Big questions: can the right chair prevent back pain?

sitting comfortably

Can using the right chair prevent back pain?

If I was given a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question (or a variant), I’d be fairly comfortably off by now. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, one of the most common niggling worries for people from all walks of life is sitting. They have to do a lot of it (computers, cars, offices, orchestra rehearsals…) and are convinced that they aren’t doing it very well. Sometimes they even experience discomfort, or downright pain from sitting. If they just bought the right chair, would the problem go away?

Is this you? Are you wondering the same thing? Could buying the right chair prevent back pain?

I can’t give you a straight yes or no answer, unfortunately, because it’s a more complex issue than it might seem on the surface. So I’m going to give you two reasons why I say no, buying the new chair won’t help. But I also give you one reason why yes, thinking about the chair really will help you.

No the first: injury and disease

The first and most important thing to say is that if you have a diagnosed injury or a disease that causes your back pain, just buying a new chair won’t solve the issue. It might give you some relief, and some Alexander Technique lessons could help you move more efficiently to mitigate the effects of the condition. But a chair can’t cure you, and only a chair salesperson in need of a good commission would allow you to think so. Can the right chair prevent back pain? No, not if your problem is illness or injury.

But, I hear you say, I’m not injured. Should I go out and buy a nice new chair? Here’s why the answer is still no…

No the second: it isn’t the chair, it’s the way you sit in it!

It isn’t just me who gets asked frequently about furniture. FM Alexander had the exact same problem. And my answer to the question is the same as his: furniture isn’t the issue. It’s the way we use it that causes us problems. If someone has sat poorly (using too much muscular effort in the wrong places) on a cheap office chair for many months or years, is the purchase of a fancy new chair suddenly going to change her sitting habits? Does someone with poor dietary habits change his entire processes around food just because he purchased a slightly tight-fitting new suit? Probably not.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned that we should have the mental tools to adapt ourselves to our environment. This particular passage I’m about to quote is primarily about child education, but if it’s good enough for kids, it’s probably true for the adults too:

What we need to to is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, not develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon.*

My aim as an Alexander Technique teacher is to give you the tools so that you are able to organise yourself to be comfortable on ANY chair. If that interests you, then maybe you should talk to me about having some lessons.

But sometimes you do need to look at the furniture, too…

Did you see the caveat in FM’s statement? He says that the child should be able to adapt within reasonable limits. In other words, there may be times and places where you will need to take careful note of the chair or office set-up. After all, if you’re going to be using your desk for eight hours every day, it is clearly common sense to make sure that you are giving yourself the best conditions you can, within constraints of budget, time and common sense. Humans are adaptable, but that doesn’t mean we should live with something that is just not fit for purpose.

One of my friends once found herself with neck ache, even though she had a lovely new desk set-up at work. I asked her to tell me about it. It was a corner desk, she said, with lots of lovely room for all her books and notes right in front of her. The monitor was to her left, and the keyboard to her right.

I’ll say that again. Her monitor was to her left, and her keyboard to her right.

No wonder she was getting neck ache! When she changed her keyboard to the other side, the neck ache went away.

The moral of the story: there is no such thing as the perfect chair. The right chair won’t prevent discomfort; learning how to sit easily and efficiently is a much better solution. But if you are like my friend, you may want to take a good look at your office set-up too!

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT ed.,  p.92.
Image of Ai WeiWei’s Marble Chair (outside the Royal Academy) by Jennifer Mackerras

Big questions: Why do teachers of Alexander Technique use hands?

In Alexander Technique, teachers’  hands are for… what?!

Alexander Technique hands-on work

When starting to learn the Alexander Technique hands – specifically, how the teacher uses their hands in a lesson interaction- are one of the biggest points of question and confusion for a new student. What on earth is the teacher doing with their hands when they are working with a student?

Sometimes a student will say that it feels like I am pushing or pulling them to a different shape. If it’s a group class, this frequently gets a laugh, because the group can see that there is virtually no physical effort being expended on my part as the teacher. And when I ask the student whether I really am pushing or pulling them, they have to answer no.

Sometimes a student will ask, ‘Are you feeling the things that the student is doing wrong?’ Well, sort of. I can feel muscular tensions within the student when I work with them, but am I specifically looking for that? Not really.

So if I’m not ‘pulling’ them into shape, and I’m not specifically looking for the things they’re doing wrong, what exactly am I doing with my hands in a lesson?

Bringing a reasoning intelligence…

It all comes back to what we think the Alexander Technique is for. I think of it as a method for learning how to bring a reasoning intelligence to our movement.* We learn to how to organise our naturally flexible structures in a way best suited for what we want to achieve. We are learning how to use our amazing bodies without excess or unnecessary effort.

So when I use Alexander Technique hands on techniques in a lesson, I am attempting to help the student notice the unnecessary ideas or tensions they are inflicting upon themselves, thus making it increasingly difficult for them to keep doing them!

For example, a student might only want to move their head on their neck up or down in a very limited range (which I tested by using Alexander Technique hands on methods). This brings the limited range of motion to their attention. When I ask them what their neck is for, they might reply, ‘to help me see’. So if I give them a reason to see things outside of their usual range of motion – like an imagined trip to the Sistine Chapel- they may well move their necks much more freely when I next use my hands.

It doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes there is more chat involved, and sometimes less. Very occasionally there is none involved at all! But in all cases I am using my hands as a tool, to make it increasingly difficult for the student to stick with the physical tension that, through sheer force of will, they are enacting upon their body.

In Alexander Technique hands aren’t the only way to learn.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to experience Alexander Technique hands-on lessons in order to effect lasting and positive change. The classic example of this? FM Alexander himself. He made lasting positive change to his own vocal problems, and didn’t have a qualified teacher around to help him out! We can always do what he did:

  • keep watching ourselves to see if we are doing anything in the way we are going about our activities that is causing our problems;
  • reasoning out what we actually NEED to do for any given activity;
  • endeavouring to do what we’ve reasoned out.

Pick an activity to work on, follow these steps, and see if it helps. Let me know how it goes!


* I’m paraphrasing Frank Pierce Jones. See Freedom to Change, 3rd ed., Mouritz 1997, p.2.
Photograph of Jen and student by Gordon Plant.

“Just tell me what to do!” – Why direct instructions won’t help you


The Gopher’s Creed – “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it!” – pops up in my classes quite often. People come to me for coaching because there is something about the way they are going about their daily activities that is unsatisfactory. And often they want me to tell them exactly what is not satisfactory, and then give them a set of instructions on how to fix it.

But I won’t do that.

I refuse to be drawn, not because I’m mean (though that may be true!) or because I have ulterior motives. I’m not giving my students what they think they want because… It won’t help them.

Here’s why.

1. Too big/too detailed. My student sees the problem as specific and only involving a small number of factors. Usually I look at the student and see the specific problem as part of a larger, more general pattern of misuse. If I gave them a recipe, it would be so big and have so many parts that they’d be swamped.

2. Too unfamiliar. Students think that, because they can do what they “will to do” in familiar acts with familiar sensory feedback,  they’ll be able to do what they plan in acts that are unfamiliar. This is like me thinking that I’ll be able to make my arms function completely correctly the first time I attempt a serve in tennis, just because I can use them to play a recorder!

3. Feelings aren’t fact. FM Alexander got told by his acting teacher to ‘take hold of the floor with his feet’. It took him years to realise the tension in his legs might not have been what his teacher had in mind.

As FM  says, “The belief is very generally held that if only we are to,d what to do in order to correct a wrong way of doing something, we can do it, and that if we FEEL we are doing it, all is well. Al my experience, however, goes to show that this belief is a delusion.” *

4. Doing too much. Most students run into troubles in the first place because they are using too much muscular tension, and often in muscles that can’t possible do the job the student is trying to use them for. And then they want me to give them something to DO to fix this?!


So if I’m not going to give my students a recipe to do, what DO I give them?

  • The chance to experience doing less – less effort, better directed effort.
  • An opportunity to think through with clarity what they actually need to do when they carry out their chosen activity. This doesn’t take long, but I find people need encouragement to allow themselves the time to carry out this step. They are too busy making haste to do what it takes to really speed ahead.
  • Knowledge about what moves where and how. A bit of knowledge about the body is priceless.
  • The challenge to keep thinking – even when it seems hard, even when the results feel odd, even if it seems wrong.

So ditch the desire for a set of instructions to do, and take the challenge of choosing to do less and think more.

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.418.
Image by Stuart Miles,

Not WHAT we do but HOW we do it: taking the strain away

keyboard with red stop keys

Last week I told you about how I started learning Alexander Technique in a last-ditch attempt to save my quality of life. I was suffering from RSI-like symptoms in my arms that didn’t respond to treatment from any health professional, and that was preventing me from working or doing any of my most-loved leisure activities. Like FM Alexander, I started to wonder if my problem wasn’t responding to medical treatment because it didn’t have a medical cause. I started to wonder if it was something I was doing that was causing my problems.

Okay, so I did a lot of arm-related activities. I used a computer every day for writing and research. I played recorder. I would knit most evenings, and I did a lot of cooking. But I knew lots of people who did just as many activities with their hands, or even more, and they weren’t suffering. So what was the difference? Why was I struggling?

Not what you do…

In order to discover the source of the hoarseness that was jeopardising his acting career, FM Alexander stood in front of a mirror and watched himself speak and recite. He realised that there must be something about the way he was going about the activity that was causing his problem. And after a lot of observation and experimentation, he discovered that there was a particular pattern of the way he organised his head in relation to his body during reciting that seemed to get in his way. It was HOW he was doing the activity that was causing his trouble.*

But how you do it…

Same with me. It wasn’t the computer that caused my problems. It was HOW I was using it. I was using too much force, and putting it into lots of areas where it was just inefficient and unnecessary.

What about you? Pick an activity that interests you, or that causes you trouble. And then do what FM did: have a good hard look at it. How are you doing that activity? Are you using too much energy? Are you using energy in the right places? What one thing could you change today? Make an experiment, and let me know how you get on.


* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.413.
Image by Stuart Miles,

Avoiding the ow: know what you’ve got (and how to use it)!


I want to tell you a story about me and my son going for a run together, because it so neatly explains how just a little knowledge about how the body works can make a big difference to your experience of moving.


So. My son and I went out for a run around our local park. The perimeter is about 2km (a little over a mile), so not too taxing even for a nearly nine year old. 

About two thirds of the way round, my son said his right shoulder was starting to ache. Now neither he nor I could say we are experienced runners, but even we know that our shoulders shouldn’t be doing most of the work while running!

After checking it was okay with him to do some Alexander Technique work, I ran behind him for a few paces to see what was going on. He was throwing his entire shoulder region all over the place as he ran.

I break my story here to explain some anatomy…

Most people don’t realise that, functionally speaking, they have two shoulder joints: the shoulder girdle, which is formed by the collarbone and shoulderblade; and the glenohumeral joint, which is the ball and socket joint formed by the shoulder blade and the upper arm bone (humerus).

If you’re just moving your arm forwards and backwards, the glenohumeral joint will do the job admirably. You don’t need to waggle the whole shoulder girdle.

Back to the story.

I asked my son to stop, and with a bit of hands-on work I explained to him that he could use his whole shoulder region, but that he had a different shoulder joint that could move his arm back and forth more easily. And when he just move at the ball and socket joint, his arm moved so freely and easily that my son laughed.* And then he started to run.

For the first two paces, the right arm was moving in the new way, and the left arm in the old waggly way. But then he changed his left arm to the new streamlined movement. Not only did he move more gracefully, he moved more easily.

Result: he took off. He flew along. I had to work hard to keep up with him!

Once my son stopped doing the waggly thing with his arm, his shoulder stopped getting sore.** Once he knew which joints did what, his running improved.

What could you improve, if you just knew what muscles and joints you have, and how to use them?


* FM Alexander talks about how children love learning about how their bodies work. He writes: “They are not slow to recognise that they are themselves the most interesting machines, and their natural interest in mechanics finds full scope in the process of their own re-education.” Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT edition, p.381.

** An important caveat here. If you are experiencing pain or discomfort, SEE A DOCTOR. There may be something physiologic or structural  going on that the doctor can sort out. The Alexander Technique is fantastic, but it isn’t medicine, and can’t cure medical conditions.

Image by coward_lion from 


5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 4. Live in the present moment

Next week my recorder quartet will be playing a concert, and my thoughts about the rehearsal process are what have led me to today’s tip for everyday happiness: being in and reacting to the present moment.


The piece that my quartet will play to begin our concert is called The Jogger, by Dick Koomans (the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet play it extremely well here). It is one of those pieces of music where one person starts, then the next person comes in, copying what the first person does. Then the third person joins, copying the first two players.

The trouble we had initially with this piece as a quartet is that the third player didn’t exactly following the style of playing (intonation) set up by the first two players. And if all the players don’t agree, then the result can sound a little odd.

What happens is that each player goes away and practises the piece on their own. They spend time working on their own style of playing it. But when we get together to practise as a group, we have to find a way to play the music together, sounding as one unit. This means that we really need to spend time listening to each other, and responding in the moment to what we hear going on around us. And if we don’t listen to each other and just press on and play the way we practised, then the result just doesn’t sound the same.


Lifting past chairs

But it isn’t only musicians who need to spend time in the present moment. Even on the simplest of tasks we can fall into the trap of not sticking with the present moment, but either dallying in the past or straying into the future. FM Alexander used as his example a person asking a friend to lift a chair:

“You will see at once that your friend will approach the task with a definite preconception as to the amount of physical tension necessary. His mind is exclusively occupied with the question of his own muscular effort, instead of with the purpose in front of him and the best means to undertake it.” *

Our friend lifting the chair approaches the task with “a definite preconception” – they will probably have decided upon the likely weight of the chair and tensed muscles in readiness long before their fingers touch the object. To all intents and purposes, they aren’t really picking up the chair in front of them. They are picking up all the chairs they have picked up in the past!

Most of the time it won’t be the end of the world – misjudging the weight of the chair isn’t likely to have serious consequences! But if we keep relying on our preconceptions, to the point where we forget that we are even doing so, then we are locking ourselves out of the present moment. And that will make it so much harder to react quickly when it really counts.


So my task for you this week is this: 

  • Think about the times and places where you do genuinely experience the present moment. For blogger Jamey Burrell, it is when he is running. What about you?
  • And for the next week, keep an eye on yourself. See how often you operate on preconceptions, and whether it sometimes trips you up.

Oh, and if you’re in Bristol next Wednesday lunchtime and have nothing to do, come along to my concert!


* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.63.
Image by Gregor O’Gorman

Why BBC Apprentice Tom’s back pain chair won’t work!


The BBC TV series The Apprentice finished on Sunday when inventor Tom Pellereau won Lord Sugar’s £250 000 investment. I’ve like Tom all the way through the series, so I was a very happy viewer. There was, however, one moment in the programme when I simply hooted with laughter: when Tom first announced his business plan. Tom plans to create an anti back pain chair that will prevent injury and discomfort. This is his explanation of his business plan about 12 minutes into the final episode:

“The business is to save organisations money by reducing the personal and financial cost of back pain…The business is two-fold. It’s a service to measure the likelihood of employees having back pain, and it’s a set of chairs or furniture that will actually help you to train those muscles so that you’re much, much less likely to have back pain or other problems in the future.”*

Tom’s goal here is a good and noble one (even if Lord Sugar didn’t like it a bit!). Back pain and musculo-skeletal conditions generally are a major cause of workplace absence. When Dame Carol Black wrote a report on occupational health for the UK government in 2009, the economists working with her estimated the cost of workplace absence generally at one hundred billion pounds per year – with musculo-skeletal disorders being the most significnt culprit.**

So Tom’s instincts are correct. Back pain is a major issue in the UK. It is a major issue for employers.

So why do I say that Tom’s chair idea won’t work?

Tom is basing his whole business plan on two assumptions:

1. Back pain is caused by weak muscles

2. A back pain chair can be designed that will fix the weak muscles.

Let’s take these two points.


The Fallacy of Weak Muscles

There are any number of people out there, usually trying to sell you fancy chairs or shoes, that will tell you that any problems you may have with poise or posture are the result of weak muscles. Alexander puts it  little differently. He says that such problems are caused by undue rigidity in some muscles and undue flccidity in other muscles; but that the rigidity is found “in those parts of the muscular mechanism which are forced to perform duties other than those intended by nature.”

In other words, we use our bodies in ways other than intended by nature, for whatever reason. Some muscles then have to overwork to achieve the misuse. So Tom’s solution wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t deal with the misuse, and it doesn’t deal with the overworked muscles. In fact, it would try to strengthen the weak ones, so that all the muscles would be overworking!

And just in case the reader didn’t get his point, Alexander said, “all conscious effort exerted in attempts at physical actions causes in the great majority of people today such tension of the muscular system concerned as to led to exaggeration rather than eradication of the defects already present.” ***


Chairs are not the answer.

Chairs were the subject of my very first article, Teach the Chairs? In it I talked about the fact that, in Alexander’s view, chairs just don’t solve the problem. And it makes sense. If it is our misuse that causes the muscular rigidity in the first place, can we really expect that just purchasing a piece of furniture is going to fix the misuse?

We are smarter than furniture. Put bluntly, if we want to slump about, not even the fanciest ergonomic chair is going to stop us for long. If we have certain fixed ideas or erroneous preconceptions about what we need to do to sit at our computer, the provision of a fancy chair may make our employer feel better, but the chair cannot work on our misconceptions and change our thinking. Only we can do that.

Luckily, Lord Sugar didn’t much like the chair idea. He preferred the nail files. I admire his good judgement.

* Transcribed from the BBC TV programme The Apprentice. See
** Dame Carol Blck interviewed by Mark Porter on Radio 4, Case Notes, 7 April 2009.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.62.
Image by winnond,