This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 140 – October 2007
A few years ago, I was asked by a large publishing company if I would be interested in writing a book about the Mézières’ method. Always glad to oblige, I wrote the customary proposal with some enthusiasm. But the recommendation from the publisher to write a self-help book left a little niggle at the back of my mind that dampened my enthusiasm.
Now, I am all for self-reliance and self-sufficiency; I have also a lot of respect for self-taught people. And if self-help consists in trying to solve our own problems without depending on other people, all is well. As the Chinese would say: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” But the problem with self-help is the ‘Self: can you trust yourself? This is where the self-help book comes in.
Unfortunately, self-help books are, on the whole, not much help for the ‘Self’ beyond offering platitudes, formulas and recipes that require no effort or discipline. We live in an era where we expect instantaneous gratification; we want a quick fix to problems that have taken us years to develop, and there is no shortage of charlatans to cash in on this irrational tendency. We also live in a society that encourages individuality. These factors have fuelled the exponential growth of the self-help book industry.
A self-help book is like a typical gadget: it does not do what it is supposed to do and is quickly found to be both useless and unnecessary. To publishers, this genre has become a marketing ploy to sell books which more often than not don’t deliver the promises writ large on their covers. As a result, the self-help shelves of bookshops are replete with books whose titles could read: The One-Minute Back Pain Cure, The Marvel at your Navel Sequel, Get a Head Start with Headstands; books full of commonplaces, truisms, clichés and banalities which could all go into one book entitled The Road Most Travelled.
After the publication of his first book, FM Alexander remarked that many people had said to him that he was clever inasmuch as he was making his readers interested enough in his theory, and leading them to the point where they felt that they needed to go to him for lessons. Alexander complained that he was unjustly criticized for ‘keeping things back’, for not giving instructions and exercises that people could do at home by themselves – nowadays we’d say ‘for not writing a self-help book’. To his critics, Alexander replied that he would not be “guilty (…) of adding to the mass of literature on the subject of exercises, or take the grave responsibility for the harmful consequences which are certain to result from the practice of exercises, according to written instructions, by people whose sensory appreciation is unreliable and often positively delusive”. He explained that: “The belief is very generally held that if only we are told 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. All my experience, however, goes to show that this belief is a delusion.” This untrustworthy sensory appreciation or faulty kinaesthesia is the crux of the matter, most notably, but not only, in the field of manual therapy. Thus, for example, you can think that you are lengthening your stature when you are actually shortening it. To restore and thereafter to maintain a reliable sensory appreciation, manipulation – in the sense of re-alignment, adjustment and coordination of the different parts of the body – is necessary. This requires a hands-on approach that you obviously cannot get from a book – even a self-help one!
The funny thing about exercises is that almost everybody requests them but nobody ever seems to do them! As an Alexander technique teacher, I ask my pupils to do some very simple homework: lying down on the floor for 15 to 20 minutes. It is certainly not an essential part of the Alexander technique, but it is a useful position that can erase to some extent the ill-effects of day time bad posture. It is the easiest ‘exercise’ one can imagine but it is, nevertheless, very effective. Yet, most pupils have to be nagged again and again into doing their ‘lying down’.
To come back to the beginning: although in my proposal for a book on the Mézières’ method I gave some instructions that could be of a self-help nature, such as learning how to recognize physical distortions, and how to feel the cause of these distortion, i.e. an excess of muscle tone in some groups of muscles, I made it clear that the Mézières’ method was not a system of exercises, and that in no way could exercises be given to the reader since self-work in this method is simply impossible. As a result of this uncompromising posture, my proposal was flatly refused and people have been spared yet another self-help book.
Alexander FM. Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. p 77. Victor Gollancz Ltd. London.1987.