Winter can be a pain

Winter is a very trying time when it comes to your back. The cold weather can cause us to huddle, drawing in on ourselves and tightening our muscles for warmth. Now, I’m not really sure that drawing in like that actually increases our warmth; apparently, it makes us feel as if it does. We may be trying to escape it.

Add on to that the layers and layers of clothes we wear. Lots of padding makes our bodies disappear in our sense of ourselves. The actual contours of the muscles and our bodily sensations go a bit numb because we are slightly entombed in our fleece and down coats!

And I haven’t even gotten to snow removal! The driveway and walkway can be a real obstacle to keeping your body loose. First of all, if you can, use a snow blower. If you do, remember to refrain from hunching your shoulders. Keep your elbows close in, hanging down, with a sense that your elbows are pointing towards your back (as opposed to extended too far in front of you). Make sure your head is not crunching down on your neck. Stop occasionally to make sure you are continuing to breathe.

As far as shovels are concerned, buy yourself one with that has a U-shaped handle, much like a lawnmower. This way you will not rotate your body as much. The snow is pushed forward and dumped forward as you lift the horizontal bar. If you must use a regular snow shovel, DO NOT rotate your body to dump the snow. Lift it right in front of you. Rotating your body carrying weight is a recipe for pain and stiffness.

With this info, you can enjoy the snow, not to mention your post-snow hot cocoa!




Direction: Your Aim in Life

Once you have a handle on the idea of observing yourself and then stopping the compressive habit, you are ready for directing. Directing is the natural next step after inhibition.  If you have learned to stop some of the most harmful habits, why stop there? The next logical step is replacing the negative habits with more positive ones.

Remember that your nervous system, which is learning not to clench and shrug and grip, now has the ability to learn something new, since it has discovered a more neutral approach to movement. It’s important to remember that the nervous system has its own intelligence and its own language. It will not listen to browbeating or pummeling; that’s not the language it speaks.

Michelle image 1Instead, it is “all ears” when you give it a verbal cue or an image. FM Alexander believed that in order to change the body’s understanding of itself, verbal cues were the key. He told people to recite a certain set of verbal cues “one at a time and all together,” like a mantra, along certain neural pathways. Lightness, ease, and freedom from chronic pain come as a direct result of programming a more spacious self-concept. As I say to my students once they have undergone this reprogramming, “it’s the new you!” By that I mean, your whole sense of being has changed because your program for “who I am, where I am, and how I move” is remodeled. The body actually takes on a new shape, because “form follows function.”

Alexander’s verbal cues are written about extensively, but he suggested you recite to yourself:

“Let the neck be free, so that the head can release forward to go up, to allow the whole back to lengthen and widen, the upper arms to release away from each other, and the knees to go forward and away.”

This is shorthand for a very deep-seated and somewhat complicated change in a person’s way of moving, which is why it’s so hard to learn Alexander from a book. You really have to be guided with a set of skilled hands into understanding the subtleties of these words, and to learn to use them without trying to manipulate yourself – no small task.

I find in my teaching that it is also helpful to employ imagery to help the student get the meaning of this bare-bones wording without re-tightening. I’ve used dozens of picturesque and sometimes goofy images to help people release into spaciousness: a ship’s mast, a whale spout, a starfish, a beach ball, drawers, silk fabric draping, etc. It’s actually a really fun and creative pastime to employ these images, and the nervous system responds to them beautifully.

Whether you use words or images or both, learning Alexander Technique is like learning a new language of the mind/body connection, or should I say relearning. You knew this language long ago and your deepest self is happy to come back to it.

Inhibition: The Art of Refraining

InhibitionWhen Alexander teachers asks you to “inhibit,” it does not mean they want you to repress your deepest feelings in the Freudian sense. Rather, it is an essential part of freeing up your body from unconscious habit.  Alexander students are keenly aware how quickly habits of tightening, shortening, and contracting sneak in and overtake you. In an Alexander lesson, you learn to refine your awareness so you can catch yourself before you engage in the same-old, same-old knee jerk habits (like scrunching your neck, swaying your back, locking your knees, gripping your shoulders, holding your breath, and the like). When you have enough control to stop before you start, you are said to be “inhibiting.”  And it applies to mental habits too, like the automatic response to the cookie jar… at least theoretically, that is if the cookies contain chocolate.

Out With the Old

The key here is that if you don’t prohibit the old way of doing something, you will not be able to allow room for a new way of being in your body. It is an essential component of transformation of the whole self. If you empty the nervous system pathway and say a resounding “no” to the habit, you become less of a victim of “tradition” and more master and creator of new possibility.  To “not do” becomes every bit as important as to do, maybe more so.  It is very challenging to slow down in our fast-paced, tweet-a-second universe. However, try your best to wrap your head around a simple one-word thought: pause. Maybe add two more words to your self-talk: slow down. If you wait a few seconds before you respond to the task at hand, you will be thinking less about your goal and more about yourself (your ease, your breath, your balance, your well-being). Thus, you will have the mental space to let go of your tried-and- true, overwrought default mode and embrace your potential. And you will be happier in the meantime, because you will be present for your decisions. It is the key to breaking through a rut and getting to the next level of anything.

A More Quiet Neutral

I believe that this is why at times yoga (or physical therapy) falls short for people in pain. It’s more trying, more tightening, more effort. It’s great if the effort has the effect of balancing you out, but most often the muscles that like to work jump in and work hard, and the sleepy muscles yawn and go back to sleep. It’s because you have not communicated to the muscles whose knobs are turned to “11” on the amplifier to just settle down and quit showboating (to use an electric guitar analogy).

So when an Alexander teacher says, “leave yourself alone,” or “you are not moving your arm,” or “don’t even think about standing up,” you are being asked to go into a more quiet neutral space and be open to a lightness and expansiveness you didn’t even know was possible.

The next step is: “think your directions.” And that’s the topic of the next blog entry.

Everyday Activities: Raking Leaves Can Be Fun

AlexRakeBefore becoming an Alexander practitioner,  I would get  very sore from tasks like vacuuming, cleaning the bathtub, or raking leaves. Luckily, Alexander bequeathed us an approach to movement that helps everyone perform tasks such as these with greater ease and less strain. Originally labeled as a “position of mechanical advantage,” over the years it became known as “the monkey.” The monkey allows you to keep your torso integrated without collapse and your arms relaxed, while getting your support from hinging at the ankles, knees and hips.  Working from this position helps you move about without injuring yourself because you are in a supple, neutral position and all body parts are able to move freely in any direction (like a monkey). The picture above shows a young girl guided into monkey by none other than F.M. Alexander himself, who is demonstrating a masterfully executed lunge.

Bipedalism is no fun. It has many pitfalls; our center of gravity is far above the ground, and the fear of falling is ingrained in us, so that our tendency is to become rigid rather than stay supple when we need to move around.  Monkey position lowers our center of gravity and allows us to hinge using the three lower extremity joints.  Those joints work in tandem; when one hinges, so do the others. Once we have flexed those joints, as long as our arms are not held, but rather hang lightly off the shoulder joint, we are ready for movement in all its forms: spiraling, reaching, lifting, and yes, raking.

One key point: if you collapse your head either forward or backward, you will lose the “mechanical advantage.” Also, if your hips press onto the tops of your legs, you will not receive the full advantage. Your torso must act as a lever, so that your back stays long on the diagonal and your head aims out. A qualified Alexander teacher can help make sure you are not compressing yourself, but rather are staying released and movement is at its most efficient.

So when you attempt to rake your leaves this season, keep this simple formula in mind: stay away from the leaves. Try your best not to collapse towards the leaves, but rather keep your torso on the diagonal but elevated. A lunge position works best. If you overgrip the rake, you are sunk. You will be using too much neck and shoulder tension. Rather, your whole body’s musculature should be evenly balanced so that effort is evenly distributed throughout the system. The whole thing can be easier than you think if you realize leaves are actually very light! With that mindset, maybe you won’t dread household chores as much…. Maybe.

Note that under the heading of Lessons, you will find some photos demonstrating the above principles.


Balanced Posture… or, rather, Balanced Coordinated Use

I have used the balanced posture name for my website for many, many years because the word “posture” is easily recognized by people as representing skeletal alignment. Unfortunately, it has
many negative connotations, such as “military posture,” “slumped posture,” and the like. I can’t tell you how many people have come into my office saying sheepishly, “I know I have bad posture….” Already, they have internalized a program along the way that says “I’ve been bad, I haven’t measured up, there is something wrong with my body.”

So, it would be nice to NOT use the word posture at all. F.M. Alexander didn’t like the word, for the simple reason that he didn’t see skeletal alignment as something fixed in space. He preferred
to use the words “use of the self” for the simple reason that,  as he discovered, how a person  used their body in activity had everything to do with how the skeleton lined up. A much better approach to the body is not to look at the various parts, but rather at an individual’s “coordinated use.” And notice he employed the words “use of the self,” not “use of the body” — an early advocate of the mind-body connection. The above photo of gold-medal Olympian Michael Johnson shows a glorious example of someone whose use is utterly balanced and in sync.

When I was a kid, we used to use the word “coordinated” to praise good athletes or even good artists. Somehow, the parts all functioned together synergistically to create a smooth, even,
efficient approach to movement. If you look at a small child move, especially prior to the confinement of first-grade school chairs, they move in a tremendously coordinated fashion, without stiffness or heaviness. They are so light and springy on their feet, they often jump up and down with excitement without much provocation! So, adults out there, when’s the last time you did that? Been awhile?

There are many different things that determine how you use your body in space, and as a result, how it is configured from head to toe (i.e. “form follows function”). “Use” can be learned: as children, we mimic our parents in movement and that becomes a lifelong pattern that we have to contend with. “Use” can also have genetic components: certainly, we are born with a skeletal pattern that is very deep-seated. (If I went back to my ancestral village in Sicily in the year 1450, the person who walked with the turned-out right foot and the weak left knee might be a relation of mine!) Certainly, repetitive movement performed for your job or hobby can alter the shape of skeleton: musicians and dental hygienists can attest to that.

And you cannot discount the role emotions play in crafting how we move and hold ourselves; for example, if you took on a lot of
responsibility as a young child, you might have a very stiff and possibly hyperextended spine, as you attempted to take on more than your little body could handle and soldier on. That’s just one
example of many adaptations our bodies can take.

The beauty of Alexander work is that it helps us unravel these various seemingly intransigent layers and see them as they are: overlays which obscure the marvelously intelligent balanced
functioning of the body that nature has provided us. Once we get down to how we are actually configured, and how to use that configuration without added self-defeating tensions; and add to
that a strong dose of non-judgmental curiosity and self-acceptance as we journey forward; we might actually feel good enough to jump up and down and enjoy life as we were intended to do.

Don’t Forget to Exhale

I’ve been noticing lately how easy it is to hold one’s breath.  Speaking for myself, I hold my breath especially when I am a) anxious and/or b) rushing. During those times, I am ruminating about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, all the ways in which it might not get done, and when it could possibly get done. Of course, it’s all based on some fairly crazy underlying assumptions: 1) there are many problems that I must fix and 2) there isn’t enough time to fix them.

One Alexander teacher taught me a motto that I often forget but wish I didn’t: “I have all the time in the world.” What a lovely motto! There really isn’t as much of a rush as we think, nor are there as many problems as we think. We admire people who live life with equanimity, but we act as “if we just hurry and get everything done, we can get to that wonderful place where we can relax.”  Or, alternatively, we can focus on breathing.

As often as I can remember, I turn my attention to my breathing. It really helps!  For those of you who have had Alexander lessons, you know that the secret to getting back to your breath is conscious exhaling. Most of us are cruising along on a permanent inhale that’s very akin to a panic sensation. However, it is very easy to stop holding: just let your breath out in a long, continuous, silky thread. As you do, think of sighing –but without sinking. Sighing implies that the crisis is over and danger has been averted. Meditation teacher Tara Brach uses the imagery of dissolving: as you exhale, let your body and your “problems” dissolve into the air around you. I also like the chicken soup analogy: let your meat fall off the bones! Just make double-sure your spine doesn’t fall off into the soup, too.

Once you have let the breath out fully but without force, wait for Mother Nature to fill you up with oxygen. Sometimes you have to wait a few seconds as your body calibrates its need for oxygen. Because you have created a partial vacuum, and “nature abhors a vacuum,” all you have to do is open the hatch and the oxygen will come in on its own free will – not yours. Your ribs will feel nice and springy and your new best friend – your diaphragm muscle — will start to occupy a more important place in your consciousness. When you keep your eye on your diaphragm, without trying to control it, it will calm your mind and keep you from spinning your wheels.

Meditation instructors teach that the breath can be an anchor to help us detach from the mental chatter. There are several ways to do that, but one easy way is to notice the sensation of the breath going in and out of your nostrils, or focus on the quiet sound of the air moving out of the nose when you exhale, perhaps doing some mental counting to five, for example. Some more visual people respond to a post-it note cue: “don’t forget to exhale.”

The oxygen you take in will serve you in so many different ways. It is fuel for your muscles, so it helps them relax. It is so very calming and creates an equanimity that is unparalleled.  It enhances your health. It is a source of spiritual strength. For those reasons, quiet your mind and let go of “holding your breath.” It is a lot cheaper than a trip to Tahiti – and it can serve you every day, and any time of the day.

Chairs: The Bane of our Existence

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked for help with sitting in a chair.  Most chairs are poorly designed, especially  those deemed “office chairs.”  An Alexander teacher named Galen Cranz has written a book called “The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design.”  I watched a slide show she developed showing chairs over the centuries: how could so many designers get it so wrong for so long?

Yet, here we are stuck with curvy-backed office chairs that roll and overstuffed arm chairs and sofas that we sink into like golf balls in whipped cream.  What to do?

Theoretically, the best chair for sitting is a straight-backed wooden chair that has a flat surface for the seat and a 90-110 degree angle for the back of the chair.   Get two inexpensive foam pads and put one under you and one behind you. Sit all the way to the back of the chair. You will be wonderfully supported!  It also helps to put a couple of 1-2” tall wooden blocks under the back legs to give your pelvis some uplift. Sit as widely as possible.

The best chair for sitting is a straight-backed wooden variety
The best chair for sitting is a straight-backed wooden variety

Now, this may not be a familiar way of sitting, but once you get used to it (and of course the lessons get you used to it), you will feel great.

Refrain from crossing your legs or sitting pretzel-style (either one leg or both). This puts a torque in your pelvis and will prevent you from finding symmetry. However, I think it’s just fine to rotate one leg sideways and sling the outside of your leg over your other knee to rest. Both sitting bones can remain on the chair. Change legs to keep balanced.

If you are out at the movies or in an airplane, at a conference or in a meeting, a wallet or paperback book can be slipped behind you between your shoulder blades to add additional support (since we can assume most mass-produced chairs will entice you into a breath-destroying slump).

It’s best to stay off your “toxic couch” if it is too soft and cushy. You can actually replace the stuffing with firmer foam (at an upholstery store) or put boards under the cushions if you must sit on a couch or armchair.

If you must sit in an office chair,  make sure your feet touch the ground.  Sit as wide as possible. Alternate between the back of the chair and sitting all the way to the front. Some people are enjoying the use of tables that rise so that they can work standing up at times. If you do stand, be sure your knees are unlocked.

Alexander lessons will most assuredly help you understand and enjoy sitting and help you choose the chair that provides the most support for your situation.


Alexander Technique lessons in Ann Arbor, Michigan