Seattle Space Needle Head

space-needle-720742_640The Seattle Space Needle* with it’s 360 degree wall of floor to ceiling windows and rotating restaurant bar, is a fun image to use to release your head upwards.

Without the jaw, the head, or skull to be more precise, looks a bit like the top of the Space Needle.

It helps to know that the roof of your mouth is the base of your skull.  Everything above the roof of your mouth floats up away from your neck vertebrae.

To find your 360 wall of windows, use your finger tips and trace all the way around the rim of your skull. Start at the back, the (occiput), and walk your fingers over your ears and cheekbones all the way around to your nose.

Try turning your head as though it were the top of Space Needle. Does it free something if you imagine that you have a 360 wall of windows all the way around your head?

I like to imagine myself having a fancy cocktail as I look out at the view from inside my head.

*Credit for this image goes to my colleague Kari Prindl – although I may have elaborated a bit!





The Angry Rant

Quick protocol for stopping “The Angry Rant”.

You know what I’m talking around. You walk around rehearsing the most brilliant ways to take down your enemy. One hundred times a day, you demolish their stance with a few cutting words that reveal just how bogus and unjust they really are!!! Your body is energized as though you are preparing to attack, and indeed, you are!

Do you really want to pump all that cortisol into your blood stream? Do you really need to keep reworking the same material? Is the situation even happening in present time? Have the last hundred times you’ve replayed the argument helped resolve anything?

I’m guessing the answer is no.

I worked with an Alexander Technique student to develop a quick protocol to curtail the ranting habit.

  1. When you notice yourself ranting, ask yourself what you feel in your body.
    Alexander Technique Student: “I’m tensing my jaw and shoulders a lot.”
    The moment you notice you have the chance to make a difference.
  2. Give yourself the wish, “Let me neck relax.”
    Student: “I wish my neck to be quiet. I wish my neck to relax.”
    Neck muscles are the first muscles to tense in response to stress. Reversing the stress reaction starts with relaxing the neck.
  3. See something in the room and describe it to your self.
    Student: “I am looking at the square pattern in the curtain and the way the light moves through the fabric.”
    Focusing on something external is an effective way to bring your mind back into the room and real time.
  4. Ask yourself whether you want to be ranting.
    Student: “Do I need to be thinking about this right now? This situation isn’t happening right now.”

The more you practice, the easier you will find it to stop obsessive angry thoughts. Of course, you are always free to indulge in a rant. But now, that is your choice.

In summary:

1. When you notice yourself ranting, ask yourself what you feel in your body.
2. Give yourself the wish, “Let me neck relax.”
3. See something in the room and describe it to your self.
4. Ask yourself whether you want to be ranting.

Several years ago I went on a silent meditation retreat on the heels of a messy breakup. Spending 14 hours a day constructing arguments with my ex-was far more compelling than following my breath. I explained my predicament to one of the teachers. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, he looked straight in my eyes as he passed his hand through the air and said, “This isn’t happening right now.” With that one gesture, I understood that the only place in the entire world that the situation existed was in my mind. And, more importantly, I did not need to keep the situation alive by thinking about it.





Life Mission

We call my friend’s five-year-old,  The Tiny Zen Master, because of his unerring ability to cut through crap and tell it how it is. Maybe kids and teenagers are more certain about and who and what they are about, because they have had less life experience telling them otherwise. I was lucky enough to get a reminder.

Yesterday, a colleague asked me, “What’s your life mission?”

I admit, this question make me bristle with annoyance rather than thrill with purpose. It’s a very Western individualistic idea that we are all born on earth to do great things. It’s not enough to get up in the morning, put on fresh underwear, and not get hit by careening SUV’s. I am supposed to make an impact, become rich or famous, and at the very least design my life around some unique creative thumbprint. I am reminded of a story in Byron Katie’s book, “The Work,” where a woman was complaining that she didn’t know what her purpose in life was. Katie challenged her to consider that her purpose was to live the life that she was living. I found this refreshing.

But, the truth is that I wrote my mission statement 30 years ago.

“Elyse,” said my Dad, “There’s a letter here at the house for you.”

“What?” I had just had my 30th birthday, and was making big changes in my life. I was leaving modern dance to study physiological psychology.  I had started the three-year training to become an Alexander Technique Teacher. My dad handed me an envelope with faded but familiar script. I broke the seal.

“Dear Elyse, I’m writing to you from 1984. I’m 15. Do you remember me?” Barely, but I did remember the assignment from Nancy Rubin’s Social Living class at Berkeley High. I tried to imagine Ms. Rubin’s filing system as I read about my life as a teenager. Several paragraphs were devoted to a crush on some forgotten boy, but the last line of the letter shook me to my core: “Remember the power of the mind to influence the body for health and creative expression.”

These words underscore the consistent interest in my life.

If I had to answer that pesky life mission question today, I would say:

“My Life’s Mission is to explore and celebrate the mind body connection from an experiential and literary perspective as it relates dance, acting, yoga, meditation and stress reduction. My role in this mission is as a practitioner, teacher, and writer. My primary lens is the Alexander Technique, but my work is inspired by insight meditation and scientific research.”

But maybe I should just call on my own teenage zen master and keep it simple and say, “My life’s mission is to remember the power of the mind to influence the body for health and creative expression.”

What’s your Life Mission?



a few Tango Escuela notes

In Tango Escuela last night, what I was dealing with was the nuts and bolts of follower’s technique:

That is, walking and waiting.

These notes are mostly relevant for followers, and more so for people like me with bowed legs and bunions. The bowed legs make bringing my knees together extra hard, and the bunion causes the big toe, the main source of support, to derail inward leaving an empty space where I am to step.

If I activate my fibularis longus (formerly know as peroneus longus), which has the sensation of a slight inward rotation of the calf muscles, my bowed legs spiral into straightness, my arches lift, my feet activate and get springy, and my big toes, while not exactly straightening, move a little more into the line of support.

For stepping, Amy Lincoln used the analogy of a mop (the stringy type). Your body is the pole, which as you lower down causes the mop strings to fan out. The fanning strings represent your free leg, which drops down, out, and away from your axis. But it doesn’t go far. The sensation is that the gesturing leg is weighted and reaching towards the floor. It can go in any direction (in your tango box). Meaning, it can go forward, sideways, or backwards. The spiral ocho steps are an illusion of your hips and torso. The spatial direction respects your box.

This sounds easy, but I struggled with doing too much with my free leg (mop strings only spread so far). The look of extension does not come from the free leg. The extended line is created by pushing off the standing leg.

I struggled with the paradox of being an active follower:

The follow, I, must collect and wait. At the first whisper of an impulse, I am to allow the mop string leg to extend with energy, but also quietly towards the earth. At the second impulse, I am to step with energy, pushing from the ground to execute the led step.  This is the basics of walking technique. Yet after many years, the wires are still crossed.

When I try to be an active follower (that is, providing 100% of my energy and “opinion” to the dance), my habit is to rush and I often do steps that haven’t been led. When I attempt to rein it in and follow clearly, my energy drops, and I often miss leads because I’m too hesitant.

When one of my leaders kindly pointed out my issues, I felt a flash of irritation. But I knew he was right, and managed to listen and learn. (Every relationship lesson can be practiced in tango).

Similarly, I was struggling with misunderstandings about my hip rotation. Do I always get my hips perpendicular to the leader, creating sharp angles and precision, or is my degree of hip rotation something that is led? My understanding, as of last night, is sharp angles.

From the previous classes, I felt better energy in my upper body, a firmer, more, “bus wheel” like embrace, more connections with my hands, and a better sense of the floor to ceiling spirals through the legs. Also, for once, my Alexander Technique primary control seemed to be kicking in, and I seemed to be able to control my balance from my head.

What did we do in class? An unusually complicated combination (Santiago and Amy tend to focus on the basics) with a bunch of sacadas. This presented major challenge to the leaders, who have to set it all up.

The evening finished with a little glad insight into using the gesturing leg to aid balance. From modern dance, I have a habit of thinking I need to avoid dragging my feet on the floor. But in tango, the gesturing leg can glide along the floor and help with balance as it reaches out like a tentacle gathering information into the body. Mind you, there’s no weight on the free leg. But the sensitive contact with the floor is just one more bit of kinesthetic feedback to aid my teetering high-heeled stance, and compensate for my “missing” big toe.



On thinking versus feeling

Alexander Technique students get really hung up trying to make their necks feel free. Then the teacher rather unhelpfully says, “Think don’t feel,” which can be quite confusing for someone who is already quite out of touch with his body, and is taking lessons to gain body awareness.

The point is to feel exactly what you feel. To know it clearly. That’s quite different then trying to make yourself feel something. Your neck might feel tense. That’s the temporary reality to know clearly. And your tool is the thought, “Let my neck be free.” Eventually, with practice, that thought causes the neck muscles to ease up. Then you get the sensation of freedom. In that order. You can’t get to the sensation of freedom by trying to feel free.

Of course, the paradox is that sometimes you can, but not reliably.

Alexander Technique and acting

Out walking on this unusually warm night in San Francisco, thinking about the Alexander Technique in relation to acting.

Although the Alexander Technique can give you a marvelous sense of calm and harmony, the point is not calm. The point is to allow who you are to show up without the protective mask of habitual tension. Calm might not be in the equation. Courage certainly is, since it’s quite vulnerable to unmask, even if unmasked you are actually stronger. And then, in character you are putting a whole new mask on, but one that is not limited by your person’s habits of self-protection.

Or so it all seems to me on this warm evening in Noe Valley, with city lights and the whisper of breeze.

expectations automatically affect actions

“Knowledge and expectations automatically affect action. Changing habits to produce more efficient coordination requires addressing its underlying mechanisms, which depend on our ideas. … This is markedly different from using ones existing ideas to simply perform different movements.”

Science and Alexander Technique
, by Tim Cacciatore,
Direction. Vol 2, No. 10, August, 2005

This is where the Alexander Technique differs from a method of postural correction. We are not about re-aligning our bodies. We are about re-aligning our beliefs and expectations about how much effort it takes to perform movements, and how much effort it takes to live.

This is also where the technique can suddenly spark to life. We are not so much dealing with moving this bone here, and releasing this tense muscle there, but examining our entire approach to life. Suddenly we see who we are, and all the extra work we add on to the already difficult prospect of being human.

The solution becomes marvelously simple — although not necessarily easy. We are released from the specifics of trying to figure out our coordination. We can leave all that complicated work to the various motor control systems in our brains.

Our concern is noticing and choosing.

That is, noticing our beliefs about what it takes to get from here to there, and noticing our anticipatory tension.  We get to pick and choose what we want to take on. Suddenly we have a range of options, and one of them includes less anxiety and less work.  Then we have the happy prospect of allowing events to unfold without our interference.

This is where all the surprises are.

This is where the joy lies.