Rushing

BodyProject Blog ~ where thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Like a bird, I walked into a glass door this morning, right before my first class of the year at American Conservatory Theater, where I teach Alexander Technique to MFA actors. My aim was to arrive early, but events *conspired* against me. The outfit was wrong. I needed to bring lunch. I couldn’t find my keys. By the time I arrived downtown, my heart was beating rapidly, a staccato accompaniement to the inner monologue featuring my pet fears. I dashed into Peet’s to grab the coffee I hadn’t had time to make. The line was long and the clock was ticking. “Let’s skip the coffee,” I thought, and spun towards the exit, promptly bashing my nose against the newly washed glass door.

I heard the crowd gasp. Stars and stinging pain, but no time to stop. My class was in 15-minutes. When I got inside the building, I noticed that my nose was bleeding and turning purple. Luckily, emergency ice packs are never in short supply at A.C.T. It’s easy to injure yourself while conjuring the energies of the unconscious.

It did made a good opening story, illustrating two key principles of the Alexander Technique:

1)  Awareness – of self and environment

2) Taking time.

Clutching my ice-pack, I taught for the next five hours. I felt my neck stiffening, a predictable result of the impact and nerves. But as you teach Alexander Technique, you also apply the principles to yourself. I taught my students to imagine warm coconut oil lubricating the joint that connects the neck to the head. We found ways of moving where tight muscles unraveled and space opened between joints. We paid attention to our bodies, but also our minds and our emotions. We dwelt in that space, which so few of us ever give ourselves, where we take time to notice impulses and chose our course of action. By the afternoon, my neck tension was gone. I felt good enough to take a dance class (first checking with the advice nurse at Kaiser. Head Trauma is nothing to joke around with).

My colleague, Monika Gross, shared the following story about Frank Pierce Jones, a renowned American Alexander Technique teacher and Classics professor, who conducted the first scientific studies on the Alexander Technique at Tufts University in the 1960’s and 70’s.

I heard a great AT anecdote involving Frank Pierce Jones. He was in London during one of the trips he made to take lessons from FM Alexander. One day following a lesson, he went back to his hotel room and he raised up the window to let in some air. He didn’t realize the frame didn’t have a mechanism to stay up by itself, and it landed right on his hand. A massive wooden old London hotel windowframe. Yes, very much pain was felt. He said later, he didn’t know exactly why but because he had just come from a lesson he thought, “Oh well, I’ll just stop and direct myself for awhile.” (After extricating his hand first, I assume… That would have been unusually skilled levels of inhibition otherwise!:) He said that the next day, he didn’t even have a bruise on his hand, and he was quite impressed with the result of his “Quick on the Pause” response to a trauma.

Like Jones, I had minimal bruising and no neck pain on the following day, perhaps due to the Alexander Technique.

And although there was nothing overtly dangerous about my lateness, the panicky thoughts created a situation where I was accident prone. We learn (or, in my case learn again) in the Alexander Technique that we have a choice about our reactions. Headlong rushing rarely delivers the calm, cool and on-time result one might hope for.

For all of us, it’s helpful to remember to take more time. More than anything we do, it’s often the empty space we leave – between – where life/body/mind resolves and organizes.

Shoe talk

Getting minimalist shoes is something to think about – but certainly not a requirement.

I wrote this for a student with osteoarthritic knees. We’ve been working on correcting the way her leg bones spiral when bending and straightening. The correct direction of spiral removes the pain completely. This has been going well, so I felt it was time to address the subject of her so called “healthy shoes”, ultra padded running shoes replete with motion control, arch support and a hidden 1.5-inch heel lift.

To get the knees to work better, it’s going to help if the feet and ankles can do their job in the most unfettered manner possible. When we go barefoot, the foot can change shape and adapt more flexibly to different surfaces and different physical demands. The intrinsic muscles of the foot get strong and flexible. The forefoot and rear foot have the freedom to counter twists appropriately between inversion/pronation and eversion/supination, depending on the stage of the gait cycle. This means that ground reaction force moves up through the body in a way that creates powerful stored elastic tension and spares the joints from pain and wear. Restrictive shoes might jack up the heel, limit foot motion via arch support, control pronation, squeeze the toes, among a few of the  impositions on natural movement.

We tend to think of our hands as sensitive intelligent instruments and our feet as bricks that we shove into padded casing. Your foot has 26 bones and 33 joints. The sole of the foot is a rich landscape of sensory receptors. Our feet have evolved to move in a myriad of directions and relay a rich schema of environmental data to our brain. In shoes with very padded soles, our sensory feedback is diminished. In the absence of good data, the brain protects the body by tensing the feet, ankles, knees, and everything above.

You can test this out. Wear only one sock and have one barefoot foot. Walk around your house. Notice the difference in how your two legs move. Which leg is freer and more fluid? Which foot feels secure? Which leg do you trust? Which limb feels pleasurable to use? If your answer is the side that’s barefoot, you have just discovered the impact of better proprioceptive data on physical movement.

You can assist this process by using a foot roller or other implement to wake up the sensory receptors in the skin of your feet. If you google wooden foot roller, you’ll get dozen’s of results.

Minimalist shoes offer less support and protection to the foot, and can take a while to get used to. I recommend starting with only an hour or two at a time to help the intrinsic muscles of the foot adapt to the new level of work demand.

Personally, I like
Vivobarefoot
Earthrunners
Softstarshoes
Xero

Flip flops, although they appear minimal, can be a problem because it’s necessary to squeeze the toes to keep the shoe on. Same thing with clogs. You want your toes to only have to do the work they were meant to do.

And hey, summer is coming. Time to go to the beach and feel the sand between your toes.

P.S. As a final note, it is possible to use your feet well, or at least better, while wearing fashionable shoes. This is the sort of thing that I help my acting students work with. It’s reasonable to choose aesthetics over function to survive in our culture from time to time. I tend to save my fashionable shoe time for tango or the occasional date night. The rest of my life, I like to let my feet roam free.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

 

Half the World is Behind You

Do you find yourself sticking your neck forward and crunching your shoulders in concentration? These are common reading, texting, and speaking habits. Our need to focus to extract meaning, or to see, hear and speak drive us to push our faces forward. The urgency of social communication can undermine our natural capacity for ease. This is a common problem for my actor students who have the challenge of broadcasting emotion to the back row without sacrificing authenticity. Luckily, there is a simple solution that does not involve advanced postural cuing, hands on work from an Alexander Technique teacher, or expensive equipment. You can try it right now.

Expand your awareness to include the space behind you. Sometimes it’s helpful to actually turn around and look behind you, and then turn back and imagine you are seeing out through the back of your head, or the skin of your back. This requires a little imagination. Do you recall that feeling of knowing someone is looking at you even though they are behind you? How do we know? I don’t have the answer to this, but we can make use of our ability to extend perception to balance our use. “Use” is F.M. Alexander’s term for the way we habitually organize our movement in response to all the stimuli of life. What does it feel like to extend your awareness backwards?

Then, if you are an actor, take out some text, or a script you are learning. If your are not an actor, your phone is probably your biggest stimulus to focus forward and contract your attention. Do you feel an immediate impulse to push your neck forward? Are you holding your breath? Again, expand your attention to the space behind you. Rest a bit, and try your task again. Toggle between expanding awareness backwards, and focusing attention forward. Only practice 2-minutes, and then let it go. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get anything done. Directing attention takes a lot of cognitive resources at first! See if this short amount of practice leaves you with the spontaneous ability to broaden your awareness and breathe throughout the day.

It’s pleasant to practice expanding your field of attention outdoors while walking or exercising. It’s challenging but good to practice expanding awareness back during a conversation with someone. The heat of communicating, the need to be heard, liked, or to make your point, is often the biggest stimulus to push your head forward.

I learned this exercise from my teacher Frank Ottiwell. I had the privilege of assisting Frank’s Alexander Technique Classes for actors at American Conservatory Theater (where I still teach) for several years.  As you know, actor’s frequently stick their necks out in the urgency of communication. I’m sure you’ve seen this on stage. Two actors argue, and if you turned off the sound you would witness the argument progress as chins compete in forward motion. Frank would quip, “Half the world is behind you.” With this simple reminder the actors would find a way to speak while staying centered and free.

Speaking from the Bones

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman, MA, Certified Alexander Technique Teacher

I wrote this for one of my MFA Acting students, but I think it’s relevant for all of us:

Speaking from the Bones

Before speaking, pause for a moment. Allow your chest and belly to soften, and find the support of your bones. If sitting, you could move in the chair a bit to feel your sit bones. If standing become aware of the skin contact of your feet with the floor. Try and get balanced evenly between both sit bones, or evenly between heel and toe and both feet. If standing let your knee (on the dominant leg) soften inward. If the knees lock out this will cut of your support from the floor, but it’s mostly the dominant knee that needs a little inward softening. It might feel knock-need.

Remind yourself that the resonance in your voice comes from your bones, not the muscles of your throat, and direct your neck to be easy, your head to float. Trust that the sound vibrations will resonate in the bones of your face and the throat and chest and shoulders can stay loose.

Even a little pause here and there will help maintain your energy and freedom

Alexander Technique Class at Berkeley Rep – Starting Feb 13, 2018

 

Alexander Technique for Mind Body Balance
5-week workshop ~ February 2018
TUE 7–9:30PM · 2/13, 2/20, 2/28, 3/10, 3/17 · $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 actors and non actors alike!

New Alexander Technique Class Starting Feb 2015

Alexander Technique for Mind/Body Balance
Tues 7–9pm · 2/2 – 3/8 · $175
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


Do I need to be an actor to take workshops at Berkeley Rep?

These classes will benefit all who wishes to discover alert, relaxed alignment and refined body awareness and control.

Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions: elyse@bodyproject.us

Amoeba Party – a.k.a. Actor Grad School

Lie on the floor and pretend you are a single cell. Roll, flow, seek and react with your entire cell membrane. Remember you have no bones, no eyes, no brain and no parts. You are one.

We usually introduce the amoeba exercise* to our acting M.F.A. students in their second semester. They’ve had five months of Alexander Technique. They understand the central concepts of inhibition, direction, primary control, the force of habit and faulty sensory perception. They can locate their atlanto-occipital joint and they know the fundamentals of skeletal anatomy. They are aware of when they are using themselves with habitual tension and they know how to redirect their energy to find more ease. But all of this knowledge can make students a little stilted, and a little too intellectual.

In contrast, wholeness within a fluid morphology is our reality. Fluidity is easier to grasp when we remember that muscle tension is maintained by habit, not by a property of the muscles. Our bones float suspended in a web of connective tissues, and the connective tissues themselves change from a solid state to a gel, depending on force and heat.  Like taffy, if you pull sharply on connective tissue it will harden and snap, but if you warm it and work it with smooth broad pressure it will stretch. Your nose is connective tissue. So is your Achilles tendon. So is much of the rest of you.

Although we have heads and tails, eyes and brains, bones and nerves, mouths and anuses, we are still much more liquid and continuous than we might imagine. What happens in your big toe just might affect your shoulder.

The amoeba, as it turns out, is a good metaphor for embodying fluidity and wholeness. And it doesn’t hurt that amoebas have no brains.

*I learned the Amoeba exercise from my teacher Frank Ottiwell.

 

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Practice tip: 3-D Breathing for Back Pain

A student emailed me this morning to say, “I just wanted to let you know that the three-dimensional breathing technique you taught me saved my back yesterday.”

3-D breathing, adapted from Betsy Polatin’s wonderful new book, The Actors Secret, helps you experience optimal movement of the ribs and torso during breath.

Try 3-D breathing:

1. Front to back dimension: Place a hand on your belly and a hand on your low back. You will naturally feel your belly expand and deflate as you breathe. You can also feel more subtle movement in your low back. Visualize more of the breath movement happening in your back. This will help widen and relax the back muscles. Do you feel more movement in your back after visualizing?

Next, bring a hand on your sternum and a hand on your back near your shoulder blades. If your shoulders are too tight to easily reach your back, you can place a hand on a friend’s back to feel their breath movement. Yours will be similar.  Remove your hands and sense your own breath movement. Did you know that most of your lung tissue is in the back of your body?

2. Side to side dimension: Place your hands as comfortably as you can on your side ribs. Feel the horizontal expansion of your ribs as you inhale. Feel the deflation of your ribs as you exhale. Stay for a few breaths. Remove your hands and sense your rib motion.

3. Bottom to top dimension: Place a hand above your collar bone on your uppermost rib (yes, there’s a rib above your collar bone!). Place a hand below your sit bone or at your perineum. Feel the rise of the upper ribs, and the fall of your pelvic floor as you inhale. As you exhale, you may feel the pelvic floor rise and the spine lengthen upwards. If you can’t sense anything at first, take a few big breaths as if you were at the doctor’s office. Once you get the feeling, breathe normally. Then remove your hands and sense the movement.

Which dimensions of breathing are familiar to you? Which do you use rarely?

Does the act of noticing your breathing automatically improve the quality? Is your breath smoother, deeper, or easier in any way?

In your day-to-day life, start by sensing one breath dimension at a time. Can you sense your breath while talking on the phone, eating, or texting?

 

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

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.

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.