“You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.”
"You can’t do something you don’t know, if you keep on doing what you do know.”
"Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down."
One of the key principles of the Alexander Technique is the idea that in order to create meaningful change in ourselves, we must first stop doing our 'Habit'--an automatic response to a stimulus or circumstance. Another is that our thinking--mental activity--translates over into our physical body in terms of tension, effort, and specificity of action. This process is referred to as Direction.
In order to consciously change your thinking for the better, you have to drive a wedge between the stimulus to react and your habit--in A.T. this is called Inhibition, a very heady word that simply just means making space to change. I have found one of the best ways to do this is to simply slow down--in the modern world, we are constantly stimulated to action, with little time for awareness or breath. Sometimes I find that even if I succeed in pausing my body, my mind races on with lightning speed--mediators might be familiar with the sensation of sitting still for 20 minutes focusing on your breath but fighting the pace of your thoughts. Any attempt to change or calm yourself down must involve your whole self--body, mind and spirit; and sometimes all that is required is to consciously find a way to direct the mind to cooperate with your intention.
Here are 7 ways I've been playing with slowing down my mind lately you might find handy.
1. Extend your Exhale:
When we are stressed, we tend to do one of two things--hold our breath, or try hard to 'breath'--usually meaning trying to pull breath in. This is a trap--we take short shallow breaths into our upper chest (the pattern associated with panic attacks!) and spend more time inhaling than exhaling. Scientifically, when you do this your heartbeat speeds up, and with that comes adrenaline, racing thoughts and tension. The simple solution is to focus on your exhale. It doesn't have to be complicated--you can simply notice when you are holding your breath and allow it to gently release, try exhaling on a long gentle stream through the nose, or release a gentle sigh through the mouth. Don't over control or try to breath on counts (which tends to promote tension in your ribs and torso)--just try to extend each breath a little more than the last one. If you don't muscle your inhale afterwards, you will find the in breath comes with more depth and ease. In Alexander Lessons, we learn a formal exercise called the 'Silent Lalala' that helps with this. You can play with it in my 'Active Rest to Ease Anxiety' talk through.
2. Move Slowly for 10 Minutes:
Often if you try to hold yourself completely still (a la meditation) you over-stabilize and stiffen the muscles in your body. The result is that your mind races--instead, try slowing your everyday movement down for about 10 minutes and see if it calms your mind. Like the breathing, don't go for the 'Olympic Sport' of slowing down right away, try to move a little slower with each movement than the one before. You might find if you do this the pace of your mind and breath might start to slow down with it. A great discipline that helps with this is T'ai Ch'i. Mindful, non-fitness oriented Yoga can have a similar affect. I also find a gentle walk around the neighborhood can accomplish a similar aim.
3. Turn off Media--Social and Otherwise:
This one is a no brainer, but is hard to execute practically. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli to react to--positive and negative--through the media. This includes sites like Facebook, but also includes: cable news, text messaging, and, alarmingly for some, podcasts. All of these things create constant background chatter that forces our brain to speed up in order to process everything. Try to have at least an hour a day without these--close Facebook, turn off your phone's ringer (or better put it in the next room, like I try to), and enjoy some sweet silence for your mind to expand into. You can also try a word freeze--try not to read or listen to anything verbal for a few minutes and your mind will calm down.
4. Sync with an External Thing with a Slow Tempo (but really pay attention):
Sometimes, it is hard to slow down from the inside. You can use some clever external input to aid you--one of my favorite ways to wake up is to watch nature documentaries--the expansive imagery and moderate pace helps me to turn off my mind's urge to over-accelerate. Taking a walk in nature can have similar benefits. Another great strategy is to put on some slow music and actually listen to it--don't let it be in the background, really notice and be present to it. One thing that can take this to the next level is letting the mucis be non-verbal--there is something about not hearing words that lets your mind go nonverbal and slow down along with it.
5. Moderate Sugar and Alcohol:
When I consume too much sugar, I find I get overstimulated and my mind races. Conversely, if I have too much alcohol, my system becomes depressed, and much like sitting too still, my mind speeds up to function within the artificially slowed system. This is not to say you can't enjoy these things--just be conscious of over-use and if you are employing them as a form of self-medication.
6. Slow-Motion your Internal Monologue:
If your mind is racing, notice the speed at which your inner voice is literally speaking. You might be surprised to notice its breakneck speed. If you try consciously 'talking' to yourself very slowly (I've nicknamed it 'sloth-voice' for myself) you might find the rest of your mind slows with it.
7. Connect to Another Person (in-person):
Another one that is surprisingly hard. Honestly, we let mobile and online communication substitute for human contact too much in the modern age--spending time in the same room with someone else breathing together and seeing the other person's responses has a very different affect than virtual communication. This doesn't have to be anything complicated, but try combining this with the previous strategies--try to minimize media input with the meet-up; be conscious of not holding your breath when not speaking; meet up to be present in nature or see some live music; don't push the conversation. This shifts your focus from internal (its interesting how virtual communication intensifies this internal attention) and spreads your consciousness into something else, taking internal pressure off and providing context for your thoughts.
Enjoy and keep thinking up! Much more info on how to slow down and become present throughout the rest of freedominmotionat.com.
'I'm sorry I haven't done more, with everything going on in the world its just really hard to think about my posture right now'.
I was finishing up a catch up call with a former student--I typically try to reconnect with someone who has finished a course of lessons a couple months after to see how they are doing. This student had retained the mobility they had found from our learning together, but was embarrassed they hadn't been more mindful about the work in the last couple of months. In fact, they had called me back after our original conversation because we hadn't talked about the elephant in the room --the election.
'I've just been so stressed, I cant take my mind off of it, and I don't feel the energy to do other things, even to take care of myself.'
Does this sound like you? You aren't alone. Almost every student I have worked with since November has asked to work on stress relief strategies, and multiple students have expressed a sense of helplessness against the world's problems and a feeling of futility in attending to day to day life with such concerns constantly pressing in on us , often from social media (check out my post on Facebook, Fear, and Inhibition from just after the election).
This is certainly understandable. If you consider the current situation a threat to your safety or well-being, it activates powerful survival instincts--our systems are geared to move into fight/flight mode at the perception of any threat through something called the startle response (see my blog 'The Physicality of Fear'). If we don't have a way to resolve the threat through action (as many people feel about the current situation), our system transitions into a freeze response--it shuts down our feelings and sensations in order to protect us. It does this is by locking our body down with physical tension. Besides putting a stranglehold on our ability to move on a physical level--we have to overcome our baseline tension to make anything happen which takes a tremendous amount of effort--maintaining the freeze itself takes a tremendous amount of energy: tension is not static in our body, but is essentially constantly firing electrical energy. Therefore: we feel tired and drained all of the time and are unable to take care of ourselves or take action. The longer a freeze persists, the less ability to respond we have available.
There are indirect consequences as well. When stress is in our system, our digestion tends to suffer. The tension can cause headaches and activate migraines. And mentally, all the energy our system requires to maintain the freeze saps our conscious mind (which requires more energy) and we tend to fall back on our instincts and biases--which can easily be exploited and misled, leading us to be triggered deeper and deeper into the freeze (this is a complex subject--I recommend the excellent book 'Thinking Fast and Slow' by Daniel Kahneman if you want to learn more about how our brains form habits and biases and the consequences). This tends to lead to an us vs. them mentality and lazy fact checking, among other problems.
The result for someone wishing to make a positive change in the world is that they end up hamstrung--they are left exhausted, unable to act, depressed, reactive, and not able to use their conscious mind to select the best strategies for change or to realize when what they are doing might be working against them.
This is why self-care is so vital right now. Its not about selfishness--its a prerequisite to change and action. And its vital to know that, because if you are in a freeze, your instincts will try to keep you from breaking it.
Whether its through A.T. or some other means, I hope you take some extra time to take care of yourself in the coming months. This could take many forms: a bubble bath, a massage, creating some silent time for yourself, paying extra mind to sleeping and eating healthily, or even taking in some comedy (important: make sure it is stuff that makes you laugh in a way that goes deep into your body, helping to relieve tension--cynical or meme humor that makes you snicker or 'ha!' might actually increase the freeze--if it isn't connected to your body, it isn't a release). There are even apps that can remind you to be mindful and help support you.
Alexander Technique has specific benefits for you because the self-care strategies you learn in a lesson directly counteract the startle response that leads to the freeze state. Here are a few easy ways you can get some A.T. benefit in the coming weeks:
I want to finish with one of my favorite Victor Frankl quotes: "When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves."
I hope some of this thought helps you to make a positive change, and helps you to help yourself.
Keep Thinking Up!
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(Disclaimer: I fully acknowledge that I am sharing this on Facebook and the irony inherent in this.)
For many of us, it has been a very stressful week, to put it mildy.
Whatever your political beliefs, there has been reason to be on edge. Facebook has been flooded with everyone's opinion of the goings-ons, alarmist prophesy, and reporting from dubious news outlets.
The day after the election, I found myself overwhelmed. I recognized that my system had gone into the familiar pattern of the startle response. I have written here about this phenomenon before: neck tightened, head pulled back, shoulders flying towards my ears, back and breathing constricted; a relic of the fight/flight/freeze response activating to help us deal with threats to our safety in our autonomic nervous system. This response also can correspond with panic attacks, and makes it very hard to access higher brain function--we are essentially forced into our brain stems.
Usually, when I experience one of these responses (which is often), I use strategies from the Alexander Technique to counter the onset of the physical response, and to clear up the corresponding mental static. However, 2 days into our current predicament, I still found myself frozen. Why was I unable to move this response through my body (besides obvious concerns?)
Whenever I signed on, any amount of space I had found in my system was immediately snatched up by one alarming statement or another. In that way, the startle response was constantly 'refreshed' with every refresh of my news feed.
One of the central features of the Alexander Technique is the concept of 'Inhibition'--that in order to stop the activation of a habit or response, we have to give ourselves a little space from the stimulus to create the possibility for change.
With the constant stimulation of Facebook, I was unable to find the space I needed to calm my system. So, on the advice of a friend, I 'Inhibited' Facebook--at least on my phone.
Within a day I had found significant relief. My breathing returned to normal, my sleep improved, my neck released, and my brain started to move towards positivity and action rather than fear and victimization.
I have long been concerned about the 'bubble affect' and reactivity inherent to Facebook--the danger of a stream of information shared by people from our limited social circles and the encouragement to 'react' by immediately choosing a simplified, emoticon-depicted emotional response. These factors tend to cause us to be unlikely to listen to others and 'tribe up' instead of using these platforms for reasonable discourse and expansion. Ironically, being virtually connected to everyone in the world can cause us to become more isolated than we have ever been to outside ideas. It can also cause what I am calling the 'meercat response'--a wave of fear running through communities, caused by the unmitigated sharing of our fear response virtually.
Obviously, it pays to stay informed. I still go onto Facebook a couple of times a day from my computer--but it is too easy to get addicted to the adrenaline of the emotion flying around on it. My quality of life has improved since I separated it from anything I keep on my person, and I suggest you do the same.
I am lucky enough to have a number of teachers in my practice right now. Voice teachers, piano teachers, P.E. teachers, as well as caregivers where teaching is an integral part of their profession. I have to admit that I work with them with a little extra relish. Why? Because it's very efficient.
When I work with a teacher's Use, what they learn trickles 'Up' to their students. Besides the thoughts, methods, and Technique they absorb, their Use itself is a teacher for whoever they work with. Why? We as humans learn by example. In terms of our physical habits, this phenomenon is specifically traced to mirror neurons--cells in our brain that translate whatever we see in somebody else's body into our own experience. So when a student of mine is teaching a class how to play guitar, they are folding his good habits of Use into their own playing, especially if they are young and relatively habit-free.
This doesn't just go for 'formal' teachers. In life, we all serve as each-other's teachers every day--on small or big things. Next time you find yourself in a situation where you are the teacher, consider how your Use could be an extra gift to whoever you are communicating with.
Have you taken group classes, private lessons, or workshops and want an opportunity to refresh your knowledge in a friendly group setting or receive coaching on a monologue, song, scene, instrumental piece, or everyday activity? In collaboration with Green Shirt Studio we are proud to announce a new informal monthly drop-in class. Each class will contain a half hour of restorative work and an hour of time for master-class style coaching on anything YOU want to work on. The last Sunday of the month 4:00-5:30 pm staring Sept. 25th, 4407 N. Clark St. $10 cash at door. Come out and enjoy learning with some friendly faces!
Also perfect for folks who want to learn about A.T. and see it in action before enrolling in other programs!
A 10-minute guided talk through on some movements you can use to make your Active Rest practice more expansive. Listen on SoundCloud here. Transcript is below.
'Find a quiet place without many distractions and with open space. Leave any devices you have out of arms reach so you won't be tempted to use them during your lie down. This is time for you and you alone.
Place a couple of paperback books, spine facing away from you, on the floor. A yoga mat or area rug can be an excellent way to cushion yourself while still making sure the surface beneath has firmness and support.
Lay yourself down with your head on your books, hands lightly placed on your abdomen, soles of your feet in contact with the ground, knees coming up and away from your hip sockets. It can be nice to come down into fetal from half-sitting and roll over onto the books rather than curling straight back as you are more likely to arrive with optimal length in your spine.
Accept the support of the ground underneath you. Imagine that you are on a beach under a nice, not too warm summer sun and your body is allowed to melt into the ground. Or, alternately, pretend the ground is rising up underneath you like an elevator and is ACTIVELY supporting your weight, and see if you can give just a little more up to it.
Give yourself a sigh of relief. Let it drift out on a simple whispered 'Ah' sound. Good. Now give yourself another sigh, and see if you can extend the exhale just a little, letting your breath out in an even un-held stream.
Turn your attention to the back of your neck. Send it an image of expansion--imagine it is a stretched rope and let a little slack into it. Or like its made of silly putty and is able to stretch a little bit. Imagine a spot of warmth on the back of your neck and let it expand until it is like a warm collar covering all 360 degrees of your neck and relaxing tight muscles. Give yourself the first direction: My Neck is Free
Let your eyes track to the left, without your head moving. Notice if you feel a pull towards that direction in your neck. Let your eyes 'reset', and then look again. After a moment, allow your head to roll and follow your eyes to the left. Send the muscle on the front right of your neck a little bit of coaxing to come into more ease. Now let your eyes lead your head back to center on the books. Your Neck Is Free. Now look to the right, first just with the eyes, and then allowing your head to roll to the right, allowing some ease into the muscles on the left front of your neck.
Allow your head to recenter on your books. Get a sense of your whole spine, from between your ears to your sacrum. Imagine that these two points are playing tug of war with each other, bringing the space in between into a stretch. Now imagine both sides of the tug of war let go and the whole spine remains at maximum length. Give your self the direction My Head is freeing up. Pause, breath. Don't react. Just think it. Now give yourself the direction to My Back is widening and lengthening., thinking of your pelvis freeing away from your spine. Pause, breath.
Keeping a sense of This whole spine, bring your attention to your hip sockets. Notice if you are holding them tightly, and ask for a little release. What is the minimum tension you need to keep your legs suspended? Bring your mind's eye to your left knee. allow a gentle rock to come into it. Play the game of 'how easy can this movement be'. Increase the amplitude of the rock, but not the force or tension. Eventually, allow the knee to fall to the side and the leg to un-bend into length. Pause. Feel space in your left side, especially in the lower left side of your torso and the lower back. After a moment, allow your heel to rock on the ground, and sweep your left leg back up into semi supine, allowing the knee to bend to the side in the process. Use a gentle heel-toe movement to find an optimum balance of the leg where you feel you do not need to spend much or even any effort to keep it in place. Now allow a rock to come into your right knee and hip socket--can your left leg remain in place without tensing while you work with the opposite leg? Good. Let the right leg sweep down into length. Pause. breath. Allow a rock in your right heel and hip socket and sweep your leg back up into relationship with your body. Heel toe to a best position. Do you perhaps feel more connected from your legs to your torso? Do your hip sockets feel a little less tense? Does your lower back feel a bit longer and more relaxed?
Repeat your head-turn from side to side, asking your neck to be a little more free as you do so.
Bring your attention to your hands on your belly and your elbows being supported by the floor. Can you encourage your elbows to free a little more away from each other? If so, can you let your shoulder blades drift apart as well? Lets help them a bit. Allow your right forearm to drift up to stand straight above your elbow, elbow still on the ground. Send some energy through your fingers as if your fingers are being pulled by strings. Let this lead your elbow to unbend (without locking), leading your whole arm to balance over your shoulder blade. Now imagine you have a night's sky above you. Track a shooting star going across your body, letting your arm follow it and your shoulder come off the ground. Allow your elbow to bend and your hand to be replaced on your belly, shoulder and elbow coming back into support on the floor. You might notice a little more space in your shoulder and upper back. Repeat on your left side: balance your left hand over your elbow, allow your strings to lead the arm up into the air, track a star moving across your body and bend the elbow to replace. Take a moment to feel if this creates a difference in your breathing.
Let your head roll from side to side once again. Notice if there is any increased freedom. Allow your neck to be free.
One last piece of movement. Allow both arms to extend balancing above your shoulder blades (which are still spreading on the ground). Let your palms face each other as if you are holding a beach ball. Allow your arms to move towards your head, elbows not bending, as if you want to bring the beach ball above your head. As you do you might feel your spine want to arch. See instead if you can let it remain long to support the movement of your arms. Now bring your arms to balance above your shoulder blade again. Allow your arms to move down to your side, suspended slightly off the floor, beach ball still in hand, and see if instead of allowing your spine to curve you can keep it lengthened. Let your arms return over your shoulders and re-fold onto your belly.
By now, you should feel your body freeing into the support of the floor better than at the beginning of this talk. Feel the length of your spine, the suppleness of your neck, the ease of your hip sockets, the space between your shoulder blades, the unraveling of the large muscles of your legs. Continue to stay in semi-supine for as long as you wish, giving directions and using any of the movements from this talk you want to continue to explore, and then bring yourself slowly back into the upright and out into the world. '
By the same token over rounding –either by collapse of the muscles in the front or over-tightening of the abs—has the same effect—the spine’s curves serve not only as a container for our interior structure, but distributes strain along balanced curves helping us to handle more impact over time, as well as offering us the flexibility which is the hallmark and gift of human movement. The drawback of this strength and flexibility is that we can bring ourselves to our limits and cause injury, inefficiency and discomfort without anything to intervene and stop us.
This is especially easy to do in repetitive activities such as cycling. You are calling on your body to repeat its task over and over, and that movement isn't neutral—it is coming out of neutral that makes movement possible (another reason not to ‘hold’ yourself in rigid posture). So this isn’t going to be a blog about how to neutralize your spine when riding, because you can't peddle a bike with a completely neutral spine. However, what I would suggest as an alternative is the idea of ‘resetting’—making sure to give your spine variety and allow it to come 'through' neutral in its motion in order to give you flexibility and ease while in the saddle.
Let’s look at this as applied to riding an upright cruiser or hybrid bike first as it is easier to do well. Here you are not as bent over the handlebars as you are on a road bike. Your spine will not have to have more than a cursory bend in the primary(rounded) direction to help you grip—the direction of the fetal curve of the spine you have as a baby, as preserved around your ribs and pelvis. It is important to not allow too much of a sink into this rounding, as that can lead to compression and soreness over time. To help with this, instead of thinking of crunching your abs or bending your front, focus on the side that is lengthening--the long curve of your back. Focusing on this while not narrowing your front and giving your basic directions for your head--neck free, head forward and up in relation to the top joint of the spine-- will create an optimally lengthened spinal curve, which is much healthier than a compressed spine. It is also important to have the seat at the proper height to allow your weight go into your sits bones (the two rocking chair shaped knobs on the bottom of your pelvis) instead of your sacrum (the fused base of your spine), which will inevitably force you into over-curving.
The overall goal is to make the spine's natural balanced resting curves the center of your movement--your spine should return through its balanced state (see picture at top of page) occasionally to take pressure off of it. To aid in this, give yourself an occasional arch on the bike to balance out the rounding curve you will probably have in your spine while riding. However, if you ride well, this movement will probably be taken care of naturally. What happens as you turn the pedals? With every stroke of your leg, there should be a naturally curving along one of the diagonals of your back and and arching along the other side. The same thing happens when we walk. To feel this, try taking a step with your left leg--you will feel the diagonal from your left hip to your right shoulder (which should swing slightly forward) round and the diagonal from your right hip to your left shoulder arch slightly. As you step with the right this reverses. The same thing happens on the bike with every stroke of your leg, as it reaches its greatest height (knee bent in front of your torso). One common mistake is to resist this motion and hold the torso stiff thinking it lends stability--in reality, it causes wear and tear on your muscles and joints (especially your hip sockets) and is less efficient. Think of this motion as crawling on your bike--you will even feel a slight push through your hands, though it is important not to exaggerate this movement. It can also be nice to sometimes give yourself a momentary upright twist on your bike to wake up or release these spirals if they have gotten tight or immobile.
How do these two principles (moving through a lengthened neutral spine, allowing the back to spiral with the movement of the legs) adapt on a road bike? The simple answer is that they intensify. The strong bend necessary to the mechanics of the bike requires greater head-neck-spine direction, free lengthening of the back, and an ability not to crunch the front. Looking up in order to see the road in front of you can also cause compression in the arch of your spine (using your head effectively on the bike will be the subject of a future blog). To counteract this, I recommend periodic breaks to sit up on the bike, giving yourself a strong balancing arch and a couple of lengthened spirals through the torso. I can't emphasize enough how much prevention is the key here--the more you keep your back from tightening and give yourself breaks before you feel tightness and pain, the better off you will be.
That is probably more than enough information for now. Our spines, the mechanism of our primary relationship of movement, will certainly factor into every other discussion of cycling to come. Until next time, Keep Thinking Up!
A moment of silence. Wherever you are, stop. Turn off the television, turn off your music. Just sit in silence.
After a break, how does your brain feel? How do your thoughts feel? Does your whole system maybe feel a little less excited? Perhaps there is a little more room for change?
I was inspired by a (relatively) recent Huffington Post Article on the potential benefits of silence for the brain to examine the level of silence present in my own life. With the flurry of world events, the bustle of spring/summer, and living in a major city in full swing, I was finding my life and my work cluttered, and wasn't getting the same benefit from my self care (especially active rest) as I was used to. Upon examination, I realized I had developed some habits that were designed to increase the presence of noise in my life--listening to music and podcasts, constant checks of social media, etc. I found that I actually resisted letting go of the noise, but the moment I made a commitment to creating space, I experienced a flood of relief and ease.
The resistance to silence is part of my addiction to activity--something may of us experience. We like to feel that we are accomplishing, doing, engaged. However, being in a constant state of 'doing' keeps us from the many theorized benefits of 'non-doing' cataloged in the various studies mentioned in the article--information processing, formation of memory, restoration of our mental resources, and possibly even the growth of new brain cells. I am reminded of Tracy Lett's speech at Chicago Ideas Week in which he posits that one of the most important factors in living a creative life is allowing yourself to be bored--without that vacuum, there is no space to allow something new.
All of this connects with the essential Alexandrian concept of Inhibition--allowing yourself not to react to the stimulus to 'do' something immediately so you can exercise choice in your actions. When this principle is applied in lessons, students often observe that their movement feels 'quieter', and that the world seems to come into sharper focus. I believe this sharper focus is because there is less noise to block us from perceiving the world around us fully.
So I've made some changes. I have stopped listening to music during lie downs. I have tried to limit social media and email times to a couple checks a day. And I have tried to bring more silence to my work with students, so they can better hear the still small voice of ease inside themselves.
I challenge you this summer to find some opportunities to let silence into your life and to reap the benefits.
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.