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.
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.
That’s quite a claim. Read on.
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.
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.]
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.
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:Another 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.
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.