“Releasing tensions is like swatting flies, there are always more.” – Barbara Conable

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Body Project Blog – Where thought is the Active Ingredient – by Elyse Shafarman

What do you do when you notice that you have tense shoulders? “I try to relax,” would be a respectable answer. Too bad that works so poorly. First, relaxation is a skilled activity. Trying to relax for all but the practiced yogi, usually invokes more tension. Second, muscles can’t let go until the body is supported. This applies to both mechanical and emotional situations.

If you lean very far backwards, you won’t be able to let go of the muscles in the front of your body until you choose to fall backwards. Try it. With skill, you might be able to release accessory muscles in the jaw and face that are working overtime. You might be able to lean riskily off center – imagine a dance or acrobatic move – with a certain degree of grace, but this will require all kinds of skilled muscle engagements. What if leaning backwards (or forwards) is your daily postural habit? You might try every strategy in the book to let go of the muscles that are secretly preventing falling, but nothing will work until you bring your bones back into mechanical balance. Then you might have the surprising sensation of effortless movement that so many Alexander students experience.

FM Alexander called this balance “mechanical advantage”. Mechanical advantage is not a position. It’s better understood as a series of counterbalances between all the parts of the body. The head goes a little forward and up, as the neck and spine go a little back and up, and so on, as our bits balance in perpetual motion around our vertical axis.

How do you get into mechanical advantage, especially if you notice you are crunching forward at your desk?

First, stop what you are doing and make observations. Where is your head in relationship to your shoulders, back, neck, pelvis, the ceiling and the floor? Where would you like it to be? Make a gesture with your hand showing where you’d like your different parts to go. Was it in an up-and-out sort of gesture? Before moving out of the crunch, use the Alexander Technique Directions: Let your neck be free, direct your head forward and up. Direct your back to lengthen and widen. Direct your shoulders apart and your knees away.

If those Directions didn’t make sense, you would not be alone. Unfortunately, the Directions don’t specify the oppositions necessary to come into mechanical balance. It may be a good idea to change the wording of Alexander’s canonical Directions, but that’s a subject for a different essay. For here, it’s important to say that most people need an Alexander Technique teacher’s touch to give meaning to the Directions. Trickily, Directional movement comes from non-doing versus doing. This reverse perspective takes practice and objective feedback, and is usually learned intuitively in response to the gentle guidance of an Alexander teacher’s hands.

But what if your tension is not just a problem of mechanical balance? What if you hold because you are frustrated or anxious? It might be futile to physically balance your body without addressing the causal conditions. Or, it might work! There is a bi-directional link between emotions and body state. Sometimes students experience a lightening of mood after lessons even though emotions were never discussed. Still, if our goal is a higher level of conscious choice and control, working only through the body is not enough.

Many of my M.F.A. acting students ask, “How do I play anger without tensing my throat?” Is the emotion of anger physiologically hard wired to a tight throat in the way that happiness, upturned lips and sparkling eyes are linked? Or is the tight throat a strategy to hold back expressing anger? I think the latter. What’s it like to feel anger without blocking the feelings with muscle tension? Does the anger pass more freely, or as we fear, does it escalate into behaviors that we later regret? Learning to feel freely, but still make choices about behavior can broaden your inner emotional palette and guide you into emotionally intelligent behavior. For actors, this gives rise to richer performances that don’t break the physical body.

Here’s a short activity to help you correlate the connection between muscle tension and emotion.

If your shoulders (or jaw and neck, etc.) are always tight, observe which situations trigger even more tension. Then, spend one minute tracking sensations throughout your whole body. What other parts are working overtime? How’s your breath and heart rate? Then spend a minute tracking emotions. Can you simply name the emotion you feel, (e.g. “I’m anxious and frustrated…”) without going into a story about why you feel that emotion? Or, is the emotion muffled by physical tension? Spend some time sorting yourself out. Finally, spend a minute listening to the stories that go along with the emotions. Don’t change the thoughts, but notice them. Are they always true? Then take a minute to look around, (e.g. “I’m gazing at the wall in front of me, the light from the window reflects against the yellow wall in a dappled pattern, I notice a dust bunny caught in the corner…”) Does seeing with detail and alertness take you out of routine thoughts, feelings and reactions?

Usually this mindfulness activity will bring muscle and mind into harmony and cause spontaneous release. But it may not. At that point, a little rational thinking can go a long way. You might ask yourself, “Will clenching my shoulders really speed up my commute time? Who is benefiting from my tense jaw? But don’t try to relax the jaw muscles. Remember, it doesn’t usually work. Do think about doing less of what you are doing. Here, giving Alexander Directions to restore mechanical balance comes into good use. And, maybe next time you’ll choose public transportation and read a book.

Don’t waste time trying to relax tight muscles. Consider the conditions that cause tension. Make changes at the source.

 

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

See Three Things

When we worry about getting things right, we tend to stop breathing, grip up and try harder. The harder we try, the tighter we get.

Here’s a practice (adapted from Peter Levine’s Somatic Experience Work) that will help you stop worrying and relax into presence and a broader perspective.

Let your eyes dance around the environment until they land on something pleasant. This might take some imagination, but usually there’s something interesting to look at: the sky; the glint of light on a glass; or a crack in the sidewalk. Then, as if you were writing an essay, describe the object. Briefly observe your body. Do this three times. Then return to the original issue. Has the problem lessened in some way? Is your breath easier? Is your neck freer? Are you still worrying? Can you now approach the original problem with less effort?

For example:

Caught in the repetitive loop of worry, my chest is tight, my breathing is shallow and my hands are cold. Wrenching my attention away from my inner story, I look at the folds of my white curtain. The curtain hangs gracefully. The light flows through softly. My chest feels cool. I see the moldings on the ceiling. The light plays over the smooth ridges turning the white stripe shades of beige and cream. My forehead feels smooth. The pencil in the jar glints pink, silver and orange. The pop of color pleases me. My facial muscles relax. I feel less fearful.

Looking around and actively perceiving ones relationship to the external world is one of the quickest ways to gain perspective. Seeing helps us leap outside the box of negativity.

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient!

Lighten up! Thinking might reduce your risk of falls

 

Look up, think up, lighten up!

Look up, think up, lighten up!

Think, “Allow my head to float up at the top of my spine. Allow my bones to send me up.” What happens to you? Do you feel a little taller and lighter? As it turns out, this simple wish, the first in the Alexander Technique lexicon, was powerful enough to improve balance and stability in elder adults in ways that are consistent with fall prevention. How safe do you feel in the shower? Falling is the top cause of accidental death in adults older than 60.

In a preliminary study (October, 2015), led by Dr. Rajal G. Cohen at the Mind in Movement Laboratory, University of Idaho, 20 adults between ages 60 and 80 had their stature and balance measured while employing three different mental strategies for changing posture.

(1) In the Relaxed condition, participants were asked to imagine that they were tired and lazy, and to stand as if no one could see them.

(2) In the Effort condition, participants were asked to use muscular effort to pull themselves up to their greatest height.

(3). In the Lighten up condition, participants were asked to imagine their head floating up off the top of the spine and their bones supporting them in an upwards direction.

Participants performed two movements, a) 30 seconds of rhythmic weight shifting from side-to-side at the rate of 72 beats per minute, and b) raising one foot rapidly. Three measurements were taken: 1) neck length, measured as the distance between the first and 7th cervical vertebrae, 2) movement of the center of mass (forward/backwards and side to side), and 3) both height and rhythm of movement.

Step aside from your screen for a second and try shifting your weight quickly from side to side for 30 seconds. Try each movement strategy. Which is easiest for you? Can you keep a steady rhythm? Which approach makes you feel most coordinated and balanced? Test a friend, and maybe get a baseline (i.e. no strategy) measurement first. Then vary the order of conditions. What are your findings?

Cohen et al. found that neck length was significantly longer in the Lighten up condition than the relaxed condition. This finding suggests that directed thinking with no muscular effort can enhance upright stance and reduce compression of cervical vertebrae. Both the Effort condition and the Relaxed condition caused the center of mass to sway significantly more during movement. This suggests that the Effort and Relax conditions worsened balance and coordination, whereas the Lighten up condition improved postural control and stability. Finally, the self report feedback from participants confirmed that the Lighten up instructions were easier to use, and led to movement that felt more balanced and secure. The latter finding is important, because fear of falling can often lead elders to restrict activity. Over time, this leads to further weakness and worsening of motor control. Could a sense of ease and balance in movement lead elders to move more? How do these findings compare to your self experiment?

It’s important to note that this was a preliminary study, with a small sample size, so results must be taken with a grain of salt. Further research is needed to measure the impact of Lighten up instruction on fall risk.

The beauty of the Lighten up intervention is that it’s just a thought. Our thinking is completely portable, requires no money and very little time. Mindfulness is sweeping the nation as a positive strategy for health and well-being. This is one of the first studies that shows that a mindfulness approach based on the Alexander Technique might improve balance and coordination in ways that could significantly decrease risk of accidental falls.

For further information, or to get a copy of the poster session, visit The Mind in Movement Laboratory
Rajal G. Cohen, Ph.D. @ rcohen@uidaho.edu

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient!

Let there be love

The spine moves.
The head is part of the body.
Let the soft animal of the body love what it loves. (…wait, that’s Mary Oliver)
Let there be love (…wait, that’s a play I just saw by Kwei-Armah)
Be (…some dude named Buddha had something to say about that).

These were my thoughts after an epic Reiki session from my friend Jordana del Feld

For a brief amount of time, I dabbled in Reiki. Reiki seemed like the Alexander Technique, minus the technique. Reiki does not demand 3 years of daily training to certify as a teacher. Reiki is not concerned with movement. And Reiki does not teach people a reliable means for changing habits.

But it does offer energy flow without any ego manipulation. Isn’t that the essence of Alexander’s and the Tao’s principal of non-doing?

Everyone intuitively knows about flow state. We’ve all been lucky enough to have fleeting experiences of effortless action. But we forget that flow is our birthright. We forget that it is always available—if we get out of the way.

When I put my hands on my students, I don’t intend to ‘do’ anything to them. I am helping them learn how they can prevent pain, constriction and heaviness. How does this work? I think students get the hallmark Alexander Technique sensations of lightness and ease through resonance. That is, if I am sufficiently free, my flow will be catchy and they will catch the current of their own flow.

Still, I need my students to do more than to catch my flow. During the the lesson, they’re moving: sitting, walking, or reciting Hamlet. I’m an educator, not a therapist. I’m giving my students the means to find freedom without my help. So I ask them to imagine space here and to notice a habit there, to become conscious of the intersection between thoughts, emotions and body states, and to direct energy. I teach them techniques that they can practice on their own. The trick is to spark their awareness enough that the body transforms, but not so much that they are micro-managing alignment details.

Sometimes I think that technique is a ruse. All that’s needed is to let every opinion about bio-mechanics, habit, gravity and direction dissolve into the bliss of dancing molecules and love. There’s no need to reach for knowledge. Effortless (but not passive) absorption is effective and valid. Experience has taught me that our bones know what to do. It’s our personality (composed of our habit and ego), that forces them into uncomfortable configurations.

The Alexander Technique works indirectly to release energy flow in action. Students learn techniques to recognize and prevent limiting habits, and thus get out of the way of their own life force.  But the root of transformation is compassion, connection and love. Out of this, positive change is self-generating, the way a seed germinates and eventually reaches for the sun.

Poet Galway Kinnell said it best, Saint Francis and the Sow

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

Is my neck free?

Are you wondering if your neck is free? Check your breathing. If your breath is flowing easily and clearly discernible at the nostrils, the chances are that your neck is free.

The instant you begin to wonder, “Is my neck free?” you’re already tightening it to find out. That said, it never hurts, even if you are breathing, to give the wish to do less with your neck.

To read more about this, see Thinking Aloud, by Walter Carringto, pp. 64.

 

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entanglement

Hands on direction from Betsy Polatin

Entrainment Chain via Alexander Technique hands. Photo by Jordana del Feld

Students often wonder how the light touch of an Alexander Technique teacher can communicate so much. Simultaneously, you might experience a wave of relaxation, an emotional sense of being seen and accepted for exactly who you are. Suddenly your breath becomes easy and your spine seems to grow tall. When you move to walk around the room, you feel inflated with helium.

You might ask the teacher what they are doing with their hands. They might say something like, “I’m having a conversation with your nervous system,” or, “I’m seeing your potential, and I’m projecting that,” or as Marj Barstow famously proclaimed, “Just a little bit of nothing.” It’s true that Alexander Teachers spend three years learning to communicate through a form of touch that is empty, yet energetically directed. But perhaps the reason students experience so much through so little lies in the way that we, as a species, entrain with each other.

Physical entrainment, on the extreme edge of the spectrum, can show up as a neurological disorder called mirror touch. In mirror touch a person feels the detailed body sensations of other people. For example, as a friend chews food, you might feel unwelcome sensations in your own mouth. However, a lesser degree of entrainment is quite normal, and is probably related to species survival and social intelligence. When people gather together, breath rate, heart rate and movement pace all synchronize. As we converse, our faces automatically match expressions, and our emotions follow. One is left wondering if a feeling stems from within or is absorbed via emotional contagion.

Physical entrainment might explain how the light non-manipulative Alexander touch can do so much. For a more detailed exploration of this phenomenon, listen to the new podcast Invisibilia – Entanglement To experience effortless improvements in movement and posture, contact an Alexander Technique teacher.

 

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

 

Spotted—Pedestrian employing Alexander Technique while carrying her daughter

I don’t ordinarily talk to strangers. Maybe Dan Hoyle’s play, “Each and Every Thing” got under my skin. The play introduces the concept of “open time.” That is, no smart phone fourth wall. No screens. Face-to-face conversation with people on the street becomes possible.

I saw a tall woman on a steep hill with her small daughter perched on her shoulders. The woman was leaning down to remove a Frisbee from her dog’s mouth. These are common activities that are to perform gracefully. The hill was slanted steeply. The woman and her daughter’s backs formed elegant parallel lines. As she bent to reach her dog, the women’s knees flowed away from her hip joints neatly countering the angle of her torso. The beagle’s head flowed up to her hand to complete the euclidean ideal. There were no broken lines. No crouched spines. All heads were up. All eyes were bright and observant.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think people should have good posture. But the dancer in me is attracted to line and fluid motion. And I miss the time when people’s faces and eyes were regularly up and out. The “look” of posture is just a side effect of alert engagement and knowing how to move with ease.

So I piped up, “I couldn’t help noticing your amazing form.”
“It’s not easy negotiating daughter and dog,” she said. And with that, we struck up a conversation. She had just returned from an afternoon with her friend and Alexander Technique teacher Anne Bluethenthal.

Thumbs up for the Alexander Technique conspiracy of surprising grace in everyday activities.

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

Jaw & Hip Connection

For years I’ve been telling students that tension in the jaw is connected to tension in the pelvis and hip joints. But where did this idea come from?

I always assumed Moshe Feldenkrais made the original observation, but I’ve never been able to find a reference. And, when I looked several years ago, all I came up with was a reference to natural childbirth expert Ina May Gaskin’s, “Sphincter law,” which states that, “If the mouth, jaw and throat are relaxed, then so is your bottom.” This might have more to do with symptoms of a generalized relaxation response, then literal “sphincters.”

Nevertheless, good to know.

A link between the jaw and pelvis makes sense if we view hypothalamic drive states as the underlying model for unconscious tension habits. That is, the 5 F’s – Fight, Flight, Fright, Freeze and Reproduction – with all their attendant muscular, neural, hormonal and mental activation. Tension (or relaxation) is rarely regional (although we can also blame furniture, culture and our iPhones).

A 2009 study conducted in Germany showed that myofascial release of the TMJ joint significantly increased range of motion in the hip joints. This was true for participants both with and without chronic pain. Additionally, voluntarily clenching the jaw reduced hip joint mobility for all subjects. Caveat: these findings might only describe a generalized relaxation response, not a direct link between the jaw and the hips. Perhaps if the researchers had asked the participants to clench their fists they would have discovered the same decrease in hip mobility.

Have you ever tried to open a jar without tightening your jaw or fists? Try it. How about your hips? This suggests a little home Alexander Technique project.

From an Alexander Technique standpoint, a free neck, a free jaw, and free hips all go together. It’s hard to release the jaw in isolation.

If you have trouble with jaw tension, try relaxing your feet, and then your legs. See if your breath doesn’t then drop into your pelvis, which then relaxes your hips.

How’s your jaw doing now?