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.
I had to get my drivers licence renewed this week. I showed up at the DMV with one and only one objective: to get a better photo than the last time.
When they called me up to the camera, I was ready. I had checked my hair and teeth to make sure they were clear of blatant disruptions. Last time they took the photo without me realizing, resulting in a strange expression. This time, I was ready to smile through it. I got up there, look confidently into the lens.....
And the photographer asked me to look at a dot two feet below my eye line.
Being the Alexander nerd I am, I looked with my eyes and used a gentle release at my Atlas joint to look at the dot, crunching my neck as little as possible.
The result--a photo where it looks like I have two extra chins. I was not happy.
Why do I tell this vain story? Because the rest of the day, I found myself wanting to arch my neck and stretch my head forward to avoid creating that double chin. By the end of the day I had a stiff neck.
How does our body image affect our movement? This is a complex question. There are a lot of factors that go into it, from body dismorphia (which I think could possibly have a connection to the Alexandrian concept of debauched kinaesthesia--we often have a distorted sense of our body's relative position and shape) to neurological connections to trauma and addiction. For the scope of this piece, I am going to limit the discussion to what I'm going to call 'selfie syndrome'.
While this is popularly used to describe a certain type of Instagram-fueled narcissism, here I am using it to refer to how we try to compress our bodies to fit our illusory self image, especially while looking at ourselves or taking photos.
There are 3 most common habits which I have seen with students:
1) Compressing the face (duckface) to make the cheeks look thinner and the lips bigger, adding tension to the jaw, and often unconsciously compressing the neck in the process.
2. What I was guilty of: stretching the neck and tilting the head back to reduce the appearance of extra fat underneath your chin.
3. Sucking in the stomach to make the stomach look smaller or flatter (reducing in frozen breathing, rigid lower back, and anxiety from the breath being pushed into a panic pattern).
I also have students who do this on a postural level--when they look in the mirror, they try to 'straighten' their bodies into a shape they find looks attractive, which inevitably is unsustainable and full of tension, leading to eventual collapse and soreness.
These are all very understandable--there is a tremendous pressure to 'look good' in our society, even if it comes at the cost of actually well being, and every self-judgement has consequence. With these, the compromise is Use--these habits can lead to back and neck pain, or potentially even panic attacks that could contribute to the reiteration of the cycle of self-judgement.
In fact, I have had students who have trouble with the concept of trying to expand into length and width at all on the worry that bigger=bad.
I don't know what the answer to this complex question is, but I propose that the first step is awareness--next time you look in the mirror, how do you feel you need to compress yourself to make yourself more acceptable? Maybe knowing this can give you an opportunity to use a little 'Inhibition'--putting some space between stimulus and response--to see whether the best looking you might be however you are at the moment. Many positive changes towards health can come from acceptance. Always easier said than done.
For more discussion on body image issues, I recommend my partner Melody's blog Positively Melody, which focuses on her eating disorder recovery journey and her transition to a body-positive lifestyle. I welcome your thoughts on this complex issue.
As some of you may or may not know, I am a long time bicycle commuter. Riding around the city is one of my great pleasures. With summer (maybe) coming on soon, my feelings can only be expressed in the immortal words of Queen--'I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike.'
However, 8-plus years of experience has taught me that there is a lot of potential for things to get complicated in terms of how you Use yourself while riding. There are numerous traps and opportunities, too many for a single blog to handle, so I am splitting up my knowledge into a series of entries that I hope will give you a wonderful window into the complexity of this rewarding activity.
Today, we are going to focus on the different options available in terms of machinery and the advantages/disadvantages of each type for Use. Each one has possibilities for improvement within their limitations using Alexander Technique strategies.
The majority of riders in cities ride road bikes. I rode one for years. They are characterized by dropped handle bars (that look like horns), light frames, and thin tires. In terms of speed, these are the most aerodynamic and efficient machines--there is less profile for a rider to be caught by the wind, causing resistance, and the unified center of gravity between rider and machine allows the bike to be moved and manipulated with a minimum of effort. Also, because of the dropped position of the rider, it is easy for them to feel a push backwards through the pedal and get a great stride out of each turn.
However, there are drawbacks--the bent over posture of the bike can make for congested hip sockets, over-rounding of the back, and tense arms that are glued to the riders' sides, as well as an over-arched neck in order to have vision of the road around the cyclist. This can cause neck tension that gums up the whole system as well as making it difficult for the cyclist to turn their head to see traffic and obstacles. The cyclist is also using extra muscle to keep the bike stable while going over bumps in the road and other obstacles.
This is the most challenging bike and therefore takes the most thought and awareness to use well, much of which will be detailed in future entries. However, it is the best suited for pure speed and exercise and has advantages that cannot be overlooked, as well as use opportunities for connecting to the developmental movement of crawling and following the head 'forward and up' in relationship to the spine.
The last type of bike I am going to discuss is the one I recommend for everyday riding or commuting--the sport hybrid. In my opinion, you get all of the advantages of upright posture--less neck strain, less spinal distortion, better visibility of surroundings, less congested hip sockets and potential for over-tense arms--while reducing frame weight, tire resistance, and slightly reducing your wind profile compared to a cruiser. Your top speed is unlikely to be as high as on a road bike and probably not what you want if you are a racer or fitness rider, but if you spend a lot of time in the saddle or cover a good amount of distance every day, this is the bike that will give you the most efficiency and least strain.
Hopefully, this has helped you to understand the advantages and disadvantages of your particular riding partner and given you something to consider if you are thinking of purchasing a new bike. Further blogs will details strategies for how YOU can meet and complete your bike better and get the healthiest riding possible out of it.
Happy riding and keep thinking up!
So what's your story?
Mine is that I am a product of two families--my parents divorced before I was a year old and I spent my childhood straddling two different, intense household cultures, which made me used to constantly adapting to the expectations of others, constantly fearing abandonment. This meant I couldn't please everyone despite trying and eventually led to me being very anxious and withdrawn until late middle school, when I discovered acting as an outlet where it was permissible for me to express myself without trying to please anyone. This fueled my desire to live as a professional actor, which led me to a conservatory program where I encountered the Alexander Technique, which allowed me to bring the freedom I felt onstage into my everyday life and reconcile my divided self more and more. As I worked in my 20's creating my stage career, I found myself a passionate ambassador for this Technique and eventually decided I wanted to teach it to others to give them the same opportunity for healing I experienced.
Why is this story important? Because it is like a filter I view my life through. When I catch myself trying to please students, friends, audiences, partners, I realize that it is part of my old tendency to try to adapt myself to others, which ultimately works against me (they don't want me to 'please them', they want me to give of myself). It can also activate my old fear of abandonment if I am not successful. This fear manifests not only mentally, but physically. A startle response starts to distort my head-neck-back relationship, contracting and narrowing it. My feet contract, I feel groundless, and my most easily tracked habit, tension in my right leg, shows up. This physical manifestation of my story then clouds every interaction I have until I successfully break the cycle (usually through some Alexander work, especially active rest).
The story also has positive consequences--the last part of my journey fuels my daily interactions with students as well as my artistic expression and sense of cohesive identity. This part of my story has positive effects on my head-neck-back relationship and my system as a whole.
The last couple of weeks, I have been aware of how I work not only with my students' habits and physicality, but with the stories they tell themselves as well. It could be as complex as mine, or it could be simple--"I am an anxious person"; "I am too busy to be relaxed"; "I am capable and if I'm not perfect its a failure" or even more insidious-- "I am zen and in control. I am open" (which leaves very little room for further openness or tolerance of imperfection). All of these stories have corresponding physical manifestations, tensions, and habits. There is nothing 'wrong' with these stories, but it is good to have the ability to not be slaves to them. I have noticed that when I can get someone opening physically, there is more possibility to change their story. Similarly, if I can get them to think differently, see a new side of themselves or scrape away old calcified story that is no longer relevant to what is going on now (example: I now have a loving partner who accepts me and I don't have to please in order to get love from; so I no longer need to identify with the beginning of my personal story), they have more opportunity to change physically.
So this week: if you are having a bad day, if you find yourself stuck in a pattern of thought you have felt before, I invite you to challenge yourself to tell yourself a different story, and see what can change as a result. You have the power to determine your own mind, even if you can't control external circumstances.
Until next time, keep thinking up!
In earlier blog posts, I have detailed how I was introduced to the Alexander Technique in college and how it provided profound benefits to me as a performer and a person. But post graduation, there were a few years when my involvement with the Technique was minimal.
I moved to Chicago with every intention of becoming a full-time professional actor, but no illusions about how difficult this would be. I knew it would be an uphill climb and require a tremendous amount of dedication and energy, and a strong possibility of failure. What I didn't know was that the way the Chicago theater scene is set up, you can work with good companies indefinitely without it ever being financially supportive. In addition, the day job necessary to support you while working at these theaters (most of which structure rehearsals around standard 9-5 work hours) makes it difficult to audition for film and commercial work which could theoretically make up the difference. What this means is that most actors are working 40 hours a week and then rehearsing for another 20+, in addition to auditions, classes to create connections and improve your work, and maybe (maybe) a personal life, much of which happens in bars post 11pm. The sum total of this was exhaustion.
This was the conundrum I found myself in 4 years into my Chicago experience. I had worked a potpourri of day jobs: box offices, apartment rental agent, customer service, the restaurant industry. I was lucky enough to be more or less continually employed by respectable theater companies and some amount of intermittent on camera work. Most of these jobs, despite sometimes being union or with well known theaters, payed either a stipend or a non-supportive weekly salary. Sustaining this was taking its toll. I was tired ALL of the time. I was depressed that I could be considered successful without it actually being a sustainable career. And the exhaustion was effecting my work: I found myself falling back into bad habits onstage, being tense in my body, and going numb to what I was creating.
I had intermittently used my Alexander Technique training from university throughout my career (to a certain extent it was part and parcel with every performance I gave), but I wasn't actively applying it offstage. During one particularly strain-full schedule, I lit upon the idea to use Active Rest as a way to try to leave the frustration and fatigue from my day job behind going into my evening.
This idea changed my life.
I found a remarkable difference in how much of myself I was able to bring to rehearsal at night, how much fresher I felt, how much more engaged and full of ease. I then decided to try to apply Alexander principles to my day job, found even more freedom. This helped me realize that the way I lived my life effects my art as much as anything I did while creating.
I eventually decided to take a series of private lessons with the excellent Roscoe Village based teacher Courtney Brown, and this renewal of my creative life through the work resulted in my decision to get certified as a teacher.
It is this experience that inspired the workshop I am teaching at Green Shirt Studio this Sunday: 'Day Job Survival Strategies from the Alexander Technique'. I will share some of my insights on how the Alexander Technique can create a 'trickle up' effect from your day job to your performance. I hope you will consider joining us.
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.