Balance

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?

Nothing Doing

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 ([1]) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

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. 

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.]

Primary Engagement

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.]