It's the New Year, which means many of us are looking to get our butts in gear and work towards our fitness goals.
Since so many folks are hitting the gym, I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about some of the differences between moving when you work out and moving in your everyday life. Many well-meaning fitness instructors will show you an exercise and say "this is how you_______". Sometimes that is true, sometimes it isn't. It is easy to accidentally form a conception that how you strengthen your body is the same as how you use it, but that simply isn't always the case.
Almost by definition, fitness involves putting a strain on your system and muscles that is somewhere near the edge of it's capabilities. Similarly to how we learn, moving into this space is the only way we grow--using ourselves in this fashion activates the mechanisms that lead you to build new muscle, improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system, and can do many other things to improve your fitness. There are a few ways effective exercise classes do this. All of these methods can be fun, challenging, and enriching for the purpose of improving fitness. However, lets look at what happens if we transfer these ideas outside of the gym, some of the issues that can come up, and how to solve them:
1. Adding Weight
Issue: we often create what I call "effort appointments" for different activities. You can think of these as the habitual amount of energy we spend to do any given movement. When we do a lot of weighted workouts, we sometimes develop a habit of approaching a given movement with the effort it takes to do it when weighted rather than what it actually requires in the moment--essentially we go through life at "maximum effort". This can be exhausting, burn us out quickly, and sometimes lead us to excess tension that can undercut us in various ways.
Solution: A good way to think of the benefits of strength training is that we are trying to gain strength so that we have it available to use when necessary, not all of the time. You can use an "effort scale" to rate your movements and how much tension you are putting into them: if you are turning a doorknob at a "7", you may be using more of your strength than necessary. For most everyday movements, a "3" is about right--not too much tension and not too little. If you get used to rating your everyday effort, you will start to gain context and will be less likely to overwork yourself by over-activating your muscles.
2. Pushing Movement Pace
Issue: We sometimes hold onto a fast-moving adrenaline state when we spend a lot of time doing cardio work. When we get used to moving fast a number of things happen. Our system becomes very stimulated, and we may tense up in an effort to maintain the quick pace we feel--so we end up using more effort than necessary. You may hold your breath. Quick tempos are often associated with un-useful stress--you may notice your ability to think effectively decreases and you become more reactive. You may make mistakes if you get used to moving too fast, leading to more work to correct things. Generally, when our internal tempo gets miscalibrated we end up feeling rushed and unsettled.
Solution: Similar to the solution to "Adding Weight", you can use a "time scale" of 1-10 to notice when you are moving faster than you need to and slow down. It can also be very useful to consciously pause for a moment before doing various movements--this opens up space for breath and ease in whatever you do. Plus when something actually requires moving faster, you will have saved the energy to do so effectively.
3. Changing Form
Issues: This is perhaps one of the most potentially perilous aspects of fitness training. When we change forms in fitness classes, it is often to make what we are doing less efficient--this puts our muscles in a position where they have to work harder, especially if we are trying to isolate a certain muscle. Our system usually functions most effectively as a cohesive whole with all of our muscles working together to counterbalance each other. Without this, we are simply working too hard in everyday life. What makes it worse is that emphasizing certain muscles can add unintentional strain on other parts of the body--if we move this way in our everyday life, we can risk injury.
Solution: Learning about what different exercises are intended to do! This will help you to select whether you want to move that way in everyday life (many fitness instructors are great at integrating this into their classes). Integrated movement strategies such as those learned in Alexander lessons can help you to find the most useful forms and strategies for your day to day life. Remember, there are no inherently bad movements--it is just about figuring out what is serving you best in the moment.
4. Compressing Into Movement
Issues: This can be one of the most potentially harmful affects of translating fitness movement into our everyday life. Instructions such as "engaging your core (covered in another blog)", "pull your shoulders back", and "pull your thighs together" can cause you to habitually compress your body in movement, leading to wasted energy, tension, lack of flexibility, injury risk, and an overly-rigid approach to your everyday life. Solution: Much like our approaches to Adding Weight and Changing Form, it can be very useful to know how these instructions can be useful in a strength building context but potentially destructive in the context of everyday life. Have the strength, but only use it when necessary. Alexander Technique teaches you to cue lengthening as a prerequisite to movement and as such can be a direct antidote to over-compression in movement.
Picture this--you are about to step in front of a huge crowd to deliver the speech of your life. Naturally, you are a bit nervous. You stride out onto the stage, turn to face your audience, and....
What happens to your legs?
If you are like 90% of my clients, your knees lock.
This may seem like a small thing but it has far reaching consequences. When your knees lock, it is a symptom of the whole body locking. As a natural consequence of this small action a cascade of things happens to you: you tilts slightly backwards, bringing you off of your center of gravity and putting all of your weight on your neck and back. The back of your legs and glutes tighten to keep you from falling backwards, your head tilts back, and your shoulders tense in an attempt to brace you. This has subtle but deep consequences--your breathing becomes more shallow and is forced into your chest and your larynx tightens against your throat, constricting your voice. Your face takes on a strained quality, and you realize you are leaning subtly away from your audience. They feel distanced from you. You start to feel a nervous sensation. You try harder, and find that your arms fly up in front of you and you begin to gesture distractingly.
You are caught in a Tension Loop.
Tension Loops happen when a response to stress cascades from one part of ourselves through our whole body--and when we try to correct the problem we end up sinking further into it. Often this is because we are trying to treat the symptom--tense shoulders, shallow breathing, strained voice--rather than the cause. For many of us, one of the major causes of a Tension Loop has to do with locking our legs--often a well-intended attempt to stabilize and ground ourselves when we are nervous. We often feel this as our knee locking, when it is actually our whole leg. When this happens we lose the natural support system of the lower body and the upper tenses to compensate.
If we realize our knees are locked and try to unlock them, a funny thing happens--for many of us, we actually end up breaking apart at the spine just above the pelvis instead (as in the person below).
We sometimes identify this as a tilt in our pelvis, when it actually is a symptom of the joints of our legs being locked.
So how do we actually solve this problem, unlock our legs, and relax into the support of the ground?
The magic key to unlocking your knee is your ankle.
Unless we have an injury, most of us don't really think about our ankles often. They are one of the joints that are furthest from our head, so most of us aren't used to relating to them. But all of the joints of the legs are inseparably interrelated, so it is impossible to unlock your knee without unlocking your ankle first.
Why? Take a look at the picture below.
You will notice that the ankle and knee are two ends of a lever--very simply, if the ankle is locked, the knee locks with it and visa versa.
The plus side of this is that if you unlock the ankle, the knee will magically release.
This "how" is unfamiliar but simple. You may tell yourself you don't know how to unlock your ankle, but it is easy--just think of releasing it a little bit. Since it is the foundational joint of the body, when it lets go all of the other joints automatically adjust. Most people find their knees will release without trying when the ankle does and they will immediately feel their body settle into a sense of groundedness. With this groundedness the upper body is able to relax and is free to move and express. (NOTE: it is important as you release the ankle to keep a sense of connection in your spine, so your whole body does not collapse as well)
This one simple idea can transform performance. It helps you to relax, find your flow, and put your best foot forward. Next time you are performing or even are just standing around, try this out and see what it gets you.
1. Elasticity Is Everything
Who doesn't want some free energy? The Art of Running is all about getting more out of your running with less effort. To do that, the method takes advantage of something called Elasticity--loading muscles to stretch them, and then getting a free bounce off of the release of the contraction. Most of the specific points of the method--getting the foot to make solid contact with the ground, increasing stride length and width, pelvic and rib movement, how to 'bounce' off your feet on each strike, and even the inclusion of your arms in your running are all aimed at maximizing this internal force. It can be elusive to tap into, but when I found it I had this wonderful feeling of the body 'running itself'--all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the flow.
2. It's Okay to Go 30%
As someone who finds running to be a challenging activity, I have long done what most people do when they encounter an activity that is difficult for them--I try harder. I learned though this training that my effort appointment for running is way more than is useful for me--I put so much into it, it is really hard to access and take advantage of any natural Elasticity in the body. To help with this, I received the advice to try running at 30%--enough that I wasn't under working, but also enough that I could concentrate on form, calm down my legs, and start to feel Elasticity helping me out. Now that I'm getting more used to it, I can concentrate on maintaining the 'feel' of the running while slowly filling the form with more velocity.
3. Practice Intentionally, Run Mindlessly
One thing was crystal clear from the training--there is too much going on while running to try to control every element consciously. In fact, if you do, you are most like to gum up the works and interrupt the natural flow of your run. So, it is better to take one specific element at a time, work on it intentionally through specific exercises, and then let it filter into your run and don't worry about it. This one at a time, alternating mindfulness and mindlessness approach is a great way to improve while enjoying the fruits of your labors at the same time
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I hate running. I have since I was a small child.
I used to fake sick every Friday in middle school when we had to do a mile run. People would make fun of the way I looked when I ran. I would have trouble breathing, and was slower than everyone else.
Fast forward 20 years. In a week I will be taking an intensive training program to teach others how improve their running, and what’s more important: to actually enjoy it.
I first started running more seriously while at an arts summer camp before my senior year of high school. They woke us up with a bugle call at 6am (I know, right) and there was a big gap between that and our first class for breakfast. However, I hated the food. There was a big open field behind our cabin. So, I decided to go for a half hour run as many days as I could that summer. I cranked my first MP3 player (or possibly a Discman) up to full blast and ran around the field for an unknown distance before collapsing back in my cabin for a quick shower. I still hated it. What made it work, the only thing, was having music I was excited to listen to.
Fast forward again to the last couple years. After a lot of experimentation, I have found that one of the things in my life that leaves me with the best vitality is running consistently. Every period where I do so corresponds to the best periods of health in my life. The run however, is still a chore. I do my best to check out during the actual ask--I see it as a time where my mind can wander. I get caught up in the music I’m listening to, or as has been the case recently, podcasts--ironically, many of them are on the Art of Presence.
Fast forward(er) to a couple months ago. I’ve signed up for the ‘Art of Running’ teacher training and am reading back through Malcolm Balk’s book of the same name, when I reach a bit that terrifies me. In the book, he advocates for running without any music or audio. This allows you to pay more attention to your body and turn the activity into a form for enjoying the present moment and getting more in touch with the sensation of being embodied—the exact opposite of the routine that has allowed me to successfully be a runner for the past couple of decades.
Why does listening to audio take us out of our sense of embodiment? It is hard to say exactly. There are curious connections between our sense of embodiment and our sense of hearing. When I do spatial awareness exercises with clients I often tell them to ‘listen’ to the space around them. We ‘listen’ to our bodies. And there is something about sustained artificial audio that takes us out of our bodies and can give us a sensation of floating in an intellectual space outside of our embodied reality.
Reading this, I realized running is one of the activities in which I ‘kick myself out’ of my body almost completely. And the idea of coming back into my body when I run brings back old terrifying associations with shame over being made fun of for ‘running weird’ and other body shame issues.
Grudgingly, I decided to try it out.
The results have been startling.
The first striking thing is that I immediately set personal records at the three distances I run most frequently. And not by small margins—I improved 2 minutes on my mile run and nearly 10 on my three mile. These are HUGE. They are probably a result of me better being able to pay attention to mechanics, and more importantly, to feel when I was approaching an unsustainable level of stride and stay on the edge of it rather than going over and then wearing myself out, forcing me into interval or below pace running.
Secondly, I found I was less worn out after runs, and actually enjoyed them more. They made me feel great in my body when I stopped avoiding the experience of being in my body during them. I found myself more energized for the rest of the day, with a great sense of the support of the ground below me and the movement in my hip sockets.
This made me curious about the way I consume audio in general. I love music and podcasts, but sometimes it just ends up feeling like a background buzz that I’m not really paying attention to. So I made an experiment—what happens when I don’t allow myself to multitask with audio while I carry out my daily activities?
Once again the results were shocking to me. Suddenly, all the activities that used to be dreary chores became interesting to me again—opportunities to make friends with my body. My posture improved in all of them. And when I did listen to music again, I felt like I was really hearing it rather than just using it as a way to check out.
The moral in the story from my perspective is not that listening to podcasts or other audio while doing your daily activities is bad for you. Its simply that when we do too much of it, we lose the ability to be present in any of what we are doing. And if I even do one activity a day without my normal audio, my quality of life improves.
Here’s your challenge: pick an activity you usually supplement with audio. It could be running, it could be doing laundry, it could be driving. And try doing it without sound for a week. How does your relationship to the activity change? How does your relationship to your body and posture in the activity change? How does your enjoyment in the activity change?
Let me know what you discover!
“Worry is a misuse of the imagination.”
“It’s dark because you are trying too hard.
I am a performer. And I suffer from anxiety.
I came across the first of the two quotes above awhile back and was immediately struck by it. What it highlighted for me was that when I was using my imagination onstage and when I was worrying, I was using the same muscle.
Throughout history, anxiety and imagination have been tied together through countless artists who also suffer from difficulty creating healthy boundaries around their creativity. Creativity itself is a neutral force that can be used for good or evil, self-realization or destruction.
When I was in theater school, I struggled with over-effortful performance. A professor told me I had tremendous energy and needed to find a better way to channel it--it was like a fire hose that had so much pressure that it lost control. This need is what forged my original connection to the Alexander Technique (I've written a bit about my personal journey in other blogs).
Through A.T. I found a way to ground and direct the stream of my thoughts and energy to benefit me rather than harm me. Through this I shed much surface tension and anxiety and greatly expanded as a person. But there has always been a holdout of these energies that have persistently resisted being dispelled.
Recently I've had a breakthrough in how to take my work with myself(and students) even further. It has to do not just with the Direction of my thinking, but with the intensity of it.
A tool I use often with students is the idea of the Effort Scale, which I adapted from teacher Joan Schirle--the idea of analyzing any movement on a 1-10 scale of effort and trying to find the appropriate tension for what you are doing at any moment. Sometimes extreme low or extreme high tension is appropriate, but often right effort falls somewhere on the 3-5 range. Usually we apply this physically, but lately I have been experimenting with it mentally--how effort-fully am I thinking? I was shocked to find that even with improvements to my day to day physical effort, my mental effort was still often higher on the scale than I would have thought, and that certain activities, especially those where I use my imagination, spike this effort higher still.
This made me think of the Aldous Huxley quotation at the beginning of this blog. What if I could think lightly, but still deeply? How would that change my anxiety? How would it change my performance?
The early results have been pretty mind-boggling. When I feel anxious, i don't try to stop thinking anxiously--instead I try to think lighter (somewhere on the 3-5 range on the scale). And I've found my anxiety has had significantly less hold on me. When it comes to performance, specifically acting, more nuance and ease has been communicating with less of a tendency to get stuck in my head. Its been like a magic trick.
Next time you feel tense, try thinking lightly but deeply, and let me know how it goes!
This is part 1 of a new series of blogs on how to learn anything more easily and get the most from your Alexander lessons
Have you ever heard the story of Goldilocks and the three bears?
A young girl comes across a cottage in a woods and decides to go in. She finds three bowls of abandoned porridge. She tries one, and astoundingly it is too hot (despite being left alone presumably for at least a couple of minutes). She tries another, and it is too cold. The third bowl is just the right temperature. (It is best not to overthink the physics involved in this. Did they spoon out these bowls at different times? How do bears hold ladles?).
She then goes on to repeat this process with chairs and beds, trying out wrong options until she stumbles upon the right choice, before being surprised by the houses' three occupants and running out (probably unnecessarily--from their choice of furniture and food, it is obvious these bears are more interested in comfort than aggression).
Like most fairy tails, this story is not really about what literally happens in it. What can this teach us? Is it about the dangers of turning to a life of home invasion and food theft?
My take is that one of the things this short, complex tale is about is how we learn. How does Goldilocks find what is 'just right'? By trying out the too hot and too cold options and settling on something in the middle.
When we are learning to do any activity, we typically don't follow this process. We aim to get the result directly--by trying to find the 'right' option for us as quickly as possible. The right amount of tension. The right way to do something. We judge what is right by habit and instinct rather than informed choice, and often hamstring ourselves as a result.
A technique I have found more useful is to try out extremes and use them as a basis to form discernment of the best choice. A good example is an experiment I do with every student in their first lesson--I have them try out a slump (collapse), a strut (overly effortful posture), and then go for something in the middle--if it is somewhere between these extremes, they can trust they are trending in the right direction even if it feels unfamiliar. With time and repetition, this helps them build up their sense of poise until they become quite skilled at selecting the right tension for any activity.
Similarly, you can apply the Goldilocks principle by intentionally trying out 'wrong' options for any given task-eventually you gain a sense of what the right options must be.
One of the keys about this idea is that it no longer becomes about whether you are doing something right (a moral judgement), but about accruing experience. This can take away a lot of the pressure we put on ourselves.
I am excited for you to try this out on your own and to see what you discover!
Our hips are one of the most important joints in our bodies and one of the most overlooked. Here are 5 keys to unlocking their full potential.
1. Your Hips Are Not Your Waist
When I do workshops and ask people to point to their hips, most people point to the tops of their pelvic crests at the level of their waste, approx. here:
The issue is that there actually isn't a joint here. In fact it is one of least flexible parts of our spine. From an anatomy perspective the waist doesn't exist, yet many of us unknowingly try to bend from there. The true hips, the hip sockets, are here:
As you can see, this is quite a bit lower and more towards the interior of your pelvis than you might have thought--a couple inches towards the center of your pelvis from the buttons on your jean pockets. Try bending with this idea in mind--how does it change the movement to think of bending from here rather than the waist?
2. Hips Gotta Roll
One thing you may notice looking at the above picture is that your hips are not a hinge joint (like your elbow) but are a ball and socket. What this means is that whenever your hip joint moves it moves in multiple dimensions--it rolls out as it flexes, and moves back towards the center as it straightens. What this means practically is that your knees will also naturally float away from each other subtly as you bend them. We often use excess tension trying to hold the knees together and keep the hip socket from rolling rather than letting it go through its natural range of motion. And on that note.....
3. Hips and Knees Are Besties
One of the things that can cause us problems when we move is working with parts in isolation rather than looking at the function of the whole body, the whole self. Lets look at the hips and their besties, the knees:
The most important thing to notice here is that they are not in fact separate structures--the plug of your hip socket and the top of your knee are all one bone. What that means is that when the knee moves, the hip must move. This is key to understanding bending, walking, and many other activities. If you try to move one without attention to the other it might go poorly, and many of us will unintentionally bend at the waist instead.
4. Your Hips Have A Lot To Do With Your Breathing
Many of us think of our breathing being a function of our lungs, chest, and throat--in fact it is a whole-body process!
Check out the connections between the hip socket and the diaphragm--the primary muscle of breathing. You will see a muscle called the Psoaz that links the two. When your hip socket doesn't have free movement, it affects the movement of the diaphragm. Wa-pow!
5. Your Hips Are Not The End Of Your Legs
Finally, we think of our hips as the end of our legs, often dividing ourselves into upper and lower bodies (sometimes at that imaginary waist we talked about earlier).
Surprise! The functional network of muscles that are part of the motion of our legs extends all the way up to the lower back, where they overlap and interconnect with the muscles of the upper torso.
So in reality we all have legs for days.
How does it change your thinking about your movement if you imagine your legs extending up to your lower back, and your hip socket is a middle joint rather than an ending joint?
The holidays are upon us. For the next couple of weeks we have the rare opportunity to slow down, be present, and appreciate life.
My hope is that when someone comes in for an Alexander lesson they get a miniature of this experience. Much of we what we do in A.T. work is slowing down our patterns so we can be aware of them and make changes if we wish to. It provides a delicious opportunity to come back to yourself.
It may or may not surprise you to know that I have quite a bit of trouble slowing down. My impulse is always 'go go go fast fast fast'. That's why this work provides such a valuable balance for me. It allows me to make sure that I am not outstripping myself and missing the forest for the trees, or working against myself without knowing it. I can similarly find holiday times frustrating. I struggle with truly taking the phone off the hook.
One thing that helps me is the consciousness that moving slow actually enables moving fast. Without pauses, I wouldn't have the energy, stamina or focus for when things are really going. I discover things in the stillness I wouldn't otherwise see. At this speed I can practice and build the skills that will serve me when things accelerate.
Alexander work can feel like we are seeking to slow you down quite a bit, and sometimes students mistakenly think that it means you are supposed stay slow. That simply isn't true. The truth is, you go slow so that you can go fast. You can only do quickly what you have taken time to build through patience and care.
Perhaps this an interesting way to see the coming holiday. Rather than waiting for the New Year, when things wind up to a fever pitch, to make changes, what if you start building for what is coming while things are slow? While things are still? While you have choice, and presence, and ease?
Perhaps that is the true way to take a holiday and make it last all year.
According to Alexander Technique ideas, we have three choices at any given moment of time:
We live in a reactive world, and one that prays upon and is custom engineered to profit from it. From the cable news cycle to the ads in our news stream on Facebook, our world is not only automated but built upon the hope that we will be as well. See a news story? Feel angry. Click. See an item custom designed from an over-intimate knowledge of our google searches? Buy it. Alexander worried about the impact of automation on our lives all the way back in his first book Man's Supreme Inheritance and drew strong connections between this and the turmoil and proto-facism of the first world war.
In this increasingly automated world, it is easy to feel like you don't have control--that you are being pulled inexorably and helplessly down a conveyor belt that is built not for your own happiness but for that of others. And while some of these features are sold as designed for convenience, I do not believe they lead to fulfillment. I believe it is the agency of our exploration that gives us pleasure, not the decisions themselves. It is only with this agency that we can be awake to the miracle of life around us.
So how can you practice this freedom? By questioning your responses and practicing non-reaction.
If you see that political post on Facebook, ask yourself 'what if I am wrong about this? How could I respond differently?' Then try it. If your initial impulse still feels right, then you will know your conviction is sticky and that you are making a choice, and not just reacting. You might discover the new idea opens up new possibilities of empathy and action. You may also ask yourself whether you need to respond at all. Of course sometimes this is impossible, but even a slight pause in response can loosen a reaction to the point where you can make a considered decision. Even if we are right on an issue, we need to ask if our initial response is helpful or part of a system that creates the conditions we abhor.
I cannot emphasize enough that this is not a process of creating false equivalencies between facts and opinions--it is simply a way of distinguishing the difference for ourselves and examining our processes of action.
We do this in A.T. lessons every day. By making simple decisions on whether to move in a habitual way, a new way, or not to move at all, we are subtly strengthening our power of choice over our lives overall. That's why we are called Freedom In Motion.
You may choose to take this advice. You may choose to do something different with it. Or you may choose to do nothing at all with it. The choice is yours.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to join the Poise Project's Chicago training for working with people living with Parkinson's and their care partners hosted at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. A wonderful day with colleagues learning how to better serve this community. Check out the photos below for a look in!
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.