Back in the Studio: Applying Alexander Technique in my return to dance

Back in the Studio: Applying Alexander Technique in my return to dance

For many years, I found myself unable to find the motivation to exercise, whether it was yoga, strength training or cardio. I had also been thinking about revisiting modern jazz dance classes, in the SImonson Technique, which I had studied in high school and college. Within the past 5 or 6 years, I had even gone online and located beginning classes. For some reason, I couldn't overcome inertia so never got to a class.

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Strategies for a Lie Down #2: Breathe easy

When people think of a full breath, they focus on inhaling. Without first effectively exhaling, it’s like trying to fill an already partially full tank beyond capacity…

Instead, learning to allow more volume of air to leave on the exhale sets up conditions of release and more space for fresh air to mix in with the residual levels of atmosphere in your lungs.

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Alexander Technique applied to weight management

Like many of my friends and family, with age my metabolism has slowed down. Once I could eat whatever I wanted, and as much as I wanted, and my weight was stable. In my mid-thirties, I noticed a slow but steady weight gain. At one point, I was 25 pounds heavier and decided I would need to change my habits.

Losing weight proved fairly easy, and I took of 12 pounds in 12 weeks, but maintaining the weight loss was a challenge. After regaining 11 pounds, I accepted the fact that I was going to need to change my long-term habits around and relationship to food.

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AT applied to mindful eating

In an effort to reduce stress, I have stopped watching the news. I skim the homepage of the Guardian and the NY Times to keep current, but otherwise, I rarely watch news on TV or online.

Instead, I watch British films and TV, comedies and crime dramas, home improvement shows and I am a huge fan of the Great British Baking Show.

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"You teach the Alexander Technique? Oh, is that like..."

(Originally published November 2015)

mindbody buddha

When I tell people I teach the Alexander Technique, they ask questions to help them figure out which category to place it in. "Is it like yoga?" "Oh, that's about posture and breathing." "What kind of exercises do you teach?"

I tell people the Alexander Technique is truly a mind-body method.  I can show people how their minds and their thoughts impact their bodies. To begin, I help people observe the effect of the mind at the level of muscle tension, balance and mobility. I can also help people see how their thinking effects other systems, including emotions and physiology.

Without a first hand experience (and even after one) it is often difficult for people to find the language to convey what the work is and how the Alexander Technique helps them.

Here are some of F. M. Alexander's words to help us describe the realm in which the work takes place.

In August of 1934, F. M. Alexander delivered a lecture at The Bedford Training College. Among many amazing things he says during this talk, there are two quotes which I find most thought-provoking and exciting:

"We see people do certain things and without thinking or questioning we copy them. Don't. Don't do it…. Do what I recommended everybody in the world do in my first book. That is, to sit down and think over all the beliefs and ideas they have got and find out where they came from. You would not have many left.  After a week's thought, you would throw them overboard."

"You would not think that the matter of belief comes into our sphere. You have all got your ideas of what belief is. Do you know what we have found that belief is? A certain standard of muscle tension."

The Alexander Technique works with belief systems. While it may seem like "bodywork", it is really a process for (among other things) reclaiming awareness, consciousness, and the ability to be truly in the moment, experiencing novelty.  We begin with the belief systems of sensation, such as how much muscle contraction I need to perform a certain task.

 

 

Feeling Grief Fully

(Originally published October 2005)

In September of 2005, my dear friend, mentor and dance teacher, William Burdick, passed away. I was not prepared for his passing. I saw him on Thursday of the Labor Day weekend for our regular weekly class and received a call on Monday that he had passed that Sunday evening. During our class, he was fully lucid and present, and when I said goodbye, we had spoke of our class the following week.

My first sensations and emotions were shock, then numbness set in. I felt distracted and had to keep telling myself again and again that he was no longer living next door to me and I would not be seeing him again. I kept waiting to wake up from the bad dream that I was experiencing.

What was more disorienting for me was that there was to be no funeral, memorial service or gathering. I felt like I'd been dropped off a cliff and was left hanging there.

During the week that followed, I had mildly disturbed sleep and dreampt about him often.  When I woke up, I had the feeling something wasn't quite right in my world.

But I also noticed that as I was teaching and talking with people, and speaking with William's partner, Daniel, that I was present to how much I love being alive, I enjoy my work teaching and the relationships I have. There has been nothing painful about remembering.

And, I recalled a piece my friend and colleague, Vivien Schapera (www.4windsacademy.org) had written on grief. Reading her words many years ago had connected me to a resource I have in me to deal with loss. In her piece included in the book "Curiosity Recaptured", Vivien writes of her experience after her brother's death:

"As a self-employed mother of two young children, a "run and hide" reaction would have been disastrous. On the very same morning of my brother's death I had to start choosing how to be - to put everything on hold, or to continue functioning. I chose the latter and it was immediately empowering. I found that I could still think, plan, organize, eat, laugh, and socialize.  I discovered that life goes on."

I am finding my grieving process is taking on a life of its own and I am following where I am lead, with respect for whatever inner wisdom knows how to do this in a way that works for me.  I am fully engaged with my work and friends, while at the same time experiencing some anxiety in the form of a racing heart and a trembling feeling in my solar plexus. These symptoms peaked about a week after William died and after four days, I attended to myself with nutritional and hands-on support to bring the anxiety levels way down.

For the past 12 days or so, I've had lower back pain, an area that rarely if ever hurts. I realized the other day that I was feeling the pain of this loss physically, which is not unusual for me. I have been doing lots of floor work and constructive rest and getting hands-on support to help me through.

Surprisingly, I have not wept many tears, and whenever I speak about William, I feel gratitude for the depth of our relationship, and I am fully at peace with his passing. I don't find myself wishing I had said or done things that I won't have the chance to no that he's gone.  I feel complete, and an acute awareness that I miss spending time with him.

Your Spine is a Vital Organ

From the archives: 1/6/06

meerkat.jpg

Not only am I a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I am also a student.  I had my first lesson in 1983 and still have lessons and exchange work with colleagues.  I have found the Technique useful in my endeavors as a dancer, singer and exercise enthusiast; and as a valuable tool to help me heal from injuries, including 3 whiplash incidents, neck, upper and lower back spasms, a hamstring pull, severely stubbed toes and other bumps I don't recall at this moment.

Most recently, I spent 12 weeks healing a lower back event.  The symptoms started a couple of weeks after particularly stressful stretch, including the death of a dear friend and an anxiety provoking missed approach when landing at the Cincinnati airport.  It began with soreness on the sole of my left foot, moved to pain on my lower left side, and which ranged from a dull ache in my abdomen to a sharp pain on the left side of my waist.  Sitting was most painful, so I spent most of the day on my feet or laying on my back, knees bent.   Taking Alexander lessons helped greatly, as did teaching.  During the worst patch, I would awaken in pain in the middle of the night and slept poorly.  Ibuprofen helped.

I did an exchange with my colleague, Judy Stern, who is also a Physical Therapist. After I described the symptoms, we concluded that I probably had a chronic muscular spasm and she recommended a week of ibuprofen to reduce the inflammation, and that I rest on the table or floor two to three times during the day.  After a week, I felt 90% better and have resumed exercise and only occasionally feel sore - which resolves itself within minutes.

Judy reminded my to think of my spine as a single organ, rather than break it into segments (neck and lower back) so that I can work with myself - my stress and pain, in a more effective and holistic way.  Sure enough, I find immediate relief when I remember that my spine is a unified structure of support.  Taking it even further, I include the awareness that my whole torso (shoulder to shoulder, sit-bone to sit-bone) is a single entity.  This immediately improves the mobility in my rib cage, and I notice my breath becomes fuller and it seems as though twenty pounds of pressure eases, as the upper half of my torso stops pressing down onto my waist. (No wonder my lower back was sore!)

Try This:

Using a mirror, look at your torso so you have a strong visual memory of how wide your shoulder girdle is and how wide your torso is.  Trace your shoulder with your fingers, so you have a sense of the structures.  Locate the bones on the bottom of your pelvis.  One easy way to do this is to sit on a firm chair, and then place your hands under your buttocks.  You will immediately feel the bones and their weight on your hands.  As you remove your hands, notice if there is a clearer sense of contact on the chair.

Here's a useful site for interactive learning to help you refine your knowledge of your body's structure.

 

When you're feeling better, a new challenge begins...

From October 2006

In my private practice, I work with people at all stages of wellness and injury.  It's not unusual for a new student to begin with me when they've healed most of the way, but now find they are at a plateau or stuck in a cycle of re-injuring themselves.  The Alexander Technique provides a valuable tool no matter where you are in the healing process, and complements most healing modalities.

One of the challenges of dealing with pain is creating accommodations in your daily life.  Still, when you're in pain, you have a constant reminder that brings you back to conscious awareness of how you are doing what you are doing.  You don't have to be reminded to avoid doing things that exacerbate your pain.  You pay more attention to what you are about to do, and make choices about what not to do.

The challenge comes when you start to feel better, and stop paying such close attention to your actions.  This crucial time is when you are at risk for a set back or re-injury.  Perhaps you've felt limited or just plain tired of having to be so careful about your movements.  As soon as you have a few good days (or even a few good hours) it's easy to let your guard down and go back to the way you did things before you had to think about it.

This is the point in the recovery process when you can truly benefit from slowing down and making choices about your activities.  Think of it as insurance, or getting some savings in the bank in terms of your healing process.
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Here's a personal example:

Last year, as I dealt with chronic pain in my low back over a period of about 4 months, I adopted the practice of avoiding sitting at all costs.  I felt best when standing, so once I got out of bed in the morning, I avoided sitting and even bending down as much as I could.  Sleeping was painful, as I can only sleep on my side.  At the worst of the pain, I slept poorly for many nights in a row.  While awake, I could be comfortable flat on my back with my knees bent and some books behind my head. (Constructive rest position).  I could sometimes be comfortable on my hands and knees.

I chose to stand on the subway, and while I did sit in a car, I had seriously considered laying down in the back seat for the duration of the trip.  I was unable to exercise; bending to put my trousers on was painful; I avoided going out to restaurants or the movies.  I was emotionally and physically exhausted from the pain.  I created all kinds of adaptations to avoid activities that caused or worsened the pain.

As soon as I began to feel better, I went though another challenging phase of healing.  I'd feel better, so I'd over do it and spend the next couple of days feeling like I was back as square one.  After a few rounds of this particular cycle, I began to use my Alexander skills of awareness and inhibition (saying no before responding to a stimulus).  I found the clarity to continue to create safer conditions in my activities.  Even as I was feeling better, I took it very slowly in adding activities back into my life.  I went a lot more slowly than I wanted to, so I kept reminding myself to notice that I wasn't in pain as motivation to "just say no".

I also gave myself the support of taking Alexander lessons to help me release the long term tension that had built up from "cringing" in pain over such a long period of time.
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If you have healed from an injury, and know that every so often, something you do causes a return of some or all of your symptoms, recall what kinds of activities you adapted or avoided during your healing process.  Reflect to see if you've been engaged in some of the movements or activities that you had to avoid completely while healing.  Consider having some lessons with an Alexander Teacher, or consulting with your PT or Massage Therapist, to develop modifications for those activities, and/or a reconditioning program.

 

Don't just do something, stand there... so you can choose and decide

(originally published 12/7/00)

The following is a quote from Walter Carrington's new book, "The Act of Living: Talks on the Alexander Technique":

"When people are asked to do something, and they go to do it, almost invariably their immediate reaction is to tense up.  That's the problem.  It is what puts people's reactions so wrong in so many cases.  It is absolutely habitual.  They tense in response to things, particularly if it's something unfamiliar or unusual or emotionally charged - particularly emotionally charged.  Now if you can make a conscious, voluntary habit of responding by inhibiting or, if you like, saying I have time - it doesn't matter how you express the thought to yourself so long as that's what you convey - you've got the time to choose and decide how you're going to carry on from there.... The essential thing about inhibition is the realization that you have the time, you have the possibility, to choose and decide."

In my lessons recently, I have noticed many of my students and I have been observing and debating the value of tension, effort, and strain in the doing of our activities.  It's not that anyone of us really advocates busting blood vessels.  Rather, it is the constant challenge of questioning what our sense of feeling may be telling us is the "proper", "necessary" amount of effort to get a thing done.  The idea suggested above - of slowing down and taking time to choose - is a tool often overlooked and underutilized because our feeling sense tells us we "must get on in with it in the way we are already going or we'll never get it done. "

To begin allowing for the possibility of taking that time, we have the Alexander lesson.  This is time we've agreed to spend practicing inhibition, and are more willing to slow down.  Then, we begin to take this tool into our lives.  At the office with ringing phones and deadlines.  At home with the hustle and bustle of family and home life.  In the heat of the moment when someone has said something that elicits a strong reaction from us...

Before we can change a thing, we have to know what the thing we want to change is.  Try this tool - saying "I have time" as breathing space to allow yourself to see more clearly what it is you are doing in order to choose what you will do.

Let me know how it goes.

 

hourglass

Just because it feels "right" doesn't mean it is...

(originally published 1/10/00)

Alexander writes in "The Use of The Self" :

"The belief is very generally held that if only we are told what to do in order to correct a wrong way of doing something, we can do it and that if we FEEL we are doing it, all is well.  All my experience, however, goes to shew that this belief is a delusion."

The first thing that occurs to me today as I read this is the idea of faulty sensory perception.  Alexander referred to this with a grand term: debauched kinesthesia.  As I come off a particularly emotionally charged 48 hours, I recall that while I was in the midst of it, I could sense that I registered a great deal more contraction in my overall musculature than I usually do.

confused

I am also left wondering about my state the rest of the time - when I don't register "more" contraction than is usual and thus don't have a sensory contrast to get my attention.  What brings me back to myself at those times? Giving an Alexander lesson or taking one is one of the things that brings me back.  And the "bringing back" is due as much to thinking and dialogue and environment as it is my kinesthetic awareness.

Alexander asserts that the belief that I'm going right if I FEEL I am is unreliable.  I have a mirror and the guidance of a teacher's hands to assist and give me another set of criteria to assess.  I have my ability to think and reason.  I am learning to use those abilities.

 

Feeling is believing - or is it?

12/27/99

In August of 1934, F. M. Alexander delivered a lecture at The Bedford Training College.  Among many amazing things he says during this talk, there are two quotes which I find most thought-provoking and exciting:

illusion

"We see people do certain things and without thinking or questioning we copy them. Don't.  Don't do it. [new paragraph] Do what I recommended everybody in the world do in my first book. That is, to sit down and think over all the beliefs and ideas they have got and find out where they came from. You would not have many left. After a week's thought, you would throw them overboard."

"You would not think that the matter of belief comes into our sphere. You have all got your ideas of what belief is.  Do you know what we have found that belief is? A certain standard of muscle tension."

The Alexander Technique works with belief systems. While it may seem like "bodywork", it is really a process for (among other things) reclaiming awareness, consciousness, and the ability to be truly in the moment, experiencing novelty.  We begin with the belief systems of sensation, such as how much muscle contraction I need to perform a certain task.