Quick body awareness refresher

Distracted? Worried? Bored? Noticing body sensations and adding helpful directions is an easy way to coax yourself into better postural habits and an easy way to come back to the present moment.

From time to time during the day, ask yourself these questions:

What am I doing with my shoulders?

  • Am I scrunching?
  • Can I do a little less?
  • What happens if I imagine my shoulder muscles melting like butter in a pan?
  • What happens if I imagine the collar bones like two arrows pointing apart?

How am I standing on my feet?

  • How does standing change if I pay attention to the soles of my feet?
  • How does my breath change when I consciously relax my feet?
  • Can I sense the distance between my feet and the top of my head?

You might find yourself subtly expanding upward just by noticing the distance between your feet and head.


Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.




Practice tip: improve breathing and relax

Practice a long whispered “Ahhh” sound. The most important part is to relax and wait for the body to breathe in on its own.

On the exhale, think about softening the neck and jaw. Imagine the spine and head lengthening up to the sky on the exhale.

It helps to smile gently with your eyes.

You can practice standing or sitting, but lying on the floor in constructive rest is the easiest.

Practice 3 to 5 whispered “Ahhhs”— or whatever syllable feels good— and then watch your natural breath.

Repeat as many times as you like.


Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

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.

Inverted pendulum

We lean back as a culture. To compensate, we stick our necks out and push our hips forward. The stance is both physical and metaphorical. This posture reads as cool and relaxed, but the cost is low back pain (including sciatica), and irksome neck and shoulder tension.

I wrote these exercises down for a student who leans back. I thought you might also find them useful. They are inspired by Feldenkrais (who was also was inspired by Alexander).

These experiments will help you feel what your habitual movement patterns are. They will also help you move with better coordination and balance. You can do the whole series, or incorporate a little bit into your gym routine, or other daily activities.

1. Stand on both feet and sway side to side. Pay attention to the shifting contact across the feet, then the movements in the hips, and then the chest. Notice which parts of your body move easily, and which parts take effort. Maybe the hips are moving like a hula dancer. That’s OK for loosening up and breathing, but to enhance coordination and balance, you want to move from the top of the head. To do this, bring attention to the top of your head. Imagine moving your whole body from your crown, swaying at the ankle joints, like an inverted pendulum.

2. Try the same exercise forward and backwards.

3. Circle in both directions.

4. Do the same exercise but stand on one leg, using the other one as a “kickstand” to help keep balance.

5. Then practice walking leading the movement from the top of the head. To aid this sensation, you can pull a little bit on the hair on top of your head. The crown should project upwards as though you had eyes on the top of your head and were looking at the ceiling. Notice that if you typically hold your chin up, projecting the top of your head upwards might feel like you are looking down.

You can try the same sequence getting out of a chair.

1. Rock forward and back from the hip joints. Notice where you feel some effort. Like a lever, the farther away from the base that you generate movement, the easier the movement will feel. You might find that it feels hard to move the torso forward and backwards near the hip joint, but feels effortless if you move from the top of the head.

2. Rock side to side.

3. Circle in both directions

4. Try standing up leading from the top of the head. You will know you are on the right track if you can stand without pushing hard with your legs. It might feel effortless.

Here’s a caveat: never hold your body into a position (even one that seems like a good idea). Holding just causes more discomfort. Even the helpful idea of leading from the crown of the head should not be “done.”  It’s just a thought. It’s just a wish — a whisper of an intention to go somewhere in space.

In general, as you go about your life activities, you will move more efficiently if the top of the head is projecting upwards. This should correct the tendency to lean back and push the hips forward when walking and standing. If the head is balanced, the torso and legs will be inclined to hang like a plumb line. Your might feel like one big inverted pendulum.

Here a final note: I promised myself I would never write this sort of “how to” post. The Alexander Technique is not a series of exercises. But after doing the work to write this out for a student, I thought I might as well post it in my blog. Credit to FM Alexander for the theory and Moshe Feldenkrais for the practice.

Postscript: Six months after writing this, I came across a 2002, NY times article, Improving the Way Humans Walk the Walk that supports the inverted pendulum metaphor.


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?

Seattle Space Needle Head

space-needle-720742_640The Seattle Space Needle* with it’s 360 degree wall of floor to ceiling windows and rotating restaurant bar, is a fun image to use to release your head upwards.

Without the jaw, the head, or skull to be more precise, looks a bit like the top of the Space Needle.

It helps to know that the roof of your mouth is the base of your skull.  Everything above the roof of your mouth floats up away from your neck vertebrae.

To find your 360 wall of windows, use your finger tips and trace all the way around the rim of your skull. Start at the back, the (occiput), and walk your fingers over your ears and cheekbones all the way around to your nose.

Try turning your head as though it were the top of Space Needle. Does it free something if you imagine that you have a 360 wall of windows all the way around your head?

I like to imagine myself having a fancy cocktail as I look out at the view from inside my head.

*Credit for this image goes to my colleague Kari Prindl – although I may have elaborated a bit!





The Angry Rant

Quick protocol for stopping “The Angry Rant”.

You know what I’m talking around. You walk around rehearsing the most brilliant ways to take down your enemy. One hundred times a day, you demolish their stance with a few cutting words that reveal just how bogus and unjust they really are!!! Your body is energized as though you are preparing to attack, and indeed, you are!

Do you really want to pump all that cortisol into your blood stream? Do you really need to keep reworking the same material? Is the situation even happening in present time? Have the last hundred times you’ve replayed the argument helped resolve anything?

I’m guessing the answer is no.

I worked with an Alexander Technique student to develop a quick protocol to curtail the ranting habit.

  1. When you notice yourself ranting, ask yourself what you feel in your body.
    Alexander Technique Student: “I’m tensing my jaw and shoulders a lot.”
    The moment you notice you have the chance to make a difference.
  2. Give yourself the wish, “Let me neck relax.”
    Student: “I wish my neck to be quiet. I wish my neck to relax.”
    Neck muscles are the first muscles to tense in response to stress. Reversing the stress reaction starts with relaxing the neck.
  3. See something in the room and describe it to your self.
    Student: “I am looking at the square pattern in the curtain and the way the light moves through the fabric.”
    Focusing on something external is an effective way to bring your mind back into the room and real time.
  4. Ask yourself whether you want to be ranting.
    Student: “Do I need to be thinking about this right now? This situation isn’t happening right now.”

The more you practice, the easier you will find it to stop obsessive angry thoughts. Of course, you are always free to indulge in a rant. But now, that is your choice.

In summary:

1. When you notice yourself ranting, ask yourself what you feel in your body.
2. Give yourself the wish, “Let me neck relax.”
3. See something in the room and describe it to your self.
4. Ask yourself whether you want to be ranting.

Several years ago I went on a silent meditation retreat on the heels of a messy breakup. Spending 14 hours a day constructing arguments with my ex-was far more compelling than following my breath. I explained my predicament to one of the teachers. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, he looked straight in my eyes as he passed his hand through the air and said, “This isn’t happening right now.” With that one gesture, I understood that the only place in the entire world that the situation existed was in my mind. And, more importantly, I did not need to keep the situation alive by thinking about it.





On thinking versus feeling

Alexander Technique students get really hung up trying to make their necks feel free. Then the teacher rather unhelpfully says, “Think don’t feel,” which can be quite confusing for someone who is already quite out of touch with his body, and is taking lessons to gain body awareness.

The point is to feel exactly what you feel. To know it clearly. That’s quite different then trying to make yourself feel something. Your neck might feel tense. That’s the temporary reality to know clearly. And your tool is the thought, “Let my neck be free.” Eventually, with practice, that thought causes the neck muscles to ease up. Then you get the sensation of freedom. In that order. You can’t get to the sensation of freedom by trying to feel free.

Of course, the paradox is that sometimes you can, but not reliably.

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.

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.