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The Body – A User’s Manual

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 45 – October 1999

“What’s the difference between the Mézières method and the Alexander technique?” is the question most often asked by my potential clients. The answer to this pertinent query can perhaps best be explained by making an analogy with a motor car. A car has its own anatomy or structure (wheels, gearbox, shock absorbers, etc.) which, together with its bodywork, dictates its general shape. When you switch on the ignition, the engine fires and the car starts to run, or function.

How it behaves in the real world of roads, bends and bumps will depend on two factors: its structure and shape, and the way it is driven. The best car in the world will not perform well in the hands of a bad driver. Even a robust car will not last long if its driver has the habit of leaving the handbrake on. A reckless driver will have many incidents that affect the structure and shape of the car, making it an untrustworthy vehicle: even a minor accident such as a blow to the front may be sufficient to cause misalignment of the steering linkage.

If you cannot drive and don’t want to learn you can always use public transport or, if you can afford it, have a chauffeur. Alas, these options are not available to us when it comes to the most important piece of machinery we have to operate: our own bodies. In this case, the driver (mind) and the driven (body) are indivisible. If we don’t know how to ‘drive’ ourselves we’ll pay the inevitable consequences. Fortunately, thanks to F.M. Alexander, we can now learn how to use ourselves properly – and we don’t even have to pass a test to prove it!

The Alexander technique provides our user’s manual; the most important of all manuals to understand since we use our bodies constantly. Even during sleep we adopt various positions conditioned by our daily habits of use. This information is too vital to ignore.

Yet most people do exactly that. They would not contemplate using a new machine without carefully reading the user’s manual, nor would they drive a car without first taking some lessons. Yet, they live completely unaware that over a lifetime they misuse their bodies.

As babies, having only few instinctive movements at their command, they have had to learn most of their muscular movements, from crawling and walking to jumping and dancing. Once they have been more or less well mastered, the basic movements have been taken for granted, and rarely, if ever, the concept of the use of the self is considered. It’s as if they’ve put themselves into automatic drive, not realising that throughout their life they have had plenty of time and opportunity to develop bad habits of self-use. They constantly rush around with a body full of shortened muscles: akin to driving full speed with the handbrake on!

“Things refuse to be mismanaged for long” said Emerson. Bodies follow the same law and break down eventually, even if it takes a lot of misuse before they complain vehemently. There are warnings galore, all unheeded and misinterpreted as unimportant or normal.

A habitual effect of misuse is body misshaping, and misshape inevitably causes malfunctioning. Misuse is a process that distorts us – either slowly or, sometimes, rapidly. When you see elderly people bent over, remember that they weren’t born that way. The force of misuse conspires to mould them into these painfully distorted bodies.

During lessons with an Alexander technique teacher, you learn how to recognise your errors and how not to repeat them. You stop, and to some extent, reverse the process of misuse. But the Alexander technique cannot reshape your body to any great degree. This is because in a misshapen body some muscles (known as the muscular chains) are always too tight. They can be either unduly contracted or definitely retracted. The Alexander technique will help you to undo these contractions but cannot reach the retractions.

So you can develop a good use and still have an imperfect shape – a good use but one restricted and limited in its scope by the shape of the body encaged in stiff muscular chains.

In disease and abnormal conditions the clever thing to do is to remove the primary cause(s). It is my contention that all musculo-skeletal troubles (excluding accidents and congenital defects) have their origin in bad use. The effect of misuse is to misshape the body and misshapen bodies do not function properly. It’s a vicious circle because, in turn, bad shape will prevent good use, and may even aggravate bad use, of the body. So the effect (imperfect shape) evolves into a cause. After some Alexander technique lessons you might be able to use yourself properly in activities such as sitting and standing, but as soon as your life demands more challenging movements your stiff muscular chains will make good use impossible.

Once we’ve indulged long enough in misusing our bodies, both shape and use become the roots of our musculo-skeletal problems. The Alexander technique addresses the ‘use’ factor whilst the Mézières method addresses the ‘shape’ factor; together they deal with the two main causes of back and related pains. These two methods complement each other perfectly.

It’s no good reshaping your body into a machine of ‘Rolls Royce’ perfection through the Mézières method if you continue to drive it as if it was a clapped out ‘Mini’. The Alexander technique will help you preserve its new elegant lines in optimal condition.

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