Anatomy

The Dance of Dynamic Balance

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?

Don't Do Something, Sit There

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.

  1. Stop whatever else you were doing (except reading this). You can add that back in after you rebalance yourself.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 

Four Ways to Alexander Awareness

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Upright but not Uptight

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.]

Five Limbs

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.

From Atlas of Human Anatony, by Frank H. Netter

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:

  1. 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. Web Jaw B&W
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.