Freedom in the Gap

One of the key components of the Alexander Technique is learning how to pause, to wait before acting. There is a moment between stimulus and response, and in that gap is the possibility of making a fresh, perhaps different choice.  When we don't do that, we often increase our own suffering. Here is a reflection on that from my blog Moving Into Mindfulness: The Second Arrow. See if you recognize yourself.  Namaste.

Heaven is Under Our Feet

     Thoreau said:  "Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads."  Walking yesterday and today I have been feeling this viscerally. I've covered about 12 miles between the two days, breaking in a new pair of shoes, experimenting with different layers of clothing and socks, trying to avoid blisters and learning how to treat the ones I get. (helpful information here about that) Spring is such a great time to take long walks, and it is stunningly gorgeous here in Bucks County, PA.  Blazing azaleas, pink and white dogwoods, irises and tulips blooming -- and green absolutely everywhere, in every shade.  William Penn knew a good thing when he saw one.

     I walk along the Delaware Canal, just two blocks from my house. It's a wonderful state park that runs from Bristol to Easton, and offers a beautiful setting for exercise year-round.  In spring one has to be aware of the geese who nest along its banks, and when I spot a sweet  goose family with its mama, papa, and fuzzy yellow goslings, I am cautious. These geese are hell bent on protecting their young ones and often hiss at me as I pass by; they will attack if they feel threatened.

     I have been considering how natural it is to want to protect the younger generation, how strong the survival instinct is in us, so much so that we would kill to stop any serious threat to our child.  Yet we don't fight for the planet on behalf of the next generations. How can we be more fierce on their behalf?

     Walking along a canal means having to turn around and come back the way you came.  Some fundamental part of me does not like this. I'd rather walk in a loop, I suppose.  There is something difficult psychologically about that moment where I turn around and start walking back, knowing that I am only halfway done. I almost always hear "only" halfway in my head, not "already" halfway. Luckily, it is also the point at which the endorphins usually kick in. I had actually forgotten about how fabulous endorphins are, as they flood my system after I have walked a few miles. I begin to feel sore or tired or bored or I tighten up and want to stop but there's nowhere to stop so I keep going, and then boom!--there's that nice "all-over" feeling, that sense of integration, in spite of how hard my muscles and bones are working. Then the walking does itself, and when I am walking along the canal I feel myself flowing, as the water is also very slowly drifting along.  F. M. Alexander said, "The right thing does itself," and, like William Penn, he was really on to something there.

     I thought of F.M. today when I encountered a local great blue heron. I have a special connection with this bird, since the first time we met. A few days after we moved here I went out for a walk, harboring grave doubts about what we had just done to our lives by leaving Brooklyn for Bucks. As I rounded a bend in the towpath, I came upon this heron standing on one leg and instantly realized why I had chosen to relocate. Today when I saw the heron on the path ahead, I slowed down, fearing I would scare it. But as I crept closer, the bird remained still, until I was mere inches away. Our eyes met and I watched as it quite deliberately and delicately raised one foot and stepped away like the world's most elegant dancer, its long neck a reminder of "up."

     Such diversity of life, such strength and beauty all around.  Careful stepping of the bird, former dinosaur. ancient eye, primal connection, reminder of the interconnectedness of everything, reminder that we ought to step carefully too.

     May I walk with a fierce protection for the web of life in my heart.  May I be grateful for Heaven under my feet.

I welcome your positive wishes, prayers, and good cheer for me and everyone with the Earth Quaker Action Team as we embark on the Green Walk for Jobs and Justice, this Monday, April 30.

Just Walking

Yesterday I facilitated a training that explored theapplication of Alexander Technique principles to the activity of walking.  I was leading this training as both a fundraiser and in preparation for the Green Walk for Jobs and Justice, Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT)’s upcoming 16-day, 200-mile walking expedition from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to build support for our campaign to stop PNC Bank from financing mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. I will be one of the “Mountain Justice Walkers”, walking between 10 and 17 miles a day over several days.

Like most everyday movement, walking is something that we take for granted, and in doing so we simultaneously interfere with our innate ability to walk with power and ease. As I prepare for the Green Walk, I am feeling especially reliant upon Alexander Technique to keep me moving with ease and balance, and hopefully build up stamina and minimize injury.

Yesterday was a bit chilly with a steady, soaking rain. The plan was to walk 3 to 5 miles for about 2 hours in Center City Philadelphia, but as a group we agreed to cut that down to just under an hour and about 2.5 miles. It was like walking inside a rain cloud, and although not horribly windy or frigid, it wasn’t exactly pleasant. A ways into this soggy walking practice, I heard myself ask, “why am I doing this again?” and then, “how is this helping anyone?” In the same instant I recognized the part of myself that believes everything in life should always be nice and comfortable and pleasant. And another part that expects all endeavors to be a means to an end and not an end in themselves.

In any case, it seems like now, just one week before I begin the Green Walk, would be a good time to try and answer the question of why. 

Why I Am Walking

  1. Because I can’t sit idly by
  2. Because it will make me stronger in body and mind
  3. To put my conviction to the test
  4. To make a bold statement
  5. To bring attention to the plight of the communities and culture of Appalachia and all the people who are living with the effects of MTR
  6. To become closer to the Earth
  7. Because I want to slow down
  8. To promote Earth Quaker Action Team
  9. Because I am just so fricking sick and tired of corporate culture dominating everything everywhere
  10. Because it will be fun, joyful, empowering, instructive, and totally ridiculous
  11. Because I know a leading when one hits me upside the head
  12. To become a better organizer and teacher
  13.  To give me something to blog about
  14. To meet some Pennsylvania Quakers outside of Philadelphia
  15. I feel it is my Christian duty
  16. To move and be moved
  17. Because it’s better than sitting on my ever-widening ass and doing nothing
  18. To find out more about praying with my feet
  19. To soak up every bit of wisdom and know-how from George Lakey that I possibly can
  20. To be humbled
  21. To get in shape!!!
  22. Because it will be nothing but a completely focused and directed experience, the sort of opportunity that doesn’t come around too often. 

This Green Walk for Jobs and Justice is about restoring the balance in our economic, environmental, and spiritual systems, or establishing right relationship. I am so lucky that I get to do nothing but walk, step by step toward a clear and obtainable goal: to ask PNC Bank why it prefers to invest in destruction and degradation instead of clean, sustainable, prosperous communities.

The whole time I can just focus on my body. Eugene Gendlin said, “’Body’ means interaction with the situational environment. Even the simplest living bodies are complex and purposeful interactions with their environments.”  So in restoring the environment through cutting off the money supply currently funding its destruction, I am engaging in a “purposeful interaction”, mile by mile.  I know I will be restoring myself, my own bodymind, as I walk. 

I am so blessed to have this chance to work intimately with people I admire and respect.  Seeing this group come together in about 6 weeks to literally put this Green Walk on the map has been a lesson in the miraculous.  When we say “way opens” we are not kidding. People are really ready to be helpful, to join in and give their support in many ways. I think a lot of the time most of us are anxious and afraid, and any tangible, practical thing we can do somehow mitigates that, and feels good. The best part is, we’re actually not doing all that much. Certainly we’re challenging ourselves mentally and physically by walking, but essentially that is all we are doing. Just walking. And maybe connecting with our neighbors as we go. So it feels productive, and it is, but not in the usual way of our daily, multi-tasking selves running around trying to Get Stuff Done. 

There is a refreshing quality of honest and direct communication in the planning process that I have seen, amongst ourselves and also between EQAT representatives and the hospitality and activist contacts we’ve been calling statewide. It seems that even when people cannot accommodate a request, they have been generally supportive and their reasons for saying no almost always have to do with what is best for their congregation or community group. In explaining themselves, they reveal their values and contribute something of themselves even in the refusal. That feels like good politics to me. 

These are just 22 of the possibly hundreds of reasons I am joining the Green Walk for Jobs and Justice. I do hope I will have enough energy on the road to write short, frequent posts on this blog.  Meanwhile, I welcome your comments. 

Why are you joining the Green Walk? If you want to but can’t, why would you want to?

What messages should we bring to James Rohr, CEO of PNC Bank, when we get to Pittsburgh?

Stay tuned.

With Both Feet on the Ground

Tonight I began a six-week course, "Mindfulness for Educators."  I have the privilege of being able to take this class, taught by Irene McHenry, my supervisor and the Executive Director of Friends Council on Education. This is such treat for me, for so many reasons. First, it is conveniently being held at George School, a mere 15 minutes from home. Second, Irene is a master teacher of this practice. It's a pleasure to experience my boss in a different context, giving the gift of encouragement as she asked us to go deep and show up for ourselves in the present moment. Third, there are quite a few wonderful George School teachers taking this class, which is great because it means more mindfulness practice will find its way into classrooms at GS, plus it's fun to be learning with the amazing folks who taught our oldest (now in college) and our youngest (a current student).

What I want to share is that during the Body Scan meditation at the end of our two hours together, when my mind was focused on my feet, I heard Irene say, "both feet," and I was suddenly overcome with the most complete awareness of having two healthy functioning feet, and a nervous system to feel their connection to the earth. And I was filled with such gratitude and felt so reassured.  

I think I needed this mindful restoration of my feet because today I wore a new pair of high-heeled boots, something I try to limit in my life.  They are cool kicks but they strain my ankles and shins.  On the up side, they keep me continuously aware of my center of gravity as I maintain my balance.

Alexander Technique & Activism

Here is a link to the interview I mentioned in my last blog post, about Alexander Technique and Nonviolent Direct Action.
Thanks to Robert Rickover for producing these interesting and lively discussions about Alexander work. Robert is also responsible for the comprehensive website The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique.
Enjoy all these resources for ease of well-being.
And remember to think up when you speak up.

Me and my big mouth, at an EQAT action in December.

What is the Alexander Technique?

Recently I was asked to provide a brief definition or description of the Alexander Technique for an interview I was giving. This is always such a challenge, because the work needs to be directly experienced to be understood. However, I am rather pleased with the following, and I hope it helps you understand what AT is and does.  If you want to find out more, contact me -- amy@wayopenscenter.com -- or find another Alexander teacher -- www.ati-net.com or www.amsatonline.com.

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.

That’s vitally important in the modern culture we live in. It is so easy to become overwhelmed by the constant barrage of information and other stimuli coming at us every day, and so we shut down and get disconnected -- from ourselves and from one another. Alexander Technique is the work that reintegrates. It is a completely sustainable approach to living.

One After the Other, All At Once

As you may recall from my 2011 New Year's post, I don't much like resolutions, at this time of year or any other, especially when they involve "improving" oneself. I think we're all okay as is, that we each have more than enough within us to meet the demands of life. We're resilient. We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said. 

Nevertheless, we are continually either growing or stagnating. If you prefer evolution to entropy it is vital to keep learning more and more about your self, how you relate to that self, and how that self relates to the environment and those with whom you share it. This doesn't necessarily require learning a new skill; it might mean strengthening a skill you already possess or adapting a well-known skill to a new purpose.

For 2012 I am reviving a discipline I had going about ten years ago, when I was teaching Alexander Technique to groups of graduate students in MFA programs, first for opera singers then for actors. I nearly always began each class with a 20-30 minute warm-up, which stretched muscles, opened joints, got people breathing fully, and unified mind and body (at least for a few minutes at a time). After that we could really get down to work (or play).

I have become much less physically active than I was in those years, and while I do manage to find time once or twice a week for exercise, I don't do it every day, and so I need something to keep my bodymind in shape and centered. As with sitting meditation, consistent practice is essential.

So I now get up one half-hour earlier than I used to, grab my yoga mat, and begin the sequence I taught 3 or 4 times a week when I was teaching groups.  It feels really good to be moving in this familiar way once again. Plus, rather than having to split my focus and track my students as we do it together, I have the freedom to pay full attention to myself as I slowly wake up through movement.

That's the nice part. Here's the not-so-wonderful thing: I am ten years older. That's ten years of an increasingly sedentary existence. That's the difference between age 40 and 50. I knew I would not be as flexible and that in some ways my body would resist even as it hungered and thirsted for the stretching and the lifting and the balancing and the deep breathing. Yet I was surprised -- shocked, even -- to discover how simultaneously stiff and flabby I have become. In both body and mind. 

All I can say is, it's a good thing I don't talk to my students the way I talk to myself. 

There is the notion in Alexander world, and in some yoga traditions, that we bring our most prominent habits into every activity.  In my case, the very first habit I noticed on Day One was my mental/emotional habit of negatively judging myself.  All the time. No matter what. Despite any reality to the contrary.

Thus, as I began my first few mintes of stretching, grounding, and centering (which was going pretty well, by the way) I heard,
          Boy, are you out of shape!
          You call yourself an Alexander teacher?
          Who do you think you're fooling?  You are fat and old and doing this won't change that.
          This is pointless. 
          (and a bunch of other really mean things.)

Luckily, as I heard myself say "pointless," I stopped and took half a second to consider whether or not that was true. I instantly concluded that even if it would not change how I looked, it would certainly change how I feel, because even five minutes into it I was feeling my energy rising and I like that feeling.  So, not pointless at all.

How could I stop the inner critic, or at least detach from it? Mindfulness has taught me to always return to the breath, so I did that.  And as I did, I remembered something I learned more than 20 years ago at Kripalu Center, where I often visited once upon a time. Some of the yoga teachers there were heavy into holding yoga poses for long periods of time. Maybe that's characteristic of "Kripalu style" yoga, I don't know, but man, we maintained those poses for hours ! Okay, it was only a few minutes. But it felt like hours, and so the teachers gave us a strategy for being with the challenge of  lengthy posture-holding:


In my experience, few procedures, mantras, or advices have worked as well or as consistently in as many different situations as these five words have. I cannot recall a time when I applied them and they did not help at least a little. Usually a lot.

When I practice this simple method I change the word "relax" to "release" because that fits better with my Alexander work and my own sense of what needs to happen. I don't think it's possible, or even optimal, to relax in many circumstances, but it is always possible and beneficial to release whatever I might be holding unnecessarily, or however I might be efforting too much.

Here's a description of how it has been working for me this week as I renew the discipline of my morning warm-up. When I'm stretching my hamstrings, for example, and they start to scream and my lower back starts to burn and my mind begins to give unhelpful advice like, "be afraid, be very afraid," I breathe as fully and deeply as I can without effort. I notice as my breathing deepens that I'm gripping my shoulders a little and furrowing my brow and clenching my jaw ever so slightly. So I release that, and it moves me more fully into the stretch. That increases bodily sensation, so I feel what arises as I let go. If it's a particularly intense feeling, maybe one I'm not too fond of, that's okay, because the next step is to observe what is actually happening, and not get too caught up in the feeling. Just noticing what is occuring in any given moment is truly liberating, especially if it can be done without judgment. So I make the choice to allow it to be however it is. That includes my dislike of my inflexible hamstrings and whatever else I'm judging. 

It also opens up space for me to notice that I'm hanging in there, showing up for my warm-up (and my life), waking up to the amazing psychophysical structure I call my body, which moves in wonderful ways and provides strength and support and balance if I let it. My negative self-talk won't let it, so I really love having an effective strategy for bypassing my inner critic.

The most interesting thing about this process that I've just attempted to describe is that, like the classic Alexander Technique "orders" it works best when I apply all five words one after the other, yet all at the same time. It's a fun little mystery to me: how important it is to breathe, release, feel, observe, and allow -- in that order -- and to keep cycling through all five in any given moment.

It is difficult to describe in words, like all the really truthful and important things in my life. The list above makes it seems linear, and it is not. Represented graphically, the process looks more like this:

where each circle contains the whole sequence of five. Or maybe it's more like a spiral:

In the coming weeks I will write more about my experience of transforming my stiff and flabby bodymind into something more responsive and alive. Meanwhile, when you find yourself in a challenging, difficult, or painful situation (whether by conscious choice or not), test this process. See what happens when you breathe, release, feel, observe, and allow.

One after the other and all at once.

How to Occupy Anything

The symbol for crisis, an emergent opportunity.

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don't see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.

                                                                    -- Lao-tzu

Does Kindness Make You Stronger?

"When we wish and seek to help others, our attitude is more positive and relationships become easier. We are less afraid and have less anxiety. Otherwise we remain shy and hesitant, and feel the need to take a thousand precautions before we approach people. When our intentions are good, we have greater self-confidence and are stronger. This is how we learn to understand how precious and valuable kindness is."  -- His Holiness the Dalai Lama

I am not sure I have ever understood compassion in quite this way before.  So practical and verifiable. When a great teacher makes a statement like this, I always appreciate being able to test it to see if it is true. Obviously, one can take this and try it out quite easily.  If I consciously extend good intentions toward everyone I come across today, will I feel more confident in myself and become stronger?  Only one way to find out.

It's possible that even though everything is getting really horrible around the world, and all that I hold sacred in my own nation is under attack from self-righteous fear-mongers, I still have control over much of what I experience in my life.

Beginning today, I will be trying out this process as a way to test the theory that kindness makes you stronger, and occasionally writing about it here. If you want to try this experiment too, please do, and then share your results on the comments section of this or subsequent posts.

This kind of experimentation is part of what I try to practice when I teach the Alexander Technique.  F.M. never asked anyone to take what he said on faith.  He demonstrated what he had discovered about human psychophysical functioning, over and over again, and asked his pupils to apply his teachings and experience for themselves if what he said was true or not.  

The ability to test the truth of something through direct experience is important to me, which is one of the reasons I am a Quaker.  George Fox, who founded the Religious Society of Friends in the mid-17th century, preached the radical notion that God can be experienced directly by each person, without the need for ritual or an intermediary like a priest or minister. (As you can imagine, this was not a popular message with the Church.) Fox and his followers demonstrated repeatedly that each of us can hear the Spirit and be guided by it if we only listen, and that whole groups of people, if gathered intentionally, can experience God and know how to act together.

My expectation in working with what the Dalai Lama has said is that it will be true. But I think that, like a lot of us, I still have some lingering notion that kindness and compassion are "soft" or even "weak" somehow.  Intellectually, I know this is not so, that it takes courage and strength to be kind and to allow oneself to feel sympathy. But I often behave as if I don't know or believe that, so I am interested to see how intentionally extending positive thoughts toward every person I encounter might prove to be an effective method of restoring self-confidence.  I certainly would love to stop being so afraid of other people all the time.

The first thing I will have to do in this experiment is remember to try it!

I would really appreciate any feedback that might come my way during this process.  Feel free to share your comments!

Noticing Habitual Reactions

Today I want to share with everyone an article published on the website Salon by a wonderful writer, Sarah Hoffman (a pseudonym), called My Son, the Pink Boy.  This isn't about the Alexander Technique, or wellness, or healing.  At least, not specifically.  But it is a great example of what happens when we are not aware of our habits of reaction.

One of the principles of the Alexander Technique is that, for the most part, we live our lives in utter disregard for how we are using ourselves; we are a bundle of unexamined habits of tension, misuse and lack of balance. Until we begin to notice our patterns, we will continue to be subtly (or not so subtly) damaging ourselves unnecessarily.  Once we do begin to see what we are doing in activity, then we have some choices about how we'd like to proceed.  We can respond mindfully rather than react mindlessly.

I believe this is true for the whole human species. The society and culture we create is a reflection of our beliefs and ideas.  As a society, if we remain mindlessly reactive, we will continue to damage ourselves.  If we can begin to look at our assumptions and habitual reactions, maybe we can make some different choices and continue to evolve.

Unfortunately, there is a big barrier to noticing habitual reactive patterns: they feel normal. Whether on an individual or group level, habits become ingrained and normalized, to the point  where we don't question or even notice them.  They just become the sea we swim in, or the background noise of the refrigerator humming that you don't hear until it shuts off.

The situation Sarah Hoffman describes in her article gives many good examples of how people often react mindlessly, from assumption and prejudice, even when their intentions may be "good."  If you also read the comments readers have made that follow the article you will see more reactivity.  They are all based on some notion of what "normal" is.  

Based on years of many repeated experiences, it is my opinion that we do not have an accurate sense of what "normal" is, either individually or as a society.  We think we know what "normal" is, but we are wrong.

If possible, as you read the article, notice your own reactions, both physically (what happens in your body as you read?) and mentally/emotionally (what thoughts and feelings erupt?). Observe yourself without judgment.

I am also sharing this article because I work with a number of people who struggle with how their physical expression of themselves sometimes causes them pain and difficulty.  Ultimately, we all project something of ourselves by the way we walk, talk, and behave.  Alexander Technique helped me become comfortable in my body, after years of being taught, explicitly and implicitly, that I could not trust it and it was not beautiful.  Along with other habits of misuse, this was one of the more fundamental habits I was able to overcome through the patient and loving instruction of my teacher.

So now, enjoy, My Son, the Pink Boy.
I welcome your comments!

New Year, New You?

This is the time of year when many of us begin to think about turning over a new leaf.  We make resolutions to change some bad habit we know is harming our well-being, begin a new program of exercise, or otherwise embark on a program of self-improvement. I'd like to make a radical suggestion: don't bother. It probably won't work (whatever it is).  What's more, it's not necessary.

I don't believe in "self-improvement," because I don't think we need to improve ourselves.  I think we are all just fine the way we are.  If anything needs improvement, it's the way we talk to ourselves about, well, our selves.

Does this mean you shouldn't quit smoking or cut back on your sugar intake?  No.  What I'm saying is that you are sufficient already, have amazing powers of intuition, empathy and creativity. In particular, your body-mind is nothing if not highly resilient.

I have to thank Dodinsky for reminding me of this.  For those of you who aren't familiar with this wonderful soul, Dodinksy has a Facebook page called The Garden of Thoughts, and he posts beautiful photos and little messages of positivity there.  He recently posted:

Do not sell yourself short by promising to be a better person. You have always been amazing. Recognition starts from within.

One of the principles of the Alexander Technique is that when we allow it, our systems operate beautifully, reliably, and dynamically. Alexander lessons provide the means to restore innate balance so that "the right thing does itself," as we like to say. And not even "restore" balance actually, but simply access it.  It's not like it's not there already. One component of the Alexander experience is the process of eliminating interferences -- unnecessary excess tension, misuse of various moveable body parts, application of excess force, dulling of the sense gateways, unconscious automatic thought patterns.  Once you get out of your own way, amazing things can happen, and often do.  

Okay, so that's a form of "improvement," I get that.  But to me, it's not the same as resolving to be a better  person. I find the whole "self-improvement" industry a little insidious, frankly. The underlying message I hear is that I'm not good enough; I'm broken and need fixing. Nope. (I have the same problem with fundamentalist Christian theology too, but that's for another blog.)  I have my flaws, but so does some of the most beautiful artwork ever created, and most of the living creatures on the planet. 

So if we're not improving ourselves when we study Alexander Technique, what are we doing?  Are we learning a new skill?  Well, sort of, but it's a skill we already possess, if only we knew it.  I sometimes describe it as waking up to myself, encountering my whole self in real time (i.e. now) and noticing how highly functional and able I really am. This takes consistent practice, so if we're improving anything it's our ability to recognize this inherent wellness.  

F. M. Alexander recognized it, or at least refused to sell himself short. A professional actor in late 19th-century Australia, he suffered from vocal problems. Doctors could not find a permanent solution to his problem and, as the story goes, finally one of them told F. M. that he just had a "weak" voice and would be better off choosing another profession. Luckily for us, he did not take kindly to this advice and had been raised to be self-determining (he also appears to have been a little arrogant, like me and maybe you), so instead of giving up his art and livelihood, he set about to understand his part in the whole situation. He discovered that his voice was not weak at all, but the way he had been using it masked how powerful it actually was.

I agree with Dodinsky that recognition starts from within.  Give yourself a little recognition, remember how amazing your body-mind is.  Let it do its thing.  Don't resolve to be a better person in 2011; just resolve to be.  Then go about the business of quitting smoking or losing weight or strengthening your core or whatever you think you should be doing more or less of.

Breathing with Comfort and Joy

When F. M. Alexander first began sharing his newfound discoveries about human psycho-physical functioning, he traveled around his native Australia and became known as "the Breathing Man." The core of his work was free and full breathing and its relation to overall wellness. Science is now catching up to what Alexander knew in the 1890s.

NPR recently did a helpful piece on the stress-relieving aspects of healthy breathing. Read and/or listen to it here.

The Alexander Technique remains one of the best ways to understand the anatomy and physiology of your own breathing system, and to begin to reverse some of the unconscious habits that develop in everyone over time, and which  interfere with healthy breathing. Similarly, a Somatic Release session often restores full breathing function, as clients begin to let go of restrictive muscular tension in the thorax and throughout the body.

I recently had an SR session with someone recovering from a day-long outpatient surgery. He told me that one of his post-op instructions was to take a few deep breaths every hour or so for the first several hours once he got home. They explained that this would increase oxygen flow to his bloodstream and speed the healing of his surgical wound. It also must be enormously helpful after being intubated and receiving general anesthesia.

I was encouraged to hear this. Doesn't it seem like deep breathing would be one of the best (and least expensive) things hospitals and clinics could do to put patients at ease during procedures and post-op recoveries? Not to mention, knowing how to breathe deeply and mindfully might help the caregivers themselves. (uh-duh, kind of a no-brainer)

Yet most of us remain largely unaware of how we are breathing and what affects our respiration. Unless you are a full-time professional yogi or you have a disorder like asthma (which continues to proliferate, among children especially), you probably take your breathing for granted. After all, it is a reflexive action, something that happens automatically. We don't have to consciously choose to breath in and out all day long; thank goodness! We'd never accomplish anything.

The cool thing about the breath (one of them anyway) is that it is also a process that can be directed. You can choose to hold your breath until you're blue in the face if you want to (but you probably still won't get your way). You can coordinate your swimming with breathing in and out. You can sing. You can breathe your baby out in childbirth. You can slow your breathing down or speed it up. We do this, consciously and unconsciously, all the time. The more awareness of our breathing apparatus we have, the clearer and more powerful our breathing becomes.

First, you have to know your equipment. While a good anatomy book is a joy forever, the best way to learn is by direct experience. Cool Thing #2 about the breath is that it is always with us and so it can be experienced and experimented with at any time. Hey, how about now?

Try This:

  • Assuming you are reading this at your computer, begin by settling into a comfortable upright position. Let your feet be resting flat on the floor, or tuck them under you, Indian-style.
  • Feel the support underneath you. What is holding you up? How is the weight of your body making contact with the chair, cushion or floor? Notice the contact of your back against the chair, or if you are not using back support, simply become aware of the space behind you.
  • Begin to observe your breath. Notice how it drops in and drops out. Follow the in-breath and the out-breath, allow your breathing to be the focus of your attention.
  • Notice what is moving in your body as you breathe. What is happening in your chest? In your belly? Can you feel your shoulders rising and falling as you breathe in and out? Is anything moving in your back? What else do you notice?
  • Take in a very full, deep breath. Let it out on a sigh.
  • Repeat this two more times.
  • What changes do you observe in yourself after taking three big sighs?

Were you surprised at how much is going on in one simple breath? And this is just the really noticeable stuff, like shoulders rising and air moving in and out through nostrils. There's all kinds of chemical exchange going on every time we breathe, and information about our immediate environment being processed by our neuromuscular system. It's interesting to realize that the air we take in and then release out again is our most constant, intimate connection to the world. 

There are so many things in life that are out of our control. Breathing is not one of them. You can learn to breathe with freedom and awareness, decrease the stress in your life, and boost your immune system. (click through to the NPR story above or under Links to see how improving your breathing improves your health.) 

That sounds like a really good way to get through the Winter Holiday Season with comfort and joy!
Come in for a "breathing tune-up" at Way Opens Center. Call me at 917-216-5850.

What is Somatic Release?

One of the services available at Way Opens Center will be Somatic Release sessions.  Few people are familiar with the name "Somatic Release", because it is an approach that evolved out of my 20+ years of Alexander work, my decade of experience as a labor doula, and my own personal journey of healing.  I created the name for this form, but the fundamentals of Somatic Release are rooted in the Alexander Technique as taught by my mentor Alan Katz. I also incorporate elements of Therapeutic Touch, Reflexology, Feldenkrais, Hypnotherapy, and intuitive common sense.

How is Somatic Release different from the Alexander Technique? Alexander lessons are by definition an active period of intentional learning between teacher and student. Although therapeutically beneficial, the AT is not a series of treatments or exercises.

By contrast, Somatic Release sessions are therapeutic treatments, a time for deep relaxation. Fully clothed and lying on a bodywork table, you will experience safe, supportive touch and positive, encouraging words that help you let go of tension. Depending on what the situation calls for, I use my hands in ways that are somewhat different from Alexander lessons. I sometimes use more specific pressure point techniques, for example, or work with the subtle energy field off the body, with very little direct touch. Some movement of limbs and opening of joints may be incorporated, and perhaps various breathing patterns might be explored. Improved energetic flow is the goal.

Alexander work asks you to actively participate as you learn about yourself; Somatic Release does not.  During a session you might be asked to make a mental or visual connection, but for the most part, clients find themselves drifting into a deeply relaxed state of being, thoroughly refreshed and at ease as a result.

Somatic Release is especially useful for individuals recovering from physical or emotional trauma, for those with mobility issues, and as a supplement to healing from surgery. It is also great for times when one is just plain exhausted and wants a little tender loving care.  If you are feeling overwhelmed, a Somatic Release session might be just the thing.

What is the Alexander Technique?

When I talk about what I do, the inevitable question arises: The Alexander Technique? What's that?

Alexander work changed my life (maybe even saved it), and enhances my daily living in ways that continually surprise me. It can sometimes be difficult to find words to describe it, both because it is so unlike other modalities and because it is something that truly needs to be experienced to be understood.

But I want others to know about this incredible path to freedom, so here goes:

It's simple. How we use ourselves affects how we experience life. Alexander Technique reveals how unconscious habits of excess tension and inefficient ways of moving interfere with your natural ability to live your life with ease and enjoyment. When you recognize your habits, you become free to make simple changes that heal and restore your body-mind balance. You wake up to yourself.

It's powerful. Guided by the teacher's light, supportive touch and verbal cues, you'll explore how you are designed to move and begin some new ways of thinking in activity. This is not a treatment, it's a way of mindful  learning. You'll gain skills that grow stronger the more you practice. What you learn is unique to you, and can be applied any time, anywhere. You're in charge.

It's proven. This is not a quick fix or the latest fad. The technique evolved more than a century ago from the pioneering work of F. M. Alexander, whose discoveries about human psycho-physical functioning  are tried and true. The work has undergone rigorous research, its benefits reported in medical journals, doctoral dissertations, and even a Nobel prize acceptance speech. It is endorsed by doctors, therapists, performing artists and entertainers, ergonomics experts, and a wide range of individuals around the world. People with chronic pain, depression, respiratory problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) credit Alexander lessons as a key component in their recovery.

Alexander Technique
         Simple.  Powerful.  Proven.

Does this make you want to know more? Click on one of the "Links I Like", or feel free to contact me at 917-216-5850.

Moving In, Moving Out

It's official: beginning today the new home of Way Opens Center is 22 South State St., Newtown, PA 18940.  Or, at least after tomorrow it will be official, when I pick up my keys and begin the transition process. My new "landlord", Dean Dickson, will be moving out the furniture and sundry items from the space with help of some of his able-bodied clients. Dean is a psychotherapist who works with individuals, families and groups (interested? call him at 215-860-3450), and seems to be a very nice person, based on my limited experience of him.

So I have been preparing to move my necessary equipment -- table, stools, bolsters, mirror, books -- out of where it has been stored around my house and into the new office. Doing this has made me aware of how I've neglected this equipment over the past couple of years, and so naturally this has become an Alexander teaching moment for myself.  The table needs to be cleaned and the wooden legs oiled and tightened. The mirror needs polishing, and just where the heck did I put the mounting bars and screws?  The bolster is covered in cat hair and may need to be replaced if I can't get it clean enough.  And, oh dear, just look at the state my little skeleton model has gotten into!  He will not last much longer, I fear. Time for a newer, better model.

Neglecting our equipment happens when we are busy putting our energies into other places. From an AT perspective, this usually means applying energy in an unbalanced or misdirected way.  But it can also mean just plain old ignoring ourselves or some part of ourselves, until we literally forget about it. When I first began Alexander lessons, I had almost no sense of my body at all. My awareness was so dim that when my teacher encouraged me to think about opening up and moving from my hips, I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. I thought my hips were the same as my hip bones, never suspecting that hips are big, generous joints that move! This is just one of the many ways I was disconnected from my physical self. It took me a while to reacquaint myself with my body and maintain a sense of my whole self as I moved through my life.  Truthfully, this is a journey I am still on and hope to continue for a long, long time. 

Meanwhile, I am uncovering all the accumulated junk stored on top of my table, wiping clean the dust and grime from books, bookshelves, etc. As I do this, I am reminded of how one of my students described her Alexander process:  like an archeological dig. This is such a gem, and I use it often in attempting to describe what the Alexander Technique is.  (I'm working on my "elevator speech" and will devote another post to that soon.)  We have been conditioned to think of learning as a process of accumulation, but AT work is all about letting go of what is unnecessary, eliminating the interference we habitually infuse into even the simplest of activities, and unlearning our faulty thinking, so that we can become authentically dynamic in how we move and live and have our being (as an old Episcopal prayer goes).

I described this in an article I wrote in 2005 for Energy Times magazine. The link here is to an archived version on their website, which has been inaccurately reproduced -- the title they originally gave it is "Bold, Balanced Bodywork" -- and edited a bit (by someone other than my friend Stephen Hanks who originally commissioned it). Still, it gives a pretty good introduction to some of the principles of the Alexander Technique.

If fortune favors the well prepared, then it is important to be prepared in a way that is clear and unencumbered. Digging out from under the past three years of neglect of my equipment -- both animate and inanimate -- reveals to me some buried treasures I had forgotten about, some decay that cannot be reclaimed, and some new wonderments that arise because I have continued to grow as a human even though I haven't been teaching very much.

In this moment I feel enthused about opening my heart and my doors to new students and new neighbors in Newtown (aptly named!). I know how I feel because I can sense it in my body. For me, that would not be possible without having learned the Alexander Technique, the tool I discovered for digging out from under, so that I would not be buried alive.