I was about eight or nine years old when I first began to realise that what I was experiencing was back pain. I didn’t know there was a problem except that I had difficulty keeping up with the family when out walking. My legs hurt but I didn’t know any different; to me it was normal. I was a bit of a tomboy, having three brothers, and I enjoyed all the sports on offer at school. When rolling on my back on a hard gym floor I felt a ‘knobble’ low in my back that got in' the way.
At around age thirteen my parents became worried. I kept holding onto my back and rubbing it, and I started to complain about pain. The doctor said I would probably grow out of it and that it was probably to do with a growth spurt. The orthopaedic surgeon said he could operate but that I may not be any better off. So there was no decision to be made. The general medical opinion was that I would have to learn to live with it. This was the motto I grew up with. I had a corset made to minimise the movement in my low back, but it made the whole situation worse. Eventually, with a lot of teenage disgust, the corset was binned.
I had a condition called spondylolisthesis (literally meaning slippage of a vertebra) due to the fracture or malformation of the bits of bone that support the little joints between the lumbar vertebrae, leaving the lower lumber vertebra slipped forward on the sacrum. Because of this fracture, the posterior process (the ‘knobble’) of the vertebra jutted out at the back. The cause of this Condition can either be congenital or due to accident: in my case it was congenital. The potential of the disc between the vertebrae being impinged causing irritation to the sciatic nerve was high, causing leg pain and inevitably low-back pain. I was advised to stop sport and gymnastic activities, which I loved, including my favourite hobby, horse riding. I was not entirely obedient to this rule but it did curtail what I was used to doing. I now carried the label ‘bad back’, and I must admit it did become a bit of an excuse at times for not doing things that I could or should have done. I was having difficulty ‘learning to live with it’.
‘If only I could find someone who could fix my back then I could get on with the rest of my life’, was my overriding thought. In my late teens and twenties all sorts of other discomforts arose and I generally felt down. I did what was on offer on the National Health: traction, including hanging with my hands in the stair well, physiotherapy exercises, ultrasound and deep heat treatment. Then, as that had little effect, osteopathy and chiropractic treatments, different kinds of massage, yoga, acupuncture and Tai Chi.
Perhaps the one thing I should not have chosen to do as a profession was dance. Having completed a drama and theatre arts course I found that words were less ‘my thing’ as a means of expression than movement. My back was less troublesome when moving about, which had the effect of masking the discomforts. In 1973 I went to the Laban Art of Movement Centre and enjoyed my time there enormously, doing the dance theatre course with a teacher who taught the Martha Graham Technique in my second year. My back problems did not improve and, as much as I loved the course, practising that technique with its rigour of contraction and release did not help my situation at all.
During my time at the Laban Centre I was introduced to the idea of the AT by my father. With the demand of dance practice, rehearsal and performance, I was suffering with back pain. I went to a teacher in Richmond, Surrey for a while, but found the lessons, though quite nice, not very informative. With the travel being time consuming and exams on the way, Alexander lessons were dropped. But a seed had been sown.
I went back to college in 1976 to qualify to teach drama. Teaching opportunities took off from there: in youth centres, after school dance and drama clubs, adult evening classes and a production of Oliver! for an amateur operatic society.
Discomfort and pain were still a problem. Although I had decided the demand of performance work would be too great to cope with, I nevertheless thought that I’d be OK if I could do a solo show. It was a different challenge, doing all the choreography myself with the aim of touring the West Midlands. My inspiration was to bring together original poetry and music composition with reciters and musicians, and to design stage set, dresses and costumes. Of course a team of people were involved in everything that goes into putting a show on the road.
Later I became involved with a trio of girls, ‘Even Stevens’. We toured the West Midlands, giving performances and workshops in schools and to the general public. The inaugurator of this group, Jayne Stevens, who was having lessons, was my next contact with the Alexander Technique.
I was in a bad way when I first started having lessons with her teacher, (much later on, he said my back was one of the worst he’d seen). He was very encouraging and gave me a first real glimpse of hope. Within a relatively short time of having lessons, it was liberating not to experience pain and discomfort when walking down the road after a lesson. Within nine months, I joined the teachers’ training course. I thought that if I could be helped in this way, then that was what I Wanted to do for others. My teacher was the training course director, and he brought a tremendous richness and variety to learning what the Technique was all about and how to apply it in practice.
The Technique provided me with an answer to my back problem, but little did I realise the extent of a much slower process of learning to put into practice the central concept of the Technique of inhibiting habitual reactions. Our thinking on every level was challenged: how could it be otherwise when the very essence of how we use ourselves is the unity of mind and body? What we think affects muscle tension and therefore our posture. Recognising this is a continuous, ongoing process of developing awareness of how we think and react in all life’s situations, and how to apply conscious, reasoned control to any activity, mind and body together. It is possible, for example, not to. fly off the handle when provoked or to sit without rounding over while studying.
I could certainly relate to the idea of ‘pulling down’ as being that churning of the mind in having to make a difficult decision, assessing what might be right or wrong, dealing with a work load, or With the challenges of studying. The pain in my back and legs returned unmistakably in problematic situations. I learned how to recognise and inhibit unhelpful thought processes, and direct my thinking and activity so that the pain would eventually go away.
As I grew in understanding, the Technique became something that was not only to do with the wonderful supportive work at the hands of the teacher that helped to ‘sort my back out’, but also with identifying and understanding my own habitual reactions. I learned to reason things through with the view of wanting not to stiffen our necks nor to pull ourselves out of shape. EM. Alexander said in Man’s Supreme Inheritance that a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation. This was an approach that truly dealt with ‘having to learn to live with it’ to the point that I could relinquish the idea that I even had a bad back. I was learning how to apply myself to the very things I believed I could not do, and one of them was academic study. Good use is about maintaining good posture and efficiency of movement through conscious, reasoned thought.
I qualified in 1987 and moved to Stockton-on-Tees where I joined a colleague. Together, we built a private practice and ran courses between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Darlington, and worked also with other colleagues in the North East at the time. When she moved on to pastures new in 1990, she encouraged me to take on her Pupils in Stockton and Newcastle, and I continued with two other venues in Redcar and Durham as well. Three years later, my energy with working and travelling by public transport ran out. I had to relinquish Newcastle and Redcar. Since then I have continued in private practice in Stockton and Durham. It is the work have found to be my vocation.
I met the man of my life in 1999 and we were married in 2004. My new family included a wonderful teenage stepson and a boisterous collie cross spaniel dog. Trying to control and retrain a dog was not easy, but at a certain stage I realised the true meaning of, ‘if you can't change the external circumstances then change your attitude toward '.
This continues to be a motto for change for me: if I can truly recognise whether the problem lies within me or in the external circumstance, the process of conscious inhibition and reasoned choices can begin in earnest in the direction of changing one’s response. As EM. Alexander said, ‘My technique is based on inhibition, the inhibition of undesirable, unwanted responses to stimuli and hence it is primarily a technique for the development of the control of human reaction.’(The Universal Constant in Living, p. 88 )
I began a new journey when I joined an Alexander Technique teachers’ organisation in 2007. I have enjoyed the support of a good friend and colleague, and the newness and opportunities of different continuing professional development (CPD) sessions on offer. Over the next two years my life changed: the pain in my back and legs was getting worse and I realised I could no longer sustain myself. Colleagues helped me greatly with hands-on work to assist in finding some resolve to the situation. Discussion ensued as to whether the situation in my back had in fact changed. A scan showed an increased slippage, and the possibility of an operation was researched and discussed.
All this took a great deal of deliberation, as I had to scrutinise my belief in myself and my ability to apply and teach the Technique, and whether it was a deterioration in my ability that had caused a worsening of the situation. It was a dark time of serious consideration. After all, I had been teaching for twenty years, so I should have been pretty good at it! I was reassured when I realised that even with the best use wear and tear with age is inevitable. Some people with spondylolisthesis can live a pain-free existence until they reach their fifties and problems can tend to begin then.
In August 2010 I had a five-hour operation to fuse the fourth lumbar vertebra to the sacrum, securing the fifth vertebra from any further movement. The AT is a wonderful tool pre and post-operatively, and I thank my lucky stars that I am as good as I am, with no major pain in my back and legs, which I’d suffered before. There are other aches and pains of recovery to work through as nerve, muscle and bone continue to repair. I am hopeful of continued improvement for years to come yet. I cannot imagine how I would have managed and would continue to manage without applying the principles of the AT and the support of Christian friends, family and colleagues. I think l have been lucky in my life to have had the opportunity of learning the Alexander Technique, which saved me from an operation earlier in my life, and which has given me a whole new direction in life.