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.

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.

Celebration of the life of Frank Ottiwell

IMG_8887Please join in celebrating the life of our beloved Frank Ottiwell at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Stage on Nov 6, 2015 at 1pm.

I will post more about Frank soon. It’s been hard to write anything definitive. I am still saying goodbye. I have been reading through my 11-year journal of my time studying with Frank, and excerpting bits here and there. The notes begin half way through my 3-year training at the Alexander Technique Training Institute of San Francisco where Frank was the Director, cover the period when I was visiting and then assisting Frank’s classes at A.C.T., and end rather abruptly when Frank retired from A.C.T. due to illness.  It’s slow going. As a diarist, I didn’t distinguish between the profound and the trivial. I was equally excited to report Frank’s dapper corduroy trousers as his sharp observations about the discipline of teaching, “It’s a kind of love, but not the sort where you want to have dinner with your students after the lesson.”  Frank was my teacher and mentor, but Frank’s great gift was that so many people can make that claim. I feel his presence with me all the time, and miss him dearly.

In his own words: Back to Simplicity

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient!