Feb 052016
 

So much of our enculturation revolves around the idea that success takes effort, that for anything to happen we have to DO something. No doubt, we like to apply ourselves to a task, to see direct results from our actions, to believe that our effort was indispensable — the critical element to the fulfillment of our wish.

BUT we overdo… we let this attitude get out of hand. It becomes a need to control and a belief that we must control, that we must do something for things to happen. Bring that attitude to the question of “posture” and it leads to all sorts of contortions. We tense, shorten, push, hold, and fix in the attempt to stand up straight, sit comfortably, hold a yoga pose… But those attempts add tension to a system that's already disorganized. What would happen if we explored not doing anything in these situations?

Healthy posture actually requires less work than we're used to thinking it does — because what it requires is a different kind of thinking. Every one of us, as an infant, was motivated to sit up, stand, walk — and our bodies organized themselves accordingly, free from any thoughts of how we “ought” to do it! The human body is magnificently structured for movement. Rather than coaching ourselves to engage certain muscles to stand or move well (strengthen your core! Lift your chest! Tighten your glutes!), it is more appropriate and productive to exert mental engagement, to focus on our conscious response, refrain from interfering with our balancing mechanisms, and trust to the intelligence of the body for the best organization to execute the task at hand.

A student of mine noticed significant changes in his yoga practice after an in-depth exploration of Alexandrian Inhibition. We'd played this game: After some time quieting oneself in semi-supine, think about moving a limb — but then don't. Actively consider the action, and refrain. Persist in this practice for 10-15 minutes, and notice the effects on the body. “Background programs” of tension become highlighted, and switch off. A natural expansion and buoyancy is evoked as the body organizes itself differently when it's given time and space to not do anything. By refraining from immediately responding to an internal (during the game) or external (during yoga class) command to move, my student found that his body reorganized in a way that was different, and better, than what he would have done on his own.

Jan 302016
 

Electing to unknowT.S. Eliot
“We die to each other daily. What we know of other people is only our memory of the moments during which we knew them. And they have changed since then. To pretend that they and we are the same is a useful and convenient social convention which must sometimes be broken. We must also remember that at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.”

We communicate in nonverbal ways to a significantly greater extent than we do with words, by voice or by writing. Yet we often neglect the energetic messages we emanate, in the form of our regard for someone. Our expectations of their presumed response are based on our (by its very nature) severely limited experience of them.

No one exists in a vacuum. And no one IS a certain way…. For every defining characteristic of a person, someone somewhere at some time will experience the opposite in them – or the total absence of that seemingly ever-present “is-ness” about them.
Who among us does not change? Whose moods, preferences, abilities, predilections remain absolutely constant? We unwittingly limit ourselves and other people by believing we know them, believing we’ve encountered this person before. They “are” not who we accustom ourselves to believing/acting as if they Are.

What is the role that we play, in our experience of the world? Exactly what of another person exists outside of our experience of them? How can we experience anything about them that is outside of what we believe/perceive about them?

We forget that we create the people in our lives. The self we are, the self we bring to our encounters with others, creates the manner in which they occur for us. Who-we-are sets the tone for how other people show up. We don’t just perceive people, or describe them; in actuality we conceive them, we evoke select aspects of them. We are the container within which they appear.

This is good news. If no one is a static way, then change is always possible. Someone we experience as enemy or frustration can be re-made into friend or inspiration.

However: While the re-making of another happens within us, within our conception of them, we cannot change another by simply electing to believe something different about them, by changing our opinion of them.

What we are charged with is changing the only thing we can: The who-we-are that conceives, perceives, describes.
Who would we be, in a different experience of another?
How would we be, in being free to discover them as someone new?

We are – we can let ourselves be – the stranger in each encounter… We can discover ourselves newly in every familiar face.

Jan 292016
 

This response was spontaneously composed by a student who has had almost a dozen lessons.

Compare and contrast Alexander Technique with other “modalities” (?) – that last word is vague and also jargon. At any rate, to my understanding AT offers release, realignment, relief… In a manner not comparable to say yoga or/and massage. Rather than “putting” the body, or “pressing” upon the body for “correction” and “proper alignment,” Alexander Technique ALLOWS the body to ARRIVE through its own wisdom at where it needs to be for its proper function. AT is not so much a system of “correction” as it is a revelatory process – almost as if the body becomes “teacher” to the person who presumes “agency” (that is, the self who believes he or she is “in charge”).

— Eduardo Velásquez

Jun 142015
 

A recent NPR program reported on the work of “posture guru” Esther Gokhale. I received several emails alerting me to this article, and I’m thankful for the chance to clarify both differences between Alexander Technique and Esther’s method, and some misconceptions in her work.

While Esther has some valid observations about contrasts in postural comportment between indigenous or non-industrialized cultures and those living modern lifestyles, I see some serious flaws in her approach.

The lengthened spine Esther calls a J shape is what AT has been advocating for over 100 years.

1. Mimicry and effort versus freedom. Everything Esther recommends is something to do, a remedial activity of effort designed to physically mimic what indigenous people are naturally embodying with ease. While many of her suggestions appear to fix the typical slump and contraction patterns exhibited by Westerners, they are also another example of the Western mentality of believing there is something to do — something that requires effort, to “get it right.” But if you consider the examples she provides of indigenous people with great posture, they are not doing anything to have good posture. These people with open, wide shoulders are not rolling their shoulders back, as she recommends; they are not interfering with the natural, good design of shoulders to be open. Your average Westerner is, in fact, actively rolling their shoulders forward — and until that person learns to STOP doing that, rolling their shoulders back is simply an additional effort on top of the original tension pattern… which explains why most people find they cannot sustain their attempts to take on “good” postural habits. Without alleviating the original conditions of misuse, which is what the Alexander Technique teaches for the kind of sustainable results reported in the British Medical Journal, it’s a struggle to hold the new standard.

2. Making it all physical. Alexander’s insight into what he named The Use of the Self is the mental/emotional component to psychophysical coordination. Unlike us Westerners, these good examples Esther cites are not watching the clock, trying to impress, pressurizing themselves with deadlines or thoughts and attitudes of “having to” get this done, make this happen, get it right… The Alexander Technique works specifically at the juncture of thought and action, body and mind, recognizing that it’s not possible to change one without changing without the other. The Technique supports investigation into, and choice at the deepest level of, our preconceived beliefs and reactions to everything that happens in life. That’s why the Technique is revered by performing artists and especially actors, who need freedom of expression rather than stereotyped responses. The Alexander Technique offers a way to deal effectively with anxiety, fear, and pain, and conditions where good posture is not available – such as for actors playing emotionally and physically contorted characters.

3. Quick fix versus open-ended inquiry. While some consider it a good thing that Esther’s method claims to fix the problems of poor posture, from an Alexander perspective this seems presumptuous: can we really, so quickly, presume to know what’s going on with someone’s “poor posture” — and how to fix it? The Alexander Technique is about removing interference, of getting out of the way so that the intelligence of the body can resolve issues, rather than imposing a predetermined solution to a situation. The Technique looks for what there is to STOP doing — narrowing the shoulders, stiffening the neck, tucking the tail, unbalancing the head, over/under focusing the eyes, exaggerating lift, constraining the breath, tightening / stiffening / pressurizing / depressing… Once we STOP doing all these habits of tension, we liberate the natural buoyancy of the human design and allow it to be upright and mobile according to its design.

4. Primal Posture versus Conscious Awareness. Yes, making changes in your posture affects your attitude. But taking on aspects of “primal posture” falls shy of the (typical) kind of insight that an Alexander student of mind recently reported, where making new choices about how she responded to her own internal pressure freed her up to realize that she didn’t have to worry herself about her son’s new business venture. Don’t you think that relaxed her shoulders more than a roll-back? And was good for him, too??

In sum: if you are misusing yourself in typical Western ways, Esther’s method will show you better patterns of posture and movement, as something you can do. But if you want to challenge and change your thinking, question your preconceptions, engage in a lifelong investigation into the ways we obstruct — and can consciously liberate and embody — our freedom to be present in the moment, call your local Alexander teacher.

 

 

May 282015
 

Learning to inhibit our reactions means that sometimes we actually feel an emotion we previously would have suppressed (or attempted to suppress). Avoiding the full experience of a powerful emotion could seem a reasonable response, and certainly there are times (like in childhood, or cases of severe trauma) where the mind and/or body are not equipped to process events as they transpire. Alexander argued that a person who was mal-coordinated would have been more prone to perceive events as disruptive, and be further unbalanced by them, whereas someone with better coordination would be less likely to perceive events as disruptive, and more able to re-calibrate to handle disturbances. Think of surfing: the ocean is constantly moving, but a surfer who is sure-footed on her board is able to navigate ebbs and swells without losing her balance — and can even maximize her response to such changes, such that she can harness the power of the waves and go for a ride!

If we have a history of avoiding strong emotions (and most of us do, whether it's anger or shame or joy) it can be an exercise in suffering to allow those sensations to be acknowledged in our awareness and to pass through the body. We tell ourselves some version of “I can't handle this,” in the belief that we're successfully avoiding feeling the feeling. But this attempt to diminish or stifle the expression of an emotion just saves it up for later — and in fact locks it into our nervous system, so that the reaction it activated persists at a low level, unresolved and ready to fire up again at the next hint of danger. By contrast, allowing ourselves to feel what we're feeling can be crazy uncomfortable in the moment, but allows for resolution… And can turn out to be not that bad after all!

Here's what happened to me: I took a risk expressing interest in spending time with someone; their response indicated that my interest was not reciprocated. Next thing I knew, I found myself hurrying to gather my things (and get outta there!). I caught the slight trembling in my upper torso and arms as I fidgeted with my jacket, and in the moment, I simply let that go… I dropped my hands to my sides, directed my attention to feeling my feet on the floor, and just stood there feeling my nervousness. “I'm embarrassed,” I thought, and just let that be so. I decided I didn't have to do anything about it. I let myself feel the flush of strong emotion, and just hung in there with it. They kept talking, I stood and listened, and soon enough the intensity of the feeling passed. It remained true that I felt somewhat exposed, but I didn't compound the damage by pressuring myself to hide or act. It's a source of pride, and makes me feel mature, to know that I can withstand some uncomfortable emotions — and live to tell the tale!

 

May 162015
 

Some positions within the Dart sequence demonstrated by Judith Muir

I use the Dart Procedures in lessons and classes to help students explore Alexander Technique principles via movement through a variety of positions. Working on myself in this manner has yielded tremendous results in changes to my posture and strength, and are an unending source of revelation about spirals in the body — and the ways we interfere with our natural design.

In anticipation of teaching a 6-week class on the Dart Procedures, I’m quoting *all the text below* from Dance and the Alexander Technique: Exploring the Missing Link, by Rebecca Nettl-Fiol and Luc Vanier, teachers of dance as well as AT. You can learn more about their work at www.dancealexandertechnique.com. Click here for a video.

Who was Dart?

Dr. Raymond Dart

Raymond Arthur Dart (1893-1988) was an Australian anthropologist, neuroanatomist, doctor, and educator best known for discovering and naming the Australopithecus africanus, known as the Taung Child. In his book, Adventures with the Missing Link, Dart postulated his discovery to be a missing link between apes and humans because it had features of both, including evidence of upright posture and dental characteristics of a human, along with a small brain and facial attributes of an ape. This discovery, although controversial in the beginning, was eventually given the recognition it deserved. Dart’s work led to significant insights into human evolution, and he is widely recognized now for his major contributions to science and human knowledge.

The Dart sequence

Dart’s experiences with the Alexander Technique began when he sought lessons for his infant son, Galen, who was born premature and suffered from cyanotic attacks, leaving him brain-injured and spastic. Irene Tasker, assistant to F.M. Alexander, worked with Galen for two years, bringing about significant changes to his bite and posture (Murray 2006). Dart was profoundly influenced by Alexander through lessons with Tasker and continued practicing and exploring the technique on his own. Within four years of being introduced to the techinque, Dart had written several papers about what he had learned, including “The Postural Aspect of Malocclusion” in 1946, and “The Attainment of Poise” in 1947. In 1949, Dart had a single lesson with F.M. Alexander himself.

How the Dart Procedures Came About

Joan and Alexander Murray met Raymond Dart in 1967 after twelve years of studying the Alexander Technique. The path that led the Murrays to Dart began when Alex Murray and his Alexander teacher, Walter Carrington, were discussing the role of the jaw in the balance of the head. Carrington recommended that Murray read Dart’s paper, “The Postural Aspect of Malocclusion.” Murray was captivated by the article: it so intrigued him that he copied it out by hand (Dart 1996, xi). In the paper, Dart described a sequence of evolutionary stages, or what he called “the pronograde and ventigrade phases of postural evolution,” which he suggested were useful for the exploration of “posture and poise” and to show the relationship between posture and malocclusion of the jaw (Dart 1996, 106). Alex was fascinated with the links between the Alexander Technique and the postiions described by Dart, and he patiently worked through these postiions on his own, exploring Dart’s writing by physically doing the movements as they were written. Joan and Alex worked together, putting the positions into a sequence and looking to see how the Alexander principles could help in bringing about the best use while doing the movments. This experience gave them new insights into human movement that were completely in line with what they had understood of Alexander’s work.

Developmental Movement: Toward Understanding Alexander’s Principles

Spirals in movement

The Dart Procedures contain a series of positions that, when linked, become a movement sequence that retraces the path of developmental and evolutionary patterns. It is not the movement sequence itself that is important, but the principles implied in each movement segment that provides the vehicle for experimentation. Learning the movements or positions is only the beginning of the journey toward learning about one’s movement patterns. “Working with these procedures will not teach one the Alexander Technique, but patient and intelligent investigation by one with no Alexander experience may still lead to a certain enlightenment by revealing inefficient patterns of movement and helping to discard them. Undertaken with the guidance of a skilled Alexander teacher, they are a constant source of insight and a point of reference in one’s patterns of behavior. One can continually return to these as to Alexander’s ‘positions of mechanical advantage’ in which category they certainly belong” (Murray 1988, 69).

Works cited

Dart, Raymond A. 1996. Skill and Poise. London: STAT.

Murray, Alexander. 1988. “The Dart Procedures.” Direction 1, no. 3: 68-71

———. 2006. “Raymond A. Dart and F.M. Alexander.” AmSAT News 71 (Summer 2006): 16-18.

Nettl-Fiol, Rebecca and Luc Vanier. 2011. Dance and the Alexander Technique: Exploring the missing link. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mar 252015
 

I’ve heard people with “forward head posture” tell me they’ve tried to remedy this issue by sleeping on their back without a pillow. This is a BAD IDEA. The simple reason (aside from the new pain they report) is that years of “forward head posture” compresses the cervical spine in an exaggerated curve; going without a pillow doesn’t un-do this compression, and leaving this mal-positioned head without support only strains the numerous delicate muscles of the throat (and causes a host of other strains).

The phrase “forward head posture” is commonly used to describe a postural imbalance where the head is carried forward in relation to the torso. What the Alexander Technique distinguishes is that, in fact, the head is tipped BACKWARDS in relation to its balance point on the spine; it may be forward from where it “ought” to be, but in order for this poor soul to see straight ahead, s/he has actually tipped the head backwards to compensate for a PULL DOWN in the cervical spine – and, in fact, a pull down in the entire torso (see how the tail is tucked and the guts are squished?).

Sternocleidomastoid in red

I can appreciate the intention behind typical recommendations like these: “strengthen weak neck muscles” with chin tucks, “open the chest” with shoulder blade squeezes, and “think of a string pulling your neck into length.”

But squeezing the shoulder blades together doesn’t open a narrowed chest, it squeezes back muscles. Tucking the chin (from this position) pressurizes the throat and cervical spine. Stretching the back of the neck doesn’t release the downward pull of the very strong sternocleidomastoid muscle, which is shortened after a lifetime of sitting (in poorly designed chairs/cars/seating of all kinds), feeling pressured to “get things done”, and an appalling lack of healthy movement.

Many delicate connections!

The relationship between head, neck, torso, and arms is d-e-l-i-c-a-t-e. Years of misuse and shortened muscles cannot be undone by going without a pillow or forcefully tucking your chin; that just causes more pain. It IS possible to change “forward head posture”, but it takes a comprehensive approach to learn how to STOP DOING all the bad habits that created this mess.

Head is supported in Constructive Rest

Head is supported in Constructive Rest

The classic Constructive Rest practice supports the head and allows a lengthening in the entire torso. Releasing tension across the chest by learning a new way to move the arms, freeing up the hip joints so the legs and pelvis can provide support and stability, activating the organs to support the length of the spine and width of the torso, clarifying an understanding (and experience) of how the body is designed to move and balance… These are the tactics I’ve employed to alter my own postural habits, but first and foremost they came from a willingness to question my mental and emotional attitudes that created pressure and interfered with the natural buoyancy and support structure of my body.

In the collage below, you see me at age 25 (blacksmithing and playing guitar), with noticeable head-forward posture, including hunched shoulders. If you draw a line along the arc of my neck through my head, you’ll see that the curve angles forward and DOWN. On the bottom right of the collage, you’ll see me at 41 — looking down, but the arc of my neck is forward and UP, and my shoulders are no longer hunched up.

 

 

Mar 242015
 

For the past few years I've been grappling with some health issues. While I'm making significant progress, some of my symptoms still reoccur — bouts of intense abdominal pain that include leg spasms, or all-over joint/muscle pain that feels as if every cell of my body is constricted. Of course these episodes usually happen in the middle of the night, when I'm mildly delirious. In times like this, the Alexander Technique has been an immeasurable blessing.

Grasping...

Last night was one of the all-over aching ones… likely a food reaction (I've experienced similar consequences when I eat nightshade vegetables). After getting out of bed around 2am to move around, I realized this was a reaction I would just have to let pass through. So, lying in bed in a dull constriction of pain and sleepy fog, I set to Directing.

“Gentle wishes” are how my trainer describes Directing. It's a process of expressing an intent, without making any effort to DO anything about it. You cannot force this kind of outcome, you can only invite it — and wait.

Gentle touch

So with kindness, I began to wish a softening upon my cells — a sort of opening to the pain. Opening to the pain itself, or opening in response to the pain? I can't say. I just went about visiting all my limbs, digits, skin, torso, face, head, neck with the lightest of mental touches, wishing for softness.

I know that I drifted back off to sleep, and also awoke finally with a reassuring sense of delicacy. Not of fragility, but an experience of myself and of all the objects I'm now touching with lightness. I don't have to grab a cup I'm taking from the cupboard; I can lay my fingers sweetly on its surface and expend the least amount of energy to lift and move it. I can hold the spoon lightly as I stir my breakfast. It takes hardly any weight at all to slice through butter, to pull a sweater over my arms. I like meeting my world in this way… Thank you, Alexander Technique — AND pain.

 

Mar 122015
 

In this week’s class at NYS3, we considered these questions:

What is habit? What are the qualities of habit? How do we recognize when habit is operating? How can we respond to habit? What’s possible when we assert CHOICE in the face of habit?

What is meant by “direction”? How do we engage (with) the directions specified by F.M. Alexander?

What’s in-between a) recognizing habit, and c) directing ourselves?

The phrase “one after the other and all together” indicates the interrelatedness of the phases involved in activating choice.

imageWe start by recognizing habit (or even just presuming it’s operating, since likely it is!).

Habit is characterized not only by a sense of the familiar, but by “checking out” or an absence of presence, a sense that we “already know” and therefore don’t need to pay attention or be curious; we’re running on autopilot. Once we recognize that habit is operating, we can discontinue giving consent to the continuation of habit (whether it be a mental attitude or a postural coordination or muscular tightening) — by saying “no”, or pausing, or believing that it’s possible to say no to habit. That’s taking a foot off the accelerator, so that there’s room to un-do the patterns associated with habit.

Un-doing is a sort of re-routing of energy, calling it back from unnecessary places and intending for it to go other places. These intentions or “gentle wishes” are what we mean by Directing. Trying to “do” anything, like re-position parts or even tell the psychophysical system what it ought to do, is all just more of the same: Habit, thinking we already know, masquerading as “getting it right.”

Effective Directing is a matter of Allowing. We’ve managed to identify reliable trends in that allowing — when we say “no” to stiffening the neck, the head releases forward-and-up; when the torso isn’t shortened and narrowed, it lengthens and widens; when the hips are not held, the knees go forward-and-away. But we can’t receive these benefits by trying to do anything about them. Directing is more like rolling out the welcome mat than it is strong-arming your guests through the door :)

Will the circuitous nature of Awareness-Inhibition-Direction create conditions for ongoing improvement or ongoing deterioration? The desirable result will depend on how we make our choices, with an attitude of allowing, with clarity in our body’s anatomy, and with the layering of experiences that give us a glimpse of a new way of working. The more we activate good Direction by being aware and inhibiting, the more quickly we’re aware (before habit gets too far gone), the less mess there is to un-do, and the closer we become to realizing our true potential.

Jan 062015
 

Everyday slouchToday, I heard someone comment sadly that she’s been “trying to fix” her posture for ten years now; her back hurts all the time, and yet she “can’t seem to remember” to sit/stand/whatever how she “should”. I realize now — after fifteen years of study, three intense years of training to teach, and the deepening yield of my ongoing work — that applying inhibition and direction, what in the Alexander Technique we call “working on oneself,” isn’t the kind of thing you “remember” to do. The true application of this work is really in itself the result of a decision — but for me, it wasn’t so much a decision I made: IT made ME. I wanted to say to this young person, there just comes a moment (sometimes it drags out, but in hindsight you can see the shift), there comes a moment when you’re just done, or ready, or whatever it is for you, for this work to be something that takes you on, that becomes you. Then it simply is who you are. It’s never necessary to “remember” who you are; the world is showing you, always, and now there’s an awareness of it, a sense of Self that stands outside the self you see. You know there’s a You that’s choosing what’s so right now, and you can choose again.

Once you’ve made this first choice, the choice to recognize that choice is possible, the more power Choice-Making has, the more it demands its own activation. I want to admit: I’ve often chosen to abdicate my power of choice. That might not be apparent from the outside, but to me it seems that only very recently am I daring to touch on the true power of choosing — choosing to stop; deeply and and truly STOP. I catch myself in the moment of compulsion, of habit, and though it seems like the worst idea ever, (sometimes) I simply stop, and wait, and watch. Let me be clear: stopping like this is unutterably terrifying. The sensaSpeeding traintion is one of turning to face a speeding train that’s hot on my heels: A grisly death seems unavoidable. Yet asserting my intention to stop (and continuing to assert it! Moment by moment!) seems to sweep me right on top of the train, and if I keep my focus on being with the train, rather than running from it, its momentum slows and the panic dissipates.

I never knew how much stillness was possible, how much freedom. I know I’ve only caught a glimpse of it. Stopping like this isn’t something I have to remember to do; I couldn’t now forget how, not for anything. That does not in any way make stopping less painstaking, Still pondonly inevitable. Although it takes all my courage to stop, the habit of complacency just seems less tenable. Now Awareness is chasing me down, to where I feel a sense of choicelessness, that I MUST choose. The choices are making me. I see myself on an unyielding trajectory of awareness that is eased and pleased by my active participation. I’m going there anyway, to the Deep Quiet Self, but oh how much fullness is allowed when I surrender to it now!!

Apr 152014
 

I've been taking vision lessons with a Bates Method practitioner since last September. Having worn glasses for 32 years, “elation” describes what I feel as flashes of clear vision come more and more frequently. While I certainly believed in theory that my eyesight could improve, my past solo attempts yielded no results. Now that I've been working with a teacher I can see why: Not wearing glasses is not the same as learning how to SEE without them. However much I wanted to see clearly, thought about it, talked about it, proselytized the sense of it, I hadn't actually stepped into the reality of actions that would bring about my desired result until I started taking vision lessons.

Once I started having flashes of clearer vision, it was easier to notice the conditions under which I reach for my glasses: being in a hurry, feeling out of place, concerned, annoyed or frustrated, or wanting to be efficient and “get things done.” Lucky for me, my Bates Method teacher is also my Alexander Technique student, and like all good students he teaches me about what I'm teaching him! The lure of old habits — of thought and mood, as much as habits of movement — is powerful. I know the value of stopping to pause, consider, assess, and choose a new response, but hearing it reflected back to me is an incredible gift.

I've made giant strides in negotiating my vision habits. But a particularly challenging one has been noticing how comfortable I am with things being fuzzy.

I don't like this fuzziness, but I'm used to it. I see this pattern in my students, as I recall my own process of studying Alexander Technique. We get used to being uncomfortable. Ornery, encumbered, pressured, tense — these states feel normal, customary. It's how we know ourselves. To let go of these familiar ways of being requires letting go of fundamental ways we self-identify. In short, to give up the perceived validity and necessity of being in pain, being constrained, being limited requires that we give up who we know ourselves to be.

What does it take to be willing to be someone, some way other than what/who we already know and (despite our wishful thinking, or perhaps because of it) expect ourselves to continue to be?

For some it is the unbearability of the status quo; pain is a powerful motivator for change… but it's not the level of pain but one's unwillingness to continue tolerating it that initiates change. Analagous to boiled frogs,* people can accustom themselves to inordinate amounts of discomfort.

There's no question that this stage is an uncomfortable one. Or maybe it's only uncomfortable when I notice how it conflicts with my practiced patterns of self-belief. If I follow Sherlock Holmes' admonition, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, then the remedy is in disbelief! When I stop perpetuating my old beliefs, I find evidence for new ones.

To shift my experience of seeing clearly, I've had to practice anticipating differently, thinking of myself as someone who CAN and DOES see well without glasses. This inspired me to go back to ground zero, spending more time with the most basic vision practices. Deliberately chosen beliefs and inspired action lead to desirable results, and I can happily report that my progress is clear and satisfying!


*A frog placed in a pot of tepid water will continually adjust its body temperature if the pot is slowly heated to a boil – boiling the frog in the process.

 

Mar 172014
 

No, I'm not talking here about prejudice. One of the mixed blessings of studying the Alexander Technique is that you lose your tolerance for moods and behaviors that don't serve you. Yesterday a student of mine reported that she was full of ease after doing the Constructive Rest practice, when her husband called her over to review some photos on his laptop. As soon as she'd spent a minute craning over his shoulder to see the screen, her shoulder hurt worse than ever. I explained that once we open up stuck places, going back to the old patterns of tension becomes intolerable. Muscles that have finally come even the least little bit free from old tensions are loathe to return — and will let you know! A once-comfortable sofa becomes a nighmare of collapse. Curling up with a book is muddying and unpleasant. Pressurizing (stressing) oneself becomes abhorrent. We can no longer abide our old ways of being, of thinking, of responding.

Of course, we always retain the right to engage in those old habits of thought and deed. But no longer can we claim ignorance of the effects, or our complicity. All the ways we've rationalized or ignored our mistreatment of ourselves, in fact our prejudices against life, just don't hold water.

It may not seem fun to lose the illusion of those old comforts… Freedom is not for the faint of heart.

If we knew that undertaking this work would transform us in ways unimaginable, if we knew in advance that we would lose the self we think of as “me”, who would begin?? The desperate, the enlightened? Pain is a powerful motivator, but there are unseen forces at work too.

My guiding philosphy is that Expansion is the nature of the Universe. We can fight it, a little or a lot, but always it will have its way with us. Surfing is an apt anology here: The ocean is doing its thing, and we can despair at being tossed about, or learn to navigate its powerful ebbs and flows with respect, skill, enjoyment. Learning to go with that expansion — even, or especially, when it unmoors us from the carefully crafted Self we call home — is the game that opens the door for recognizing the limitlessness within.

Truth hath no confines.

 

Triumph of the Human Spirit

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Feb 192014
 

While walking to the class I teach at the “College for Seniors” I encountered one of my students who has kyphosis – he is dramatically hunched forward in his thoracic spine, so that his head is carried in front of his chest. He nevertheless remains quite physically active, but has obvious concerns about the effect of his posture on health and vitality.

Although the class is titled “Poise, Posture, Presence” I’ve emphasized repeatedly that it is not my aim to tell students a “right” way to do anything – sit, stand, walk, climb stairs. Instead they’ve been observing themselves and each other, questioning their habitual approaches to ordinary activity (in attitude as well as muscular “readiness”), and investigating how to allow better balance and psycho-physical organization to coordinate movement.

This student shared a success that, to me, epitomizes the power of Alexander Technique to effect subtle yet profound change, the gem of which is self-determination.

He described: “Every day I reach up to a shelf to retrieve about ten different prescriptions. I open the bottles, take out a pill, screw the cap back on, and replace each bottle on the shelf. Invariably I knock one off the shelf or drop a cap or spill a bottle’s contents and have to clean it up, which takes extra time and energy. But I’ve started pausing for just a moment before I pick up each bottle from the shelf, and before putting each lid back on. I’ve been inhibiting a less-coordinated movement so I have time to think about what I’m doing. And in the last week I’ve not dropped a single bottle!”

When it comes to “improving performance”, the Alexander Technique doesn’t prioritize fine art or executive presentations or Olympian athletics over small, mundane actions like keeping hands steady enough to re-cap a pill bottle. Perhaps more than any grand act, these tiny moments of accomplishment accumulate to formalize our sense of self, how we know ourselves – capable of awareness and directed intent for whatever we wish to achieve in life.

 

Superattunement to What’s Going On

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Feb 122014
 


I just read an astonishing article about a 94-year-old woman athlete — who didn’t take up track and field until she was 77. Attempts to define what’s special about her that could help others retain and improve their fitness reveal it’s not diet or genes that keep her from injury; it’s interoception, a practiced attunement to the body that allows her to keep improving as she gets older!
This is what we’re practicing in Constructive Rest: Taking time to pause, wait, observe, tune in. See what author Bruce Grierson says in What Makes Olga Run (emphasis mine):

Many masters athletes pop anti-inflammatories like candy. Olga doesn’t. Anti-inflammatories mask pain so that athletes feel they can then push on, often into the damage zone. But if you’re alive to the first stirrings that there’s a problem—it may be a problem of technique, or a muscle imbalance, or just overuse—you can step away before you start shaving away the cartilage, creating more inflammation, compounding the problem, and eventually hobbling home on your new titanium knee (or rolling home with your new titanium hip). By stepping away and resting, she leaves the repair work to nature, which has had a few million years to get it right. “The body,” she says frequently, “is built to heal itself.”

When something starts to feel a bit off, Olga stops doing it. When she senses she’s being overtaxed, she withdraws from the tipping-point event. She doesn’t owe anybody anything— not some sponsor, not meet organizers, not fans. The buck stops with her. Her position reminds me of that of Kenyan Patrick Makau Musyoki, the world-record holder in the marathon (2:03:38). Like Olga, Makau is coachless. That way, “you can listen to your own body and take time to recover after training,” he told a reporter recently. “Sometimes a coach pushes too much.”

There is a name for this faculty of superattunement for what’s going on inside your body. It’s called interoception. To be interoceptive is like being introspective, but to sensations rather than emotions or thoughts.

Receptors throughout the body are continuously recording information. They track changes in cardiac output, hormonal and metabolic activity, even immune-system activation—the level to which we are “run-down.” There are receptors scattered all through the fascia—the network of connective tissue that wraps every organ and every muscle and connects to every ligament—and they are hair-trigger transmitters of “tensional strain” anywhere in the body.

All this information goes into the brain. And here differences between people emerge. Some of us are better than others at picking up those faint signals and dredging them into consciousness.

There are signs that Olga is adept at this. She says she can feel a cold coming on, and when she does she takes a baby aspirin to “get out in front of it.” She’s conscious of what to eat, and how much, and when. She has a great line of communication with her gut.

Killer attunement to your body’s signals is a fine thing to have if you’re an athlete—and not just because you can stop before you cause an injury. Studies have found that it actually boosts performance. Elite marathoners pay close attention to their internal landscape—breathing, heart rate, cadence, how the muscles feel—while nonelite marathoners do just the opposite: they try to distract themselves from the pain. Some evidence suggests that tuning in, rather than dropping out, could have other benefits, including healthy longevity.

Source: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/10/seeking-the-keys-to-longevity-in-what-makes-olga-run

 

Meeting Ourselves

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Oct 142013
 

TouchI just attended a workshop with Tommy Thompson, an Alexander Technique teacher from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The focus of the day was on Touch, or more accurately on Contact — the contact we make both with our physical selves and otherwise…. What is the contact we make, with ourselves and others? How aware can we be of the Self we bring to any and every encounter? In what ways do we touch, and allow ourselves to be touched?

We explored several ways of bringing awareness to ourselves as we interacted with a partner. Tommy reframes the Alexander principle of “Inhibition” as “Withholding Definition.” First we looked at someone and identified the ways we define them: their looks, manner, characteristics, the conclusions we make based on all that. Then we looked again, refraining from labeling anything we saw. What is it like to remain open, questioning, undefined in one’s observation of another? Can we find ourselves as open as the way we perceive them? Can we refrain from defining ourselves even as we meet them?

I found that the practice of withholding definition creating a profound level of connection, of intimacy, with someone I’d just met. My experience of myself was deeply touching, and the quality of the Alexander work we then exchanged was amazingly clear and uplifting.

I am looking forward to sharing this new level of awareness with my students!

The Stories We Tell

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Jan 192013
 

I’ve been interested lately in how I use my voice — listening to both the words that come out of my mouth, and the quality of what I hear. Already there are layers to what I’m describing. By “quality” I mean both the resonance of the sound of my voice (is it full or constricted? lively or dull?), the way you would describe the tone of a musical instrument; and also the value of the words I am choosing (are they words of upliftment or criticism, hopefulness or pessimism?). I also notice how this quality seems to indicate, or maybe create, a dynamic with my listener. Behind my talking self, I’ve found myself noticing occasions when I seem to be pulling my voice away from the person, rather than giving it to them. This occurs for me as a sort of clamping down in my vocal cords and is mirrored in what I’m saying or with the “done/sure”-ness of the content. It seems to me that I more often notice a substandard quality of my voice when I am already not feeling happy with what I’m saying or how I’m saying it — as if there are multiple levels on which I register “my” agreement with what’s coming out. That “my” is of a higher level of awareness, the Me that is aimed toward appreciation, expansion, joy.

So what I noticed the other night was both a feeling in my throat, like the beginning of a sore throat (oh no, I thought I was over this!), as well as a raspy quality that seemed a direct result of the story I was telling. I was describing to a friend a very distressing situation at my day job, one I’ve both voiced and thought A LOT about lately. I woke the next morning feeling full-on sick.

I’m a believer in the energetic source of events, not merely physical; so while I set to making from-scratch chicken soup with homemade fermented pickles, sprayed my throat with Thieves (antimicrobial) essential oil, and took a hot bath and a big nap after getting home from work, I also employed essential oils to clear negative energy (White Angelica, Lavender, Myrrh) and set an intention for my bath of forgiving and releasing my anger.

Later in the evening I noticed how much better I felt. And this morning I feel REALLY GOOD. In my bath I explored what I’d RATHER be putting my attention on than this distress, and was deliberate about focusing there as often as possible. As I fell asleep I felt cradled by my – and the Universe’s – good intentions, and sure in the prospect of actualizing the future I am excited about. The trend to dwell on the indignation and righteousness I’ve been practicing is still there, but I keep reminding myself of what I’d rather think about. This bit of improvement makes it more possible for me to notice where else in my body those harsh thoughts land — how my back stiffens and my breath shortens when I think like that. But I have a choice now: I know (oh boy do I know!) that I don’t feel good thinking about that situation, and I can in fact direct my attention to what feels better. I’m making that deliberate choice. I’m telling a new story now, one that serves me better and sounds a whole lot more fun!

Cleaning House with Alexander Technique

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Jul 192012
 

I found myself today playing a mental exercise, asking, “WHY do I want a clean house?” Because (I answered myself) I want to be free of the feeling that it needs to be cleaned; I want to not see dirt on the floor, so that I don’t have to interpret it as something to respond to. Ah, I realized; even beyond my floor being clean, my deepest want is to be free of feeling compelled to respond to the dirt…. And that is something I have control over! 

This thought experiment occurred while I was in Constructive Rest, the practice I recommend for all my students: Lie on your back with your head on some books and legs supported, and just breathe. (This is especially rejuvenating after 30 minutes of vacuuming with a “Power Paw” wand extension, since the belt on our vacuum keeps breaking….) There’s a game one can play during this rest practice: Give yourself an impulse to act (for example, I’m going to lift my elbow), then choose from the following:
1. Act in the habitual way (lifting with effort).
2. Refrain from consenting to habit (of engaging effort, tightening, contracting — even in anticipation of the action, without even following through), by refraining from acting.
3. Establish my directions (expansive energy), such that the expansion initiates the movement (*this is better understood once you’ve had lessons!!), and letting my elbow elevate.
4. Do something else entirely (i.e., move my foot, speak, blink).

The purpose of this game is to break the chain of habitual response (generally one of contraction) and apply directed thought (generally and specifically) as a means of initiating action, while maintaining an awareness of all the options available. What if I applied this process to my housecleaning situation? I could see dirt on the floor, and:
1. Feel that something needs to be done about it.
2. Remind myself that, in fact, no such thing needs be done; I could just keep leaving it there.
3. Tune into my personal pride and preference that my floor be free of dirt, and clean it up with satisfaction — even enjoyment!
4. Turn my attention to something else entirely: appreciating what a beautiful day it is, looking forward to swimming/dinner with friends/reading my new book, celebrating my new-found freedom from the compulsion to clean :-)

The Work of Byron Katie and the Alexander Technique

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Dec 292011
 
If you’ve ever encountered the Work of Byron Katie, here’s a snapshot of how it compares to the Alexander Technique that demonstrates how both work to undo habits of thinking. The Alexander Technique brings this perspective shift into the body, where all our thinking manifests, allowing us to undo habits of physical tension and live freer lives.

Applying the principles of the Alexander Technique is akin to following the format of The Work of Byron Katie.

The Work                                                        Alexander Technique

I have to sit down, I’m going to sit down. I have to sit down, I’m going to sit down.
Is that true?  No.

Can I absolutely know it’s true?   No.

Wait. I’ve practiced catching myself in this moment, giving myself instructions and inserting a pause before responding–refraining from giving automatic/unconscious consent to this or any activity.
How do I react when I believe that statement? How do I treat myself and others? How do I treat objects, and in fact my entire experience?I stiffen my neck, I shorten and narrow my back, I lock my knees, I grip with my toes, I pull down onto my chest, I stop breathing. I let the thought of ending up in the chair be more important that how I treat myself en route. I forsake my Now for a future result. I check out of my body, out of my balance. I’ve come to see the ways I compromise myself in this (and every) activity, and I’ve practiced saying “no” to those habits of contraction, resistance, withdrawal, tension, absence.
Who would I be without that thought?I’d be free, in my movement and in my reaction. I wouldn’t have to go anywhere, I wouldn’t have to do anything. I’d be fine right here, just where I am. I could let go of trying, and just be. I wouldn’t have anything better to do than be with myself, explore this moment, enjoy the ride. I’m not going to sit down.I’m not going to think of sitting.Instead, I’m going to think of my head balancing on a freely lengthened spine and widened back. I’m going to keep my stature while I simply let my knees ease forward into space, maintaining awareness of my balance as I simply open into movement. Oh, there’s a chair there; what a lovely thing to welcome into my current experience.

(Shorthand) I let my neck be free to let my head go forward and up to let my back lengthen and widen to let my legs go forward and away.

 

Chinese Philosophy and Alexander Technique

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Dec 232011
 

This is a favorite story of mine, as a metaphor for what the Alexander Technique makes possible. I especially like that it’s titled “The Secret of Caring for Life”!

————————————————————–

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee–zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now–now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

A good cook changes his knife once a year–because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month–because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room–more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until–flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

     

Chuang Tzu, “The Secret of Caring for Life (section 3),” Basic Writings. Trans. Burton Watson. Columbia: New York, 1964, pp. 46-7.

Hula Hoop and Alexander Technique

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Jan 062011
 
Last night I attended my second hula hoop class, offered free at my local YMCA. All in all, this was my third (adult) attempt to hula, and I’m thrilled to see how it’s a perfect application of the Alexander Technique. Let me explain:

One way the AT provides more freedom and ease is in learning a new activity (not just re-learning a familiar one, like that old sit-to-stand). The awareness I’ve developed helps me examine what exactly I’m doing in my hula attempts, and recognize that I have OPTIONS about how I could move in that activity. One trick called for swinging the hoop in clockwise and counter-clockwise circles with arms extended and palms facing down, transferring the hoop from hand to hand in front and in back. As I considered how this motion felt, and watched myself in the mirror, I realized that I could allow more freedom in my shoulders, letting my shoulder blades and shoulder joints move as separate elements from my neck and spine, and thus make it both feel more comfortable and appear as a more seamless movement. What a relief! My posture was more upright, my arms swung easily, I caught the hoop with accuracy, and it looked like I’d been doing it for ages. Easier and more fun — that’s what I’m after.

What shoes to wear for posture and health?

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May 262010
 

My Alexander Technique students sometimes ask me what kind of shoes I recommend. There certainly are a plethora of options available and no shortage of opinions on the best shoe for foot health and good posture, so I’m happy to throw in my two cents!

I don’t recommend MBTs or EarthShoes, for the same reason given by most Alexander Teachers: Don’t ask the technology/tool to do the work that we’re designed to do, namely to use our bodies with balance and poise. There’s no substitute for bringing conscious awareness to how you’re using yourself, while walking or doing anything else. Our work is about allowing graceful movement through a positive relationship with gravity, rather than relying on the mechanics of nylon/rubber to keep us strong and healthy.

I firmly believe that the best shoe is no shoe at all. Human feet are designed to give us all the support we need to navigate uneven terrain, balance us upright, and affirm our deep connection with the Earth. A 2007 article in the podiatry journal The Foot demonstrated that “prior to the invention of shoes, people had healthier feet.”http://www.livingbarefoot.info/  I encourage my students to spend as much time unshod as possible, gradually increasing their comfort and flexibility. A wonderful way to strengthen your feet–as well as slow down and tune in with the natural world–is to walk barefoot in the woods. This practice encourages you to step lightly and soften your feet to accommodate roots, rocks, branches, dirt. Notice how (barefoot) toddlers and cats place their feet gently as they step, and allow yourself to imitate their lightness in a practice of walking meditation(http://www.wildmind.org/walking/overview).

However, you might reasonably argue that modern living (i.e., cement, broken glass, gross stuff on the street) precludes walking around barefoot.Thankfully, progressive thinkers are creating shoes to protect us from the dangers of unnatural terrain while giving the foot as much flexibility as possible. Vibram and Terra Plana are two companies that have created shoes with a puncture-resistant sole, while maintaining as much flexibility as possible so that feet can move as they are designed. I have not had the opportunity to try FiveFingers shoes; apparently they’re so popular they’re out of stock in stores. I have heard positive reviews from those who wear them, with two drawbacks: 1) they can feel hot/cold on city streets, and 2) they look funny!

I HAVE had the opportunity to get my own pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes from Terra Plana, and I love them!!http://www.terraplana.com/vivobarefoot Vivos meet all my needs for foot protection while allowing as much freedom of movement as possible — and they have a great selection of styles. Supporters of Vivo Barefoot Technology include the inventor of ChiRunning, chiropractors, physical therapists, trainers, and of course, Alexander Technique teachers!http://www.terraplana.com/vivo_friends.php In fact, the Vivo shoe was first designed with the input of Richard Brennan, a certified AT teacher who runs a training program in Ireland and who, while visiting my training program in Berkeley, raved about his Vivos.

I hope you enjoy doing your own research and exploration on this topic, take more opportunities to take off your shoes, and let your toes do the walking!

Meditative Consciousness in Activity

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Feb 222010
 

There is no substitute for meditation, but have you ever wished you could tap back into the peacefulness of your sitting practice while standing in line at the grocery store? Or waiting in traffic? Or giving a presentation? Or even while disagreeing with your partner? The Alexander Technique employs a practical approach to cultivating this kind of awareness and ease in the waking state.

What do I mean by “Meditative Consciousness in Activity”?  I’ll start by proposing that in meditation, we are practicing connecting with a larger sense of self than the thoughts that come through the mind, larger than the experience of our single physical existence. One practice of meditation involves releasing a thought as it is recognized, or labeling it “thinking” in order to disengage from or prevent getting caught up in following that thought. The Alexander principle of Inhibition is akin to this method. In applying this principle, we practice saying “no” to the activation of a familiar/habitual response. At first a student is assisted by an Alexander teacher in practicing saying “no” to any thought of movement that activates patterns of tension, while staying present to one’s overall state of coordination. This is a moment of active choice, of choosing to be consciously aware of the quality of thought manifesting in the physical body, instead of allowing oneself to get caught up in the passing thoughts of the mind and losing touch with how we’re being in theprocess of carrying out an activity.

A teacher of mine likened the practice of meditating to building a compost pile: You just keep adding to it — banana peels, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds — day after day after day, and at some point those single additions merge and transform into rich soil from which new life can grow. In any moment, an Alexander teacher is in the same position as a new student; we continually face opportunities to choose to say “no” to being taken off-center by physical, emotional, or mental stimuli. But over time, the long-term adherent to Alexander’s principles may find themselves quicker to notice the inclination toward a habitual reaction, and thus can head it off before there’s time for old patterns to revive. The practice of applying Inhibition, saying “no” to the thoughts that activate our habitual responses, frees up the body from accustomed patterns of tension and allows that deep sense of peacefulness within to characterize our every moment.

 

Favorite quotes from Marjory Barlow

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Feb 152010
 

These are some of my favorite quotes from Marjory Barlow. Marjory trained with F.M. Alexander, qualifying to teach the Technique in 1935. The UKTimesOnline reported in her 2006 obituary: 

“A book of her reminiscences, An Examined Life (1992), edited by Trevor Allan Davies, provides insights into how her Alexander work informed every moment of her life. Her readings of FM’s books are exemplary, illuminating his meaning and showing that the voice [sic] training FM had given her still held good, even in her late eighties.”

“Volition always has an element of the habitual and familiar about it. Inhibition is almost the neural equivalent of saying, ‘I don’t know.’ We’re all afraid of not knowing. It’s our only security.” p. 31

“There is a process (inhibition and direction) which fosters a heightened condition of consciousness. An unconscious person cannot make themselves more conscious by controlling themselves with their unconsciousness. With the Alexander Technique we allow a growth of consciousness by inhibiting and directing. By following these indirect means, we arrive at a place where we find ourselves using increasingly conscious guidance and control. We discover consciousness by inhibiting unconscious behavior. It arises in the gap. It’s something that is there waiting, not something we create. And the nature of consciousness becomes very clear. Consciousness is certainly not something that you do.” p. 43

“The whole secret of life is in the knowing. To see it, without trying to change it. Because it’s changed in the seeing.” p. 69

When practicing “lying down work,” or Constructive Rest: “Give your directions do nothing and then see what kind of nothing you’re doing. ” p. 234