Breathing

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?

Awake and Aligned the Alexander Way

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. 

Our job is to wake up to this fact and align with it in everything we think and do.

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. 

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.]

At A Time Like This

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? Empty CupWhat 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.

oxygen-mask-227x300Put your own oxygen mask on first, people.

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.

Gimme Your Digits

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.fingers & 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.

Waves of Breath

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.

Feather Ribs

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?

 

The Suspense is NOT Killing Me

Building Blocksspring I just bought a new bed, and while investigating the various ways mattresses are constructed, I got a chance to look at a lot of springs. It reminded me of my own springy nature and woke me up up a little more to my resilience and dynamic power.

It's a common misconception that we're built like a house or some other man-made structure, with a foundation (our legs and feet) supporting the parts above it. During Alexander lessons, students frequently reveal that they think of "good posture" as the act of holding their body parts neatly stacked, one on top of the other, in some kind of straight line only they can imagine.

Setting aside the issue of "posture" (which is not what we're after in Alexander work), see what happens when you think of your body as a series of blocks that must be held in a vertical stack, and try moving as you attempt to hold this arrangement of parts. Is it possible to maintain this? If so, how does it feel? Is it easy and fluid? Expansive or restricting? Can you breathe?

Tension and Integrity

The truth is, we don't have to hold ourselves together to maintain balance and ease, to be coordinated and powerful. Our bodies are not constructed like a building, we're designed for three-dimensional movement, continually balancing and rebalancing, whether in stillness or in motion. This is possible because we are suspension structures, living tensegrity beings. Tensegrity is a term coined by Buckminster Fuller, a blend of "tension" and "integrity," also known as the "architecture of life." My colleague and teacher Sandra Bain Cushman describes it like this:

Tensegrity, simply envisioned, is a system of upright support within which compression members (in our case, bones) are released into a network of elastic or tensile tendons (in our case, muscles). The result is a system of uprightness that is release-driven, rather than  rigidity-dependent. Picture the difference between a spider's web and a brick wall. Our bodies have more of the resilience and dynamism of the spider's web. Even in stillness, the breath moves in a strong rhythm up and down through the core of the body, the bones and muscles responding to each other in a wave-like way to keep us in free balance. (Mind Body 40 Days)

Release-driven. I just love that. Letting go and opening up is how balance is achieved. The minute you grip and get rigid, you lose your balance. My mentor Alan Katz used to demonstrate this by simply holding a long pillow bolster in the palm of his hand, where it would delicately balance. Then he'd grab the base with his fingers and we'd watch it topple over.

Try This Bodymind Experiment:

1. Sit in a comfortable upright position without using the chair or sofa back to support you and without slumping forward. Let your feet rest on the floor under your knees. Or sit on the floor in a cross-legged position. Notice how your weight is supported.

2. Begin to notice the subtle swaying or back-and-forth movements in various places in your torso, neck, and head as you sit. Notice that even in stillness there is movement.

3. Now observe your breathing, without changing it. Allow yourself to exhale completely, without pushing the breath out. Then watch as an inhalation occurs. The breath just naturally drops in, doesn't it? Keep breathing in this way--let a breath drop in and drop out.

4. As you allow your breathing to flow in and flow out, notice the movement of your torso -- the ribs, the belly, the chest and shoulders -- whatever you can observe. Don't forget to include your sides and back. Notice the whole round structure moving in and out with each breath, the "bones and muscles responding to each other in a wave-like way," as Sandra says.

5. Picture your three-dimensional rib cage and sense its expansion and contraction as you breathe. Tensegrity. Like this:

Tensegrity 1Tensegrity 2

Ride the Wave

The breath is a very good way to reconnect with our all-encompassing, resilient, responsive inner spring system. Any time you feel excess tension, and the discomfort and pain that goes with it, just pause and breathe. The wave of your breath can help you let go of this unnecessary tension and ground you in the present moment. You'll "spring back" to your more authentic self, a little more awake, a little more aware, a little more alive. Then the tension that is necessary (and some is required to maintain uprightness, after all) will have integrity: "the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition."