rest. do less. rest. play. do less. rest.

How do you handle the need to rest when ill, injured or mentally burnt out?

Try out the idea of allowing rest and play time, but not making it bigger than that. You don’t need to create a story about why you got sick or injured and how you could have done better. I like the phrase, “No need to make it bigger than it is.” You can say this to yourself when you start to freak out about not feeling up to par. Yes, your body needs rest to heal. This doesn’t have to to mean anything more than that.

Illness can be metaphorical, and often is, but sometimes we hang on to the illusion that if we did everything perfectly, between nutrition and mental ecology, we would never get sick. This is untrue, and creates so much pressure. What does it cost you to accept that part of living in a body is not having total control?

Take care of yourself with kindness. No need to over indulge in binge like behaviors that mask as self-care. No need to make it into a big story. Just rest and move on when you are done.

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

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


Free to act, Free to Be, Free to take the ‘road not taken’ – Workshop 5/14 ~ Berkeley

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

Notice the moment before you engage in action (or speech). See if you can sense how your body prepares. What are the habitual gripping spots?

Then pause. In the pause, tell yourself that you are:

  1. Free to act,
  2. Free to just be,
  3. Or free to do something different.


Observe how you (whole self, body and mind unified), reorganize when there is no pressure.

Then make a fresh decision.

The pause is enhanced when you expand awareness to include both self and environment together.

There’s more specific body cuing in the Alexander Technique, but the mindfulness piece, the pause to stop habitual reaction, is what distinguishes the technique.

To learn more about this process, join me for an introduction to the Alexander Technique at Berkeley Rep this Sunday 5/14, 10 – 1pm $35. Bring your mom for Mother’s day!

Pillow Talk

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

Re: “I enjoyed reading your website and was wondering if you have any specific pillow recommendations for side and back sleeping?” Yes, I do, although my suggestion is on the, “It depends…” side, remembering that the Alexander Technique does not advocate perfect positions, it advocates helpful “Directions” to coordinate our movement.

There are a lot of schools of thought about sleeping positions, some erring on the side of really heavy propping, and others on the side of no propping, (e.g. Your Pillow is an Orthotic). As a rule of thumb, for side sleeping, if you are a pillow user, generally a large firm stack of pillows to build up the distance between your ear and shoulder is comfortable. Your head may be surprisingly high. There’s no virtue in less pillows (unless, less is more comfortable). For back sleeping, try a small firm pillow propped under the head & upper shoulders, and maybe a pillow under the knees. I also recommend sleeping half on your belly, half on your side with one knee bent, in “1/2 frog” with no pillows (illustration pending). I’ve seen some research that side sleeping is better for the brain and may even reduce risk of Alzheimer’s. So if side sleeping is comfortable for you, there’s no reason to try back sleeping. My personal preference is less propping/no pillows. My belief is that this encourages movement during the night so that I don’t feel stiff when I wake up. However, everyone is so different, what’s comfortable for me may not be the best practice for you.

Also, the state of your mind before sleep has a lot to do with how comfortably you sleep. Thinking through your Alexander Technique Directions in bed can be a good way of easing into restful slumber – pillow or no pillow. The directions are, “Allow my neck to be free, to allow my head to release forward and up, to allow my back to lengthen and widen.” I also recommend trying a  body scan meditation before bed.

As soon as I get done grading papers and have some time, I’ll flesh out this blog with illustrations to better answer your questions.

This is the sort of question that is best dealt with in person. If you’d like to come in for a lesson (assuming you are in the Bay Area), contact me. You can also look through the American Society of Alexander Technique Teacher’s directory to find a teacher near you.

ZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz! Sweet Dreams!

New study shows that reducing neck tension improves coordination


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

An elegant new study by Professor Ian Loram’s group in the UK demonstrates that stopping neck tension improves coordination of the whole body.

Participants used ultrasound biofeedback to monitor activity of neck muscles while playing violin – as well as other less complex tasks. Results showed that when participants reduced activation in the neck they spontaneously changed the movement of their whole body in ways that both increased efficiency and balance. These results support the main thesis of the Alexander Technique: Our necks exert a global controlling influence (for good or ill) on the quality of our movement. Results also showed that conscious monitoring of movement did not impair performance, a finding that conflicts with previous research, but supports F.M. Alexander’s thesis that conscious control of movement is desirable. Read the full study here: Proactive selective inhibition targeted at the neck muscles: this proximal constraint facilitates learning and regulates global control, Loram et al. 2016

Based on these results, try to reduce tension in your neck muscles and see if that improves your movement quality.

But how do you stop tension in the neck muscles without biofeedback?

The short answer is to send a message from your brain to your muscles to let go. I like to imagine that I have a dial labeled “Neck” in my brain that I can turn from high to low. The key is to use your imagination, or really your mind. This finely honed connection between thought and body reaction is something that students learn in Alexander lessons.

The longer answer is to:
(1) Stop whatever it is that you are doing (or thinking) that is causing the tension. Observe how the tension is related to a stimulus. Your tension is caused by the way you react – it is not who you are.
(2) Engage in the activity or thought that causes tension. Observe how you are tensing. A mirror or video camera would be useful. External feedback is necessary because our feelings our often not accurate.
(3) Once you know which parts of yourself might be overworking, you can more easily instruct those parts to calm down.

Calling your local Alexander Teacher might be a the fastest way of figuring this out in the absence of access to ultrasound biofeedback.

Alice’s Neck

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is The Active Ingredient

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is The Active Ingredient

Notice your solar plexus. That’s the soft area right between your ribs. It’s the place, where, if punched, knocks the wind out of you. The solar plexus is where your diaphragm, your principal breathing muscle, lives. Isadora Duncan (the famous innovator of modern dance) believed that the solar plexus initiated all movement and was the center of sensory awareness.

Solar Plexus

How does your solar plexus feel? Is it tense and tight? Jumpy? Or calm and relaxed? Whenever we have a fight/flight/freeze/feed/fornicate reaction the solar plexus (aka our breathing) gets involved. It’s fruitful to spend a few days, or a whole life time, simply checking in with the solar plexus, with no attempt to change conditions. Ask yourself, “How is my solar plexus responding to riding this bus, talking to my boss, giving this hug, walking in the rain?”

Notice that when the solar plexus is tight it draws the limbs inward towards it, like a magnet. The head, neck, throat, tongue and upper chest all get pulled down. The legs get drawn up. The arms get drawn in. You might feel like a turtle.

As you walk around, play with letting the solar plexus soften. A suggestion from Autogenic Training is “My solar plexus is warm and comfortable.” See if this lets your head, neck and spine grow upwards. You might feel like Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps you’ll notice your legs falling away from the middle of your body, and your arms expanding out from center. You might feel like a starfish.

An offering

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

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

Everyone likes to be seen, heard, and invited. This is the basic truth of the human animal. We are communal creatures and we thrive in the warmth of our friends and loved ones.

Can you offer the same warmth to yourself? In the Alexander Technique we use inner speech, or directions to optimize our movement. We become aware of tension, we pause to stop the tension and we give our “orders” – directional thoughts that bring the body into optimal alignment. But sometimes this process can bring up fear, shame, or resistance. Rather than simply noticing that our neck is not free, we feel bad about it, and then pile on the self recriminations for not practicing enough, or not being able to learn the technique fast enough.

I suggest a different approach.

Switch from awareness to listening. Listen to you bones and muscles and joints. Let them know you are ready to hear what they have to say. They might be shy from many years of neglect, or they might be quite talkative. Be prepared to listen to your body.

Similarly, see yourself the way you might view a friend, a child or an animal. Do the flaws fade when you acknowledge the person’s worth and effort? Can you give yourself credit? You have shown up, and you do a lot of work. Give yourself your fair due.

Invite your head to move freely on the top of your spine, your bones to dance and wiggle apart from each other. Invite your ribs to move freely with the breath, and your back to support back and up. Invite yourself into presence. You belong here! But if you and your parts can’t show up to the party, that’s just life. No need for anger or recriminations. Offer, and be ok with the the offer not being accepted this time around.

Building resilience with loving kindness meditation


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

The Buddhist practice of Metta (Loving Kindness) can nourish, strengthen and energize you during difficult times.

In the Alexander technique we use directional thoughts to expand and open the body (Neck to be free, to allow my head to move forward and up, to allow my back to lengthen and widen…etc). These directions can be viewed as a physical embodiment of the energy of Metta. I’ve written more about this here:


To practice Metta let your mind descend into your heart. Repeat the following four phrases to your self. Imagine radiating the messages from your heart through your whole body. Observe the physical manifestations of these thoughts. Allow the phrases to become personal. If an image or sense memory comes up go with that.

  • May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm (neck to be free)
  • May I be peaceful and happy (head floating up)
  • May I be healthy and strong (back lengthening and widening)
  • May I navigate the world with skill. May I take care of myself with skill. (Arms and Legs release away from torso)

Note that these phrases are wishes not affirmations. Insisting that you are safe in a dangerous world might bring up disbelief. If negative feelings are triggered, that’s also normal. You can either note the emotions and return to the phrases, or apply R.A.I.N. That is (R = recognize what is going on and name it. A = allow the emotions to be without amplifying or suppressing. I = investigate the story lines around the emotions. N = nurture your self and non-identify.)

It’s very beneficial to spend a long time practicing loving kindness directed towards your self – something our culture does not encourage. Self compassion is often confused with narcissism. You may also send the loving kindness energy to a mentor, a friend, an acquaintance and a difficult person (don’t start with your biggest enemy, choose someone who is mildly annoying at first), and then expand the loving kindness to all beings everywhere.

If you enjoyed the practices, some other names to look for are Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodrun and Tara Brach among many many others. Or, find an Alexander Technique teacher in your area, and experience what it’s like to move in the world with more energy, resilience and strength.

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


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.