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.