So why not let your head float up like a balloon?

As a side note, I am reviewing ideo-kinesis as I prep to teach Somatics at SFSU. How I love using imagery in teaching Alexander’s directions, instead of the dry, classic format: “Let the neck be free, in order to let the head go forward and up, etc.”. I have such a well of bitterness for being told that using images is not valid because they are not real, as if the words, “Head forward and up,” correspond to something with a fixed reality, as if the brain contacts the body by naming each muscle and bone.

FM Alexander’s observations about human functioning are mirrored across the world and across time. Perhaps he put things together in a unique way, but the core of the teachings, awareness, emptiness, letting go and not believing all your thoughts, might be called Buddhism. .

So why not let your head float up like a balloon?

Two final notes unrelated to imagery, but related to Buddhism:
1) A friend commented that she calls Alexander Technique, “Physiological Buddhism.” It sounds fancy.
2) Alexander Teacher hands can feel like the embodiment of compassion.

We all live in a body. It pays to be aware of this.

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

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

Reading the first round of student homework from the University Somatics Course I am co-teaching, was a great example of the multiple positive results from simply being aware of living in a body.

Students chose to practice a body scan meditation, a walking meditation, or a Feldenkrais exercise five days in a row. After a week, student comments included feeling as if they had given their whole body a massage with the mind, noticing less joint cracking while walking, walking taller and lighter, becoming aware of a habit of walking with the head down (smart phone), becoming aware of how many sounds they unconsciously blocked out, linking pain to body use or emotions, gaining some control over mind wandering, feeling more in touch with nature if they practiced outside, feeling an increase in heat and blood flow to injured body areas, and feeling grateful for the opportunity to get in touch with their bodies on a daily basis. It’s worth noting that not every practice session ran smoothly, but they did practice every day — or so they reported ;).

Also a good reminder to me not to complicate experience with theory. There’s so much to light up the mind – from neuroscience to the latest theories of trauma, from a century of Western somatics to 5,00 years of Eastern practices – but the most important element, regardless of modality, is awareness.

The key ingredients seem to be setting aside time to be aware, and then reflecting.


3 Upcoming Alexander Technique Classes

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is The Active Ingredient

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is The Active Ingredient

HH 450 Somatic Education & Holistic Health
with Elyse Shafarman & Cliff Smyth
Thursdays 4:10–6:55 pm · 1/23 – 5/18
Gymnasium 114
San Francisco State University
1900 Holloway Ave, San Francisco, CA 94132

Survey of somatic traditions such as Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Aikido, Biogenetics, Hakomi, Reflexology, Rolfing, Trager and yoga therapy. History, philosophy, and sensory awareness methods of Somatics, from a self-care education approach.

Alexander Technique for Mind Body Balance
with Elyse Shafarman
Wednesdays 7–9pm · 2/15 – 3/15 · $150
Berkeley Rep School of Theatre
2025 Addison St, Berkeley CA 94704
Register Online, or email the registrar:

Alexander Technique is a time-honored method used by actors to improve posture, breath, and movement. Effective movement liberates your acting skills and enriches your life. As you stop responding to the world in a habitual manner, new avenues of physical ease and creativity open up. Discover the Alexander Technique for body-mind balance. Let your body’s physical genius emerge! Open to all levels ·

Free your Voice & Free your Neck
with Elyse Shafarman
Sunday 1–2pm · 2/1915 · $35 earlybird by Feb 18 or $40 drop-in
Giggling Lotus Yoga
2325 3rd Street, Studio 318
San Francisco CA 94701

Discover how the Alexander Technique can free your voice and take your asana practice from effort to ease. Alexander Technique, sometimes called “the actors’ secret” is a time-honored method for developing vocal power and physical poise.

Together we will:

Identify psychological triggers and accompanying tension reactions
Learn anatomical keys for vocal support
Practice a reliable method for transforming tension habits
Open the throat, use the bones as resonators and breathe
Experience instant relief from Alexander Technique hands-on guidance

This workshop is appropriate for yoga teachers and anyone wishing to develop presence, ease and power as a communicator

Watch for upcoming classes:

  • Yoga and Alexander Technique (currently offering private sessions)
  • The Singing Body – Embodied Voice and Alexander Technique with Francesca Genco


Let there be love

The spine moves.
The head is part of the body.
Let the soft animal of the body love what it loves. (…wait, that’s Mary Oliver)
Let there be love (…wait, that’s a play I just saw by Kwei-Armah)
Be (…some dude named Buddha had something to say about that).

These were my thoughts after an epic Reiki session from my friend Jordana del Feld

For a brief amount of time, I dabbled in Reiki. Reiki seemed like the Alexander Technique, minus the technique. Reiki does not demand 3 years of daily training to certify as a teacher. Reiki is not concerned with movement. And Reiki does not teach people a reliable means for changing habits.

But it does offer energy flow without any ego manipulation. Isn’t that the essence of Alexander’s and the Tao’s principal of non-doing?

Everyone intuitively knows about flow state. We’ve all been lucky enough to have fleeting experiences of effortless action. But we forget that flow is our birthright. We forget that it is always available—if we get out of the way.

When I put my hands on my students, I don’t intend to ‘do’ anything to them. I am helping them learn how they can prevent pain, constriction and heaviness. How does this work? I think students get the hallmark Alexander Technique sensations of lightness and ease through resonance. That is, if I am sufficiently free, my flow will be catchy and they will catch the current of their own flow.

Still, I need my students to do more than to catch my flow. During the the lesson, they’re moving: sitting, walking, or reciting Hamlet. I’m an educator, not a therapist. I’m giving my students the means to find freedom without my help. So I ask them to imagine space here and to notice a habit there, to become conscious of the intersection between thoughts, emotions and body states, and to direct energy. I teach them techniques that they can practice on their own. The trick is to spark their awareness enough that the body transforms, but not so much that they are micro-managing alignment details.

Sometimes I think that technique is a ruse. All that’s needed is to let every opinion about bio-mechanics, habit, gravity and direction dissolve into the bliss of dancing molecules and love. There’s no need to reach for knowledge. Effortless (but not passive) absorption is effective and valid. Experience has taught me that our bones know what to do. It’s our personality (composed of our habit and ego), that forces them into uncomfortable configurations.

The Alexander Technique works indirectly to release energy flow in action. Students learn techniques to recognize and prevent limiting habits, and thus get out of the way of their own life force.  But the root of transformation is compassion, connection and love. Out of this, positive change is self-generating, the way a seed germinates and eventually reaches for the sun.

Poet Galway Kinnell said it best, Saint Francis and the Sow

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

Amoeba Party – a.k.a. Actor Grad School

Lie on the floor and pretend you are a single cell. Roll, flow, seek and react with your entire cell membrane. Remember you have no bones, no eyes, no brain and no parts. You are one.

We usually introduce the amoeba exercise* to our acting M.F.A. students in their second semester. They’ve had five months of Alexander Technique. They understand the central concepts of inhibition, direction, primary control, the force of habit and faulty sensory perception. They can locate their atlanto-occipital joint and they know the fundamentals of skeletal anatomy. They are aware of when they are using themselves with habitual tension and they know how to redirect their energy to find more ease. But all of this knowledge can make students a little stilted, and a little too intellectual.

In contrast, wholeness within a fluid morphology is our reality. Fluidity is easier to grasp when we remember that muscle tension is maintained by habit, not by a property of the muscles. Our bones float suspended in a web of connective tissues, and the connective tissues themselves change from a solid state to a gel, depending on force and heat.  Like taffy, if you pull sharply on connective tissue it will harden and snap, but if you warm it and work it with smooth broad pressure it will stretch. Your nose is connective tissue. So is your Achilles tendon. So is much of the rest of you.

Although we have heads and tails, eyes and brains, bones and nerves, mouths and anuses, we are still much more liquid and continuous than we might imagine. What happens in your big toe just might affect your shoulder.

The amoeba, as it turns out, is a good metaphor for embodying fluidity and wholeness. And it doesn’t hurt that amoebas have no brains.

*I learned the Amoeba exercise from my teacher Frank Ottiwell.


Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.








Inspiring Podcasts about Movement & Health

2014 has been marked by learning, study and inspiration, all stimulated by the discovery of The Liberated Body Podcast. Host Brooke Thomas is the Terry Gross of the Podcast world. Through Brooke, I have been introduced to a world-wide community of somatic researchers. Thank you Brooke!

A few high points include:

  • Interviews with Tim Anderson and Geoff Neupert, founders of “Original Strength.” Their thesis is the same as F.M. Alexander’s: “If we master head control, then we master balance, posture, and coordination.” You might find yourself rolling on the floor like an infant after listening to them!
  • The discovery of Matthew Remski’s WAWADIA project (a.k.a. What Are We Really Doing in Asana). This is a must for anyone who has ever questioned alignment cues in yoga.

Then there is Jules Mitchell’s scientific investigation of stretching, Katy Bowman’s examination of the effects of mechanical force on cellular health, and Gary Ward’s expertise with walking. There are just too many interesting interviews to describe. You’ll have to check them out for yourself.

One caveat: not everyone interviewed has a firm foothold in science, let alone critical thinking. A particularly painful example of credulity is the interview with Carolyn McMakin, titled, The Resonance of Repair.

If you, like me, quickly burned through all of the Liberated Body, you might also like:

  • Yoga and Beyond, with Ariana Rabinovitch – very similar to the Liberated Body, but obviously, with more emphasis on yoga.
  • Move Smart Podcast Although this podcast is oriented towards guys, with many interviews devoted to male-dominated concerns such as body building, there’s still plenty of good information for anyone who loves intelligent movement. You might start in the middle with episode 013, an interview with circus artist Lewie West titled,  “Never Waste an Injury.”
  • Katy Says – interviews with popular Biomechanist Katy Bowman. Although the patter between host and guest can be grating, the podcast offers many tips for bringing a more varied diet of movement (versus exercise) into our lives.
  • When I get tired of thinking about bodies, I turn to Ginger Campbell’s technically intricate Brain Science Podcast.
  • When I need guidance on how to live with less stress, pain and negativity, I tune into psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach.
  • When I need my mind blown open, I listen to Buddhist teacher Reginald Ray.
  • I would be remiss if I failed to plug the one and only podcast devoted to the incredible Alexander Technique! Check out the Body Learning Podcast.

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.


Yes We Can Sit – Comfortably on hard marble floors

Alexander Technique on the Left, Feldenkrais on the Right, yoga all around

Alexander Technique on the Left, Feldenkrais on the Right, yoga all around

Last Thursday I ventured out the the Asian Art Museum in SF to meet some friends. I didn’t know that I was going to spend an hour sitting on cold marble floors chanting, “Om Namah Shivaya.”

Luckily, I have the Alexander Technique up my sleeve. In other words, I have the secret power to make myself comfortable in any situation. My friend to my left is a Feldenkrais practitioner. He’s also sitting easily. Somatic disciplines, like the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais give you the skills to be aligned and relaxed whenever you want. All you have to do is think about it.

And yes, despite the cold, the Asian Art Museum – housed in a gorgeous Beaux Arts style building that was once the SF Main Library – is one of the best places to practice Alexander Technique in the City.

For added fun, try imitating/embodying the statues


More Alexander Technique Book Recommendations

1. For a modern take on the Alexander Technique, try: How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live: Learning the Alexander Technique to Explore Your Mind-Body Connection and Achieve Self-Mastery Paperback.  Vineyard speculates on the neuroscience behind the Alexander Technique and includes a series of case studies and short vignettes about her own experiences learning the technique.

2. You could go back to the source and read: The Use of the Self   With editing help from John Dewey, this is widely regarded as F.M. Alexander’s most readable book.

Outside the Alexander Technique cannon, you might like:

Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health. Hanna outlines the research linking stress and poor posture and describes how somatic awareness can restore vitality and agility at any age.

Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger is the classic on trauma in the body.

Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers is the most entertaining and best-researched book on Stress and Health.

Athough I’ve offered Amazon links so that you can read about the books, many of these books will be available through your library, and any of them through Link+

More book recommendations elsewhere on my blog:

What to read if you are new to the Alexander Technique

Anatomy books