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.

Relaxation – its many hues


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.





Why does 3-D breathing help back pain?

“For some reason, my lower back was giving me hell, and then I remembered the 3-D technique. I did that for a few minutes, and it’s really amazing how quickly it relieved my back pain.”

If your back pain is due to poor posture, freeing up the breath will automatically support better postural coordination in the torso. Breathing is a movement akin to an internal massage. Observing and expanding your breath will help the muscles of your belly, back, and chest loosen. Your spine will have room to expand.

If your back pain is due to ischemia, which is a lack of blood flow, deeper breathing will support the autonomic responses that increase blood flow to tissues.

If your back pain is caused by psychological or emotional triggers, slower, deeper breathing will circumvent stress reactivity, and help you get off the stress/pain feedback loop. By regulating the breath, you automatically regulate the physiological aspects of stress. Your heart rate will slow. Your blood pressure will drop.  The flow of adrenaline will dial down, and within moments or minutes, the agitated mind catches on to the calmer physiology.

Although this video is in French, the images need no translation. It’s easy to see how breathing is a 3D body experience.





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.

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.





What is the Alexander Technique?

“The Alexander Technique is more about reducing than increasing, more about subtraction than addition. It is a set of skills, and a strategy, for reducing or eliminating stress, strain, compression, pain, tension, pressure, worry, rigidity, anxiety, and smallness of mind and body. It has profound and positive emotional, psychological, and physical effects.” — Mark Josefsburg

For the complete article, The Alexander Technique-It Is What It Isn’t, visit Mark Josefsburg’s blog


If you’re not satisfied…


According to my Grandma:

“If you’re satisfied, it’s OK. But if you’re not satisfied, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone. Even I get out of my comfort zone. I eat with different people every day. I call different people.

Just take a little step. Take a baby step and try something different.”

Do one thing at a time



According to a recent New York Times book review, “The simplest definition of meditation is learning to do one thing at a time.”

My grandmother, Phyllis Punch, who’s a young 96, said as much to me this afternoon.

Simple wishes for ease

Thinking the following “Directions” developed by F.M. Alexander will help you find more ease and spinal length.

  1. Let me neck be free (smooth, long, soft)
  2. Let my jaw be free (space between back molars, lips soft)
  3. To let my head pivot forward and up (as if nodding yes)
  4. To let my spine lengthen and my back widen

Think the Directions versus trying to do them.

Think them in sequence. The startle pattern, which is our most usual source of unpleasant tension, begins in the neck. To melt a startle, you need to start by freeing the neck.

The word “let” is very important since it implies allowing and non-doing.

You don’t want to make an effort with your thought. Thinking too hard will cause you to tense involuntarily.