Letting go of the grip

Where thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Today, a student asked me if the Alexander Technique was a spiritual practice, if in effect, it was preparing us for death. My immediate response was that the Alexander Technique prepares us for life. But I also get where she’s going. The technique boils down to letting go of the anticipatory gripping that we all do, to a trust in the open-endedness of things. There’s very little that we can know for certain despite history, statistics and planning. If we have the trust, we can leave ourselves free to flow. But so often, and for so many rational reasons, we don’t have the trust. It seems more sensible to prepare for the worst by tensing.

Studies in attachment theory point to the ways that early life experiences set the script for how we respond in present time. Pain, injury and trauma etch changes in the brain leaving us reactive, hyper-sensitive and vigilant. Our past experiences combine with inherent error in human perception, and lead us to habitually over-estimate the force required for moving. On a day-to-day basis, we are all locked into the loop of habit, which saves time, reduces decision fatigue and makes life manageable. But how much are those habits limiting our freedom? How much bracing do we do?

I don’t trust in anything like a god, but I do have a certain trust in the energy that makes things grow, in life, and in our capacity for resilience. I usually boil it down to the brain and the nervous system or the network of roots and fungi in a forrest that communicate, to things that are both mysterious and measurable.

My student mentioned that it was a lot less energy to live without the grip, but that it took quite a lot of focus to get off clock time and land in the present. I added that it’s easy to get seduced by posture and body mechanics, but it’s remarkable how well the body works on it’s own when we stop hanging on.

 

Softening the Chest when the World is Hard

The beautiful decaying grandeur of Raices Profundas dance studio. Yes, that’s cement.

When I travel, I almost always bring a yoga mat – a rectangular island of plushness to gently coax a jet-lagged body back to coherence. But when I travelled to Cuba to study dance, I wanted to travel light. I reasoned that I could practice on any wood floor. I could adapt.

But there was no wood floor. The Casa Particular where I was staying was tiled – unforgiving to my bony back. Our dance studio floor was the dusty rough cement of a decaying movie theater. There was no wood floor.

I lay down anyway, arranging myself in the Alexander Technique “Active Rest” position, but I felt every vertebrae crushed and aching against the tile. I experimented with bridge pose. Worse. Hmm… Perhaps practice on a hard floor is similar to wearing minimalist shoes. Just as thick soled shoes allow for careless impact of the heel bone, my thick mat has protected my back from careless slamming. The more cushioned the shoe, the more people tend to use their feet like bricks – a gait style one would quickly curtail if barefoot. The foot is composed of 26 movable bones…How about the rib cage? Twelve thoracic vertebrae, 24 ribs… What if I allow all these bones to articulate and roll? Perhaps the impact will not be so jarring…

Dance students practicing

The quest to soften the chest was highlighted in my dance studies. I had audaciously assumed that with my years of classical and contemporary training, my recent studies of Afro-Haitian and West African dance, plus the Alexander Technique, my secret weapon for free movement, that Afro Cuban Folkloric would be in my wheelhouse. You laugh. And rightly.

The fluidity of the chest, the articulation of the ribs, the shake of the shoulders, the powerful mobility of the pelvis are not learned in Western dance forms, nor is this sort of movement supported by Western culture. Nothing was coming easily.

The relaxed chest of the Cuban dancers (and everyone in Cuba is a dancer) was mimicked by their relaxed attitude to the harshness of life. With nothing to cushion the impact of poverty and limited freedoms, the people were easy in their attitude towards living. In America, I would have gone to Walgreens and bought a cheap yoga mat. I might have suffered stress from wasting money or buying polluting plastic, but I could purchase a yielding surface. In Cuba, there was no Walgreens. .

Early in the morning, as I did my Alexander Technique inspired warm up for dance, I experimented on that stony floor; rolling and dissolving to avoid impact forces. For 4-hours a day, I danced on cement, and meditated on what a fluid chest might be. I imagined ribs like fish gills, a spine like smoke, shoulders that melt into an easy shimmy in response to the rhythmic song of the feet.

Yes, that is The Little Prince, the ultimate emblem of conquering with gentleness. Yes, he’s painted on a bath tub, propped into a wall, in one of Cuba’s many examples of public art

The environment was hard. I learned to be soft.


 

 


P.S. On the flight home, I remembered to melt in the airplane seat, and fell into a deep, loose slumber.

 

BodyProject Blog ~ Elyse Shafarman

 

 

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.

Eyes Free and Wide to See from the Point of Vision

Elyse Shafarman

Eyes free and wide to see from the point of vision — Countess Kitty Wielopolska

Sometimes, the Alexander Technique eye direction is described as a Zen Koan. What is the point of vision? No one knows. I imagine that the point of vision is the occipital cortex, the location in the back of the brain that does the job of seeing. Knowing that my brain can work helps me to relax my eyes. Sure, the optic muscles have plenty to do in terms of focusing and orienting, but it helps to remember that the eyes are light receptors, and it’s the visual cortex that sees.

A little history: The eye direction was originated by Countess Kitty Wielopolska, an American who attended FM Alexander’s first training courses. To say that Kitty lead an interesting life is an undersatement. She left the Alexander training course due to a schizophrenic break and spent time an institution. Her illness remitted, she became a nurse and eventually married Count Wieloplska. Later in life, Kitty completed her training as an Alexander Technique Teacher. She mastered the schizophrenic voices that still spoke to her by using the Alexandrian process of inhibition. When she heard voices, she was able to inhibit an automatic response to believe or obey them. For anyone who remembers, “A Beautiful Mind,” the story of the Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash, this conscious route to self-healing will sound remarkably familiar. Kitty created the “eye order,” as a creative response to her sister’s narrowing vision from cataracts. Kitty observed that directing the eyes seemed to have a global effect on her quality of attention and freedom.

The direction, “Eyes wide to go apart,” frees the forehead, lips, tongue, shoulders, neck and even hips. For anyone familiar with modern research into the polyvagal theory, the connection between calm relaxed attention and freeing of key structures associated with head orientation and communication should be no surprise. Kitty and her collaborators surmised that the eye order seemed to signal her nervous system to come to a state of openness.

No doubt that what we do with our eyes and face has a lot to do with social signalling. Often we tighten our eyes to indicate that we are listening, paying attention, or even putting on our compassion face (you know what I mean). You can probably name the myriad of “faces” you wear to be liked and accepted by the tribe. Sometimes it’s a good idea to check in and ask if social signaling is replacing genuine felt emotion, and what the cost might be to your use. By “use”  I mean the total sum of your mental, emotional and physical responses to life.

An expanded visual field is conducive to psychological openness. It’s trite but true to say that with open awareness we are more likely to see more than one side to a problem. In contrast, narrow vision is correlated to problem solving and heightened vigilance (aka stress). Obviously, concentration is necessary in the short term, but when employed unremittingly, as we do in our small screen culture, it will effect the quality of our use – and perhaps our cultural behavior.

I could write more about this, and probably will, but for now, play a bit with thinking, “Eyes free to go wide”. What happens to your seeing, your breathing, your state of mind and state of heart?

To support this, here’s a practice to relax the facial muscles:
Relax Your Face, Elevate Your Mood

To learn more about Countess Wielopolska:
Here’s an article that I originally read as a xeroxed sheaf while a student at the Alexander Training Institute: From a lecture by Countess Catharine Wielopolska, Certied Alexander Technique Teacher

This book, by Kitty and interviewer Joe Armstrong is a fascinating catalog of Kitty’s life and one of the rare explorations of the relationship between the FM Alexander Technique and mental illness Never Ask Why, by Kitty Wielopolska 

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.

So why not let your head float up like a balloon?

As a side note, I am reviewing ideo-kinesis as I prep to teach Somatics at SFSU. How I love using imagery in teaching Alexander’s directions, instead of the dry, classic format: “Let the neck be free, in order to let the head go forward and up, etc.”. I have such a well of bitterness for being told that using images is not valid because they are not real, as if the words, “Head forward and up,” correspond to something with a fixed reality, as if the brain contacts the body by naming each muscle and bone.

FM Alexander’s observations about human functioning are mirrored across the world and across time. Perhaps he put things together in a unique way, but the core of the teachings, awareness, emptiness, letting go and not believing all your thoughts, might be called Buddhism. .

So why not let your head float up like a balloon?
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Two final notes unrelated to imagery, but related to Buddhism:
1) A friend commented that she calls Alexander Technique, “Physiological Buddhism.” It sounds fancy.
2) Alexander Teacher hands can feel like the embodiment of compassion.

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!

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”

Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient.

Holism 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 the South African philosopher and politician Jan Smuts*, 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.**’ Thomas 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.

F.M. Alexander was an astute observer of the human animal, and one of the first Westerners to describe the inseparable nature of mind and movement. Our emotional winds, our finally held beliefs, our predictions based on past learning are all tied to physical expression and visa versa. You might aim to free your shoulder or free your mind, and suddenly experience how a singular action effects the network of being. We are whole in the sense of the indivisibility of the self.

*It’s unfortunate but true that Smuts’ view on race was not nearly so advanced. He subscribed to the deplorable views of his time.
**The Fragile Self, Lewis Thomas, pp 72-73.