You possess a power that gives you ease, resilience, emotional and mental clarity, postural and spiritual alignment, and improved health and wellness. You are doing it right now. Or rather, it is "doing" you. Breathing.
People who come for Alexander lessons anticipate that their balance will improve, and that's almost always a predictable result. Yet most people are surprised to learn that balance is dynamic, not static. One doesn't maintain balance by holding on, but by letting go. Or, to be more precise, by letting flow.
Are you sitting right now? Chances are good that you are, and if so, 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.)
I sometimes wonder about the description of the Alexander Technique as "a skill set that can be applied in every situation" — how might that 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.
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.