This is a brief description about how to get air in your lungs good.
Okay, here's an easy question: how are humans able to stand on two feet without falling over? There are several complicated ways to answer this, but the simplest and most basic truth is, we balance. This ability to be bipedal is an evolutionary miracle, but it's so automatic that we take it for granted. Until an injury or illness makes that impossible or difficult, we don't typically appreciate this balancing act. Partly it's because we do not understand what balance is. People who come for Alexander lessons anticipate that their balance will improve, and that's almost always a predictable result. Yet most students are surprised to learn that balance is dynamic, not static. One doesn't maintain balance by holding on, but by letting go. Or, to be more precise, by letting flow. Balance is a series of continual adjustments, tiny micro-motions that can only occur when there is openness and ease in the body. The minute we hold to a fixed posture or become rigid, we lose our balance. When tension and gripping is released, dynamic adjustments automatically flow throughout the system.
You may be thinking, "I'm pretty tense a lot of the time, but I don't fall over. I stay balanced." Well, you might stay upright, but that's not the same thing. Holding a fixed pattern in the body comes at a cost, in terms of muscle overwork and discomfort, reduced respiration, and the muting of feeling and reliable sensory feedback (to name just a few of the downsides).
Bodymind Experiment: Stand in a comfortable way, with your feet hip-width apart. (If you can do this without shoes, all the better.) Check in with your knees, make sure they are not hyperextended or locked. Relax your lower back, your belly, and your chest. Allow your arms to hang easily at your sides. Do a quick scan to see where there are pockets of tension (forehead, jaw, shoulders, thighs -- all popular spots for tightness). Invite these places to soften. Take a few full breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Now, with your eyes closed, begin to notice the movements happening in the soles of your feet. There will be little shifts back and forth, or side to side, or in circles. Don't do anything about this, just notice it. You will observe that even when we are "standing still" there is movement. Open your eyes, and sense the same micro-movements happening.
This is your body doing its best to balance. Keep scanning the body and the mind for little pockets of tension, and as you stand there, see what happens when you keep releasing wherever you are holding. How does this affect the motion you noticed in your feet? You can also try tensing up a bunch, to see what that does to the balancing act. Grip, then let go. Let go some more. Breathe.
Are you in the dance of dynamic balance?
If you study and practice the Alexander Technique, it will change your life for the better. This is a statement I can make with complete confidence and zero doubt. I can say this to absolutely everyone, no matter their condition or circumstances. There is no one who can't benefit from the principles and the process created by F. M. Alexander and developed over the past century by those who have followed his path.
There is not much else about which I can make such a claim. Insight meditation perhaps, and MBSR, but these are essentially the same approach using different activities. The universal application of the AT is possible because the "problem" it addresses is also universal, shared by all humans living in a contemporary culture and world.
I was reminded of the basics of the AT in two ways recently. One is an interview with Michael Gelb, author of the first (and in many ways the best) book I ever read on Alexander, Body Learning. I like that it appeared in Forbes, not unusual given Michael's work in the corporate sector, but still not necessarily the first place I'd look for a discussion on body-mind awareness.
The second is a super helpful resource, based on the first chapter of F.M. Alexander's book, Use of the Self. Like nearly everybody, I find Alexander's writing to be tough going. He wrote in a style that seems to want to obscure information rather than clarify it, yet his thinking is so sophisticated, clear, and ahead of its time that the effort is generally worth it. Use of the Self was meant to be accessible to the general public, but even that is a stretch for most. Neville Shortt, who teaches AT in Glasgow, has kindly created a flowchart synopsis of F.M. Alexander's description of how he discovered the essence of human psychophysical functioning, and his brilliant method for freeing himself from harmful, deadening habit.
Neville has done us a great service, by visually outlining something very complex. If you haven't had a lesson (or maybe even if you have), Alexander's process can seem daunting and ultra-specific, even with a flowchart. The main takeaway is that body and mind are not separate, not even "connected," but truly the same thing. They are one.
Last summer I shared the many testimonials about AT on Alexander Awareness Day. People have been waking up to this wonderful way of being and how AT has improved their lives. Here are just a few:
Is your desk bound job causing you back pain? The Alexander Technique is an essential skill to work productively and to avoid pain.
Alexander Technique is great for stress-management. You learn to stop & think before you react habitually to the stressors in everyday life.
Put Alexander Technique lessons on your bucket list, it will take you places you never imagined you would go.
I don’t have to work as hard at good posture as I thought. I can get to a point of balance that is practically effortless. I like to explore, and Alexander lessons allow me to remember what I once knew naturally. It’s as if I were on an archeological dig that uncovers the self I was born with.
If you've been studying AT, why not share how it is helping you, in the comments section below? If you haven't yet started, what do you imagine you might heal, accomplish, or shift in your life?
Awakening is possible, alignment is our natural state of being. There is no one who cannot move closer to living in harmony with themselves. Learning the Alexander Technique is a guaranteed way to do this.
Recently I have been challenged by several students to explain the value of engaging in practices they dislike, or why it matters whether certain habits are indulged in or not. And why does change take so long? How come things improve but don't stay that way? Why so much beginning again and again? Underlying these "why" questions is the conditioned belief that we should be able to
- feel better when we make changes;
- see immediate results;
- retain those results without further effort or engagement.
As Carrie Fisher said, "instant gratification takes too long." We want to understand everything right away, then "set it and forget it."
This is not how nature works, however. When we cultivate mindful awareness -- in movement and in meditation -- we are acting according to nature and the way we naturally function.
F.M. Alexander recognized that our sense of what is innate and organic in our body-mind has become unreliable and inaccurate. He sometimes described this as "debauched kinesthesia," the sense that what we are used to doing (the "wrong" thing) feels right, so when we are guided out of habit and into a more free and easy way of being (the "right" thing), it feels wrong. We are comfortable with the familiar and sometimes deeply uncomfortable with the new and the unknown.
I used to stand with most of my weight on my left leg, barely using the right for support. When I began Alexander lessons, my teacher would bring me into more balanced standing, and it always felt like I was listing to the right. I would look in the mirror and be surprised to see this wasn't the case. This feeling of leaning to the right (we began to call this my "starboard stance") happened every time I allowed this change in my standing, and every time I was always surprised. I had to prove to myself that it was a faulty perception, over and over again. This lasted for several weeks pretty consistently, and then my kinesthetic sense became more refined, and I was able to recognize more accurately where I was in space and how I was balancing myself.
That feeling was uncomfortable. I didn't like it. I was especially disturbed by the knowledge that my sense of myself was so off-base. And there were many, many more incidents of this "wrong" perception, the more I studied the AT. Yet I stuck with it, because I trusted my teacher and I could see quite clearly that my willingness to tolerate the discomfort of these changes was directly proportionate to the increasing freedom and skill I was gaining in living my life.
In the stress reduction course, we engage in various mindful practices, both formally and informally. Students often have strong opinions about the practices, loving some and hating others. The Body Scan, for instance, is a process that builds concentration of mind, and cultivates one's ability to direct attention in a flexible way, from a tiny specific place in the body like a toe, to a wide awareness of the body as a whole. People frequently find it a challenge to pay attention to physical sensation, to be with their bodies as they move progressively through each part. "Boring," "annoying," "pointless," "disturbing," are all adjectives I've heard over the years (and to be honest, I've said similar things myself). I was asked point blank: "why should I do something I hate? How does that relieve my stress?"
The answer is: to transform the hating of it. The problem is not the practice, it's how we relate to it. If, in the middle of an awareness practice (in the AT or in meditation), I encounter the thought, "I hate this," then that is what I can work with. What is it about this that feels like such a chore? What is so scary about this odd new feeling of balance in my movement? How can I tolerate this unknown, shaky sensation?
Expectations about how it should be/feel/change are where we get caught, not the direct experience of anything. If we just follow our feelings, the mind's chatter about how things ought to be, we won't progress very far. Ajahn Chah, the great Thai Buddhist teacher, said this about sticking with practices that are challenging:
Keep doing it until you're fed up and then see how far that laziness goes. Keep looking until you come to the end of laziness. Whatever it is you experience you have to go all the way through it before you overcome it. It's not as if you can just repeat the word 'peace' to yourself and then as soon as you sit, you expect peace will arise like at the click of a switch, and when it doesn't then you give up, lazy. If that's the case you'll never be peaceful.
It's easy to talk about and hard to do. . . . Everyone would like to search for peace in that way. Actually, peace does lie right there, but you don't know it yet. You can follow after it, you can talk about it as much as you like, but you won't know what it is. [Just Do It!, 1978]
"You have to go all the way through it." Indeed. In order to do this, we need to make friends with our experience, to become kind toward the unavoidable discomfort of change.
I've been working along these lines now for more than 25 years, and "still" I need to ask myself some questions on a regular basis:
- Am I willing to sacrifice my sense of comfort, my attachment to the familiar ways I already know, in order to cultivate positive, healthy change?
- Even though I claim to want to be rid of the pain, the numbness, the chaos, am I truly willing to allow present-moment discomfort and unease to arise?
- Can I trust that this process requires me to embrace the unknown, over and over again?
Last week Tina Fey did a satiric sketch that caused some controversy, because it appeared that she was telling people to stay home and do nothing in response to the neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies and marches. Personally, I thought it was funny and edgy social commentary, although I agree that some of what she said was problematic. I don't think she was seriously advising us to do nothing about fascist bullies, but either way, sometimes doing nothing is a really good idea. I am fascinated with the strong negative reaction to this sketch, and to the general idea of "doing nothing." This is an option that makes most people a little anxious, something they find nearly impossible to choose. It set me to thinking about the differences between the Alexander principle of non-doing (also an instruction in Vipassana meditation practice), the process of undoing, which happens as we drop our habitual patterns of use, and literally doing nothing.
David Cain at Raptitude wrote a wonderful essay this week about rediscovering the long lost thrill of doing nothing, and it reminded me that this was a regular feature of my childhood. I have lovely memories of lying under a tree and just staring up at the leaves and the light patterns between them, or sitting and watching clouds. Cain describes doing nothing as, "just being in the room and not doing anything in particular, usually while reclining your body in some way, with no regard for the time and no idea of what to do next. Real idleness."
When was the last time you allowed this? Don't we feel compelled to be productive or at least distracted by activity all the freaking time? Unless we build this into our days it isn't likely to happen. So I look for chances to not do. When I take the train into Philadelphia, for instance, I don't allow myself to do anything once I get to the station, except walk from the car to the platform, and then I just stand there. I'm not exactly waiting, not meditating, I'm just being. I might notice the sky, hear the birds singing or people chatting, maybe notice how my body is. Simple.
It doesn't have to take a large amount of time, either. 15-20 minutes is about as much as anybody needs. Look for spaces in your day where you can do nothing for 5 or more minutes, practice this consistently, and see what results you get. Most people find that it's a big relief to unhook from the need to accomplish anything and get anywhere.
The concept of non-doing in the Alexander Technique has more in common with the Buddhist notion of non-striving. F.M. Alexander discovered early in his experimentation with psychophysical functioning that balance, ease, poise, and overall coordination are reflexive, built into us already, and are most powerful when allowed to operate freely. Perhaps our most common interference with this is our tendency to over-effort. Instead of cooperating with ourselves, we think just a little extra push will help. This has been conditioned into us so deeply that it takes some time to recognize when we are doing too much, to discover the way of non-doing. As F.M. famously said, "the right thing does itself," if we can learn to trust it.
Undoing is how I think about the process we each go through as we let go of old, fixed patterns of thinking and behaving, as well as how I and many of my students describe what happens in an Alexander lesson as the patterns of holding and tension release and one begins to feel more open, expansive, and whole. Gradually, as consistent change occurs, the old ways just fall apart and disappear or only show up every once in a while. Another word for undoing might be "awakening." I always feel like a good AT lesson wakes me up to myself, to present moment reality.
I don't have to do anything to "get" that, either, except be there.
[Photo by Katherine Squier from Texas, USA () [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
Are you sitting right now? Chances are good that you are. You might be standing and reading this on your phone or tablet, or you could be lying back on a couch or your bed. But you're probably sitting, and if you are, let me ask you something: Did you choose the way you are sitting, the arrangement of all the body parts? For most of us, the answer is no. Sitting is so common, and we have been doing it for so long, that we really pay almost no attention to it until something hurts, or until someone asks us to notice. (Did you change your position when you read the question about choice just now? Bet you did.) We tend to "set it and forget it" when we collapse into a seat, where we immediately turn to whatever activity we are doing -- desk work, eating, watching TV, waiting for and riding the bus or train.
Here's an important fact that might surprise you: sitting is an activity. It seems like the cessation of an action -- walking, for instance -- but it's just a different way of balancing the body in activity. My Alexander teacher, Alan Katz, used to say, "sitting is standing in a different position," and I am constantly helping folks discover that their sit bones at the bottom of the pelvis are like a second set of feet. These bones are shaped like little rockers on a rocking chair, and the way we allow them to support our weight can be the difference between pain and ease in our bodies.
Sitting is so basic to our lives that significant time is typically spent in Alexander lessons learning (or unlearning) how to sit. This is because we spend a great deal of time in chairs, yet paradoxically we are not designed for this sitting activity, at least not for long hours. So much has been written and said about how learning the Alexander Technique can help you sit comfortably and with less strain. Here's a recent discussion of how we relate to chairs when we think about sitting, and this helpful blog post describes a teacher trainee's experience getting her hair done, and the challenges of sitting at the wash basin and in the stylist's chair. If you have a half an hour to listen, I recommend this interview with my colleague Ariel Weiss, who describes how to apply the AT in order to sit comfortably anywhere.
Are you still sitting? Here are some things to attend to, some ways to bring awareness to what you are doing.
- Stop whatever else you were doing (except reading this). You can add that back in after you rebalance yourself.
- Notice where your feet are. Let them be resting on the floor with the soles under the knees, at a 90 degree angle. It's great when the knees are level with the hips, but this is not always possible.
- Scoot forward on your seat so that your back is not leaning against anything. Adjust your legs and feet if necessary. Notice how the weight goes into your bottom.
- Access the integrity of your spine; allow it to rise up from the base, all the way up to support your head (it is as high as your inner ears, at about the level of your cheekbones). Please pay attention to the word "allow" here. You do not need to pull up, you only need to not pull down. If you are slouching, sense into your spinal column and let it lengthen up toward to crown of your head.
- Rock back and forth on your sitting bones. You will discover how leaning forward or falling back have a big effect on your neck, your solar plexus, and your lower back. Rock until you feel centered.
- From this new centered place, resume whatever you were doing (maybe just reading this). What are you aware of in this refreshed arrangement of parts? Can you maintain some of that awareness even as you eat/read/watch/work?
Which looks more comfortable?
A lot of learning in the Alexander process is about not doing anything "extra" when we move. Even something simple like bringing hands to the keyboard or a fork to the mouth typically includes a lot of unnecessary collapse or strain or effort. Master AT teacher Marjorie Barstow demonstrates this beautifully in a short introductory video. Skip to about minute 5:00 to see her in action, from a seated position.
One great thing about the fact that we sit so much is that we have countless opportunities to pause and notice what we are doing, and then make a new choice. This is mindful sitting, which is not just for meditation. Every time you bring awareness to how you sit, and then ease up on your body and find a more balanced way, you are repatterning your neuromuscular system, literally reshaping your brain's pathways. You will feel less exhausted as a result, because you are doing less work and becoming more dynamic.
The best way to learn this is to have some Alexander lessons. Being guided out of deadening habit and into lively wakefulness is enjoyable and practical.
I was just looking through some articles at The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique, a comprehensive site for all your AT needs, and I found this description of it: The Alexander Technique is a way of learning to move mindfully through life. The Alexander process shines a light on inefficient habits of movement and patterns of accumulated tension, which interfere with our innate ability to move easily and according to how we are designed. It’s a simple yet powerful approach that offers the opportunity to take charge of one’s own learning and healing process, because it’s not a series of passive treatments but an active exploration that changes the way one thinks and responds in activity. It produces a skill set that can be applied in every situation. Lessons leave one feeling lighter, freer, and more grounded. I recognized it as something I wrote for an earlier version of the Way Opens website, and I must admit, it's pretty good. Yet I began to wonder how "a skill set that can be applied in every situation," might sound to someone unfamiliar with the work. It's a pretty big claim. Every situation? Really?
Yes, really, because Alexander work teaches a way of being, in the same way that practicing meditation creates new ways to be in relationship with reality.
But that's rather vague, isn't it? What do I mean, how does it get applied, in what situations might it be most effective? Here are four basic positions we all find ourselves in every day, and they are wonderful ways to use Alexander awareness:
- Walking -- When you walk, pay attention to the relationship of your head to your pelvis. They are connected by your spine. Does your head weight fall forward as you walk, dragging the rest of your body behind it? Or perhaps the opposite -- you do that "chin up" thing which pulls the head weight back and down and your neck gets crunched. Your head can be easily poised atop the spine, remaining aligned with your pelvis below, as your feet and legs do the work of moving you forward through space. Are you in your body as you walk, or disconnected and striving to reach a future destination? Alexander Technique keeps you in the present moment, step by step. When you're aware of what you are doing, you are applying the AT.
- Standing -- Notice how the weight is supported by your feet. Is it evenly distributed between both feet (if you're like me, you have a habit of leaning on one leg more than the other). Is the weight more on your heels or on the balls of the feet, rolling toward the inside edges or the outsides? Let the soles of your feet release into the ground underneath you. How much tension can you let go of in your legs without collapsing? Unlock your knees and let them be soft and ready to bend. Check in with your hip joints (not the bones that stick out on each side, but the joints where the legs meet the torso). Notice how the legs rise up to support your torso, and -- without using muscle force -- allow a sense of upward flow from your tailbone to the crown of your head. As with walking, investigate the alignment of your head with your pelvis. Letting go and investigating what happens is practicing the Alexander Technique.
- Sitting -- My Alexander teacher, Alan Katz, says that "sitting is standing in another position." He means that the same sort of thinking applies when we sit as when we stand. The sitz bones at the base of the pelvis are shaped like the rockers on a rocking chair. So when you sit, you can be leaning backwards or forwards on the little rockers, or you can be balanced at the center of these wonderful bones. Isn't it helpful that we have some nice padding here? You can rock back and forth a bit until you find center. Then allow that upward flow through your spine, making sure to see how your head and pelvis are aligned. When you access the support of your bones and make some choices about movement and balance, that's applied AT.
- Lying Down -- There is a whole procedure called "Constructive Rest" for this. You can listen to a guided experience of it.[audio mp3="http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bbbc271da50d37502bd6728/5c648a9c542c0e3fbea463b8/5c648aa1542c0e3fbea465d2/1550092961655/Constructive-Rest-2.mp3?format=original"][/audio] If you don't want to do that, you can simply remember to take a few minutes when you lie down to consciously release your weight into the support underneath you. It's amazing how muscles and body shapes hold on, even when we are not contending with gravity anymore. It's like we have to remind our bodies that they can let go. "Hey, this is rest, remember? Stop working!" When you talk to yourself like this, with care and patience, it's Alexander practice.
There is so much more to be aware of in these four basic everyday activities (which also happen to be the four positions for meditation). Of course, it's in the transition from one to another where we really tend to get into some strange and unhelpful ways of moving, but even if you have never had an Alexander lesson, you can test what I've described here, and see for yourself. Then find a teacher (me, maybe) to help you understand what you discover.
I have been leading quite a few meditation classes lately, introducing the powerful benefits of mindfulness practice to people who, more than ever before, seem hungry and thirsty for relief. Meditation provides a practical tool for present moment awareness, which in turn cultivates resilience, a foundational component of health and wellness. The Buddha identified four postures for meditation: sitting, walking, standing, and lying down. Most people practice sitting meditation, either in the classic crossed-leg lotus position, or in a chair. A majority of meditators complain about pain or discomfort while sitting in meditation, at least after more than 20 or 30 minutes, and/or over a long period of practice, such as on retreat. While the practice encourages the acceptance of discomfort as it arises, and there are mindful ways to respond to pain during meditation, it makes sense to establish a balanced, easy pose in the first place. What does Alexander Technique offer in support of this?
First, let's begin with what not to do, how not to think about it. If you have ever listened to a guided meditation, or attended a class or practice group, it's likely that you have heard some unhelpful instructions that I now urge you to forget. Suggestions such as "sit with a straight back/spine," "hold yourself upright," or "pull your shoulders back and lift your chest" -- these are all either anatomically impossible or more work than is necessary. The spine is not straight, and so neither is the back. Our spines are beautifully curved, multi-segmented, flexible supports, not straight rods that run up our backs. (See Got Spine? for the full story.) If you pull up as an antidote to slouching and then try to hold that, your system will get fatigued and eventually sag back down again. When you push your shoulders back and lift your chest, you squeeze your shoulder blades together and compress the rib cage precisely where the diaphragm is located, thus restricting your ability to breathe freely. Try it now, see for yourself. The last thing one wants in meditation (or any time) is restricted breathing.
So please don't listen to these well-intentioned yet wrong-headed instructions. Teachers who encourage you to sense into the grounded support underneath you, to allow alignment of body parts, to feel pockets of tension in various places (belly, jaw, shoulders, thighs, neck, hands are all popular places for tension to gather) and release there -- these are all accurate and helpful suggestions for good use in sitting.
Sitting is an activity. If you are sitting now, perhaps notice how much movement is happening, even when you are "sitting still." How is the weight falling into your sitting bones at the base of your pelvis? These bones are shaped like the rockers on a rocking chair, and when we sit in balance, the weight falls into the apex of the curve, neither too far forward or back on the rockers. Collapse backwards for a moment, and then arch your lower back and shift the weight to the front of the bones. What happens to your torso, neck, and head? How is the breathing? Finding the center of the sitting bones makes it easier to allow the spine to lengthen up, including the neck, and to sense the poise of the head at the top.
Now that you are centered in your seat, lengthening up and letting your head weight be supported, where are your legs and feet? If they are tucked under you either on a zafu (cushion) or using a bench, can you allow the legs to release away from the center of the pelvis? Can the thighs let go? If you are sitting on a chair or bench, can you sense the soles of the feet making contact with the ground? How much more can you let go in your thighs, calves, ankles? Sense the subtle swaying on the sitting bones with each breath. If you like, this can be a focal point for the meditation, this feeling of micromotions in active, aligned sitting. In walking meditation we pay attention to sensations in the feet with each step. Perhaps in sitting we can be aware of changes in the pelvic base of support.
In this way, we stay grounded yet free, still yet always moving, upright but not uptight. This is a practical method for becoming less fatigued and more connected during sitting meditation. And like all formal mindfulness practice, we gain insight and experience which can be sustained during informal practice (i.e., the rest of our lives). Can you sit at your computer or dining table with the same awareness and ease that you intend to bring to meditation?
[To learn more about how Alexander lessons can help you, go to the AT page.]
One of the key components of the Alexander Technique is learning how to pause, to wait before acting. There is a moment between stimulus and response, and in that gap is the possibility of making a fresh, perhaps different choice. When we don't do that, we often increase our own suffering. Here is a reflection on that from my blog Moving Into Mindfulness: The Second Arrow. See if you recognize yourself. Namaste.
Lately during sitting meditation, I often feel my jaw clenching. I notice it as I "come back" to the present moment when my mind has wandered. Frequently my wandering thoughts are future-oriented: planning strategies, reviewing a run-down of tasks to be accomplished, ruminating on what will happen, imagining conversations with people, that sort of thing. I'm beginning to think that the future itself makes me tense (which is odd, since it doesn't actually exist and never will). It is certainly a relief to stay in the present moment, easier to feel relaxed right here, right now. This doesn't just happen in meditation, I clench in many situations: driving in rush hour traffic, reading a contentious thread on social media, picking up the phone to make a difficult call, hearing Donald Trump speak. It can happen when I'm watching an exciting show on TV, or pulling weeds, or even when I'm enjoying something pleasurable.
So I release my jaw a lot, sometimes multiple times a day, and it is always interesting to notice what has triggered this stress response. As with meditation, it's almost always when my mind is spinning out stories about the future. These stories are fueled by anxiety, regardless of whether the content is positive or negative. I don't know about you, but when I think ahead into the future, it's never with a sense of ease and faith in the outcome; worry infuses my thinking. This has become so commonplace that I barely notice it -- except when I feel that tension in my jaw.
This is what one Alexander student calls "the canary in the coal mine," an obvious physical symptom that gets your attention and calls you into awareness of a larger situation. A student of Vipassana might call it a "mindfulness bell," waking you up to what's real, right now.
Whenever I notice this jaw clenching, I let it go. It's a simple solution that works every time. There's nothing subtle or complex about it. I feel that pressure in between my teeth, a tightness just below my ears, and all I have to do is let it drop, peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth and let it rest on the bottom.
Yet I hear people saying that they have trouble letting it go, that they have tried to relax and stop the clenching, but they can't seem to do it. Releasing the jaw is easy to do, when you know what it is you want to release. Here are some facts that are important to understand if you want to ease your jaw tension:
- The jaw is not part of your head. It's attached to it, yes, but is quite separate from the skull. AT teacher Barbara Conable rightly points out that the mandible (jaw bone) is an extra added feature of the main frame of our skeleton. We have five limbs: two legs, two arms, and one jaw.
- One jaw. Not two, as many people think. There is no "upper" jaw, that's the bottom of the skull. Touch the roof of your mouth with the tip of your tongue; you are contacting the bottom of the skull. There's a guided meditation that I can no longer listen to because the teacher keeps asking me to "relax your lower jaw and soften your upper jaw." Huh? That's anatomically impossible. (This is a person with a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Go figure.)
- Releasing jaw tension is an opportunity to cultivate patience. It's a little like housework -- you do it once but pretty soon you're just going to have to do it again. The masseter muscles are said to be some of the most powerful (uterus muscles are the strongest), and they are part of an old and well-established reflex that makes us bite down when under attack or afraid. It requires patience to accept that the jaw is going to keep tensing up and it may take many mindful moments of release to change this pattern.
So pause now. Tune into your head and how it sits on top of your spine at the neck. What can you sense in your jaw? If it feels tight (or even if it doesn't), breathe in. As you breathe out, allow the jaw to drop (toward the ground if you're standing, toward your lap if you're sitting). Breathe in again, and on the next out breath let the tongue fall into the bottom of the mouth and let it rest there. Will the neck and throat widen? May your neck and shoulders soften and become easier?
Welcome back to the present moment. Please remember to include all five limbs as you move through your day.
Be softer with you. You are a breathing thing, a memory to someone, a home to a life. -- Nayyirah Waheed This is a good week to know the Alexander Technique. Reeling from the worst mass shooting in our history (not counting incidents of sanctioned genocide) and the attack on our LGTBQ brothers and sisters, we are presented with an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness, to cultivate awareness of life just as it is, without fixing or changing it, without needing it to be different in any way than exactly how it is.
This is important, because when violence and injustice thrust their way into our collective lives -- and this seems to be happening with alarming regularity now -- we want to lash out or shut down or tighten up or collapse in a heap. Sometimes all at once. But the Alexander Technique teaches how to pause; to stop whatever impulse wants to be acted upon and just notice, simply be with whatever is arising. Perhaps the impulse will be acted upon anyway, maybe it's the right course of action, whatever it is. The stopping and noticing is what matters, however. Stop resisting, stop managing, stop being pushed around by your reactivity.
Now, I'm not saying that we passively accept the horrors that surround us as in any way inevitable. We can unlearn our violent ways, just as we can unlearn poor postural habits. But change happens most effectively from a clear place, a place of power with rather than power over, from groups of individuals who can act in the present moment, together in unity. An intention to meet life on life's terms, moment to moment, is a prerequisite for that power and clarity.
This is radical self-care: pausing to ask, "How is it with me right now? What do I need? What will help me replenish?" At a times like this, many people rush into trying to rescue others, wanting to comfort and care for the wounded and hurting. This is usually well-intentioned, and the body-mind will tolerate it temporarily, but day after day, unless self-care is primary, depletion and burnout are the result.
Luckily, pausing to do a self check-in takes virtually no time, and the ways to care for the self can be simple and easy:
- slowly sip a cup of your favorite coffee or tea while doing absolutely nothing else;
- lie down in constructive rest for 5 or 10 minutes;
- walk and/or sit in nature while doing absolutely nothing else;
- call a trusted friend and share one true thing you are feeling;
- take a break from social media and other technology-based activities;
- sit comfortably and just breathe;
- rub your palms together vigorously until you feel some heat, then place your palms over your eyes, let the heat melt away the tension;
- turn toward your feelings of vulnerability and honor them.
Self-care is primary. That means it comes first, always. It's not indulgent or selfish, it's not "extra" or a luxury, it is not something to get around to eventually, when you get those other people and tasks taken care of. It is the difference between serving a community with love and strength and becoming a burden to someone yourself.
Alexander lessons offer a way to learn and practice the pause and the awareness, to unlearn the reactivity. There is also therapeutic value. When you come for a lesson all twisted up with grief, sorrow, anger, fear, confusion, and all that jazz, you find relief. It's a relief to drop that for a little while and just be present for what is, as it is.
Sometimes (un)learning is too much and all you want is the tender loving care. That's what Somatic Release is all about. Less participation and more pure letting go and being cared for.
You certainly deserve it, and as odd as it may sound, the world needs it. We need us well.
I voted today, in my state's primary election. I'm grateful to those who came before me, who fought, suffered, and even died so that I might cast my ballot at the local fire station with my neighbors. Because it's election season, I'm hearing a lot from a lot of people about what makes a good citizen, how to nurture an informed citizenry, and what forces are at work in our culture right now that make that more difficult. We are certainly in an upheaval, aren't we? I see this as a time of great transformation, on a fundamental level. That naturally feels like a disaster, but it's also an opening. You may know that the Chinese character for crisis is the same for opportunity. Both can be true simultaneously. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this the "full catastrophe" of living.
F.M. Alexander, in his exploration of human psychophysical functioning, discovered an organizing reflex which operates either well or poorly, depending on the relationship of the head and the spine (specifically the neck, or cervical spine). In Alexander lessons, we rediscover this reflex, which Alexander called the primary control. It is “primary” because when it is operational everything else falls into place. It is a “control” in the sense that a steering wheel on a car is a mechanism for controlling the direction of the car.
For years I resisted using Alexander's term, because I had a problem with the word "control." My experience of lessons was a letting go of the need to control; freedom was established by non-doing, allowing the body-mind to find its own way, and trusting my inherent balance and coordination. I didn't accept that there was control in this, but I was wrong. It just wasn't my direct control that was operating.
Ever had a movement experience that was so unified, so much in the flow, that it felt like the running/walking/biking/swimming was doing itself? Your primary control was fully operational. A healthy relationship between your head, neck, and back was possible, and it triggered this organizing reflex, which then in turn clarified the relationship of all the parts to the whole.
When I allow my primary control to shine brightly, everything falls into place and living is easier. This feels important today, because of this huge (some would say "YUGE") fundamental change we are experiencing in the U.S. and globally. Knowing that we are born to be balanced and coordinated in movement gives me permission to engage both my primary control and my primary political process with integrity, curiosity, and even a little hope.
[To learn more about how Alexander lessons can help you, go to the AT page.]
Someone recently asked me what is the most frequent instruction I give my Alexander students. "That's easy," I replied. "I ask them to pause, and then notice." True as this is, my friend was not satisfied. She really wanted to know what physical habits of posture or use I see most often, and what I teach my students to address these issues. This is not as easy to answer, because everyone is different. But like any AT teacher, I typically see a lot of locked knees, shallow breathing, head/spine misalignment, tight jaws, and generally overworked muscles accompanied by low-level anxiety.
One common misunderstanding I've seen in nearly everybody involves the heels. I'm grateful that my own teacher emphasized heel structure over and over again, because most of us think of our heels as being under the ankle joint. While it is true that the heel is below the ankle, it's crucial to understand that it is also behind the joint. The calcaneus bone (the one that gives the heel its distinctive shape) functions like the kickstand on a bike: it extends at an angle down and out away from the ankle joint. Alignment and balance depend on this, and it is essential for free movement of the ankle joint, which in turn makes the knees less rigid and the hips open up more powerfully (everything's connected).
Heels provide stability in standing as well as walking, and certainly make it possible to "release up," as AT encourages us to allow. Sensing into center (the middle of the pelvic bowl), I feel my sitz bones drop toward my heels. Feeling the connection to the earth through my heels, I can let go and sense how the back of my head is supported all the way from the ground up.
Why so many students with a misuse of their heels? Shoes are a likely culprit. Most shoes have heels, even low ones. Heels were added to shoes because people used to ride horses, and shoe heels kept feet in the stirrups. There's not a good reason for them today, except that we have become accustomed to the shape they make when we wear them: they push up the back of the pelvis, emphasizing the buttocks, and they tend to make calves more shapely. This has become the fashion. Heels, especially high heels, do damage over time, forcing the knees to lock, the weight to press into the balls and toes of the feet, over-arching the lower back, and throwing everything out of alignment, including the head and neck.
That's why I rarely wear high heels anymore, and I advise my students to avoid them whenever possible. Yes, it's fun to wear kicks that elevate, especially if you're short like I am. There's a brief experience of sexy power that I've been conditioned to appreciate, but the discomfort always wins out, and the lack of balance and extra work that high heels force on my body is just not worth it. The only time I enjoy seeing spike heels on anyone is when they are worn in solidarity, like these Toronto gentlemen did:Another reason folks seem not to access the support of their heels is that we are all leaning forward a lot, even when we're slouching and pulling down. This is a kind of "leaning in" that should be avoided, as it is an indicator of what F. M. Alexander called end-gaining. In a hurry to "get 'er done," we forge ahead without thinking, unaware of the strain as we push and pull into whatever's next. We literally get ahead of ourselves.
Next time you're in line somewhere, or standing around bored at a party or your kid's T-ball game, pause and notice (see what I did there?):
- Are you accessing the support of your heels beneath you?
- Is the weight evenly distributed across the soles of your feet?
- Is it possible to let go in the arch of your lower back and let your tailbone hang?
- Can you feel a connection up to the back of your head?
If this makes sense and helps, or especially if it doesn't, consider taking some Alexander lessons. You might enjoy getting to know those little kickstands behind and below your ankles.
I set an intention of posting a mindful movement tip each day during December, but I neglected to post one yesterday, Day 10. So on Day 11, here's a two-fer: 10 things to become aware of, plus one. Sitting up or lying back (however you are reading this), rearrange the furniture of your bones, so that you are in balance. If you're sitting, align your weight on the sitz bones at the base of your pelvis. If you're reclining back, align your hips and shoulders as the four corners of your torso. Allow your spinal curves to lengthen up, from the tailbone to the crown of your head. Let whatever is supporting your weight to be a base for sending thoughts of lengthening and widening through your whole body. Notice where you are contracting, and let go. Open to however you are right now in this moment.
Bring your attention to your toes. Without a lot of wiggling or movement, just notice the toes on each foot. Sense into each big toe, become aware of the baby toes, include all the middle toes in your consciousness. You may feel tingling, pulsing, warmth or coolness, numbness, or no sensation. Are there some toes that seem impossible to connect with? That is not unusual.
Can you sense the connection of the toes into the bones of the whole foot? Do your toes feel different on the tops than they do on the bottoms? Can you expand the space around and between your toes, just by directing some thought there? Get curious about all 10 toes.
Now bring that curiosity to your fingers. Again, without moving them around, sense into all 10 fingers. Are they curled into a fist? Extended outward in an open arrangement? Are your palms down or up? Notice how bringing awareness into your fingers is similar to or different from the awareness you have of your toes.
Expand your attention to include both feet and both hands. Move your mind's eye from the fingertips and tips of the toes up into the hands and the feet. Notice how the pinky fingers relate to the baby toes, how the thumbs connect to the big toes. Can you sense the energy in the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands?
So for most of us, that was actually 20 things to become aware of. Here's the plus one: with full awareness of toes and fingers, feet and hands, include your breathing in the experience of this moment. As you inhale, picture the breath coming in through the toes and the fingers, moving into the feet and hands, up the legs and arms, and into your core. As you exhale, reverse the movement of the breath's energy, back out through legs and arms, feet and hands, out the toes and fingers.
Congratulations. You have just entered the digital age.
An audio version of this post is here: [audio mp3="http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bbbc271da50d37502bd6728/5c648a9c542c0e3fbea463b8/5c648aa1542c0e3fbea4659f/1550092961115/Waves-of-Breath.mp3?format=original"][/audio]
Stop whatever you are doing right now. Sitting, or standing, or even lying down, tune into your breathing in this moment. Sense how the breath is moving through your body. Notice the rise and the fall of your shoulders, chest, belly. Feel the flow of air through the nostrils and the throat, in and out.
As you do this, you may notice areas of tension, in your muscles and in your mind. Allow the holding to dissolve as you stay with your breathing. Stay with the rhythm, the way you watch the ocean waves at the beach. Notice how they are not the same -- some are shorter, some longer. Sometimes the pause between breaths feels big, other times there's not much of a pause at all.
Tune into your ribs now. Feel them expanding up and out on the in-breath and releasing back in and down on the out-breath. Can you sense your ribs as a 3-dimensional structure? We call it the rib cage, but that's much too confining. (In German, the word "brustkorb" translates as "rib basket," which is much sweeter.) Breathing in, take in what you need, sense the full expansion, all around. Breathing out, experience the movement back in, subtly letting go of everything that is unnecessary.
Our breath is our most intimate connection with the environment around us. Don't hold back, restrict, or constrict your breathing. Allow your ribs to move freely and with lightness and ease. How does this change your experience of the moment?
I've learned more from my children about applying the Alexander Technique than from any other situation in life. Yesterday I met with my Alexander teacher and training director, Alan Katz. It had been about 12 years, so it was really great to see him. We intended to exchange hands-on AT work, and we did, but first we needed to catch up a bit. Mostly we talked about our daughters, my two and his one, nearly grown by now, who amaze and delight us and make us proud. Instead of talking shop, sharing discoveries about our work, we pretty much focused on our kids, because really that's been Job One for both of us during these past several years.
Mindfulness and Alexander work have made all the difference for me in becoming effective and skillful as a mother, and in sustaining me throughout its continuous challenges. The AT was essential in negotiating my shifting, ever-changing body in pregnancy, it kept me strong and flexible for the 24/7, full-body workout of caring for a newborn, infant, or toddler, and it helped me learn how to be less reactive and more responsive to my children. I am far from a perfect parent (whatever that is), but raising children with the Alexander Technique and mindful meditation and movement practices made me a better one. It also helped me avoid unnecessary strain and injury, which is no small thing as we age.
If you are pregnant or know someone who is, encourage them to find an Alexander teacher. If you are breastfeeding, learn some basic AT strategies to alleviate neck, shoulder, and back strain. If you are worn out from chasing your baby or toddler around all day, come get some rest and retooling at an AT teacher's studio. (Preferably mine, if you are in the Philadelphia/Princeton area.) Is your teenager driving you nuts or keeping you awake nights with worry? Alexander Technique can help with that.
During my AT teacher training I was lucky to have a two-year-old at home. Watching her move and grow through those years provided me with the best examples of balanced use, fresh coordination, and playful, curious ease. This lovely photo of my great-nephew shows just how aligned we are meant to be, and what we can regain if we want to.
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with Robert Rickover about AT and parenting, with a bit about pregnancy and childbirth as well. The Body Learning podcasts that Robert produces include other AT teachers discussing how it helps parents too, in case you want to hear other perspectives. The Alexander Technique and Parenting is about 20 minutes long. I hope you'll find it helpful.
Another invaluable resource is a book I return to again and again: Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn. This unique manual of mindfulness is a great companion to all the other "how-to" parenting tomes out there. It provides support for the inner transformation that is possible through parenting, based on their own personal experiences raising three kids.
Our children give us endless opportunities for insight into our own operating systems, and the potential for daily growth. Practicing Alexander Technique and building mindfulness skills help us receive this gift with more grace, poise, and joy.
The Alexander Technique comes in handy when the snow flies. I just came in from shoveling our first significant accumulation. It was beautiful, but wet and heavy. For those of us without snow blowers, it's a great aerobic activity, and often pleasant if the temperature's not too frigid.
- Make sure your feet are fully engaged with the ground, your weight distributed evenly as across the soles.
- Bend at the ankles, knees, and hip joints, not at the waist.
- Don't scrunch your neck as you glide the shovel under a pile of snow.
- When you lift, use your springy legs as levers -- don't make your arms and shoulders do more than they have to.
- Again, make sure to keep your neck long and easy--don't pull your head back and down.