This Isn't A Violin

 Melissa tong - melissatong.com

Melissa tong - melissatong.com

When you pick up a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, do you immediately tighten your upper arm and shoulder?  Do you tighten them before you’ve even touched the object that you’re picking up?  How about picking up a heavy backpack or a musical instrument?   

A little trick that I’ve been using myself and suggesting to my students to help avoid strain and compression when picking up and holding objects is to first tell themselves that the object isn’t what it is.  This may sound like an idea for a surrealist paining, but think of it as a way of suspending judgement and expectation, allowing for something new to happen.

An good example of this game came up in a lesson recently with my student, Melissa Tong.  Melissa (pictured here) is a professional violinist who has been playing since childhood.  She began taking Alexander Technique lessons with me because of chronic pain in her bow arm.  We quickly learned that the root of the problem began when she lifted the violin up to her shoulder.  She would twist to one side and press her opposite shoulder down.   Long story short, resolving the problem in the arm was dependent on changing what was going on in the shoulder and the back.  She made progress in leaps and bounds after just a few weeks and we began looking at the issue of lifting the violin as beginning at the moment her hands first touched it to lift it out of its case.  The years of playing had given the instrument a certain high-stakes “weight” that in subtle ways, contributed to how she would react it, so I encouraged her as best she could to tell herself that this wasn’t necessarily a violin in the case.  She could approach it with a fresh perspective and learn something new about it and herself each time she picked it up. 

When we decide not to know, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn and sense in ways that we may not have expected.  We give ourselves permission to learn about and change habits in regards to things in our lives that we tend not to question.

Here’s a little game you can play with the objects around your home to help you to suspend your habitual reactions to picking them up and avoid using too much effort where you don't need it.   A small book or a cup are good objects to start with.

  • Pick up the object without really thinking about it. 
  • Close your eyes and pick up the object again.
  • Go back and forth a few times, picking it up with the eyes open and closed and notice if you feel a difference.  (Usually there is less effort in the upper arm and shoulder when the eyes are closed)
  • Now that you’ve had these contrasting experiences, see if you can pick up the object with less effort with your eyes open.

In this exercise there is an element of suspending what you know about what you are picking up.  In the example of lifting an object, closing your eyes forces you to sense the object more keenly with your hand and then to respond to the weight of the object as you feel it in your hand.  All that is needed is to move the fingers and thumb together to grasp it, rather than tensing the bicep and shoulder in preparation of picking it up.  The rest of the body will respond to the weight of the object, but that will happen automatically and without strain (if you get out of our own way).  For example, in addition to focusing on grasping the object with your hand, avoiding tightening the upper arm and shoulder, also make sure you don't tip backward by letting your lower back cave in to the weight.  Instead, allow the weight of the object to become part of your weight. 

Pretend you don’t know!  Practice sensing the things around you with a fresh perspective and see what you learn and if you are able to get rid of some of that pesky shoulder tension!  Leave a comment below and share what you practiced lifting and what you observed.

Also, visit melissatong.com if to check out when Melissa's next gig is!

You Have No Back, but You do Have a Spine

Imagine the following conversation...

Ionesco-affiche

A:  What's wrong?

B:  My back hurts.

A:  Your back of what?

B:  The back of my hand.  What going on with you?  You don't look so well.

A:  My back's been bothering me.

B:  Back of what?

A:  The back of my leg.  Last week it was my back and now it's my back.

B:  So the same, both weeks?

A:  No, the back of my arm last week and now the back of my leg.

B:  Oh, sorry about that.  I hope your back feels better.

A:  I hope yours does too.  Hey, I know a good back doctor if you want a referral.

B:  Back of what doctor?

A:  Back of knee...I went to him last year when I had that soccer injury.  I guess that won't do you any good though.

B:  Thanks anyway.  See ya.

A:  See ya.

Do you feel like you just read a page of absurdist drama?  If so, then consider something that you may take for granted...your back.  Back of what?  Back of your TORSO.  To consider what is popularly called "the back" a separate body part may well be just as absurd as isolating the back of your hand as "the back".  

The way we think about our bodies influences how we use them.  If we think of the back and front of the torso as two separate planes, then it becomes difficult to coordinate ourselves in an integrated way and we become more prone to compression, leading to strain and injury.  

The back is the back of the front the front is the front of the back...and there are sides too!  Start in the front and touch your  ribs.  follow them around your torso and you'll find that they attach at your spine.  This may look obvious on an anatomical drawing, but most people have so little awareness of the backs of their torsos, that they for get there are ribs there.  The rib cage is three dimensional.  Put your hands around your sides and take note.  Notice movement of the rib cage as you breathe.  Ideally it should expand and contract with each breath like bellows.  

Lower down, we hear lots about lower back pain caused by hyper-extension of the lower back.  There's also a lot of concern about bellies sticking out.  The belly and the lower back are the front and back of one another.  If the lower back is arched, the belly will stick out and vice versa.

And as for the spine, your spine isn't just those bumpy bones that you can reach back and feel.  It's quite deep and you might want to consider the front of your spine lengthening as well as the back of it.

As  always, to free the torso, first think about releasing excess tension in your neck, particularly the big muscles in the back of the neck and think of the very  top of your head aiming up toward the ceiling.  Relieving pressure below must first start with releasing downward pressure from above.  That means, to free your torso, you must first make sure that your neck and head aren't pressing down into it...and then let your torso lengthen and widen three dimensionally. 

Let's get rid of this idea of "the back".  Notice how you feel when you sense all sides of your torso and share your experience in the comments below.


The Art of Running - For Seasoned Runners, Beginners, & People Who Don't Like Running!

In a couple of weeks, I'll be assisting Malcolm Balk, Canadian Alexander Technique teacher and running coach extraordinaire.  He's put the two together and developed The Art of Running and is the author of Master the Art of Running:  Raise Your Performance with the Alexander Technique.  When I first encountered his work by attending a workshop, I thought I'd just get some tips for my students who run, but have since taken up running myself.  Malcolm travels all over the US, Canada, and Europe teaching The Art of Running.  I interviewed one of my Alexander Technique students, Oona Short, who participated in his last workshop in NYC last Fall.  She took the workshop because she didn't like running, but wanted to see what there was to like about it.  Competitive, casual, and beginning runners alike can benefit from this workshops.  Click here for more info on the workshop and to sign up and check out my conversation with Oona below.

 That's Oona in front, wearing blue shoes.

That's Oona in front, wearing blue shoes.

LN:  Tell me what you told me about seeing the photo of yourself running that was taken during the last  workshop and that now appears on the flyer for the current session.

OS:  I was very excited to see  the photo because it’s the first time I thought that I was showing good form! I knew I’d done it in class, but I thought that as soon as I started to run, I would probably revert to some prior incarnation--especially because there was a goal in sight and a lot of beginning runners like me think that’s the time to stick out your chin and go for it.  

Not only did the picture make me happy, but at the end of the session, Malcolm said to me “You have the potential to be a very good runner.”  I never thought of myself as being any kind of runner-- even though I thought I was was capable of doing any other sport or physical activity. The difference was that all those other activities seemed to be in a separate category from actual life.  You shoot hoops, hit a ball with a bat, hit a ball with a tennis racket-- whereas running is an exaggerated version of what you do everyday.  You walk faster and faster until you’re running.  I associated it in my life with running for a bus with heavy bags in your hands, or while wearing a backpack.  It seemed pretty stressful and  I didn’t understand why anybody would do it for fun. I understood endorphins, I understood getting a good feeling from an aerobics class…but running? I just couldn’t get it.  Part of that was because my “use” wasn’t good.

LN:  Can you talk about that?

OS:  My neck had just about atrophied after years of reading and writing. I’m a writer, so I spent a lot of time just looking down at texts.  I also had a structural problem in my back, which made it pretty immobile.  The percussiveness, the repetitiveness of running-- at least the way I did it--it hurt!  But  I didn’t know the way my feet were supposed to come down, I didn’t know how to use my arms. I realized that people trained to be good runners, but that it was just to learn how to go faster and faster. And I just wrote it off as something I’d never do...that it was something for other people, but not for me.

LN:  But you took the Art of Running workshop last October, so there was a reason.  You were curious about something.

OS:  Well, one reason was that my partner likes to run and I thought at least one of us should go. Then I thought, well, if he and I both go, it’d be an experience we could share.  I was also feeling more confident about how I was using my body because of the Alexander Technique classes I’d been taking  and I read Malcolm’s book, which I liked.  So I  thought that maybe I would give this a try. I live in a neighborhood where there is plenty of space and running tracks. Plus, running is  something that you don’t need to get a lot of equipment for, you don’t need to assemble a team, it  doesn’t cost a whole lot.  And also I wanted to try something new! I’d learned from my Alexander classes how to do other things without injuring myself,  so I thought maybe there’s a chance that I can run without feeling my back kind of disassembling.  It used to feel like the vertebrae were stacked loosely, one on top of the next,  and if I jarred them too much, the whole thing would fall apart.

LN:  Something that people say to me since I’ve been coordinating these workshops is something like, “well, I’m kind of interested, but I’m not really a runner.”   That’s one reason why I wanted to interview you, because you weren’t running at all beforehand and your were sort of confused as to why people would like doing it, but there was something that you wanted to figure out.  You wanted to figure out what the enjoyment was and you started to get that feeling.  So, I do encourage people who already run and competitively run to take this workshop, but I also encourage beginners, more casual runners, or people who even think that they don’t like running to take it.   It seems like it’s something we just do.  Even if you don’t run for sport, you probably run for the bus and I think that people can think that the way they run is just the way they run and that’s how running feels and to feel a change in something quite habitual and to be able to move at that speed and feel really free is quite an amazing thing.  I think it’s an experience that can change your perspective in life, not just how you’re moving your arms and your legs.  

OS:  It’s funny you should say that because the sense of freedom was really pronounced. I was dealing with a shoulder problem for a few months prior to the workshop and off and on there were various aches and pains. But when I was running in the workshop, nothing hurt!  The clanking and banging in my shoulder wasn’t there.  Nothing bothered me!  Isn't it nice to say that? “Nothing is bothering me!”It was very, very liberating.  I didn’t feel like I had to worry about what I was doing.  I just did it.  

But in terms of encouraging people who are intermediate or advanced runners-- everybody can benefit. My friend who’s run a couple of marathons wants to take the workshop because she’s read Malcolm’s book and says that the Alexander Technique approach is not something you would hear from a non-Alexander-trained running coach.What was amazing about the workshop was that all  these ideas I had about running being stressful and me not being able to do it vanished pretty quickly!   It’s very hard to enjoy something that you aren’t doing right.  If you’re making it as hard for yourself as you possibly can, it isn’t going to feel very good, and of course you’re not going to do it again.  But after the first circuit we made around the little fountain in the park, I thought, “this feels good!”  And I got very excited.  It’s very exciting to get enjoyment out of something that is there for you, that can be there for you for years to come, that’s good for you, that you learned how to do properly and aren’t kind of making up as you go along.  Whenever I had studied any sport, tennis, whatever, I’d always wanted to work with a coach first, take a few introductory lessons, because I didn’t want to waste a lot of time with trial and error.  I’d never thought of doing that with running, but here I saw, ok, I don’t have to try and figure this out all by myself.  I’d probably get it wrong anyway and Malcolm  is very sensible.  It’s all very logical.  

LN:  How has your running gone since the workshop?

OS:  Well, it feels good!  I’m not sure if I’m doing it exactly the way  I was doing it in the workshop, but it certainly is an improvement over anything I’ve done before.  And even when I’m walking, I do the arm movements that I learned.

LN:  I’ve noticed that it’s led to a change in how you hold yourself in general, being in my class every week, particularly since that workshop.  You’ve been taking Alexander lessons and classes for 2.5 years now?  

OS: Yes

LN:  But I think there was a leap after the workshop.  Do you agree?

OS:  Yes, I think it’s funny-- you know there’s a Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”  It just seemed to be that all of the team that I needed [of teachers] was appearing.  My chiropractor has always been very helpful,has encouraged me to take Alexander, has raved about what you’ve done with the Alexander work.  And he often says, “Lindsay’s taken what I’ve started and brought it to a whole other level.”  And here comes Malcolm and to supply more of the pieces that I needed to have.  I was taking something I’d learned and applying it to my everyday life and then to something new [running]. I’m aware that I don’t have to be doing it the old way.

LN:  Even if you’ve had a lot of training and coaching there’s still quite a bit you can learn.

 Malcolm offering video analysis during the workshop.

Malcolm offering video analysis during the workshop.

OS:  Yes, you pick up the Alexander principles and if you’re already a runner and you’ve had some blockages or injuries and you can’t figure out why, Alexander can help you unblock. For example ,you might be thinking all along that the problem is about your hips or your knees, but maybe it’s more about your neck.  Maybe people don’t give enough thought to their necks.  You walk around, you have a pain in your knee, and you don’t think about your neck, but everything is connected, as we’ve come to find out.

LN:  Yes, if the neck is tight, it’s like pulling the weight of a bowling ball (your head) down into your spine, affecting your whole body.  When you study the Alexander Technique, you learn that how you use your body filters into all things.  Something that people can really get from The Art of Running workshops is that they can see how the habits they develop doing day-to-day things, like sitting for a long time and using the computer, for example, can in turn affect other things they do, such as running and people can start noticing, “Ah, if I work on how I sit at my desk, that’s going to help my running.”  

OS:  I was watching the Knicks game last night--why, I don’t know.  The almost never win. Their coach gave them their little pep talk before the fourth quarter and I think afterwards he felt he’d misspoken, but I thought was he said was great.  He told the players they lose because they don’t believe that they can win and their energy flags. He said, “Remember, your body is part of your mind.” I think that most people think that your mind is part of your body, that your body holds your mind--but the coach is saying that  it’s the mind that’s the all-encompassing container for your body.  The way you hold yourself is how you think about yourself.  

Click here for more info on the workshop .

Why NOT to Pull Your Shoulders Back (It's actually a form of slouching!)

If you've ever been instructed to stand up straight, chances are that you've pinned your shoulders back, drawing the shoulder blades down and together.  Not only is this move a very common reaction to the idea of standing up straight, it's also become an explicit instruction or tip exemplified as a key to maintaining better posture. 

I'm going to keep this post short and hope that you'll take one thing away from it...Don't pull your shoulders back!  There is a cultural fear of slumping forward.  We think it's unhealthy and that it doesn't look good, but going in the other direction doesn't solve the first problem and instead creates additional problems.

Take a peek at yourself from the side in the mirror and pull your shoulders back and shoulder blades down and together.  What happens?  You will likely notice that you lean backwards, or as I like to say, you slouch backwards.  Slouching forward compresses your body and so does slouching backwards.  You'll be pressing your upper back down and in and that pressure then sneaks down into the lower back, where a lot of folks are already having pain.

Where should the shoulders be then?

Balanced...neither pulled forward nor backward.  Not pulled up toward the ears nor pressed down.  Alexander Technique lessons help to achieve this balance and maintain it.  Notice in the photo on the left that the hand-shaker is slumping and pushing his shoulder forward.  He's not fully present and engaged in the handshake.  In the photo on the right, he is present and engaged in his whole body and exudes confidence.  He does not achieve this state though by pulling his shoulders back and lifting his chest up, which could be described as "trying to be confident" rather than "being confident".  

Here's a a little something to try on your own:  Think of your shoulders releasing out toward the sides, as if there were an arrow pointing out to the left from the left shoulder, directing it that way and one pointing out to the right from the right shoulder, directing it that way.  Just think it.  

And then add this:  Imagine that your armpits are domes.  Think of the shape of the bottom end of an egg.  You could imagine and egg in each armpit, encouraging you not to squeeze your arms into your sides and allowing the shoulder girdle to be buoyant and balanced on the rib-cage, allowing you to breath fully (without hoisting the shoulders up).

After giving those two suggestions a go, feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

How Avoiding "Text Neck" Could Make You A Better Kisser

Happy Valentines Day!

The title of this post may have captured your attention, but are you wondering how these two things could really be related?  The way you kiss can be affected by how you text.   Let's look at how you can make sure your kisses aren't "texty"

All of our responses and reactions to everything and everyone we encounter add up to our posture, which physically, is how we hold ourselves.  Now, when I talk about people and things we react to, I'm not just talking about being yelled at by your boss or waking up to find your bathroom flooded.  We respond to everything around us - people we're having casual conversations with, the chairs we sit on, and yes, the technology we spend hours and hours per day using.

"The average adult is awake for 15 hours and 45 minutes every day and 45 per cent of that time is spent using a proliferation of technology." says The Daily Mail.

To sum things up here, how we do any one thing that we do often, then affects everything else we do.  Think about every you enjoy doing and then look at the amount of time you're spending computing and texting.  You are very likely worsening your posture when engaging in these activities and if you spend 45% of your time doing them, those habits will likely stick and you'll carry them with you into exercising, socializing, sleeping, and, yes, kissing.  

This is what we tend to do to our posture when we don't use our smartphones mindfully.  Chin pushed forward, head tilted back, lower back over-arched when standing or doing the downward slump when sitting.

Now, here's how that translates to kissing?  Yikes!

The Science of Kissing, What Our Lips Are Telling Us by Sheril Kirshenbaum says  "A good deal of the scientific literature speculates that kissing may have evolved to help us choose a suitable partner, or to realize when a match is a bad idea…The exchange of olfactory, tactile, and postural information might trigger unconscious mechanisms that guide us in deciding whether we should continue, and a kiss might even tell us about a potential partner’s level of commitment and genetic compatibility."

Now let's consider what could be meant by "postural information".  When we're using our phones, what tends to happen is that we make ourselves shorter.  This is a common habit, that when we want to reach to look at something or kiss someone, we push the face forward and press the head back and down into the spine.  Compressing the head and neck is different from tilting the head, which is is possible to do just by tipping it back and not over-tightening the muscles in the back of the neck.

"Kissing presents some interesting kinaesthetic challenges.  A tall partner tends to stoop and reach down to the shorter one, misusing himself (or herself) in the process.  Unwittingly, the shorter partner aggravates the problem by making herself (or himself) shorter still."  - The Alexander Technique, A Skill for Life, by Pedro de Alcantara

This shortening of the spine leads to a lack of tone along the spine "like trying to play a violin with a loosened bow".  

In describing the opposite effect, de Alcantara describes an actress in a film kiss who "lengthens her neck, which becomes a natural extension of her spine, and makes herself taller...even as she tips her head backward.  This makes the act of kissing...kineasthetically easier, and one imagines, more satisfying for both parners."  The taller partner can tip his/her chin down, without letting the chin and whole face slide forward and down, maintaining the tone in the muscles along his spine.

If you think of ballroom dancing, there needs to be a certain amount of open, springy tension in the whole body for the give and take of the partnership to work most effectively.  When kissing, texting, and in general, this elastic springiness will happen if we stop pressing ourselves down.  We, in turn, feel more present and find it easier to connect with others physically and conversationally.

Here's what you can do right now to work on not pulling down..  Start with texting.  Give yourself an assignment to remember every time you text to imagine you are like the taller kissing partner and you are tipping your head down to look at the phone, not sliding the chin forward.  Just let your chin come closer to your chest, but done sink or close in on your upper body.  Also bring the phone a little closer to your face (but don't lift your shoulder)...and then, well I guess you could ask Siri if you could kiss her. She/he will say "What makes you think...never mind", so don't bother.  

Next step, ask Siri to tell you about The Alexander Technique, or better yet, take some lessons or sign up for my "Gadget Class".  Click here to sign up or schedule a lesson.

Give Up Your Seat for Fewer Wrinkles and Less Back Pain!

This is another one for New Yorkers and other frequent public transportation travelers.  In a recent blog post, I talked about how you can practice working on your posture in a mindful way while sitting.  So, what happens when you rush for that open seat and loose the battle?  Standing and holding on provides a rich context for getting your posture and energy going.  I might sound like a geek about this stuff by calling standing and holding onto a subway poll a "rich context", but, really, there's a lot you can work on here and you don't have to stop what you're doing and do exercises.  Instead, you think.  Just think.  And, we can also work in the hot topic of texting or reading your Kindle while standing and holding on.  The technology we use is so relatively new and we're already seeing the damaging effect of using smartphones and the like on the spine and if that's not enough, it's even been shown to cause neck wrinkles!  So, protect your back and your vanity and listen up.  

Here are a few key pointers to maintaining good posture while standing, particularly standing while holding onto the subway poll and your device.  It starts with accurately mapping your body out in your mind, so that you not only know where your stop is, but you know where you are in space.

1) Know where the top of your head is.  You've probably heard me say this before, but give it a little rub or scratch to remind it where it is.  We easily loose a sense of the very top of us and behave as though it's around where are eyes are.  Think (just think) of the top of your head aiming up toward the ceiling.  don't stretch your neck.  Don't lift or lower your chin.  Just think it.  You're aiming your head rather than pulling it.

2) Know where your feet are.  Don't look at them, just notice the feel of them contacting the floor.  Did you loose the feeling of the top of your head?  Go back to that.  Can you sense both simultaneously?

3) Hold onto the pole with your hand, not your shoulder.  What does that mean?  Try this.  While holding the poll, let your elbow drop slightly, very, very slightly, without dragging your torso down with it and without loosening your hold with your hand.  This should help release some excess shoulder tension that you might be using to hold on.  You really don't need it.

4) Lift your device closer to your face with your hand, not your shoulder.  (Follow instructions in #3.)  

5) Don't slide your chin out or drop your head down to look at your device.  Look at it with your eyes first, and let your head follow.  Your chin should move toward your chest without your head and upper body sinking down.  Imagine your head rotating up and over.

6) Do you still feel the top of your head and your feet?  The big challenge is to see if you can sense the top of your head, feet, your contact with the pole and your device all at once.  

7)  Have fun!  Don't get too serious about it.  Make it into a game and, as always, make sure you're breathing!

To learn more about how to use your devices and not strain, join one of my "Gadget Classes"

 

 

Who's Standing How - The Posture Under the Glitz

Celebrities are constantly under scrutiny for their fashion choices and as usual, in regards to this year’s Golden Globes, much attention was paid to evening wear.  On a more refreshing note, this article from the UK skipped over fashion choices, went straight to posture and actually grazed the surface of some common postural faux-pas and misconceptions with pin-point accuracy that we can all take some pointers from.

Looking Better and More Confident

We'd do well to stand a bit taller, just like Kate Hudson and Heidi Klum demonstrated last night - and not just because it adds grace, decorum and confidence to your stature. 

Improved posture helps you to feel more centered, present, and less reactive to situations that otherwise might lead you to feel ill at ease.  You’ll convey more confidence and presence to others and may find that they respond differently to you, thus creating a cycle of conveying and reinforcing confidence.  On a more superficial note, standing taller can help you look thinner.  I've had students report that friends have asked them if they’d lost weight, when it was their posture that had changed. 

TIP:  Contrary to the advice in the article, I don’t advise pulling the shoulders back to improve posture (this causes compression down through the back – in effect, backwards slouching.  Many people actually need to release their shoulder blades up and out to achieve good posture).

Core Strength

…good posture starts with good core strength and work on your abdominal muscles

Core strength is your postural support and you can only really let it work to its full potential if you stop tensing and compressing your neck, shoulders and upper back.  If you keep holding in those areas, then they are doing extra work to hold you up.  Those muscles aren't supposed to be doing that.  They get taxed and overworked from a combination of stress and a sedentary lifestyle.  Learn to let go of the upper-back/neck/shoulder grip on yourself and you’ll give your core a chance to work properly so that you’re actually using it and can really work those core muscles as intended if you do core-strengthening exercises.   Click here to read my blog post on core strength.

Having a Perky Butt

The whole trend for sticking your bottom out doesn't help either - women force themselves to change their spine's natural position when they poke their bottom's out, which causes the lower lumber spine to slouch. Rather than working the muscles in the bottom so it becomes perky, women tend to just stick it out, which actually causes the whole body to move out of sync. 

This one relates to the previous topic, but I wanted to highlight it as the article pointed out a habit in some folks of arching the back and endeavoring to lift the behind.  This position throws off your whole alignment, weakens, your back, and disengages the natural connection between the legs and the lower back working in tandem, which is key to actually building muscle in your glutes.  Many of us get ourselves around with a lazy butt (literally) by walking or running in a way that over uses the quads and underutilized the hips and backside as the powerhouses of moving you through space.  To get this working though in a way that really works, you can’t just try and use those muscles.  The upper body must free up first to allow the legs move freely under you.  To read more on this topic, check out this article in Runner’s World.  How perky your butt is may be in part genetics, but with proper coordination you can make working your glutes a natural part of exercising and getting around throughout your day…and not being so genetically inclined, I can personally attest that this does have an effect!  Sorry, no before/after pictures! 

Next topic!...

Breathing

Breath is improved, so that you feel brighter more energized

The article mentions breathing as a benefit of good posture.  As I've often brought up, truly good posture is never stiff or held and allows you to breath better, meaning that your ribs (front back and sides) move freely, your belly is neither poking out nor tight and held and can move in and out with the breath, and the lower back (the back of the belly) expands and contracts with each breath.  Take a moment to feel that your ribs go all the way around your torso.  Notice how high up they are near your collar bone and how low they go.  They should expand and contract like bellows as you breathe.  But don’t try to force breathing.  You can’t really stand up straight or breathe well if the back of your neck is tense and pulling the weight of your head down through your spine.  Alexander Technique lessons always start with freeing the neck and then letting the torso widen and the breath just pours in without effort.

Taking Alexander Technique lessons to change your posture has wide-reaching benefits that can affect you physically, mentally, and socially.  I invite you to share your experience in the comments below.                                                    

Make Your Resolutions Stick - Become an Expert at Changing Habits

 The expression "turn over a new leaf" actually refers to "leaves" as pages in a book.

The expression "turn over a new leaf" actually refers to "leaves" as pages in a book.

It's a new year and new leaves are turning over.  Resolutions are often related to changing habits related to heath, interactions, and appearance,.  I've found that the Alexander Technique has been a major tool for me in terms of changing all sorts habits in addition to my posture.  Some of my students sign up for lessons in order to improve their postural habits because of a physical problem and end up, to their surprise, addressing other sorts of habits as well.  It's easy to turn a leaf over, but more difficult to keep it that way in the face of the blustery wind of habit.  The Alexander Technique can help your resolutions to stay put.

1.  Exercise - If you've resolved to embark on a regular exercise routine this year, an injury could put a wrench in your plans.  Injuries cause by strain can be avoided through improving the accuracy of your body awareness and addressing general habits of the way you hold your body.  Unconscious habits from daily activities such as sitting at your desk or frequent texting may become unconscious and will likely carry over into and affect your work-out.  You can apply what you learn in your Alexander Technique lessons during your work day and while you work out.  You'll use your body more efficiently, which gives you more energy and helps you to enjoy the pleasure of moving while you work out, rather than zoning out or watching the clock waiting for your 30 minutes to be up.  Also, when you are more conscious and present during your work-out, you'll engage your whole body more fully and may get a lot more out of your work-out.

2. Diet - I think that a helpful component to changing eating habits is being present.  Improving your posture, how you move, and breath through the Alexander Technique helps you to feel more centered and in the moment.  When you're present, you are in tune with how you are feeling, which makes it easier to be conscious about what and how much you eat, rather than wondering what happened to the entire bag of chips during the movie you were watching.  You may feel more grounded and supported by your own feet and less likely to reach for comfort foot.  Feeling more present also may help you to tune in more clearly to how you respond to stimuli, including how you feel after eating certain foods.  You may become more discerning about what foods make you feel good and vice versa.

3.  Reducing Stress - Speaking of responding to stimuli, feeling stressed is a way we respond to a stimulus that we overwhelmed by.  Your posture can be affected by how you habitually react to stress and then how you literally hold yourself up to stay sitting and standing involves overusing the same muscles that you over use in response to stress (like tensing the back of neck and shoulders).  A cycle ensues where the stress response feeds the poor posture and the poor posture feeds the stress response.  Changing your posture through Alexander Technique lessons helps you to break the cycle so that your body feels relaxed and supported and you can feel more calm in stressful situations.  These changes in habit can help you on busy days at work and to help you make more conscious choices in interpersonal interactions.

To sum up, a common theme in the three examples here are that you can change deeply ingrained habits by changing how you feel.  Alexander Technique lessons help you to feel differently in your body (more supported, present, and balanced), which gives you a fresh perspective on how you can be and what you can do that you may not have realized was possible.   You then avoid unknowingly trying to force change onto a foundation that is unconsciously stuck in a habitual mode of operation. 

Whether your New Year's resolution relates specifically to changing your posture or to something that changing your posture could facilitate, taking some Alexander Technique lessons is a great way to start off on getting some insight into how to go about changing what you'd like to change.  

Happy New Year!

Improve Your Posture During Rush Hour - Alexander Technique on the Train

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Did you find yourself, tired and sinking down or tense and impatient while waiting for your train?  Want to make the most of your subway ride?  Improve your posture and breathing and feel more relaxed as you ride. 

You burst onto a morning rush-hour train and snagged the last seat just before the other person rushing toward it.  Whether you're feeling proud of yourself or slightly ashamed (yet relieved to have a chance to snooze) here's an alternative to snoozing or playing Candy Crush.  Do a bit of seated constructive rest.

 Aside from becoming more mindful and proactive about how you use your body throughout your day, this is one daily practice that you take time out for and it's is considered a staple of making progress in improving your posture with The Alexander Technique.  It is usually done in the semi-supine position, lying on the floor with the knees bent and the feet flat.  Turn this position 90 degrees and you have something close to sitting.  It's not a replacement for the lying down version, but you can also use your time on the subway to do a modified version that might bring you into a meeting, interview, rehearsal, whatever is on the other end of your ride, in a more relaxed and energized state (not to mention appearing more upright, present, confident, and alert to the people you interact with).  

-Start by sitting all the way back in your seat

-Notice the feeling of the back of the seat on your back, the bottom of the seat on your bottom, and your feet on the floor.  

-Bring your attention to the top of your head (scratch it lightly if you aren't sure your attention is there, then take your hand away and notice where you feel the sensation of having scratched your head).  Imagine the top of your head aiming up toward the ceiling.  Just imagine this.  It may seem like you are not doing anything and you might be tempted to lift your chin or press your chin toward your chest or tighten your jaw.  Instead, just allow your head and neck to stay still and neutral and imagine your head aiming up.

-Bring your attention back to your points of contact with the seat and the floor and if you've pulled away from them at all, gently allow yourself to make more contact again.

-Use the contact with the back of the seat as a stimulus for your back to widen.  Remember that your back ribs should move as well as your front ribs when you breathe.  Don't try to manipulate your breathing, but instead see if you feel more relaxed and get fuller breaths if you allow your back to widen as it contacts the seat.  

-Imagine your legs releasing away from the creases in the fronts of your hip joints out toward your knees.  A helpful image can be thinking of water flowing along the tops of the thighs out to the knees.

-Imagine space between your sides and your inner arms.  Even if you're squeezed in between two people, imagine that there is space there.  

-Notice your hands and feet and whether or not you are tensing them.  Place your hands, palms down, on the tops of your thighs and think (just think) of your fingers relaxing out toward the finger tips and your hands releasing away from your wrists.  Allow your feet to contact the floor more without pushing them down.

-Now go back to the thought of the head releasing up toward the ceiling and start that thought at the very base of your spine and think of aiming the head up along the spine from that point so that the spine supports the head, rather than the head dragging it down.

You can stop here, go through the steps again or mix them up a bit.  Make sure that you aren't gripping anywhere or holding your breath to think the directions laid out here.  Stay alert as you go through it, keeping your eyes open.

And after your ride home, lie on the floor and check out my constructive rest audio guide.

Check in next month on The Posture Police Blotter for some tips for the days when you're slow to grab a seat or there are no seats left to grab.  

10 Reasons for which I am Grateful for Teaching the Alexander Technique

Following up on a blog post from 2 years ago on why I am grateful for the Alexander Technique, here's why I'm grateful for the opportunity to teach it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

1. I meet interesting people - My students have ranged in age from under ten to over eighty, are a pretty even gender split, and have interests and professions that run the gamut from a construction worker on the original World Trade Center, to actors and fine artists, business executives, educators, entrepreneurs and librarians.  They come for various reasons such as improving their posture to alleviate back, neck, and shoulder pain, reduce stress, improve confidence, stand tall on their wedding day, become active again following an injury, to avoid strain during pregnancy, or because of scoliosis.  They all have one thing in common, which is the desire to change in a way that will stick.

2. Recognizing that common problems can have simple solutions - Most adults and even older children and adolescents have developed habits that lead to postural imbalances, leading to pain, discomfort, shallow breathing, and sometimes they feel ungrounded and awkward.  The list of problems that may be tied to poor posture could go on and on.  It takes some practice, but the simple solution of coordinating the body in an integrated way, starting with undoing compression in the head, neck, and back is groundwork for resolving any issue related to poor posture, compression, and strain in the body.

3. Cool (and festive) socks - No special attire necessary when you come for Alexander Technique lessons, but I do ask my students to take off their shoes for the portion of the lesson that involves lying on a table.  It's a rare opportunity to show off your coolest socks that would otherwise be hiding in your shoes all day, invisible to your co-workers.  So break out your snow flakes, jingle bells, and Santa Clauses.  

4. It improves my posture and feels good - Shhhhhh!!!  It's a secret.  Teaching the Alexander Technique means practicing it yourself.  If I've taught a lesson well, my posture should improve and I should feel more relaxed, energized, springing, and present after teaching a lesson.  Teaching a lesson should feel very similar to having a lesson (but you didn't hear it from me!)

5. I'm a better explainer - How do you explain an experience to someone that might seem new and unfamiliar?  During lessons, I'm helping students directly with my hands, so that I can show them how to coordinate their body differently, but I'm also engaging their thinking by talking and my goal is to connect the verbal instructions I'm giving to something that is familiar to them.  I never give the same first lesson or first class, because there's no cookie-cutter way of explaining the same thing to two people or groups of people.

6. I no longer feel like I want to fix everyone's posture on the street, subway...at Thanksgiving dinner - This one is for all of my students who have asked me if it drives me crazy to look at peoples' poor posture all day.  Am I not just itching to fix it?  No, I'm not, but I understand the question.  When I first started taking lessons and I suddenly started noticing how most people were holding themselves, it was like putting on glasses for the first time.

7. I don't lift weights, I lift legs - Nothing wrong with lifting weights if you do it without compressing your lower back.  After a full day of lifting legs (not my own, other people's), not only do people say that their legs feel longer and their hip joints freer, but I've saved myself a gym membership.

8. Seeing the same thing in a billion unique ways - What really got me interested in the Alexander Technique from the get-go was that it was about addressing common issues by looking at it from point of view of how we function as vertebrates.  I address how the body functions in a unified way and how poor posture interferes with that functioning.  I'm looking at the same fundamental concepts with all of my students, but each of their lessons may seem very different because each person manifests a rather universal human issue in very different way.

9. Witnessing the discovery - There is usually a moment or many of them during a lesson or between lesson when people who study the Alexander Technique reach some sort of "Ah-ha" that leads them to see that things can be different ... that they don't have to always be in pain sitting at their desk, in discomfort when walking or that they don't have to tense their shoulders and neck every time they speak in a meeting.  It is possible to do the things that we do every day without strain.

10. Guiding the journey to trade in habit for choice - It's our habits that get us into postural trouble and sometimes my students realize what their habits are.  Sometimes they don't.  Regardless, they usually don't know how to change them and through lessons they learn how to.  What they learn becomes a skill that they can take into everything they do.

Texting is a Literal Pain in the Neck: Posture Check-List for Using Your Devices

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If we thought that we were developing back, neck and shoulder pain sitting at a desk in front of a computer, we now don't even get a rest from our technology-induced postures when we are on the go. The good news is that using a device does not have to be synonymous with strain.

A recent study shows that texting is damaging to the spine.  To help avoid placing “long-term strain on your neck, a New York doctor recommends The Alexander Technique.  Scientifically proven to reduce back pain by 85%, it gives people the know-how to use their smartphones smartly and understand how not to strain.  

As an AmSAT-Certified Alexander Technique instructor, I help people to do everyday things with less strain.  Here are a few tips that you can put to use right now to start being nicer to your neck when you are using your portable devices:

1. Move down, don't drop down - Typing on a smartphone or tablet usually involves holding it far from your eyes and looking down at it. What causes strain is when you collapse down toward the thing that you are looking at. Resist the urge to push your chin forward and sink down into your chest. Instead of collapsing down, move down. Start by looking at your device by first only moving your eyes, then let your head tilt by moving your brow first, not your chin.

2. Lift your device higher - This may seem obvious, but it is commonly ignored. Move your device closer to your face with your hands so that you don't have to move down as far to see it. Make sure that you don't lift your shoulders or pull your shoulder blades together as you lift.

3. Less "work" doesn't mean less strain - Touch screens and the soft keyboards on laptops hardly require any effort to use . . . hardly any effort for the finger that is touching them, that is. The low impact-typing that is required can actually be more of a strain than a relief. The keys on ergonomic keyboards are designed like the old-school keyboards from the 80s and 90s. You actually have to exert some effort to press the keys down and that effort demands that your arms, back, and even your legs be engaged in a very positive way. When softer pressing is required, it begs very little support from the rest of the body.


Now you can start texting your way to better posture!

My Posture Made Me Spill My Coffee On The Subway

I hope that this post will provide you with some comic relief as I recount an embarrassing mishap that befell me last week.  “Befel” me is really the wrong word as I take complete responsibility for what unfolded, or perhaps shared responsibility with the subway conductor who just may have been timing closing the mechanical jaws, sometimes referred to as doors, making an example of me as a reminder to riders not to enter the car after we are asked to “stand clear”.

Backing up a bit...I was in a rush to get into Manhattan from Brooklyn, in a bad mood and hungry.  I approached the subway station carrying a bag containing a sandwich from a local deli and a large coffee with milk in the other hand.  As I neared the stairs, I could hear the ruble of a train.  I scrambled down the stairs and as I shot through the turnstiles I could hear the female recorded voice on one of the newer models of the R train explaining “This is a Manhattan-bound R train”.  I scrambled down another set of stairs as the male recorded voice cheerily warned, “Stand clear of the closing doors please.”  I was in front of the doors on “please”.  At that moment, I could have stood back, but I knew I was pretty much guaranteed an on-time arrival if I boarded that train, so I went for it with a leap.  I don’t know if the conductor saw me and essentially bit me with the doors, or if he/she didn't notice me at all.  It’s a smaller, local station and the conductor car is right by the stairs.  They’ll usually wait if it’s not too busy and crowded if someone is running down toward the platform.

Anyhow, I’m not even sure exactly how this happened but I managed to get in the train as the doors closed, but the jarring slam of the doors popped the lid off of my huge coffee cup and sent the coffee spewing all over the car...a fountain of caffeine, much to the shock of the other passengers.  Luckily it was about 12pm on a weekday and there weren't too many people traveling at that time.  I was in shock.  They were in shock.  My first thought was that they all hated me and were harshly judging me for having leaped onto the train with coffee in my hand and that they were all drenched.  (By the way, I think it’s technically against subway rules to eat/drink on the trains, probably for reasons exactly like this one!)  I just stopped for a minute, realized that by some miracle most of it had landed on the floor, except for a few drips on the slacks and folded hand-truck of a guy who nervously blotted at them for several minutes straight with one very tiny tissue.  I unfroze when someone kindly handed me a pile of napkins.  I began the process of cleaning up the floor and then someone else began helping me.  I managed to mop up most of it with napkins, and then sat down next to the guy whose pants and cart I’d spilled coffee on, surrounded by everyone who had witnessed the scene.  I felt oddly calm and surprisingly unembarrassed. 

I decided to write about this event in my blog because it’s really about posture.  If we think of posture as a state of being, rather than simply body positioning, I might say that it was my posture at that moment that got me into the predicament.  F.M. Alexander said that most people do something that he called “end-gaining”, which simply means, getting ahead of yourself and not being present and in the moment.  In our bodies, the pushing ahead manifests itself as jutting the chin forward or sticking the chest out.  It feels like a sort of forward pushing that creates a downward accordion-like compression throughout the body.  Sometimes it happens for a moment, but we can get stuck there and let it define us.  The Alexander Technique gives us skills so that we can define ourselves and make choices rather than enslave ourselves to our habits and the postures that result and then in turn feed more end-gaining behavior.

I end-gained to get on the train and coffee went all over the place.  I end-gained by assuming that people were angry, but as I became more present, I realized that they were sympathetic and that the situation, though problematic, certainly, was easily resolvable and I calmly enjoyed the rest of my subway ride.

Improving your state of being includes changing how you hold your body and it’s not about being perfect all the time, but rather being able to regain a sense of presence and to come back to neutral in ourselves when things sometimes go awry.

Have you had a similar experience?  If so, share below.

Near . . . Far . . .


Today’s post is a follow up on the last one about the eyes and that the way we use our eyes effects the neck and back.  Whether we are straining to look at a computer screen or simply shifting focus from near to far, there are muscles working to make this possible.  If those muscles are overworking, then tightness in the neck and upper back will likely result.  If you tried out the exercise at the end of the last post, you may be able to feel your neck and upper back responding to your eyes shifting focus from a near to far distance, and vice versa.

If you’ve ever seen any classic Sesame Street, you might be familiar with the segment involving Grover demonstrating the difference between “near” and “far”.  To demonstrate “near”, he runs closer to us.  To demonstrate “far” he runs farther away from us.  If our eyes weren’t able to change focus, we’d probably be doing a lot of that just to see, which might be Grover’s experience, given that he’s a muppet and his eyes seem pretty fixed and locked in one position.

We can learn something from Grover though.  If you are straining to see something with your eyes, then you are probably, for better or for worse, taking your head and neck along for the ride.  Want to avoid straining your eyes, head and neck?  Stop reaching with them and move closer to what you are looking at.  Set up your desk so that you can sit all the way back in your chair and comfortably look at your computer screen without straining forward.  Bring your phone up higher when you text instead of looking lower.  The head and neck like to follow the eyes and if you tend to overwork them, Alexander Technique lessons can help with that, but whether you are taking Alexander lessons or not, you can make looking at things (especially screens) a little easier on yourself by simply bringing what you’re looking at closer to you.

Thank you Grover!

Space . . . The Posture Frontier

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Take a moment to think about the various spaces that you spend your day in both indoors and outdoors.  Are they vast?  Confined?  Cluttered?  Open?  Some combination of some or all of these?

The spaces that we frequent have an effect on our well-being and I’m sure quite a bit could be said on this topic from a variety of perspectives.  I’m going to look at it from the perspective of posture, specifically relating to how the eyes are affected, and in turn the rest of the body and the mind.

Living in a large city, I encounter a fair number of relatively confined spaces, or at least spaces that are more confined compared to what I became accustomed to as a child growing up in the suburbs.  Sitting in Prospect Park in Brooklyn looking out on a vast (for New York!) open lawn and then back at my blank screen, thinking about what to write, feeling a little stumped, this topic came to mind as I gazed back across the lawn.  Spending time in a space that is more open than what I’m used to gives me a sense of taking up more space.  One thing that I note in particular is the effect that the expanse before me has on my eyes.  Being able to gaze far ahead feels like an opportunity to give my eyes a rest.  It’s  relaxing and has a softening effect on the muscles in my neck, back and shoulders.  Softening those muscles helps me to decompress and release up to my full height and width and to breathe more fully.  I feel like have more space to think and to think differently, perhaps more creatively.

This experience leads me to recall a vacation that I took about 10 or so years ago.  I was living in Paris at the time and visited some friends in Switzerland.  I was doing a lot of play-writing and had my notebook with me with me, in which I was working on my next project.  Sitting outside and looking out much farther than I had been on a daily basis in the city, I found myself suddenly inspired to complete the basic structure and story-line of the play.  Softening the focus of my eyes helped me to release chronic tension, which helped me to think more clearly.  Chronic holding and compressing in the body is distracting and takes us out of the present moment and may perhaps be a source of what is commonly referred to as “writer’s block”.

You may have heard that it’s helpful to look at a distance far from your screen from time to time throughout the day, if you spend most of your work day at a desk.  Keeping the eyes from fixing on one point at close proximity can help your whole body to expand, improving your posture.  You’ll relax your body, and in turn your mind. 

Try this quick exercise to feel how your eye muscles are connected to your neck and back muscles.  Hold an object, such as a book about six inches from your face.  Focus on it.  Next, quickly move your book and focus on the next closest thing, whether it be a wall, window, building, or trees across a field.  Do it a few times and notice the ripple effect that the adjustment of the focus of the eyes has on your neck, back and your whole body.   Please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

Surfing 101: How to Mindfully Wipe Out

 - Urban Dictionary

- Urban Dictionary

A few weeks ago, I was in the LA area attending an Alexander Technique conference and decided to take a leap a sign up for a surfing lesson.  I say take a leap because I've been doing a bit of obsessing over surfing for the past two years or so.   I'm adding a 3rd line to the Urban Dictionary's definition of kook: 

3.  No practical experience with surfing other than "surfing" (no hands) on crowded subways while reading books about surfing to fuel theoretical obsession with said sport.

The most useful thing about having done a bit of reading was that I had no delusions that it was going to be easy . . . and it wasn't!  Friends who knew I was going for the lesson asked me how the surfing was and my response was. . . Surfing? Wiping out about 30 times in a row  was an educational experience.  I managed to squat for about a second a couple of times, but it was mostly paddle, start to get up, loose my balance, do it again, until the lesson had finished.

Embarking on learning a new skill with such a steep learning curve highlighted two things for me, the first being that my kinesthetic awareness when I'm rushing and not present seems to be next to none despite 15 years of study of The Alexander Technique.  The second point is that taking extra time to process the information and stay present leads to quicker absorption of the new information and in turn, increased progress.  These lessons aren't new to me, but when faced with barreling toward the shore on an unstable foam board and understanding that the goal is to go from lying on my belly to standing before I hit sand, my initial inclination was to panic and focus only getting to my feet, but completely ignoring how I'd get there.  How was I to go through the steps to get up that the instructor had just shown me with so little time in such conditions?  F.M.  Alexander called this type of behavior end-gaining (trying to get to a goal without sticking with the process).  When I rushed in this way, I forgot about what I had learned just a moment ago on the beach about how to stand up and maintain my balance.  I had no idea what my body was doing and was shocked when the instructor told me that I was lifting up my feet and sliding forward on my knees, something she'd never seen anyone do.

Being a student and teacher of the Alexander Technique, I realized what would help the situation.  Give up on the goal and stick with the process.  What lead me to panic was that sunce the board was moving so quickly, I wouldn't have enough time to stand up before I reached the shore.  I stopped trying to stand up and instead focused on the steps that I had learned to lead me to keep my balance as I moved onto my feet.  Slide one knee forward, bring the opposite foot around so that I'd be standing on both feet facing to the side.  Stay on the center part of the board.  Keep both hands on the board the entire time until my feet are planted and I'm in a squat.  Relatively straight forward, but not so easy on a 2-foot-wide floating, slippery surface.  I concentrated on actually stepping through all of  the steps as I'd learned them and my goal was simply to get as far as I got in the sequence by the time I reached the shore.

Many times I ran out of time, but by repeating the actions, I was creating a kinesthetic memory of the sequence for myself, and a few times I managed to get to a squat before loosing my balance or hitting sand.  I didn't get there by committing myself by standing up, but rather by committing myself to follow through on as many steps as I found time for between hearing the instructor shout "stand up" and reaching the beach.

The expression, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again", doesn't necessarily work if you keep trying what your doing in the manner that initially didn't work.  F.M. Alexander said, "When at first you don't succeed, never try again – at least, not in the same way".  Or more applicable to surfing, to reference the late 90s smash single by Chumbawamba . . . instead of  "I get knocked down, but I get up again", how about "I get knocked down . . . and focus on all of the steps, so that I can eventually get up again and again."

Have you had a similar experience learning a new skill?  Share in the comments below!

 

The Quality of Nothing

 Drawing of William Shakespeare running by my daughter, Robin Eloise Mazzanewitter.

Drawing of William Shakespeare running by my daughter, Robin Eloise Mazzanewitter.

F.M. Alexander, founder of the Alexander Technique, loved Shakespeare and made his initial discoveries while working on solving a vocal problem that occurred when he performed public recitations of Shakespearean texts.  There are Shakespeare quotes here and there that highlight quite nicely some aspect of the technique and when I recently saw King Lear at Theatre For a New Audience in Brooklyn, a phrase in the play struck me.  It got me thinking about a common way of talking about the technique, in particular about the idea of "doing nothing", so in this post I will talk about nothing.

The word "nothing" appears throughout King Lear in the contexts of bravery, cunning, despair, and likely others that I'm not thinking of at this moment.  At one point The Earl of Gloucester speaks of the quality of nothing in a conversation with his son, Edmund.   This statement has particular meaning within the scene, which I won't go into here, but will rather discuss what we can glean from the phrase on it's own and how it relates to posture and how we use our minds and bodies.

Alexander Technique teachers often suggest to their students that they do nothing and when students are on the right track, they often report that they feel like they are doing nothing.  Can we really do nothing or is this suggestion more of an encouragement to do less?  Students are told to think rather than do, but will they succeed in changing their postural habits if they think in the same way that they think about a grocery list or mathematical computations?  What is meant by "thinking"?

Gloucester talks about the "quality" of nothing, but can nothing really be a lack of anything if it has a quality?  The way I think about it is that "nothing" in terms of Alexander Technique is relative to whatever we're accustomed to doing.  What might feel like nothing (ie no effort to stand, for example) in lesson #2 may feel like quite a lot of effort in lesson #10, simply because the student is aware of another layer of extra habitual holding or compressing (ie "doing") that they previously weren't aware of.  The thinking that we learn in Alexander Technique lessons replaces the excessive doing, but it's the quality of thinking that's what counts.  It's a tuned-in, conscious, embodied thinking with an intent.  You know where up is, for example, and so you decide to go up to your full height and you have a clear sense of what that means.  You don't have to make it happen, you just allow it to happen.  

Having gotten into a regular exercise routine, I've been thinking about the relationship between exertion, putting more demand on ourselves, and simultaneously heightening this quality of nothing through directional thinking.  I feel stronger, I'm building muscle, and I'm exerting myself, but I feel even more like I'm doing nothing.  Nothing in the sense of less excess effort to hold myself upright and to move.

When we "do nothing", we allow for something quite substantial.  We expand and take up all of our space.  Our backs become elastic, flexible, and strong.  We can use our limbs without hurting our backs.  We're more dense and grounded and at the same time, light and full of breath.  We feel present, alert, and confident and simultaneously quiet and observant.  Through this practice, what at first seems like nothing becomes something quite extraordinary . . .or incredibly ordinary . . . depending on how you look at it.  In any case, certainly natural.

Posture Check-List for Using Your Devices

If we thought that we were developing back, neck and shoulder pain sitting at a desk in front of a computer, we now don't even get a rest from our technology-induced postures when we are on the go. The good news is that using a device does not have to be synonymous with strain.

The Alexander Technique, scientifically proven to reduce back pain by 85%, gives people the know-how to use their smartphones smartly and understand how not to strain.  

As an AmSAT-Certified Alexander Technique instructor, I help people to do everyday things with less strain.  Here are a few tips that you can put to use right now to start being nicer to your neck when you are using your portable devices:

 

1. Move down, don't drop down

- Typing on a smartphone or tablet usually involves holding it far from your eyes and looking down at it.  What causes strain is when you collapse down toward the thing that you are looking at. 

Resist the urge to push your chin forward and sink down into your chest. 

Instead of collapsing down, move down.  Start by looking at your device by first only moving your eyes, then let your head tilt by moving your brow first, not your chin.  

2. Lift your device higher

- This may seem obvious, but it is commonly ignored.  Move your device closer to your face with your hands so that you don't have to move down as far to see it.  Make sure that you don't lift your shoulders or pull your shoulder blades together as you lift.

3.  Less "work" doesn't mean less strain

- Touch screens and the soft keyboards on laptops hardly require any effort to use . . . hardly any effort for the finger that is touching them, that is.  The low impact-typing that is required can actually be more of a strain than a relief.  The keys on ergonomic keyboards are designed like the old-school keyboards from the 80s and 90s.  You actually have to exert some effort to press the keys down and that effort demands that your arms, back, and even your legs be  engaged in a very positive way.  When softer pressing is required, it begs very little support from the rest of the body.

Now you can start texting your way to better posture!

Preparing for Success: Power Posing and Accessing Your Inner Clown

Have you ever seen the TED talk by Amy Cuddy called "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are"?  Based on her research, she demonstrates that we can change our behavior from the outside in.  In her experiment, she asks participants to do what are called "power poses" in preparation for a job interview.  (One example of a power pose is standing with the feet apart and hands on hips - a superhero pose.)  The results of the study measured hormone levels of testosterone and cortisol and showed that cortisol (a stress hormone) went down and testosterone went up.  Participants who held these poses felt more relaxed and confident and the interviewers were more interested in hiring them.  Others who were asked to adopt more closed off the positions prior to the interviews showed an increase in cortisol and a decrease in testosterone.  The interviewers were much less interested in hiring this group.  Ms. Cuddy takes a variation on the idea of "fake it 'til you make it" through power posing and rather suggests, "fake it 'til you become it".  Through changing how you hold your body, you can change how you feel and prepare yourself for success.

Alexander Technique lessons help students to change from the inside out, but the technique helps them to "become" it without any faking.  Regardless of body position, people can experience a sense of expansion in themselves.  At first more open positions may facilitate this inner expansion, but just as it is possible to physically expand outward in a folded-in position, it's also possible to contract in while in an open position. 

Regardless of position, we can think about allow for space within ourselves.  A suggestion I often offer is to imagine clementines in your armpits, not that you are holding them there with effort, but that you are allowing for space and expansion and freeing up the inner arms, which often get chronically tight.  Experiment with standing in a superhero pose and see if you can allow for more space in your armpits.  Just think about it.  Imagine the clementines.  There's no need to actually move your arms.

On the topic of confidence, something else that I would add that can help us stay fully present in ourselves and in the environment around us is to judge ourselves less and keep going when we make mistakes.  I took a clowning workshop earlier this year, which I found enlightening.  The art of clowning is based on celebrating and being present with errors and what we might call imperfections.

Before your next job interview, talk, performance, or meeting, experiment with taking a couple of minutes before hand to power pose, but allow for space in yourself in that pose and sense the space around you.  Let the pose open you up and energize you.  Make a decision to embrace your inner clown and go with whatever happens, even if it's not exactly what you have planned, you trip over your words, or drop something.  True confidence is about presence rather than perfection - and don't forget the clementines!

Amy Cuddy's TED Talk:

http://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Running Backwards? April Fool or Better Posture?

As I'm getting myself back into a running routine after shying away from the cold this winter, I happened upon a phenomenon called backwards running.  At first read, I wondered if I was being April Fooled, but further research validated that this is something that people are doing and there has even been a study demonstrating the benefits of backwards running.  The study showed that though running backwards is less efficient and prevents runners from taking advantage of the natural ability of the leg muscles to spring-load, that there is less pavement pounding, and less likelihood of injury.  I have a theory that improved posture is a likely contributor.

I often suggest to my students that they practice walking backwards a few steps and see how it feels different from walking forward.  Clearly the mechanics are different, but something else is at work.  They generally start to notice that they feel lighter and more fully aware of their bodies and the space around them.  Walking backwards is less habitual and we have to rely more on our kinesthetic sense since we can't see directly in front of us.  Our attention becomes more three-dimensional, and we start using our bodies more three dimensionally.  Our posture is determined by how we are reacting to the stimuli around us and when we have to pay attention, it often improves.  One of my regular students has found that his posture, breathing, and general feeling of presence improves greatly when he's playing soccer regularly.  The attention placed outside of himself and all around him, gives his body a signal to expand out into the space, rather then contract into itself.

Based on my research, it seems that "rennurs" (backwards runners) look back as they run backwards, but nonetheless they can't rely on their vision as much as they would when running forward and their heightened kinesthetic awareness in all directions likely helps to bring them into a more natural alignment, resulting in safer running (in terms of strain injury - maybe not in terms of bumping into things!)

Have you experimented with walking or running backwards?  Any "rennurs" out there?  If so, share your experience below.

Also, what other things (that you do all the time) could you do in a different way that might help to bring you out of your habit, out of compressing in on yourself, and expanding out into the word? 

 

 

How the Alexander Technique Can Help Your Belly Look Slimmer

I am not about to propose a miracle pill to get rid of belly fat or even a particular exercise to do on a daily basis.  Many people spend most of their day holding in their belly to hide that it sticks out.  Holding in the belly can become so habitual that a lot of folks forget that they are doing it.  Yes, diet and exercise (or lack thereof) certainly contribute to whether or not a person carries around excess weight, but whether or not your belly sticks out can also depend greatly on your posture. 

If you are compressing your body from the top down and from the sides in (what most adults do), this will most likely result in you leaning back when you stand and exaggerating the lumbar curve in your lower back.  What's on the front side of your lumbar curve?  Your belly!  So if the back is going in, then the front must be sticking out. 

The problem with "fixing" this issue by sucking the belly in is that it doesn't solve the problem, it just masks it visually and creates other problems such as shallow breathing as the diaphragm is prevented from descending completely and the lower ribs become rigid.  Your digestion may also be negatively impacted.  Also, holding in the belly may start a chain reaction leading to further compression or too much tension in other areas such as the thighs.

Instead of holding your belly in, how about learning how to stop sticking it out?  When you take Alexander Technique lessons, you learn how to stop compressing down on yourself so that your whole body lengthens and you reach your true full height.  As you stop essentially squishing your whole body, three things happy with the belly:

1)  The belly naturally comes in

2)  Your belly can move in and out, your lower ribcage can expand fully, and your back ribs can expand, resulting in fuller, more relaxed breathing.

3) You'll actually tone your abs more (and your whole body) just doing normal things because you are using your body efficiently and breathing efficiently.  If you continue to use your body in this way when you exercise, then you'll get more tone in the "right" places when you exercise because you won't be holding yourself up with muscles that should be working to move you and for breathing.

When I was taking Alexander lessons about 13 years ago, before I had even trained to become a teacher of it, I remember telling one of my teachers during a lesson that my abs felt tight.  She informed me that they weren't tight and I actually had very little tone in my belly.  She said that my belly was instead compressed.  Now 13 years and two pregnancies later, I have more ab definition than I've ever had, whether I'm working out regularly or not. 

Do you feel tempted to hold your belly in?  Do you ever do habitually without noticing it?  Share your experience in the comments below.