how will we ever truly see anything at all?

Analysing conditions past

When FM Alexander talked about his strategy for planning the protocol of a movement, he talked about “analysing the conditions present.”* In other words, looking at what is in front of us at that particular moment, and creating a plan of action based on what we see. Sadly, familiarity can breed contempt: why bother checking out that chair again when it looks the same as the one yesterday? The same thing happens with families and friends.

When we meet someone for the first time, we have no choice but to respond to whatever cues the person gives us regarding their character, personality and appearance. It’s completely different with families and friends. Because they’ve known us a long time, our friends and family tend to respond to us based on their experience of us in the past. They don’t need to observe us afresh, because we’re just the same as we were before, right?! Well, no, actually!

This is why those of us who live a long way from our parents can find it really difficult to visit home. We struggle to hold onto our adult identity as our parents continue to interact with us in the same way that they did all those years ago before we flew the nest and created our own lives.

Our friends and family see us as they used to see us, and as they want to see us. They love us, but sometimes the version of us they love may not fit us as neatly as we all hope and assume. So when they notice that we’ve changed, the odds are that we’ve metamorphosed so radically that their cherished but out-dated impression of us can no longer tally with the person in front of them. The degree of change forces them to reassess.

But they haven’t noticed I’ve changed – what should I do?

When you make changes in your life, and your nearest and dearest continue to interact with the person you used to be, you have a very simple choice. You can relinquish the changes that you have made and conform to their impression of who you are, or you can hold on to the decisions that you have made.

For a time this may be uncomfortable: there may be a disjunction between how your loved ones expect you to respond to them compared to your actual response. But which would you rather be – true to others’ expectations of you, or true to yourself?

And, just as a final thought… If you know you are changing and growing and improving, does it matter if that change isn’t recognised by others? Is the improvement any the less real for not having external approval?

Let’s commit to the process of change. Approval may come, or it may not. Discomfort may come, or it may not. But the process, if it is considered and appropriate, will lead us towards improvement. And what more can you ask than that?


*The full phrase used in the Evolution of a Technique is “analyse the conditions of use present.” But why stop at your body? Why not analyse anything around that is relevant?


Don’t copy me!

On the weekend I taught a day workshop (about Alexander Technique) at the Bristol Folk House, a lovely venue in central Bristol. Amongst my students for this workshop I had a husband and wife lady of the couple said that they have a six-year-old daughter, and that they had been trying to explain to her what they were doing that Saturday. They had told their daughter that when people are young they move around really beautifully, but that as they get older, for one reason or another, sometimes they don’t move so well or so easily as they used to. And Mum and Dad wanted to investigate whether they could move a bit more like their daughter.

I think this is an eloquent description of something that a lot of people feel to be true. Children seem to move so easily and beautifully, with an artless grace that we adults can only wonder at. How do they do it? And what happens to them – and us – between early childhood and adulthood to cause us to lose it?

What happens to us – part 1

One of the other participants in my Saturday workshop was a lady who had a standing lesson. When I worked with her to counteract the habitual way she pushed her hips forward while standing, she exclaimed that I was stopping her from standing up straight. She then gave an impression of  her school mistress telling her to ‘Stand up straight!’

My student had been out of school for a couple or three decades, yet that teacher’s admonition stayed with her. Words are powerful things. If we are told to do something as a child, and told it strongly enough, it is entirely possible that we will keep doing that thing long after the person who told us to has gone away or lost interest! This is even more likely if we received praise for following their instructions.

What things do you still do, just because a teacher/coach/parent told you? And if you have contact with children, are you careful about what rules you choose to pass on?


What happens to us – part 2

My son, when he was younger, absolutely loved a book by author Helen Oxenbury. It’s about a little boy called Tom and his toy monkey Pippo. My son’s favourite little story from the book began like this:


This is the second major thing that happens to us. We find someone we love, and we want to be like them. So we do what Tom does in the story – we copy the person we love. And we most often choose to copy the eccentricities of the person we love. We copy their walk, or the way they hold their head. Tom begins copying his father’s walk as an act of love.


Losing it – or not…

The thing is, we’re all really tempted by the idea that a childlike freedom and gracefulness is just that – childlike, and therefore a thing of the past. We feel nostalgic and a bit envious, and assume that like belief in Father Christmas, our freedom of movement, once gone, is lost forever.

This is a big trick.

If we believe this, we are cutting ourselves off from the truth. We never lost it.

We never lost it.

We listened to our teachers, and tried faithfully to do what they told us (‘Sit up straight!’). We copied those we loved, and did it studiously and well. We lived our lives, and made decisions about what was possible and what was not, and lived accordingly.

All of these acts are decisions. And decisions can be changed.

We have lost nothing. Our natural grace and elegance of movement is still there and waiting for us to rediscover it. And this requires nothing more nor less than a change in our point of view – what Alexander describes as “the royal road to reformation.” Like all roads, sometimes it may get a bit rocky, or may take a few twists or turns. But choose to stick with it.

This is what Alexander says to encourage us:

The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove … but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed. At first it will have a tendency to return to the old manner of working … but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound by it.*

Moving freely and easily is available to us. The path is waiting…

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat complete edition of the 4 books, p.67.

Put the patient down!

Last Friday, I travelled to Southampton to give a talk about Alexander Technique to the women of the NHS Southampton and Salisbury Breast Imaging Unit (part of SUHT).

These women are amazing. They carry out all the mammograms that form the main part of the screening programme against breast cancer in their part of the world. Sometimes they work from their comfortable and welcoming base in Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton. More often, they have to drive a large van up to an hour to a town or village in their catchment area. They park up, then spend the day carrying out the scans using the equipment on the van. For every patient who comes through their door, they have to greet the patient, (usually) calm them down, help to position the patient in the imaging equipment, take four images, label everything carefully, then help the patient out the door. They do all of this in seven minutes. Yes, seven minutes per patient.

Some of the patients are small and birdlike, and have – how can I put it? – assets that befit their small and birdlike frames. Other patients are considerably larger, and have assets that are rather heftier. And the mammographers have to heft these assets into the imaging equipment, and help to hold them there so that the images are clear and the patient doesn’t have to come back for a rescan. They do this ‘hefting’ (can’t think of a better word for it!) by extending their thumb and creating a V-shape with their hands, then ‘sweeping’ the assets into the machine (‘sweeping’ is their term for it). And they do this for every patient. Every seven minutes. Every day.

These lovely mammographers are starting to suffer from shoulder and back pain, and RSI-like symptoms in their hands and thumbs. They invited me down to Southampton to give them some tips and advice on how they can work to improve their working conditions and thereby alleviate some of the pain.

So what did I do? Well, one of the things that I did was to look at their hands, and then tell this story…

One of my least favourite household jobs is filling the washing machine had in Australia). One day I was bent over double, shovelling clothes through the door. One of my son’s socks had escaped, and was a few steps away. Without straightening, I walked over to get it, walked back, then put it in the machine. Then I noticed my husband’s hankie, halfway across the kitchen floor. Again, without bothering to straighten, I went to get it. The machine was full. Without bothering to stand up, I got the detergent ball, put it in the door, then turned on the machine.

Then I noticed the cat water bowl was empty. Without bothering to stand up, I picked up the bowl, filled it, put it back. I went on with other bits of cleaning. After a few minutes, my back started to feel tired. I realised that I still hadn’t bothered to stop bending over. I was walking around the house like Groucho Marx! I hadn’t yet stopped filling the washing machine!

My mammographer students were no different. Even though they had stopped scanning for the day, even though there were no patients anywhere nearby, their hands were still ready to heft and sweep. When I pointed this out to them, most of them looked down at their hands, and allowed their thumbs to go limp. They sighed in relief! They admitted to me that, now that they thought about it, they realised that they always kept their hand ‘ready to sweep’ – from first thing in the morning, to last thing at night.

They had forgotten to put the patient down.

My simple suggestion was this. What would happen if the mammographers put the patient down – not just at the end of the day, but between patients?

And what about you? Is your right hand always ready to click the mouse button? Are your shoulders permanently prepared to lift that bag/child/rucksack?

What would happen if you ‘put the patient down’?


Hemlines and stuff we do to ourselves

I’m going to tell you a little story that doesn’t put me in a very good light. In fact, it makes me look a little silly. Feel free to have a giggle…

For years, I used to complain about clothing manufacturers. No matter which shop I went to, no matter what skirt I tried on, the hemlines just didn’t seem to be straight. I’d try on skirts, sometimes buy them and take them home, and feel a little cross about the fact that the hem always seemed to be a little higher on one side than the other. And the fault always seemed to be the same side (the right side, in case you’re interested).

It wasn’t exactly earth-shattering – I mean, it wasn’t the bane of my life. On the scale of life crises, it barely rated at all, especially when compared to the RSI I suffered in my arms. But it niggled. Every time I put on a skirt, my eye was almost irresistibly drawn to the hemline. It was like an itch that just wouldn’t go away.

Why couldn’t the clothing companies get it right? And why was it only me who seemed to notice?

By now you’re probably leaping way ahead of me. “It wasn’t the skirts!” I can hear you exclaiming at your screens. And you’re absolutely right! But it took me years – and I mean, years – to make that realization for myself. One day I looked at myself in the mirror, and I saw for the first time why my skirts never hung straight. For the first time, I actually looked and really saw my hips. My hips weren’t level. I was managing to contract the muscles on one side of my torso in such a way that my right side was shortened, causing my right hip to be raised. It wasn’t the skirts that had the problem: it was me.

I think of that day every time one of my students asks me why they haven’t seen a particular truth about their use of their bodies before having Alexander lessons. This usually occurs when they have discovered that they do something that, post-discovery, they label as unnecessary or silly, and they want to know why they didn’t find it out sooner. There are a couple of important points to be made about this.

The first is this. Each of us live in our own private universe (Stephen Covey calls it a paradigm), where everything is right, makes sense, and seems to be logically consistent. In my own private universe, my body was right and normal and fine. Therefore, the skirt manufacturers were clearly WRONG. The hemlines were so clearly their fault and their problem that I didn’t even bother to question it. So if you, for example, like to lift up your whole shoulder girdle in order to reach your computer keyboard, that will feel right and normal to you, and you won’t question it. And that’s completely understandable. We can’t blame ourselves for stuff we don’t know that we’re doing. Let’s have some compassion for ourselves.

But maybe, as my hemlines did with me, something niggles you somewhere at the back of your brain. Like that itch that won’t go away…

In that case, maybe it’s time to use a question from FM Alexander’s toolkit. It’s the tool I used to discover my funny hips. It’s the tool that started FM on his journey from voice trouble to the development of the work we now call the Alexander Technique. Back in the beginning, talking to his doctor about his vocal troubles, Alexander asked this question: “Was it something I was doing … in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”


Is it something I’m doing to myself that is the cause of the trouble? This is a profound question. A student of mine, a plumber, found this question incredibly powerful. When he got into his van, put his hands on the wheel and felt neck pain, he asked FM’s question. ‘Is it something I’m doing to myself?’ And the answer was yes. He made some changes to the way he was sitting, and the pain went away. He asked FM’s question when his back hurt after picking up his toolbox. The answer was yes. He streamlined the number of tools in his toolbox, experimented with lifting it differently, and his back stopped hurting.


This can be a great step on a journey of discovery. Maybe you’ll find out profound things. Maybe you’ll streamline your toolbox. Maybe you’ll be able to take hemline adjustment off your To Do list. But whatever you discover, enjoy the thrill of it, and let me know how you get on.

Teach the chairs…?


When I have a new student, especially if they have a history of back pain, it is pretty likely that at some point they’ll ask me about chairs. Often their workplace has bought them a fancy new office chair, or they’re waiting for one and cursing the chair they’re using at the moment. They don’t like going places like the movies or a cafe because they fear the chairs will be too uncomfortable for them. So they ask me about chairs, and whether they should spend their money on a nice, new, fancy, expensive ergonomic chair.

I especially like it when this question is asked in my main teaching room, because at my desk is just such a chair. It’s one of those kneeler chairs, but it’s a fancy one on runners so that you can rock back and forth like a rocking chair. It has a nice backrest. The upholstery is a lovely emerald green, and the chair wouldn’t look out of place in a set from Star Trek. It’s a nice chair.

I bought it back when I was suffering from severe RSI symptoms in my arms. I spent a lot of money on it, hoping that it would help ease my pain so that I could finish my degree thesis without crippling myself.

The chair didn’t help. It wasn’t because it wasn’t well designed – it is. It wasn’t that I didn’t spend enough money – I spent plenty, believe me! The problem was that the chair didn’t have the power to stop me doing all the extra STUFF with my muscles that was causing the problem in the first place. It turned out the chair couldn’t stop me slumping: I was smarter than it was.

I keep the chair now to remind me of how powerful the human mind really is. It doesn’t really matter how many gadgets we buy or how much we spend. What we need to do is to change the way we think! FM Alexander said that we should waste no time in educating the furniture, but educate the people. Let’s give ourselves the ability to adapt ourselves to our environment, so that we can be comfortable wherever we happen to be.

So how do we do this?

First of all, take a look at the chair. Are all chairs the same? Obviously not! But how often do we actually look at the chair we’re about to sit on? Is it high or low? Very cushioned, or quite firm? With a backrest? If so, what sort?

Ask yourself: what do I need to do to sit in this chair? What joints have I got to help me? Where am I going to bend?

Use this information. Form a plan. Then put your plan into action.

And when you’ve given it a go a few times, drop me a line and let me know how you’re getting on.

Image by winnond,