I just finished reading Norman Doige's 'The Brain That Changes Itself', a book on the way our brain can rewire itself in response to circumstance and training. This plasticity is what is being exercised during Alexander Technique lessons--our habits our wired one way, and by giving a process to step outside of them the Alexander Technique loosens these habits and strengthens new ones, eventually allowing the new habits to become fixed. It's pretty cool stuff (Doige will be speaking at the International Alexander Technique Congress taking place at Loyola University Chicago this summer)!
One aspect of this process I find particularly important is the idea that in order to cement these new habits we need to have a feeling of reward attached to the change (literally dopamine coming into our system). Without it, our brain doesn't reorganize effectively. Anybody who has taken an Alexander Technique lesson knows this can be initially hard to come by--working against your habit can feel disorienting and feel 'wrong' until you get used to it. We are also maddeningly wired to pay more attention to problems than progress (see the indispensable 'Thinking Fast and Slow' by Daniel Kahneman) and tend to skip rewarding ourselves in order to work on the next thing we find wrong with ourselves. In doing this, we actually slow progress and can trap ourselves in our old habits.
There are several things I do as a teacher to try to help students feel reward for changing and taking risks:
There is one other way in which I work with clients to create a feeling of reward: tying in unrelated prize to something you are uncomfortable doing. Specific goals with specific rewards can help us overcome the hump of trying to create change in our lives. The beauty is that it doesn't always have to be complicated. I once had a student make significant progress by promising to buy her her favorite candy if she did Active Rest every day for a month. Not only did she make progress on her goals, but it has cemented the habit--she now continues to do lie downs every day without any sugary reward.
I guess the takeaway is simple: Whatever aspect of your life you are trying to improve right now, don't skip the reward. Without it, all of the hard work in the world might not get you very far.
Does the way you move feel like 'you'? In our 40 minute free April mini-webinar, we will explore different postural and movement options and give you the opportunity to experiment with what resonates most with you. RSVP on the form below to register and get the link to join (you will also get an email the day before the workshop with info about the webinar and how to join).
Saturday April 14th, 11am via Zoom.
There is a moment near the beginning of almost every first appointment I have with a client when they look down for a moment and their face freezes.
'I have always had bad posture. I need to work on that.' they say in a quiet voice. There is an air of shame about the statement.
The idea of good and bad posture is pervasive in our society. Whether its a nun with a ruler or a practitioner who tells you that your chronic pain is caused by not 'sitting up straight', we all feel that there is some gold standard of shape that we are all falling short of.
The answer is plainly that there isn't.
If this answer surprises you, let's look at the science. A 2012 study of 295 physiotherapists found that vast disagreements exist about what good sitting posture or even a neutral spinal is. What we think of as 'good' posture has more of a root in puritanism and military culture than it does in anything anatomical. Often, our idea of what posture we should be adopting has more to do with appearance than health and is tied to the body shaming pervasive in our society.
What is even more disturbing is when posture is pathologized. The shape we hold ourselves in is often blamed for conditions like back and neck pain, but the truth is that there is little evidence to back this up and in fact plenty to the contrary. Studies have found that people of all shapes have pain, while people of all shapes also are pain free, suggesting there is no one-to-one relation between postural shape and chronic pain. Well meaning people can accidentally instill a nocebo (like placebo, but in the other direction) effect and actually make pain worse by perpetuating this myth. (for more about the complexities of pain science, read this excellent article--its an investment but worth it).
In our Alexander Technique lessons, the goal isn't to mold you into some ideal shape that you've been failing at--it is to help you to release habits that have been imposed on your body that are keeping you from living with space and ease and to forge a deeper connection between body and mind. Most often the first habit we look at is this habit of trying to assume 'good posture' and why it fails--in trying to twist ourselves into an artificial shape, we use muscles against their design, over-stabilize, and exhaust ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with your shape. It is beautiful. And working together, we can help you to get the most out of it.
To learn more about why you should embrace the idea of imperfect posture, check out our free monthly webinar Saturday March 17th at 2pm.
Are you curious about the Alexander Technique? Are you interested in taking lessons but aren't quite sure if its the right thing for you? Do you want a firmer picture of what it is and how it can help you grow?
If so, this new free monthly webinar is for you! You can learn from the comfort of your own home at no cost to you. Simply fill out the form below to register and receive the link to join us.
How to Have Imperfect Posture: An Introduction to the Alexander Technique
Saturday March 17th, 2:00pm via Zoom
How we hold ourselves matters, but not in the way you think. True poise is a dynamic and ever-changing release of tension, not a static and uncomfortable position. The Alexander Technique is a way of learning to let go of judgmental habits imposed on the body and mind and finding our true inner-buoyancy. Join us for a 40 minute online introduction where Freedom In Motion founder and certified practitioner Jeremy Cohn will take you through basic explorations and demonstrate with one participant how the Alexander Technique can help them to revolutionize an activity from their daily life. Great for performing artists, athletes, public speakers, executives, and anyone who wants to learn how to form a stronger connection with their body.
RSVP below to get the registration link--you will receive an email the day before the event with additional information and reminders.
.....And with that growth you are going to notice a lot of changes in the coming months. We are shifting our focus from wellness to performance. The reason why is simple--in my three years of teaching, I have found that people get the most 'wellness' benefit not when trying to heal but when working towards the creation of something they love. By using Alexander Technique as a vehicle for this, clients are better able to get out of their own way and connect to their body in order to be a creative force instead of a conservative one. While they take their eye off of their problems, it gives them the space they need to grow--and we get to share in the joy of achieving goals and creating what the client is passionate about. This performance focus is meant to benefit performing artists, executives, public speakers, and athletes; but is just as valid for someone who wants to improve their Mario Kart time or how well they garden. We will still be seeing clients for issues such as back pain and anxiety, but will be helping them to focus on improving positive aspects in their life as the vehicle for healing.
With this newfound focus, we are doing a lot to add value. Some of these new features include:
Thanks and Keep Thinking Up,
In a previous post, I detailed how much I hated doing yoga in college and how my discovery of Alexander Technique work has transformed my relationship to the practice--in fact, it is now part of my personal morning routine.
The key thing that made this change is that rather than compressing into poses and flows, I now know how to truly lengthen into them, so that yoga can be an experience of expansion rather than contraction.
When your teacher asked you to 'lengthen', how do you respond?
It is worth it to define some terms, as the term 'lengthening' is one that every yoga teacher uses, but can mean a variety of different things*. My experience is that most teachers actually use it to mean an engagement of the extensor muscles--essentially an arch into the back of the body (often teachers will use the term 'flat-back' the same way'.
The idea is that this will 'draw you up' and open your front. The main issue with this is that this isn't how muscles work--they can't draw you up, they can only contract. So what feels like lengthening is actually a contraction of the muscles of the back that compromises the shape and integrity of the spine (especially loading the lower back and the lumbar curve, where most lower back injuries happen). Furthermore because of antagonistic action (nothing in your body works in isolation) the muscles of the front will also be activated by the increased pressure on the back,, resulting in an overall shortening in stature and compression throughout the body, especially in the joints of the lower body which will tighten to keep the body stable. This also contracts the three dimensional breathing surface, forcing the breath higher in the body (you will feel it in your sternum and upper chest).
Overall, the result is lowered mobility, relaxation, and ease (those tricky balancing poses become much harder). It also greatly increases the risk of injury--studies show that the spine can function quite well departing from a neutral stance when truly lengthened, but when compression is present movements like flexion and twists can lead to breakdown in ligaments, soft tissues, nerve irritation, and muscle strain. I think this is partially behind the phenomenon of yoga injury--though yoga done well can have wonderful rehabilitative effects on the body, done without proper form it is as dangerous as any more 'high-impact' physical activities.
So how can we practice with true length? Here are a couple of ideas that can help:
If you are a yoga teacher, studio owner, or practitioner who has an interest in exploring how The Alexander Technique can help your students and personal practice, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*It is VERY worth noting that this blog is a generalization drawn from nearly a decade of attending group yoga classes about the instructions received most commonly from teachers--I am aware that the best teachers have a grasp of these important distinctions. However, it is a pervasive enough pattern in yoga culture that it is worth discussing. This idea of 'good posture' is intrinsic in many aspects of our society and doubly so in fitness culture. Perhaps it is an argument for smaller classes where more attention can be given to student's individual 'Use' as even great teachers can have problems conveying this idea in large groups.
It has long been an axiom that the most common fear is public speaking. This fear is pretty rational--we are social animals, and when we speak in front of a group, whether it is in a business setting or for personal reasons, we are exposing ourselves and our place in society. Your body can be a key tool for helping you to reduce this fear and communicate your message with ownership and ease.
1. Don't Be Confident--Be Human
As a response to our fear, and to try and seem authoritative, most of us try to assume an air of confidence when we speak in public--this is a trap. When we assume an artificial confidence, we end up arching our chest and straining our voice, all of which conveys discomfort rather than competence (See my blog on 'Body Branding' for more on this. Remember that ease=expertise). Moreover, it has a distancing effect--we might be impressed by a 'confident' speaker, but we don't like them: their tension unconsciously transfers to us, and we feel a need to try and be perfect in the same way (unsuccessfully) by mirroring them. As a result, everyone is busy trying to impress each other and there is no sense of listening in the room. Instead of trying to be confident and creating an image of perfection try a radically easier tactic--share one of your imperfections early on in your presentation. This doesn't have to be a deep dark secret or a major flummox but a small mistake--mispronouncing a word, sharing a feeling you have in the moment, calmly admitting nerves. When I give big presentations or workshops, I actually plan a couple of these in the first couple of minutes--I find that once I give up the goal of perfection, I relax and so does everybody I am speaking to. It is important that when you do so, accept it without judgement--don't correct yourself with tension or apologize. Just admit your humanity and move on. Doing so changes the paradigm of the communication--it makes clear you are willing to share vulnerable parts of yourself, that you aren't here to judge, and will make you instantly more likeable. You can bring your body language in line with this by allowing a slight rounding in your back--this conveys that you aren't trying to 'put something on' or defend but are interested in open communication.
2. Occupy Your Rightful Space
One great tip for managing yourself physically when you speak is to be cognizant of where the weight is on your feet--if all of your weight is in your heels, that might mean you are unconsciously pulling back from your audience which will have a distancing effect as well as potentially causing tension in your throat and neck while you speak. Conversely, if your weight is all in your toes it might mean you are 'pushing' into your audience, which might cause them to unconsciously recoil. Try to feel your weight in both your heels and toes, have a stance where your feet are approx. under your armpits, and let your knees and ankles gently release, allowing a slow easy sway from your legs up.
On this same theme, try not to be a 'space creeper' and wander around aimlessly during your presentation--instead, allow movement to happen when you are connecting to a specific person, or perhaps at transition points in your speech.
3. Talk To A Crowd All Together, One At A Time
One thing that can get a public speaker in trouble is talking to the whole group as if they are an amorphous blob rather than a collection of individuals. This tends to make us use excess effort, push harder than we need to, lose focus, become intimidated, and miss important chances to make your words feel intimate and personal. An effective tactic I use is rather than talking to the group as a whole or talking over their heads, I let myself connect with one individual at a time while keeping the rest of the group in 'soft focus', switching every few sentences. I usually pick people in the middle of the group, occasionally speaking to someone in the back or front, to create the illusion that I am speaking to the whole group and so that people don't feel left out. This helps quite a bit with nerves, as I am much better at connecting person to person as opposed to trying to be an 'orator', and this unconsciously makes the whole group feel more connected to me.
4. Let Your Voice Ring Out Like A Bell
Many of us get concerned people won't be able to hear us when we speak and work hard to project our sound. As such, we sometimes will push our voice with a lot of tension forward into the crowd, making ourselves hard to listen to, causing vocal loss, and locking up our bodies with the effort of trying to be heard. Instead of trying to push your voice forward, imagine it filling the space behind you, above you, and to your sides as well. The result will be that you won't strain as much, your breathing will be deeper, and you will be able to reach more people with less effort.
5. Focus On Your Breath, Not Your Hands
One common trap is 'talking with your hands' to try to emphasize your points. Gesture, if properly harnessed, can be a powerful communicative tool, but instead we often end up moving our hands unspecifically, resulting in creating physical static that muddles our message. Instead of trying to control your hands (by putting them in your pockets, making fists, holding the lecturn, etc.), focus your attention on your breath as you inhale and exhale. Allow enough time for the breath to come in, which will allow your audience to process what you are saying before you continue on (another important aspect of public speaking). Notice the poise and movement of your spine. Without trying, the movement of your hands and arms will start to become synchronized and in harmony with your speech--you just have to take your eyes off the ball.
6. Don't Let Frowns Turn You Upside-Down
When I first started doing public programs, I was disconcerted to look into the group and see some people frowning at me while I spoke. Others seemed very engaged, but these individuals seemed to hate what I was doing. Sometimes, it would throw me, and I would start to become nervous or speak with less ease.
It was a shock that after my workshops or talks, these would be the people who would come up to me and want to do more work or tell me that what I had said had a profound impact on them.
The reason for this paradox comes from neuroscience--when we engage our conscious, thinking minds the muscles of the face as well as the eyes engage with it, pulling the lips into a frown and furrowing the brow. So this expression I was seeing was not one of dislike, but of deep processing (yawning can also actually be a sign of this). Once I realized this, I was much less likely to be thrown by audience reactions, and was able to be more detached from what I saw when I spoke. This is not to say that your audience should always be frowning--it is important to give them cognitive breaks where they don't have to process anything: this can be done by creating light buffer material between serious points, or by changing up your tone and delivery. In the end, you can never really know how you are impacting people while you speak, so letting go of trying to judge your own performance is an essential skill, or else you will become reactive rather than responsive and connected.
Learn About Our Programs for Public Speakers and Executives
The ability to sing is a human birthright, and something we start doing before we have words. As we grow older, this natural access to our voice narrows, often in response to our efforts to gain 'technique' and learn how to sing 'better'. The Alexander Technique can be an essential tool for recapturing the balance between ease and refinement. Here are a couple of ideas to play with that will get your inner songbird going.
1. Singing Is A Whole-Body Experience
The more trained a vocalist I work with, the more likely they are to have their attention concentrated on a small section of their body--their lips, tongue, jaw, soft-palette, and throat. It is necessary to focus on these areas when you are training in order to refine vowels, open up tone, get rid of pushing etc. The danger of this is that when focusing on these areas, we go dead to the rest of our body. It is my experience that when the whole body is set up well and the breath is moving with freedom, a lot of problems in the articulators and the complex mechanisms of the throat and mouth release on their own. Let's look at a couple of points that will help to expand this idea for you.
2. Support Is Everything--But Not the Support You Think
Singers are all about breath support. This sometimes mistakenly makes us try to push the breath out (usually tensing our abs, backs, and shoulders to do so), as if we have to squeeze our bodies tight to support the breath's movement. My wonderful teacher Liz at the Voice Lab likes to say that it is a misleading term--it is the breath that supports the voice, not our muscles that support our breath. If you tense to try and push breath out it actually results in trapping the flow of air and as a result the parts of the upper respiratory system engage to compensate. True breath support is a release that allows the breath to flow without restraint.
A support relationship that IS important is the way your body meets the ground. When you stand and sing, is the weight more in your heels or in your toes? The majority of people I work with have their weight committed backwards into their heels. This is a symptom of the whole body arching back, particularly the head. As a result, the muscles of the torso and legs tense to keep the body from falling backwards, constricting the breath and tightening the larynx and throat against each other. As an antidote for this, try relaxing your neck and letting your head float gently forward and up (easier said than done, you can see this blog to help), and let the weight shift slightly forward at your ankles until you feel some weight in the big toe-ball sides of your feet. Make sure you release your knees (try softening your inner thighs) a bit when you get there, or else you will feel as if you are falling forward. It also helps to have a supportive width to your feet--if your feet are too wide you won't feel any weight in the little toe side, if too narrow there will be no weight in the book toe. It can be amazing how a sound can transform with a better support relationship with the ground is achieved!
3. Breathing is Dimensional
Most of us know that we are trying to bring breath deep into our bodies when we sing. However, most of us try to primarily draw breath into our front. This often leads to us arching our body back (see point #2) and drawing breath shallowly into our chest in order to feel like it is going deep.
There is a better way. Many people are surprised to hear that a majority of of breathing room is not in our front, but in our back. There is simply more lung tissue there, and the 3 dimensional movement of the ribs actually favors the expansion of the back and sides rather than the rise and fall of the sternum experienced in the front. Allowing the ribs to gently swing in all three dimensions (a full circle around the body, as well as up and down) can provide an antidote to this, as long as you resist the temptation to arch to suck breath in. The bubble exercise is excellent for expanding our attention in this fashion.
4. Exhales Trigger Inhales
This one is potentially controversial and requires some nuance. When we are told to take a deep breath, we usually focus on the inhale. This attempt to pull breath in can activate the accessory muscles instead of the diaphragm and lead to some of the problems discussed in #3. The best way to activate the diaphragm is to exhale to the point where the diaphragm activates and 'does' the inhale for you. This can be a complex process and is best left to an experienced teacher, but once learned it should become an integral part of your vocal warm-up.
In performance, you can try playing with this in a simple way--before the first in-breath of your piece, simply gently exhale to make space for it. As you work breath to breath in your piece, making sure you aren't leaving a cushion of air as 'insurance' in your lungs at the end of each phrase will help you get fuller breath to support your next phrase.
5. Will Getting 'Serious' About Your Music Will Help You Sing Better?
Often, we think the reason we aren't progressing as a musician is because we aren't trying hard enough and we need to get 'serious'. Here's what getting serious leads to: a tight neck, jaw, back, and face and all of the problems seen in #1-4. If you lose touch with the primal joy of singing it is the first thing you must rediscover if you want to be the best vocalist you can be. This non-technical advice will reap copious technical rewards: your body will relax, your sound will immediately become fuller, easier, and richer.
Never let this be the last step: let it be the first.
Check Out Our Workshop for Musicians at the Old Town School of Folk Music
What does your body language say about your business? Does your posture undercut or serve your messaging? How do you hold yourself in the boardroom, with clients, when networking?
If you haven't considered these questions, you might be in need of some Body Branding.
Body Branding is a process by which you can become aware of how your postural, gestural, and expressive habits interact with your efforts to communicate with co-workers and customers and retrain these habits to align with your goals and vision.
An example--is you brand meant to engender trust, but when you speak to people you lean back with your weight on your heels, your chest out, and your body gently falling backwards? This might have an unintended distancing effect that will make clients feel uncomfortable with you without knowing why.
Or when you try to appear confident, do you push your body up, gesture out, and lean in towards them? All of these indicate insecurity and aggression and will unconsciously undercut your intent.
These are negative examples, but when your Body Branding is on point it can be a powerful tool for converting sales, building relationships, and being comfortable in your own skin. If you want to feel relatable speaking to a small room, try sitting instead of standing, turn the chair backwards, lean gently forward and allow a slight rounding in your back. You will effortlessly project intimacy and sincerity.
One of the reasons why strategies like this have an impact is because of the primal social cues we send using our body (hence the old adage that communication is 90% non-verbal). Another reason is because of mirror neurons--when we interact with someone, our brains literally 'try on' their body language to see how it feels and reads intent using it. Both of these things have an out sized effect on your personal brand and how it interacts with your larger message.
It only takes a few coaching sessions to create and implement a personal strategy to get your body on board. It is important to know that it is not just about knowing the right and wrong things to do--it is about rewiring your habits and making them animated and flexible so they won't appear stiff and uninviting. Though in person sessions are always the best option as they allow us to use bodywork to assist the habit change, online lessons are a great way to get coaching on this if you are a busy professional without a lot of extra time on your hands.
Whether you take on this work or not, I hope this gives you some food for thought on how you show up in the world.
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!
Check Out Our Workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music!
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.