The Beautiful Poise of the Cuban People

Susana Arenas’ Cuban dance students and members of Raices Profundas Dance Company

Man with crutches exercising

We wondered what it would be like to be disabled in Cuba. This man on crutches seems unusually unhindered, but I imagine he is the exception not the rule.

In August, I travelled to Cuba with Susana Arenas to study dance with the world acclaimed Afro-Cuban folkloric company Raices Profundas (Deep Roots).

I was amazed by the vitality and beauty of the Cuban people walking on the streets of Havana. (The photo at the top of this page is a casual snap of everyday people). Cubans carry their heads high over their hips. Their chests are open, and arms swing free. An observer can draw an invisible vertical line from head to standing heel. This results in a vibrant upright posture and a flowing gait. While you would expect this in youths, even elderly Cubans sped down the pitted streets with long spines and supple hips.

You don’t see this in the US. Typically, as we age (and even these days in people quite young), our legs stiffen, our stride shortens, and forward motion degrades into side-to-side sway. Walking slows and is often uncomfortable.

While there is no homelessness in Cuba, there is also no money to maintain the gorgeous Beaux Arts and Art Deco architecture. The number of collapsed buildings in Havana makes the city looks like a war zone.

True, there is terrible poverty in Cuba. In Havana, a building falls down every 3.1 days. The sidewalks are crumbling and gape with treacherous holes. More conservative friends reminded me that Cuba is still under the rule of a repressive regime. I didn’t see much of this, but a wikipedia search reminded me of some hard facts about human rights and the Cuban state.

Still, the Cubans were notably more relaxed than Americans and perhaps this partially explains their upright stance. I admit, I was enchanted by the concept of a country with no homelessness, universal healthcare, and free education. Gun violence is unheard of and murder rates are low. I felt safe on the streets at night. The people did not seem beaten down by the fear, stress and depression that I see everywhere here. Of course, you can’t understand a culture in just a few days. My impressions are only that.

Rehearsal Hall for Raices Profundas

This dramatic space (to the left) is the professional rehearsal hall for Raices Profundas. Having grown up with the idea that dance classes take place in dedicated spaces with sprung wood floors or marly, gleaming mirrors and frequent sweeping, this studio – a once-upon-a-time movie palace, with a pocky corrugated tin roof that let both shafts of sunlight and rain in – took a bit of getting used to. I was surprised that by the third day it felt like a refuge. It felt like home. I remember reading in the Talent Code that impoverished athletic facilities are correlated with enhanced  performance. Perhaps necessity is the mother of invention, or perhaps soul and heart are not located in the places that we think.

The US Embargo stopped car imports to Cuba, making Havana a living museum for classic American cars.

Cuba is said to be in time warp since the revolution in 1953 when imports from the US stopped. Perhaps the downfall of bodies was also slowed. Although Cubans have smart phones, wifi is uncommon and people do not walk the street with their heads down and eyes glued to screens. But even in the US just 10 years ago, before the advent of smart phones, I don’t remember that we ever displayed the type of natural upright flow that you see in Cuba.

Why do Cubans have such poise? My best guess is that it’s the music making and dancing that is so prominent in life. The undulation of the hips in salsa is a close approximation of the pendular movement of the pelvis required for efficient gait. Dance and music also harmonize social bonds – which optimize heart rate variance and resilience in the face of stress. But no one thinks about it like that. “I’m Cuban, therefore I dance!” said our tour leader, also a grandmother, as she stepped onto the dance floor executing complex moves with fluid expertise.

Find out if the Alexander Technique can help you. Let’s bring some poise back to our people.

Elyse Shafarman, Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient

 

 

Some Sitting Help

By Bjoertvedt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27198216

By Bjoertvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Stand up. Find your hip joints. Locate your “bikini” line, and find the place where, if you press into it, your pelvis will shoot back in space. That’s where your hip joint is. Note that this is just the frontal plane. Your hip joint is a 3D structure, and exists on the side and backplane of your pelvis also.

Place your thumbs in your hips joints and your hands around your leg bones, so that you can feel for the rotation of your thighs (femurs) as you flex and extend your pelvis. When you send your pelvis back in space, notice that your femurs internally rotate. You might be able to feel a slight widening in the sit bones. When you extend your hip joints, you will feel external rotation of the femurs, coupled with a narrowing of the sit bones.

You can also practice sitting in a chair. Explore a gentle motion of rocking forwards and backwards on your sit bones. Sense the widening of your sit bones as your rock forward, coupled with internal rotation of the femurs. Sense the narrowing of your sit bones as you rock backwards, coupled with external rotation of the thighs. Find a balance point with the pelvis slightly tilted forward (sit bones widening). This helps to establish the lumbar curve of your back and will make sitting upright feel much easier. The slight lumbar curve will also help to release the shoulders as the fascia of the back will tend to tug the shoulder blades down a bit.

How does this differ from how you ordinarily sit?

Most people have a hard time finding and moving from the hip joints. Do you bend your head forward or extend your chest instead of moving at the hip joint? To isolate the movement to your hip joints, it’s helpful to imagine a marble sliding down the chute of the spine. When it reaches the tailbone, that’s the moment to lean forward.

As a final note, this type of mechanical guidance does not sum up the Alexander technique, which I would frame as a holistic method for enhancing our conscious lived experience of being embodied. I offer this mechanical exploration, because so many of my students have discomfort sitting.

Knowing a little bit about the geometry of your bones can make a tiresome daily activity easier.

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.

Let your mind expand

One of the things that distinguishes Alexander Technique from posture training is that we look at coordination as a function (or expression) of attention. If our awareness is narrowed we tend to constrict our breathing and our bodies. If our awareness is broad we tend to open up. Expanding our field of attention may not be a complete solution for postural ease, but it’s an easy first step.

The next time you feel tense make this little plan: “If I feel tense, I will expand my awareness to the world around me.”

Let me know how it goes!

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Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Stiff Lower back?

Tight Jaw? Tension between your shoulder blades? Landing heavily on your heels when walking?

Make sure your rib cage is not lifted up! The cue I use in Alexander Technique lesson is to drop the xiphoid process, which is the little bony point at the end of the sternum. If you look at the image to the left, the xiphoid process is highlighted in gold. You can imagine it like a pendant hanging straight down, or joke with yourself that it’s rude to point your xiphoid process at someone.

If the xiphoid process is sticking out, it will cause you to lean back. If it is dropped towards the ground, you will find your weight centered on your feet, and that your arms and shoulders are freer to swing when walking.

If the xiphoid process is sticking out, it will prevent you from exhaling fully, and of course, inhaling fully. Observe how letting the xiphoid process hang affects your breathing. It’s a very tender spot in the body. It lives in front of the heart, lungs and diaphragm. You might even experiment with feeling a bit like you are burying it inside your body on the exhale.

Even though you feel more relaxed, you might suddenly start to worry that you are slumping! Go ahead, lift your xiphoid process back up to see what your habit of good posture is.  Does this feel super stiff and tense? Go back and forth until you can feel the difference between your idea of good posture and the reality of efficient body mechanics.  If the head drops when you drop your xiphoid process, that’s just information that you’ve been lifting your chest to keep your head up. Trying floating your eyes up, and moving your head from the atlanto occipital joint.

In lessons, I work with my students to understand how correcting a local “part” of the body affects the whole to create better posture, balance and breath.

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

 

Sleuthing Medieval manuscripts with Alexander Technique

Guest blog bost by Maura Nolan, UC Berkeley

I have been studying the Alexander technique with Elyse for about three months and it has changed my life in many happy ways. Most of the changes have to do with my physical experience of the world – how I stand, sit, and use my neck and back – but I have also found myself becoming much more alert to the meaning of human posture in the people I see and in images I encounter. I notice how people hold themselves when they talk to me and when I see them on television or in print media. Indeed, I have found myself fulfilling a prediction about the feelings of new students that I’ve read in various books about the Alexander technique: I have wanted to sidle up to egregious head-hangers and shoulder-slumpers and tell them all about Alexander and how it can change their lives. However, I have so far heeded the warning from Alexander teachers and kept my thoughts to myself.

One exception to this rule arose in relation to my academic work. I am a medievalist; I study Middle English literature and culture, which includes medieval manuscripts and the images that appear in them. Something I have been focusing on in my research is the human face as it is represented in the visual arts and literature during the medieval period. I recently gave a paper at a conference in New York on the drawings of faces in the margins of medieval manuscripts. I first collected quite a number of these drawings, prepared a PowerPoint presentation, and then sat down to write my paper. One of the first images I was planning to show was, I thought, a fairly simple illustration of how scribes drew faces to illustrate the content of a manuscript page: the manuscript contained the Rule of St. Benet, a rule for the religious and spiritual life of nuns, and the particular page I showed concerned praying in the chapel. The rule stated that nuns should engage in contemplative prayer, an intense form of meditation on Christian teaching, including Christ’s Passion, which would necessarily involve weeping. But because the nuns would be meditating together in the chapel, the rule instructed them to be as silent as possible, so as not to disturb their sisters and disrupt their meditations.

At the top of the manuscript page, the scribe had drawn an image of two women in profile, one in front of the other, both facing left, as if they were sitting in a chapel facing the altar. Both were weeping. When I first saw the image, I quickly looked at it and diagnosed it as a straightforward depiction of what was on the manuscript page – nuns in the chapel at contemplative prayer, weeping silently and respecting each others’ spiritual space. But that was before I had started to work with Elyse on the Alexander technique. By the time I was writing my paper, I had had several sessions and had become acutely aware of the head and the neck and how people use and misuse them. When I looked again at the image of the two women, I could see that the woman on the left was holding her head and neck in a ramrod-straight and stiff position, perhaps even slightly tilted back, while the woman behind her (on the right) was inclining her head forward. This discrepancy struck me very strongly. Why were these women presented so differently? I noticed further discrepancies. Because they were depicted in profile, only the left eye of each woman was visible. The eye of the woman on the left, in front, was drawn in such a way that she appeared to be looking backward at the woman on the right. In contrast the woman behind her, on the right, was staring vacantly into space. The woman in front was frowning; the woman behind her had her mouth open.

What did these details add up to? Going back to the posture of the two women, though the woman in back did not demonstrate good use in an Alexander sense– she was inclining her head forward and hanging its weight from her neck – she was demonstrating the proper position for reverent prayer. Her unfocused eyes showed that she was meditating deeply. And, most importantly, her open mouth showed that she was vocalizing – violating the rule as stated on the manuscript page, which enjoined the nuns to pray silently. The noise she was making explained the posture of the woman in front. She wasn’t bending her neck reverently; she was distracted by the noise of her sister, which led her to lift up her head, look back at her, and frown disapprovingly. Far from being an image of nuns following the rule, the portrait of the two women was instead an image of distraction, a picture of two people unable to share the same space.

I do not think that I would have noticed the difference between these two images had I not been studying the Alexander technique and thinking every day about how I hold my neck and head. I simply wouldn’t have been able to see what the medieval scribe was trying to show me. The Alexander technique is first and foremost a practice of the body, of course. But it is also a powerful interpretive method that helps us to look at images of the past in a new way.

**Due to copyright issues the images that relate to this post cannot be reproduced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to Jane Brody, the NY Times Well Columnist, Posture Affects Standing, and Not Just the Physical Kind

Body Project Blog ~ Where thought is the active ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

“A distraught wife begged me to write about the importance of good posture…” So begins Jane Brody’s most recent NY Times Well column, Posture Affects Standing, and Not Just the Physical Kind.

Brody outlines the usual problems that lead to poor posture, i.e. stress and bad furniture (car seats, iPhones and heavy bags), and she runs through the usual solutions, don’t slouch, tuck or over straighten the natural curves of your spine, and if this is difficult, sign up for a course of core training to strengthen all those tired muscles that have forgotten how to do their natural job. But Brody misses the one technique that solves it all, that ties together our modern thirst for mindful awareness and our basic human desire to live without pain, i.e. The Alexander Technique.

I encourage everyone who wants to learn how to stand effortlessly, with good posture and zero fatigue or pain to run to their nearest Alexander Technique teacher. Don’t hesitate. Now is the time to sign up for a course of lessons. To find a teacher in your area, visit The American Society for the Alexander Technique website.

Alexander Technique is a set of skills that helps all people, regardless of age, health status or physical fitness, be comfortable in their bodies. All the basic movements of life – sitting, standing, walking and sleeping become easy again.

Even better, the Alexander Technique does not require that you set aside extra time in your busy life. It’s a handy form of mindfulness that can be practiced in the midst of everything – while standing in line, idling in traffic, making lunch for your kids, sitting in meetings, riding your bike, or even reading this blog.

And, the Alexander Technique is not purely physical. It will help you understand the link between your thoughts, emotions and muscle tensions. You will grow in self awareness.

While we can’t always have perfect furniture or perfectly amenable circumstances, once we learn the Alexander Technique we always have the power to be comfortable and at peace in our own skin.

To learn more about the Alexander Technique feel free to contact me for a complimentary 15 minute phone consultation 415-342-6255

 

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!

Eyes up!

 

Eyes up!

photo on the right by Lindsay Newitter

Dear Friends,

Happy Autumn! Having just returned from the International Congress of Alexander Technique in Ireland, I am newly inspired. In light of this, you are invited to two Fall Workshops. Each can be taken on its own, or paired together.

Stand Tall & Speak with Presence
Saturday, October 3, 1–4pm · 10/3 · $45
Berkeley Rep School of Theatre

Eyes Up! Prevent “Text Neck” & Restore Spinal Length
Saturday, October 10,  1–4pm · 10/10 · $45
Berkeley Rep School of Theatre

Visit Berkeley Rep School of Theatre website to register. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions. Please share with anyone you think will benefit!

Let your neck be free and lift your eyes to see the world!

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.