I dropped my car off at the shop today for an oil change. It is an old car I bought new and I am determined to drive it until it dies. I take it to the shop for routine maintenance in order to extend its life. It’s the smart thing to do to preserve its worth.
My body and mind need routine maintenance too. I get massage, stretch, go to the doctor, talk out my thoughts with friends, and meditate in order to stay healthy. How does the Alexander Technique fit into this wellness regimen?
I am no machine. I am an adaptable, responsive organism. Sometimes my adaptations to the challenges of life include misusing myself (for example: hunching in order to not tower over my peers in high school). The Alexander Technique offers a way to unhunch myself and adopt my full stature. And by unhunching myself, I reduce the wear on my joints, improve my coordination so I move with better balance, and exercise my brain. Don’t let yourself get a rusty body and mind. Use the Alexander Technique. It’s the smart thing to do!
I recently visited my Alexander teacher. One of my struggles has been practicing when I am not in the lesson. I have a million excuses: laundry, busyness, wintertime depression, bills, etc. She said “You have to ask your brain to stop blocking you from doing what you want.”
I immediately thought of prayer. I know of many people who use prayer as a way to ask for help. Could asking God, or the Spirit of the Universe help to take away my lethargy about practice? My teacher explained that the part of me that is conscious only takes up a fraction of my brain, and I can use that part to ask the rest of me for what I want. If I ask again and again, patiently, with no particular expectations, she said I would be surprised. My brain would slowly work on my request without “me” knowing. Indeed, I asked myself to stop blocking me from writing on my way home, and here I am now, writing.
Perhaps, if I repeat this prayer again when I am in need of motivation, my brain (or higher self, or Buddha…) will allow me to choose the activity I want, instead of my habits.
As a massage therapist, I hear many people tell me about how tight they are, or stiff, or knotted. They want me to fix the problem manually, that is, with force and pressure. Massage therapists often talk about “breaking up” knots. Some MT’s and their clients say that painful and intense pressure is the most effective way to achieve this.
There is a place for stronger pressure in massage. But I believe that if a client is in too much pain from the therapists pressure, then they will tense up even more to bear it, counteracting the intended effect. Another pitfall very few MT’s discuss is the tendency of clients to tense during a massage in order to feel more pain so that the massage seems more effective. This comes from a belief that massage should be painful to be effective. Essentially, this behavior blocks the effectiveness of the massage, creates unnecessary residual soreness, and makes the massage therapists job harder.
Learning to relax and receive instead of resisting a massage can lead to a less painful and more effective experience. Learning about your (possibly incorrect) beliefs about how massage should feel opens up the possibility of a different, more enjoyable, and potentially more useful approach.
“Stand up straight!” Moms everywhere throughout time have nagged their teenagers about their posture. Why do we slouch as we get older? Could it be learning to write and use computers at desks all day? Perhaps it is the way we get caught up in what we are reading or watching on the tv and forget we have a body. We escape our present environment and circumstances with our minds. We tune out the aches and pains of sitting too long, until the pain screams at us and we struggle mightily to try and fix it, or feel helpless to get rid of it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a button to push that would correct our posture instantly!
If you want to experience a change with something as simple as pressing a button, try thinking about which way is up. Imagine a mental arrow. Point your attention upward and outward, instead of going inside to try and feel as if you are ” standing up straight.” Don’t worry about your posture. Just receive any changes in your state of being that occur with the thought of “up.” Add “up” to your mental musings. It will not get you to correct posture, but if you let it, you might experience some of that beautiful childhood coordination that your mom exhorts you to restore.
There are many ways we get ourselves in a twist. An obvious example is the person playing the violin who has to rotate to one side in order to properly position her instrument. Have you ever noticed how strange it feels to carry a grocery bag or a purse on the non-habitual side? Many people carry tension differently on opposite sides of their body. Driving a car means constantly using the gas pedal leg differently from the brake leg. How many other activities are one-sided like this? I’ve noticed I tend to put more weight into my right leg when I stand, which has something to do with how I like to throw my right hip forward and sink into it. Even my right foot points outward compared to my straight left foot. If I try to do the opposite and throw my left hip forward, or straighten out the twist in my right foot, it feels strange if not impossible.
Look at ancient Greek statues. Almost all of the figures are twisting, standing on one leg, other knee bent, pelvis tilted one way, shoulders tilted the other, and head rotated to one side. Then look at celebrities as they pose on the red carpet. Twisting looks comfortable and easy whereas standing with both feet planted expresses stiff attention. The problem is that we favor our patterns of twisting, get caught by the familiar sensations, get habituated. Our twists become unconscious and repetitive.
Try standing in front of a mirror and posing for an imaginary Greek sculptor. Notice when you are comfortable, and then create the opposite alignment in yourself, as if you are flipping the image. Are you as comfortable? is it even possible to stand in the truly opposite twist? Now try standing perfectly symmetrical, on two feet. Is that possible? Can all of those subtle imbalances be released so that you can experience a new, less habitual you?
I recently read an article on posture that I found on the Mayo Clinic website. I noticed that the recommended approach was that you should force yourself upright and hold yourself in the proper position. It warned that you would feel stiff and wooden at first, but that you ‘would get used to it.” I disagree with this advice, and I suspect that ‘getting used to it’ actually means slumping unconsciously back into your habitual and familiar way of sitting. It is very hard to maintain a stiffened posture for very long without experiencing pain.
The human organism evolved to be light, efficient, mobile, alert and responsive in order to survive.
Modern life has created conditions that make us wooden, overstrained, stiff, and shut down.
Everyone knows bad posture is harmful. But the solution is not stiffness and rigidity. “Sitting up straight” is unsustainable when bracing with all your might. That runs counter to the principles of the healthy organism.
Again: we want to be light, efficient, mobile, alert and responsive. This is the healthiest state to be in. It is possible to shed some of modern life’s harmful side effects by studying the Alexander Technique. One benefit is that you learn to stop slouching and sit with more ease and fluidity.
My Zen teacher once gave me a little pep-talk when my meditation practice was flagging. He said, “you really have to DO your practice of non-doing.” What he really meant was that thinking and reading about meditation were not going to get me where actual meditating would. Nor would remembering past meditative experiences fondly help me to reap the benefits of a true daily practice. Similarly with the Alexander Technique, it is more useful to practice inhibition with a certain amount of discipline, rather than thinking about it in the abstract or relying solely on the teacher during the lesson.
How do you practice inhibition? It’s a conscious choice not to do something. With a teacher, you are asked not to sit yourself in the chair, but instead to allow the teacher to move you into the chair in an unfamiliar way. You give up control in order to bypass your habit and uncover a better way to do something. But learning inhibition requires practice away from the guiding hands of the teacher.
How do you DO not doing, when you want a specific result? You have to give up on that goal and just inhibit. You have to trust that the practice will take you where you need to go, instead of struggling mightily to make what you believe should happen, happen.
Which came first? Bad posture or weak muscles?
Many people who go to the gym or P.T. believe that they have muscles that need to be strengthened. “My core is weak,” “I have weak abdominals.” “My posture is bad/neck hurts/I can’t sit comfortably for long/I hurt myself because of weak…(fill in the blank)” They think strengthening the weakness will resolve the issue. In the short run, it can sometimes help. But all of the diligence at the gym also increases strain and tension, eventually leading to more discomfort and pain. Then people believe they aren’t doing enough and work even harder, especially if they initially had some relief or success when they started working out. The good news is that fitness training is becoming more whole body oriented, but the common belief is still that effort should always be dialed up, more, more, more. Few seem to be talking about the role of your brain the the coordination of your muscles.
Weak muscles are because of strong habits. Changing a habit is potentially more effective than adding 12 more reps to a workout. In fact, working harder reinforces bad habits. Use the Alexander Technique to learn how to dial down on excess tension in overused muscles, and to move your body more skillfully. Skillful movement will reduce the dynamic of excess tension/weakness. Then you can take your new skill to the gym and work-out smarter.
A friend with smarts about brains tells me there is a neurological reason for procrastinating. As an Alexander Technique teacher, I’d say that my procrastination is a habit which, because it feels familiar, feels like the ‘right’ or only possible way to get things done. My friend’s suggestions for developing a system to get tasks done more efficiently seem terribly regimented and tedious and drain the spontaneity I crave out of the process. A tremendous resistance arises when I begin to try to implement any of his suggestions. Even thinking about trying some of his ideas causes me to check-out, go into avoidance mode, and distract myself from my work. The only time I can seem to get anything done is if there is time pressure, or a burst of inspiration that has a feeling of urgency to kick me into gear. Methodical, organized, disciplined action seems impossible. I crave the urgency, the rush, of rushing.
When I lie on the floor in semi-supine to rest I am practicing the art of not rushing, not forcing. This brings me a great sense of ease, yet doesn’t quite help me to get up to go and adopt the methodical approach to work that my friend recommends. I must commit myself to the discomfort of trying a new system that does not give the familiar rush, and therefore feels ineffective, even scary. New results are promised, but I need to work out for myself the motivation for taking the leap of faith.
The catchphrase ‘less is more’ is commonly used to describe simplicity, elegance, and functionality in design. It is minimal effort for maximum effect. A great deal of thought, trial and effort goes into good design, and yet the result seems effortless. Nature is full of good design because survival requires efficiency. Life cannot sustain wasted energy.
As living beings, we want to be efficient in order to stay healthy and avoid getting worn out. Yet there are a million ways we get tricked into doing too much. Phrases such as ‘hold yourself together,’ and ‘get a grip’ point to the trap of too much effort. Perhaps seeking to do ‘just enough and no more’ is a better approach.
Try it out. Just ask yourself “Is there anything that I am doing right now that is not needed?”
What extra effort can you let go of, right now?