I 've suffered from a bad back for 10 years. The pain - sometimes niggling, sometimes howl-inducing - is constant. So I was keen to try the Alexander technique, which I'd been told was good for backs. The first thing I learned was that its practitioners are called teachers - sessions are lessons.
On first appearances, there's nothing to the method, but Julian Fuller, director of the Bloomsbury Alexander Centre in central London, told me that only a very small percentage of adults - Fred Astaire and the young Muhammad Ali among them - have a natural ability to sit, stand and walk as they should.
Manoeuvring from a standing to a sitting position took up much of the 40-minute lesson. Here, though, was the first clue that traditional notions of good posture weren't the key to the Alexander technique - no suggestion of keeping knees together and back ramrod straight. The essence was avoiding pressure on the spine, by bending from the hips and positioning oneself on the "sitting bones" at the base of the pelvis. It is also important to steer clear of the natural tendency to crumple backwards into the cosy curve of the chair.
Devotees maintain that many of the actions that we see as "natural" - even in everyday routines such as walking, sitting in chairs or standing - are the result of bad habits and, as guru Frederick Matthias Alexander put it, "the misuse of the self". What feels right is often wrong. Alexander teachers seek to restore the natural balance of the body, using gentle hands-on adjustment. Irritatingly for those who demand an itemised breakdown of their malfunctioning body parts, teachers don't tell the students what they're doing wrong. But I found out fast.
Lessons are one-to-one, so I had the undivided attention of Fuller. Applying a barely there pressure to my neck and hips, he shifted me into position, releasing tension and provoking an "Oh, now I get it" response from me. What you're not supposed to do is try to stand up straight. Chances are, your body simply won't know how. The key is to "think tall", conditioning your conscious mind to the natural relationship between your body parts that you probably abandoned somewhere back in nursery school. It takes around 20 lessons to get it back, with plenty of friendly encouragement from teachers ("that's it, very good") along the way.
Spending 40 minutes thinking about nothing but my posture was an extraordinary experience, but one lesson wasn't really enough to make me feel I was tackling my back problems head-on. I will probably be trying more lessons, however.
And how was my back after nearly an hour of using previously undisturbed muscles? Aching like hell.