Jun 072017
 

“It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘try to be a little kinder‘.”  — Aldous Huxley 

 

Practicing kindness toward myself has been the biggest growth opportunity of my life. Being stern with myself has always seemed necessary and normal, but I now recognize that it doesn’t actually help me accomplish my aims — or feel more at ease, which I now see is a prerequisite for success! For that I have the Alexander Technique to thank; learning to be (more) comfortable with being uncomfortable has made it possible for me to be receptive, explore, express, and — MOST importantly — have FUN.

Being okay with feeling awkward was the foundation of learning to dance, taking my first classes at age 29 and progressing from modern dance through swing, blues, and salsa to Argentine tango, while dabbling in 5Rhythms, Nia, and who knows what else. I discovered I could PLAY: in addition to dance, I’ve gotten a kick out of comedy improv, contact improv, getting to know my innards by rolling around on the floor, exploring movement like a baby, sharing games with my students and classes, and acting foolishly in general 🙂

Lightening up is a kindness I offer myself. To be clear: I don’t ALWAYS exercise this option, by default, but I have access to it — on the occasions when I do remember, or I am reminded by a kind friend. “Oh, that’s right, I’m being rather serious about this…” Finding ways to make something less of a big deal is a “general organizing principle” that serves my emotional, mental, and physical well-being, because it makes me receptive to the positive intent of Life. Because I do believe that Life is good, and well-being is the order of the day, and that when I don’t get all “heavy” about the details,  l e v i t y  shows up!

Huxley, Aldous. 1977. MOKSHA: Writings on psychedelics and the visionary experience (1931-63). New York: Stonehill, p. 291.

 

 

 

 

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May 042017
 

My computer has been giving me trouble — the little rainbow wheel spins and spins, I can’t scroll, the keyboard is out of communication, pages take forever to load, then the whole thing freezes up. My dear husband has weathered my concerns by running extensive diagnostics, deep cleanses, reboot, rebuild… finally we took it to the Geek Squad. They performed serious stress tests and sent it home “cured”, only the exact same problem started up when it returned. Aggravation! We took it to them again, and in conversation with the agent we discovered that we might, in fact, have had a different problem altogether…

My mentor Erik Bendix has on numerous occasions reminded me of a quote from F.M. Alexander: “the hardest problems to solve are the ones that don’t exist.” Turns out it wasn’t the computer’s problem at all: apparently routers go bad after a few years. We replaced the router and Voilà! Computer works great! High-speed ahead!!

Sometimes our attempts to solve an apparent problem yield no improvement because that problem doesn’t exist — we’re looking in the wrong place. You can’t fix something that isn’t broken. If your knee is giving you pain, is the knee the problem? Maybe the knee is responding appropriately, perfectly in fact, to the conditions at hand. Maybe we need to look upstream at what’s paining the knee! Is it really my body that’s hurting, or is it my heart? Do I have a pain in my neck, or am I being one, or persisting in the belief that someone else is??

In short, it yields better results (more creative thinking) when I ask myself, “What if nothing’s wrong here? What if no one is misbehaving?” If this apparent problem isn’t the problem, what else might be going on? Hearing the answer, well… that’s where courage comes in.

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Apr 232017
 

For my birthday, my husband gave me a book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I’d skimmed it a few years ago, and thought I had incorporated enough of its lessons that I could count myself accomplished — after all I am *so* much tidier than my parents!! But no: this time I actually read the book straight through, and got to work transforming my home — and my sense of self.

Neat… but still cluttered!

The premise is simple, its application unrelenting. The criteria for determining whether clothing, books, papers, or memorabilia should stay in one’s possession is to actually hold the thing, and ask: “Does this bring me joy?” I thought I’d already winnowed my belongings to what was “most important” to hold onto, and surely I’d already considered the “joy” element of each item. But, once again, no. When I followed the instructions to pull every single item of a given category out of closets and drawers and touch them, I discovered how much (unnecessary stuff) I was holding onto. Which is where we get to the crisis part.

What makes this little book so earth-shaking is that it asserts, and I can confirm, that “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.”  This project was not simply about clearing clutter. This was a quest to shed everything that’s been holding me back from the Me I now want to be. But that process provoked a significant amount of anxiety!

In pulling out all my earlier writings, workshop notes, letters, and books, I felt my attachment to who I had wanted to be rear up for examination. I had gathered all that material because I wanted to know things, and I believed that those sources were clearer and more developed than my own ideas. Letting go of all that (codified, organized) information meant that I was taking a leap of faith, that either I had learned the lessons, or I could learn whatever I needed to know, on my own, through my own experience. I had to talk myself into trusting that I have access now to new information and inspiration — and releasing all of that old stuff was the only way to see it.

My dream writing space!

On the other side of this process, I feel soooo much better! I’ve asserted faith in my own experience, my own insights, trusting that whatever I need to know or have now will show up exactly if / how it needs to. And my space now beckons with invitations for rejuvenation and creative expression, rather than scolding me with papers and unfinished tasks. Ah, sweet relief!

In response to this post, my greatly respected fellow teacher Idelle Packer beautifully linked my clearing process to the essence of the Alexander Technique: “I look forward to talking to you about trusting what we know, making our lives more spontaneous, and really having fun with our knowledge. After all, we put in the time and did the work to know what we know. Now we can have fun passing it on in new and creative ways. Going through the objects in our home and office appears to be just the right metaphor to lightening up.”

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Mar 292017
 

I’ve become a soccer fan, thanks to my husband. What a pleasure to appreciate such agility, strength, endurance, acrobatics! While watching a game in Bogotá, Colombia, he asked me, “what would the Alexander Technique contribute to soccer?” My first thought was that I would coach the players on one thing to never do: clasp their hands to their head.

We express emotions through the body, and our body language can predispose or initiate emotions. Can you guess the sentiment expressed by these players and coach?

 

 

 

 

In addition to disappointment (“that shouldn’t have happened”), there can be an element of culpability, of recrimination (“I shouldn’t have done that, I can’t believe I did that”). As much as we operate as if scolding or blaming will “teach” us to “not make that mistake again”, this habit is not at all helpful for improving subsequent performance. Who feels free and inspired to give their wholehearted best after such punishment? In fact my husband had long-ago intuited this: While coaching his young son to play soccer, he forbade the boy to ever clutch at his head if he missed a shot. His rationale matched mine: If you don’t demonstrate the self-reproach and despair expressed in this gesture, you won’t practice the associated beliefs. (I’ve since met this young man, and he took the lesson to heart: he doesn’t get upset about anything!)

It’s interesting to note that not all players respond to a mistake by putting hands to their head. Everyone goofs, misses, forgets. What’s it like to simply acknowledge that, as a thing that happens, and move on? I’d like to measure the effect on players and fans of giving up this expression of aggravation, disbelief, condemnation. I realize my suggestion calls into question how seriously fútbol fans take their national pastime, but… once again, we get to choose: habit, or freedom? Let’s use the game as an excuse to marvel at athleticism and sportsmanship, and not get hung up on how it’s “supposed” to go!

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Jan 092017
 

We want to be happy.

Isn’t that the point of every effort we expend, whether it’s work or play, self-improvement or self-punishment, relationship or isolation?

If I might paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Happy is as happy does.” Happy is the word we use to describe a certain quality or characteristics we see in ourselves and others.

My class today listed some observable characteristics of “happy”:

expansion                     spontaneity, freedom                  calm energy

movement and thinking are light, easy                          quietness in mind and body

freedom from resistance, drag, complications; less expenditure/waste of energy

seeing things without the thought “I need to do something about that”

Wouldn’t it be fair to say that “happy” is characterized by less effort? THAT is what the Alexander Technique makes possible. The reason to take Alexander lessons is to learn where you are unconsciously exerting excess effort, engaging resistance, tangling yourself up in being busy or thinking you need to “do” something about whatever. Once you learn how to stop doing that, you can start embodying the characteristics listed above.

When your thinking and movements are characterized by the qualities of “happy”, reaching for your coffee mug can be a joyful experience. Standing in line can feel like relief. Everyday movements can be a chance to lighten up.

You don’t need special circumstances to be happy. You don’t need Alexander lessons, either! But if you find yourself unable to access the observable characteristics of happiness, taking lessons is a great place to start 🙂

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Nov 212016
 

wheelAfter a 10-year hiatus, I am back in the pottery studio. It is an absolute gift to reconnect with my craft, and with all the work I’ve done to heighten my body awareness, I get to discover anew how to dance with the clay.

Centering on the wheel is a real challenge: It requires steady effort, and in the past I caused myself serious wrist and forearm injuries by working at it inefficiently, with too much exertion. Now I am thinking about the tiny bones in my hands and wrists and arms, the way force is transmitted, muscles and ligaments and the energy of fluid. I look for all the different ways I can relate to the clay, find balance and support in myself, and above all ENJOY the sensation!

As I explore this process with fresh perspective, I find amusement in the metaphor: When first plunked down on the wheel, the lump of clay is uncentered. With a steady influence, I have to actually take the clay further off-center, asking it to move this way and that so that I can bring it back to coherence, to unified potential.  And then it is ready to be opened and shaped into a vessel.

This Quaker song captures the message perfectly:

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free

‘Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be

And when we find ourselves in the place just right

It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed

To turn and to turn will be our delight

‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

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Sep 022016
 

impatientDespite the total transformation my life has undergone in the last 15 months, I found myself feeling a bit impatient of late. What’s next? Where are things headed? When will I get more clarity? At a loss for how to proceed (into what?), I consulted a list of yamas I’d posted on my fridge. Based in yogic philosophy, yamas are recommendations for the spiritual seeker in personal conduct. A list of things to refrain from doing appeals to my Alexander sense of Inhibition; what does disengagement from these prohibitions reveal or make possible?

Dhriti is the yama that called out to me: it translates as steadfastness, overcoming non-perseverance, fear, and indecision; seeing each task through to completion. I believe dhriti has two components: 1) taking initiative to get things going, and then 2) staying committed to an undertaking. Since things in life seemed not to be moving along as fast as I wanted, I decided to move myself: I started running.

I’m not running for physical fitness; I’m running for mental fitness, to demonstrate my commitment to overcoming non-perseverance. Since this decision came from a wish to engage with a spiritual discipline, I also decided that I would refrain from talking about it. Typically I share share share with all my loved ones about what’s going on for me, internally and externally. It seemed appropriate that trying out an element of “moral conduct” should include another yama: Brahmacharya, typically translated as continence, celibacy, faithfulness, but also as “right use” or not wasting vital energy. I interpret this as retaining, keeping something contained, like a seed that needs protection and nurturing. Thus it felt important to keep the news of my running to myself for a little while, not lose the energy of it by talking.

What I’m enjoying about using dhriti as the motivation to run is that I stretch myself a little bit each time — but from the perspective of overcoming inertia, not falling prey to measures of time, distance, or the possible effects on my body. I apply dhriti and brahmacharya when I call back my thoughts from debating what road I’ll take further ahead, planning in advance when I’ll stop running, slowing down as I approach the place I’ve decided to stop, wondering whether this undertaking will change how my clothes fit.

I’m reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s daily practice of tracking his moral conduct; I’m interested to see where attending to these guidelines of living a focused, conscientious life will lead me.

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Sep 022016
 

Most runside-view-woman-running-beach-horizon-sea-background-51068142ners I see pull their elbows back, behind the rib cage; they seem to “hold” their forearms stiff and elbows up high, swinging this bent structure strictly forward-and-back. This pattern coincides with a tendency to push the chest forward, which restricts easy breathing, and correlates with stiffness in the arms, shoulders, base of the neck, and back.StandingPosture

In standing, the arms ideally hang more forward than the back of the ribs, shown by the far right example of this image. You can see that in the middle “military” style posture, the chest is pushed forward and the elbows are drawn back. In the balanced posture, there’s no pushing forward in the ribs, and the elbows drape alongside the torso.

Rather than pulling my elbows backwards when I run, I think about them releasing forward. I find it informative and helpful to think of myself as being a four-legged creature who just happens to be standing on two legs. This enables me to step out of my habitual ways of standing and moving, and provides insights about the mechanics of the body.

running-cheetah-sequences-7722339In accordance with what I know about arm movement, I also think about letting my shoulder blades provide support for the forward reach of my arms. You can see in the running cheetah that the shoulder blades move forward as the front legs stretch out in extension. Rather than hold my shoulder blades glued to the back of my torso, and moving bent arms as if they swung solely from the humeral joint, I let my scapulae glide forward with each swing of my arms. With my hands and arms relaxed, it feels a bit like pawing the air! But anyone who has clambered up a mountainside knows what it is to use your arms and legs together; we just sometimes forget that the arms remain active, even when they don’t have contact with the ground. Thinking of running as a four-limbed activity creates a smoother gait and prevents stiffness.

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Aug 282016
 

Designers Ray and Charles Eames were desired not for their demonstrated knowledge of a subject, but for their ability to investigate and innovate. This ability is what all my Alexander Technique teachers and colleagues demonstrate, and what studying AT has made possible for me.

It’s so exciting to be able to take on a new activity and have the means to work out what’s going on, and what would make it easier! Not only does applying the principles of the Alexander Technique activate my ability to execute a sport or movement practice–and consistently improve, but seeing what allows for efficiency in an activity clarifies and deepens my understanding of the Technique.

It’s as if I have a key that unlocks the “how-to” of anything: surfing, dancing, running, yoga, Chi Kung. I can see the mechanism; I understand how things are supposed to work, and how they work when they work well. I understand coordination, how when it’s operating at a high level it’s not just effective, it’s beautiful. This is so satisfying and inspiring that I am filled up with enthusiasm, for the particular thing and to “talk shop” about it with anyone who will listen.

 

 

 

 

In these images, and in surfing videos, I can see the active relationship of arms to torso to legs, and the engagement of the eyes in starting the spiralic movement that follows all the way through to the feet and the board. I see how everything plays out to best advantage. Does that mean I can surf?? Not yet, but it means I know how to approach it, involving my whole body and the dynamics that make it work well.

This ability to figure things out is what I aim to inspire in my students. As my teaching matures, I recognize that sharing my realization of how things works is not nearly as much fun as planting seeds in a student’s experience, like hiding Easter eggs, and then waiting with excitement for them to say, “you know what? I figured out that when I don’t stiffen my neck, when I let my limbs move freely off my torso, when I wait just that one extra moment before going into action, everything is easier!” It’s like watching revelation in real time. Pure delight for me.

 

Here’s the article that inspired this post: “Selling Ignorance,” by www.jonathanfields.com

“Sell your expertise and you have a limited repertoire. Sell your ignorance and you have an unlimited repertoire.” — Richard Saul Wurman on Charles Eames

What if the single biggest thing you have to offer is not what you know about a given subject, but how you approach it?

What if your unique lens, applied to anything in that special way, is your greatest gift?

Take legendary designers, Ray and Charles Eames. The wife-husband team generally committed to projects that took years to complete. Why? They needed to allow for the migration from novice to expert.

They were experts in their process of inquiry and elaboration and creation. But they constantly took on challenges in entirely new fields. Along the way, they’d need to learn about the specific content, materials, products and needs. But what people were really buying and what they were selling was faith in their ability to figure out it on a level most others couldn’t.

That led to a paradigm-shifting volume of output that spanned a mind-boggling diversity of fields. They designed everything from splints for injured World War II soldiers to entire structures, interiors, fabric, exhibits, images, patterns, brands, games, movies and even toys.

Design firm, IDEO, is another powerful example. On the surface, this now legendary design house is just that. A design firm. Thing is, clients don’t come to them because they’ve got expertise in this widget or that. They come to IDEO because they know IDEO is driven by a process that moves them rapidly from ignorance to inquiry and then genius. And IDEO hires people who’ve demonstrated a similar approach to creation in their own endeavors, along with a capacity to apply that process to new challenges. So, at IDEO, you’ll find everyone from classically-trained designers to writer, musicians, entrepreneur-types and beyond. Because it’s more about the lens.

Reflecting back to the quote that opens this piece about the Ray and Charles, the full quote reads:

Sell your expertise and you have a limited repertoire. Sell your ignorance and you have an unlimited repertoire. He was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject. The journey of not knowing to knowing was his work.

In other words, they were selling precisely what we’re so often told to see as our greatest flaw.

Thing is…

Ignorance unexplored is the seed of impotence.

But…

Ignorance mined is the seed of innovation.

 

 

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Jul 012016
 

This week I spent a morning behind bars. That is to say, I attended an orientation at a local detention facility in preparation for volunteering. My sweetie has been teaching yoga there through Light A Path, a service organization that links holistic wellness practitioners with under-served populations. We are proposing to teach a class together, using the book We’re All Doing Time as a basis for bringing yoga, meditation, and Alexander Technique to inmates.

I am excited about this work because it will really stretch my ability to convey the Alexander Techique, since touch – usually a cornerstone in teaching AT – is not permitted in that environment. How will I convey to participants new options for how they inhabit their bodies, using only words and illustrations?

The Alexander Technique offers a practical means to reduce reactivity and pain, improve cognition and self-regulation, and allow the kind of self-awareness that enhances respectful engagement with others and the environment. An AT teacher in the Midwest has been teaching classes and workshops for drug/alcohol and co-occurring disorders at correction and treatment facilities with notable success. I’ll be drawing on her research and class materials as we develop our program, as well as continuing to explore effective methods for resolving trauma and awakening embodiment.

When asked by Light A Path for a short phrase to introduce myself on their listing of volunteers, I said “My name is Michèle and I’m lighting a path for change agents who are temporarily behind bars.” I didn’t know before I thought up that phrase, that that is how I’m formulating the work I’ll be doing alongside my husband. I’m giving myself permission to consider: What if just one person who takes our class learns practical ways to stay calm in a stressful situation, refrain from starting or engaging in destructive behavior, cultivate an inner environment of calm and integrity? That person WILL effect change in every person and situation they encounter. The ramifications are not trivial: We aim to empower people on the front lines of dangerous situations to consciously choose connection over disruption, responsibility over blame, peace over power.

If you’d like to support this cause, please follow this link to Light A Path. Your donations support work that changes our world.

 

 

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Mar 202016
 

Here’s a quick exercise to demonstrate the essence of the Alexander Technique:

Imagine there’s a water bottle on the table in front of you.

1. Don’t pick it up. Notice your response.

Continue to not pick it up, as you choose or choose not to do something else.

2. Now, stop yourself from picking it up. Notice your response.

Continue stopping yourself, as you choose or choose not to do something else.

What was the difference in the quality of your experience?

I tried this experiment with a friend, and what he reported is that his sentiment in the first instance was one of detachment, not caring — liberty. In the second instance, he found himself thinking about how he would go about picking it up; he was simultaneously preparing AND bracing against. One response conveyed freedom; the other, narrowed focus and options.

It’s helpful to notice the mental engagement as much as the physical engagement in this situation. How does this effect reveal itself in our everyday lives?

The essence of the Alexander Technique is this, the concept of Inhibition — as it is recognized in biology: there is excitation, and there is inhibition (of a reflex). Happening, versus not happening. Attachment to an outcome does not figure in. And this is the world-changing effect of applying Inhibition — not simply to a movement (like sitting down or standing up) — but to the ways we respond in all of life. When my thoughts appear: do I pick them up? Do I choose to not pick them up? Or do I attempt to restrain myself from picking them up? When emotions appear, when a person or situation appears: do I do something in response? Do I not respond, doing nothing? Or do I stop myself, constraining and bracing against a response?

In all of these instances, what would it be like to be genuinely free of attachment to an outcome?

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Mar 182016
 

There are schools of thought that promote moving from the center of gravity (the center of the pelvis, below the navel), in attempts to correct the tendency to lead with the chest or hips or chin. In various situations that is certainly a most helpful suggestion. But I always affirm that in total, we want the entire physical structure to be coordinated — and so it must include the primary relationship of the head to the spine (of which the pelvis is the root).

Most people have lost an accurate determination of where their head is, in space and in relation to the rest of the body. Your nervous system is wired to, at all costs, prevent your head from hitting the ground, so if you carry your head off-balance, your entire body will tense and brace to prevent you from falling over. An average head weighs TWELVE pounds, so it takes real work to hold it up against gravity when it's off balance. (When allowed to release forward from its pivot point, this weight actually helps your spine lengthen and your body to both stand at ease and mobilize.)

Because in Alexander Technique we are concerned with unifying the organization of mind as well as body, I find it helpful to ask students to consider where they're headed: Where exactly is your head (in space and in preoccupation)? What is its relationship to the rest of you (spine/pelvis, your heart, how you carry out your thoughts)? How are you organizing yourself around it (how do you let its balance on your spine inform your movements, how do you let your intentions lead you)?

Not knowing where their head is (literally and figuratively), most people can't organize themselves around it in a coordinated fashion. They flounder or flail, dragging and pushing various parts of themselves. It's like pushing the caboose to move the train when firing up the engine would move it so much easier…

By nature we then become accustomed to a skewed sense of where the head is, so it takes some creative imagination to have a different experience. This exercise may at first appear to be enormously different from what you believe or sense. I invite you to be a true scientist: Try it out and see, doing your best to suspend your disbelief until you've wholeheartedly acted “as-if” and explored the results.

A high pivot point lengthens the back of the neck

Place an index finger on the side of each cheekbone, halfway bewteen the front corner of your cheekbone or base of your eye socket, and the soft spot in front of your ear. Imagine a bar through your skull connecting these points. Without dropping the bar, tip your head forward-and-up over it. If you do not drop this imagined bar, you'll find the scruff of your neck lengthening as your face drops. Keep it up until you are glancing down from a very high perspective and you'll feel a stretch in the back of your neck. If you tend toward pain between the shoulder blades you may notice immediate relief. Let your shoulder blades drape away from this stretch in your upper spine, without bringing them toward each other in front. If you've been in a slump, keep raising the bar in your mind's eye as you tip your head up and over it, until the lengthening of your spine draws you more upright. Notice that it's not necessary to push from the back, at your lower ribs or pelvis, to bring you into a more upright seated position. If you're standing, you'll notice a different tone come into your legs from pivoting your head around this high imaginary bar.

Is the balance point of your head on your spine between your cheekbones? Not exactly, but there's a distinction between a balance point and a point of movement. In fact the point we've here discerned is called the sella turcica, part of the sphenoid bone, and cradles the pituitary gland. A helpful place leave free and mobile!

Remember that we're interested in exploring a reference point for organization. When you're driving you don't look down at the ground at where you are, you look through the windshield at where you're headed. Notice how organizing yourself into the approaching moment makes for a much smoother ride 🙂

 

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Mar 042016
 

As a tool, the Alexander Technique can be used in whatever application you wish. It relieves pain and restriction, improves performance, is an access to greater facility and ease. But it is not completely innocent of agenda.

It's possible to apply the Technique to minimizing or eliminating inefficient movement patterns that interfere with what we believe we want to accomplish — whether that's working pain-free at a keyboard, playing an instrument, enhancing stage presence, or improving athletic performance. It can even help us “know ourselves” more, developing our capacity to calm the mind and body, direct our thinking, expand our repertoire of expression, as well as sit/stand/move with more ease. This can yield enhancements in self-reflection/meditation, confidence, less emotional volatility, and lighter moods.

But if the Technique were simply about learning how to do what we do, better, there's nothing to prevent the inevitable intensification of our current lifestyle — in work and play, we constantly aim for more, better, faster, more comprehensive, more cutting-edge. Are these improvements in doing what we're already doing, or doing more of what we'd like to do, really what the Technique is about? Is that what it's for? Is that the best it can summon from us?

What if the essential message of the Technique (no surprise here) is to not do? Not, “do what you do with less effort”, but actually “stop doing so much”… ?

I notice that my own alarm bells go off at this questions. Wait! I don't want my desires and energy to be stifled! I don't want to give up my dreams, my aspirations! I want to persist in feeling that I have a say in my life, that I am a free, active agent, that I can and do make things happen!

There's a trap I catch myself in: I tell myself that my training in the Alexander Techique should allow me to keep up a frenetic pace in a busy life, but be able to do it “with more ease”. I think that I ought to be able to conduct myself with “good use” while I persist in filling the hours of my days with Important and Pressing Things to Do. I even use pseudo-spiritual talk about “not doing” as a way of “letting things happen” — continuing to presume that things OUGHT to happen, and will happen in the way or time that I want them to, if I am exceptional enough at “not doing” them!

I suspect the Alexander Technique holds an unsettling insight for me; that the real work (and true freedom) is in letting things not happen.

There's another trick here. I can tell myself that I'm detaching from results as a secret tactic to act disinterested in an outcome, while continuing my expectation that something ought to happen.

But maybe it's not a question of letting things happen outside my desired time frame… maybe those things won't, aren't meant to, happen at all.

How do I know what's appropriate to include in a single day, let alone in my life?

Desperate times call for drastic measures

Sometimes when I catch myself misusing the Technique in this inhibiting-and-directing-while-staying-busy way, times when I notice that I “include” stopping in what I'm doing — but I don't actually STOP doing, I entertain the thought that this is my last day on earth.

If this moment now were one of just a few moments remaining to me, in this physical body on this beautiful planet, I wouldn't hurry it. I also wouldn't delay any inspired action. I wouldn't refuse that bite of chocolate, but neither would I make of it more than what it is — I wouldn't substitute it for whatever I might really want.

When I act as if these are some of my last precious moments, I welcome in every nuance. I smell, I see, I breathe; I tread lightly, I feel what I'm touching, I soften myself to receive every whisper of the world's pressure against me. I allow myself to be as whole as I am, experiencing this time and place. I don't aggrandize, and I don't diminish.

This is what I KNOW it's really all about: Letting happen what happens, and letting not happen what doesn't happen.

I can't tell you how much courage I feel I have to summon to meet this letting go, letting not happen. But again, how do I know what my life should include? Is this letting go really a death of a desire, or like winter, is it only the appearance of death — while under the surface, things are gathering force?

Is true ease the ability to let small questions remain, let hints remain unanswered for the moment, so that their reemergence at a more mature time can startle and amaze us? The wonder wouldn't have been there if things hadn't had time to slip out of sight, come to significance behind closed doors. We need to let things rest. We can't even put our trust in their later development; we need to actually forget about them, forgive (“give as before”) their appearance as a hope or wish. It's the only way they can surprise us later with their relevance.

I've been memorizing this poem by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, which about sums it up:

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), “Keeping Quiet”

Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid)

Jonathan Cape, London, 1972, pp.27-29

(original Estravagario, Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires, 1958)

 

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Feb 252016
 

I first encountered the writing of French Resistance hero Jacques Lusseyran when I received application materials for an Alexander teacher training school in Philadelphia. Blinded at the age of 7, Lusseyran writes with uncommon insight about the value and qualities of touch, a sense cultivated with special care by Alexander teachers. I recently picked up a collection of articles in which he explains the valuable perspective and experience of blind people. Blindness requires unwavering attention, a skill of which those who see with eyes could make good use.

In order to live without eyes it is necessary to be very attentive, to remain hour after hour in a state of wakefulness, of receptiveness and activity. Indeed, attention is not simply a virtue of intelligence or the result of education, and something one can easily do without. It is a state of being. It is a state without which we shall never be able to perfect ourselves. In its truest sense it is the listening post of the universe.

Being attentive unlocks a sphere of reality that no one suspects. If, for instance, I walked along a path without being attentive, completely immersed in myself, I did not even know whether tress grew along the way, nor how tall they were, or whether they had leaves. When I awakened my attention, however, every tree immediately came to me. This must be taken quite literally. Every single tree projected its form, its weight, its movement–even if it was almost motionless–in my direction. I could indicate its trunk, and the place where its first branches started, even when several feet away. By and by something else became clear to me, and this can never be found in books. The world exerts pressure on us from the distance.

The seeing commit a strange error. They believe that we know the world only through our eyes. For my part, I discovered that the universe consists of pressure, that every object and every living being reveals itself to us at first by a kind of quiet yet unmistakable pressure that indicates its intention and its form.” (The Blind in Society, emphasis mine)

Lusseyran goes on to describe that all of our senses are, in fact, interpretations of universe's touch upon us. “Hearing” does not happen in the ears; the blind realize it is a whole-person experience, whereby they feel sound as it is offered by objects and space around them.

What the blind person experiences in the presence of an object is pressure. When he stands before a wall he has never touched and does not now touch, he feels a physical presence. The wall bears down on him, so to speak. An effluvium emanates from that wall. Conscious perception takes place the moment it meets another effluvium, which originates in him.

Perception, then, would mean entering into an equilibrium of pressure, into a force field. As soon as we pay attention to this phenomenon, the world comes to life in a surprisingly different manner. No single object, no single being remains neutral. The oneness of the world is experienced as a physical event.

The pressure I have spoken of assumes all forms: Absorption, transference, cooperation. Everything enters into an intimate and active relationship with ourselves: the window, the street, the walls of the room, the furniture, the slight movement of the air, living creatures, Finally, even thoughts take on weight and direction.” (Blindness, a New Way of Seeing the World, emphasis mine)

It is not simply the world exerting pressure on us; we too in our thinking exert pressure on the world. Lusseyran asks the question, “Could attention be a kind of touch?” My answer is a wholehearted YES, and I have been contemplating deeply the implications of this recognition. What am I touching with my attention? What is the quality of my touch? How I am going out to meet the world? How available am I to receiving the world's touch?

Gravity is the world's everpresent touch on us, and it's common to think of it as a force which brings us down. People often rail against its apparently unfortunate effects: Stooping, drooping, fatigue. But this force is not our enemy; our response to the pressure or touch of gravity is what determines our experience. A strong force, a heavy pressure — these do not have to weigh us down. In fact, (if we know how) we can organize ourselves better when under greater stress. We can allow ourselves to welcome the touch of gravity, if we recognize that we are designed not just to meet it but to thrive under its influence.

I've been considering other strong forces in my life. How am I organizing myself to receive them? Do I feel weighted or energized by them? The option of finding my sure footing, allowing the force to transmit through me rather than onto me, reveals an “upward thrust” described by F.M. Alexander. If I experience strong forces as fatiguing or burdensome, it is because I have abandoned my own organization, I have adulterated my ability to meet them with my whole capacity.

And now I hope that you will find it easier to accept my paradox, the confession of faith I made in the beginning: Blindness is my greatest happiness! Blindness gives us great happiness. It gives us a great opportunity, both through its disorder and through the order it creates.

The disorder is the prank it plays on us, the slight shift it causes. It forces us to see the world from another standpoint. This is a necessary disorder, because the principal reason for our unhappiness and our errors is that our standpoints are fixed.

As for the order blindness creates, it is the discovery of the constantly present creation. We constantly accuse the conditions of our lives. We call them incidents, accidents, illnesses, duties, infirmities. We wish to force our own conditions on life; this is our real weakness. We forget that God never creates new conditions for us without giving us the strength to meet them. I am grateful that blindness has not allowed me to forget this.” (Blindness, A New Way of Seeing the World, emphasis mine)

And I am grateful to Lusseyran for not allowing me to forget, that I always have within me the strength to meet the present moment, that I can find the blessings of my life by opening to the touch of the world.

 

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Feb 192016
 

One concept we've worked on this week has been how to initiate turns. Most ski instruction emphasizes the use of the legs, whereas Erik's Art of Skiing emphasizes the use of the head, and considers the workings of the upper body as essential to efficient skiing. Alexander students who have worked with the Dart Procedures will recognize the following exercise.

We began by lying in prone on the floor, then lifting the gaze to raise the head and shoulders. The gaze is *so* important here; all too frequently we check out from our eyes — which indicates an attempt to “feel” the move, rather than simply (and more effectively) let the movement follow our interest. Once the raising of the head and neck begins to pull on the arms, looking to one side back and over that shoulder starts a twist or winding in the torso that, if unobstructed by either resistance or attempts to “help” (pushing with arms or legs), then the whole body follows the gaze in a spiral.

Erik's instruction to me on the slopes was to let my gaze remain forward, but turn my shoulders to one side and allow the rest of my body (all the way down through my feet) to follow. I was surprised at how effective this movement was at creating an easy turn, if I really allowed the spiral to travel all the way through my skiis. I found myself laughing — “It feels like flirting!” With just a gesture in my shoulders from one side to the other, giving enough time for my skiis to turn in the direction of my shoulders before turning the gesture to the other side, I followed a gentle s-curve down the slope.

Next, Erik asked me to pay attention to the un-winding segment. Could I follow the release of having turned from one side into the winding-up of turning to the other side? We'd explored this segment in standing: If you turn your gaze and then your shoulders in one direction — and leave them facing that way (stabilized by a partner standing above), the rest of the body can un-wind underneath.

It's a lovely thing to feel a little frisky with the mountain; I've been enjoying playing coy with my shoulders, and experiencing an expansion and release through this winding and un-winding as it travels from my top to my toes!

 

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Feb 182016
 

This is what it feels like to max out on challenging my fear reflexes. These ten days in the Swiss Alps have been multiple simultaneous projects: learning a new approach to skiing, being in a foreign country, meeting and working with a team of internationals, learning how to use film equipment, using that equipment while skiing on actual mountains in actual conditions of steep slopes/fog/cold/snow/sun/fatigue….

The process of filming is quite tedious, especially since no one on the crew is professional. Remembering to charge (and bring) batteries, packing the camera bags, syncing the walkie-talkies, establishing meet-up locations and times, getting there, determining shot angles, setting up the equipment in constantly changing conditions, waiting waiting waiting while things get discussed, decided, moved, reconfigured, confirmed, before we can roll sound, roll cameras, slate in, call for action; finally someone gets a lesson, they move down the slope, and the whole operation commences again… And all of that is the second setup of the day, since we've already had an indoor class and filming session after breakfast! The evenings have been running late; dinner is (somewhat thankfully) a leisurely affair, taking twice as long as scheduled but mercifully delicious, followed by filmed review/conversation, potentially some Alexander work, stretching my aching legs, maybe a hot shower in there, did someone mention email???

I'll conclude by saying that today I repeatedly just lost it. Yesterday afternoon I was left unexpectedly alone on a slope with a camera backpack (about 10 pounds) and no radio, without a clear sense of who to meet where and when. It happens; communication is by nature insufficient and in stressed conditions such as these sometimes there are breakdowns. I did the best I could, getting myself back up to the top of the lift where I happened to run into another teammate. We left the camera in a locker and took a last run through the fog. It took me several attempts to grab the t-bar chairlift at the bottom of the slope — an indication of my waning energy and attention. Back at the top, I wanted to join some others in a final run, but my teammate's radio wasn't getting a clear signal and, my frustration spilling over into tears, I joined her in taking the gondola down to our starting point, then walking back to the hotel. I managed to cover up my upset with jovial dinner conversation facilitated by wine, but this morning I couldn't fake it: the combination of all these stresses had me SCARED, tired, irritable, and sore. All I wanted was for someone to cradle my head 🙁

I managed to admit to feeling wracked with fear — and receive enough reassurance to make it through the first filming of a lesson on the slopes, but found myself almost shaking with fatigue and distress by its conclusion. No objections were made when I excused myself to head back to the hotel after lunch, for some more tears and an attempt at rest. Really, I can reason out all the ways I am pushing myself, but in the end the body knows: no matter how beautiful the scenery, enough is enough.

 

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Feb 122016
 

Day 2 of preparations for filming Ease on Skis, my mentor Erik Bendix's program incorporating Alexander Technique into ski training. Despite the gap of twenty years since I learned to ski in the foothills of Pennsylvania, I made my way reliably down the practice runs I took at Cataloochee Ski in western North Carolina before this trip. My first day (yesterday) on the slopes here in Hasliberg, Switzerland (a huge leap up!!) went well enough, but my boots were too big and my legs got sooo tired and sore from the length and difficulty of the runs.

Clicking back into my skis today, I felt a flush of awkwardness — wait, didn't I just warm up to this a day ago?? How again do I make these foot flippers work?? Our crew of five has been stopping after each chunk of a slope, for the team to check in and confer on the next section. Seeing my discomfort, Erik offered suggestions for the following stretch. Much as I tried, I could not think myself out of my body's reaction to fatigue and concern. I found myself doing exactly what Erik's method warns against: flinching back away from the slope — which not only caused me to stiffen but also sent my frictionless skis forward, accelerating my descent, without control. I could not fight the impulse to pull back and found my voice choking up and my eyes brimming with tears. Fear was alive in me: still jet-lagged, my legs ached so and I worried I would fall and be injured. Especially given all my training and work as an Alexander teacher, I felt embarrassed that I could not follow the instructions that I KNEW would improve my ease. How humbling, to be at the mercy of fear!

Then, something shifted — clarity arose about what it meant to follow my head down the mountain. Not by putting it forward from my torso, which had the rest of my body fighting to find balance, but by letting my heavy noggin nod forward at the top of my spine. Exactly as I tell my own students. And, voilà! I pitched myself forward over my ski tips, letting my face fall as I thought my whole self tall, and I heard Erik exclaim “Yes!!” behind me as I sailed down the next bit. Which seemed shockingly easier. Ohhhh… Unbelievable. It really is the simplest matter of letting go of your head 🙂

 

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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.

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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

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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.

 

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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