After 10 years of back pain, Richard Brennan discovered The Alexander Technique and was pain-free after 6 weeks. 

Now an Alexander Technique expert, Richard Brennan teaches people to take control of their own posture. In this interview he talks about his latest book ‘The Alexander Technique Manual’ 
Richard Brennan explains what the Alexander Technique is, and shares the story of how Alexander first developed the technique.
The Alexander Technique is a way of moving, this includes everything from simply walking, to running in playing football and tennis.

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Listen to stories about people with long term pain healed without surgery, get some great excerpts from the book. Special sections on playing sport, reducing stress and tension and pregnancy and back pain.

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Steve:   Hello and welcome. My name is Steve Nobel and today I’m speaking with Richard Brennan on his book, the Alexander Technique Manual. Now, Richard has studied the Alexander Technique since 1983, and has been teaching full-time since 1989. He travels widely, giving talks and courses on the technique. He’s a director of training at the Alexander Technique Centre based in Galway, Ireland, and he’s a leading figure in helping people resolve back and neck problems. His belief is the root cause of most back pain lies in poor postural habits. He is the author of this book, the Alexander Technique, and we’re going to speak with him now. So welcome to you, Richard.

Not everyone’s heard of the Alexander Technique. Can you just give a description of what is it, and what’s it broadly for?

Richard:             Yeah. It’s quite a profound technique, but very simply, throughout our lives, we develop postural habits, and we go about our activities with far too much tension in the body. It’s a technique where I make people aware of the tension and gives you a tool to let that tension go.

Steve:   Brilliant. How did it all begin?

Richard:             Well, Alexander was an actor, a reciter in the 1800s and he developed a voice problem. Onstage, he started to lose his voice, and he tried everything, medication, exercise, but nothing seemed to help. Then, he realised it was something he was doing himself, so he studied himself. He looked and recited in front and saw that he was pulling his head back with quite a lot of force, which was depressing the larynx, and affecting his voice.

When he was able to see it and change it, his voice became perfect again. He went back on to the stage and he started getting on with reciting again. Then, his fellow actors started saying, “Well, I’m getting the same problem as you,” so he started helping his fellow actors. Then, doctors got wind of it, and then, doctors started sending him patients that they didn’t know what to do with.

Steve:   Amazing. In the book, there’s a section here that says ‘Taking Responsibility’. “Many people carry on for years enduring unnecessary pain, not realising that anything could be done for them. We need to face up to the fact that we have to take responsibility for our ailments, and not expect other people to have all the answers.” Of course, modern medicine, people go there for the pill and the bit of solution, don’t they? But this asking us to take more responsibility.

Richard:             Yeah. I mean people don’t advocate responsibility on purpose. They just don’t realise that they’re doing something to themselves, which is causing the pain. I am a pretty good example of that because I had managed back problems and sciatica for about seven years, and it just got worse and worse and worse. My father is a doctor. He couldn’t do anything. All the surgeons couldn’t do anything. Then, I turned to alternative therapies, and they didn’t do anything, either.

Then, I realised it was the way that I was sitting. I was a driving instructor at the time and it’s the way I was sitting in the car, which was exacerbating the problem. I would go to someone like a chiropractor, they put me back into place, and then, I would go back into my old habits, and the back pain will be back within two days. It’s only when I realised what I was doing and was able to change the way I was sitting that the actual pain went for good.

Steve:   Is posture a major problem for a lot of people, do you think?

Richard:             Absolutely. Absolutely. The main reason is everyone goes to school. Everyone is bending over a desk between the age of five and the age of 18, so there’s a lot of postural habits that get … You go into a classroom, everybody is actually bending their back as they’re writing, and then, they just think that’s normal after … It’s actually 15,000 hours at school plus homework. That’s a lot of time in a basically bad posture.

Steve:   And a lot of people, of course, me included, sit at a desk for long hours of the day over a computer or looking at a computer so, again, Alexander Technique is very useful for that. What kind of problems happen with this? Or was it kind of just manifested in many, many types of ways?

Richard:             Well, the most common is back problem, 49% of the population in the UK and most of the Western world, 49%. That’s nearly one in every two people have some sort of back problems every year.

Steve:   Wow.

Richard:             That’s huge. But it can cause breathing problems, like people get asthma, and people get other … And that is posture-related, too, but those are the knee problems, hip problems, ankle problems, and a whole range of shoulder, neck problems. It’s vast. Arthritis is another postural, you know, after years of misusing the body, arthritis sets in, which is basically wear and tear, so we’re wearing ourselves out before time.

Steve:   So back pain, you mentioned, is universal. I have suffered with a lower disc problem. I had a MRI scan. They said it was a problem between the fourth and fifth vertebra. I’m not sure if it was cartilage or whatever. That kind of produced sciatica, which comes and goes, here and there, which is incredibly painful, as you’ve mentioned you have it. If you’ve got this kind of condition, is Alexander Technique something that once you’ve got it, you can actually alleviate?

Richard:             Well, you know, when I had my back problem, there was no MRIs in those days. This was back in 1980s, ‘1, ’82. I had an x-ray, they injected radioactive fluids into the spine. They took x-rays and there was no disc left between L4, L5 and S1, so all the three bottom vertebras was completely worn. What they did was they said, “Look, what we need to do is remove what’s left of the disc, and then, fuse the last three vertebraes.” Says, “You’ll never be able to bend again, but at least you’ll be out of pain.”

I actually signed up for the operation. It was only after to talking my father, who is a GP, he said, “Whatever you do, don’t have the operation because I am seeing the people afterwards, and they’re usually worse,” so I cancelled the operation. Eventually, when I got around to doing the Alexander Technique, within six weeks, my back was absolutely fine …

Steve:   Wow, that’s incredible.

Richard:             … and I haven’t had a day of back ache since.

Steve:   I mean that’s incredible, isn’t it? Do you think that this is something that really should be in every office, in every school room?

Richard:             Yes, I do. I do. Because, you see, we’re spending a vast fortune on the National Health Service. A lot of it is posture-related. So if you caught it early, when the children were at school, you can have a much healthier population. That would save billions, absolutely billions.

Steve:   Gosh.

Richard:             And people ignore it. 49% of the population has back pain. What are we doing about them? We’re just producing more and more painkilling drugs.

Steve:   Someone should have a word with the government. I’m not sure they’re particularly listening, this particular government.

Richard:             Well, I’ve tried over here in Ireland, and the politicians are just … They’re too busy.

Steve:   Right. Another massive area the book covers is stress. Now, I’m sure most of the listeners to this podcast are no strangers to stress. I’ve worked in the city for 10 years. It’s high-pressure environment, work, money, going home, the mind doesn’t stop thinking. For me, stress is also not just a physical thing, but it’s also a mental, an emotional thing. How can Alexander Technique impact all those levels?

Richard:             Well, one of the major principles of the technique is the body, the mind, and the emotions, and the spirit are not separate, but they’re intuitively connected with one another, okay? When I stress myself, if I feel stressed, the muscles are also going to be stressed. If I release the muscle tension, you will feel less stress. It’s as simple as that. If someone would come to me, I would work with them for 10 minutes. They would come in in a stressed state, and then, they would leave after half an hour completely unstressed. So you work on the physical, but most people will feel the benefits emotionally and mentally as well. They go out feeling calmer.

Steve:   And stress again, the NHS must deal with a lot of stuff around stress, surely.

Richard:             Sure. A lot of mental issues are stress-related.

Steve:   Coming back to posture, I’ve done yoga and Pilates and martial arts, and they all have their own view on posture. What does Alexander Technique say about it? Is anything radically different than yoga, Pilates, and martial arts?

Richard:             You can apply the Alexander Technique to yoga, and you can apply the Alexander Technique to aikido or Qi gong or whatever. It’s something you actually apply to an activity, so it’s not an activity in itself. You can’t go and say, “Well, I’m going to go and do my Alexander Technique,” like, “I’m going to go and do my yoga.” It is an awareness technique and the philosophy behind the technique is we all started with perfect posture.

Go and look at any three-year-old, they are moving beautifully. They are standing straight. They’re not standing up straight. They’re not tensing their body. They just stand straight. That posture is already inside us. All we need to do is to let go of the muscular tension that’s actually pulling us down into ourselves, and then, the perfect natural posture just comes through.

What you do with the technique is you don’t do anything. You stop doing something. You stop doing your postural habits, and then, when you stop doing your postural habits, the right posture is there already. We have a whole series of postural reflexes, which are just dying to work if we let them.

Steve:   Now, the book comes with a whole range of things. One of the things I was really interested in, which I was surprised at, was when it comes to walking. I would have thought that walking, naturally, we have a good posture. Is that not so?

Richard:             No, not at all. Not at all. When children walk, they actually walk fairly straight. If you watch your child walking towards you, they’re very upright and they’re very straight. But if you go to a shopping market or shopping mall, and you watch people walking down the corridor, they’re actually walking kind of like a pendulum. They’re going from one side to the other side, just like if you’re walking when you get off a boat. What you’re doing there is actually walking, you’re pulling yourself down into a hip, and then, you lift a leg, and then, you pull down into the other hip, and you’re just wearing your hips out.

Steve:   Another one that was very interesting, a lot of people drive. You’ve got to listen to this. Now, you say car seats cause back problems. What can we do about driving?

Richard:             Well, I use a wedge. I put a wedge on the seat. You see, I was a driving instructor, so it was the seats in the car that gave me my back problem, because I was sitting 10 years pretty much all day in the car seat. Then, I realised that the car’s slope back, the seats slope way back, maybe as much as 15 degrees. So I just get a wedge and I put it on the seat and I make the chair flat. I don’t know how old you are, but if you went back to the 1950s, all the cars had kind of bench seats and they were much more L-shaped.

Steve:   Yeah.

Richard:             Now, our car seats, because of the shape of the car, they’re more V-shaped. So you need to get back to an L-shape kind of seat because that’s much better for your posture.

Steve:   Now, I’m a writer and you say in the book, “It’s amazing how many people hold their pens when writing, and how it creates muscular tension.” What can we do about writing?

Richard:             Well, Alexander has his own school. He actually formed his own school because he said, “We teach children lots of things, but we don’t teach them how to hold the pen.” The computer, you’re taught Java, you’re taught Microsoft, but you’re never taught how to sit at the computer, so you’re missing the basic thing. You’re actually looking at the way you do something.

Steve:   A good friend of mine is an Alexander Technique teacher, and I used to work with him. Whenever I was sitting opposite of him, I always used to sit a bit more upright, or when I was having tea with him, I was always much more aware of my posture. The one thing he told me was about the neck, and I know in your book, you talk about the kind of freedom of the neck. Again, this is a big problem, isn’t it, around the neck that we create all kinds of tensions around the neck, don’t we?

Richard:             Yeah. The head actually weighs about 12 pounds of weight. That’s six bags of sugar. That’s a huge amount of weight. Now, most people carry their head more forward than their body, so the neck is actually under quite a lot of strain, even when you’re sitting watching TV, even when you’re driving, or using computer.

Steve:   What about swimming? Because when I heard about this, I was thinking, when I swim, my neck is kind of in a very strange position, especially doing breast stroke, and I couldn’t think of a way of how I could change that.

Richard:             It’s more you pay attention and you just think of the neck becoming more relaxed. You just think of the neck muscles softening …

Steve:   Really?

Richard:             … and then, you’re not holding the head with so much tension. Now, obviously, if you’re swimming, you have to hold your head out of the water because if you relax your neck completely, your head falls in the water, and then, you can’t breathe. So, obviously, there’s common sense here, but maybe you can hold your head with not quite so much tension as before, so just thinking of the neck muscles softening can help that.

Steve:   Great.

Richard:             There is a guy called Steven Shaw and he specialises in using Alexander Technique for swimming.

Steve:   Now, there’s a whole section in the book on sports. You mentioned swimming. Now, I was a great football fan and very into playing football and tennis. Now, I did have a knee injury from a very young age, right knee dislocated. I wish I would have had some advice like this when I was a young kid. I had endless problems with my right knee. What can be done about things like football?

Richard:             Well, I’ll just give you a story of my son. He was a keen tennis player, and he ran a lot. Every time he played tennis, he’d sprained his ankle. He had some Alexander lessons from me, but also from somebody else as well. They worked out that actually it was the way he would run differently when he had his shoes on, so what he did he started playing tennis barefoot. Then, he went to the Royal College of Art in London and he designed the shoe called the VivoBarefoot Shoe. When he was wearing these, he never got any problems with his ankles. He realised it was the way he was reacting to his shoes that was causing the problem, so just becoming aware of that.

Also, when you have Alexander lessons, your whole body is just much freer anyway, so when you go and play tennis, or football, or horse-riding, you’re not so likely to be injuring yourself.

Steve:   This principle applies to playing musical instruments. I didn’t realise that many musicians gave up their careers because of aches and pains and injuries generated by the way they stand, sit while playing.

Richard:             Yeah, people like Madonna, people like Paul McCartney, quite a few famous musicians. But, just regularly, I live in Galway and the whole musical community, so I get a lot of people coming to me. Just holding the guitar with too much tension for too long can produce a pain in the shoulder, or a pain in the neck. So, again, just teaching them how to sit, stand or whatever and hold their instrument in the easiest sort of way, the pain just go away. The pain just go away. Pain is always a sign that something’s going wrong. If I can find out what is going wrong and change it, then I can eradicate the pain.

There’s an interesting story, actually, of George Bernard Shaw, the writer. At the age of 80, he was riddled with pain. He has pain in the neck, he has major back problems. His hips didn’t work properly, he had knee problems and ankle problems. So he booked a lesson with Alexander, not for any of this reason, but because he had a heart problem and the doctors given him a few weeks to live. So he goes along to Alexander and when he gets to the front door, he can’t even get up the three steps to ring the doorbell. He’s so frail. Everyone would think George Bernard Shaw is just about to die, and he’s on his last legs.

Anyway, he eventually gets into Alexander’s teaching room. Alexander takes one look at him and said, “Look, I can’t do anything for you unless you promise to come every day for three weeks.” After the three weeks, George Bernard Shaw writes a letter, says, “Dear Mr. Alexander, I just want to thank you because all my aches and pains have gone and the doctors can’t find the angina anymore. I’m walking five miles a day and swimming every morning, which I haven’t been able to do since I was 14.”

Steve:   Incredible.

Richard Brennan:             Yeah. “However, you have left me with one problem I didn’t have in the first place. Now, that I’m three inches taller, none of my clothes fit me anymore.” Then, he went on and lived for another 14 years. The only reason he died, he fell out of a tree while he was pruning it, so he’s up apple trees at the age of 94.

Steve:   Incredible. I didn’t know.

Richard:             Yeah, I know. I know.

Steve:   Well, this is going to appeal to some people, I’m sure: Pregnancy and childbirth. Now, there are some great images in the book of a woman with a great bump in front of her. Of course, this puts a great strain on the human body, doesn’t it?

Richard:             It does, it does. Yeah. Again, when someone did childbirth or in pregnancy, the more tension that they have in their body, the harder the pregnancy is going to be, the harder the birth is going to be. Someone who has a more relaxed body is just going to have an easier time there. Also, back problem is a really big problem with people who are pregnant. A lot of pregnant moms get back problem and the Alexander Technique can actually definitely help with that.

It just gives people an easier time. It doesn’t matter whether you’re pregnant or whatever you do. It just helps you to move through life with greater ease.

Steve:   It’s a beautiful book, Richard. Who is it really aimed at? Is it aimed at anyone?

Richard:             Pretty much. Anyone who wants to be more conscious of what they actually do. Anyone who wants to improve something. You might be a musician want to improve your playing, you might be a runner who want to have better performance, or you just might want to improve the way you sit at the computer. If anyone wants to improve something, or if they have any aches or pains and they don’t know why they’re getting them, this might throw some light on them.

Steve:   Richard, thank you so much. Now, if anybody interested in Richard’s work, do check his website, alexander.ie and, yeah, Richard, thank you so much for your work. I’m sure it’s touching many people brilliantly.

Richard:             Okay. Thanks, Steve.

 

Richard Brennan is the director of the Alexander Teacher Training College in Galway, Ireland. He lectures extensively throughout Europe and the US, and has been teaching the Alexander Technique for over 25 years.

https://www.alexander.ie

This highly effective technique for releasing muscular tension throughout the body teaches new ways of sitting, standing and moving that put less stress on our muscles, bones and joints. This step-by-step illustrated guide shows you how to move with comfort and ease and relieve and prevent common aches and pains, simply by taking control of your posture. By adjusting the way you do things you can avoid putting your body under strain, and achieve
a more relaxed muscular system. Let go of tension, and discover a new sense of lightness and well-being in
your day-to-day life.

Price: £14.99 RRP
ISBN: 978-1-85906-408-5

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