Never Too Old to Start

Let me introduce myself to give you a picture of who I am, and how and why I came to be involved with the Alexander Technique. I am Thomas Derek Newton, married, eighty-one years old (never too old to start the Alexander Technique, as I have learned), five foot, six inches tall and weighing just under ten stone, which is about the same weight as when I left the parachute regiment aged twenty-three, after my two years of National Service in 1951-53. I am fortunate to have good health except for my back problem which began in my mid-,thirties while teaching carpentry and joinery. I was moving a sheet of nineteen mm blockboard measuring eight foot by four foot with a student who let go of his end in a gust of wind. I tried to hold it, and out went my back. From then on my back has given me trouble from time to time, until, in my mid-seventies it became chronic, sometimes with acute pain. This in turn changed my life. 


'What if' took over. I had been windsurfing for a number of years; ‘What if' my back gave out? How would I get back to shore? I felt for my wife’s sake and my own safety I would have to give up windsurfing. I thought walking might help: many articles recommended walking as a gentle exercise, but not in my case. One morning, about one and a half miles from home, the pain made me cry out. I was immobile for a few minutes; my back had ‘gone out’. I managed painfully to struggle home. 


I decided to seek advice from my doctor, who sent me for an X-ray. 


The findings were: 


There is a narrowing of L3/L4, LS/Sl inter vertebral disc space. 


I was told that this meant that two of my lower vertebrae were compressed. What could I do, I asked my GP? He said I could try physiotherapy, but wasn’t sure how long it might take to be referred. Chiropractor? Worth a try, he said. It did help but was not long lasting, sometimes for a few days or a week. Then, I suppose, I went back to my old habits of doing things badly. The various exercises I have always done to keep me supple and fit did not help my back. I spent a lot of time and money trying to find something that would help my back, without taking pills. 

We threw out our old three-piece suite and bought another, gave that away to our daughter and bought our current one. A ‘memory’ twin mattress was another buy, still in use. We changed our car because the current one has a more suitable seat for long journeys. I read a number of articles and books on back problems. If you suffer from a bad back, I feel sure that, like me, you would try almost anything. 


A medical examination revealed that I have Paget’s disease. The lower part of my left leg has thickened and is bent forward. There is no cure for Paget’s. The thickened and bent leg has been with me for many years and does not incapacitate me. I had thought the bend was due to the weight I put on it when Hat-green bowling. My action when delivering the bowl is to put my left elbow on my left knee. This puts almost all my body weight onto my leg. Thirty years of doing this made me think that the way I bowled had done the damage. It turned out to be Paget’s disease. 


Why do I have to bowl with the elbow on the knee and give up windsurfing? In my early apprentice days as a carpenter and joiner I developed arthritic knees. Nobody told me to use knee pads or a kneeler when nailing floorboards for days. At seventeen years old, I had never heard of housemaid’s knee, where the knees swell up, and in my case end up arthritic. In the 19408, Health and Safety had not been thought of. This early injury to my knees helped stop me windsurfing in my mid-seventies because my damaged knees would not allow me to waterstart. The wind in the sail picks you up out of the water, which requires effort through the knees. I had to rely on pulling the sail out of the water, against the wind and with water in the sail, which requires a lot of effort in the arms and back. When my back problem became chronic, I had to give up board sailing for safety reasons and because of my Wife’s concern for my welfare on the sea. I knew it worried her. 


I suppose it is reasonable to assume that an injury at seventeen may have led to back trouble at seventy-one, and being unable to lift using my knees. 

My Alexander Technique teacher and myself belong to a small art group who hire a Village hall for our evening session. This means moving tables and chairs at the beginning and end of the evening. Even though I was having back problems, I was helping to move the furniture. It was apparent to the AT teacher that I had a back problem. Twice she offered me advice on how to stand and have my body and head properly balanced. This was not an Alexander lesson, but a few minutes of kind advice. The name Alexander Technique stuck in my mind. A fairly large book with an equally long title, The Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Alternative Healing Therapies, carried an eight-page article with illustrations. This gave a good description of Alexander and the Technique. Another member of our art group told me she was having Alexander lessons, with this teacher. About the same time, a doctor was giving a talk to the patient participation group at our local surgery on research he was doing. During the talk he asked if anyone had heard of the Alexander Technique. He went on to describe it and said that he followed its teachings. One thing after another kept cropping up about the Alexander Technique, enough for me to ask the teacher if she would take me, even at my age, as a pupil, and it all began. To me another life-changing experience. 


Through the lessons I have had, the number of things I can do is remarkable, compared to how it was previously. My back is not completely cured, but has become easily managed. No longer is there a debilitating ache with a feeling it could ‘go out’ at any time. 


My outlook on life and my physical ability have, without doubt, radically changed since starting the Alexander Technique under the tuition of my great teacher, whose method is exactly how I like it to be


We need a teacher for the same reason that even top sports people need a coach or adviser. Watch any golf tournament or snooker player on television, and the commentators can see what is wrong with a golfer's swing, or What the snooker player’s action or mental attitude is. It is often slowed down so that we can also see what they mean. Often these actions have become a habit which is hard to break.

One of my pastimes is indoor flat-green bowling. A session of bowls last two hours. To play the game requires a fair amount of bending to deliver the bowl a few inches from the ground, standing at the head (where the bowls come to rest), walking to and fro at each end. During the onset of my back problem I sometimes had difficulty bowling, either getting into a position to deliver the bowl, or in standing for any length of time. Since starting the Alexander Technique, these difficulties are no longer present. 


My working life began at the age of sixteen, after two years on a preapprenticeship course at my local technical college. At twenty-one, I did two years’ National Service in the parachute regiment. After National Service I worked as a carpenter and joiner for eleven years. Looking back, this was physically hard work, and at that time most work was done by hand. Lorries were unloaded by hand; now one man can unload using machinery. Cement came in bags weighing 112 pounds. Even as an apprentice, I was expected to carry them. Other jobs stopped to unload the lorry quickly if it was raining. Now cement comes in bags weighing only fifty-six pounds. 


Retiring from teaching carpentry and joinery at a technical college about sixteen years ago, I have continued to do gardening, home maintenance and other building work. 


Our daughter convinced us to take out our bath, the side of which we had to step over after showering. Being an occupational therapist and more experienced than my wife or myself in the matter of getting older, a wet room with shower was decided on. We got a plumber and tiler to do the finishing. I was to take off the old tiles. As our house is a fairly modern bungalow, the walls of the bathroom were tiled onto a plasterboard studwork wall. The tiles were well stuck. It was no easy task getting them off, and some of the plasterboard got badly damaged, while other parts had tile adhesive firmly stuck. Lining all the walls with half-inch (13mm) thick marine plywood seemed the solution to getting a straight surface for the new tiles. As well, the holes and old adhesive would be covered. I decided, due to successfully managing my problem back, I could do the job. The work involved heaving and cutting large, awkward, heavy sheets of plywood and getting them on to benches for cutting and drilling. The sort of work I had done fifty years before while teaching. 


'Give it some thought, how could I apply the Alexander way to it? What is the easiest way? What has my teacher told me to do? Stop, think. Don’t set off into my old habit of just getting on with it.'


The first thing I did was to decide on the amount of time to be spent working. ‘Use a kitchen timer set at three quarters of an hour, never more than an hour. Do not jump back to the usual habit of, “I will just finish this bit”. Stop, sit down and do Alexander Technique of sitting in a chair, relaxing. Set the timer to fifteen minutes resting.’ 


Working in this pattern, with up to one and a half hour long meal breaks, work could carry on until well into the evening. 



What my teacher has taught me is to stop and think. This, for me, is a hard thing to do. I wrote this down after my first lesson, ‘How will I remember to stop and think, visualise what I am about to do?’

The great thing about the Alexander way is being able to do it anytime, anywhere: nobody knows you are practising it. All you need is a teacher (a sort of coach). I know I have got a brilliant one. The difference between standing with weight on one leg more than the other and being in balance is not noticeable in a queue of people. Getting up from a sitting position using Alexander Technique does not appear to be that much different to a casual observer, but the difference is immense. No longer do I leap out of a chair thinking ‘I will just do. . .’ This is an old habit which I am still trying to break, along with many others acquired over many years. This is, for me, the hard part. 


The easiest way to hurt my back is to lean partially forward say to clean the far side of the bath. 'My back feels alright, it won’t take a minute. I’ll risk it'. 


Stop, think about it, weeks, days may be required to get the back better again. Stop, think, kneel down, lean onto the near side, clean the part in front of you, then move across to a new position left or right, do not stretch. This sounds so easy, but the temptation is not to get something to kneel on, to stretch a bit too far, to resort to my lifetime habit of ‘I will just do...’ Stretch too far, lift too much, stay in one position too long, especially when working at my bench. Now I am trying to develop a new habit of ‘Not just do. . .’ 


It is impossible to turn the clock back. I know that at eighty, I cannot do the things Which were easy at twenty. What I decided, and told my Alexander teacher I would do, was to get the best possible use out of my body, which is all anyone can do and, being lucky enough to find a good teacher and give my all to the Alexander Technique, I am able to do things that I would have considered impossible seven months ago. 


Something else worth mentioning: between lessons nineteen and twenty, while delivering plants to my daughter’s house, I got out of the car and walked up a slope, up a few steps and on to what was to be a patio area. My son-in-law was getting the foundations straight and to a fall ready for slate slabs. He had got a lot of the work done but I could see the struggle he was having getting it straight and to a fall. We work well together: he is an office worker, but a keen DIY enthusiast and is always ready to take advice. We set to, getting things straight and, even though I was not dressed for the occasion, worked for thirty to forty-live minutes, shovelling, raking and barrowing. 



When I got back in the car to go home I thought, ‘I never once thought about my back’. Looking back as I write now, before taking up the Alexander Technique I could barely walk up the slope to their house Without back pain. I would not have even thought of getting on with the physical work. My daughter has stopped telling my Wife that I am Walking badly as I go up to their house. Thinking about it, I probably sit better and drive better, and use the Alexander Technique to get out of the car before walking up the slope and steps.