Soothing Yourself In Anxious Times

This headline caught my eye this week, and has been haunting me for a couple of days: An Anxious Nation (the original print headline).  It really backs up a theme from my last blog entry on “Energy Up, Energy Down” with some sobering facts: the majority of people feel quite anxious daily. The New York Times piece outlines a lot of contributing factors, but let’s focus in on one major life trend: we never stop going.  We now have the means to be connected/productive/sharing/consuming information all the time, and it even creates stress even when we choose not to, because we then worry might be missing out (the pernicious FOMO). As I mentioned in my last post, the article equated the new popularity of meditation centers with a driving need for respite from the endless stimuli we are bombarded with.

I joined one of these meditation centers over the winter, Inscape, in the Chelsea area.  It’s spa-like and gorgeous, indeed very soothing, and good for beginner meditators like me. It costs about $21 to go for a half-hour group meditation. 

On the down side: it was often a challenge to get there – I’d have to match the class to my schedule, and build in a little time for a commute even though it was close to my teaching studio (you certainly don’t want to have to rush out at the end), and it the cost added up.

In trying it for a few weeks, I realized I already use a similar tool already to quiet the mind – the Alexander Lie Down.  It can be done anytime, anywhere, all you need to a space on the floor (ideally a hardwood floor with a bit of padding like a carpet or yoga mat is best) and a couple of paperback books to put beneath your head. You can do it for 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 10-15 (there’s the sweet spot of optimal length!), or up to 20 or 30. You can do it several times a day: to wake up and focus on the new day ahead; to press “reset” in the middle of the day after sitting a great deal; post-performance or workday to transition to your next activity; as part of a vocal or movement warm-up; or at night to settle down before sleep.  You choose what works in your schedule and for your needs.

Some benefits: your nervous system can quiet down as you let the ground support your weight, rather than having to be engaged in coordinating balance and movement. Your mind can slow down as you direct attention throughout your body, noticing where excess strain as built up, and using your thought to invite the muscles to release.  Your breath can return to easier coordination as the whole 3-dimensional torso expands.  Gravity encourages your spine to lengthen, and the spongy discs between the vertebrae to be bathed in fluid.  It’s rejuvenating, calming and yet you keep your eyes open and stay connected to the world around you, so can easily transition into activity when you finish.  Many students of AT have reported that doing lie downs has been a great relief, and an effective antidote to their racing mind and body. Sometimes it's hard at first to be still and stop - be assured that very short lie downs are absolutely fine, and get up when you need to.

You can find a number of guided lie-downs online that can talk you through the Alexander process, but they are absolutely DIY once you get the hang of it (Click here and scroll to the bottom of this page to find some I like by Carolyn Nicholls.)  No cost, no equipment needed. From the sound of things, we need these tools now more than ever.  Consider giving yourself this gift of 10 minutes - or 3 - of quiet today. Meet yourself on the floor for a few, and experience a different sort of connectivity – to yourself.

 

Energy Up, Energy Down

Here’s some news for the physically active: Boost your workouts with caffeine.  In exercise science, it has long been acknowledged that caffeine gives a jolt of energy and improves performance right before an event.  Who hasn’t had a cup of coffee or tea as a pick-me-up at times (or daily)?  But previously, athletes had to abstain from caffeine – eliminating any pre-existing dependency - and then take it only on the day they want to see the boost.  New studies show you can drink your daily caffeine AND then add more, and you still get results.

However, some people are sensitive to caffeine – side effects include jitters, headaches, heart palpitations and stomach upset.  So, it’s not for everyone. And the average American spends more than $1,100 per year on their coffee habit, and it’s rising every year.

Conversely, there is a recent surge in the popularity of relaxation, mindfulness and meditation practices – it’s big business now, with drop-in meditation centers popping up all over NYC. These two booming trends suggest an interesting duality: people want an energy increase for performance (work, exercise, focus), and then need to quiet down and de-stress.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a simple, natural remedy that provides both these benefits – no substances needed, additional time or money expended, or negative side effects?

You know where I’m going with this – there’s one you already have! It’s your breath!

Jessica Wolf writes in her essay Improve Your Green Machine: “Oxygen is a basic necessity of life and an inexhaustible resource, filling our lungs and generating energy for our bodies. Breathing is a most adaptable, responsive, and always available way to fuel the body by carrying oxygen into the lungs.”

Observe your breathing right now – chances are there is some interference with the ongoing movement of breath in and out of your body. You might be holding, squeezing or gasping air.  You may also have some tension in your belly, ribs, shoulders or neck, which constricts that easy turnover of breath.  You may find you are collapsed down through your torso, literally shrinking the space inside you for those respiratory movements. Beginning to observe the breath offers an opportunity to reset those patterns of tension.

Allowing your breath to pass out and return unimpeded is a winning move for your energy and anxiety. Take a moment to make sure your feet are resting on the floor and your head is balanced lightly on top of your spine.  See out your eyes and let breath pass out your mouth. Allow the exhalation to reach its natural conclusion – don’t hang on to stale air. Soften your belly and trust breath to return (through your mouth or nose) in place of the breath you just let out, but refrain from sucking it in.   There is a responsive quality to respiration – expansive exhalation allows for a springy inhale to follow.  If we don’t interfere, that easy coordination can return. But if we don’t, “holding the breath creates a backlog of carbon dioxide, which is a known stressor to the nervous system” Jessica writes.

So, letting the carbon dioxide out reduces stress.  And letting fresh oxygen in increases energy. And it’s available anytime, anywhere, and offers an unbeatable return on investment.

By all means, enjoy your cup of coffee or tea, and your mindfulness class! But make a new small daily habit as well – check in here and there with your awareness of your breath, noticing any interfering tensions. Isn’t it nice to know that energy and calm are just a breath away?

Are you a “Stair Master”?

When people begin studying the Alexander Technique, they are generally fascinated to apply what they are learning to walking.  And when they’ve got a good handle on that, there’s a fun bonus activity: stairs! I was reminded of the pitfalls of stairs in this piece from yesterday’s New York Times about “Aging in Place.” It outlines how people want to stay in their homes as they get older, but that stairs are one of the biggest impediments as mobility and stability decline.  (This article shares some great ideas for adapting your home for “universal design” — design elements that promote independence for disabled and older people and prove useful for everyone else, too. Hear, hear!)

But many people who do not have mobility issues still have trouble with stairs.  As we head out of our (well-designed or not) homes, stairs are everywhere.  Exiting the subway. Entering your child’s school. At the theater. It’s worth considering how we approach stairs, and some common myths.

‘GOING UP’ PITFALL: Pushing through your legs.

This is inefficient: when you grind a lot of weight down into a stair tread, you are essentially expending effort to push the stair away from your body – trying to push the earth away! 

Easier choice: use your mind to direct your body UP, so your anti-gravitational support musculature is already releasing up and away from the stair, and your leg joint can move freely.

So, what’s the thought? Your head releases off the top of your spine, your whole torso lightens in an upward direction, then your stepping knee releases forward. Watch that you are not leaning forward in your torso – stay fairly vertical. You direct UP to go UP. There’s a natural spring in your step.

‘GOING DOWN’ PITFALL: Plopping to go down.

A common misconception is that you’re going down anyway, doesn’t your weight just drop down with each step?

Easier choice: use your mind to direct your body UP, (wait, up again??) so you’re not coming down hard on your leg joints, and they can move with ease.

So, what’s the thought again? Your head releases off the top of your spine, your whole torso lightens in an upward direction, then your stepping knee releases forward. You direct UP to go DOWN. There’s buoyancy rather than collapsing, as you direct up even while you move down in space.

WAIT – it’s the same thought, whether you are coming up or going down???

YES. You think “up to go up” and “up to come down.”

That’s it.  Try it next time you see stairs!

 

 

Mind your knees, please!

I had the great pleasure of attending the Yale Repertory Theater production of Happy Days starring Dianne Wiest this past weekend.  Her character is on stage for the entire 100+ minutes of the show, and is completely immobilized. For the first act, she is buried up to her waist in sand; for the second, up to her neck.  Her performance is extraordinary in an extremely demanding role, and I was fascinated to read my colleague Jessica Wolf’s account of the experience of acting as “movement coach” on the performance.  Her role was crucial to ensuring that Ms. Wiest did not injure herself in the course of the production. Humans are not designed to be still for the long hours of performance and rehearsal that this show demanded, so the actor had to be extremely conscious her “use,” as we say in the Alexander Technique. She had to have ongoing awareness of how she was using her body, and she employed the tools of AT to allow freedom of the joints and breath as she worked.

 

One area she needed to pay careful attention to was her knees. In the article, Jessica writes “people who are required to stand for extended period of time often unconsciously lock their knees.” And how!  If you look around at people standing on the subway or in line at a store, you’ll see how common it is. And to those people it feels right to do so – it feels stable.  But consider this: our bodies have an amazing reflex response called a “righting reflex.” This response allows our muscles and joints to coordinate quickly to rebalance our bodies into maintaining uprightness when taken off balance – very useful if we lose our footing and start to topple unexpectedly!  Knees have the ability to lock back, ankles can tighten, ribs and pelvis can shift left or right, forward or back – a whole host of adjustments come in to stabilize our mass (body, with the head leading on the very top) over our base of support (feet) in the gravitational field we live in to keep us on our feet. 

 

But the knee joint’s orientation is to release slightly forward when at ease.  When knees lock back as a habit, the righting reflex is essentially turned on all the time, and other areas of compensation come in. F.M. Alexander said as part of his “directions” for balanced use that the “knee goes forward (and away)”. If you stand and lock your knees back, notice how your pelvis moves forward as your upper thigh bones pull up into the pelvis.  Letting the knee joint release may feel odd at first – it could feel almost bent depending on how much you usually push them back. But notice how the leg muscles release out of the pelvis, your feet make a little more contact with the ground and your lower back isn’t as tight.  Register that your head is balanced over your feet – the body finds its easy uprightness again without that joint being locked!

 

This is a habit worth easing up on – your knee cartilage will thank you for the relief from that pressure in the joint, and you are poised for movement.  You are cooperating with your design for ongoing easy balance, so when you need your righting reflex for a misstep, it’s got you covered.

The iHunch Blues

Take note of this recent article in the New York Times by Amy Cuddy: “Your iPhone Is Ruining Your Posture – And Your Mood.”   EGADS, that wily machine!!

 

Cuddy, a Harvard Business School professor, has skyrocketed into the dialectic with her theories on confidence correlating to assertive stances. Here, she posits that slouching over devices actually makes people depressed: studies show that if you are in a collapsed posture, you also feel emotionally bad.  Slumping may manifest in depression, or lack of assertiveness, or habitually taking a negative point of view.  Because people in their teens and 20s are using devices the most, major posture problems are now showing up in supposedly spry young people, not just wizened older folks. (Bonus: the article introduced me to some great new terms: the “iHunch” and “iPosture!”)

 

Every Alexander teacher I know who saw this article said something to the effect of “Well, YEAH!!”  I don’t mean to sound glib, it’s just that we see the negative results of mindless device use every day, and often encounter students who want help with how to better sit at their desks or use their smartphones, because they are starting to experience issues related those daily tasks.   The Alexander Technique can be described as “embodied mindfulness” – cultivating mind-body connection, bringing awareness to HOW you are using your self as you do whatever activity you do, so it’s ideal for people who want to address their particular work/life habits. We don’t give you something new to do, or take away activities you enjoy. We simply give tools to bring a “practical intelligence to what you are already doing” (to borrow Frank Pierce Jones’ elegant phrase.)

 

I found the comments on this article quite telling – many people felt that the author was somehow attacking their lifestyles, wanting to return us to the pre-digital age. The level of defensiveness the article inspired surprised me.  A number of people responded “oh, we probably shouldn’t read books either!” and “why is Apple always the culprit?”

 

My personal takeaway from this article has nothing to do with whether a device is good or bad for you. Simply: there are costs to bad postural habits.  They can harm your body, harm your mind, harm your spirit and outlook – yep, they can make you feel baaaaaad all over.  But it’s not all “out with your iPad!”: you can use all the latest gadgets BEAUTIFULLY by just giving a moment’s thought and awareness.  How heavy IS that phone, actually, and why are you bending yourself around it?  How ARE you sitting right now – balanced in the two halves of your body and well supported by the chair or ground, or are you leaning or scrunching to one side? As you read, ARE you breathing?

 

As you let your held breath out, stale carbon dioxide is released and fresh oxygen is triggered to rush in to replenish your whole system. As you let in the support of the chair or the ground beneath you, you don’t have to work so hard to hold yourself up.  As you release excessive muscular effort to balance your 4 ounce phone (that’s right, it’s only a quarter of a pound!), and soften through your wrists, let your fingers spread instead of curl and untighten your bicep – well, that’s not too bad either.  As you read, let the words on the phone come to your eyes, and, if need be, bend your elbow to raise the phone closer to your face, rather than getting sucked down into the tiny screen.  And there you go! You, this breathing, expansive, balanced person who is using technology: master of your phone!

Bad Week for Physical Therapists

This week’s New York Times “Well” column reports that “Physical Therapy May Not Benefit Back Pain.“ A new study, published in JAMA, compared two groups experiencing lower back pain. One received 4 sessions of Physical Therapy (PT). The other was simply told that low back pain usually gets better and to be as active as possible.  Results showed no differences between the two groups in reported “pain intensity”, “quality of life” and their number of visits to other health care providers.  The PT group did experience significant improvement on the “disability” scale after 3 months, but by a year were the same as the non-PT group in this area.

 

It’s possible to read this headline as an opportunity to dismiss the value of PTs, and that is unfortunate.  I believe a good PT can play a significant role in rehabilitation from injury or serious pain.

 

But in my experience as a teacher, I have seen evidence why the long-term results are as reported in this study.  The study does not look at pain causation. For some people, that causation relates to ongoing excessive strain, tension, compression or other physical misuse.  If there is not a change in those daily habits (which is different than simply doing assigned PT exercises), then the misuse returns when the trigger of the daily activities resume. An example: if you develop lower back pain from compression in the spine due to chronic slouching while sitting at a desk 8 hours a day, then it follows that when you return to your desk without addressing the habit of sitting, the pain will return.

 

Shifting focus to the “comments” section of this article: in 60+ responses from people well-versed in back pain (pain sufferers or medical professionals) only one person mentioned the importance of changing daily habits (and the use of the Alexander Technique to do so – brava, “Karen from Manhattan”!). Many people defended PT or mentioned the value of yoga for providing exercises and stretches to do, but seemed to miss the element of what not to do.

 

And now my lament: AT really suffers from a PR problem - it is not in the wider consciousness as a resource for back pain.   Some of the obstacles:

 

·      Insurance only rarely covers the cost of AT for rehabilitation. That creates a major barrier for someone with back pain and related medical expenses to undertake study. 

 

·      AT addresses the whole person. When someone comes in with shoulder pain, an AT teacher will look at how that person uses their neck, head, spine and limbs together for overall balanced coordination. In that way, we indirectly address the area of pain, and for many it does bring about change in experience of pain.  But this indirect approach is not always a popular approach. 

 

·      Sometimes you have to commit to a course of study over time. It’s an educational method, rather than a therapy (although may have therapeutic value). So an AT practitioner doesn’t give you a treatment, but instead asks you to be an active participant in learning.  Many people start to experience changes from their first lesson, but how quickly you progress depends on a whole host of factors, including the seriousness of your issues and how your work on your own. It requires becoming aware of how you are using yourself, and then applying some of the tools AT offers to halt and redirect habits that may be contributing to pain.  It does not aim to be a quick fix, but rather a lasting one.

 

So back to the study, which really suggests an extremely quick fix, with just four sessions of PT.  And the results are – MEH. No long-term success.

 

At the end of the article, the lead author of the study concludes: “Most treatments that are effective have only modest effects. The pattern of low back pain is one of recurrence and remission, and changing that pattern is a real challenge. There are no magic answers.”

 

And there it is: changing that pattern is a real challenge.  It’s hard because it requires breaking strong habits.  But I am reminded of the BMJ study in which the post-back surgery patients given only six AT lessons had a demonstrable reduction of pain recurrence even a year after the lessons. So it’s possible that just a little awareness, coupled with a little information, could help someone to begin to experience things differently. Perhaps there’s some light at the end of that tunnel. 

 

But we have to solve the AT PR problem, so that people know it exists. I’ve laid out some challenges, but I’ve not yet found the solutions.

 

In Pursuit of "Technique"

I am very interested in the fact that what I teach is called the Alexander Technique.  “Technique” is defined broadly in 2 ways: 

1) skill or ability in a particular field. "He has excellent technique." Synonyms: skill, ability, proficiency, expertise, mastery, talent, genius, artistry, craftsmanship

2) a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something. "Tape recording is a good technique for evaluating our own communications."  Synonyms: method, approach, procedure, system, modus operandi, MO, way

AT certainly directly correlates with the second meaning. In AT, we seek an efficient means by which to approach whatever we choose to do – sitting at a desk or using an electronic device, exercising, mastering a particular skill or caring for a newborn baby.  It’s a fundamental approach to movement, breathing, balance, coordination, posture – functions of the physical body.  However it also incorporates your whole being – cultivating a more intentional mind-body connection, and even providing a framework to consider one’s own mental habits and emotional responses.  It allows you to have conscious choice in how you are engaged in the activities you value, rather than simply defaulting to a single habitual way of being.

As a musician, I have worked for decades with master teachers in developing a vocal “technique.” I practice proficiency in an evolving array of technical skills while singing.  When I begin to vocalize, my mind sends mental guiding orders intended to influence my whole body, including specifically the coordination of my respiratory and vocal mechanisms. Then my body gives a physiological response, having experienced these mental intentions over and over again through repeated practice.  The more I try to control the outcome, the more my body employs excessive tension or effort to the process – and the less likely that the outcome will be as desired.  I may manage to sing the note, but it lacks something: vitality, spontaneity, joyfulness, freedom.

When F.M. Alexander developed his technique over a century ago, he called this attentiveness to process cultivating a “means whereby.”  He called focus on result, to the exclusion of process, “end-gaining.”

Herein lies a paradox in developing technique: technique happens through repeated practice, over time.  Yet technique is not fixed – it must instead be dynamic.  As I’ve slowed down the means by which I do something – singing – and explored the process, my body has redirected patterns of use, but it also continues to learn what that means in each moment. I can consciously choose the mental intention during the process, but then must allow the response to happen.  I don’t focus on making a final result (even if I do have a specific goal in mind). Instead I stay engaged in continually renewing my exploration of the “means whereby”. 

So as I cultivate singing technique, how can I also be applying the Alexander Technique? (Sounds like a lot of techniques, eh?)   Well, let’s return to the first definition: AT is a skill – that you apply to other skills.  Frank Pierce Jones (noted AT scholar and Professor of Psychology, Tufts University) wisely said: “The Alexander Technique doesn’t teach you something new to do.  It teaches you how to bring more practical intelligence into what you are already doing…it leaves you free to choose your own goal but gives you a better use of yourself while you work toward it.”

So I can have my singing aspirations, and use AT while I work towards that – aha!  And that was a big aha! for me – that I could only begin to define how I wanted to develop my singing technique when I came to understand how I was employing the specific Alexander techniques of means whereby and end-gaining in my singing.  Only then I was able to recommit to the process, and, with that, I came to understand what “technique” really means to me.

The "J-shaped spine" - is that something I should want?

A couple of students asked me: “have you heard about the new theory of the J-shaped spine?” Well, that I had to see, so I took to the internets.  “Posture guru” Esther Gokhale was interviewed last month on NPR about her theory that Americans have a lot of back pain because their spines are too curvy (like an S, rather than straighter at the top with the lowest curve moving out into a J-hook at the sacrum and tailbone).  In her research, she observed that indigenous people have straighter spines and do not have back pain.

My translation of her theory: she sees people in our culture being too slouchy.  That’s not completely off base. However, if someone tells people that their spines should be straighter at the top, then what will everyone start doing? You guessed it – they’ll sit up straight!  This creates a different issue in using muscular effort to hold the spine straighter at the top. It employs pulling the shoulders back and restricting breathing to maintain that position.

In the Alexander Technique, we don’t seek a “position” at all – which at first can be hard to wrap your brain around.    Sitting here reading this right now, if you feel slumpy, why can’t you sit up straighter?

Well, certainly you can.  But in a little while, you’ll start to feel some other tradeoffs – in mobility and in breathing.  It bypasses using your whole natural postural support system in a more balanced and coordinated way - instead it works (or over-works) one part of it.

In AT, we seek a dynamic relationship between the primary organizing elements of body – the head, the spine (including the top section of the spine, the neck) and the whole torso, and out into the limbs. So whether your spine is more or less curved is not the guiding element. AT asks whether you are releasing up through whatever curves you’ve got, or compressing and shortening that stabilizing column.  It explores whether the weight of your skull is pulling back and down and pressing on the spinal structure, or whether it’s lightening up and balancing easily at the top of the spine. It looks at whether the ribs are responsive to the ongoing movement of the breath, and whether you are allowing that mobility by not holding your breath.   And we do all that indirectly by using thought to wish for a change rather than doing it with muscular effort.

I was heartened to see that Ms. Gokhale added a statement to the NPR story that she had studied both AT and Feldenkrais and incorporated them into her method.  I suspect, just as in AT, that working with her is an entirely different story than simply hearing her work boiled down into a few steps easily understood in print.  Being a “posture guru,” as she has been dubbed, isn’t a terrible label or aspiration – people called F.M. Alexander “the breathing man” a century ago, and he really helped people’s breathing! I’m glad that someone is publicly encouraging caring for our posture. Bringing awareness that how we are using ourselves affects our functioning means we can begin to have choices about that. We can slouch into pain, or expand into better and better performance.  If calling attention to the shape of the spine makes us sit up and notice that it's important, it’s a start!

Everything you need to know about choosing furniture you can learn from this article in the New York Times.

Here are some of the very smart things people said in this Sunday’s New York Times article "The Ergonomic Sofa" about selecting furniture for your home not only with style or visual aesthetic in mind but including the fact that it must support your body well:

“First, you want firm. “Not hard like a wooden bench,” said John Dunnigan, the head of the department of furniture design at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. “But firm cushioning that will support you over a range of compression,” because your body will have various contact points that exert more or less downward pressure. In addition to firm, you want furniture that holds you in an upright position, vertically aligning your ears over your shoulders over your hips, said Dr. David Rempel, a professor of medicine and bioengineering at the University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley. “Resting your back against the back support, you should be able to rest your feet flat on the floor,” he said, with your knees at a 90- to 110-degree angle to your hips. Moreover, there should be some space between the edge of the seat and the back of your knee, so you don’t have pressure on the veins and arteries there. Of course, the right height and depth vary from person to person, because we are all different statures and girths, so you need to try furniture in the showroom (sit for at least 20 minutes, experts suggest) or else be prepared to pay the charges to send it back if you choose to order online.”

This too:

“Twisting and craning also happen when people use mobile devices, torquing the spine to use a laptop beside them on the couch or curving the neck downward while texting on a mobile phone. “When you focus your eyes on your device, your body is going to follow, often into an unhealthy position,” said Mark Goetz, a furniture designer in Brooklyn who designed the supportive Goetz sofa for Herman Miller. “Think of your head as a heavy bowling ball. If it gets out of alignment looking at your cellphone, it’s going to cause tremendous tension and strain.” So make sure you sit without undue slouching or bodily torque, he said. And use armrests, pillows or other props to raise your devices to eye level.”

Oh, and this:

“Furniture is like any other kind of equipment: It’s most effective when you use it properly — and when you don’t overuse it. “Our bodies are not meant to watch television four hours straight,” said Ms. Johnson, the physical therapist. “Get up and move every once in a while.”

WOW - smart people! The Times did an amazing job of assembling a range of furniture designers and medical experts to all say the same thing – we can’t arrange ourselves to fit our furniture.  We must use furniture that supports how we function – so our feet can find the ground, our spines aren’t twisted, and our heads aren’t thrown back or dragged forward.  (And this was in the Real Estate section, not the Science Times!) 

In my own Alexander Technique teaching practice, I talked with a psychiatrist who said she sits in a terrible chair all day, every day. She sensed her arms were being held into a position where they couldn’t relax, and it was too padded in the back, and her feet weren’t meeting the ground.  One of the things I like to say is that “we can’t spend our lives searching for the perfect chair” in every instance.  We must learn to employ our #1 ergonomic tool – our body’s natural postural support system! We can use it our best advantage in any given situation by keeping mindful our “use” (in AT parlance) while we sit - because sometimes you do have to sit somewhere that’s not ideal!  That said, don’t remain in a bad chair for extended periods day after day. Start by scanning your primary working location, whether at home or office, to see if this chair and desk do meet the article's suggested guidelines.  You don’t need to have the uphill battle of trying to support yourself well when your furniture is working against you!

You are worth it. Read this article – it’s filled with sound advice to get your environment up to speed.  

Ode to the Diaphragm

This is how I know I’ve become a geek over the respiratory system: I got EXTREMELY excited to see this article last week in the New York Times: “Behind Each Breath, an Underappreciated Muscle.”   As a person who has been appreciating the diaphragm for some time, I was delighted to see it having its day in the news:

 

“…deep inside all of us, a sheet of muscle does heroic work in obscurity.

In order to breathe in, we must flatten the dome-shaped diaphragm; to breath out, we let it relax again. The diaphragm delivers oxygen to us a dozen times or more each minute, a half-billion times during an 80-year life.

“We are completely dependent on the diaphragm,” said Gabrielle Kardon, a biologist at the University of Utah. “But we take it for granted every moment we’re breathing.

 

FYI, a dozen times a minute works out to over 17,000 times a day that the diaphragm brings fresh oxygenation into our bodies – WOW!  Most of us never even think about it, because it happens automatically.  As an Alexander Technique teacher, I think about it a lot. I have many students come in feeling heavy, sluggish, and over-labored in their breathing looking for relief. Singers train for years to develop the “breath control” required to sustain the exquisite demands of their musical phrases, but then feel bound up with abdominal effort.  Other people are completely amazed by the idea that when you speak, your breath is moving out in an exhalation – they’ve just simply never considered what was happening physiologically to make sound and to release stale carbon dioxide so oxygen can come into their lungs.   No matter where you lie along this spectrum of self-awareness, we all benefit from some attention to breathing.  My world was turned upside down several years into my Alexander Technique studies when I encountered the work of Carl Stough, a pioneer in the field of respiratory science, who developed a method called “Breathing Coordination.”  Stough said “life begins with the exhale” – this simple yet profound idea that we must stop holding our breath and that that will begin to activate a more efficient, easeful and vital coordination that uses the whole of our 3-dimensional torso for respiratory wellbeing.  He recognized the diaphragm in all its glory as the source of this “heroic work.”   It needed to be free to rise and fall within your torso in its “excursion” so that there would be maximum turnover of air with minimal effort of muscular squeezing or holding, and the way we could influence that was by exhaling fully.   I spend my days working with people to find this freedom and ease, and time and again I see calm, poised, powerful, grounded beings emerge before my eyes as their habitual effort subsides.  

 

I am thankful to my teachers who helped me appreciate the diaphragm: voice teacher Irene Gubrud who helped me find a more natural singing approach, Alexander Technique teachers Gwen Ellison & Tom Vasiliades who helped enlighten me on the work of Carl Stough, and Jessica Wolf for her profound work “The Art of Breathing”(which rests on the pillars of the Alexander Technique and Breathing Coordination). “The Art of Breathing” has influenced me deeply as a teacher and as a person.

 

I recently overheard some singers talking about “breathing coaches.”  I would like to put forth that you are your own best breathing coach: simply pay attention to your breathing for a few moments. Lie down on your back on the floor with your head on a couple of inches of books, and your feet flat on the floor, knees pointed up to the ceiling.  Rest your hands on your torso and be aware of the subtle movement beneath them that is the motion of the breath. Notice air flowing out between your lips, and returning with ease. It’s simple: wish for breath holding to let go and voila, the breath moves.  The diaphragm will continue its faithful journey to take care of the rest.

Shoes in the News

This week’s New Yorker magazine gave me the important news flash that Birkenstocks are now a fashion object, coveted by those on the cutting edge sartorially worldwide. (Who knew?) One fashion assistant explains: “There’s nothing better than a really pretty dress with an ugly shoe.” So there you go!

 

My husband has been singing the praises of Birkenstocks for decades, but I have not joined the ranks because of their, ahem, homely appearance. However I have noticed as the years pass I am more and more in search of comfortable shoes – low heels, firm soles, good ankle support, and broader footbeds supplanting pointy toes, flimsy ankle straps and slim teetering heels in my own closet.  So this article began to make me feel vindicated, as evidenced by the article’s discussion with an executive at the company’s Bonn headquarters, Oliver Reichert:

 

“The brand’s resurgence was no mere trend, he argued: a larger cultural shift was under way.  Women were recognizing that most footwear was unhealthy. Reichert said “You cannot walk all day like this” – he shifted his weight onto his toes, then minced forward for a few steps, as if he were wearing heels. “Talk to your friends, and ask them to show you their feet. You will see a lot of crooked feet, and you will say, ‘This is torture.’ The popularity of Birkenstocks, he argued, indicated a desire for a return to a more natural state, at least where footwear was concerned…he said, ”I am saying, Accept that the human being is built like this.”

 

A-ha! ‘The human being is built like this’…he may be onto something!

 

I only recently learned of the cost of my early high heel-wearing days.  I twisted my ankle in a pothole last year (quite a New York story) and had an MRI on my foot to assess the damage.  In giving me the report, the podiatrist explained that the MRI had revealed a great deal of old scarring to the ligaments in my ankle.  When I was puzzled because I had never had any injury before, he said, ‘oh, no, we just see this on women from wearing high heels.  The ligaments [which are non-elastic] stretch to stabilize the ankle when it wobbles while walking in a heel, and then scar as they heal up, over and over again.“ He went on to say that this kind of damage was especially harmful now that I actually did have an injury, because the ligaments were already compromised.

 

Egads! In the past, I had mostly worn heels as needed for performing and occasional nights out.  Given my report, I shudder to think of the consequences if I had been a daily heel wearer.

 

So, ladies – step right up for your now-fashionable Birkenstocks! (Or perhaps, like I, you would like to embrace the Dansko clog.) But in all seriousness, do consider this cautionary tale and seek out the lowest-heeled, most supportive shoes that you can find for your daily lives.  Flip-flops, be gone! You will thank yourself when you step in a pothole.  And your body will thank you for making the quest for stability that much easier…

 

 

Things I'm Learning from Singers

One of the amazing things about the singing voice is what a personal expression it is – your unique instrument is literally formed out of your own body, so there’s something very intimate about a singer sharing his sound expressively with listeners.  You can’t just go out and buy another instrument, or leave it aside when you go on vacation. The care and maintenance is intrinsic, and for better or worse your ownership is total. 

The other day in one of my small group classes for singers and actors, a singer was offering a bit of song as we explored bringing some of the Alexander Technique principles into his craft.  (I am a big fan of connecting Alexander work to an activity, whether that’s rising from a chair, lifting a bag or singing an aria. These aren’t esoteric ideas but are tools that we utilize in all we do – AT is above all a technique for living.)  One of his classmates observed “when you sang this time [after engaging his mind with the suggested AT intention] your voice didn’t sound like something different that you put onto making your sound – it sounded like you.” What an incredibly wise and thrilling observation!  It was absolutely accurate: in that moment we heard what was special about his instrument, unburdened by effortful habits.   Isn’t it true that the great artists show us something of themselves that compels us to watch and listen?  That unnameable quality isn't perfection - it's something more human, more vital, more responsive. Singers harness astonishing courage in sharing their gifts, because it necessitates a deep vulnerability. I am humbled when I get the opportunity to witness someone uncover a little more of themselves in this way – through their own intentions, as their own guide.

Rock on, singers! What a thrill to get to know you.

What IS the Alexander Technique? (And why the definitive answer is not in here.)

I was thrilled to see the wonderful Alexander Technique teacher Joan Arnold included in last week’s New York magazine article about “The Everything Guide to Posture.” The article recommended a private AT lesson with Joan as one method to improve posture, along with several other modalities like yoga, pilates and Feldenkrais.  Every time AT is in the news, it helps all of us in the AT community with that awkward exchange that goes something like this:

 

Scene. In an elevator/dentist’s chair/at a cocktail party.

Man #1: “So, what do you do?”

AT Teacher: “I am an Alexander Technique teacher.”

Man #1: “Oh!” (smiling. Smile changes to squint.)

Man #1: (long pause) “ So what IS that, exactly?”

 

If you are Man #1, you are not alone.  AT struggles for name recognition alongside various other wellness tools.  And its lack of marketing ease is kind of its own doing because there is no handy, dandy one-size-fits-all definition of the technique. It’s a multi-faceted shapeshifting method that applies to everything you do - and that (unfortunately) can’t be easily contained in a sentence.

 

One way to define the technique is in relation to what it does for people: it helps you in your everyday activities.  It could be used to improve performance (the artistic community of actors/singers/dancers/instrumentalists is well-versed in the benefits, and AT is part of the curriculum in top training programs worldwide such as the Juilliard School, Yale School of Drama and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). It could help to alleviate pain, stress or anxiety (see the British Medical Journal’s study on the demonstrable effects of AT study on long-term back pain). It could enable you to sit better at a desk, use your electronic devices in a more easeful way, or hold your newborn baby without back strain.

 

It does this using some foundational elements: awakening the mind-body connection.  Bringing awareness to the whole of your self and your own unique habits. Understanding that the way you use your body affects its functioning, and offering possibilities for change.

 

I’ve been considering “the possibilities” since I first encountered AT 15 years ago, and while it’s frustrating to not be able to encapsulate it in a sentence, it’s not unlike when I decided in my teens that I wanted to be an opera singer.  Part of the appeal of embarking on that journey was that it was a never-ending one.  I’d never “master” being a classical vocalist – it would be a path that would continue to challenge (and sometimes aggravate) me.  It would have to be a lifelong pursuit: something to question and be curious about, to continually deepen and reevaluate in my understanding.  The creator of the Alexander Technique, F.M. Alexander, cautioned against the notion of what he called “end-gaining” – in solely fixating on achieving a goal, one loses sight of the means of working towards that goal.  (Alexander called these means the “means whereby”. There is a nice selection of some of F.M. Alexander's writings on both end-gaining and the means whereby here. ) End-gaining, which results in rushing, pushing ahead and an inability to make conscious choices along the way, generally does not serve us well.

 

So I’ve stopped end-gaining a “perfect” description of AT. I’ve started listening a little bit more.  And then my answer actually responds to the person asking the question, and if it sparks something, we have a conversation.

 

So bravo to Joan, and to New York magazine for including Alexander Technique in the conversation about “what can we do to improve posture?”  That gives us something to talk about.

New Year’s Microresolutions

 

Happy 2015!  It’s that time of year when we all look back on the previous year and identify some things to improve upon in the year ahead. Resolutions!  Who doesn’t have some habits they’d like to change?

 

I am continually reading books offering painless “self-improvement” (or at least making me feel virtuous that I am giving that notion some consideration).  My most-recent very timely read is “Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Change Your Life Permanently.”  (Permanently!!!)  But the thesis of the book is pretty solid – that we have to take very concrete, very achievable baby steps towards change.  So rather than saying in the new year “I will exercise more,” you resolve to get off the train each evening one stop early and walk the last 10 blocks home. This manageable goal gives a sense of accomplishment while also moving you towards greater fitness. This signals the brain that you can successfully make a change, making you eager to try another (small) one.

 

So where do the majority of new year’s resolutions seem to point? To borrow Walgreens’ marketing slogan, an awful lot of us want to “be well.” ‘Wellness’ is a somewhat modern notion. What is it, exactly?  Is it being physically fit, or eating healthfully, or being peaceful in mind/body/spirit?  Is it sleeping deeply, or avoiding the flu?  Is it yoga or strength-training or meditation - or going gluten-free?

 

Today I read an article in which practitioners from different fields suggested their – you guessed it – easy microresolutions for wellness, which involved things like drinking more water and omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins. There were a lot of great tips I’d like to try.  But it also gave me a little ‘aha! moment’ in how fundamental study of the Alexander Technique has been for my sense of overall wellness. My daily incorporation of it is a sort of a micro-resolution – simple and effortless. Throughout my day I use the principles of AT in whatever I’m doing  (sitting at a desk, playing with my child, singing, carrying bags) and I get a dose of ‘wellness’: instead of overstraining with tension or holding my breath, I am decompressing and accessing a balanced overall coordination. Headaches, shoulder pain and back troubles that used to derail me are no longer obstructing the path towards that coveted wellness. 

 

The term “embodied mindfulness” was one I learned this past year, as an inspirational quality with which to approach life. It conjures up a sense of serenity in being fully connected to the moment. In ”embodied mindfulness” thoughts don’t race ahead to what’s next, or lag behind to dwell on past events, or leapfrog into the endless distractions of the world around us.  These are all very human impulses, but I find that they don’t make me feel very ‘well’.  Instead of being calm and integrated, I feel overwhelmed and fragmented.

 

The problem is, the steps to “embodied mindfulness” feel vague. So I make a couple of microresolutions right this minute: as I sit at the computer working, I notice my breath (held – because I’m concentrating!!) I check in with what parts of me are making contact with the chair and what parts are tense (my foot is curled up funny, thigh muscles gripped) and I resolve to stop in that moment.  And when I let my breath move out, I don’t deflate like a balloon but instead wish for my spine to lengthen.  For my head to not clamp down on the top of my spine.  For my back to widen.  For my leg muscles to unravel out towards my knees, and my feet to spread onto the floor.  All of a sudden I’m a little more present, and there’s a little more vitality in my three-dimensional, breathing body.  Concrete, achievable, done.

 

And now to get to those vitamins…

 

 

 

© 2014 Eleanor Taylor. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.