Rise Up

Compressing yourself in sympathy for the pain in the world does not help anyone. While ebullience might be socially inappropriate, a public show of sympathetic tension only saps your own energy. You are needed, to compassionately hold presence and act. This takes immense resources.

Yes, empathetic physical tension may be innate. We do feel others pain in our own body. We wince and flinch in response to onscreen punches. We cry when we hear about Michael Brown, Puerto Rico, Vegas, Napa and on. We practitioners feel our student’s sore knees and aching shoulders, but how much we continue to take on our own shoulders is a choice.

I’m feeling quite hopeless about the world but this does not mean that I am collapsing.

Thoughts about the Alexander technique. Thoughts about social and environmental justice. Thoughts about the meaning of compassion.

 

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Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

quick reflection on the concept of “holism”

The Fragile SpeciesHolism is a fundamental construct of the Alexander Technique, but the word is cheapened by new age nostrums and advertising. Who among us does not feel Whole, and maybe even Holy after a trip to Whole Foods to buy ourselves the most Earthy, *Truthy,* Healthy (not to mention Pricey) items? Whole is a term that has lost it’s integrity. Lewis Thomas writes, “The word “holistic” was invented in the 1920’s by General Jan Smuts [who ever he/she may be] to provide shorthand for the almost self-evident truth that any living organism, and perhaps any collection of organisms, is something more than the sum of its’ working parts.” He goes on to say, “The word is becoming trendy, a buzzword, almost lost to science. What is called holistic thought these days strikes me as more like the transition from a mind like a steel trap to a mind like steel wool.” And yet, given all that, the mind, the body, the complete self is inherently “whole” and deserves a scientific framing – it is possible to study systems. You might free your shoulder, or free your mind, but you are always looking at how that effects the network of being.

–The Fragile Self, Lewis Thomas, pp 72-73.

Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient

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Let your mind expand

One of the things that distinguishes Alexander Technique from posture training is that we look at coordination as a function (or expression) of attention. If our awareness is narrowed we tend to constrict our breathing and our bodies. If our awareness is broad we tend to open up. Expanding our field of attention may not be a complete solution for postural ease, but it’s an easy first step.

The next time you feel tense make this little plan: “If I feel tense, I will expand my awareness to the world around me.”

Let me know how it goes!

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Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Response to NYT article “Alternatives to Drugs for Treating Pain”, by Jane Brody

Body Project Blog ~
Where Thought is the Active Ingredient

Regarding the Sept 11, 2017 NYT Well article: Alternatives to Drugs for Treating Pain

I applaud Jane Brody for presenting a great list of non invasive treatments for back pain – missing from this list is the Alexander Technique, one of the few methods that has been subjected to a large  (n = 579) randomized controlled trial. Alexander Technique was effective for mitigating low back pain, both after treatment and at a 1-year follow up, as compared to both massage therapy and a no treatment educational control condition, See: Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain for details. More recently Alexander Technique has been shown to lower neck pain, and mitigate pain in knee osteoarthritis possibly due to improved gait mechanics, although admittedly the latter study has a small sample size, limiting the reliability of results.

Alexander Technique, in my opinion, is a superior intervention because it teaches mindful awareness AND a way of moving that is arguably far more efficient, that will prevent and heal the wear and tear on your body from poor movement habits, and encourage you to move more, because the act of moving has suddenly become pleasurable. To the extent that pain and muscle tension is caused by moving in an inefficient manner, Alexander Technique provides a solution. To the extent that pain and muscle tension results from mental stress, Alexander Technique also provides a solution.

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Helping people help each other

Ok, that was cool.

I just taught a couple the most simple ways that they could put non-doing hands on each other, to help ease back pain and stress during an upcoming trip overseas. My client has been healing a pretty serious back injury and was very nervous about the stress of travel, so we discussed ways her partner might help her.

On the one hand, Alexander Technique Teachers train for many years to have a special quality of directed touch that communicates coordination and ease. On the other hand, we all intuitively know how to put hands on in a gentle, calm, nourishing way. Adding the non-invasive quality of non-doing creates a little refreshing breeze that can exist in the charged space between two bodies. Non-doing touch is a little bit of equanimity. I am only responsible for my journey, even though, right now, I am here with you. You are only responsible for your journey and choices, even though right now, you are here with me. And all the space between us, and around us, and so on

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredien

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Alexander Technique Class at Berkeley Rep Starting Sept 19

Dear friends,

Join me for my next Alexander Technique class starting at Berkeley Rep, Sept 19th.  This class will hone your conscious awareness inside your body and up-level your presence and ease. You will find these skills helpful in high stakes performance and daily life. I’m also integrating some cutting edge material from the Reembody Method that will help you even out the imbalance between your left and right sides, improve your walking gait and perhaps solve previously unsolvable issues such as nagging pain in your dominant hip. Join me for fun explorations as we dive into the mind-body connection.

Alexander Technique for Mind Body Balance
5-week workshop
TUE 7–9:30PM · 9/19, 9/26, 10/3, 10/10, 10/17 · $185

Berkeley Rep School of Theatre
2025 Addison St, Berkeley CA 94704
Register Online, or email the registrar: school@berkeleyrep.org

Alexander Technique is a time-honored method used by actors to improve posture, breath, and movement. Effective movement liberates your acting skills and enriches your life. As you stop responding to the world in a habitual manner, new avenues of physical ease and creativity open up. Discover the Alexander Technique for body-mind balance. Let your body’s physical genius emerge! Open to all levels ·

Book Review – Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James Doty

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Just finished reading “Into the Magic Shop – A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart” by James Doty, founder of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. The book is a beautiful parable about overcoming adversity and the power of ancient meditation techniques to relax the body, tame the mind, open the heart and clarify intent. As cutting edge research is showing, these meditation practices enhance psychological and physical health (I’ll skip the science here, but it’s fascinating), and may give you the energy and inspiration to work for a better world.

Jame’s Doty’s “magic” is of course based in the Buddhist Tradition of Loving Kindness (Metta). I have a few blog posts (below) about the myriad ways that Metta is helpful when learning the Alexander Technique.

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A reliable reference for the body moving in space

Took my first Ballet class in 25 years (with the encouragement of my friend David Cho). From the deep unconscious, I obeyed the piano and Piqué’d, Frappéd, and Dégagé’d en Cloche…steps I haven’t practiced in decades. If I paused to give it a moment’s thought, the choreography fell apart. But if I listened to the music and remembered to breathe, flow.

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

 

I felt grateful for all those years I studied with Beth Hoge as a teenager in Oakland, and later with Ernesta Corvino at SUNY Purchase. Their classes, rooted in the Cecchetti method and deepened by Alfredo Corvino (Beth’s mentor and Ernesta’s father), prioritized precision and timing over extremes of range. Under their careful tutelage, even a short-legged modern-dancer, with what was then, an unfashionably-pronounced booty, could learn what Ballet offers: a reliable reference for the body moving in space. And so, years after, the head knows to be over the foot in Pirouettes, the fingers and toes finish together in Développé, and the body automatically aligns with the invisible diagonals of the room…Croisé Devant, Effacé à la Seconde.

I’m sure I’ll be very sore tomorrow, but I may go back. It felt relaxing to do something where I’d already put in the hard time trying to achieve. Not to imply that I have, in any way, figured Ballet out, but only to say that I no longer have any skin in the game. It doesn’t matter if I’m good or not. The dirty secret is that it never mattered. All that’s left is to have fun.

And, in case you are not a former aspirant ballerina or danseur noble, if you have no interest in sewing ribbons on toe shoes, or brandishing princely hand waves, you can still achieve a reliable reference for moving your body in space by studying the Alexander Technique.

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Stiff Lower back?

Tension between your shoulder blades? Landing heavily on your heels when walking?

Make sure your rib cage is not lifted up! The cue I use in Alexander Technique lesson is to drop the xiphoid process, which is the little bony point at the end of the sternum. If you look at the image to the left, the xiphoid process is highlighted in gold. You can imagine it like a pendant hanging straight down, or joke with yourself that it’s rude to point your xiphoid process at someone.

If the xiphoid process is pointing up it with will cause you to lean back. If it is dropped towards the ground, you will find your weight centered on your feet, and that your arms and shoulders are freer to swing when walking. Observe how letting the xiphoid process hang affects your breathing.

Even though you feel more relaxed, you might suddenly start to worry that you are slumping! Lift your xiphoid process up to see what your habit of good posture is.  Does this feel super stiff and tense? Go back and forth until you can feel the difference between your idea of good posture and the reality of efficient body mechanics.

In lessons, I work with my students to understand how correcting a local “part” of the body affects the whole to create better posture, balance and breath.

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

 

Facebook is Selfing. Zen is No Self.

Wind Caves

Some thoughts on my return from Tassajara Zen Mountain Retreat. I was only at Tassajara for 3 days, but I stayed off Facebook from May 29th through today – June 24, a record for me who has posted daily updates since 2008.’

Without Facebook I felt the portals of my mind close. Remember Being John Malkovich? I was no longer leaping into other people’s heads, and even better, no one was leaping in to mine. It felt peaceful. Stable. Secure

My second day at Tassajara, hiking up to the Wind Caves, which are just that, caves sculpted by wind, through the richly scented chaparral and explosions of wildflowers, cresting the peak and looking west towards a hidden Pacific, I felt that melty feeling in the chest when the heart opens. All the anger, heat and constriction that I’ve been carrying for over a year, since the last election cycle, left, as did the pain of months of disciplined work, and the growing pile of interpersonal frustrations, regretted words and mistakes. All the disasters of birth, biology, society and history, for a brief moment, let up. What did the butterfly care? The wings in my chest spread. I breathed in the bright sky, the heat and the cool purple shadows of caves. I didn’t want to return – ever.

 

What does the butterfly care?

What happened on this Zen retreat? Nothing. I ate a lot. I wouldn’t ordinarily pair gastronomical excess with Buddhism, but Tassajara, which runs Greens Restaurant, has a long tradition of baking bread and gourmet vegetarian food. I ate everything with the desperation of lack. I thought, “When will I ever eat this well again? Yes! Please! I’ll have seconds.” My single-person cooking is limited to a routine of farmer’s market salads, steamed vegetables, lemon juice, tempeh, sweet potatoes and the like. But Tassajara is old-school vegetarian fare – their famous fresh baked breads, with no stinting on cheese, herbs or olive oil.

I hiked. I soaked forever in the hot springs. I took advantage of their complimentary supply of EO Lavender and Citrus Honey body lotions and shampoos. I jumped into the river. I cooled my head in the waterfall. I utilized the yoga room. While hiking, I ran into a well-known local author and tango dancer, and was invited back to a life of teetering heels and the mystique of suffering, desire and connection. I still haven’t managed to shake off the deep stillness of Tassajara, I can’t yet emerge from summer hibernation.

Three weeks of introvert recovery after 9 months of intensely peopled work. Pulling myself out of the cave hurts. Light is too bright. My still cool apartment, with its endless list of tiny and fascinating projects – pounding pesto with a mortar and pestle! – envelopes.

During these weeks, I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of the New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Lost Child. I read with fury, and annoyance. Without social media, there was no one but the reviewers from the New Yorker to compare opinions about this cast of beautifully rendered but unlikable characters. I made pasta and cooked with olive oil. I pretended I was Italian.

This time off Facebook has returned concentration. But without Facebook, I discovered that I have less motivation to write. Ideas remain locked inside my head, such as, the fascinating elbow injury that points out years of misconception, or the familiar pain of error, countered by the willful enthusiasm of my fool self. There’s no way of steering clear of trouble. Skillful action always seems like someone else’s good idea.

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

I jotted down a few notes from Tassajara:

Since the Self is multifaceted, how can we know ourselves? How can we judge others when we can never fully understand our own motivations?

(and yet, back in San Francisco, plugged back in to the news cycle, things are not so Zen. I no longer understand what it means to not judge)

Facebook is Selfing. Zen is No Self.

(but now that I am back in my life, I also see the benefits of Facebook – input, connection, community, albeit ethereal).

So much energy is expended trying to control what is uncontrollable. There’s relaxation when we accept that which we can’t control.

(but now that I am home, I wonder how this relaxation is paired with action for change)