Keeping safe in Covid times

Depiction of a Covid-19 virionFor me, the Alexander Technique is all about looking after your health, wellbeing and, indeed, your whole self in all its aspects. It also enables us to set more thoughtful goals for our lives and helps us achieve them. The Covid pandemic has brought into even sharper focus the need for us to be doing all we can to look after ourselves and our communities. Here I take four different aspects of the Covid pandemic and explore them through the lens of the Alexander Technique.

  • Importance of health and community

The Covid pandemic has disproportionately impacted on disadvantaged communities – those who can’t afford to eat well, and whose zero-hour contracts and cramped living conditions mean they can’t self-isolate to protect themselves and their families. The pandemic has brought these and other inequalities even more into the spotlight. Perhaps there will be a seismic shift in cultural attitudes and beliefs about what is really important in life? We have already seen a huge upsurge in both formal and informal volunteering – could this shift extend to a manifest desire for a system of politics that looks after its population as a whole, rather than the current one that pushes the illusion of maximising opportunities for ‘the individual who strives hard’?

My study and application of the Alexander Technique has led to greater perspective on what is most important in life and, for me, this is health and well-being. Through learning the technique we gradually give greater priority to looking after ourselves. This idea of ‘putting yourself first’ may appear selfish but we often need to take care of ourselves in order to better help others. To take an easily recognisable example, in an emergency on an airplane you must first put on your own oxygen mask, or you won’t be able to help anyone who needs you to put on theirs.

So, the focus on the self which lies at the heart of the Alexander Technique could easily be mis-understood to mean that we should only be concerned about ourselves. However, FM Alexander was clear throughout his four books that he wanted his method to enable positive change at all levels, from the individual to the collective. He lived through two world wars and believed that, should his method be widely taken up, it would reduce conflict between nations as well as within the individual. The closing lines of his last book are, ‘They adopted the democratic ideal as the way to freedom of thought and action, but failed to understand that in order to realise this ideal, they would need to develop to the full their potentiality for thinking in activity in the general use and functioning of the self…..and which gives in process, control of individual and therefore collective reaction in the way of life essential to the putting into practice the theory of democracy’.1

  • Covid-19 is airborne

Very occasionally a paradigm shift occurs in scientific knowledge. One happened around a couple of hundred years ago with the germ theory of disease. Until then, the consensus was that many diseases were caused by miasma or ‘bad air’. Indeed malaria means ‘bad air’ in Italian. We all tend to get attached to our beliefs and generally don’t like it much when these beliefs are challenged. It’s particularly hard to change our beliefs when we are emotionally invested in them and discarding them potentially means accepting responsibility for unintended harm. A good example of this is the discovery by Semmelweis in the mid-1800s that doctors were unwittingly causing excess deaths in women giving birth in hospital because they didn’t understand the importance of washing hands between each examination. However, Semmelweis and his evidence were rejected by his peers. The importance of his discovery only later became clear when Pasteur and Koch’s work established the germ theory of disease as a new paradigm.

When Covid-19 first emerged there was very little knowledge around how it is transmitted. The consensus was soon adopted that – as was thought to be generally the case for many pathogens – Covid is principally transmitted through droplets coughed or breathed out from infected people. These droplets can travel a small distance in the air and then fall on surfaces, or are transmitted through touching the face. Hence there was an emphasis on washing hands and everyone needing to keep a couple of metres apart.

Gradually it has become clear that the principal route of transmission of Covid-19 is through the air in fine aerosols which can travel large distances.2 There is clearly no conflict here with the germ theory of disease but there is a need for willingness to think outside of the current paradigm that assumes Covid is mostly transmitted through droplets. With this new knowledge we need to change our model and our behaviour. This means moving towards prioritising effective face masks and good ventilation of all indoor spaces where people may mix.

The problem is that some organisations and individuals are clinging on to the old established ideas of routes of transmission. An example of this is the Westminster Government’s Christmas message which focused exclusively on urging people to wash their hands. Yes, it’s still important to wash your hands – especially after touching your face – but this is not the most important measure that we need to take.

The Alexander Technique is a method for change. It enables us to be more adaptable to changing circumstances, whether this requires a change in behaviour or attitude, or both. Rather than holding so fervently to fixed beliefs, we become more willing to consider new information when it arises, even if it challenges strongly held views. Even though my original academic training was as a microbiologist and immunologist, I’ve not felt any need to cling to any particular view about Covid. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been gradually adapting my teaching practice in line with the emerging evidence in order to do my best to reduce the possibility of transmission in order to keep everyone as safe as we can be.  

  • Face masks

Following on from the knowledge that Covid is airborne, the most important things we can do to protect ourselves (apart from vaccination) are face masks and ventilation. Last year, face coverings were thought to be adequate for most settings but, especially with Omicron, we need to do more now to protect ourselves as well as others. Surgical (Type IIR) masks are better than simple face coverings but a mask that seals around the face (FFP2) will protect the wearer as well as others. Re-usable FFP2 masks are available – be sure to buy ones that are certified.

In my Alexander lessons and at the teacher training school I now encourage everyone to wear a (properly fitted) FFP2 face mask, and I am providing them to clients and students who are happy to wear one. On another note, with its emphasis on natural breathing and trust in the breath, the Alexander Technique has helped many people to adjust to wearing face masks. Greater self-awareness also allows us to avoid behaviours that could spread Covid, such as not realising when you touch your face.

  • The pandemic continues

This time last year we were all looking forward to things getting back to normal soon.  Of course, pandemics don’t just stop suddenly, they tend to drag on over several years. The Covid pandemic seems to have many twists and turns. Who knows where next after Omicron? Until the whole world is vaccinated, new variants will be developing all the time. It’s probably too much to hope that the Westminster government will meaningfully commit to increasing vaccine supplies to developing countries, or that it will learn from the more cautious and prudent approaches of the Scottish and Welsh governments.

So, as we all just carry on doing the best we can, one thing I do know is that we can find greater resilience through the Alexander Technique. It can help us to avoid getting stuck in ‘what-if thinking’ and instead to work with what we can usefully do now. Through the technique we can find a more balanced perspective on life through all its trials and tribulations.

  1. FM Alexander. The Universal Constant in Living. Third Edition 1946. Mouritz, London, p188.
  2. For more on the airborne nature of Covid transmission see Professor Trisha Greenhalgh’s Twitter feed: @trishgreenhalgh. This offers sound advice backed up by numerous academic studies.