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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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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Jul 072016
 
Last weekend was the annual retreat of my local group of Alexander Technique colleagues. We meet at a lovely cabin on Ripshin Lake in Tennessee and enjoy swimming, kayaking, shared meals, and of course lots of Alexander talk and exploration.

A highlight for me was the discussion around Alexander's concept of Inhibition. Here are my notes:

Not reacting in life allows us to maintain. Exercising the privilege of not knowing allows for progress.

Inhibition, part 1 = Undoing; to stop doing something.

Inhibition, part 2 = Prevention of grasping; to give up thinking that I know what's next (or ought to come next). This plays out as giving that Undoing time and space to reveal itself as something new.

Trust in the power of not doing something. Let go of ulterior motives. Let the non-doing have an effect.

Why would it better to let something new, rather than known, happen? What exactly are we trusting to? To what am I yielding, if I allow something outside of what I now know, to operate?

Perhaps this is where the terrain of the psychophysical meets the ocean of the spiritual, where what is known surrenders to the field of possibility. It looks to me like Life has an overarching tendancy toward organization, more than chaos – although chaos or dissolution is an essential part of the transmutation into organization (an example would be how objects combust to yield light and heat; life forms disintegrate to create the substrate for new things to grow). This organization is necessary for things to keep going, and keeping going is what they do – and must do. There's no escape from Is-ness; there isn't anything that isn't.

How is it a privilege to not know?? I believe it's a privilege to acknowledge that there are much, much larger forces at work than my tiny (albeit significant) perspective. It situates me in a context of the Intelligence of this organizing dynamic. Setting aside my attachment to and compulsion for knowing, exercising the privilege of refraining from this unavoidably limiting function, opens me up to experience myself as part of something unfathomable, limitless – and inherently Good.

 

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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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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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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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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!!

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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.

 

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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!

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