Softening the Chest when the World is Hard

The beautiful decaying grandeur of Raices Profundas dance studio. Yes, that’s cement.

When I travel, I almost always bring a yoga mat – a rectangular island of plushness to gently coax a jet-lagged body back to coherence. But when I travelled to Cuba to study dance, I wanted to travel light. I reasoned that I could practice on any wood floor. I could adapt.

But there was no wood floor. The Casa Particular where I was staying was tiled – unforgiving to my bony back. Our dance studio floor was the dusty rough cement of a decaying movie theater. There was no wood floor.

I lay down anyway, arranging myself in the Alexander Technique “Active Rest” position, but I felt every vertebrae crushed and aching against the tile. I experimented with bridge pose. Worse. Hmm… Perhaps practice on a hard floor is similar to wearing minimalist shoes. Just as thick soled shoes allow for careless impact of the heel bone, my thick mat has protected my back from careless slamming. The more cushioned the shoe, the more people tend to use their feet like bricks – a gait style one would quickly curtail if barefoot. The foot is composed of 26 movable bones…How about the rib cage? Twelve thoracic vertebrae, 24 ribs… What if I allow all these bones to articulate and roll? Perhaps the impact will not be so jarring…

Dance students practicing

The quest to soften the chest was highlighted in my dance studies. I had audaciously assumed that with my years of classical and contemporary training, my recent studies of Afro-Haitian and West African dance, plus the Alexander Technique, my secret weapon for free movement, that Afro Cuban Folkloric would be in my wheelhouse. You laugh. And rightly.

The fluidity of the chest, the articulation of the ribs, the shake of the shoulders, the powerful mobility of the pelvis are not learned in Western dance forms, nor is this sort of movement supported by Western culture. Nothing was coming easily.

The relaxed chest of the Cuban dancers (and everyone in Cuba is a dancer) was mimicked by their relaxed attitude to the harshness of life. With nothing to cushion the impact of poverty and limited freedoms, the people were easy in their attitude towards living. In America, I would have gone to Walgreens and bought a cheap yoga mat. I might have suffered stress from wasting money or buying polluting plastic, but I could purchase a yielding surface. In Cuba, there was no Walgreens. .

Early in the morning, as I did my Alexander Technique inspired warm up for dance, I experimented on that stony floor; rolling and dissolving to avoid impact forces. For 4-hours a day, I danced on cement, and meditated on what a fluid chest might be. I imagined ribs like fish gills, a spine like smoke, shoulders that melt into an easy shimmy in response to the rhythmic song of the feet.

Yes, that is The Little Prince, the ultimate emblem of conquering with gentleness. Yes, he’s painted on a bath tub, propped into a wall, in one of Cuba’s many examples of public art

The environment was hard. I learned to be soft.


 

 


P.S. On the flight home, I remembered to melt in the airplane seat, and fell into a deep, loose slumber.

 

BodyProject Blog ~ Elyse Shafarman

 

 

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
Info: ihhs@sfsu.edu

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: school@berkeleyrep.org

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
415-934-9700
hello@gigglinglotus.com

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

 

Tip for knees

A toddler demonstrates perfect knee bending technique with a twist. This is close to Parsva Utkatasana.

A toddler demonstrates perfect knee bending technique with a twist. This is close to Parsva Utkatasana.

I wrote this tip for a student who was having difficulty with her knees in yoga. But the tip works great for sitting, climbing stairs and many other knee-bending activities.

When you begin to bend your knees in a yoga pose like Utkatasana (Chair), or Virabradasana 2 (Warrior), take a moment to change your thinking. The habit that we all have when we bend is to think about lowering ourselves down in space. We end up pressing down into our knees.

Instead, imagine your whole body moving up as you bend your knee. To avoid pushing down into the knee joint, imagine the knee swinging away from the hip and ankle joints. Thinking head and body up, and knees forward and away will leave your knees feeling more spacious.

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

 

From our department of wacky images…

ganesha-161003_640During lessons, Alexander students feel the amazing sensation of letting the head float. Sometimes it’s a struggle to recapture this experience without a teacher. Images can help.

For years, I’ve been playing with directing upwards from an imaginary “head” above my head. Today at Yoga Tree, while balancing precariously in Natarajasana (King Dancer Pose), I looked up and found myself staring directly at the giant mural of Ganesha the elephant god. Suddenly, my “second head” became Ganesha’s head. Ganesha loves sweets and is so humble that he rides a tiny mouse. Best of all, he is the remover of obstacles.

As it turns out, he’s also super handy for improving coordination. When I wobbled on one leg, I instantly regained balance by directing my elephant head upwards and delicately extending my nose. My practice became light and effortless. And I was amused.

If this sounds mysterious and confusing—and you’d like to experience what it’s like to let your own head float—call your local Alexander Teacher for a lesson.

Jai Ganesha!

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

2 New Group Classes and AT + Yoga!

I’m happy to announce two group classes this summer. See below for details. I’m also  offering private yoga sessions with the Alexander Technique. Get the benefits of yoga without fear of injury!

Do you want to start yoga but fear hurting yourself? Are you an experienced practitioner, but still find nagging tension and pain in certain poses? I can support you. Experience safety and freedom all at once. Call 415-342-6255 for a free phone consultation

Upcoming Classes:

Alexander Technique and Linklater Voice with Lisa Anne Porter
Vocal Freedom and Connected Communication!
THU 7–10pm · 7/2, 7/9, 7/16, 7/23, 7/30, 8/6 · $265

Berkeley Rep School of Theatre
2025 Addison St, Berkeley CA 94704
Registration online here

This class offers an enriched experience for actors seeking vocal freedom, postural improvement, and an easy, more connected desire to communicate. Through the Alexander Technique, students learn a systematic method to relax, align, and free themselves from limiting tension habits. With a new degree of physical control and ease in place, students move more quickly and deeply into the material developed by Kristin Linklater to free the natural voice.

You’ll learn exercises that will provide a freer, deeper and fuller breath connection, and will allow you to reveal thoughts and feelings, rather than portraying them.

Do I need to be an actor to take the class?

No. Although this class is designed for actors, it will benefit all who wish to discover the keys to powerful communication and authentic voice.

___________________________________________________

Natural Movement, Voice Production, Creativity!
Alexander Technique at Studio A.C.T.
Mondays and Wednesdays · 6:30-8pm · 7/20 – 8/26 (10 sessions) · $305

Studio A.C.T.
30 Grant Avenue 7th floor
San Francisco, CA 94108
Registration online here

The Alexander Technique is among the most widely practiced performance-related techniques in the world. The technique positively affects body alignment, efficiency of movement, and redistribution of tension. This course is suitable for students of all levels of experience.

You will learn how to recognize and undo habits of muscular tension that get in the way of natural movement, voice production, and creativity.

You will learn how to become more deeply present in yourself and in the world by accessing your innate power and flexibility.

You may feel relaxed in this new state of mindfulness.

You may also find the technique useful in improving posture, freeing voice and deepening your understanding of the human body.

Alexander Technique is the perfect companion to any other Studio A.C.T. course and to your life. Contact me with any questions: elyse@bodyproject.us

Body Project Blog: Where Thought is the Active Ingredient.

Can you flesh (ha!) this out for us a little bit?

A yoga friend asked me to comment on the, “Alexander Technique approach to finding length and lengthening by paying not so much attention to the muscles, but to the bones and the spaces between the bones.”

I suppose the simplest way to think about lengthening is to consider that the action of muscles is to pull on bones. If you make a tight fist, and then release the tension, but keep the fist shape, you will notice that the bones of your hand float away from your wrist and the hand expands. You get length with a release of muscular action. So by releasing “wrong” tension, you get muscles at their greatest resting length, and you get joint space.

It’s very hard for the brain to control specific muscles. If you’re tensing the quads to release the hamstrings, chances are you will be tensing a lot of other things that you don’t want to tense (like your groins, jaw and neck). Try it.

If you work with directional imagery, say the hamstring rolling out like a red carpet away from the sitz bone and out the heel into the infinity of space, chances are you will get an even and effortless lengthening (once the mind body connection is trained). Perhaps you would need to think of a flow down the back of the leg and up the front to engage proper oppositional energies and stabilize the knee (if needed).

I try not to think too much about muscles at all, but more the direction of the movement, and the energy flowing through the center of the limbs, and the bones floating. My belief is that the correct muscles engage with the proper spatial and energetic direction.

That said, I am also experimenting with doing all the micro engagements that most yoga poses “require” for length and strength. For example Tadasana (Mountain Pose) legs are created by drawing energy up through the legs into the pelvic floor, spinning the thighs back, directing the sitz bones down to the heels, widening the upper thighs out, hugging the shins in, directing the thigh bones back, and finally the shins forward. After all that, your legs will definitely feel like granite. But is all this necessary? My Alexander brain doubts it, but my experimental self is trying it on for size. My guess is that there’s a lot of micromanaging of coordination that is unnecessary once the lines of correct force are established.

You also might ask, “Is the muscular engagement functional? Does the engagement create an energetic quality and look that is desired? Does the engagement protect against hyper-extension and hyper mobility? Lengthening the legs in Mountain pose might be something quite different from standing with the dynamic neutral quality that is taught in Alexander Technique. And while “Dynamic Neutral” might be more appropriate for waiting in line in the supermarket, practicing Mountain Pose might call up specific psychological qualities and build strength relevant to a yoga practice.

The jury is out. I don’t know yet.

in sickness and in health

Harboring virus

Harboring virus

This shameless “selfie” doesn’t look like I’m harboring infectious agents, but I am.

Although I had been called to Oakland for the weekend to take care of a vomiting family member, I had managed to pick up another amazing $10 Besty Johnson dress at the Alta Bates Hospital thrift shop. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. It was Sunday, and I planned to go to Studio 1924 in the evening.

I snapped the photo after delivering sizzling rice soup to my relative. I had been released to spend the afternoon at a Breema and “Non-Duality”  conference at a client’s gorgeous redwood decked view home in the Berkeley Hills. This meant lying around on ornate Persian rugs with strangers who gently and passively lifted my arms and applied rhythmic pressure to my abdomen. Then we engaged in an earnest and heated discussion about the non-dual nature of reality and the illusion of separate selves – the sort of conversation I haven’t had since I was a stoned undergraduate.

I left feeling a buzzed. I didn’t realize it was the electricity of fever.

Something was wrong at 1924. I couldn’t balance despite my sturdy Souple’s and my sweat had a strange rank smell. I made it home, downed a ton of vitamins, and went to bed.

An hour later the Nausea set in. I told myself that it was the vitamins, but I knew that even though I had washed my hands at least a 100 times while care-taking, I had succumbed. Despite the non-reality of a separate “I”, my “I” was stuck in a body that was sick as hell.

There is nothing quite as humbling as leaning your hot forhead on the cold toilet seat as you crouch shivering at 3:00 am after vomiting for maybe the 7th time. Still, a part of me was in yoga head, monitoring sensation and thinking, “Wow, amazing that my body knows how to do this.”

The vomiting stopped at 5:30 am. And at 8:00 am I had to call Berkeley Rep. It was the first day of my new Alexander Technique class. I was not going to make it.

And so I crawled into bed and shivered with fever and aches for the next 5 days. And somehow, I remained not unhappy. My yoga head was still in operation, and I relaxed into watching, with a kind of blurred amazement, as my body burned with fever, my throat furred over, my lungs filled, and the coughing began. The machinations of an immune system in action.

I was back working on Monday, back in yoga on Tuesday with wobbly balances and weak chaturangas.  I felt suffused with joy. A walk down my hallway with a body not wracked by pain felt insanely pleasing. Taking yoga filled me with so much gratitude, I was in tears. Being outdoors, seeing flowers blooming…it all made me ecstatic.

That was the good part.

The bad part was that I binge watched 4 seasons of The Good Wife.  The wet mean sounding cough and exhaustion lingered for three weeks. My life settled into a schedule of work, yoga and Amazon Prime. That’s over 88 hours of television. I’m not proud.

A month has gone by and it’s over.

I feel like a strange wet puppy trying to resurface into my life. Tango? Tango? I’m trying to imagine myself in a pretty dress and heels. I’ve grown used to shuffling around the house in mismatching socks and old T-shirts.

I am still waiting for glamor to return.

“The world is like the residue left from the telling of a story…”

“The world is like the residue left from the telling of a story…”

A bit of philosophical text to contemplate while practicing yoga on a sunny winter morning in San Francisco.

Once upon a time, I had a boyfriend who would linger at the end of a movie through all the credits. He was in a transitional space – not quite out of the movie, not quite back in the story of his life. I was not allowed to talk to him, or even touch him, lest I break the spell.

We get to see the effort we put into maintaining our stories when we practice Alexander Technique or meditation. We hear ourselves think, “I carry tension in my shoulders,” and realize that we can set it down.

Sometimes, the internal story is shocked quiet when we encounter great art, great beauty, or great tragedy. The transition is effortless. In the aftermath we perceive something else.

What happens after your story?