Recently I was asked to review the latest book by teacher and author Richard Brennan. It’s called ‘Back in Balance’ and it deals, not surprisingly, with the Alexander Technique and back pain. Back pain is regularly in the media, and the Alexander world is still riding the wave started by the ATEAM study published in the BMJ. It’s a good time to talk about it.
I should point out at the start that I come from a very different teaching tradition. Richard Brennan and I could spend a lively evening over a bottle of wine (or maybe a pint of Guinness) discussing where, what and why we don’t agree at a very detailed level. But this is a book review, not a technical forum. So what did I make of it?
I think the book explains a lot of things, and explains them well:-
how the Alexander Technique helps; the anatomy of what is going on; a summary of the Alexander principles; exercises to demonstrate and to practice Alexander thinking; medical writings on the Technique over the years; and a chapter of very compelling testimonials.
However, writing is rather let down by the layout and design. The photos are grainy and hard to make out, especially the important ones that need to be clear – semi-supine position for instance. And the graphics are totally absent. Everything is text-based and black and white, which is a shame. There are some lovely phrases that should be pulled out and shouted loud – like that one over there – but they are buried in the text.
I will allow myself one technical disagreement, on the matter of furniture. Richard Brennan is a firm advocate of using very specific items; chairs, desks, cushions and shoes designed by his son. He states clearly that these will solve your problems. My point is that they may help, and if they do that is fine. But you can sit in the ideal chair and still slouch horribly. You can put on the ideal shoes and still walk with an enormous amount of distortion. I am one of a number of teachers from a variety of teaching backgrounds who believe that the solution to sitting badly isn’t a chair, it is the Alexander Technique. The solution to walking badly isn’t a pair of shoes, it is the Alexander Technique. It is learning to use your body better.
What I can’t work out is who the book is aimed at. The basic explanations of how the Alexander Technique helps, and some of the exercises, would be ideal for complete beginners. However, the swift tour of complex ideas (like inhibition) is way beyond beginner level. It’s an excellent summary of the ideas, and would appeal to someone who is mid-way through a course of lessons – but then they would already know perfectly well what awareness is, and how the Technique helps. The summary of what the medical profession has said is, for a teacher like me, fascinating and really useful to have it all in one place; but students aren’t usually that interested in the historical details. It’s not a self-help book, Richard clearly states that you need lessons to learn the Alexander Technique; but it’s probably not detailed enough to be a text book or course book. Maybe the best comparison is a kind of Family Selection Box; varied enough that readers of all levels of Alexander experience can find something in there to learn from.
‘Back in Balance’ by Richard Brennan, published by Watkins Publishing, cover price £12.99