Sleeping: undoing tension before, after, and in-between sleep

 

IMG_0008Many of my students ask me about sleeping and sleeping positions. It’s odd, isn’t it, that sleep—a time meant for rest and rejuvenation—can sometimes become an ordeal fraught with discomfort or even pain, both physical and mental. Even if we sleep soundly, many of us wake up stiff and sore.

This will be the first of a 3-part series on making changes in your nighttime patterns.

Before you go to sleep, lie on your back for 5 minutes with your knees up and your hands on your stomach. If you are already a student of the Alexander Technique, give yourself your Alexander Technique directions. Perhaps do a few “whispered ahs”. Ask for ease in your neck and in the back and front of your torso as you allow yourself to fully rest on your bed. Notice your breath flowing in and out gently. When you are ready, continue your awareness of ease in your neck as you decide whether to remain on your back or gradually move yourself to a different sleeping position. (More on sleeping positions in a future installment).

Consciously letting go of stiffening before sleep will eventually result in changing what you do during sleep. Once you are in your sleeping position, ask yourself to soften your face, eyes and tongue. Allow your neck and  hands to soften. Post-wakeup stiffness can result from clenching your jaw or hands in sleep. If you are stiffening in your hands the tension can go all the way up into your arms, shoulders and neck. If you are pulling your head back in relation to your neck, instead ask your head to move in the direction of a fetal curl. When you wake up during the night, again ask your neck to be free and your face, tongue and hands to soften.

If you have swirling or racing thoughts, try saying to yourself, “Allow my scalp to ease and expand, my brain to soften, lengthen and widen.” If you can feel some pressure or “bunching up” in a localized spot inside your head, ask this area to “spread out”. Do several “whispered ahs”. If you do not know the whispered ah, ask yourself to notice the gentle flow of your breath. If your swirling or racing thoughts persist, get up and do something, and then go back to bed, repeating the process outlined above.

Letting go of accumulated nighttime tensions is much easier if you consciously ask for ease after you wake up. Especially if you tend to feel stiff and sore upon waking, set your alarm 5 minutes earlier, and take a moment before you get up to let go of patterns accumulated while you were asleep. Spend some time lying on your back as you did before sleep, either in your bed, or, if you want a firmer surface, on the floor. When you decide to get up, do so with continued awareness and a wish for ease in your neck as you rise to begin your day.

I am curious to learn how these suggestions worked for you! I hope you will consider commenting to let me know what you think, and if you are curious to learn more about the Alexander Technique, you can find a teacher in your area at www.amsatonline.org.

blog by Heidi Leathwood

photo by Heidi Leathwood

Fearlessness and Coordination

I will never tire of watching this video (click on read more to see video). It is truly awesome to behold how perfectly the human organism can work when it is not being interfered with. Watching this child’s mind/body organization brings to mind the phrase “thinking in activity”, which is how John Dewey described F.M. Alexander’s process.

Because the baby has naturally good coordination which has not been interfered with, she doesn’t need to do the kind of thinking we do (those of us who need to let go of harmful habits of coordination that have been built up over the years). She doesn’t need to inhibit any reactions. She is in a condition of perfect mind/body coordination. Her actions are exploratory: there is no hurry or fear of failure, only a total absorption in what she is doing at each moment. She is never forcing things or trying too hard to reach the next hand or foothold. She is never working too hard in a way which makes her stiffen her neck. “Just do it” is not part of her philosophy. She is not afraid. She is not overthinking or over-analyzing what specific move to make next. The path simply becomes clear to her as she waits and explores. She does not miss an opportunity to stop and find a better way when something isn’t going to work. Even when she is millimeters from the top, she can stop when it is not working easily, turn back, and explore a new path that will help her attain her goal.

At the training course today after watching this video, we talked about some of these things, and members of the course commented on how free and expansive her back was, how her limbs came out of her expansive back, how the movement of her hands and feet reaching out for the holds reminded them of “putting out feelers”, how she wasn’t in a hurry, how she looked like an expert climber, how she looked like she was simply crawling on the floor if one didn’t know it was a vertical wall. We also talked about how for an older child or an adult, fear of failure and over-analyzing specific movements could get in the way of this easy coordination.

One way of “thinking in activity” consists of NOT “doing our Alexander Technique” and NOT “trying to figure out what to do next” but simply noticing if we are about to do something which will interfere with our overall ease and poise, stopping before we interfere with this poise, and doing something different which will allow us to maintain ease and poise in our head/neck relationship and thus our whole self. People often injure themselves by ignoring the sense that tells them they are doing something in an awkward way.

Trainees’ Column: On Chronic Pain

ImageIt’s been six months since the pain in my shoulder started, a new episode in the journey of learning about my unnecessary habitual muscular tension. The event which started the consistent pain happened while trying something new, performing on a very heavy accordion. What followed was a week of not lifting my arm, then going back and forth to feeling better and worse on a daily basis until the present day.

There are many processes and experiments that I’ve gone through since the event. First, I just waited to see if it would heal. After a month of continuously hurting during certain movements, I realized it was now a use issue. At this time, I was on break from an Alexander Technique (AT) teacher training program, and was left with the process I’ve been learning: Awareness, Inhibition and Direction. Knowing that this process can be very slow to makes changes, I thought that maybe I’d try something new again, a martial art called Aikido. Brilliant idea, I know… After researching, I found this form of martial art had some of the same principles as AT – focusing on personal use over anything else and having some hands on help to change habits. For the first few weeks, it was helpful the way the sensai (teacher) explained the coordination of breathing with movement and other mental and physical instructions. It also helped that I was in a New Beginner class and the sensai taught at half the speed of a normal class. I found that as I applied my AT process to the instructions, my coordination improved and my shoulder started feeling better. But as the class sped up, I was no longer able to inhibit my habits, and I finished the classes feeling worse than when I started. What’s more, I left with a displaced rib that I eventually snapped back into place, ugh!

It was about time to start my third year of AT teacher training, and I was in pretty rough shape. My Alexander teachers, fellow trainees and guest teachers have helped me change some of those habits and responses that have caused my shoulder to lock up which make the act of raising my left arm very painful. The painful episodes are becoming fewer, and my left shoulder and my whole body is now learning to move more efficiently and with better coordination. Though my habits have not changed enough for the pain to be completely gone, I’ve seen small and permanent changes happen as I continually come back to the AT principles, particularly when I don’t give myself any expectations on my progress. For example, when practicing moving my arm up, I tend to get “fixed” on getting my arm up over my head, something we call endgaining. The real progress only comes when I no longer care if my arm goes up. Instead, I allow myself to notice what happens in my whole body as well as my shoulder as I begin to think of lifting my arm. This gives me a chance to prevent any tension from taking control. This kind of work takes enormous patience and willingness to experiment over and over again, but that is when lasting and permanent changes can occur. So, I will continue to work through the process and trust that I will continue to improve and learn as more challenges arise.

By Michelle Brake, 3rd-year trainee

Drawing by Michelle Brake, used with permission

 

 

Learning through Journaling: a Celebration

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A beautiful thing about teaching is the opportunity to witness someone’s discoveries. It is a rare privilege. When people share their process with me through their journal, I am often inspired and humbled. My private pupil Briay made my day when I saw she had written a haiku about her weekend, and I was even more ecstatic when she gave permission for me to include it in a blog!

I am very touched by retyping Briay’s poem. The sense of wonder and gratitude she conveys at the discovery that things can change just by noticing and “urging”, and “letting”. I don’t have to hold my body up…my body holds me up.

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I am touched by the power and depth of Alexander’s work as it inspires a poem like this after only a handful of lessons. And to think Briay may never have written that beautiful poem without my journaling requirement for the University course of lessons she is enrolled in. I learn a lot about my students when I require journaling…it seems to stimulate a reflective, questioning attitude in exploring how they move through life. I privately celebrate this attitude when I observe it in my students, but thanks to this blog…journaling myself…I have the chance to make my celebration public. Thank you, Briay, for letting us all in on your reflections on the Alexander Technique!!

And here is her poem again, just in case you were not able to read it in the image above:

A Haiku for my Work Weekend

I worked like a dog/ It wasn’t so taxing though/ I sat at a desk…

I smiled at them/ And I printed their tickets/ Silent films they saw…

I sat at a desk/ My shoulders were very tight/ I urged them, “Expand.”

My shoulders released/ And with them my neck was free/ Freedom I did feel

I sat at a desk/ Without the tension before/ “heart”! My dear body!

My happy body/ You work harder than you should/ Thank you for letting

Thank you! My body!/ You can be so efficient/ When you hold me up!

Haiku by Briay Conditt

Blog by Heidi Leathwood

Image with permission from Briay Conditt

 

 

Reclaiming Posture

IMG_5499As a grad student I frequently took gigs playing background music. It was not unusual for a partygoer to stop on the way out and compliment me—on my “amazing posture.” At first I was somewhat bemused that they mentioned my posture instead of my playing, but I soon relished these compliments. They were an indication that all of my work in my Alexander lessons was paying off. I clearly looked different than I did before. At other times people asked me if I was a dancer, or an actress (more evidence that I must have changed the way I move through life, apparently demonstrating grace, poise and presence.)

Many Alexander teachers, including me, are afraid of the word posture because it often seems to imply to people a rigidly fixed position. But as I look at some definitions (from Dictionary.com), I see that the only definition that evokes negative connotations is #3.

  1. the relative disposition of the parts of something
  2. the position of the limbs or the carriage of the body as a whole
  3. an affected or unnatural attitude
  4. a mental or spiritual attitude
  5. one’s image or policy as perceived by the public, other nations, etc.
  6. position, condition, or state, as of affairs

#3 is what I see people do at parties, the instant they find out I teach Alexander Technique. As an Alexander teacher, I perceive what they are doing as an “unnatural attitude”. But they don’t know what they are doing is unnatural. They are doing their best. People consider good posture admirable, they just do not know how to move up without doing it “unnaturally”.

Since definitions of words have evolved over time they point to trends and history in human thought. Looking at the definitions of posture, I am excited by the underlying understanding that they convey.

#1 Yes! I can change the relative disposition of the parts of myself—by not stiffening my neck, allowing my head to go up to lead me into length and width.

#2 The carriage of the body AS A WHOLE! We can learn how to carry ourselves!

#3 Well…enough said.

#4 Wholeness of the self! Mental and spiritual—not just physical!

#5 My image and other people’s perception of me is my posture. Obviously. Sad but true.

#6 Condition and state of affairs are “sufficiently vague” terms that encompass everything we are working on in Alexander Technique.

When someone stiffens into “sitting up straight” when I say I teach Alexander Technique, it means they would like to have good posture, they just do not know how to get there with ease. Perhaps Alexander teachers would do well to reclaim the word. Do I teach posture? Yes! I can help you change your condition and state of affairs!

By Heidi Leathwood

photo of Heidi Leathwood used with permission

When Mo-Mo, Who Eats Everything, Has Eaten the “Up”

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Yesterday, my student Jan told me that sometimes if she and her partner feel awful in the morning, they joke that Mo-Mo has eaten the up. I should explain that Mo-Mo is their cat who is on a diet, and because he is getting more fit, he is able to leap everywhere and eat everything.

In thinking about Mo-Mo and the up, I am reflecting on lessons that I have learned and relearned hundreds of times over the past 26 years. One lesson is that just because I can’t feel the up doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The other is that when I feel awful and am desperate for relief, I am likely to end-gain like mad in an effort try to get out of whatever it is that I presume is causing my discomfort.

Here are a few ideas for when it seems that Mo-Mo has eaten the up. Consider the possibility that your directions are going just fine, but something has happened, which will cause you to feel awful no matter what. Maybe you are sick or getting sick. Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe you have allergies or there is some environmental factor that is affecting your system. Maybe you have pulled a muscle or injured yourself in some way. When I was in Alexander school long ago in Los Angeles, I recall noticing that often on a day I felt really terrible, someone would compliment me on how well I was doing.

More about feeling the up: as we have more and more Alexander lessons, our sensory perception gets more and more accurate. The improvement of our sensory perception is both wonderful and horrible. It is wonderful, because it is very helpful to be able to listen to our kinesthetic sense when it tells us we are going wrong. It is horrible because it can lead to a presumption that “up” always feels the same and if we don’t have a certain feeling, we must not be going up. It is horrible because it can lead us to seek that feeling (seeking the feeling is what we in the Alexander Technique call “feeling it out”). It is horrible because we can forget that even though our kinesthetic sense is better, it is not totally to be trusted. When we use our kinesthetic sense to try to “get the up”, we get into trouble instead.

Trying to get a certain feeling is end-gaining. “End-gaining” is a phrase that means going directly for your end (feeling better, doing it right) without regard for the best way of getting there.

The best way to lengthen and widen is not to try to lengthen and widen, not to try to feel lengthening and widening, but to do nothing. As we do nothing, we may give ourselves a mental direction for lengthening and widening. A direction is an intention but not a doing. Unfortunately (and this is the second lesson I spoke about above), when we feel really awful, we get desperate for relief, and even the merest idea of lengthening and widening or up can cause us to overdo the directions. In other words, we subtly or not so subtly TRY to lengthen and widen. Without realizing it, we cross over the line and start doing something to try to get the feeling of up, lengthening and widening. This is likely to cause us to feel worse and then to try even harder.

In these cases, what works for me is to take the words “lengthening”, “widening”, and “up” out of my vocabulary. I tell myself, “I accept that I feel awful right now. I am not going to try to fix it. I am not going to ‘direct’. I am just going to do less. If I do less, at least I won’t add to this mess. I am going to be patient with myself.”

Up is always there, but sometimes it needs uncovering. How does it get uncovered? By stopping. By doing less. By letting go of trying to get the feeling. And trusting that if you have stopped the desperate trying, and are doing less, you are making an improvement, even if you can’t feel it.

So the next time you wonder if Mo-Mo has eaten the up, try this approach and let me know how it goes. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

by Heidi Leathwood

photo courtesy of Jan and Mo-Mo

Ex Machina—thoughts on robot and human movement

 

ex_machina

I went to see the movie Ex Machina, which I enjoyed immensely. Lots of food for thought about the implications of artificial intelligence. It also stimulated my thinking about conscious choice, habit, and movement, both robot and human. As an Alexander Technique teacher, even when I am wholly immersed in a movie, I can’t help but notice movement patterns, and as I reflected later, my number one question became: did the actress playing the robot make a conscious choice to move differently when the character knew humans were not watching? Perhaps watching the movie again will give me more evidence, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

For the most part, the female protagonist robot moved as a “typical robot”, i.e. the way we are accustomed to think of robots moving: in a mechanically sound way, which involves bending at the bigger joints (hips/knees/ankles), and not bending in the torso. I think most of us tend to think of a typical robot form that does not have a spine, thus it would not have flexibility in the torso. The robot in this movie actually has does have a spine (as you can see through the transparent midsection), making it possible for it to be flexible in the torso and neck.

If you are an Alexander Technique teacher, you may notice that even though the actress (Alicia Vikander, in a wonderful performance) was doing her best to bend at the hip joints (a la good mechanical use), she was still doing some bending in the lower back, presumably without realizing it. It would be normal for this to happen, because of what we in the Alexander Technique call “faulty sensory perception.” This is a phenomenon in which you get so used to your habits that you can’t  feel yourself doing them, and even when you try to move differently, vestiges of your old habits remain.

In another “un-robot-like” movement, the robot pulled its head back when bending forward. For humans, tilting the head back is, in itself, not a bad thing. It is possible to do this with great ease, however most of the time, people do this movement as an unconscious habit, and it serves no purpose. When it is an unconscious habit, usually it involves excessive muscular effort (I call it scrunching), and prevents ease of movement, not only in the head and neck, but throughout the body. This is a typical human habit, and I found myself wondering if the actress, as a human, was doing this movement unintentionally.

Only later did I think of another possible explanation. The robot was built and programmed to seem so human it would fool humans. Perhaps the typical human movement of pulling the head back was deliberate on the part of the actress and the director?

Near the end of the film, I happened to notice a moment when the robot was sitting on the ground and reaching for something (bending forward). In this moment it didn’t pull its head back. Was it simply because it was a different movement than I had seen before–seated on the ground and reaching for something as it bent forward? Later I realized that in this scene the robot was unobserved by humans. Could it be that the robot’s default way of moving is more mechanically advantageous (not pulling its head back in bending), and it was in default mode when it was alone? And the less advantageous way of bending (pulling the head back) was deliberately chosen as part of a program to fool a human into thinking it was a fellow human?

Fellow humans: through Alexander Technique lessons, you can learn to move without unconsciously pulling your head back—show those robots they are not the only ones who can figure out how to move in a mechanically advantageous way. Trump them at conscious control!!!

by Heidi Leathwood

image from “free to share and use commercially” file at Yahoo

The Importance of Questions

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For me, working with the Alexander Technique involves a willingness to ask questions of myself. Questions allow me the freedom and opportunity to notice when I want to change my path. I find that many of my questions arise from self-reflection and stimulate more reflection and more questions, and that coming back to the same questions again and again helps me to notice growth and change and also to reassess. “What is important to me in the long term? What is important to me in this moment? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? What is a good way for me to get closer to what is important to me? What am I doing to get in my own way?”

Or, “What does it mean to stop an unhelpful reaction within myself? How can I employ freedom of my neck and an overall length and width during this activity?” If I am grappling with a big question like one in the previous paragraph, bringing the question back to “what am I doing in this moment?” changes my thoughts about the big question and I often realize something unexpected.

Asking questions of others can forge a human connection and open possibilities we may not have thought of otherwise. Someone once suggested a question I could ask my child in the midst of a tantrum: “What do you need?” I remember vividly one instance in which I managed to do so: the act of becoming aware, stopping my automatic response, and redirecting my actions toward addressing the big picture had radical and unexpected results. My child stopped screaming, thought silently for a few moments and said, “I need a hug.”

I cannot think of a better way to value someone than asking them a thoughtful question and listening to the answer. What could be more important than a person’s needs, wants and goals? When I teach a lesson, my big-picture goal isn’t to spew information at my student, tell them what to do or try to change them. Any of these things can happen if I assume I know what my student is thinking or how they are reacting. What I really want, though, is to learn about what is important to my student, find out something about their reaction in different situations, and help them find a way to get closer to their goals. I want to find out what they are thinking that may be either helpful or unhelpful. What better way than asking questions? In keeping with what F. M. Alexander discovered about the unity of the self, learning more about our own thought process and that of our students is part and parcel of the whole endeavor.

by Heidi Leathwood

photo copyright Heidi Leathwood

Lost in Translation: misunderstanding and faulty sensory perception

IMG_2295It is no wonder there is so much misunderstanding in the world. A simple word can mean completely different things to different people. When I was 20-something, my favorite book was Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Over the years I often think of the powerful chapter in which Kundera takes a number of seemingly innocuous words, and defines them according to each character’s perspective. Words take on meanings that depend upon associations from our experience. For instance the word “light” can be positive for one person, negative for the next.

Have you ever said something to someone, and then they think for a minute, and say, “Oh, you mean ….”, and they translate what you have said into their own personal language? If you have had this experience, I would be willing to bet that the person you are communicating with often says something related but quite different from what you intended to convey, and often says exactly the opposite of what you meant.

I believe this happens all the time in human interaction: you say something to me, I think about what it means, rephrase it in my head, and then remember my own words, not yours. It becomes a type of faulty sensory perception, where I actually remember hearing you say the words I think you said, but really it was my own translation of what you said that I hear ringing in my ears.

As a teacher/friend/mother/spouse, if I keep this in mind, I can be slower to react in these types of situations…”Maybe I did say that, but let’s talk about it again, because I am not sure that is what I meant.” Or, “Oh, you didn’t say that? I must be remembering what I thought you meant, and not what you actually said. Can we talk about it again?”

The same thing happens when we read about something. We interpret it, and then when we tell someone else about it, we learn we may actually have gotten it wrong. Upon many occasions, my students have related to me something they have read in an Alexander book, but when we look it up, we learn that the words and the meaning were quite different from what they thought it said.

As a teacher, I sometimes learn (and surely often never find out) that students have misheard me or don’t remember hearing me say something. When I find out about it, my habit is to feel defensive, or upset that I hadn’t successfully conveyed the information I intended to. I need to keep in mind the bigger picture, and use this opportunity for learning, both for me and for my student. “Let’s talk about it again.”

photo of “American Pancakes” by Heidi Leathwood, taken in a Madrid Starbucks

blog by Heidi Leathwood