This is a brief description about how to get air in your lungs good.
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.
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.]
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.]
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.
Building Blocks 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:
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."
Last week I spent several days touring colleges with my daughter, a rising high school senior. The standard program for these visits includes a presentation followed by a campus tour, and the student tour guides all lead the group while walking backwards. I wondered which took more practice: the spiel about the school or the backwards walking? It's a bit of a trick, this backwards walking, but the tour guides are so lucky they had to learn this skill, because doing it is empowering and can be fascinating. I often ask my Alexander students to explore walking backwards, because it provides so much useful information. It bypasses habitual assumptions about our bodies in motion and our relationship to the space we're in. For starters, how often do you move with an awareness of the space behind you? Are you, in fact, including what's in back of you right now (or to the side or above or below you)?
If your habit in walking forward is to lead with your forehead, your chin, or your chest or your pelvis, walking backwards helps you notice that because you can't indulge these habits and move back. People often report a heightened sense of their feet in backward walking too -- especially those who don't normally walk heel-to-toe. It's much easier to notice when you're tightening your neck or pulling your head back and down, or whether you brace your arms as you move.
Try This: Find a space of about 15 or 20 feet in which to walk (a hallway, your living room, a yard, or a sidewalk), free of clutter and without interference from others. Start at one end and walk forward as you normally do (if you are familiar with Alexander work, apply your directions as you move). Now walk backwards and note any differences. Some questions you might ask:
- What does your head want to do?
- How are your legs and feet moving differently?
- How do your arms move?
- What are your thoughts?
- How do you know what's behind you as you move?
- Do you sense anything different about your back?
- Does your breathing change?
Now take what you have noticed and keep it in your awareness as you walk forward again. If you have a greater sense of your whole back, carry that with you as you walk forward. If your feet seem to have a fuller contact with the ground, allow that to be the case as you walk. What do you do when walking forward that prevents your "backwards use"? Repeat this experiment a few more times, maintaining a bodymind sense of the space behind you.
Voila! You are now more present as you move forward in your life.
Nearly every day when I do my own walk/jog along the Delaware canal, I pass a man who is walking backwards -- at a pretty good clip, too. I'm always tempted to shout out, "Good for you! Isn't backwards walking amazing?' But I just salute him silently, knowing we share the secret power of opening to the space behind us as we move.
I have once again started a daily walk for exercise. I am rediscovering how authentically enjoyable this is. When I hear voices of resistance trying to stop me from cultivating this discipline, I try to remember that. It feels really good to get out there, even on a hot and sticky day in the Delaware Valley, even when I'd rather take a nap or watch TV, even when I feel sore from too much yoga or gardening or housework (people who know me are snickering right now: "when does Amy do housework?"). Nearly every day I'm able to find pleasure in briskly walking two or more miles, and it's because I know the Alexander Technique. My understanding of how to walk well means I am free to notice the power and energy I produce, and the beautiful scenery I encounter, and the other people who are out there trying to get and stay healthy, too. Applying the Alexander Technique gives me the freedom to let my legs move my torso along, to let my neck be free of tension so my head can bob along in balance as I move. It means I can breathe easily and powerfully, with awareness of my back and what is behind me. I can extend gratitude to my feet, which do so much for me all day long.
Walking the Alexander way means I can notice where I feel twinges of discomfort (my right hip and sacroiliac, usually), and I can include that in my total experience, allowing it to be however it is. Then maybe I can choose not to pull down or twist there quite as much, and perhaps I might notice a little less sensation in that body part. It means I can lighten up on myself, including that habit of telling myself I "shouldn't" have these twinges.
I can walk with pleasure and ease because studying the Alexander way has taught me to move mindfully through life. So the best part of my walking is that it translates into the rest of my day. Moving from my car through a parking lot into a store, I remember to include my whole rib cage. Dragging my trash cans up the driveway to the back of the house, I choose not to twist or drag my hips along. Walking up the stairs for the umpteenth time, I feel grateful for the lovely, level canal path that runs through my little river town.
Here is an interview I did last year, around the time I was doing a state-wide walk with Earth Quaker Action Team. It's a little long, but I do share some pretty useful tips about how to walk with power and safety.
How do you walk? What habits do you notice? The next time you walk somewhere, anywhere -- pause. Slow down a little bit, and watch your way of moving. If you don't enjoy walking, maybe you'd like to learn the Alexander way.
Now that Way Opens Center is on Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, I am learning how best to take advantage of these social media venues. It's a little daunting, but the Alexander Technique shows me how to learn something new by slowing down, observing, and experimenting. When there is something I don't understand, if I remember to notice the tension that arises around "not knowing," I can release it before it begins to cloud my brain with panic-based messages about how stupid I am. I feel this tension in my neck and behind my eyes; other people get upset stomachs or jaw pain or sharp headaches. I observe myself striving to understand a new way of doing something, using different controls, and in the striving, I tighten. So I let go of trying at the same time I let go of the tension in my neck. I have had plenty of opportunity to practice this lately with my new android phone. I had my old cell phone for nearly five years, and the same SIM card since 2000 (the guy at the cell phone store could not believe it). My muscle memory with that phone was awesome--I could access information and make calls (even play games) without having to think about what buttons to push. With the new phone I am very, very slowly getting the hang of it. At first I had to pay 100% attention to even answer an incoming call or place an outgoing one. It is a challenge to edit my contacts, all of which got lost in the transfer of my ancient SIM card. (oops!, said Phone Store Guy.) I downloaded my gmail contact info, but all the phone numbers are gone and need to be restored. I still don't know half of what this phone can do; I only know what I need it to do, and even that not so much. I realize that some people reading this might be internally rolling their eyes and thinking that this middle-aged person is a techno doofus. They'd be right. To be fair, however, I think everyone gets anxious when they have to learn something new, even if it is something they are excited about learning.
Bodymind experiment: Think of something new you had to figure out recently. Choose a physical activity, not an intellectual concept. It could be how to use a mechanical device, or it could be learning travel directions to a new location, like a friend's house or a doctor's office. How about an activity like assembling furniture from IKEA? That can be an adventure. Maybe you've been given some new physical therapy exercises to do, or you've taken up yoga or tai chi or running. There are many everyday examples of needing to learn something complex in a short amount of time.
Take a moment now and think back on your experience of trying to understand something new. How did that feel emotionally? What thoughts went through your mind while you practiced this new task? See yourself in this experience clearly, picture it in detail. Begin to notice your physical response in this moment as you remember the experience of trying to learn something new. What do you observe? Is your brow furrowed? Are you holding your breath? Grinding your teeth? Locking your knees? Clenching your abdomen? Where do you feel the most effort in your body?
How do you talk to yourself as you try to learn the new movement activity? If you're like me, you probably hear comments such as, "I'm a total idiot" or "this phone (computer, traffic, bookcase) sucks!" Feelings of frustration can be internalized ("I'm stupid") or externalized ("this phone is stupid"), and often a combination of both. My mind lies to me at times like this; I have thoughts like "I hate learning new things" (not true) or "I will never figure this out" (almost never true) or "you're so old" (not quite true, and irrelevant). Guess what? Tense thoughts create tense bodies. Tense bodies don't function well, making one feel clutzy and inept, leading to more physical tension, and on it goes into the viscious downward spiral.
When we can notice this happening, we have a choice. Whether unclenching muscle or mind, the most important thing is to stop. Slow down. Step back, take a look around. Take a breath.
So it's important to let go of striving, especially when taking in new information, or learning an old skill in a new way. Of course it's helpful to have a goal in mind (being able to answer my incoming calls is useful), but each step along the way is what really matters (first I have to recognize my new ringtone before I can even think about answering a call). Alexander called this "end-gaining" -- the pushy efforting I do to accomplish something that gets me ahead of myself and out of balance with reality. Instead, I can practice "non-doing". Non-doing allows me to function naturally and automatically from moment to moment. It helps me notice and let go of the tension in my neck and the pressure in my eyes, and release the need to gain any particular end. The non-doing way of being simultaneously opens my field of vision and sharpens my mental focus, thus making it possible to understand what I need to learn about the task or object at hand (swipe down the touch screen to get the call. oh.) And my neck and eyes feel better too.