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Alexander the Great

Sunday Telegraph 13 July 1997

Musicians, actors and even horse-riders swear by it and it has changed the life of fashion designed Caroline Charles. She tells Isobel Wolff about the Technique that has rid her of chronic backache forever.

The fashion designer Caroline Charles greets me in the boardroom of her headquarters in New Bond Street, London. Slender, neat and pixie-pretty, she is dressed as always, in black. Charles is rather small but she walks tall, something that she attributes to the Alexander Technique. “It’s all about elongation and stretching,” she says, sitting down, ramrod straight, at the mahogany conference table, while I cast covetous eyes over the Autumn ’97 collection, arranged on the walls behind her.

“Alexander Technique is all about drawing yourself out and up, and walking and sitting as well as you possibly can,” she continues. Charles, who is 55, and who trained with Mary Quant, discovered the Technique 15 years ago, when she realized her backache was chronic. “I began to get lower backache in my early twenties, after doing some strenuous floor exercises in one of my keep-fit phases,” she says. “It got progressively worse. By the time I was in my late thirties, it was agonizing. Sometimes it really caught me out and I would find myself stuck in an unbearable position and unable to get into a taxi, let alone sit in the theatre or play tennis. With backache you get a simultaneous loss of morale; I was brought low by the pain. It was starting to turn into sciatica and traveling down into my legs.”

It would frequently strike when she was abroad at fashion shows. “Then somebody would have to come to may hotel and manipulate or massage me – which was always very inconvenient as I was there to work.” Like many backache sufferers, she tried a variety of therapies: massage, deep-heat treatment and physiotherapy. “All these were helpful in a temporary way. It was lovely having my back warmed and stroked but, within a few hours, I could feel all the pain coming back.” Next, she turned to acupuncture, which led her, indirectly to discover the Alexander Technique.

“Somebody recommended that I go to Felix Mann in Harley Street. He fixed me in two goes, using just one needle. He managed to move the vertebrae sufficiently to release everything and free me from pain. But he said that to keep my back in good condition I ought to learn the Alexander Technique to improve my posture.”

Charles saw Alan Philips, at The Constructive Teacher Centrex, in Notting Hill Gate, west London. “He was an opera-singer, and so, in between sorting me out, he would give me a few arias,” she says. “I loved it.” Many actors and opera-singers are trained in the Technique, which was developed in 1869 by Frederick Alexander, a Tasmanian actor, who realized that his loss of voice during performances was connected to the poor way in which he moved. He cured himself and then spent the rest of his life teaching others the principles of correct movement and posture that had benefited him.

“Alexander Technique is all about re-educating yourself to move in the right way,” says Charles, “to make the head and neck work in harmony, because good breathing and good health result. But you have to eliminate bad posture and bad habits. You have to learn how to sit and stand well, by imagining that you have a thread running up your spine and coming out through the top of your head. And you are being pulled upwards by this thread, and stretching your spine out to its maximum length”.

“You have to learn never to answer the phone across your body. And you have to learn not to sit with your legs twisted across each other, like yours are.” I immediately uncross my legs and un slouch my shoulders.

“It’s a physical philosophy,” she says. “It’s a total re-education in how to keep your bones and muscles the way they should be, the way they are when we’re born.” So what exactly does the Alexander Technique teach you?

“We learn how to keep our elbows and hands turned slightly out, our feet straight, and slightly apart, not jammed together. We’re taught how to get out of chairs properly, using gravity and balance, like this” – she suddenly swings her arms forward and rises to her feet in a single, sinuous movement.

“Even if I were sitting in a chair with arms, I would never use the arms to lever myself out. It really isn’t necessary. And Alexander teachers are often tall because, apparently, you grow by at least an inch if you practice it properly. Your spine becomes relaxed and stretches out.”

But does’t it take an age to master? “I went to Alan Philips for two years,” says Charles, lowering herself elegantly back on to her chair. “It didn't’t take long to learn, but I kept going back because it’s nice to have someone putting you in place, as it were. The teachers don’t talk that much. They tell you with their hands, like this.” I sit while she straightens my back, adjusts my shoulders and head, and repositions my feet and elbows with light but firm movements.

“I also like the fact that you don’t have to take your clothes off,” she says. “You just remove your shoes and coat. It’s so simple and you don’t have to do it in silence – you can chat away. There are no hard-and-fast rules about how often you should go. I go about once every eight weeks now. I enjoy it and continue to get the benefits. It makes you feel serene and it reduces stress. But the best thing is that it cured by backache – I’ve never had a recurrence. I play tennis two or three times a week. And I walk better, springier, taller.”

And did it help her to grow that extra inch? “Gosh, I don’t know,” she says with a grin. “I totally forgot to check.”




alexander technique in and around brighton