How would you rate…?

Therapist: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your average day.

Me: 5

Therapist: Why’s that?

Me: Because that’s how averages work.

This is an important point – that to be happy, to have self-esteem and personal integrity in life and work, we all have to be “above average” but that’s not how “average” works.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since listening to compassion researcher Kristen Neff PhD make this exact point on the Hidden Brain Podcast. She asks the host, our beloved Shankar Vedantam, how he would feel if she said his podcast was average, and he replied, as we all would, “Terribly hurt.”

I have worked most of my life in the arts and academics, which admittedly is filled with extraordinary and exceptionally talented, beautiful and intelligent people. Perhaps, it’s true that many of the people I know are above average by some measures – artistic success, fame, academic contributions, beauty – but overall, even for these people, when life experiences are summed, most of us have more similarities than differences.

I wrote this, but then I thought, the beauty, not the devil, is in the details. And the extraordinary, or at least the interesting story, might be found in our uniqueness – even for those of us whose life stories are a bit smaller. Living ordinary moments as if I am on a great adventure filled with the miraculous is an ongoing practice for me, and definitely increases my happiness rating from 5 to more like an 8 or 9.

Still, I wonder about the suffering I experience when I hold the belief that I, and everything I create, must be exceptional. Daily, I struggle with the contradictions between basic goodness, good enough, and the desire to beat the crowd – forgetting that the bell curve does not allow all of us to occupy the far right tail.

And, who do we imagine the average people are? Let’s be honest about coastal elite bias. And why do we not think that we might not fall somewhere in the middle like the other 68% of the population? After all, surely, most of us with above average educations have taken statistics.

An Alexander Technique Teacher’s Back Goes Out

An Alexander Technique Teacher’s Back Goes Out

I was sitting for morning meditation and I reached diagonally to pet my cat. “Ouch!” the left side of my back said. A few minutes later, I was in the narrow area of my house where the laundry machines are lodged, performing the complicated diagonal high/low reach to move clothes from the washer to the dryer. “Owe, Owe, Owie!” my back said. “Sh*t, Fwck, D@mn!” I replied. An hour later I was on Zoom teaching the 15th and last session of the Summer Somatics Course. I had planned to lead them through a little yoga, and reached diagonally on my desk for some water, and my body froze. “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” Sorry students, no yoga for you, no dance for me. My back had gone out in that classic, vague way that people always say. As someone who never has back pain, but helps people with back pain all the time, it is a bit hard to spasm, I mean fathom (bad pun).

Actually, I did have a back spasm once six years ago. I was taking an Afro Haitian dance class and we had been practicing one of the key steps in Petwo*. According to Wikipedia, “The Petwo spirits are considered to be volatile and hot-tempered, exhibiting bitter, aggressive, and forceful characteristics.” Certainly, the dance and the music is fiery and percussive. We had been going across the floor for 20 minutes jumping into back lunges while flipping our backs into deep arches and curves. Suddenly, I felt like someone kicked me in the sacrum, probably one of the Lwa gods, and then I could not move. My back went out.

My understanding of back spasms is that the brain judges that the movement is unsafe (or life circumstances are unsafe), and does what it is needed to take the person out, before actual injury (or illness) ensues. The spasm felt like an injury but I was not injured. The pain and stiffness came from my brain protecting me from further action.

This is not to say that percussive forceful movement might not cause a muscle or ligament to tear, a fracture or an arthritic flareup. Injuries are real.

This time, the preceding events were attending a dance class and doing Pilates V-ups. “Ouch!” said my low back. “Oh, keep going,” said my brain. Later in the class, I stubbed my toe trying to beat a petite jete, a movement that I had no business attempting given 30 years absence from ballet class. Then, I went home and did some weight training because it was on my exercise calendar. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon socializing, even though I was tired.

I woke up on Monday, and my back and toe ached. I decided to skip dance for Monday and Tuesday, planning to return on Wednesday. My schedule was brimming with dance classes, a tight 4 day timeline to get grades in for the Summer Session, an onslaught of final papers to grade, four all-day tango workshops with a master from Argentina, four new students, and the 1-week turnover to the Fall Semester. Some part of me thought it was going to be hard to get everything done, the other part of me really wanted to do it all, “Life happens now! You can rest when you are dead!”

On Wednesday, I cancelled all my private students and began the lifestyle that I would repeat for the next seven days with increasing pain. Creeping around the house, taking hot baths, moving in bizarre ways to not trigger the pain, and feeling afraid and depressed. I worried that I had torn a ligament or a muscle, pinched a nerve, fractured a vertebrae, slipped a disc, or had arthritic inflammation. After many emails, my doctor ordered an X-ray and referred me to a PT.

The $450 X-ray showed mild hypertrophy (overgrowth) of the facet joints between my sacrum and lumber spine.

My doctor emailed me the next morning saying that it was likely that I was experiencing an arthritic flareup in the facet joints of my lumbar spine. As soon as I read this, I could feel how right she was. Although the pain had been moving all over my body, from my sacrum, to my left hip, to my left psoas, to my left obliques, to my left QL, to my right QL, now I could feel with total precision how the pain was centered and burning in the facet joints of my lower spine. The more I felt into the area, the more the pain increased. I could feel it so clearly, hot, red and throbbing.

But at 8:45 am, I had a video appointment with a Kaiser PT. How could a video appointment help? Screw my crappy plebian health insurance. I needed someone to see me and touch my back, but I logged in anyway.

“Did you see my X-ray I said? “Mild facet hypertrophy at L5-S1?” I quoted the radiology report. It feels like most of the pain is localized now to my left QL.”

“We don’t diagnose that way anymore,” she said. “We don’t go by anatomy. The research doesn’t support it.” My heart warmed slightly, since I knew of what she spoke. Then she went full on biopsychosocial pain model on me. “We diagnose by asking the patient a series of questions.” And then she proceeded to do with me exactly what I do with my own students.

“Does it hurt more in the morning or evening?”
“Does it hurt all the time or only during specific movements?
“Only certain movements”
“Which movements does it hurt?” She had me lean forward (ouch, ouch, ouch), she had me bend back, (ahh!).
She watched the way I was moving: Super stiff like an android, holding my back straight and descending and rising in sharp vectors using only my leg joints.

She determined that it was not an arthritic flare-up, or a tendon tear or other injury.

“Your X-ray is totally normal, and the facet joints looked exactly the same 3 weeks ago when there was no pain. The reason you are in pain is that you are moving stiffly, and you are over-focusing on the pain. You need to go back to work and start living normally, and try to move as fluidly as possible. The pain is due to tight muscles, and the reason it’s moving around is that you are moving in odd ways in anticipation of pain. Try to move fluidly.”

Who’s the Alexander Technique teacher now?

My understanding is that even with arthritic pain this is true. I see this all the time in my students. The way there are bracing to avoid putting pain into an arthritic knee actually twists the bones in a way that counters how the knee is “designed” to bend, and causes more compression and pain. Often, I can help them direct their bones in such a way that they have no pain in the inflamed joint. None of this is to say that you should ignore pain and push through it, but what you do for an injury depends on the type of injury – and the way you move with that injury will matter long term.

Ah, I said. Yes, I am very familiar with the biopsychosocial model of back-pain. This is the first time I have lived it.

I mentioned my schedule and commented that I wondered if the back spasm was related to overscheduling myself and my body acting drastically to protect me.

“Well, yes,” she said. “There’s a lot of research on that.”

Huh, I said. Huh.

I mentioned that I had taken a page from John Sarno and started journaling to see if my pain was due to blocking anger.

Huh, she said, Huh.

We set up a follow up appointment. My game plan was to move fluidly, to not brace for movements that I expected to hurt, and try to return to normal life.

Within one day the intensity of the pain was down about 50%, within two days, about 90%. Teaching Alexander Technique lessons helped a lot (who can forget that Alexander Technique is good for chronic low back pain ). At three days out, I’m still hovering at 90% and waiting for my body to decide that it’s safe enough to release those muscles.

Back pain, commented my friend Nik, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You get pain, and your brain goes, “Danger!” and causes muscles to clench, which hurts, so your brain concludes, “I was right! Danger!” and so the pain escalates.

The next day, I decided to step up on a chair with my left leg and noticed I had almost no strength. It seemed like my left psoas was not firing. Then I remembered that this Spring I hurt my left hip in a dance class doing contemporary floor work. For about a month, flexion hurt, especially those movements you never noticed before, like lifting your leg to put on your underwear on. Owe! Then the pain went away.

I always wonder how people’s bodies can get so twisted and tensed, off-center, rigid and wooden and imbalanced, but I think I just got the personal view. Without conscious knowing, our brain changes our movement path to avoid pain, and then those accommodations never go away, and cause more problems, and so more accommodations are made, and more necessary muscles are no longer firing, and more compensations are made, until after so many years the body is rigid and twisted, with muscles physically shortened, connective tissues bunched and stiff, and the brain patterning that controls smooth coordination forgotten.

I looked at how I was stepping up on that chair with my left leg compared to my right and did what I knew to coordinate my left side. The psoas fired, the step was easy and powerful. My left leg was not weak, it was just offline. I think that my brain, unbeknownst to me, had been steering me away from using my left leg.

It’s been two weeks since I’ve dared dancing. I hope to get back to class on Monday.

As awful as this experience is, and I can say that constant pain is bloody awful, totally exhausting, souring of the mood and isolating, I have no doubt that this first-hand experience of my first full on mysterious “back-going-out” episode will be helpful for me as I help others. And hopefully, I will be more attuned to the signs of over-doing that probably got me here.

I’ll conclude with a note to myself. Dear Elyse, you have a habit of always wanting a more spacious schedule, but you book up your life to the hilt and only rest on an emergency basis. What if you tried to schedule your time more spaciously?

*here’s a video of the incredible Portsha Jefferson teaching Petwo. It gives me chills to watch:

A memory of Frank Ottiwell

A friend wrote, “Send me a “Frank” quote.” He was referring to Frank Ottiwell, my mentor and the director of my Alexander Technique (AT) teacher training course.

I wrote back: I can’t think of any particular Frank quote right now, but I am remembering how he would arrive every morning at the Alexander school (we started at 8:30 am), with some exciting revelation. One morning, he came in bursting to tell us about how, as he had cooked his oatmeal, and brushed his hair, and tied his shoes, and done all the things one usually does, he had been astonished by his hands – that they knew exactly what to do on their own – and how he had watched them with wonder and appreciation. And the reaction from the gallery of Alexander trainees (missing the point of the story) was something like, “OH My God, Frank EATS Oatmeal!” (because he was so private about his life). Like now we had some powerful secret knowledge.

In memory of Rome Roberts Earle

Elyse & Rome at the International Alexander Technique Congress, Limerick, Ireland, 2015

Rest in peace dearest Rome. I am so sad to learn of your passing and so grateful for my time with you.

Rome Roberts Earle was one of the last first generation Alexander Teachers, having initially trained at Ashley Place in London with FM Alexander. She was my trainer on Frank Ottiwell’s course and my teacher in my early 20’s.

Rome was so gentle, kind and beautiful. Her quiet hands removed the stress from my young body and taught me how to bring that ease and clarity into dance. I will forever treasure my time with her and all the gifts that she gave me.

At one point, she shared with me a biography that she had written. I hope that it can be found and published in the AT community. There was so much in it, her early life in London, training in Laban technique as a dancer, the time at Ashly place that contained a secret, her life in Ojai, raising four children, retraining in the 70’s with Patrick MacDonald, and on.

A poignant moment for me was the tale of her arrival at LAX. She flew into Los Angeles in the 1950’s with her young son, as a single woman permanently leaving an unwelcoming community for a new life. She was lost in the large American airport, and a kindly lady took her home for the night (would we ever trust strangers today?). Rome described her first American breakfast which included two, not one, but two very large boiled eggs on toast and the largest glass of orange juice she had ever seen. So much in comparison to a life in London full or rations and recovering from the war.

Rome, I love you. You will be missed.


I’m not sure why I thought it would be ok to teach after a dental extraction. Mind over matter only goes so far. Why do I think it’s a good idea to push my own body through pain and exhaustion when I am constantly counseling my Alexander Technique students to listen to the body, find the ease, and practice self-compassion? It it our cultural conditioning that we all need external permission to rest lest we be perceived as lazy? Right effort gets lost in the intoxication of brute force.

Pushing beyond self-perceived limits is part of the performing arts culture* that I have taught/participated in my entire life. Professional and aspiring artists are encouraged to work through extremes of exhaustion and pain to achieve a sought after catharsis – and sometimes that’s necessary – and there’s a cost – and that level of pushing becomes a habit and a cultural norm.

Or is that, locked as we are inside our own brains, imbibing our inner cocktail of giddy stress hormones, we can’t make sense of things? A recent Aeon article advised adopting an ancient Greek practice known as illeism (i.e. speaking about yourself in third person). Illeism supposedly delivers a scientifically validated uptick in well-being and decision making. I think of my Alexander Technique Teacher Frank Ottiwell saying, “Sometimes, I really wish there was an Alexander Technique teacher around, and then I realize I am that.”

I am that.

So today, I am listening to my inner Alexander Technique teacher, letting my neck be free and taking the afternoon off. We can all provide wise council to ourselves.

*and academic culture, and medical culture, and sports culture, and really any environment where “good enough,” is tantamount to failure, and only the exceptional win.



Heel Pain – Mystery Solved!

My friend, a one-time avid tango dancer and current expat in Germany, has been staying with me for a few weeks. She burst into the living room one evening and said she was having persistent heel pain. She thought she was landing harder on her left (non-dominant) heel because every time she took a step on her left foot, the heel hurt. Worse, every morning her feet froze into stiffness. The morning walk to the bathroom was closer to the arthritic shuffle of an elder than a fit 42-year old. “Can you help me Ms. Alexander Technique Reembody Expert?” she asked.

“Why yes,” I thought, “I probably can.”

Usually we tend to be a bit ginger with our non-dominant leg*, so I was curious to watch her walk.

By Connexions –, CC BY 3.0,

I observed that she was not landing harder on her left heel. Instead, she had a habit that almost everyone has with their non-dominant ankle: weak plantar flexion. Plantar flexion looks like pointing the foot, but the movement happens at the ankle joint, not the forefoot or toes. The result of weak plantar flexion is that you end up pushing down on the ground with your forefoot, the same way you push down on a gas pedal. This pushing action can cause hammer toes, which she was starting to develop, and tight plantar fascia.

Dare I say the terrible word that we all fear…plantar fasciitis? In a way, my friend was lucky that she hadn’t diagnosed herself with a case of this. There is little doubt that if she had thought she had something as dreaded as plantar fasciitis, the pain, the inflammation and the physical compensation patterns would have all multiplied due to a sense of bodily threat.

I had her sit down on the carpet and we compared her ability to plantar flex the right and left ankles. Sure enough, the movement was smooth as butter on the right side, but feeble and hard to organize on the left. After some trial and error, and a little Alexander Technique hands-on  help, the left side got the hang of it.

She got up and walked. The left leg was behaving differently.

“I don’t want to give you too much cueing,” I said. “Too much thinking will interfere with coordination.”** But then I gave her one cue. I couldn’t resist. “Notice if you are pushing down with your left forefoot. Don’t do that. No gas pedal foot.”

Two days later she came in, excitedly waving her shoes. “I have a story to tell,” she said. “See! Look,” and she pointed at the shoe wear. The right sole had a dark indent from hard heel strikes, the left none at all. She reported that in just two day of practicing plantar flexion, the heel pain was gone, and she was no longer waking up with stiff feet. The absence of the morning hobble felt strange. She had grown so used to it.

How is it possible to change a habit and come out of pain so quickly? We are taught in all disciplines that changing habits takes repetition, practice, attention and a lot of time.

Sometimes, when we discover efficient ways of moving, it’s as if the new pattern already existed, perhaps as something we did when we were children, before tight shoes or tango shoes and life’s pressures caused us to grip. Perhaps this is an issue of neuroplasticity, which turns out to be faster, more flexible and more adaptive than one could ever imagine.

“Plasticity happens rapidly…too fast for the brain to grow new connections. It’s more likely that unused pathways are unmasked when sensory inputs are changed, as from wearing a blindfold for five days. Over time, such plasticity changes can become permanent.”
(p.86, The Body Has a Mind of It’s Own, Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007)

Still, how could two years of chronic pain dissipate in two days? Researchers know that pain can diminish long before tissues fully heal, and debilitating pain can occur in the absence of injury due to an over sensitized nervous system (p. 71 Explain Pain, Bulter & Mosely, 2013). Reduction in threat mediates both the experience of pain and tissue inflammation. If the new way of moving provided more security than the old way, a feeling of safety may have been enough to reduce the pain and inflammation. Maybe.

I admit that the above paragraphs are speculative, but instant sticky change has been my experience learning and now teaching aspects of the Reembody Method alongside Alexander Technique. Admittedly, quick lasting change doesn’t always happen. This is not a problem. The slow method, which include mindful awareness, steady practice, concentrated thinking about causes and conditions, and artful contingency plans when triggers trigger, well, that’s great stuff. It works. As a teacher, I like to have a variety of tools in my box


*Imagine having to step up on to a high a ledge. What if you were also carrying a bag of groceries? Which leg would you use to step up? Most people would choose their dominant leg because it feels stronger and more secure. We tend to push with our dominant leg and baby our non-dominant leg.


**If you try and swing your arms in opposition to your legs as should happen naturally when walking, you will probably find that you have no idea how to walk.



Analyzing the Ads

Sometimes my students bring me photos and news stories to discuss. The above snap was part of a Marc Jacobs ad in the Sunday Times. We couldn’t quite believe that post #MeToo, this Dickensian image was being used to sell clothes. What happens to our unconscious when the mere turn of a newspaper page primes us to equate cowering with something as desirable as high fashion?

Sure the slouch has been used since at least the 1900’s to portray hip nonchalance.  I don’t have any negative judgement about relaxed posture. I encourage my students to employ the full range of physical gestures – the key is to have choice. We need not be ram rod straight at all times. There’s no moral benefit, and modern pain science shows there’s no equivalency between “good posture,” and a pain free body. “Good posture” is in quotes because there’s no agreed upon criteria for what this means, although certainly as an Alexander Technique teacher I have my views about more beneficial ways we can counterbalance our bones, and how we can learn from studying child development and the movement habits of  people in non-industrial cultures. As it turns out, the geometry for ease is less about the angle of the spine and more about calibrating threat level, accuracy in body maps, and kinesthetic skill, but I digress. Regardless of whether you are poising with a long spine or lounging like a cool cat, this Marc Jacobs ad suggests a life that lacks free will and conscious choice..

Photo snap of Sunday Times article about actress Regina Hall – Enjoy the accompanying  video

To counter the depressing ad, my student also brought me this image of actress Regina Hall also cut from the Sunday Times. We admired  her dancer’s line, her pointed toes and her abandon. We exhaled.

Being an Alexander Student means learning about your habits of movement, your self-image and how self-image impacts the way you move. It becomes impossible not to notice what culture is saying about bodies. Remember you have a choice .




Pelvic Float

Let your pelvis float and roll around the round femur heads.

By Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See "Book" section below) Gray's Anatomy, Plate 237, Public Domain,

By Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body

How many angles of rotation are possible between the two sides?

Which quadrants feel free and loose, and which feel blocked?

This movement might feel like a tilting ship in a storm.

Or a sexy dance move.

Or something much smaller and subtler that will free you up for walking, standing and sitting.





Some Sitting Help

By Bjoertvedt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Bjoertvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Stand up. Find your hip joints. Locate your “bikini” line, and find the place where, if you press into it, your pelvis will shoot back in space. That’s where your hip joint is. Note that this is just the frontal plane. Your hip joint is a 3D structure, and exists on the side and backplane of your pelvis also.

Place your thumbs in your hips joints and your hands around your leg bones, so that you can feel for the rotation of your thighs (femurs) as you flex and extend your pelvis. When you send your pelvis back in space, notice that your femurs internally rotate. You might be able to feel a slight widening in the sit bones. When you extend your hip joints, you will feel external rotation of the femurs, coupled with a narrowing of the sit bones.

You can also practice sitting in a chair. Explore a gentle motion of rocking forwards and backwards on your sit bones. Sense the widening of your sit bones as your rock forward, coupled with internal rotation of the femurs. Sense the narrowing of your sit bones as you rock backwards, coupled with external rotation of the thighs. Find a balance point with the pelvis slightly tilted forward (sit bones widening). This helps to establish the lumbar curve of your back and will make sitting upright feel much easier. The slight lumbar curve will also help to release the shoulders as the fascia of the back will tend to tug the shoulder blades down a bit.

How does this differ from how you ordinarily sit?

Most people have a hard time finding and moving from the hip joints. Do you bend your head forward or extend your chest instead of moving at the hip joint? To isolate the movement to your hip joints, it’s helpful to imagine a marble sliding down the chute of the spine. When it reaches the tailbone, that’s the moment to lean forward.

As a final note, this type of mechanical guidance does not sum up the Alexander technique, which I would frame as a holistic method for enhancing our conscious lived experience of being embodied. I offer this mechanical exploration, because so many of my students have discomfort sitting.

Knowing a little bit about the geometry of your bones can make a tiresome daily activity easier.

Shoe talk

Getting minimalist shoes is something to think about – but certainly not a requirement.

I wrote this for a student with osteoarthritic knees. We’ve been working on correcting the way her leg bones spiral when bending and straightening. The correct direction of spiral removes the pain completely. This has been going well, so I felt it was time to address the subject of her so called “healthy shoes”, ultra padded running shoes replete with motion control, arch support and a hidden 1.5-inch heel lift.

To get the knees to work better, it’s going to help if the feet and ankles can do their job in the most unfettered manner possible. When we go barefoot, the foot can change shape and adapt more flexibly to different surfaces and different physical demands. The intrinsic muscles of the foot get strong and flexible. The forefoot and rear foot have the freedom to counter twists appropriately between inversion/pronation and eversion/supination, depending on the stage of the gait cycle. This means that ground reaction force moves up through the body in a way that creates powerful stored elastic tension and spares the joints from pain and wear. Restrictive shoes might jack up the heel, limit foot motion via arch support, control pronation, squeeze the toes, among a few of the  impositions on natural movement.

We tend to think of our hands as sensitive intelligent instruments and our feet as bricks that we shove into padded casing. Your foot has 26 bones and 33 joints. The sole of the foot is a rich landscape of sensory receptors. Our feet have evolved to move in a myriad of directions and relay a rich schema of environmental data to our brain. In shoes with very padded soles, our sensory feedback is diminished. In the absence of good data, the brain protects the body by tensing the feet, ankles, knees, and everything above.

You can test this out. Wear only one sock and have one barefoot foot. Walk around your house. Notice the difference in how your two legs move. Which leg is freer and more fluid? Which foot feels secure? Which leg do you trust? Which limb feels pleasurable to use? If your answer is the side that’s barefoot, you have just discovered the impact of better proprioceptive data on physical movement.

You can assist this process by using a foot roller or other implement to wake up the sensory receptors in the skin of your feet. If you google wooden foot roller, you’ll get dozen’s of results.

Minimalist shoes offer less support and protection to the foot, and can take a while to get used to. I recommend starting with only an hour or two at a time to help the intrinsic muscles of the foot adapt to the new level of work demand.

Personally, I like

Flip flops, although they appear minimal, can be a problem because it’s necessary to squeeze the toes to keep the shoe on. Same thing with clogs. You want your toes to only have to do the work they were meant to do.

And hey, summer is coming. Time to go to the beach and feel the sand between your toes.

P.S. As a final note, it is possible to use your feet well, or at least better, while wearing fashionable shoes. This is the sort of thing that I help my acting students work with. It’s reasonable to choose aesthetics over function to survive in our culture from time to time. I tend to save my fashionable shoe time for tango or the occasional date night. The rest of my life, I like to let my feet roam free.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash