Walking

Four Ways to Alexander Awareness

I was just looking through some articles at The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique, a comprehensive site for all your AT needs, and I found this description of it: The Alexander Technique is a way of learning to move mindfully through life. The Alexander process shines a light on inefficient habits of movement and patterns of accumulated tension, which interfere with our innate ability to move easily and according to how we are designed. It’s a simple yet powerful approach that offers the opportunity to take charge of one’s own learning and healing process, because it’s not a series of passive treatments but an active exploration that changes the way one thinks and responds in activity. It produces a skill set that can be applied in every situation. Lessons leave one feeling lighter, freer, and more grounded. I recognized it as something I wrote for an earlier version of the Way Opens website, and I must admit, it's pretty good. Yet I began to wonder how "a skill set that can be applied in every situation," might sound to someone unfamiliar with the work. It's a pretty big claim. Every situation? Really?

Yes, really, because Alexander work teaches a way of being, in the same way that practicing meditation creates new ways to be in relationship with reality.

But that's rather vague, isn't it? What do I mean, how does it get applied, in what situations might it be most effective? Here are four basic positions we all find ourselves in every day, and they are wonderful ways to use Alexander awareness:

  1. Walking -- When you walk, pay attention to the relationship of your head to your pelvis. They are connected by your spine. Does your head weight fall forward as you walk, dragging the rest of your body behind it? Or perhaps the opposite -- you do that "chin up" thing which pulls the head weight back and down and your neck gets crunched. Your head can be easily poised atop the spine, remaining aligned with your pelvis below, as your feet and legs do the work of moving you forward through space. Are you in your body as you walk, or disconnected and striving to reach a future destination? Alexander Technique keeps you in the present moment, step by step. When you're aware of what you are doing, you are applying the AT.
  2. Standing -- Notice how the weight is supported by your feet. Is it evenly distributed between both feet (if you're like me, you have a habit of leaning on one leg more than the other). Is the weight more on your heels or on the balls of the feet, rolling toward the inside edges or the outsides? Let the soles of your feet release into the ground underneath you. How much tension can you let go of in your legs without collapsing? Unlock your knees and let them be soft and ready to bend. Check in with your hip joints (not the bones that stick out on each side, but the joints where the legs meet the torso). Notice how the legs rise up to support your torso, and -- without using muscle force -- allow a sense of upward flow from your tailbone to the crown of your head. As with walking, investigate the alignment of your head with your pelvis. Letting go and investigating what happens is practicing the Alexander Technique.
  3. Sitting -- My Alexander teacher, Alan Katz, says that "sitting is standing in another position." He means that the same sort of thinking applies when we sit as when we stand. The sitz bones at the base of the pelvis are shaped like the rockers on a rocking chair. So when you sit, you can be leaning backwards or forwards on the little rockers, or you can be balanced at the center of these wonderful bones. Isn't it helpful that we have some nice padding here? You can rock back and forth a bit until you find center. Then allow that upward flow through your spine, making sure to see how your head and pelvis are aligned. When you access the support of your bones and make some choices about movement and balance, that's applied AT.
  4. Lying Down -- There is a whole procedure called "Constructive Rest" for this. You can listen to a guided experience of it.[audio mp3="http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bbbc271da50d37502bd6728/5c648a9c542c0e3fbea463b8/5c648aa1542c0e3fbea465d2/1550092961655/Constructive-Rest-2.mp3?format=original"][/audio] If you don't want to do that, you can simply remember to take a few minutes when you lie down to consciously release your weight into the support underneath you. It's amazing how muscles and body shapes hold on, even when we are not contending with gravity anymore. It's like we have to remind our bodies that they can let go. "Hey, this is rest, remember? Stop working!" When you talk to yourself like this, with care and patience, it's Alexander practice.

There is so much more to be aware of in these four basic everyday activities (which also happen to be the four positions for meditation). Of course, it's in the transition from one to another where we really tend to get into some strange and unhelpful ways of moving, but even if you have never had an Alexander lesson, you can test what I've described here, and see for yourself. Then find a teacher (me, maybe) to help you understand what you discover.

Heel Thyself

Someone recently asked me what is the most frequent instruction I give my Alexander students. "That's easy," I replied. "I ask them to pause, and then notice." True as this is, my friend was not satisfied. She really wanted to know what physical habits of posture or use I see most often, and what I teach my students to address these issues. This is not as easy to answer, because everyone is different. But like any AT teacher, I typically see a lot of locked knees, shallow breathing, head/spine misalignment, tight jaws, and generally overworked muscles accompanied by low-level anxiety. Heels

One common misunderstanding I've seen in nearly everybody involves the heels. I'm grateful that my own teacher emphasized heel structure over and over again, because most of us think of our heels as being under the ankle joint. While it is true that the heel is below the ankle, it's crucial to understand that it is also behind the joint. The calcaneus bone (the one that gives the heel its distinctive shape) functions like the kickstand on a bike: it extends at an angle down and out away from the ankle joint. Alignment and balance depend on this, and it is essential for free movement of the ankle joint, which in turn makes the knees less rigid and the hips open up more powerfully (everything's connected).

Heels provide stability in standing as well as walking, and certainly make it possible to "release up," as AT encourages us to allow. Sensing into center (the middle of the pelvic bowl), I feel my sitz bones drop toward my heels. Feeling the connection to the earth through my heels, I can let go and sense how the back of my head is supported all the way from the ground up.

Why so many students with a misuse of their heels? Shoes are a likely culprit. Most shoes have heels, even low ones. Heels were added to shoes because people used to ride horses, and shoe heels kept feet in the stirrups. There's not a good reason for them today, except that we have become accustomed to the shape they make when we wear them: they push up the back of the pelvis, emphasizing the buttocks, and they tend to make calves more shapely. This has become the fashion. Heels, especially high heels, do damage over time, forcing the knees to lock, the weight to press into the balls and toes of the feet, over-arching the lower back, and throwing everything out of alignment, including the head and neck.

That's why I rarely wear high heels anymore, and I advise my students to avoid them whenever possible. Yes, it's fun to wear kicks that elevate, especially if you're short like I am. There's a brief experience of sexy power that I've been conditioned to appreciate, but the discomfort always wins out, and the lack of balance and extra work that high heels force on my body is just not worth it. The only time I enjoy seeing spike heels on anyone is when they are worn in solidarity, like these Toronto gentlemen did:TorontoWalkAMileInHerShoesParadeAnother reason folks seem not to access the support of their heels is that we are all leaning forward a lot, even when we're slouching and pulling down. This is a kind of "leaning in" that should be avoided, as it is an indicator of what F. M. Alexander called end-gaining. In a hurry to "get 'er done," we forge ahead without thinking, unaware of the strain as we push and pull into whatever's next. We literally get ahead of ourselves.

Next time you're in line somewhere, or standing around bored at a party or your kid's T-ball game, pause and notice (see what I did there?):

  • Are you accessing the support of your heels beneath you?
  • Is the weight evenly distributed across the soles of your feet?
  • Is it possible to let go in the arch of your lower back and let your tailbone hang?
  • Can you feel a connection up to the back of your head?

If this makes sense and helps, or especially if it doesn't, consider taking some Alexander lessons. You might enjoy getting to know those little kickstands behind and below your ankles.

The Power of Walking Backwards

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.college tour guide 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.

Perhaps most importantly, since you can't see behind you, your kinesthetic sense is more sharply focused as you move -- something that needs improvement in nearly everybody.

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.