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.

Life Mission

We call my friend’s five-year-old,  The Tiny Zen Master, because of his unerring ability to cut through crap and tell it how it is. Maybe kids and teenagers are more certain about and who and what they are about, because they have had less life experience telling them otherwise. I was lucky enough to get a reminder.

Yesterday, a colleague asked me, “What’s your life mission?”

I admit, this question make me bristle with annoyance rather than thrill with purpose. It’s a very Western individualistic idea that we are all born on earth to do great things. It’s not enough to get up in the morning, put on fresh underwear, and not get hit by careening SUV’s. I am supposed to make an impact, become rich or famous, and at the very least design my life around some unique creative thumbprint. I am reminded of a story in Byron Katie’s book, “The Work,” where a woman was complaining that she didn’t know what her purpose in life was. Katie challenged her to consider that her purpose was to live the life that she was living. I found this refreshing.

But, the truth is that I wrote my mission statement 30 years ago.

“Elyse,” said my Dad, “There’s a letter here at the house for you.”

“What?” I had just had my 30th birthday, and was making big changes in my life. I was leaving modern dance to study physiological psychology.  I had started the three-year training to become an Alexander Technique Teacher. My dad handed me an envelope with faded but familiar script. I broke the seal.

“Dear Elyse, I’m writing to you from 1984. I’m 15. Do you remember me?” Barely, but I did remember the assignment from Nancy Rubin’s Social Living class at Berkeley High. I tried to imagine Ms. Rubin’s filing system as I read about my life as a teenager. Several paragraphs were devoted to a crush on some forgotten boy, but the last line of the letter shook me to my core: “Remember the power of the mind to influence the body for health and creative expression.”

These words underscore the consistent interest in my life.

If I had to answer that pesky life mission question today, I would say:

“My Life’s Mission is to explore and celebrate the mind body connection from an experiential and literary perspective as it relates dance, acting, yoga, meditation and stress reduction. My role in this mission is as a practitioner, teacher, and writer. My primary lens is the Alexander Technique, but my work is inspired by insight meditation and scientific research.”

But maybe I should just call on my own teenage zen master and keep it simple and say, “My life’s mission is to remember the power of the mind to influence the body for health and creative expression.”

What’s your Life Mission?

 

 

expectations automatically affect actions

“Knowledge and expectations automatically affect action. Changing habits to produce more efficient coordination requires addressing its underlying mechanisms, which depend on our ideas. … This is markedly different from using ones existing ideas to simply perform different movements.”

Science and Alexander Technique
, by Tim Cacciatore,
Direction. Vol 2, No. 10, August, 2005

This is where the Alexander Technique differs from a method of postural correction. We are not about re-aligning our bodies. We are about re-aligning our beliefs and expectations about how much effort it takes to perform movements, and how much effort it takes to live.

This is also where the technique can suddenly spark to life. We are not so much dealing with moving this bone here, and releasing this tense muscle there, but examining our entire approach to life. Suddenly we see who we are, and all the extra work we add on to the already difficult prospect of being human.

The solution becomes marvelously simple — although not necessarily easy. We are released from the specifics of trying to figure out our coordination. We can leave all that complicated work to the various motor control systems in our brains.

Our concern is noticing and choosing.

That is, noticing our beliefs about what it takes to get from here to there, and noticing our anticipatory tension.  We get to pick and choose what we want to take on. Suddenly we have a range of options, and one of them includes less anxiety and less work.  Then we have the happy prospect of allowing events to unfold without our interference.

This is where all the surprises are.

This is where the joy lies.

the eleven benefits of loving kindness meditation

  1. You will sleep easily
  2. You will wake easily
  3. You will have pleasant dreams
  4. People will love you
  5. Devas (gods or angels) and animals will love you
  6. Devas will protect you
  7. External dangers, such as poisons, weapons, and fire, will not harm you
  8. Your face will be radiant
  9. Your mind will be serene
  10. You will die unconfused
  11. You will be re-born in happy realms

This is big stuff, regardless of whether you believe in angels or reincarnation.

Having good sleep, pleasant dreams, a radiant face and a serene mind, all sound pretty great to me.

Scientific research into the benefits of loving kindness (Metta) practice supports a few of these claims. Regular loving kindness meditation can:

    • Lower stress — self perceived, behavioral and physiological.
    • Enhance immunity
    • Increase behaviors that enhance social connectedness.
    • Increase happiness

Here’s a decent popular science article with links to studies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kripalu/loving-kindness-meditation_b_3961300.html

 

Metta Meditation & Alexander Technique

As an Alexander Technique student, learning the Buddhist practice of Metta (Loving kindness) Meditation, gave me, for the first time ever, enough self-compassion to look at my habits without shame. When I learned to watch my thoughts in Buddhist Vipassana (Insight) meditation, I gained an understanding of what it might mean to “allow.” Meditation gave me the skill to work with my thoughts and emotions. Alexander Technique helps me explore the embodiment of thought.

I believe that practicing Metta meditation can help you free your neck and expand your body –  in addition to expanding your capacity for compassion.

Here’s the Metta practice:

May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm
May I be peaceful and happy
May I be healthy and strong
May I be at ease with the conditions of my life

Traditionally you direct these thoughts to yourself, then a mentor or benefactor, then a dear friend, then a neutral person, then a difficult person, and then the circle can be expanded out to all beings everywhere.

Metta creates the inner climate that allows the neck muscles to release – although please note this is my idea, and has nothing to do with traditional Alexander Technique teachings.

The Metta phrases and the Alexander Technique directions can reinforce each other when thought one after the other. For example:

Metta (M): May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm
Alexander Technique (AT): Allow my neck to be free

Isn’t neck tension the first thing that happens when we feel threatened? A free neck is almost synonymous with safety.

(M): May I be peaceful and happy
(AT): Allow my head to balance forward and up

Isn’t a poised head the physical expression of peace? I’m imagining a Buddha statue.

(M): May I be healthy and strong
(AT): Allow my back to lengthen and widen

Isn’t an open back that allows the free movement of breath and the decompression of organ systems the expression of “health?”

(M): May I be at ease with the conditions in my life
(AT): Allow my legs to release away from my hip joints, and my shoulders to expand to the sides

Isn’t physical expansion the gesture of ease?

You don’t need to say all the words in the Metta phrases. You can generate the feeling of Metta and project the Alexander Technique directions simultaneously. I encourage you to experiment.

There’s a bi-directional loop between body positions and emotions. We can create the feeling tone of safety, peace, health and ease, from the mind down and from the body up.

 

 

 

 

hone the mind body connection and discover the power of thought

Recently, someone asked me to come up with a few, “one-liners” that describe my work as an Alexander Technique Teacher.

Here’s the one that is true for me, and connects to my passion in the work:

“I help people hone the mind body connection and discover the power of thought to instantly free the body.”

However, if I’m lazy, I’ll say:

“I’m a movement coach for actors.”

Or, if I’m feeling really lazy, I say:

“I help people learn how to relax their necks.”

The latter two usually start a conversation.  Most people are secretly interested in the lives of actors, and almost everyone has neck tension!

I don’t worry about being too accurate. If we have a real conversation, I might go on to talk a bit about habit and choice, and try and tie these concepts in to who they are and what they do. For example, if I’m talking to a tango dancer who works as a computer programmer, I might discuss what it’s like to carry the habits of sitting crouched at a computer into a tango embrace. I might show them how I can help them out.

Often people will say to me, “You have such good posture, are you a Pilates teacher?”

That also gets a discussion going.