Spotted – Actor Alan Cumming employing Alexander Technique

I got sick in May and ended up binge watching, “The Good Wife.” This is how I came to meet the character of Eli Gold, played by Tony award winning actor Alan Cumming. I couldn’t help but notice his extraordinary “use.” Eli rants and raves with joyous verve without ever jutting his chin forward (the most common form of actor misuse). And, the way he floats lightly from sitting to standing is almost hilariously textbook Alexander Technique.

In this mash up, you can see that the madder Eli gets, the more he lengthens up. And at 1.09, that classic Alexander “tell”, he rises out of a chair without pulling his head back. If you can make it through to 3:21, you can see that he uses his cell phone without compressing his neck.

Google confirmed my suspicions. Yes, Alan Cumming is a big Alexander Technique fan.

I will hasten to say that for most performances, you should never be able to directly see Alexander Technique training. Ideally, you should only see the results — acting that looks effortless and natural. The breath and voice are free.

I believe Alan Cumming is using the extra upright stature that Alexander Technique can provide to create Eli Gold’s physical signature.

Here’s a much less uptight but equally effortless performance: “Mein Heirr” from Cabaret.

Can you flesh (ha!) this out for us a little bit?

A yoga friend asked me to comment on the, “Alexander Technique approach to finding length and lengthening by paying not so much attention to the muscles, but to the bones and the spaces between the bones.”

I suppose the simplest way to think about lengthening is to consider that the action of muscles is to pull on bones. If you make a tight fist, and then release the tension, but keep the fist shape, you will notice that the bones of your hand float away from your wrist and the hand expands. You get length with a release of muscular action. So by releasing “wrong” tension, you get muscles at their greatest resting length, and you get joint space.

It’s very hard for the brain to control specific muscles. If you’re tensing the quads to release the hamstrings, chances are you will be tensing a lot of other things that you don’t want to tense (like your groins, jaw and neck). Try it.

If you work with directional imagery, say the hamstring rolling out like a red carpet away from the sitz bone and out the heel into the infinity of space, chances are you will get an even and effortless lengthening (once the mind body connection is trained). Perhaps you would need to think of a flow down the back of the leg and up the front to engage proper oppositional energies and stabilize the knee (if needed).

I try not to think too much about muscles at all, but more the direction of the movement, and the energy flowing through the center of the limbs, and the bones floating. My belief is that the correct muscles engage with the proper spatial and energetic direction.

That said, I am also experimenting with doing all the micro engagements that most yoga poses “require” for length and strength. For example Tadasana (Mountain Pose) legs are created by drawing energy up through the legs into the pelvic floor, spinning the thighs back, directing the sitz bones down to the heels, widening the upper thighs out, hugging the shins in, directing the thigh bones back, and finally the shins forward. After all that, your legs will definitely feel like granite. But is all this necessary? My Alexander brain doubts it, but my experimental self is trying it on for size. My guess is that there’s a lot of micromanaging of coordination that is unnecessary once the lines of correct force are established.

You also might ask, “Is the muscular engagement functional? Does the engagement create an energetic quality and look that is desired? Does the engagement protect against hyper-extension and hyper mobility? Lengthening the legs in Mountain pose might be something quite different from standing with the dynamic neutral quality that is taught in Alexander Technique. And while “Dynamic Neutral” might be more appropriate for waiting in line in the supermarket, practicing Mountain Pose might call up specific psychological qualities and build strength relevant to a yoga practice.

The jury is out. I don’t know yet.

in sickness and in health

Harboring virus

Harboring virus

This shameless “selfie” doesn’t look like I’m harboring infectious agents, but I am.

Although I had been called to Oakland for the weekend to take care of a vomiting family member, I had managed to pick up another amazing $10 Besty Johnson dress at the Alta Bates Hospital thrift shop. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. It was Sunday, and I planned to go to Studio 1924 in the evening.

I snapped the photo after delivering sizzling rice soup to my relative. I had been released to spend the afternoon at a Breema and “Non-Duality”  conference at a client’s gorgeous redwood decked view home in the Berkeley Hills. This meant lying around on ornate Persian rugs with strangers who gently and passively lifted my arms and applied rhythmic pressure to my abdomen. Then we engaged in an earnest and heated discussion about the non-dual nature of reality and the illusion of separate selves – the sort of conversation I haven’t had since I was a stoned undergraduate.

I left feeling a buzzed. I didn’t realize it was the electricity of fever.

Something was wrong at 1924. I couldn’t balance despite my sturdy Souple’s and my sweat had a strange rank smell. I made it home, downed a ton of vitamins, and went to bed.

An hour later the Nausea set in. I told myself that it was the vitamins, but I knew that even though I had washed my hands at least a 100 times while care-taking, I had succumbed. Despite the non-reality of a separate “I”, my “I” was stuck in a body that was sick as hell.

There is nothing quite as humbling as leaning your hot forhead on the cold toilet seat as you crouch shivering at 3:00 am after vomiting for maybe the 7th time. Still, a part of me was in yoga head, monitoring sensation and thinking, “Wow, amazing that my body knows how to do this.”

The vomiting stopped at 5:30 am. And at 8:00 am I had to call Berkeley Rep. It was the first day of my new Alexander Technique class. I was not going to make it.

And so I crawled into bed and shivered with fever and aches for the next 5 days. And somehow, I remained not unhappy. My yoga head was still in operation, and I relaxed into watching, with a kind of blurred amazement, as my body burned with fever, my throat furred over, my lungs filled, and the coughing began. The machinations of an immune system in action.

I was back working on Monday, back in yoga on Tuesday with wobbly balances and weak chaturangas.  I felt suffused with joy. A walk down my hallway with a body not wracked by pain felt insanely pleasing. Taking yoga filled me with so much gratitude, I was in tears. Being outdoors, seeing flowers blooming…it all made me ecstatic.

That was the good part.

The bad part was that I binge watched 4 seasons of The Good Wife.  The wet mean sounding cough and exhaustion lingered for three weeks. My life settled into a schedule of work, yoga and Amazon Prime. That’s over 88 hours of television. I’m not proud.

A month has gone by and it’s over.

I feel like a strange wet puppy trying to resurface into my life. Tango? Tango? I’m trying to imagine myself in a pretty dress and heels. I’ve grown used to shuffling around the house in mismatching socks and old T-shirts.

I am still waiting for glamor to return.