When you feel like a turtle…

Turtles pull their heads in to their bodies when they are scared. Do you do the same thing? Notice the triggers, and then invite a sense of ease in your neck, so your head can can lengthen away from your body.

If you are finding this hard, look around you and make sure that you are safe. Are you near loud rumbling low pitched noises? Try and get somewhere quiet, or even turn on some melodic vocal music – or sing. If you can have a friendly face-to-face conversation that might be the best thing, but if there’s no one around, take a minute to look at pictures of baby animals. All of this will help cue your nervous system towards a sense of safety. Feeling safe facilitates a release in the neck and throat muscles, allowing the head to easily extend away from the body.

With the Alexander Technique, you learn to work with your mind to coax your body into ease. You also learn to recognize and cope with the environmental triggers that cause tension.

#polyvagaltheory #alexandertechnique

photo credit: Photo by Cedric Fox on Unsplash

Elyse Shafarman

anticipation and forward head posture

Meerkats exhibit beautiful head poise. Photo by Jeroen Wehkamp

Here’s a nice study* showing that anxious anticipation is associated with forward head posture, and that the ability to prevent this habit is related to a person’s scores on measures of mindful awareness. The more aware you are, the more easily you can prevent dysfunctional postural habits. Thank you science!

Try Alexander Technique to become mindful in 3-D**!

*Neck posture is influenced by anticipation of stepping, J. L. Baera,  A. Vasavadab , R. G. Cohen, Human Movement Science, vol 64 (2019)

**Mindfulness in 3D is a phrase coined by British Alexander Technique teacher Peter Nobes

Laser point your way to length

In the Alexander Technique, we teach students how to find the easiest, most comfortable and most efficient way of balancing the head on the neck. This is by no means all we teach. In actuality, we teach freedom of choice and freedom from the prison of the habitual, but often, our habits are expressed in our carriage – most poignantly in the poise of our heads.

People often push the neck forward and the head down while working at the computer, texting, sitting and all the rest of life. If this is a habit, it can be hard to know where our head belongs.

Last Fall, I was working with a local college professor. I was searching for imagery that they could easily understand. I suggested that they pretend they had a laser pointer on the top of their head. This allowed them to sense where the head was in space.

You can add imaginary laser pointers to the end of any limb to improve your body awareness and create sensations of length and expansion in your limbs.

What happens when you imagine laser pointers on your shoulders?

When you walk, what happens if you point up from the top of the head?

Final tip, this is all visual imagery. If you try and hold your self into a position you will get tense. See what happens when you let your imagination be the agent of change.











The Beautiful Poise of the Cuban People

Susana Arenas’ Cuban dance students and members of Raices Profundas Dance Company. I’m on the far left.

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 clean rooms with sprung wood floors and gleaming mirrors, this studio – a once-upon-a-time movie palace, with cement floors, a pocky corrugated tin roof that let both shafts of sunlight and rain in – required a recalibration of expectations. 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 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 an efficient walking gait. Music and social dance optimize coordination, cognition and group cohesion, entraining people into what psychologist Daniel J. Siegel describes as the “neurobiology of we,” an essential component of secure attachment and stress resilience. Perhaps this gives Cubans the body intelligence and the emotional grit to stand tall in the face of hardship. But no one thinks about it like that. “I’m Cuban, therefore I dance!” said our tour leader, a woman in her 60’s, as she stepped out onto the dance floor executing complex figures with fluid panache.

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. Practice for only 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 film. 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. Instead, imagine a tiny laser pointer on the crown of your head pointing to the ceiling. Use imagery, not your ribcage to lift your head.

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