Letting go of the grip

Where thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman

Today, a student asked me if the Alexander Technique was a spiritual practice, if in effect, it was preparing us for death. My immediate response was that the Alexander Technique prepares us for life. But I also get where she’s going. The technique boils down to letting go of the anticipatory gripping that we all do, to a trust in the open-endedness of things. There’s very little that we can know for certain despite history, statistics and planning. If we have the trust, we can leave ourselves free to flow. But so often, and for so many rational reasons, we don’t have the trust. It seems more sensible to prepare for the worst by tensing.

Studies in attachment theory point to the ways that early life experiences set the script for how we respond in present time. Pain, injury and trauma etch changes in the brain leaving us reactive, hyper-sensitive and vigilant. Our past experiences combine with inherent error in human perception, and lead us to habitually over-estimate the force required for moving. On a day-to-day basis, we are all locked into the loop of habit, which saves time, reduces decision fatigue and makes life manageable. But how much are those habits limiting our freedom? How much bracing do we do?

I don’t trust in anything like a god, but I do have a certain trust in the energy that makes things grow, in life, and in our capacity for resilience. I usually boil it down to the brain and the nervous system or the network of roots and fungi in a forrest that communicate, to things that are both mysterious and measurable.

My student mentioned that it was a lot less energy to live without the grip, but that it took quite a lot of focus to get off clock time and land in the present. I added that it’s easy to get seduced by posture and body mechanics, but it’s remarkable how well the body works on it’s own when we stop hanging on.

 

Beating Anxiety With Self-Talk: A Cheat-Sheet, Guest Blog by Caitlin Margaret

Think back to the last time you were anxious.

Do you remember the conversation you were having with yourself before the anxiety hit?

Probably not. Most likely, you can only remember how you felt. The fear. The panic. The worry.

And that’s normal. We can get so overwhelmed by the feelings that anxiety brings on that we don’t pay any attention to what we’re saying to ourselves in the moment.

In an earlier post, we talked about the importance of tackling anxiety from every angle. And how we talk to ourselves is a big factor in that equation.

In this post, I want to help you identify your negative self-talk patterns and offer a proven way to help you flip that internal script around and lower your anxiety as a result. When you’re done reading, download your self-talk cheat sheet to beat anxiety and write your own personalized script.

Dealing with Anxiety: What were you thinking?

One of the biggest challenges for a lot of my clients is identifying the negative thoughts that race through their minds when they’re anxious.

Many of them are so used to their own self-abusive chatter—“What’s wrong with you?” “How are you going to screw this one up?”—that they’re not even aware of it or how it’s fueling their anxiety, making it next to impossible to manage.

Ask yourself this: In most situations, but especially stressful ones, do you tend to turn on yourself? Do you find yourself saying things like, “Ugh, What’s my problem?” or start making a mental list of  all the ways that you could fail?

That, my friends, is negative self-talk.

It’s the damaging thoughts to ourselves about ourselves. And these anti-pep talks feed anxiety.

But there are proven practices for overcoming these thought patterns, most notably, those derived from cognitive behavioral therapy and positive psychology

The primary principle of these practices is that our thoughts lead to our feelings. And those feelings lead to our behaviors.

Try this … close your eyes and say to yourself “I am stupid and ugly.”

How do you feel physically? Do you feel tightness in your chest? Or sick to your stomach? Do you feel small? Drained?

How about emotionally?

Do you feel a little beat up? Hopeless? Depressed?

What actions would you take if you were faced with a stressful situation right now? Would how you feel make you more likely to retreat or react defensively?

Now, close your eyes, and this time tell yourself, “I am beautiful on the inside and outside.”

Now how do you feel? Does your body feel lighter and more energized? Are you happier and less anxious? How would you handle that stressful situation now?

Thoughts drive feelings and actions … and anxiety

With the exception of some basic reflexes, our thoughts precede our feelings and actions, and influence both.

The thoughts we have are based on how we’re taught perceive our world. In any given situation, what we’re thinking about what’s happening is determined by the conclusions we’ve drawn from our experiences over the years.

These conclusions have been drawn mostly in our subconscious mind, so many times we’re not even aware of them. As a matter of fact, throughout the day our brain is acting on hundreds of unconscious thoughts before our conscious mind even catches on.

For example, an abused or neglected child will have significantly different thoughts about family life from a child raised with love and respect.

And his negative thoughts about his family—that he’s not loved or valued—will likely lead to feelings of anxiety or depression when he thinks about starting a family of his own.

But the person raised in a loving home will probably feel connected and appreciated when thoughts about family come up.

Constructive Self-talk Decreases Anxiety

So how do you fight back against your own negative thoughts when they’re often so deeply ingrained? Well, here’s the good news: Negative self-talk is just a habit. All thinking patterns are, really. And all habits can be broken.

You can start training your mind to overcome these thoughts by identifying each one and transforming it into a constructive, uplifting statement. This constructive self-talk becomes your new habit, replacing that old, broken record of your damaging inner dialog.

Now, keep in mind we’re using the word “constructive” here, and not “positive.” It can be hard to truly buy into “positivity” when you’re feeling down. This should be an authentic experience that rings true to you. You can’t fool yourself, after all.

Constructive self-talk isn’t about being constantly cheerful and ignoring reality. It just means that you actively choose to quiet that inner critic and replace it with empowering thoughts that are more based in reality.

So, how does it work? It’s all about neuroplasticity.

Each time you have a repeated experience, like your daily drive to work, you deepen the neural grooves in your brain that help you remember it. Eventually, you don’t even think about the ride anymore, you just automatically know how to get there.

Let’s say one day you start taking a new route. Now you’re creating new neural pathways to embed those directions in your brain. And the more those neurons fire and communicate, the stronger that neural pathway becomes. Pretty soon, driving that route is second nature.

Breaking negative thought patterns works the same way. If, instead of telling yourself you’re going to bomb before a presentation, you remind yourself that you’re qualified to speak on the topic and providing value to your audience, you’ll soon be more inclined to approach the podium with more confidence.

This neuroplasticity allows for the reprogramming of our brains  to naturally gravitate to more compassionate self-talk over time.

And research shows constructive self-talk can boost your confidence and greatly reduce your stress levels and anxiety.

And the benefits don’t end there. Change your negative thought patterns and you’ll also see:

  • A longer, healthier life
  • Lower rates of depression
  • Lower levels of distress
  • Less colds
  • Increased psychological and physical well-being
  • Improved cardiovascular health

It takes three to four weeks of daily practice to form a new habit to get your brain to make the switch over to more constructive thought patterns. I want to help you take the first step.

The cheat sheet I’ve shared here takes you through the exact process that has helped hundreds of my clients turn their negative thoughts on their head to create loving and constructive self-talk and overcoming their anxiety once and for all.

Once you’ve created your personalized script, habit-ize it baby! Ingrain that sucker. Keep it with you throughout the day. Put a copy in your wallet. Write it on a post-it and stick it on your mirror. Record it on your phone.

Then read it at least three times a day. Listen to it on your way to work. Let it be your support when you’re faced with a stressful situation.

The more you repeat it, the more you’ll deepen those shiny new neural grooves in your brain. Until one day your brain is teaming with constructive statements, and there’s no room left for anxiety—which will lead to a big boost in confidence.

Download your cheatsheet now!

About the author:
Caitlin Margaret is a Holistic Life Coach, empowering men and women around the world to naturally heal their anxiety, turn their professional dreams into reality, and design vibrant and meaningful lives

Speaking from the Bones

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredient, by Elyse Shafarman, MA, Certified Alexander Technique Teacher

I wrote this for one of my MFA Acting students, but I think it’s relevant for all of us:

Speaking from the Bones

Before speaking, pause for a moment. Allow your chest and belly to soften, and find the support of your bones. If sitting, you could move in the chair a bit to feel your sit bones. If standing become aware of the skin contact of your feet with the floor. Try and get balanced evenly between both sit bones, or evenly between heel and toe and both feet. If standing let your knee (on the dominant leg) soften inward. If the knees lock out this will cut of your support from the floor, but it’s mostly the dominant knee that needs a little inward softening. It might feel knock-need.

Remind yourself that the resonance in your voice comes from your bones, not the muscles of your throat, and direct your neck to be easy, your head to float. Trust that the sound vibrations will resonate in the bones of your face and the throat and chest and shoulders can stay loose.

Even a little pause here and there will help maintain your energy and freedom

Rise Up

Compressing yourself in sympathy for the pain in the world does not help anyone. While ebullience might be socially inappropriate, a public show of sympathetic tension only saps your own energy. You are needed, to compassionately hold presence and act. This takes immense resources.

Yes, empathetic physical tension may be innate. We do feel others pain in our own body. We wince and flinch in response to onscreen punches. We cry when we hear about Michael Brown, Puerto Rico, Vegas, Napa and on. We practitioners feel our student’s sore knees and aching shoulders, but how much we continue to take on our own shoulders is a choice.

I’m feeling quite hopeless about the world but this does not mean that I am collapsing.

Thoughts about the Alexander technique. Thoughts about social and environmental justice. Thoughts about the meaning of compassion.

 

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

Helping people help each other

Ok, that was cool.

I just taught a couple the most simple ways that they could put non-doing hands on each other, to help ease back pain and stress during an upcoming trip overseas. My client has been healing a pretty serious back injury and was very nervous about the stress of travel, so we discussed ways her partner might help her.

On the one hand, Alexander Technique Teachers train for many years to have a special quality of directed touch that communicates coordination and ease. On the other hand, we all intuitively know how to put hands on in a gentle, calm, nourishing way. Adding the non-invasive quality of non-doing creates a little refreshing breeze that can exist in the charged space between two bodies. Non-doing touch is a little bit of equanimity. I am only responsible for my journey, even though, right now, I am here with you. You are only responsible for your journey and choices, even though right now, you are here with me. And all the space between us, and around us, and so on

Body Project Blog ~ Where Thought is the Active Ingredien

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Facebook is Selfing. Zen is No Self.

Wind Caves

Some thoughts on my return from Tassajara Zen Mountain Retreat. I was only at Tassajara for 3 days, but I stayed off Facebook from May 29th through today – June 24, a record for me who has posted daily updates since 2008.’

Without Facebook I felt the portals of my mind close. Remember Being John Malkovich? I was no longer leaping into other people’s heads, and even better, no one was leaping in to mine. It felt peaceful. Stable. Secure

My second day at Tassajara, hiking up to the Wind Caves, which are just that, caves sculpted by wind, through the richly scented chaparral and explosions of wildflowers, cresting the peak and looking west towards a hidden Pacific, I felt that melty feeling in the chest when the heart opens. All the anger, heat and constriction that I’ve been carrying for over a year, since the last election cycle, left, as did the pain of months of disciplined work, and the growing pile of interpersonal frustrations, regretted words and mistakes. All the disasters of birth, biology, society and history, for a brief moment, let up. What did the butterfly care? The wings in my chest spread. I breathed in the bright sky, the heat and the cool purple shadows of caves. I didn’t want to return – ever.

 

What does the butterfly care?

What happened on this Zen retreat? Nothing. I ate a lot. I wouldn’t ordinarily pair gastronomical excess with Buddhism, but Tassajara, which runs Greens Restaurant, has a long tradition of baking bread and gourmet vegetarian food. I ate everything with the desperation of lack. I thought, “When will I ever eat this well again? Yes! Please! I’ll have seconds.” My single-person cooking is limited to a routine of farmer’s market salads, steamed vegetables, lemon juice, tempeh, sweet potatoes and the like. But Tassajara is old-school vegetarian fare – their famous fresh baked breads, with no stinting on cheese, herbs or olive oil.

I hiked. I soaked forever in the hot springs. I took advantage of their complimentary supply of EO Lavender and Citrus Honey body lotions and shampoos. I jumped into the river. I cooled my head in the waterfall. I utilized the yoga room. While hiking, I ran into a well-known local author and tango dancer, and was invited back to a life of teetering heels and the mystique of suffering, desire and connection. I still haven’t managed to shake off the deep stillness of Tassajara, I can’t yet emerge from summer hibernation.

Three weeks of introvert recovery after 9 months of intensely peopled work. Pulling myself out of the cave hurts. Light is too bright. My still cool apartment, with its endless list of tiny and fascinating projects – pounding pesto with a mortar and pestle! – envelopes.

During these weeks, I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of the New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Lost Child. I read with fury, and annoyance. Without social media, there was no one but the reviewers from the New Yorker to compare opinions about this cast of beautifully rendered but unlikable characters. I made pasta and cooked with olive oil. I pretended I was Italian.

This time off Facebook has returned concentration. But without Facebook, I discovered that I have less motivation to write. Ideas remain locked inside my head, such as, the fascinating elbow injury that points out years of misconception, or the familiar pain of error, countered by the willful enthusiasm of my fool self. There’s no way of steering clear of trouble. Skillful action always seems like someone else’s good idea.

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

I jotted down a few notes from Tassajara:

Since the Self is multifaceted, how can we know ourselves? How can we judge others when we can never fully understand our own motivations?

(and yet, back in San Francisco, plugged back in to the news cycle, things are not so Zen. I no longer understand what it means to not judge)

Facebook is Selfing. Zen is No Self.

(but now that I am back in my life, I also see the benefits of Facebook – input, connection, community, albeit ethereal).

So much energy is expended trying to control what is uncontrollable. There’s relaxation when we accept that which we can’t control.

(but now that I am home, I wonder how this relaxation is paired with action for change)

Transform anger and powerlessness into the positive energy of participation

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

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

Ordinarily I don’t share my political views on my professional page. The healing touch of Alexander Technique is for everyone regardless of political affiliations. That said, many of my clients are traumatized, angry and fearful months after the elections. A recent article on PBS’s news hour attests that these anxious emotions are so widespread they’ve been dubbed “Post Election Stress Disorder.”

I have two remedies to suggest. The first is to prioritize self care. Unplug, get out in nature, move your body, cook a nice meal, play music, hug a friend, gaze at the sky. Give yourself permission to rest.  Consciously cultivate gratitude for everything that is not wrong.

Then, once you are recharged chose one small achievable political action that you can take. It will help you to transform anger and powerlessness into the positive energy of participation. There is even positive psychology research to back this up.

If you like to write, write letters to your congresspeople. Their addresses are a simple google search away. If you find making calls expedient, get the free Five Calls App. According to Michael Moore, contacting your representatives matters even if you live in a blue state. If you have more time and energy read the Indivisible Guide and then participate in face-to-face activism.

If you have less time and energy to participate, redirect some of your spending habits and give more money. For example, I quit drinking a daily Kombucha ($4/bottle), and donated my projected savings to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others.

As Obama reminded us, local actions matter, whether it’s formal volunteering, subscribing to a green power plan, or simply being kind to the people around you. Whatever you decide you can do, it will matter. If all of us do something, we have a movement.

But remember, all of this action will best serve the world if it stems from awareness and self care. You will not be effective if you are seething with anger and stumbling from stress. So remember, it’s OK to take some time to breathe and catch up with your life. Let your neck be free and then play your part.

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.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celiac_plexus_coronal.png

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.http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/creating-literary-analysis/s05-01-literary-snapshot-alice-s-adve.html

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.

Building resilience with loving kindness meditation

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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:

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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.

Relaxation – its many hues

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

After writing, “Releasing Tension is like Swatting Flies, There are Always More,” my friend DW and I had this conversation:

DW: The analogy that comes to my mind is flossing. There is always more gunk to clean out from between your teeth. What I’m taking from you, is that like flossing, for relaxation, there are tools and techniques that will be more productive. Am I getting that right?

ES: Sort of. In general, flossing, even bad flossing is vastly better than no flossing. In contrast, trying to relax doesn’t work. It’s not the right solution. Or, at least, it doesn’t work if your goal is to have relaxation in action, which includes improved coordination, breathing and a calm mind. What I see when most people “relax” is a collapse, and then when alertness is required, an immediate return to tension. Or, they get tense in the effort to relax, because learning to let go is a skill.

Perhaps this is a call to define relaxation from the Alexander Technique perspective. I aim for coordinated movement that feels “relaxed” because the body is supported and the breath is free. Muscle tension (the gunk, the flies) doesn’t come back, if you learn to change the way you move.

DW: “Trying to relax doesn’t work.” WHOA. Mind blowing idea. This is really important information for me as for most of my life people have been telling me things like, “Learn to relax,” or “Why can’t you relax?” or, “Relax your jaw” or “Try to release all that tension off yours shoulders”, etc. etc.

ES: Exactly! And how has trying to relax worked for you?

The closest we get to relaxing muscle in the Alexander Technique is the idea of not doing something. If your jaw is tense you could do a little less of the action that is causing the tension, (e.g. don’t clench). Not doing something has a slightly different hue than trying to relax. “Doing a little less” is a helpful tool, but it doesn’t work well unless you consider the jaw in relation to the whole body. Can you release your jaw if your neck is jutted forward? Not easily. All the parts counterbalance each other. I’m tempted to make the analogy to spot reduction in weight loss. It doesn’t really work.

Yet, there are many enjoyable and scientifically tested relaxation methods – Biofeedback, Autogenic Training, Progressive Relaxation, etc. Here, you lie down (or rest in a chair) with your eyes closed and your body supported. You may be instructed to imagine heaviness, warmth or a safe place. Breath deepens, blood pressure drops and muscles unravel. Brain waves slow from Beta to Alpha to Theta as you fall into a trance. The stomach rumbles, signifying that the “rest and digest” mode of parasympathetic nervous system activation has begun. Deep relaxation is a like shutting down a stalled computer. You unplug, and when you restart, operations are smooth again.

I’ve used relaxation methods to recover from stressful emotional events, reduce the harm of insomnia, and even minimize muscle pain and fatigue from weight training. But my question as an Alexander Teacher is, “Do these methods improve performance?” Will you learn how to sit at your computer without pain, or play violin without a tense neck, or open your throat when singing? It’s unlikely that relaxation methods will teach you to relax in action, unless you are working with someone like a Sports Psychologist (or a Certified Alexander Teacher – excuse the industry plug), who can help you make that leap.

FM Alexander, who was working at a time when Mesmerism was still popular, took pains to differentiate his work from trance states. But, nothing in the body is totally black and white. Regular relaxation practice can lower stress reactivity – via the brain stem system that regulates arousal levels, known as the Recticular Activitating System. One student of mind, a frequent “deep relaxer” commented enthusiastically that it got her “rev” down and was a necessary part of her self-care routine as a middle school teacher. I’ve seen acting students who were unable to let go using Alexander’s conscious methods perform with fluid ease after Guided Imagery.

In the Alexander Technique, we have our own version of a relaxation practice. It’s called Semi-Supine, or The Lie Down. Sometimes we borrow the language from Mabel Todd’s motor imagery work (Ideokenisis) and call our practice Constructive Rest. As a community, we argue that our method is vastly different from relaxation – you practice the Lie Down with open eyes and an alert mind. Our goal is coordination and fresh energy. Relaxation is just a side effect. But I’m not sure that the difference is so clear to the person lying down. If you took measurements, you’d probably find all the markers of relaxation – better vagal tone, lower levels of salivary cortisol, decreased muscle activation. On the other hand, the psychological experience is different – if you focus on energy and alertness in an Alexander Technique Lie Down, you won’t go into a trance. But how many of our teachers and students are disciplined enough to prevent the trance? I confess, sometimes I let my students close their eyes and slip down the rabbit hole of relaxation. Sometimes it feels most appropriate for their well being to let go of everything, including the conscious mind. I recognize that when I allow this, I am not practicing the Alexander Technique as conceived by FM.

Want to try a relaxation method? Here are some resources:

Or try “Constructive Rest” with your local Alexander Technique Teacher, where you will also learn how to “relax” in activity.