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: October 24, 2011

Last week I had a session with a very difficult new student. He had come to me because whenever he became stressed, he invariably experienced pain in his neck, upper back, and shoulders. Chiropractic helped the pain, but he was pretty convinced there was something he was doing to himself that was the root of the problem.

It was obvious to me he was interested in the Alexander Technique and was very willing to learn, but as soon as we started our lesson he grew very defensive very quickly. He became frustrated when I told him the first step in the process had to do with allowing his neck to be easy and free. Not only was he unable to let go of the tension in his neck, but he couldn’t explain to himself why he could not “loosen his neck” as he put it. The more frustrated he became, the more difficult it was for him to let go.

I knew this work would do wonders for him if he could stop being so hard on himself. If he could let go of the need to “get it right” and simply be curious about what he was experiencing I believed this frustration would abate on its own. I decided to put him on my massage table for what we call a “table turn” so that he could practice releasing unnecessary tension while lying down. I encouraged him to let go of his head and let the table support his body while I moved his arms and his legs. The expression on his face changed and he grew quiet and thoughtful.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

It took him a long time to answer. “I feel sad and I don’t know why.”

“That’s okay.” I told him. “Whatever you are feeling right now is alright.”

And with that he began to cry. We kept working quietly, me helping him release extra tension through his neck and across his chest, him noticing and observing his breath and his reactions.

Most people have no idea how much of their emotional life is locked up in their breath and their musculature. It’s very easy for us to roll our shoulders back and tighten our chest or abdomen against negative emotions like fear and sadness. We don’t want show the outside world what we are feeling. This armoring is not a bad thing in itself; things happen and it is imperative we develop coping mechanisms. The problem arises when the instinct to shield ourselves becomes habitual and subconscious. The problem arises when we don’t give ourselves a choice as to whether or not we express our emotions.

Adam Bailey, an Alexander Technique teacher who holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education has this to say:

For some people, their unconscious minds and their bodies may be the containers for feelings, memories and experiences that they’re unaware of. They may have “forgotten” about these emotions because of the demands of growing up in modern society – or because the original experiences were painful or the environment didn’t support their full expression of their feelings. This material is then stored in their bodies in the form of muscle tension, and may result in chronic pain, among other symptoms. Thus, these people, when they begin Alexander lessons, may experience deep emotions and memories from the past. For them, the Alexander Technique provides a safe, grounded means of dealing with this material as it emerges.

I need to specify here that Alexander Technique teachers are not therapists. We’re not interested in why these emotions have become buried or what experiences led to the holding and tensions that cause pain or stiffness. What we are interested in is helping students recognize these habitual patterns and strip them away so that they feel freer, lighter, and hopefully–pain free.

My student was pretty shaken up from his experience and though I’m afraid he left with more questions than answers he appeared lighter on his feet and more relaxed than when he walked in. “I’m don’t know why, but I feel like this weight has been lifted,” he exclaimed as he was getting on his shoes. I knew why. The downward pull in his chest and stiffness in his arms was gone.

Bailey, Adam. “The Alexander Technique and Psychological Growth | Alexander Technique Boston.” Adam Bailey | Alexander Technique Boston. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. .

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

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