Half the World is Behind You

Do you find yourself sticking your neck forward and crunching your shoulders in concentration? These are common reading, texting, and speaking habits. Our need to focus to extract meaning, or to see, hear and speak drive us to push our faces forward. The urgency of social communication can undermine our natural capacity for ease. This is a common problem for my actor students who have the challenge of broadcasting emotion to the back row without sacrificing authenticity. Luckily, there is a simple solution that does not involve advanced postural cuing, hands on work from an Alexander Technique teacher, or expensive equipment. You can try it right now.

Expand your awareness to include the space behind you. Sometimes it’s helpful to actually turn around and look behind you, and then turn back and imagine you are seeing out through the back of your head, or the skin of your back. This requires a little imagination. Do you recall that feeling of knowing someone is looking at you even though they are behind you? How do we know? I don’t have the answer to this, but we can make use of our ability to extend perception to balance our use. “Use” is F.M. Alexander’s term for the way we habitually organize our movement in response to all the stimuli of life. What does it feel like to extend your awareness backwards?

Then, if you are an actor, take out some text, or a script you are learning. If your are not an actor, your phone is probably your biggest stimulus to focus forward and contract your attention. Do you feel an immediate impulse to push your neck forward? Are you holding your breath? Again, expand your attention to the space behind you. Rest a bit, and try your task again. Toggle between expanding awareness backwards, and focusing attention forward. Only practice 2-minutes, and then let it go. Otherwise, you won’t be able to get anything done. Directing attention takes a lot of cognitive resources at first! See if this short amount of practice leaves you with the spontaneous ability to broaden your awareness and breathe throughout the day.

It’s pleasant to practice expanding your field of attention outdoors while walking or exercising. It’s challenging but good to practice expanding awareness back during a conversation with someone. The heat of communicating, the need to be heard, liked, or to make your point, is often the biggest stimulus to push your head forward.

I learned this exercise from my teacher Frank Ottiwell. I had the privilege of assisting Frank’s Alexander Technique Classes for actors at American Conservatory Theater (where I still teach) for several years.  As you know, actor’s frequently stick their necks out in the urgency of communication. I’m sure you’ve seen this on stage. Two actors argue, and if you turned off the sound you would witness the argument progress as chins compete in forward motion. Frank would quip, “Half the world is behind you.” With this simple reminder the actors would find a way to speak while staying centered and free.

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?
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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.

relax your face, elevate your mood

Allow my forehead to smooth down towards my brows
Allow my temples to relax and widen
Allow my eyes to soften and float
Allow my cheek bones to widen
Allow my nose to relax
Allow my inner ears to soften inward
Allow my lips to be easy
Allow my tongue to be easy
Allow my teeth and gums to relax
Allow my jaw to float (mentally see the jaw as a limb, distinct from the head, and imagine you have taken yours off)
Imagine a smile

These phrases help release facial tension. Sometimes, I just say to myself,

Forehead,
Eyes
Cheekbones
Lips
Tongue
Jaw
Neck
All of me

If you like, you might try recording this for yourself and listening to it from time to time. If you do tape it, pause a bit between each line so you have a chance to think about what each line means. Send the messages for peace and ease, but don’t feel you need to make anything happen. In Alexander Technique lessons you learn how to hone the mind body connection, but anyone can get a start by the simple and powerful act of thinking into the body.

We know from studies of psychophysiology that tension in the face is correlated with mental/emotional stress, and a relaxed face correlates with a state of ease and happiness. In fact, there’s even evidence that there is a causal relationship between putting on a smile and a boost in mood. I’m certainly not suggesting that you fake your way through the holiday season (there’s also evidence that repressing emotions may result in lowered memory retention), but I offer these phrases as a way to systematically gain more control over chronic facial tension.

Happy Holidays!

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!