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Loosen up

Dance Today, February 2011

Described as the physiotherapy of the 21st century, the Mézières method challenges our core strengthening obsession. Tania Ahsan tries out the unusual therapy.

Occasionally, the pursuit of healing, you can find yourself in strange situations. This is definitely oneof those times: I am in my underwear, panting like I’m in labour, while a tall, broad-shouldered Frenchman is lifting one of my legs right up into the air. Welcome to the Mézières Method.

Françoise Mézières, a talented French physiotherapist, discovered her method in 1947 when working with patients who had physical distortions in the body. She found that certain muscles are in chains, like overlapping tiles, and the overdevelopment of these muscles causes tension and compression that then distorts the body shape. This ran against the grain of contemporary thinking about toning in the body.

For example, we exercise or engage in sports and dance in order to build up tone and the belief is that without a strengthening of our muscles we would get flabby or collapse under the pull of gravity. Mézières believed that this was simply not the case: the body is usually over-toned and needs to relearn the natural level of toning so that compression and tension can be released.

The therapist that I am having my session with is Joël Carbonnel, who has 25 years’ experience of practising the Method. Based in his Chiswick studio, the session begins with me stripping down to my underwear and standing against a wall chart. Joel then asks me to stand with my feet together and arms to the side. He observes my body from the front, back and both sides. He notes where there are obvious misalignments but he is also looking for quite subtle problems that the untrained eye would not pick up on.

Joël says that everything in the body stems from the lordosis (curvature in the spine) and he looks for any pronounced hollows in the spine, which would indicate stress points in the muscle groups. He shows me a sketch of a dancer’s spine and it is like a bow, elongated and lithe, but this isn’t necessarily great for the body. While a dancer may have flexibility, the range of movement can be shortened through too much tone in the musculature.

Then I get down on the mat and am taught the breathing technique that accompanies the Method. It involves breathing in as deep as the diaphragm, and then breathing out quite strongly, continuing with the exhalation past how far I think I can go. I find this quite difficult and often forget to breathe when told to remember other things.

Joël manipulates my body into different positions, making me aware of my tendency to tuck in my chin too much and to hold my shoulders up too high. As he shows me where I should be holding my bits and bobs, I consciously try to do so, but this isn’t the cleverest thing about the method. You are made aware of things that you can consciously stop doing but the real magic happens in the very subtle way your brain unconsciously takes in what degree of tone it should have in the muscle groups. These are neuromuscular techniques that operate on the principle of homeostasis, the idea that the body is capable of bringing itself back into optimal alignment.

One of the best things that Joël tells me about the Method is that exercise and sports aren’t really encouraged for health reasons (fine to do them for fun!) as these overdevelop the muscles. In fact, only walking for about an hour a day, without carrying anything, is recommended. This suits me, a gym-averse person, down to a T.

However, you can’t be lazy in doing the Method. While there are no exercises to do at home and the therapist directs the work on the mat, you have to engage in it. It is not like having a massage, you are involved and it is quite hard, at times uncomfortable, work. It is recommended that you have no more than one session a week as you don’t want to fatigue the muscle and each session is unique, in that your body dictates which postures are held on a given day.

Afterwards my neck is aching as I get used to no longer tucking in my chin and I feel strangely pulled up. Looking in the mirror, I seem to be taller and slimmer. Joel believes the Method can give anyone the body beautiful, turning us all into Greek gods and goddesses. However, more than that wonderful aesthetic aim, it can give us a pain-free life with no more backaches or humped backs and rounded shoulders. That’s definitely worth the panting and the pain.



Untwist Again for the Perfect Body

The Daily Mail, June 1995, Jane Alexander

Even the most unlikely figures can be reshaped – and aches and pains can be eased, too

JOEL CARBONNEL believes in perfection. He is convinced that within us all lies the potential to become ‘a Greek god or goddess with harmonious physical proportions’. No saddlebag thighs, no bulging bottoms, no rounded shoulders, no flabby waists.

Through a unique form of bodywork, founded in France and known as the Mézières method, he claims to be able to resculpt even the most unlikely bodies. His methods are based on a combination of massage, manipulation and cleverly constructed exercises which tease the muscles into unfamiliar positions, gradually realigning abnormalities, bringing our contorted bodies back to a more comfortable equilibrium.

Carbonnel’s patients report not only a radical reshaping of their bodies but also freedom from associated aches and pains, from arthritis and sciatica. The Mézières method can correct long-term distortions of the body, from kyphosis (dowager’s hump) and scoliosis (spinal curvature) to flat feet, knock-knees and bow legs.

Carbonnel is a glowing reference for his work. Tall and slim, he moves with poise and grace. He explains that although the method is new to this country, it is well-respected in its native France, where it has been changing body shapes for the past 40 years.

Its originator was Francoise Mézières, a teacher of physiotherapy and anatomy. Like all physiotherapists, she had been taught that most people’s back muscles are too weak and need to be strengthened.

But one day, while examining a patient, it struck her that in fact the very opposite could be true: perhaps the muscles were too strong. Their strength caused them to become shortened and to lose their elasticity, creating tension and eventually pain.

This idea, however, contradicted everything she had been taught and was teaching her own students, so she stubbornly set out to disprove her own theory. Two years later, after constant observation and evaluation, she willingly admitted defeat and began to reshape her methods.

The result – Mézières method – is no relaxing massage. It involves intense, painstaking work by both practitioner and patient.

Joel Carbonnel sees patients once or twice a week and frankly admits it may take several months, possibly even a year, to reshape a body.

‘You may be able to get rid of pain in one session’ he says, ‘but it will never be long-lasting unless you work hard to correct the cause of that pain.’

The method aims literally to unravel the distortions of the body, like slowly and patiently taking the kinks and knots of a badly twisted rope and stretching it so it lies smooth once again.

However, like a rope that has been wound for a long time, most bodies will fight against being straightened and stretched. Put one part in place and another usually bounces out of line.

To discover how the treatment works, Joel asked me to strip to my underwear and stand with my feet together, ankles, knees and toes touching.

Even that was easier said than done – my knees turned inwards, preventing my feet from coming together.

Then he asked me to bend slowly forward as if to touch my toes. I can happily put both hands on the floor and expected instant praise.

Wrong. ‘Your hamstrings are relatively supple but your legs are too far back in relation to your ankles,’ he scorned.

He paced around, observing me from all angles and concluded, with many a Gallic ‘ooh la la’, that I was in a bad way. However, he soothed, I was not a hopeless case. The Mézières method can, he promises, correct most problems, bar those which are congenital or caused by fractures or mutilations.

So to work. I lay on my back on the floor and Carbonnel began to put my body into a precise position. He moved my head slightly to the right and instructed me to bring down my shoulders and pull in my chin.

‘Keep your whole lower back on the floor’, he instructed. Involuntary, my knees shot up. In fact, every time he ‘corrected’ one part of my body, another leapt out of line.

Next I had to bring my ankles together, while stopping my feet from turning out. It may sound simple but within seconds I was begging for mercy.

‘Now breathe out deeply from the abdomen,’ instructed Carbonnel. I failed dismally. Every subsequent tiny adjustment, which had to be held for several minutes, was unbelievably difficult.

I felt like an overstuffed packing case – press down on one side and something pops out of the other.

It wasn’t just me doing all the work, though. Sometimes Carbonnel used his body weight to add to the stretch; sometimes he kneaded tense, stiff muscles to help them yield.

At the end of an hour I was exhausted. I had pins and needles in my feet and my legs felt numb – a common reaction to a Mézières session in the early stages.

As I walked down the street afterwards I felt as if I had been given a different body. I ached in muscles I didn’t even know existed.
The next day I felt as if I had been in the gymn for three hours.

Obviously my flab had not vanished, nor had my knock-knees miraculously straightened out – that would take time (and quite possibly a change of eating habits, lectured Carbonnel). However, I could see clearly how the system could work, given application and patience.

‘It is not a quick fix by any means,’ says Carbonnel. ‘You worked for years to make your body what it is today. You cannot change it back overnight.’

But he insists that anyone who sticks to the course can and will see profound changes.

You may not be able to alter your height (although people often find they ‘grow’ an inch or so) and nothing will change large bones. But with determination, almost anything else is possible. ‘The method gives us the means whereby we can mould and reshape the body so that the beauty, strength, suppleness and smooth functioning we deserve are ours,’ insists Carbonnel.

As yet, Carbonnel is the only practitioner of Mézières in Britain. However, in the future he hopes more people will learn and teach this revolutionary form of bodywork. Then, he smiles, we could all transform our bodies into those of the gods.

Jane Alexander

First published in The Daily Mail, Saturday, June 3, 1995. Reprinted here by the kind permission of Jane Alexander.

Back to the future

South Downs Living, January 2009, Sian Maidment

Back pain is notoriously difficult to treat and, reputedly affecting seven out of ten people at some time in their lives, is the biggest cause of sickness absence in the UK. But help is at hand.

A study undertaken by the British Medical Journal, published in August 2008, concluded that chronic back pain could be eased through teaching better posture using the Alexander Technique.

Alexander Technique teacher and Mézières Method practitioner Joël Carbonnel knows the understatement of this conclusion.

The Alexander Technique and Mézières Method are used to treat more than back conditions and Joel emphasises: “It’s not just about posture, that’s too limited.” Joël does not treat musculoskeletal disorders from a palliative or symptomatic perspective; he goes to the source of pain. Locked by his soft emphatic opalescent eyes, his long languid arms tap muscle maps, like a conductor’s baton signalling for attention. As he explains his conscious choice to practise these methods: “I’ve chosen them because they go to the primary cause; they complement each other and together they provide excellent results in removing pain.”

The Alexander technique evaluates movement, use and – more particularly – misuse of our physique. “We take our bodies, this most amazing machine, for granted and don’t use it properly. It’s like driving with the handbrake on.” This abuse can continue for a long time and the body adapts by becoming distorted and misshapen, and ultimately malfunctions, resulting in pain.

Joël is tall, his short trimmed, silver-brindle, wiry curly hair as fixed as his expression, with only fleeting, shy light smiles revealing warmth and humility beneath. He speaks in rich tones, quickly and with passion, the liquid modulation and intonation coming from his distinctive accent.

He manipulates the spinal model to demonstrate relative rotational movements as he makes, in slightly hesitant staccato, a patient and non-judgmental observation. “People develop bad habits in posture and movement which, in time, come to feel right and familiar even though they are wrong and harmful. This constitutes misuse and is the primary cause of our musculoskeletal problem.” To demonstrate his point, he invites me to stand, and then sit, as his hands-on explanation – gentle but sure, accurate and precise – reveals movement patterns hidden from me.

As he seats his slim frame I notice how effortlessly he sits, his beautifully shaped head floating above his neck and shoulders, spine straight hovering above his pelvis. Alexander Technique principles apply to everyday life activity, it is not exercise. “It deals not merely with the body but also with the mind.” Joël guides you to experience movement as nature intended. He points out mistakes – “not the head back, not the body forward” – gradually re-educating through a practice of non-doing. This is a departure from orthodox methods where, in the words of Alexander, “everyone is always teaching one what to do, leaving us still doing the things we shouldn’t do.” But before we can cease doing a harmful thing to ourselves, we have to become sensorily aware of doing it. “Once we prevent the habitual but wrong patterns of movements to occur, the new ones can feel alien and bizarre to start with and yet they give a sense of lightness, comfort, ease and pleasure.”

The Mézières Method, well known in France from which it – and Joël, the only UK practitioner – originates, alleviates excess muscle contraction. “Our spine is made of curves which are maintained by long bundles of muscles like a bow and its string. These muscles always end up too short and tight.

To accommodate this shortening the body becomes distorted and, sooner or later, movements become
painful or impossible.” The Mézières Method does not require any mindful action between sessions. Muscle chains are ‘manipulated’ in such a way as to redistribute muscular tone harmoniously. Working on the principle of perfectibility, Mézières sessions aim to approximate the ideal shape, an essential factor of health. The work is complex, efficient, demanding but paradoxically relaxing and rejuvenating. The Alexander Technique and Mézières Method can be used to treat actively debilitating conditions or as a preventative approach for optimum physical health and beauty.

Joël Carbonnel practises in London and Burgess Hill. He has a regular column in Positive Health and is the author of Back to Gardening soon to be published in English, and currently available in French as Le Bon Geste.

By Sian Maidment

South Downs Living January 2009

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