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Working Without Pain: Review by Jean M. O. Fischer.

AT Focus: 
Alexander Technique
Article, essay
Article, citation and copright
Article Text: 
So-called Repetitive Strain Injury has received a lot of attention in the last fifteen years, and it is only natural that the potential benefits of the Alexander Technique for sufferers should be presented. There are a number of difficulties in addressing a clinical condition with a preventative technique which does not set out to treat or cure. Some of these difficulties are common to all introductory books but in this case the authors have not dealt succesfully with these.

Difficulty 1: inconsistent or mistaken terminology. The term RSI is not used any longer by medical researchers in the UK as it implies that the condition is caused by repetition – something which has not yet been established. Instead the term “non-specific upper-limb disorder” is used as well as other names of specific conditions when they can be diagnosed. One cannot of course berate an American publication for being out of date with British usage, but the authors do not understand “RSI” in the first place. For example, the book correctly describes diseases like carpal tunnel syndrome, epicondylitis, thoracic outlet syndrome, etc. but classifies these as belonging to the category popularly known as RSI. The authors confuse possible cause with disease when they say cervical syndrome, herniated disks and sciatica are RSI. Repetitive strain of the back when lifting may cause a herniated disk but that does not make a herniated disk a RSI disease. Hip, knee, foot and ankle problems are not RSI although repetitive activity like step aerobics may be a cause.

Difficulty 2: creating new terms or expressions which are not clearly defined, described and consistently used. Preferably, new terms or expressions should be an improvement. In this book, however, they are not immediately comprehensible. “Pause” means something like inhibition; “Risk” means “misuse” (I think). “Command your Advantage” means something like employing a conscious use of the primary control. “Faulty Awareness” obviously means “faulty sensory appreciation” but it can hardly be said to be an improvement; how can awareness be faulty? Similary, how can one “reeducate Awareness” (p. 78)? One is either aware or not.

Difficulty 3: promising to cure without scientific evidence. This difficulty is correctly and neatly overcome in many books in a variety of ways: for example either understating (“The Technique may alleviate the symptoms. . .”) or stating sources for the claim, and here personal experience is perfectly acceptable (“In my experience. . .”). If all else fails one can always say: “We believe...”. The back cover of this book, however, talks about guiding people to “prevent and cure” the causes of RSI. Similarly, on p. 91, it promises that learning to sit at a desk “with your Advantage is the key to preventing RSI’s from developing.” Certainly one would like to believe so, but it would be nice to have a reference. It would have been useful to quote such studies as the Swedish report which shows a correlation between neck-bending and RSI (i.e. the further the neck was bent forward the more likely the worker would develop or suffer from RSI). Sadly, in this book there are no references to any research on non-specific upper-limb disorder or any other disorder which may be assumed to arise from repetitive strain.
Difficulty 4: mixing messages. The book indicates that lessons are necessary (p. 13), yet spends many pages on exercises which purport to teach the Technique, e.g. “In this chapter, you will learn how to establish a healthy Primary Control. . .” (p. 69).

Difficulty 5: encouraging the use of feeling despite stressing our frequent tendency to rely on faulty sensory appreciation. For example, the reader is asked to use “your kinesthetic sense, to determine the position of your head on top of the head-neck joint” (p. 114) and to lift the arms when “you feel your Advantage [primary control?] is fully established” (p. 113).

Difficulty 6: disguising exercises as Alexander Technique. The term “procedures” is frequently used when writing on the Technique in order to avoid any association with exercises but the authors needn’t have bothered; an errata page should read: for “procedures” read “exercises”. For example, when sitting in the driving seat of a car the reader is asked to “push your lower back into the back of the seat,” and then reduce the movement to become “more of a thought than a movement” (p. 117). Exercises like this may be very useful but they are not the Technique. Other books avoid this mistake by admitting that the exercises are not the Technique: see for example The Alexander Technique by Leibowitz & Connington and Back Trouble by Caplan.

Other things which may irk teachers are a simplified definition and usage of the primary control; the drawing (p. 87) which shows that the ideal is to have a back and a neck as flat as a wooden board; the description of Alexander Technique walking as “falling forward” (p. 80), and the complete absence of the principle and practice of “non-doing.”.
It is to be hoped that the book’s optimism, hyperbole (“Working with your Advantage is always a positive experience”; p. 151) and many successful case histories will persuade many “RSI”-sufferers to try the Alexander Technique.

© Jean M. O. Fischer. Reproduced with permission.

This edition © Mouritz 2005-2014. All rights reserved.