What do you do when you notice that you have tense shoulders? “I try to relax,” would be a respectable answer. Too bad that works so poorly. First, relaxation is a skilled activity. Trying to relax for all but the practiced yogi, usually invokes more tension. Second, muscles can’t let go until the body is supported. This applies to both mechanical and emotional situations.
If you lean very far backwards, you won’t be able to let go of the muscles in the front of your body until you choose to fall backwards. Try it. With skill, you might be able to release accessory muscles in the jaw and face that are working overtime. You might be able to lean riskily off center – imagine a dance or acrobatic move – with a certain degree of grace, but this will require all kinds of skilled muscle engagements. What if leaning backwards (or forwards) is your daily postural habit? You might try every strategy in the book to let go of the muscles that are secretly preventing falling, but nothing will work until you bring your bones back into mechanical balance. Then you might have the surprising sensation of effortless movement that so many Alexander students experience.
FM Alexander called this balance “mechanical advantage”. Mechanical advantage is not a position. It’s better understood as a series of counterbalances between all the parts of the body. The head goes a little forward and up, as the neck and spine go a little back and up, and so on, as our bits balance in perpetual motion around our vertical axis.
How do you get into mechanical advantage, especially if you notice you are crunching forward at your desk?
First, stop what you are doing and make observations. Where is your head in relationship to your shoulders, back, neck, pelvis, the ceiling and the floor? Where would you like it to be? Make a gesture with your hand showing where you’d like your different parts to go. Was it in an up-and-out sort of gesture? Before moving out of the crunch, use the Alexander Technique Directions: Let your neck be free, direct your head forward and up. Direct your back to lengthen and widen. Direct your shoulders apart and your knees away.
If those Directions didn’t make sense, you would not be alone. Unfortunately, the Directions don’t specify the oppositions necessary to come into mechanical balance. It may be a good idea to change the wording of Alexander’s canonical Directions, but that’s a subject for a different essay. For here, it’s important to say that most people need an Alexander Technique teacher’s touch to give meaning to the Directions. Trickily, Directional movement comes from non-doing versus doing. This reverse perspective takes practice and objective feedback, and is usually learned intuitively in response to the gentle guidance of an Alexander teacher’s hands.
But what if your tension is not just a problem of mechanical balance? What if you hold because you are frustrated or anxious? It might be futile to physically balance your body without addressing the causal conditions. Or, it might work! There is a bi-directional link between emotions and body state. Sometimes students experience a lightening of mood after lessons even though emotions were never discussed. Still, if our goal is a higher level of conscious choice and control, working only through the body is not enough.
Many of my M.F.A. acting students ask, “How do I play anger without tensing my throat?” Is the emotion of anger physiologically hard wired to a tight throat in the way that happiness, upturned lips and sparkling eyes are linked? Or is the tight throat a strategy to hold back expressing anger? I think the latter. What’s it like to feel anger without blocking the feelings with muscle tension? Does the anger pass more freely, or as we fear, does it escalate into behaviors that we later regret? Learning to feel freely, but still make choices about behavior can broaden your inner emotional palette and guide you into emotionally intelligent behavior. For actors, this gives rise to richer performances that don’t break the physical body.
Here’s a short activity to help you correlate the connection between muscle tension and emotion.
If your shoulders (or jaw and neck, etc.) are always tight, observe which situations trigger even more tension. Then, spend one minute tracking sensations throughout your whole body. What other parts are working overtime? How’s your breath and heart rate? Then spend a minute tracking emotions. Can you simply name the emotion you feel, (e.g. “I’m anxious and frustrated…”) without going into a story about why you feel that emotion? Or, is the emotion muffled by physical tension? Spend some time sorting yourself out. Finally, spend a minute listening to the stories that go along with the emotions. Don’t change the thoughts, but notice them. Are they always true? Then take a minute to look around, (e.g. “I’m gazing at the wall in front of me, the light from the window reflects against the yellow wall in a dappled pattern, I notice a dust bunny caught in the corner…”) Does seeing with detail and alertness take you out of routine thoughts, feelings and reactions?
Usually this mindfulness activity will bring muscle and mind into harmony and cause spontaneous release. But it may not. At that point, a little rational thinking can go a long way. You might ask yourself, “Will clenching my shoulders really speed up my commute time? Who is benefiting from my tense jaw? But don’t try to relax the jaw muscles. Remember, it doesn’t usually work. Do think about doing less of what you are doing. Here, giving Alexander Directions to restore mechanical balance comes into good use. And, maybe next time you’ll choose public transportation and read a book.
Don’t waste time trying to relax tight muscles. Consider the conditions that cause tension. Make changes at the source.