You’ve almost certainly heard the old expression; “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”. But glossing over the fact that in the 21st century it should clearly be “Give a person a fish”, you’re probably wondering why it’s being quoted in the introduction to an article about Alexander technique teachers.
Unlike many other modalities, the Alexander Technique classes itself as a system of education. An Alexander technique teacher teaches pupils to react to stimuli (both mental and physical) in a way that minimises unnecessary strain or tension.
The key point here, is that an Alexander technique teacher teaches. Rather than lying passively, people who take Alexander technique lessons are active participants, both in their treatment, and in understanding what caused their problems in the first place.
But why does that matter? To answer that question, let’s compare the Alexander technique with another popular treatment for tension related pain; massage.
Education vs therapy.
Back in 2008, the British Medical Journal published the results of a randomised controlled trial designed to determine the effectiveness of the Alexander technique in treating chronic back pain. The Alexander technique was compared to massage and exercise, two common treatments for back pain, to see if it would have a greater impact than currently prescribed treatments.
In total 579 patients took part and were split into four groups. One group received six sessions of massage, another six Alexander Technique lessons, and a third 24 Alexander Technique lessons. The control group were prescribed light exercise (walking) as would normally be recommended by their doctor.
At the beginning of the study, after 3 months and after 12 months, the study participants completed a questionnaire which asked, amongst other things, how many days of back pain they’d suffered in the past 4 weeks.
At the beginning of the trial, all of the study participants taking Alexander Technique lessons or massage reported pain during 28 of the past 28 days, (so every day). Participants in the control group reported pain during an average 24.5 of the past 28 days, which dropped slightly to 24 of 28 days over the next 3 months.
Over the same 3 month period, the group that had 6 Alexander technique lessons (2 lessons a week for 2 weeks and then 1 a week for 2 more weeks), reported that the number of days they were in pain had dropped to 13 out of 28. An improvement of 54%. 6 sessions of massage were slightly more effective, reducing the number of days in pain to 11 (a 61% improvement), and 24 lessons of Alexander technique were unsurprisingly most effective, providing a 72% reduction in days of back pain (8 days out of 28).
This is already a really significant improvement in overall quality of life, but things got more interesting when the same patients were asked to report how many days of pain they were experiencing after a year:
As you can see, those in the massage group, saw an increase in days of pain compared to where they were at the end of the initial 3 month period, going from 11 to 14 days. Meanwhile participants who’d had Alexander technique lessons continued to report a decrease in days of pain, down to 11 days for the group that had 6 lessons and only 3 days for the group that had 24 lessons (a 90% reduction).
So what’s going on here?
The difference in outcome is due to the fundamental difference between a treatment like massage, and a system of education like the Alexander technique.
During a massage the masseuse works to relieve the tension in the body. This can be enormously effective in relieving muscular tension and the pain that comes with it, but it doesn’t do anything to address the cause of the tension. Nor does it provide the patient with any tools to prevent the pain from returning.
The Alexander technique, on the other hand, teaches the pupil both what they are doing to cause the problem in the first place, and gives them the tools they need to prevent the problem from developing again. As the study shows, this means that though the effects are comparable with massage in the early stages, the Alexander technique continues to provide benefits indefinitely, even if there aren’t any more sessions.
In other words, the pupil learns to use their mind and body in a way which prevents the problem from recurring, whereas the people who received massages, though helped initially, ended up in pretty much the same boat they started in because they had no way to deal with the problem once the effects of the massage inevitably wore off.
Teach a person to fish.
Most of the time it doesn’t even occur to us that we can be in control of our health. When something doesn’t feel right, most of us visit a doctor or a therapist and wait for them to fix us, which means the switch in mindset required to take responsibility for our wellbeing can be jarring.
We are all the world’s leading experts on what we are feeling. It’s just common sense that we should be able to play some part in our treatment. But we’re also biased by experience, habit and stress. An Alexander technique teacher’s job is to help us cut through those biases so that we can heal ourselves. True, this requires a little more effort than a massage does, but it’s still easier than catching fish.