Posted: November 13, 2012

The Alexander Technique helps with over-efforting in every sense of the word – not just the physical tightening and strain that leads to bad posture and injury, but the mental and emotional gripping that leads to stress, anxiety, depression and impatience. Alexander Technique is all about coming back to yourself, freeing your neck, allowing for space, being in the present moment and then permitting the next moment to unfold in its own time. I talk a lot about what Alexander Technique is in some of my previous posts so I won’t go into details here, but if you’re curious go to THIS POST. For a terrific little news segment on how it works, CLICK HERE

Well awesome! There is a technique out there that, if you put some of your attention on you in the more challenging aspects of your everyday life, can help you make lasting change for the better. But what about those moments when it really isn’t about YOU at all? What do you do during those times when taking care of yourself just isn’t a priority?

I bring this point up because about six weeks ago when I gave birth to my first child. After all, his safety and comfort take precedence over my most basic needs to eat, sleep and shower. I found over the first week I would happily tweak my thumb a thousand times if it meant picking him up or putting him down safely. I observed that when he was inconsolable, (as I’m learning most new tiny humans are for large portions of the day and night) my instinct was to pull myself down and curl my body around him in an almost unconscious effort to calm and protect him. These physical patterns didn’t stop him from crying but they did give me some terrible back, neck and wrist pain that threatened to turn into chronic conditions if I didn’t quickly undo my new bad habits.

So if Alexander Technique is the practice of focusing your attention on you, how do you continue to take care of yourself when it really isn’t about you at all? It’s counter-intuitive, but I’m learning that I’m not being selfish or a bad parent when I leave a little bit of my attention on myself for my wellbeing. I’m slowly coming to understand that even when he’s screaming bloody murder, I can stop for a moment and prevent myself from hunkering down and tensing my neck before picking him up. I can take a brief pause at 3 am to let my jaw unclench and my frustration and anger abate when he won’t go back to sleep. I can remain poised with my head balanced easily on top of my spine when the UPS man is at the door with an important package and I’ll have to let it go because I’ve got my son nursing in my arms. I can take my wellbeing into consideration without sacrificing his care. In fact, when I practice allowing my joints to work as they are built to, when I put less pressure on myself physically and mentally I can remain in a better place for longer. By taking care of myself in this way I actually enhance the level of his care rather than detract from it.

You don’t have to have a kid to feel like there are times when it really isn’t about you at all. But keeping just a little of your awareness in your back pocket can make a huge difference not only in the quality of your life, but in the job or activities you do.

Not to get too off topic, but I think acting is a prime example of this. I say this because when an actor is asked to become someone who is robbing a bank, fighting pirates, saving the world, or having a terrible fight with the one guy that got away, most of us are taught to believe it ISN’T about the actor. It’s about the character living through this event TRUTHFULLY, right?

Well, yes and no. My personal belief as an acting teacher is that actors CAN take their wellbeing into consideration without sacrificing their living truthfully in the given circumstances. We have to—or we risk blowing out our knees, or our voices, or sacrificing the emotional truth of this moment because we are too riddled with tension to be dealing with the honesty of what we are feeling THIS time around.

Is what I’m saying heresy? Maybe, depending on your training.

However next time you are rehearsing or performing a scene, I dare you to try this: come back to yourself, your whole self while you are acting–just for a moment. See, hear, smell, sense your partner in the space you really are in, feel your feet on the floor and notice your breath. Listen to what s/he is saying right now – how s/he is saying it. I would argue you aren’t denying the reality of your character or the scene at all by getting back in touch with yourself in this present moment—you are only making space for presence. You might just be coming back to the visceral you, rather than getting trapped trying to do the “right” thing or trying to behave the “right“ way.

Just like when I’m being a better mom by putting a small portion of attention on my wellbeing rather than my child’s, I’m becoming a better actor when I put some attention on my whole self and my present moment when while working on a scene. This is especially true if I’m using the real estate of my brain that usually sits there watching myself, judging my performance in real time, and beating myself up for missing a line. By taking care of myself in this way, I can enhance my work, rather than detract from it.

Posted: September 18, 2012

“I can immediately tell the difference between actors who have studied the Alexander Technique, and those who haven’t”
-Sam Mendes, Academy Award-Winning Director (American Beauty)

I think about this question a lot. Probably because I was an actor myself, and saw that studying Alexander Technique really made a difference in my work. But the one thing I couldn’t pinpoint was how did it make that difference?

When I read my first Alexander Technique introductory statement, and even when I took my first lesson, there was not a very obvious connection between artistic improvement and the set of skills to which I was being introduced. Sure it felt great to allow my neck to free up – I immediately felt taller and lighter and a bit more calm. But I couldn’t be expected to possibly think about myself while acting—that’s the opposite of what every acting teacher I ever had was telling me. And that word: inhibition! Why did this guy keep using that word??? Did he want me to be inhibited??? I’m about to get on stage and do embarrassing things in front of a hundreds of people! How’s inhibition possibly going to help me???

So I can understand performer’s confusion when it comes to this work. I’m going to try to explain why so many university, New York, Chicago, and LA acting programs have Alexander Technique as part of their curriculum.

There are three main reasons AT helps actors (there are more than three, but we’ll keep it simple for time’s sake). The first and most fundamental is that it helps protect and maintain your instrument (aka you!) As an actor you are asked to do extraordinary things with your body and voice as a matter of course. Violent screams are repeated eight shows a week, a dangerous stunt is duplicated fifteen or twenty times in one day so that the director has his pick of angles and lighting. The emotional upheaval of losing a spouse or a child is explored for weeks during a scene study class. Even something as innocuous as a very uncomfortable pair of shoes or a handstand on a hard floor can do serious damage in hours and hours of rehearsals and performance. In real life these things are experienced once and then the body/mind has time to heal and move on. Actors get to enjoy (and believe me there is joy) traumatic experiences repeatedly.

What Alexander Technique provides is a way to do all of these stressful things with the least amount of strain and tension possible. As you’ve probably experienced, a scream performed with an open throat or a fall taken when you’re not bracing for impact can be repeated safely a number of times. Alexander Technique is all about becoming aware of habitual tensions and then learning how to let those tensions go so that freedom and balance can be restored.

Second, Alexander Technique is state of the art when it comes to dealing with stress and stage fright (this is a theme I explore in much more detail here). Stage-fright is nothing more than the Fight/Flight/Freeze response. Ever heard of it? Most people have somewhere in high school biology or on Jeopardy or read an article about it sometime in their lives. You probably see the Fight/Flight/Freeze response all the time and just never stop to think about it. Ever caught a squirrel off guard? There they are, going about eating their acorn, and all of the sudden you lumber by. What is their reaction? They tense up, freeze for about a half second, and then fly up higher into the trees. (Although there is a squirrel in my building who once came at me at full speed – I was holding a peanut-butter sandwich at the time so that may have had something to do with it). The term “deer caught in the headlights” also sums up Fright/Flight/Freeze. The deer freezes when it realizes that your car is barreling down at it at 60mph, and then (hopefully) it bolts off into the night.

Actors (well, all humans really) experience this same response–specifically in the hypothalamus in close association with the limbic system of our brains. And in fact, if it had not been for our ancestors possessing healthy Fight/Flight/Fear responses, we probably wouldn’t be here today.

But here’s the problem. As a performer you aren’t running from tigers or stalking antelope for your survival. But when you’re suddenly thrown up in front of that camera with all those lights bearing down on you and hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent each minute, chances are your first instinct is to contract in, holding your breath–and this is natural. You’ve over-ridden your body’s natural response to being put on the spot and so where do you end up? It’s as if you’ve pulled up the parking break on your whole neuro-muscular system. Now, on top of all this you’re expected to remember your lines, hit your marks, and oh yes – act really really well.

Alexander Technique not only helps to reduce stress in every day life, it provides you with a systematic approach to help you let go right then in the moment you need to be the most free, fearless, and open to what your partner is giving you.

This is where that term inhibition comes in (that term that I scoffed at the first time I heard it). It’s not inhibition in the Freudian sense: in Alexander Technique it simply means to pause or to stop. Once the Fight/Flight/Freeze response takes hold you want to react to it! Giving yourself some space in that moment to not react right then is key. This isn’t a denial of your emotional state or a squelching of your natural reaction to the given circumstances of the scene, it is only meant to be a pause, a moment to bring you back to where you’re really supposed to be—engaged with your partner and letting your imagination do what it does best. I’ll talk about this more below.

The last and most important reason actors study Alexander Technique has to do with authenticity. AT helps actors tune the mind into the body and the body into the mind. In fact it teaches actors to understand that there really is no difference between body and mind at all. Reason/thinking, emotional life, and physical life are all inextricably linked. When you get nervous your palms sweat, your heart races and your mouth goes dry. When you get angry tension builds throughout different muscles in your body. When you experience elation, a lightening takes hold and a tingling sensation courses through you. The thought, emotion, and physical experiences are bound together as one.

Actors who are told they are “in their head” or who are “overthinking it” can learn to let go, find spontaneity, and stop judging their performance as it is happening. This occurs because above all, Alexander Technique teaches you to be present now, in this moment. By putting your attention on what is happening both internally and in the space around you, there is little room left for those thoughts that kill the electricity of your performance. So instead of thinking, wow, I really blew that moment – I didn’t even get the line right! You will be too busy focusing on allowing the tension in your neck to melt away and observing that the other character in your scene is about to lose it and you need to do something to help her before it’s too late!

But I also mean authenticity in a deeper sense. We are all incredibly unique—not just in how we look and think, but in the way we move and exist in the world. The Alexander Technique can help you shed those physical and psychological “tells” that make you—well, you. In much that same way we can recognize a loved one across a parking lot because of the way they walk or behave, we actors often bring our foibles, ticks and habits with us into each character we play. Sure there are celebrities out there who have made an art out of playing themselves in every movie—and they’re fun to watch. But I’m much more excited by those actors who transform themselves into something unrecognizable from role to role.

We all carry around strange, unhelpful tensions. Some of us unconsciously lock our knees or tighten our shoulders. Others walk around with a bit of a slump that puts excess pressure on the spine and other important joints. Some actors tighten their jaws or put undo pressure on their voice in every day conversation. These habits are not limited to just our bodies. We might not even realize it, but the choices we make in a scene could have less to do with the way our character might react and more with the way WE would.

When we can release out of these habitual patterns that don’t serve us, we automatically strip away those “tells”. We distill ourselves down into something more neutral and universal and become something new without even trying.

In the end it all goes back to that word inhibition and that idea of pausing. In a scene, when you take just a micro-second to put a space between you and your automatic response, you allow for there to be a window where something new, something magical, something you would never expect or would never think in your wildest dreams to happen. Inspiration is always lurking right outside your peripheral vision, and if you allow, if you stay present, if you make room for it, it might just decide to drop in.

Actors and acting teachers: Have you found Alexander Technique training has helped you or your students? Are there other benefits I’ve missed here? Have you found this work to be confusing, frustrating or unhelpful? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Jennifer Schulz is an AmSAT certified Alexander Technique teacher. She maintains a private practice in Los Angeles, CA

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