Book Review – Back in Balance

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.

57 brennanreview pic4

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

CNHC and ITM registered Alexander Technique teacher.

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9 comments on “Book Review – Back in Balance
  1. Jane T says:

    Thank you for a comprehensive and very clearly written review. Very helpful.

  2. Author Richard Brennan had this to say about my review (posted by Karen with permission)

    Dear Karen
    Many thanks for your kind words about my book and yes a bottle of wine rather than Guinness anytime. I would like to clear up one point however.

    RE: 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.

    I really don’t think that the right shoes or the right furniture will solve anything if a person is misusing themselves. It is the more other way around – for the last 25 years of teaching I have noticed that people who after a lesson start to revert back to their old habit partly because of the chair they are sitting in or from the shoes they are wearing. Some, not all, of their habits were developed by coping with badly designed furniture or shoes – so now I find that people who have more supportive chairs etc do not revert back to their habits so quickly and therefore benefit from their lessons for longer.

    I would hate to think that I have misled people into think that chairs or shoes can alone solve their problem so if there are any paragraphs that you think that I have done this please do let me know and I will alter them for the next edition.
    Best wishes,

    • Good morning, Richard,

      I’ve gone back to my notes, and the only specific point I have down is p.36. end of paragraph 2, through the heading and into paragraph 3. “but fortunately for us the solution to this problem is a simple one. / Improved Sitting / To solve this problem all you need to do is to alter the base of the chair…”
      Maybe it’s the heading as much as the body text, but for me it stood out as fixing the sitting, not just fixing the chair.

      However, I will go through again more carefully, and give your question the consideration it raises, and get back to you.

      I do like the idea of changing chair/shoes etc as a poke in the back to remind people to change habits. Also that you’ve tried it out and seen it work. That’s one of the things I love about Alexander’s writings, the empirical nature of everything he does, the constant experimenting.

      Best wishes

      • Dear Karen
        I would be more than happy for you to post my comments on the blog and help me clear up any misunderstanding. Any discussion as long and the parties write with respect for fellow colleagues can only be helpful.
        I can see how a misunderstanding has occurred: The solution to correcting badly designed chairs is a simple one – not the solution to poor use that has partly been caused by badly designed chairs. I did actually say on page 37 last sentence: To change the postural habits that have been caused by backward-sloping chairs, you will need some Alexander lessons as well.
        However, I can honestly say that I do sometimes see an improved change in people’s use by giving them a supportive chair and sloping desk especially kids. And yes you are right change the chair/ shoes etc and you will expose a habit.
        I look forward to a healthy discussion – thanks for being open!
        Best wishes,

        (again, posted by Karen from email conversation)

  3. Hello again, Richard,

    Yes, you do state that changing your chair is a good start but also needs a change of habits. I’ve been through the relevant sections again, to have a good think, and what strikes me most is the cumulative effect of the message. You have around 9 pages of pretty hard-hitting explanations of how this sort of chair ‘actively encourages poor posture’ (p.30), or how ‘we ruin children’s posture by making them sit on badly designed furniture’ (p.34) and so on. Against this are two half-paragraphs (p.37 & 38) talking quite moderately about the need for AT lessons as well. I realise you are taking the time to develop your argument. However, the impression is pretty overwhelmingly chair-based rather than ‘learning better posture’ based. The section on shoes, by contrast, is much better balanced. Make of this what you will!

    While I type this, I have been experimenting with the argos catalogue under the legs of the chair – back legs and then front legs. I can’t say I find either slope comfortable (although I think I might like a higher chair!). However, both require me to be very flexible in the hip joint, so that I can easily adjust the angle of my pelvis to suit the angle of the chair, and I do think this sort of flexibility would take a number of lessons to achieve. We didn’t get the discussion going that I hoped, but it certainly got me to challenge old points of view.

    Best wishes

  4. Hi Karen

    I meant it to be hard hitting! Most people in 3rd world countries use themselves much better than people in industrialized countries. A big difference is that they do not have to sit in class and doing homework for up to 8 hours a day (15,000) on plastic chairs that tilt backwards . I know there are lots of other reasons why people misuse themselves poorly, but this is a major reason and so easily rectified.

    The attached photo is my eight year old sitting on a hill – the first the slope is going down the second is going up like most school furniture. No other instruction was given – just look at the difference in her back. A headmaster brought a wedge cushion for all the kids in his school and after 2 years he was adamant that’ the children’s posture was improved beyond measure. ‘

    I firmly believe that as Alexander Teachers we need to be offering preventative solutions as well as dealing with people who have chronic problems due to a life of mis-use. I also agree that a teaching children the alexander technique is essential. The combination is a very powerful tool.

    Try the Argos or telephone books under the back legs of the chair then do about 3 hours of bending over a desk while writing – then you will see the difference esp if the chair is one of those awful plastic school chairs. It does not so much affect the hip joint it allows you to move by rocking on the sitting bones – exactly as a three year old does. I have had many people whose back is far less painful just by using a wedge – lessons remove the pain altogether!

    I hope that is clearer. You are welcome to post this too.
    Best wishes,

  5. […] My review of the book is here, and a fascinating conversation with the author in the comments that […]

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