I always give my students homework coming out of a lesson, Often it involves Active Rest and an awareness focus for the week--whether its noticing the way the student breathes before speaking, how much pressure they use on a knife when slicing vegetables, or something more abstract, such as thinking about connecting their pelvis to the rest of the torso. This mindfulness becomes essential in building a students learning from lesson to lesson and empowering their self-reliance and discovery. The deal is always that they try their best, and if they don't succeed that's okay, but to come back ready to report what got in the way, because this can also contain a wonderful bit of learning. Almost invariably, one predominate answer comes back:
"I was really busy."
I don't know anyone who doesn't feel like this constantly. Our world has a lot of bustle, and its easy to lose track of ourselves in the swirl of activity constantly going on around us; the constant demands our jobs, home lives, and passions put on us. However, the ironic thing is that it is in this bustle, when it is so hard to be mindful, that the mindfulness is most needed. It helps to keep us present, de-stresses us, prevents us from self-harm, and makes sure we aren't moving so fast that we miss out on the enjoyment of life.
Normally, I encourage students to journal to help them keep mindful, but some find even remembering to do that is difficult when life gets tough. So I wanted to take this opportunity to make you all aware of a new tool that can help motivate you: it is an app called 'Awareness In Activity'. Designed by Alexander Technique Amsterdam and Split Gene, it is the best Alexander Technique related app I have found.
Some apps I have found try to do to little (there is an A.T. app out there that has been reviewed as basically a commercial trying to get you to take lessons with no further benefit, which is not okay in a paid app) or too much (in the end, you can't learn Alexander Technique from a computer as well as in person). What I like about Awareness in Activity is that it has a defined role--it is a tool to help you remember to be aware and present.
It works like this. You set an awareness focus (such as the ones I routinely give my students). You program it to remind you periodically to pay attention to this focus. Then, at the end of the day, you set a reminder for it to ask you how much you remembered your focus. It then color code logs this on a calendar. Boom. So you not only get a way to remember to be present when busy, but a way to record your progress and feel accomplished about it. In addition, it features a constructive rest sub-app that has two main settings; a simple, nice 15 minute guided lie-down and an unguided constructive rest timer, where you can set intervals for your phone to make gentle noise to make sure you haven't drifted off. Any use of these features is also recorded on the calendar, which gives you a great ability to be accountable and notice your habits (oh wow, I only do lie-downs in the morning, maybe I should try one at night; I haven't done active rest in 3 days, I should probably make time today to make sure I am taking care of myself).
There also is a journal section where you can keep notes on your mindfulness progress, useful for creating a way to reference your journey and remember thoughts and awareness points you have had.
All in all, I really enjoyed this app and found it useful for picking up good habits of mindfulness (though I think my hope would be that you would eventually be able to be accountable without help once good habits have been established). I encourage you to see how it might be useful to you. It is available on iTunes and Google Play for a minimal fee(between $2.00 and $2.50).
I have a uniquely embarrassing confession. I hurt my back a couple of weeks ago.
Now, this is not really an embarrassing thing. 8 out of 10 Americans will experience chronic back pain sometime in their life according to statistics from the American Chiropractic Association. However, I spend a decent amount of my teaching practice working with people on how to prevent back and neck pain. So what went wrong?
The good/bad news, is that I know what I did, and what's more, I knew what I was doing when I hurt myself. Like many of us, I started off my new year with an invigorated enthusiasm for making change. Part of this was a schedule of keeping active in the Chicago winter by setting a consistent gym schedule. After my Thursday cardio workout, I felt a twinge in an old tailbone injury I sustained from a sledding accident in high school. Normally if I feel I have overworked this area, I stop, give a little extra attention to Use for the next couple days, and that is the end of that. This time, I didn't listen to my body, and decided to work out Friday anyway and stick with my plan. And until late Friday afternoon, I thought that I had gotten away with it. Then I felt some sneaking tightening up in the muscles around the left side of my sacrum, and by Saturday morning, I was experiencing significant pain. So this brings me to the first thing I learned from this experience.
1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY AND STOP BEFORE YOU HAVE MAJOR PAIN.
There is an old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is absolutely true. Once you are experiencing pain, a process has begun that is much harder to slow down than when the tension or breakdown was minor. Stopping before you experience significant pain or discomfort can keep you from all sorts of problems around the road including acute injury. This is why the Alexander Technique focuses on prevention rather than cure. That being said, nobody is perfect. My back pain came from my failure to apply what I already knew.
So, for the first time in my adult life, I was experiencing acute back pain. Great. Rather than focusing on my pain and giving it energy, I decided to make it an opportunity to learn about what it was like to do Alexander Technique work while suffering from pain, as many of my students do. Here are some other things that I learned.
2. STATIC POSTURE IS THE ENEMY.
Almost immediately, I found that keeping still, whether lying down or sitting up, was the surest way to increase my pain. This is in line with a model I teach every student--that the body is not made to be held in stasis, but is in constant dance of balance against, with, and using gravity. When in a static posture, muscles become overtaxed and it is a strain to allow the system to free 'up'. This does not mean that the motion has to be quick or dramatic--it might not even be visible on the outside. But allowing the possibility for movement keeps strain away from swelling areas and gives them space to loosen and not over-inflame. I found the best relief from my pain when allowing gentle rocking sitting on a supportive, not overly padded surface, feeling a tiny sway in my standing, or lightly moving around my space and doing Alexander procedures such as monkey and hands on the back of chair with mindfulness and attention. One of the things these procedures helped me to do, as well, was not be drawn too much into my pain, which brings me to the next thing I learned....
3. PUT YOUR PAIN IN LARGER CONTEXT.
It is easy when you are in pain to get drawn into it. When our attention is drawn into one area, we tend to unconsciously collapse or tense in that area. This works against what our system needs--expansion and suspension that will keep the injured area from overloading and give it room to heal. What can help is to expand your attention to your full body(particularly the relationship of your head, neck, and back) and your environment to prevent this over-concentration. I had the wonderful opportunity to trade work with the excellent Andersonville-based teacher Andrew McCann in the week I was experiencing pain. One of the very helpful things he helped me to do was to focus on directing my front to open instead of focusing on the injured area on my back, which I found not only put my pain in context but diminished my experience of it. I also found that when I was working with my students, my pain lessened--by focusing on their Use and improving it in relationship to my own, it made it much easier to handle my dysfunction. It helped me to focus my experience outside of myself. So what I'm saying is, you should probably train as an Alexander Technique Teacher :)
4. DIRECT, BUT KEEP IT GENTLE.
Here, it should be stated that my injury was an acute muscular injury, not a disc injury or a chronic injury(lasting for more than a month), which would behave differently. What I found was that though keeping mindful and keeping in touch with my 'up' was helpful, too much up, such as what would happen after doing constructive rest was not initially useful. I would get up from constructive rest experiencing strong discomfort. There is a reason why our bodies react the way they do when we are injured--your body needs time to rebuild, and the swelling helps to protect and contain the injury. If you try to fully stretch the back while experiencing strong swelling, it can cause more challenge than that area is ready for. So, take it easy--stick with the gentle movements described earlier. However, once the swelling began to significantly reduce, strong direction and constructive rest came invaluable in restoring function and helping to counter tensions that had come into the rest of the back as a result of the imbalance of muscle tone resulting from my injury.
5. USE A.T. IN CONJUNCTION WITH CONVENTIONAL STRATEGIES FOR THE BEST RESULTS.
When it comes to injury, A.T. is an excellent supplementation to conventional and alternative medicines, but not a replacement for it. Whenever I work with a client who comes to me with pain, one of the first things I ask is whether they have seen a doctor if chronic pain or serious injury have been involved. The reason for this is simply that I am a teacher, not a qualified medical professional, and though I can help when Use is a contributing factor, I am not qualified to diagnose the causation of pain nor proscribe or implement all possible solutions to the problem. I cannot stress this enough. I have also had great experiences with my clientsg oing to mindful chiropractic care, acupuncture, and massage therapy, which help in ways I cannot.
For my injury, I also visited my friend Heidi Beucher Shimko of Edgewater's Kwai Fah Acupuncture Clinic which helped me to reduce my swelling, make some good connections, and helped enormously. I also used over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs, which also made a difference. The most pleasurable home remedy I experienced was bathing using Epsom salts(which can help if the problem is muscular). I found that doing Alexander work and constructive rest after receiving these bits of help were the times I found the A.T. work most effective. Our systems are very complicated, and many things can help them--as long as we also take responsibility to how our Use contributes to the problem.
In all, I was lucky. With help, my pain was significantly reduced after just about 4 days and virtually gone and full functionality restored a week following the injury. I am going to move forward mindfully and cautiously to prevent recurrence of the injury--because I feel better doesn't mean I am going to jump in full throttle and repeat my mistakes.
As with all things, I am grateful for the opportunity for learning this bit of living has given me.
Its been a tough week. Whether you are Motorhead lover, a Bowie devotee, or most recently, a fan of the outstanding actor(and proponent of the Alexander Technique) Alan Rickman, there is a lot to feel down about. When combined with the Chicago winter, it makes it easy to feel sad and serious.
The term 'feeling down' is an interesting cultural motif. Feeling down is not just an emotional thing--it shows up in our posture(as shown in new research from Tal Shafir, Rachelle P. Tsachor and Kathleen B. Welch). We literally become 'depressed' in our spines when we feel sad(or more accurately, we depress our spines and feel sad as a result). When we allow ourselves to have our natural buoyancy and 'up'(as the above study shows happens as a result of Alexander Technique work) we actually become happier(more on this in a later blog).
Moving from 'down' to 'up' is much harder than it sounds. But one strategy which can help(and one most of us employ every day) is humor. Genuine laughter physiologically helps to break up the postural sets that pull as down and give us a chance to free up into a different state, which is why comedy can be so cathartic. The act of laughing gives a pulse to our muscles that gives them a chance to release.
This is one of the reasons why I work hard in lessons to 'break a student up'(another interesting cultural phrase) if they are getting overly focused and serious. It almost always results in a 'pull down' that doesn't allow the student to change.
Alexander knew this. Humor is a crucial component in a classical Alexander Technique exercise, the 'Whispered Ah'. If you are having a rough week, give this a try and see what happens. The genuine humor is the most important part of the exercise.
This exercise helps you to release the jaw and neck and associate exhaling with extending through your spine rather than collapsing.
1. Breathing through your nose, allow your jaw to drop open in increments, until it hangs in a easily released position. Be mindful of not tilting your whole skull up as you do so.
2. Allow a genuinely funny or joyful thought to trigger an inhale through your nose(Dad jokes always work for me, but you might have a better sense of humor-- here is a link to lolcats in case you need inspiraton). Allow yourself to smile with it.
3. Allow your exhale to drop out of your mouth on an extended whispered sigh on an 'Ah' syllable. As you breathe out, picture a column of air moving up your spine.
4. When the breath is over, allow your jaw to gently close without clenching. Breath through your nose a couple of breaths, then try the Whispered Ah again as desired.
Happy lightening up!
Stress. The Enemy.
For years scientific research has pointed to connections between stress and ill health, even to the point of establishing a connection between it and mortality. The study that inspired Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal to give the above TED talk tracked 30,000 adults in the United States over the course of eight years. People who reported high stress levels had a 43% increased risk of dying. This substantially supports the theory that stress is bad for you.
But there is a twist. That 43% increase is only true if you believe that stress is harmful.
People who reported high stress levels but believed that stress wasn't bad for them not only showed no increased risk of mortality, but had the lowest mortality rate of any group in the study.
The implications of this are staggering. What is suggested is that it is not stress itself, but the way we interpret it that leads to negative effects on the body.
F.M. Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, used to say the purpose of a lesson was to "to be able to meet a stimulus that always puts you wrong and to learn to deal with it". Essentially, it is the science of choosing whether you will respond to any given circumstance with freedom or whether you will let your habitual negative reaction restrain you. This translates physically into responding to a stimulus by using it to send you 'up' (lengthening in the system with a sense of space) or 'down' (contraction and shortening). Interestingly enough, in the above study they found that individuals who believe stress is bad for you experienced constriction in their blood vessels as a result of that belief, while those who had no such association had no corresponding physical reaction. They believe this might account for the difference in mortality among the two groups.
One of the possible explanations for this is that if you believe stress is bad for you, the experience of it would introduce a fear response in your system, which causes constriction throughout the body (as detailed in my earlier blog 'The Physicality of Fear'). So by countering that response and introducing length into the system when one encounters stress (as one does in an Alexander lesson), one may be able to avoid negative physical consequences. This might explain why after a lesson my students often report feeling 'less stressed', or after a course of lessons they will report more freedom in their overall life. It's not that they are less stressed, but that they no longer pull down around it. And that can make all the difference.
This is really just a riff off of Dr. McGonigal's excellent talk, which I HIGHLY recommend watching or reading the transcript of (there is a link above just below the video). Her work is a testament to the power of the mind to effect the body and to change our lives.
I would like to leave you with one of my favorite quotations.
"[...] for there is no thing good or bad, but thinking makes it so"
--William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.