Playing guitar is hard. These tips can help.
1. Don't Fall Back to Support Your Instrument--Free Up Into It
Guitars are heavy, especially acoustic guitars. It is tempting to bend backwards to help support their weight. As a result your back with start to contract which can cause shoulder tension and finger control issues, as well as breath support problems if you sing while you play (plus it doesn't feel good). Instead, think of your body moving forward in up in opposition to the weight of the guitar--it will feel almost like you are doing a shared weight exercise with it. It will be helpful to have your support well set up--if you are sitting, see if you can have the balls of your feet on the floor relatively close to your chair (I recommend a simple musician's stool). If standing, make sure you have some weight in both the heel and ball of both feet (including the big toe side), and consider playing in a subtle 'lunge' position.
2. Don't Fret With Your Neck
As a self-taught guitarist, this has been something that has been really difficult for me: only look at the fret-board when you need to. When we are learning, it is easy to spend all of our time with our head craned towards the fret board to make sure we are doing what we think we are with our hands. Once we get going, this creates a habit of pushing your head off your spine to see what your hands are doing. This tightens your torso, tenses your shoulders, crunches your larynx, and generally makes guitar playing less fun. It can feel ponderous at first, but slowly start to nurse yourself off this habit and try to look up and out as you play. Of course, that doesn't mean you never look down--just try not to get stuck there. One thing I find helpful for this is looking down as much as possible with just my eyes rather than bending my neck--it helps me quick reference without getting to out of sorts. Plus, it is great for keeping sound contant if you have to sing into a mic while you play.
3. Breath Like You Are Singing
Singers are aware of how important breath support is, but string players often don't know that it is just as important for them. The reason why is simple: when your muscles are oxygenated, they relax. When your system doesn't have enough air, it tightens up. Rather than focusing on gulping air in, try this: as you play, exhale gently through each phrase. And the end of each phrase, open your mouth and allow breath to flow in. You should feel your ribs move in your back, and be careful of tightening your abs or letting your head pull back as you inhale. The strange side effect is that you will fine your rhythm becomes more steady, your phrases more musical, your fingers more precise, and your muscles more relaxed--everything will start to feel much more effortless. Plus, you might find this strategy helps you with your stage fright!
What does it mean to be embodied?
In a previous post, I wrote about my journey with the Alexander Technique--how I identified with my brain and imagination and was disconnected from a feeling of living in my body, and how much my life has deepened since learning to live with a sense of embodied presence, not as a mind or body but as an indivisible unity.
If we don't feel connected to our body, we often try to gain this connection by engaging in physical activity in a mechanical or even a self-punishing way. This is extra present in the first few weeks of the new year--we go to the gym fueled by guilt about how much we ate during the holidays (I just got back from Mississippi--so I totally understand). We see our body as a bad thing that has to be whipped into shape with the best intent and will power of our virtuous mind. The shot of adrenaline we get while working out makes us feel as if we are connected to our body, but there is an illusion here--we are actually hyper-activated in our fight/flight system, which is pleasurable as we are in it, but will fade and actually distance us as we come out of it. We have treated our body as a mule to be whipped rather than as an inherent part of ourselves to be treated with kindness.
A personal example on how this mechanical approach can be ineffectual or even damaging. My freshman year of college I knew I was pretty terribly inflexible so I took a yoga class. At 7am. On a Friday.
So already off to a bad start.
I was painfully aware of how 'behind' everyone in the class I was, so I buckled down and pushed myself as hard as possible. Remarkably, I didn't seem to be making any progress, and would leave the class feeling tighter and more wound up rather than looser and relaxed. Years later, I am convinced it was the relationship I had with my body that did this--since changing my perspective, I have come to love yoga and see consistent results.
I have become a big proponent of this attitude--that there is no thing good or bad but thinking makes it so (also see my blog on mindfulness and meditation). So as you turn your attention towards your new years goals, I encourage you to be kind to yourself, and bring your body along. Keep a sense of presence in your whole body--a good way to do this is to picture your consciousness as being in the center of your body as you move rather than as in your head (a little weird, but it works). This will keep you from dissociating yourself. Remember gradual habit change is ultimately better than crash attempts (which tend to....crash, as well as being more about ego than progress).
And be careful of self hatred disguised as self love.
The holidays are meant to be a time of joy and light, but somehow always seem to bring people into a place of stress and heaviness. Here are a couple of Alexander Technique tips to help you deal with family and frenzy as we enter this holiday season.
1. Don't Forget to Exhale
With all there is to do to get things ready for the holidays, whether it is making a meal, taking care of guests, finding presents, or finishing last minute work before the break it is amazingly easy for things to accelerate out of control. A simple way to counteract this feeling is to focus on not holding your breath and instead allowing your breath out on a long, unforced exhale. This will help to decelerate your heart beat, unclench your muscles, and you may even find time will slow down to a manageable pace. If you need a good way to do this for maximum effect, check out his blog on the classic Alexander exercise 'The Whispered Ah'.
2. Watch Out for Body Language Flashbacks
When we are around our families, we all have a tendency to regress a little. It is useful to know that our bodies do as well--after a couple of hours I start moving like I'm a teenager again. Along with this come behaviors that are sometimes less mature and don't serve me. Be conscious of your body language, and instead of falling into the trap, see if you can leave your body gently alone by imagining your neck releasing when you start to tighten up (a key point in A.T. work). It also pays to be conscious of relaxing your jaw and eyes, as these are often also key points for tension release.
3. Take 'Time-Outs'
Even when things are really busy and stressful, you need to make sure to take care of yourself. So if you are overwhelmed (or your uncle decides it is necessary to comment on your vote in the last election), take a moment to yourself and try the Active Rest procedure to get back some internal and external space.
4. Remember That The Holidays (and You) Don't Have to Be Perfect
One of the things that puts the most pressure on us around the holidays is the sense that we somehow have to present some sort of ideal self. As simple as it seems, reminding ourselves that holidays are just another day and that we are still allowed to be human and faulty can go a long way to giving us a little mental space. The magic of it is that this will help everyone around you have a better time as well!
On November 17th, Freedom in Motion is taking a big leap. We will no longer be just Freedom In Motion Chicago--we will also be launching Freedom In Motion Online, our new distance learning program.
Do you live somewhere that isn't Chicago? Do you not like to go outside once we hit February? Do you not have time to travel to and from lessons? Do you want to be able to record your lessons for future reference? Understandable. You will now be able to benefit from the same Alexandery goodness as folks who come in for in person lessons. Pretty neat huh?
A couple of perks these sessions have compared to normal lessons--
More info will be available the week before the launch! If you have questions, comments, or quemments about this, please feel free to email me at Freedominmotionat@gmail.com.
When I was in junior high, there was one day a month I dreaded above all others.
Mile run day. I still shudder in horror thinking about it.
I remember the feeling of trepidation and panic at the extraordinary effort I was going to have to put forward to get in before the 12 minute cut off. It was like my version of the Hunger Games. I would push really hard in an attempt to be ruled 'fit', my legs punching into the ground, my arms swinging, gasping for breath. I would often experience knee pain afterwards and have trouble walking for days, all of which convinced me I needed to learn how to be 'stronger' and try 'harder'.
It wasn't until well into my adulthood that I realized this attitude was not only hamstringing me but keeping me from experiencing an activity that can actually be, dare I say it, pleasurable. As an adult post Alexander training, I have found I no longer have the feeling of 'pounding the pavement' that I used to have, and I can go further with much less effort and no joint pain after (though nothing can help the soreness in my thighs). Here are some of the most useful things I have learned that you can apply to your running today! (Much credit goes to Malcom Balk and The Art of Running for introducing me to some of these concepts)
1. Head Forward and Up
One of the foundational movement principles of A.T. can be articulated like this: the head leads and the body follows. Having your head balanced on top of your spine and not allowing it to pull back is crucial for any movement, and extra special important for running. If you allow your head to tilt back, it distorts the shape of your spine and causes you to run with your torso slightly behind yourself (you can see some of this in the photo at the beginning of this post!), creating drag and implicitly changing your stride, causing you to kick your legs in front of you rather than running over your feet.
The best way to change this is to simply be aware of the orientation of your head and let it gently rotate forward from a point approx. between your ears. Thinking of releasing the base of the skull can help with this. Be careful of adding a push through your back by trying to 'straighten up' --it can cause you to over-curve the place where your lower back meets your ribs, which has the effect of tilting your head back! Let yourself be easy through your back so it can be gently flexible to the movement of your arms and legs.
2. Run 'Up and Over' the Ground, Rather than Down Into It
Think of yourself as a stone skipping across the surface of a lake as you run, your feet tapping the ground rather than pounding down into it. Sometimes we step heavy thinking that we are engaging our muscles more--in reality, we are actually compressing ourselves into the ground, which creates friction with the feet that slows us down and can be hell on your knees. Thinking of running up and over the ground can help to keep you light, easy, and in rhythm.
3. Be Aware of Your Hands, Jaw, and Eyes
These are three places we tend to unconsciously clinch while running, and though they themselves aren't going to cause you problems, residual tension can easily creep into your neck and shoulders from them. Try gently softening these areas as you run to avoid this. With my hands, I find it useful to have them lightly curled and have my thumbs and pointer finger touching, but not to clench my fists. Also, you want to let your arms gently move as you run, but be careful of letting them swing without a connection to your back--they should be moving because of a diagonal stretch across your back with every step, not because you are consciously pumping them.
4. Focus on Your Exhale
When we are doing cardiovascular exercise, it is natural to want to gasp for breath. However, this can become a negative cycle, as inhaling heavily without exhaling fully can speed up both your breathing and heart rate in ways that won't help you and cause your muscles to seize up from buildup of carbon dioxide. Try to balance this out by consciously extending your exhale just a bit to slow down your breath rate and allow it to go deeper.
5. Run on a Three Count, Not a Two
If you study the rhythm of your feet, you might notice you are internally counting it on a 'one-two one two' count. This can cause you to lean into whatever leg is on the 'one' count and move too much side to side while you run. Internally counting to three can reprogram this, make your stride smoother, and give you a delicious sense of flow as you move.
6. Remember that Running is Fun
As related in my experience running in junior high, many of us correlate running with a sense of effort and intensity it really doesn't need. Sometimes this takes the form of a gritty 'eye of the tiger' attitude. Though this can be fun and make us feel sort of bad***, it can also cause us to overexert ourselves and run with too much heaviness and compression, which will have a deteriorating effect as your run goes on. It is amazing how an attitude that running can be light, easy, and fun can be self fulfilling!
We're all tired of performing with freedom and ease right? Here are some ways you can interfere with yourself to make sure you never reach your full potential onstage.
1. Take Deep Breaths.
We all know how important breathing is not only to your voice onstage but also for physical relaxation and emotional access right? So you want to make sure to sabotage that for sure. The best way to do that is to try and take deep breaths. Wait, huh? Isn't that supposed to help you relax? Not so much. When we try to breath deeply by focusing on the inhale we employ the accessory muscles of the ribs, abdomen and back to pull air into the chest instead of allowing the diaphragm to engage to make space for air deep in the body and back. This means we often get much less air than if we focus on not holding our breath and allowing a gentle exhale, triggering the reflexes that engage the diaphragm and giving a deep, full unforced breath. Plus, whenever you inhale, your heartbeat increases, so by inhaling a lot any stage fright you have is bound to increase and you will probably hyperventilate. FUN!!!
2. Stand Up Straight So You Look Really Confident!
Nobody likes a vulnerable actor right? So push that chest out, pull those shoulders back, and make your spine as straight as a Kansas highway. If you follow these instructions, you will come off as super defensive and forced! It's like you have literally put a barrier between you and your audience/scene partners and as you will have frozen the movement of your breath mechanism (see above), you will probably have to push through your performance without feeling a thing all while looking strained and stiff. WHEW GOOD JOB.
3. Just Relax As Much As Possible. It's REALLY IMPORTANT. But Be Cool About it.
Never in the history of relaxing has telling yourself to relax has it ever helped anyone to relax. So you should probably tell yourself it a lot in a really judge-y tone! Better yet, just slump. It is the best way to be relaxed. If your neck starts hurting or you notice yourself being short of breath and heavy feeling don't worry--that's what relaxation is supposed to feel like. You should hang out onstage like a boneless cat from a Far Side cartoon--its called being expressive. WHATEVER YOU DO, don't try to find a healthy alternative between slumping and pushing into your body. It can only lead to horrible, horrible success.
4. Get Grounded.
Grab the ground with your feet. GRAB IT!!! And better yet, push down through your body like you are trying to break through to the center of the earth. If your knees lock, so much the better--you might even feel like it would be impossible to move if you wanted to! Like these other strategies, you will know if it is working if gets harder to breath. Definitely don't release your knees and ankles, slightly widen your stance, and feel a balance between weight on your heels and toes--it can only end in a supported, free body.
5. Whatever You Are Interacting With Onstage, Stare At It Like Your Eyes Are Lasers and You Want To Melt It Into Oblivion.
Really, this is how you know you are acting with intensity--when your eyes are so hard and scrunched up you could bounce a quarter off of them. People do this in real life and sometimes they don't even get arrested! Remember, life is a staring contest and you WANNA WIN. The eyes are the window to the soul--brick those bad boys up. You might notice your neck tightening up and your breathing stop--high five. If you release your eyes and keep them soft but not too soft (which will lead to number 3), you will be in this terrible place where you can be responsive to your scene partners and vulnerable to the circumstances of the play. HORRORS.
6. Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Body
You think too much. The best way to get around that is to unthinkingly move your body and see what shows up. Use your instincts and habits--it will probably get a little repetitive and tense, with boatloads of inarticulate effort. Good. Check to make sure your feet are shuffling aimlessly back and forth across the stage while your other hand makes the same gesture over and over again, and add some forced yelling into the mix. That's what it is like to act instinctually. If you let the circumstances of the play, your imagination, and the interaction with your scene partners and audience permeate your mind and trust your body to respond in unity with it, HOW WILL ANYONE KNOW YOU ARE ACTING????!!!!!!!*****
*****if you would like to learn how to do the opposite of all of the advice in this blog, consider checking out 'Effortless Performance--An 8 Week Introduction to the Alexander Technique' at Green Shirt Studio. It's actually pretty fun, and not nearly this salty.
Whew, that's a relief. Now let's get into some specifics as to why.
Mindfulness is a buzzword craze that has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. The basic idea is that we spend most of our life being unmindful of what we are doing and automatically going through our day, and if we are able to be fully present we will have more joy, health, and well-being.
There are some valid points here--most of us rely on habits to carry out the many complicated, coordinated activities we go through on a daily basis, and with the prevalence of technology, it is easier than ever to coast through your day without engaging in much internal or external life.
However, the flip side of the coin is what I am going to call 'competitive presence'. We notice the time we aren't being present and beat ourselves up for it. We post selfies of us meditating and doing yoga and articles about the possibility of 'what if we were present in everything we do'. This creates an expectation that we 'should' be present and are doing something wrong by not being in this state. This can lead you to a lot of effort and you end up being like this guy:
Not too blissful, is he?
Part of the problem is being fully present all of the time isn't possible, and the other part is that it isn't really desirable. Let's science it, shall we?
One of the most interesting books I have ever read is 'Thinking Fast and Slow' by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. In it, he discusses the relationship between 2 sides of our brain--the fast, unconscious , and habitual part and the slow, conscious, choice driven part (the reality is much more complicated and interconnected than this, which Kahneman acknowledges, but he uses it as a simple way to accurately characterize a complex thing). One of the central themes of the book is that the conscious part of our brain takes a tremendous amount of energy to engage, and therefore we use our unconscious brains in order to operate efficiently. The conscious brain is so energy consuming, in fact, that using it constantly is extremely uncomfortable and tiring; and once it quickly wears out we actually tend to have no willpower left and end up going deeper into unconsciousness than before. So, because of the finite nature of the conscious mind, it is not possible to always be present; because of its discomfort it is not desirable. So yes, take the pressure to be overly present off of yourself.
Now for the good news. I do think that it is possible to improve the efficiency of engaging our conscious minds through practices like meditation and **cough cough** Alexander Technique. By repeatedly catching moments when we are not conscious when we want to be and practicing engaging our conscious minds at these moments (I call it 'practicing the pause'), we engage our choice and are able to resist being drawn into our unconscious at crucial moments. What's more, I believe that over time enough of these overrides end up creating new habits--there is research in 'Thinking Fast and Slow' that suggests the conscious mind has an ability to form new habits over a period of time. However, if you do too much, you use all of our willpower (which is finite no matter how much you train it) and you don't end up applying the work with the consistency to make real change. If you apply momentary 'taps of consciousness', I believe this is what allows the possibility of entering a flow state, an optimal balance between the conscious and the unconscious mind (which also is not ultimately sustainable and will fade, as do all things).
When I work with students, one of the things I tell them in the first lesson is not to over do it. If you try to be conscious of your movement habits all of the time, you will drive yourself crazy and not want to do it anymore (or perhaps turn into what one my teachers called an 'Alexandroid'). But if you pay attention at key points, for a series of small moments, or perhaps 5 minutes a day, people are surprised at how little work can create major change, and how much more present they will feel in their own body. Perhaps this is the ultimate goal, not to be present all the time, but to always be able to be present when you choose to be.
I am going to leave you with a bit of video advice from one of the best Alexander teachers I know: Mr. Ron Swanson.
When you talk to yourself, what voice do you use?
This is something that comes up in lessons frequently. One of the central ideas of the Alexander Technique is that of Direction--how the way we think about our body activates habits that shape the way we move. Making this thinking more conscious can substitute positive movement for movement that works against us.
Alexander teachers specifically craft the phrasing of these directions--from the traditional ('allow the neck to be free') to negative direction (allow the neck to unclench) to Freedom Directions (my neck is free to be relaxed). The words we use do affect us, but there is more to it than that.
Lately I've been more focused on the tone students take with themselves with their inner-voice. I often go through a phase with a student where they are forceful with themselves--like they are trying to order their neck into freedom. This invariably results in more tension. Slowly, a student learns how to make their thinking lighter and gentler, and as such they stop trying to manipulate their body as if it is a tool that is separate from themselves but to speak to themselves kindly as if affirming a state of being, rather than judging or trying to change. This is a profound shift that subtly unwinds habits and gives us the space to grow.
The applications of this to life are boundless. Though I am not an advocate of being sunny with yourself all the time (you have to be honest, and the pressure to be constantly positive can block the release of feelings that are important to let go of), it seems clear that when you speak against yourself inside your head it only stimulates you to do more of what you have been already doing. Forceful self-criticism tends to make us less likely to take risks, which makes change impossible. This has been particularly apparent in my work with artists--many of us get so focused on our craft we stifle our inner artist under a mountain of self-monitoring and 'shoulds'. I find that when giving universal positive regard while simultaneously being honest with who I am coaching--giving accurate feedback but nurturing a positive tone for the artist to take in their growth--the effect is that they stop associating self-knowledge with criticism and start to associate it with opportunity, and their inner-artist feels safe to come out and to do the work for them.
Think of how you approach a goal in your life: posture, weight loss, a promotion, an athletic goal. How do you talk to yourself about it? Are you whipping yourself towards it like you are your own enemy, separating yourself out, or are you speaking to yourself positively and nurturingly? As much as Americans tend to have an aggressive stance to self improvement, you might find that better self talk will allow you to change faster and for the better.
A BALM FOR BACK PAIN
Recently, Lazlo Block, SVP, head of People Operations at google (also known as HR) recommended the Alexander Technique for desk bound back pain. There are a couple of reasons for this:
1. Muscoloskeletal disorders (strains, sprains, and pains) account for 29% of days missed in the workplace for injury or illness according to spine-health.com--nearly a third of all days taken for this reason. Lower back injuries represent a large segment of these. The loss in productivity from these days missed is obvious. Alexander Technique is clinically supported to make significant improvements in back and neck pain management, and could restore much of this lost work time. These numbers don't include occupational injuries in jobs that require physical strain that might be prevented with Alexander Technique work.
2. We spend over 50 billion dollars annually on back pain treatment according to the American Chiropractic Association. The potential cost to employers speaks for itself.
3. Because the Alexander Technique focuses on prevention, it will not only help people with active issues but may keep others from developing problems. It also is cost effective and efficient: other problems such as carpel tunnel and shoulder pain might be cleared up in the process; and just 6 one-on-one Alexander lessons can be effective--a steal in comparison to physical therapy or medication.
POSITIVE SIDE EFFECTS
In addition to the benefits for back pain, there are other fringe benefits to having an A.T. educated workplace:
1. Stress Management--Alexander Technique sessions can be deeply relaxing, and equip students to handle and release tension as it comes up, helping workers under stressful conditions and preventing problems and errors.
2. Process Oriented--Alexander work asks students to be aware of their habits and gives them a framework for changing them, a process that can be applied to mental and workplace habits as well. It also asks students to focus on the quality of process--what A.T. Teachers call the 'means-whereby'-- rather than the result, which has the effect of learning to 'keep your eye on the ball'.
3. Communication Skills--Alexander Technique can be wonderful for working on presentation and communication skills: the body and breath have a tremendous impact on our ability to effectively convey meaning.
How Can I Get an Alexander Teacher to Come Work with my People?
1. Host a Workshop/Intensive: Though not as effective as one-on-one lessons, a workshop can give your staff the basics and give useful workplace tips. Workshops can be adjusted and targeted to meet your most urgent needs. An intensive or workshop series gives an even more of a chance for the training to transform your office.
2. Host Lessons at your Workplace: If you have the space, consider having a teacher set up in a conference room for the day to do one-on-one sessions with workers and help them with their specific needs. One could also offer a limited number of recurring lesson slots for workers in need and help them to change over time.
3. Subsidize Lessons: At present, U.S. insurance does not cover Alexander lessons despite the scientific evidence and cost-efficiency that led the UK's National Health Service to adopt it. As an alternative, consider giving a subsidy to help workers who want to take a basic 6-lesson series to help them to be affordable.
If you research chronic back pain on the internet, you will find hundreds if not thousands of potential solutions. Everything from heating pads, to pain shots, to 'posture devices', to crystals and sound therapy claim to help relieve or even cure chronic back pain. With all of these potential solutions available, it can be hard to see why back pain is still the leading cause of disability in people under 45 in America (2.4 million Americans are on disability for it total), why it is the number two reason people visit their doctor, or why it effects 8 out of 10 people in their lifetime. Additionally, we spend over 50 billion dollars a year on treatments*. Surely, if all these solutions work, it wouldn't be such a problem.
The blunt truth is that most of these methods don't work consistently for chronic pain--even conventionally accepted medical treatments such as some physical therapy regimens or even surgeries. Additionally, many of these therapies are aimed at treating pain (aka the symptom of a problem) rather than the cause of the issue or preventing future problems. And most of these methods have limited or no scientific support.
The Alexander Technique does, and this the thing that sets it apart from the noise.
This is a small cross section of the body of research that has been conducted on the effectiveness of A.T. for back pain. Systematic peer review rates the evidence that A.T. is effective for back pain as 'Strong'.
What is even more remarkable is how low risk lessons are--many back pain interventions carry significant risk of injury or side effects (consider the epidemic of opoid addiction from prescriptions meant to curb back pain or the risk of surgery). A.T. has no significant risk as a method of handling back injury and is essentially safe.
There is still much research to be done into the process and effects of A.T., but you can enter into sessions with a certified teacher confidently knowing that it is not just mumbo-jumbo: the effectiveness of this method is well documented, and it is time for it to take a more central roll in treatment than unsupported or ineffective alternatives.
*statistics taken from the Mayo Clinic and American Chiropractic Association.
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.