Heather Stegmaier, M.AmSAT

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Thursday
Dec122013

Unlock Your Body

Habits are really hard to break. This is true of any type of habit, even habits of movement. One of the most common movement habits I see in people is when the body holds itself into place. I call this ‘lock down mode’.

Lock down mode is when your body holds itself in position, and usually feels like this: 

Head back and down

Jaw set 

Neck tight

Shoulders up and narrow

Arms held tight to the body

Knees locked back and hips locked forward

Any of these sound familiar?

Try this now:

Stand up and sit down a few times. Notice how your body moves. Don’t try to change anything, just go about standing and sitting your normal way.

As you come to standing, do you have two stands? I know that sounds crazy, but think about it…when you stand up, do you come to standing and then immediately ‘set yourself’? If so, that means that you are standing twice. There’s the act of standing up and then setting into standing.

This second stand is an example of lock down mode. It may not seem like much, but it is really leaving you no room for change. Lock down mode keeps you in your habitual state. If you experience any type of chronic pain or tension, this is not a great state to be in.

Lock down mode also provides a false sense of security. It’s the body's way of bracing itself against the world. It’s an unconscious defense mechanism—and totally a reaction based in fear.

The Alexander Technique provides powerful tools to get you out of lock down mode.

Here’s how:

1) Bring the mind into the picture

Yes, lock down mode is a physical habit, and as we all know habits are hard to break. When it comes to the body, it’s easy to forget about the mind, but the mind is key to facilitating change. 

Inhibition and Direction are the paramount cognitive skills of the Alexander Technique. The mind piece of mind/body. Inhibition is a way of thinking that sends messages to your body to stop. By inserting a pause not only are you able to stop a habit in its place, you are also giving yourself an opportunity to make a conscious choice about movement. Directing is a way of turning on the part of your brain that orients you in space. By directing you are able to expand and lengthen continuously, which is the exact opposite of lock down mode!

2) Experience Change First Hand

Human touch is tremendously powerful. The Alexander Technique incorporates this powerful tool in a gentle way. When you take a private lessons in the Alexander Technique, the teacher will use gentle hands-on work to help you get unstuck and out of lock down mode. The purpose is two-fold. As Missy Vineyard explains, the teacher’s hands “convey an experience to the students…the student experiences a gentle contact that lightly supports, guides, energizes, expands, and informs how the student moves. Second, the teacher’s hands feel what the student does to his body: how he moves and reacts…” Therefore, the hands-on work in a private lesson is really a conversation between student and teacher. [1]

These powerful tools make the Alexander Technique a unique and powerful practice in which the teacher helps the student come out of lock down mode and into a lighter more expansive way of being.

I want to hear from you! What is your version of lock down mode? Have you experienced the Alexander Technique? If so, how did the power of touch inform your experience? Please leave a comment below.


[1] Vineyard, Missy. How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live. (New York: Marlowe & Company, 2007), 243.

Thursday
Nov072013

Think Up to Change Your Experience

We all know this beloved children’s song:

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (Knees and Toes)

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (Knees and Toes)

And eyes and ears and mouth and nose…

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes!

(Apologies if it gets stuck in your head now.)

When we were kids, movement and body parts made sense. It was easy to sing this song and touch your toes, moving with ease the whole time.  As we get older, these things become more challenging. Why is this?

Of course, physical fitness, injury, and disease are important factors. But what if you are an active, healthy adult, and still deal with physical limitation in the form of chronic pain, stiffness, or mal-coordination?

The way we use our bodies plays a huge part in our daily experience. As you age, you probably developed poor coordination or postural habits over time.  These habits interfere with your body working optimally. This doesn’t have to be something that develops in middle-age. We develop postural habits at any age. Think back to sitting in school all day, learning how to write, or trying to be cool and fit in as an adolescent. Every stage of our life can create poor postural habits. We call this “misuse” in the Alexander Technique: anything that interferes with your body’s natural ability to be poised, free, and mobile.

So instead of ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’; I offer a different tune to my Alexander Technique students:

I allow my neck to be free,

so that my head can rise forward and up.

My back is lengthening and widening.

My knees are forward, and my heels are down towards the ground.

This isn’t actually a song, but what we call Alexander’s Directions.

Directing in the Alexander Technique is a cognitive skill. It’s one of the “mind” parts of mind-body. I work with my students to teach them how to turn on the part of their brain that is capable of thinking spatially, or in other words, conceiving of the space around them.

Try this now:

  1. Either standing or sitting, bring awareness to yourself.
  2. Conceive of the space above your head. Let’s name this Up.
  3. Now conceive of the space below your feet. Let’s name this Down.
  4. See if you can conceive of Up and Down simultaneously.

After trying this, how do you feel? Did anything change in your body throughout your experiment? Maybe at the very least, you feel as though you can expand into the space around you.

You can try this experiment with all three dimensions: Up/Down; Forward/Back; and Left/Right (Wide).

Alexander’s Directions employ the same skill of spatial thinking, or conceiving of your body in space, as does the Up/Down experiment. These directions are not just something you say, they are very specific conscious thoughts to facilitate change in yourself. A way to move from ‘misuse’ to conscious coordination.

The benefits of learning this skilled way of conscious thought include:

  • Better coordination
  • Improved muscle tone and mobility
  • Improved mental focus and clarity

With the help of an Alexander Technique teacher, you can start to put Alexander’s Directions into practice.

I allow my neck to be free,

so that my head can rise forward and up.

My back is lengthening and widening.

My knees are forward, and my heels are down towards the ground.

I would love to hear from you in the comments below! How do you experience spatial thinking on a regular basis? Is your attention always down? If so, how does thinking Up change your experience?

Please leave a comment below.

 

 

Friday
Oct252013

Let It Go: Observation Without Judgment

The first step on your mind-body journey towards wellness is awareness. In the Alexander Technique, this is no exception. Moving toward positive change and well-being—and away from tension and chronic pain—first involves becoming aware of your body, your mind, and your habits.

Awareness of one’s self can be difficult, as it’s common for emotions and judgment to run rampant. This is why I emphasize observation without judgment with my Alexander students.

Observation without judgment can be a new concept to many. Often times, observing ourselves automatically comes with a back story or reason why a specific sensation is happening.

This is how it normally goes:

“While bringing awareness to myself, I observe that my jaw is tense and I’m holding my tongue up to the roof of my mouth. Sigh….I always do this, it’s such an unconscious habit! After years of playing the flute, my jaw and tongue are just always so tense and overactive. I can’t believe I still do this, even though I know it’s a bad habit. I’m better than that!”

In this example, an observation turned into explaining why (at least a possibility of why, though that may not really be the reason); beating myself up for having a tense jaw; labeling it as a “bad” habit, (which is super judgy!); and finally, making a statement that I’m better than this bad habit. Wow! And that wasn’t even that harsh. I’m sure many of us have an inner-dialogue that is much more mean-spirited than that, right?

So what does observation without judgment look like?

Here’s how that goes:

“While bringing awareness to myself, I observe that my jaw is tense and I’m holding my tongue up to the roof of my mouth.”

Stop right there. That’s it.

If you feel yourself hanging a bit, that means that you’re used to judging yourself, creating a back story, or trying to figure it out. In my experience, this is never useful information. It usually falls under the category of speculation and leads to wasting time and energy.

By utilizing observation without judgment, you can simply get on with your life! Once you notice tension in the body (i.e. jaw locked and tongue tense) acknowledge it and send a message to stop tensing. Allow the body to respond appropriately.

The Alexander Technique is a method to become aware of habits of tension and give you tools to create lasting change so you can live with less pain and tension. Often, the first step on a journey of change is the hardest. If awareness is the first step, and you continue to judge every observation you become aware of, you are truly making this first step that much harder.

Let it go! Be free to observe yourself without judgment. It only gets in your way.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. Sit quietly for a moment and bring awareness to yourself. Do you attach a back story or judgment to every sensation in your body? Practice observing without the judgment. What’s that like? Share your experience below!

 

Wednesday
Oct092013

Don’t Relax! A new solution for tension

Relaxing has become a favorite pastime in our culture. We’re so busy and stressed that we have to schedule time to actively relax (an oxymoron, right?). With all these things we need to relax about, relaxation gets added to the to-do list: from massages to spas to yoga retreats there are many opportunities to escape from the rushed world we live in.

When dealing with specific muscle tension the word relax is tossed around frequently. Stiff shoulders? Relax! Tight neck? Relax!

In this sense, relaxing is thought of as the opposite of tension. For example, if your shoulders are tensed up towards your ears, then you must relax them down. This turns relaxing into an activity. If tension is pulling your shoulders up, how can relaxing (i.e. pulling them down) be any better? It’s swapping out one form of tension for another.

I have an alternate solution for dealing with tension: stop tensing. That’s it! Of course, easier said than done, right?

Try this out:

  1. Make a fist with one hand. Hold it tight! Now, release/relax the fist. Try this a few times.
  2. Next, make the fist. Instead of releasing/relaxing the fist, just stop holding the fist.

Different?

When we relax a muscle that is tensed, we are actually using force to make that muscle go in a different direction. When you simply stop tensing, the muscle is restored to a neutral state.

How did this actually happen? I gave you an instruction to stop holding the fist, which you read and your brain sent that message to your nervous system and muscles, and your hand responded appropriately. Therefore, just by giving yourself a conscious thought, you were able to change how your body responded.

This is huge!!!!!

The Alexander Technique teaches that change starts with how we think. Conscious thought is very powerful.

So the next time you notice tension in your body, rather than jumping right into your habit of actively relaxing, go ahead and give yourself a conscious thought to stop tensing.

I wish to stop tensing.

Wait, renew the thought, and see what happens. Physical change is possible, but it has to start with the mind.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. What was your experience with the fist exercise? Have you ever tried relaxing to no avail? Submit your story below.

Friday
Sep272013

Ask and you shall receive: Non-doing and the Alexander Technique

 

Non-doing is an elusive term that may conjure up idealist views of stillness, meditation, serenity, and peacefulness. In the Alexander Technique, non-doing is the vehicle for which change is possible. It’s the sweet spot between stimulus and action. In this sweet spot, it’s possible to receive information and make a conscious choice, rather than immediately reacting in a habitual flight-or-fight response.

According to Taoism, non-doing (or “Wu wei”) is living and moving in an uncontrived, natural way. Rather than “trying” to do something, one does it with ease and in an organic way. For example, a tree does not try to grow, or decide to grow, it simply grows.[1]

When you begin Alexander Technique lessons and learn about body mechanics, you are learning a new way of sitting, bending, and standing. It’s great! However, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “doing” this new way of sitting, bending, and standing with just as much tension, stiffness, and mal-coordination as your old, habitual way. It’s similar to The Posture Myth: layers of stiffness and overexertion replaced with more stiffness and overexertion.

Adopting non-doing as a way of being can be challenging, especially in our society where quick, hard evidence that “it worked” is everyone’s M.O. Learning body mechanics and having the knowledge of using your body in an efficient way is an important piece of the Alexander Technique. But just having that knowledge is not enough.

Paradoxically, non-doing is essential for putting your new knowledge of body mechanics into action. It just takes a little patience, curiosity, and an open mind. Let’s explore….

Try the following experiment to tap into your non-doing Self. You can try this standing, sitting, or in your favorite restorative pose:  

1)      Quiet the mind: all that mental chatter is just going to get in the way! Take a moment to quiet your mind and tune in to your body and the space around you.

2)      Ask: Simply ask the question, “Can I do less?” or “Is there any muscle tension I am holding in my body that I don’t need right now?”

Once you pose those questions, I’m guessing that the Inspector Gadget inside of you kicks in (for those of you who didn’t watch 1980’s cartoons, check this out). Once we ask, we go and find, inspect, and try to fix. This is not the way of non-doing! That’s totally doing. So let’s try it this way:

3)    Receive. Wait. Keep quieting the mind. Continue tuning in to your body and the space around you. Receive, receive, receive.

Your body will respond. You will know (without having to look for the answer) if you are holding any muscle tension in your body that you don’t need. Either your body will simply release it, or make you aware of the excess tension.

Excess tension can come in many forms, but some common ways you may experience it are:

Tight jaw/tongue

Holding the belly in

Holding the breath

Shoulders up to the ears

Arms bent and stiff, rather than just dangling at your side

Butt clenched

Lifting the thighs up or locking the knees back

Gripping the toes

As with anything, non-doing is a skill that takes practice. Through Alexander Technique lessons, I help my students navigate these uncharted waters of uncertainty and non-doing. Leaving well-formed and comfortable habits can be challenging. As F.M. Alexander, the founder of the technique, once said, “Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life.”[2]

Ask, Wait, Receive. The reward is a new way of being that does not put stress and strain on your body. How wonderful!

I’d love to hear from you: what did you notice when you explored non-doing? Please leave a comment below.

 


[1] “Wikipedia, Wu wei,” last modified September 23, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_wei.

[2] F.M. Alexander, Articles and Lectures (London, Mouritz, 1995), 194.