This month, Freedom In Motion Alexander Technique turned three. This occasion led me to reflect on not only how grateful I am for all of the wonderful people I've had the chance to learn with over the past three years, but also how much my perspective on the work has changed. Here are three chestnuts I've garnered from my first few years of teaching.
1. A Playful Attitude is the Key to Self Discovery
If you want to get serious about change, get light with yourself. Trying hard to change tends to create tension and reinforce pre-existing patterns--the remarkable thing about play is that it allows us the possibility to step outside of ourselves with curiosity and non-judgement and try on something new without the pressure of analyzing it. I have learned not to go anywhere deep with a student until a sense of play is established--play is, in essence, both courage and safety. If you can say 'that was fun' rather than 'that was right', you are working in a useful way.
2. You Can't Control Release
I often say one of the paradoxes of this work is that it attracts clients who are searching for more control of some aspect of their lives--and instead challenges them to give control up. The fact is, you can't force release, and trying to let go of tension or habits while remaining firmly in the drivers seat is an irreconcilable contradiction. This work requires a remarkable amount of trust in yourself and in the universe to conspire with you to keep you safe and thrive when stepping outside of your box. In the end, you can only create the best circumstances for release to occur and try to get out of its way.
3. There is No Difference Between Technical and Personal Change
One of the key foundations of the Alexander Technique is what F.M. Alexander termed 'Psycho-physical Unity'--the idea that there is nothing mental, physical, or spiritual that is not reflected in both of the other aspects equally. When I first started teaching, I would often see two types of students: those who were seeking the changing of something technical, and those were seeking deep personal growth. I enjoyed both types, and as I have gone on I have found that they have merged: often somebody who comes for a technical issue (back pain, musicianship) end up growing tremendously personally alongside the shifting of that issue, and those who come seeking connection and growth end up creating technical structures that allow that depth to thrive. In the end, its all the same thing!
Your Life Used to Be Very Different Than It Is Now--What Facilitated the Changes You've Made?
I spent 14 years as a BtoB marketer in both the corporate and agency settings. While I looked very successful on paper, I felt like an impostor and failure in my heart. In giving myself the permission to slow down and reflect, I've been propelled into a world of more connection, community, and support. The healthier, happier, and more mindful I am the more fulfillment and success is invited into my life. It’s a pretty beautiful thing!
What Have You Gotten Out of Your Alexander Lessons?
Release, relief, renewal - in no particular order. Working with Jeremy at Freedom in Motion, learning more about the Alexander Technique, and implementing basic movement and breathe techniques has impacted everything from my presence to my speaking to my overall confidence.
What Do You Love to Do When You Aren't Focused on Your Own Growth and Creating Growth for Others?
On days of rest you can find me with my husband and pup-dog Charlie mindfully boating on Lake Michigan, skiing in the Colorado Rockies or cooking up a new dish while sipping a glass (or two) of old-vine Zin.
Julie Breckenfelder, a Certified Professional Coach, focuses her practice on personal growth and professional excellence. She partners with clients (and businesses) to expand their mindfulness,shift their behavior patterns, and unleash the transition they crave. You can check out her website at www.jbcoaching.com/ or contact her for a complimentary strategy session.
What do you love to do?
I love to act and sing and be a part of Chicago theater. I am also passionate about how the arts can be used for healing. I love that I can combine my passion for theater with my passion for psychology through Psychodrama. Psychodrama is an expressive arts therapy that can be used to help people understand and change the roles they play in their lives along with decreasing depression and anxiety.
What do you get out of your lessons?
My lessons have helped me understand how my body moves through space, the relationship between my body and my breath, and my physical habits that arise in audition situations. Lessons have helped me to begin to change these habits so that I can approach the audition in a different way.
What are some of your goals for 2018?
I hope to approach auditions in a more free and playful way allowing my creativity to be expressed more easily.
Brittany Lakin-Starr is an Actor, Vocalist, and Licensed Clinical Psychologist living and working in the Chicago Area. She is the founder of the Chicago Center for Psychodrama and is on faculty at the Center for Creative Arts Therapy.
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 email@example.com.
*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.
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Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.