When I was in high school and college I was told by lots of people that I had great posture. As the daughter of a chiropractor (who never let me do my homework or watch TV on the floor) and after a decade of ballet lessons, without having to think about it I walked around with my head held high, my back straight, and my shoulders pulled down. And while this sounds like an ideal way to move through life, by 18 I was struggling with some mysterious neck and low back pain, and had learned through some hard life lessons that people thought of me as unapproachable and maybe even a little stuck up.
We tell a story about ourselves that is grounded in the way we move. For some of us, it stems from unconsciously protecting an injury long healed; for others it comes from feeling we are too short and desperately want to be taller or too fat and wish we could take up less space. Some people hold a strong belief that they are klutzy and spend their life watching their own feet. Growing up I had a friend who was very self-conscious about her smile and walked around with her jaw tight and her lips pressed together, making her appear very stern. She was a wonderfully funny and warm girl, but her belief that her smile was ugly told the world a very different story.
My sophomore year of college I was fortunate enough to take an acting class where the professor also happened to be a teacher of the Alexander Technique. I was doing a scene from The Rainmaker, where a young, plain girl, Lizzie, is made to feel special and beautiful by a confident stranger from out of town. We were half way through the scene when my professor stopped us.
“Jenn, you’re bringing a story into this scene that isn’t Lizzie’s. When you pull your shoulders back and walk around with your chin up you’re armoring yourself. You can’t breath and you can’t feel. The author has written a story about a vulnerable, wounded girl. That isn’t the story you’re telling.”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
Then he put his hands on my shoulders and they suddenly widened and released forward into what I can only describe as home. I felt like I was slumped, but I also kind of knew that I wasn’t. I started to breath in a deeper way, and then all of the sudden, I just started crying. We continued the scene and it was probably the best work I’ve ever done.
As I gradually learned to let my shoulders release and widen, my back and neck pain disappeared. People suddenly seemed to be more open and welcoming. But what is so interesting is that I felt more open and easy-going.
Looking back, I realized that growing up in my home we frowned on expressing deep or negative emotions. We were and continue to be a close family, but we held back tears when we felt sad. Hugs only happened at airports and bus stations. What that professor was trying to tell me was that pulling my shoulders back and down and stretching my neck up helped me to create a shield against feeling things too strongly. It made me feel more invincible. It warned people against approaching me.
We tell many stories to the world through how we hold ourselves down, in, up, and together. Sometimes these stories influence how we even see ourselves. But when we get right down to it – are these stories accurate? Are they really us? And if we can find a way to allow for our innate balance and ease to restore itself, what possibilities await?