Sound Direction Blog

You Are Your Instrument: The Power of the Breath, part 1

Earlier this month, I had the joy of partnering in an event at the Spirit and Place Festival, a unique, 10-day long event in Indianapolis exploring the intersection of the arts, humanities, and religion. This year’s theme was “Power.” An ensemble from Indianapolis Women’s Chorus (the chorus I direct) partnered with Shiela Dimof from Santosha Yoga on an event called “Embodied Power: Breath, Voice, Yoga.” It was a yoga class with live choral music, or alternatively, a choral concert where you could also do yoga. It was really rewarding for us as the singers, and I hope the yoga participants had a great time as well!

Here’s an excerpt adapted from our application:

“Breath has power – the power to create life, and to sustain it. It powers speech, allowing us to build bridges of communication. It powers song, that we may express joy and sorrow, love and wonder. Breath powers both shouts of protest and lullabies. By connecting with our breath, we access a deep source of personal power within, which brings us into the present moment and centers us in our selves, allowing us to engage with life from a place of strength and use our breath – our voice, our selves – to power change in our world.”

Powered by the Breath. Alexander Technique for Choral Musicians.

“Embodied Power” ensemble from the Indianapolis Women’s Chorus at the Spirit and Place Festival, singing live for a yoga class!

Singers know that breath has power – in many ways, it IS the thing that powers singing. I often call breath the “engine” of the voice. But breath powers the rest of us, too, and tapping into the centering power of the breath and – importantly – the free use of our breath can have a major impact on general wellbeing.

It goes without saying that breathing is essential to life. Anatomically, your breath is at your center. The primary muscles that move the breath – your diaphragm, deep in the center of your torso, and the intercostal muscles between the ribs – are intimately connected with all the skeletal, muscular, and fascial systems of the body. (You can learn more about how your body moves in breathing from this awesome video by Alexander Technique teacher and Art of Breathing founder Jessica Wolf.)

Neurologically, breath is a deep-brain, semi-voluntary function. You can choose when to breathe, but you can’t choose NOT to breathe. Breathing is one of the first things we do in life, and we do it all the time – even when we’re sleeping.

Problems with breathing tend to start for two reasons. The first is that sometimes, we want to control our breath (perhaps to sing or play a long phrase, a high note, a low note, even to swim). We often think we need to “take a big breath” or use muscular effort in order to do those things. Guess what? You don’t! (read below to explore the idea of the non-doing breath a little more).

The second is poor coordination: when the Use of your Self (your coordination, your “posture”) is out of whack, that malfunction will show up in your breathing. In fact, when F.M. Alexander first began teaching others his methods of psycho-physical re-education, he was called “The Breathing Man.”

Using Alexander Technique to free the breath for great singing!

When I work with individual singers, choirs, and instrumentalists of all types, I often teach a practice from the Alexander Technique called “Whispered Ah.” This simple practice, which can be done anywhere, anytime, can help a person free the breath, coordinate one’s whole Self in breathing, and – because body and mind are not separate – bring a sense of calm centeredness to daily life. In addition to finding Whispered Ah to be incredibly helpful as part of my vocal warm-up process and as a teaching tool to get things moving for the voice, I personally use Whispered Ah when I’m under stress, when I feel mentally sluggish, or when I’m resistant to whatever it is I have to do.

Here’s a little taste of Whispered Ah. I’m going to offer it in two parts, so for now, let’s just see what happens when you notice your breath in a non-judgmental, non-doing way.

  1. Sit, stand, or lie down in a supported, springy, balanced, easy way. Constructive Rest is a great place to observe the breath!
  2. If you’re not already breathing through your nose, close your lips and notice the air moving in and out of your nostrils. See if you can observe it without changing it – don’t try to make the breath deeper, longer, calmer, slower, or anything else. Just observe.
  3. As you notice your breath, allow one of your exhales to lengthen. Again, not to push, stretch, or generally “do” anything, just let the exhalation get longer. Notice what this is like: choosing to use your breath without pushing. If you start to use more effort, stop, and return to a neutral breath.
  4. Notice that there is a slight pause at the end of the exhale, and at the end of the inhale. 
  5. At the end of one of these lengthened exhalations, stop. Wait in that “pause” place without holding, but without taking air in. Renew your springy, easy, supported stance or seated position. When the air wants to come in (don’t worry, it will!) allow the air to return. Practice this waiting and allowing a few times.

Give yourself the time to notice your breath, and see what effect it has on your state of being. We’ll return soon to the actual “Ah” part of Whispered Ah, but you may have noticed a change in your mood, quality of breath, and physical tension even in simply paying attention to your breath in a non-doing way.

We’re heading into the winter holidays here in the US, which can be a stressful time for many (including choral musicians). Whispered Ah is a helpful tool to bring yourself back to center, so that you can enjoy life from a place of calm and ease. Try it! I’d love to hear what you discover.  

Under Construction

I grew up in Michigan, where, like much of the northern US, there are two seasons: winter and construction. It’s a joke, of course, but it has some interesting parallels with the speeds and seasons of our lives. I looked at winter in a blog post marking the Winter Solstice in 2016. Today is the Fall Equinox here in the northern hemisphere, so let’s take a look at that other season: construction.

I commute for my teaching position at IU Bloomington 2 days a week, through some serious construction along the new Interstate 69 corridor, currently known as IN-37. There really aren’t other good ways to get to Bloomington from Indy, so I spend quite a bit of time surrounded by orange cones, construction zone speed signs, and big machines tearing up old road and paving new ones. The speed zone signs have the biggest immediate impact on my drive. There have been days I’m running behind in the morning, where I really, really wish I could zoom through that construction at 60 mph, rather than the strictly enforced 45. I just want to get to work!

Construction Barrels and traffic

Have you ever said that about the delays you see in front of you? “I just want to get to work!” In our hurry to get “to work,” whether that’s a project for our job, or to playing music we love, or finishing a 5K, or spreading mulch before it rains, we humans can easily put the goal ahead of the process. F.M. Alexander called this “End-Gaining.” When we end-gain, we’re often willing to ignore pain or stress, to use more effort than we need because we don’t feel we have the time or the option to try a new way. Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to go slow – even to stop – on the way to discovering freedom. This allows us to be more present in the process, and to be open to new possibilities – more creativity, more ease, less pain, less stress.

The process of discovering this freedom is re-education. You have to unlearn the habits of tension, strain, and collapse at the root of your difficulties before you can learn to do things in a  new way. (F.M. Alexander called his work “Psycho-Physical Re-education.”) You could look at it as re-construction. Take the example of IN-37, eventually to be I-69. The road was uneven in some places, with potholes that had been patched, cracks…a typical midwestern road that endures freezing in winter and humid heat in summer. It wouldn’t stand up to the traffic volume expected on the new interstate, and it might not be safe to travel at interstate speeds. The road construction workers are taking it apart where it needs to be repaired, removing sections of pavement, updating the under-structure, adding new lanes and bridges and overpasses… so drivers need to slow down. Why? We don’t want to hit the workers, obviously, and sometimes there are tight or unexpected turns, sometimes bumps or dips in the road.

When you’re in the process of changing your habits, of re-education, there are going to be unexpected turns, tight corners, and plenty of bumps or dips. Metaphorically, you ARE the road, AND the driver, AND the construction worker. So slow down! Take care of your self. Don’t pave over the bumps in the road, no matter how tempting…they’re not going away unless you’re willing to stop and deal with them. 

The other given of road construction is that it rarely runs according to schedule. So to with our re-education (and life!) There is a sign on the way to Bloomington that actually says “EXPECT DELAYS.” Delays are just a part of life. Instead of dreading them, or fighting them when they come up, can we welcome them as opportunities to explore? Expecting that you’ll be able to “fix” or “solve” a problem in a certain number of weeks with a particular goal in mind doesn’t leave room for the amazing result of Alexander Technique work: possibility. So slow down. You have all the time you need.

You’ll enjoy what’s on the other side of this ‘self-re-construction’ zone. 

You Are Your Instrument, pt. 1 – My Singing Journey

When people find out that I am a singer, voice teacher, choral conductor, and Alexander Technique teacher, it sometimes isn’t immediately clear how all of it connects. Some musicians who have heard of Alexander Technique see plainly how the work can help instrumentalists avoid repetitive motion injuries and play without strain, but as players of “the invisible instrument,” it might be less obvious how singers benefit.

So how can the Alexander Technique help singers?

First, let’s be clear on three things:

  1. You – all of you, your muscles, bones, thoughts, emotions – are an indivisible unity that we might call the “Self.”
  2. Singers: your Self IS your instrument (yes, all of you – not just your larynx, mouth, and breath, but your legs, back, toes, shoulder blades AND your thoughts, expectations, and judgments.)
  3. The Alexander Technique is uniquely qualified to help you learn to mindfully coordinate your whole Self, unlearning harmful habits and finding ease and freedom in whatever activities you do.

So it follows: Anything that helps you use your whole Self better – both mind and body – will help you sing better, and will give you skills to care for your voice and your self in even the most challenging vocal situations.

What does this look like?

Here’s my story.


I’ve been singing since I was a young child, though I started first with piano as my primary instrument, beginning to focus on voice in high school. I sang fairly freely, getting roles in the school musical, scoring well at competitions, and getting into the college I wanted to attend as a voice performance and music education double-major. I had this nagging problem of jaw tension, but at that point in my career, it wasn’t holding me back.

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2002, in a performance of Barber’s opera, “A Hand of Bridge.”

In college I continued to do well. Between my junior and senior year, though, things began to shift. I reached a technical plateau in singing that my old, un-mindful coordination and tension couldn’t help me get past. Because I wasn’t singing as well as some of my peers, I chose to distinguish myself by singing “hard” music, and using a whole lot of strain to produce my sound. I loved intellectually challenging music (still do!) especially music written in the 20th century, and I had no patience for what I considered “simple” music. (Truth is, those “simple” pieces were too difficult for me to sing well and freely, so I avoided them whenever possible because they exposed my technical flaws.)

In spite of solid technical instruction from an experienced and creative teacher, I was making my own problems worse, not better, by efforting my way through singing. I overcame difficulties in all the other areas of my life by “working hard,” and my habit was to do the same with singing. My vocal production was tense, my sound was often heavy and inconsistent. No matter how adventurous and avant garde my programming was, or how unusual my audition pieces were, during my last year in college, I didn’t make the choir I had planned to sing in, and then I didn’t get into the graduate schools I had hoped to attend.

What to do?

I did end up getting my master of music in voice performance, but these experiences of failure showed me that there were a bunch of things I needed to change. A good bit of that change was in my thinking. I was finally ready to work on my technique and sing the “simple” music I’d avoided. (Spoiler: I really love a lot of this music now. It can be elegant and glorious.) I worked with another teacher who is an excellent vocal technician, and who also sympathized with my desire to sing challenging music, but still made sure I learned to sing well. For the first time in many years, I started to enjoy the act of singing all by itself.

But importantly, another piece started to fall into place: during my undergraduate career, I had been exposed to the Alexander Technique. I was fascinated that the same process that helped me learn to “float” up stairs without strain also helped me sing with more ease. I did some research into Alexander Technique and some other somatic modalities, like the Feldenkrais Method, and found that my learning style really matched the AT. I loved the idea that I could practice it anywhere, any time – while washing dishes, going for a walk, singing, or simply sitting and thinking. So I started taking private Alexander lessons, in conjunction with voice lessons.

Things started to shift.

A few years later, I began training to become a certified teacher of the Alexander Technique. My voice improved more over the three years of Alexander Technique teacher training (with no “voice” lessons) than it had in several years of vocal study in school. Why?

In addition to vocal and emotional maturation (I was 15 years older than when I started, after all), this is what I think: I learned how to use my whole Self well. I unlearned my reliance on the tension that had been the base of my technique since I was a teenager. When I learned balanced coordination in my whole Self, my breath was more powerful, my vocal tract was more free. I had a mental library full of the great technique that my undergrad and graduate school voice teachers had given me, and I FINALLY HAD THE COORDINATION TO USE IT. At the end of Alexander Technique teacher training, a fellow trainee (who was also a classical singer) and I did a vocal recital together. It was thrilling to get to use so many pieces of my life-work at one time! I sang well, and enjoyed myself, not getting so bogged down in the struggle. I sang music that was melodically simple and music that was quite complex, but I had learned how to navigate each challenge by coordinating the use of my whole self.

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Side-by-side comparison: It’s subtle, but you can see the change from my junior year of college (left, in the purple gown) to about half-way through my Alexander Technique teacher training seven years later (right, in the black). I’ve always had what appears from the outside to be “good posture,” but the balance in my head-neck-back is more held and compressed “down” in the picture on the left, and more freely “up” in the picture on the right.

While it’s a visually subtle difference, it was a monumental change in my ability to sing freely, using my breath efficiently and powerfully, allowing the whole vocal tract to ring without effort.

Does this story sound familiar? Every singer has a different path, and every road has bumps. But the Alexander Technique, rather than trying to fix a specific bump, gives you the skills to navigate over and around the bumps, or even stop and decide to take a side road.

When your Self – your instrument – is in tune, you’ll be on the road to realizing your potential, and making the freest, most enjoyable, and most artistically gratifying music you can make.

You. Have. Time.

Today is December 21. Perhaps your email inbox has been like mine: every retailer from which I’ve ever purchased anything needed to remind me that there are only a few more days until Christmas, and that I needed to buy something today for it to arrive in time. There is an urgency afoot…not only now, during this holiday gift-buying frenzy, but also in our rapid-response news cycle, our text-message-laden social lives, and even our business dealings that seem to require immediate responses to email.

Maybe you’re someone who says: “I just don’t have enough time!” I know I’ve said this. And I know what happens when I think that way: I feel anxious. My muscles tighten. The importance of whatever I need to do next spirals out of proportion, and I lose perspective and a sense of the big picture.

When we believe that “there isn’t enough time,” we can act rashly, and bring a lot of unnecessary tension and strain into our thinking and our bodies.

Let me tell you three of the most important words I know. Try saying them to yourself:

I Have Time.

What did you notice? Did anything change in your body, in your thinking?

When I tell myself “I have time,” I often feel an abrupt slowing down, a sense that whatever I need to do next is less urgent, though often not less important. I know that approaching my next task with a sense of time and space will allow me to do it with more ease, and do it more completely, effectively, and mindfully.


I have time. Mindfulness through the Alexander Technique.This is one of my two favorite tea mugs. (I drink a lot of tea). I got it at the very first annual conference that I attended of American Society for the Alexander Technique, in 2007, at the end of my first year of teacher training. You can see it’s slightly battered, scarred, stained. I use it almost every day. The message “I have time” is printed on one side. (While not unique to the Alexander Technique, this phrase was used in the teaching of Walter Carrington, an influential 20th century Alexander Technique teacher and trainer of teachers.)

One of the reasons I love this mug is that I can identify with it. Sometimes life seems to get the better of us, and we feel run down, a little battered, especially as the air gets colder and time seems to close in. We feel like we have to rush, or effort our way forward. Reminding myself that “I have time” takes the pressure off, helps me to be more present and more aware of what I really need to be doing. Sometimes that’s continuing with my work, and sometimes that’s taking 60 seconds to just drink my tea.

Often, taking that time requires intentional work. It takes discipline. The scratches on the mug remind me that I’ll come through the work strong and resilient.

Another thing I love about this mug is that it’s huge. It takes almost a full 16 ounces of tea. Not only do I have time, but I have a LOT of it!


Now, I can almost hear the dialogue in your thinking. (I know, because it’s in mine, too.) “That’s all very well to say that I have time, but I have X, Y, Z to get done before 4:00 today, and then I have a deadline tomorrow and we’re leaving town on Friday afternoon…”

But here’s the secret – Taking time doesn’t take very long. It can just be a micro-pause, where you remind yourself that you don’t have to rush. You can just notice the space around you, allowing your Self to gently expand into the air above you, behind you, in front of you, and to either side of you.

I have time. Mindfulness through the Alexander Technique.I have my students at IU practice this in class. We intentionally build micro-pauses into every-day actions, things like opening their instrument cases, moving a music stand, reaching for their school bags, or taking a drink of water or coffee. I made some stickers for them during the 2nd-to-last week of class, as part of their “Alexander Technique Toolbox,” using printer labels, and I asked them to place the stickers somewhere they would see it frequently. One of my students said that this phrase had been revolutionary in the way that they thought about music, and about their career.

So often we think we have to rush into the next thing… but we don’t.

We. Have. Time.

Today is December 21, which is also the Winter Solstice here in the northern hemisphere. It’s an opportunity for us to notice how the natural world rests, taking time during the winter months, preparing for the seasons of rapid growth and renewal that wait just under the snow. The world seems to slow down, and we can slow down with it.

When you recognize that you have time, you have that potential for growth and life-giving action, you can be as quick as you choose but not rushed, you are calmer, and you are more free to enjoy your days, both your work and your play.

Say it with me again: I have time.

If you’re wondering how this idea of taking time fits in with postural coordination, or why freeing my neck has anything to do with my approach to my career, come in for a lesson or schedule a free phone consultation and we’ll chat. I’ll make some space for you to take time, and you’ll recognize that you already have it.

Did you just say to yourself, “That sounds nice, but I don’t have time to come in for an Alexander Technique lesson?”

If you did, remember:

You. Have. Time.

The Confines of Fear – Politics, Media, and the Fear Response

“I’ve been worryin’ that we all live our lives in the confines of fear.” – Ben Howard

I started writing this post in July. It got put on the back burner, but resurfaced this week for two reasons. One, if you haven’t heard yet, Donald Trump was elected president, in a turn of events that many people I care for see as a direct threat to their lives and freedom. Two, the lecture I had already scheduled for my music students at IU this past Thursday, two days after the presidential election, was about performance anxiety – specifically, the role of our nervous system and its fear response. It’s been a week since the election now – an epoch in the rapid-response, 24-hour “news” cycle, the share and re-share culture of social media.

But I wanted to take my time, because I want to be very clear as I’m talking about fear. If you feel afraid right now, I am not commenting on the validity of your fear. You have a right to feel afraid if you feel threatened. I am not commenting on the validity of the threat, and I am not telling you to “calm down.” I’m not here to foster political and social divides, but to help you be more integrated in your Self, which will give you tools for power, non-judgmental processing of information, non-reaction to stimulus, and freedom of thought and movement.

Here’s something I know from experience: you have a choice whether you want to remain in a state of physiological fear response. You have a choice that starts with how you use your musculature, which will have ramifications through your nervous system, and which may allow you a little more space in your thinking. My personal response since last Wednesday morning has been that I need to grow in my ability to love and be present and compassionate to others, and to take action with a clear head. I can’t do that if I’m locked in fear.

When I started this post in July, there were videos of senseless violence, vigils, protests, funerals, pictures of courage and conflict, and if one chose, one could fill one’s hours watching and sharing these on social media, reading and viewing over and over. This presidential campaign was the most negative campaign in memory, with each side afraid that the other’s candidate would strip them of cherished rights and freedoms (I’m not saying either side was wrong, I’m simply saying that they were afraid). For the last week, media sources have reported an uptick in hate-related crimes against people of color, women, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community. People I care about are afraid for their families and their safety. There are articles pondering whether Trump will follow through on the most hateful of his campaign promises. Again, you can read, share, watch, comment to your heart’s content…or discontent, perhaps. The media cycle during this presidential campaign has become a chain of instant reactions to startling news, which people consume on repeat.

What happens when we’re startled by something? Whether it’s an unexpected loud sound, distressing news, tripping over something on the floor, or even an unwelcome idea, we often respond by tensing the muscles at the base of the skull and raising the shoulders up and in. This is a protective response, initiated at a physiological and neurological level by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS is famous as the origin of the Fight – Flight – Freeze – Faint Response. In animals, it’s very clear:

The Startle Pattern. Photo: Peretz Partensky. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

The Startle Pattern. Photo: Peretz Partensky. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Have you ever watched two dogs that were jockeying for status? An angry cat? The head pulls back, the shoulders and neck tense, all in preparation for attack or defense. It’s also the system that gets a creature ready to run from a bear, from a tree about to fall. It’s the “deer-in-headlights” response of freezing in place, seemingly without the ability to move. It’s the “play dead” response used by animals to protect themselves from predators.

The same response is evident in humans. After a lesson a few months ago, a student and I who are on the same page politically were discussing some developments in the US presidential campaigns, which she viewed as troubling. I watched as my student – who had been using herself marvelously with a free neck and easy back just minutes before – contracted her neck and pulled her head back and down, her chin jutting forward. I drew her attention to this, and with my hands gently guided her head and neck back into a balanced coordination.

This is exactly the same response I noticed in my Facebook feed on Wednesday morning. Some were ready to Fight. Some were ready to move to Canada (Flight). Some were simply stunned (Freeze). Some were in such despair that they couldn’t process (Faint). The SNS response is physiological, and again, I want to say that however you responded to these events, your response is okay.  I just don’t want you to be confined by your feelings of fear.

When we are bombarded by startling or distressing news, we are reinforcing this fear response. Say there is a bear. The SNS helps us get ready for a fight, or to run, or to play dead, or stand perfectly still and hope the bear won’t notice. Our SNS response starts in the spinal cord, below the level of cognitive thought. The SNS causes the release of norepinephrin (adrenaline), which raises our heart rate, contracts the bloodvessels in the limbs, contracts the pupils of the eyes, etc., which prepares us for action. Since we know the body and mind are not separate, there are mental components to this SNS response – anxiety, worry, fear. If there is just one bear, and we escape or the bear leaves, we then let the other branch of the autonomic nervous system take over. The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is the “rest and digest” response, lowering heart rate, releasing blood vessels, dilating the eyes, and redirecting blood flow to our digestive organs. But if there is more than one bear, or if we keep focusing on the bear to the exclusion of all other stimuli, we can be physically and mentally confined in a Fear response.

Your body has this response on its own time, regardless of what the threat is. If you perceive it as a threat, you will likely have an SNS response. If that SNS response is not fully released, we can get stuck. F.M. Alexander wrote in his books nearly a century ago about “unduly excited fear reflexes,” meaning that he saw the people of his day (without television, computers, or twitter) as overstimulated, locked into a head-back, shoulders-up defensive posture. What about us? Are you raising your shoulders, tensing your neck, in defense against what you are reading in the news? Are you tightening your abdominal muscles, or the muscles of your legs, in preparation for flight? You may be doing these things below the level of cognitive thought, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice about it.

Try an experiment. Turn away from your screen. See the wall across the room, or look out a window. Notice where you’re sitting. Allow yourself to meet the chair, or get up for a walk and notice how you’re standing. Check in with your neck – is it free? Tell yourself, “My neck is free.” Say it enough times that you start to listen to yourself. Check in with your hip joints – are they free? Tell yourself, “My hips are free,” enough times that it starts to make a difference. Notice if you’re holding extra tension in your shoulders, arms, hands, legs, or feet. Identify it, don’t judge it, and see if it’s necessary. You have a choice. Do you feel different than you did a moment ago?

Now, go back to your news, or your social media feed. Look at the article, and read its title. Tell yourself, “My neck is free.” Notice if you are being drawn to your computer screen. If you are, come back to your hip joints and abdominal muscles. Are they free? As you read, keep part of your attention available to your Self. Are you using a free neck, free hip joints, free shoulders and arms? If not, you can choose to do so.

I don’t want you to be confined by your fear. I want you to be free to wrestle with it, to understand it, to empower your whole Self to move into the next moment as you choose. Each of us has choice. I can choose to read the article or not. You can choose HOW to use your Self while you read the article or not. This is power, folks. You are letting your Self be free of the physiological fear response, which gives you more choice in what you will do, how you will do it, and it also gives you more clarity of mind. Instead of being reactive, you become responsive. You can choose what stimuli you will respond to, and what your response will be. You haven’t eliminated the threat, and you haven’t judged the threat or your own fear (or anyone else’s), but you have made a choice to control what you can control – your response to it.

Wednesday morning, I had to apply all of the skills I’ve learned through my practice of the Alexander Technique in order to move through and process the news in a way that didn’t pull me down into despair. It was hard work. Choosing your reaction to troubling stimuli is not always easy, but in the long run, it allows you to be more effective in the work you do and more present to those around you.

As individuals who are part of both a nation and of local communities, we can choose to live in fear of one another, or we can choose to use our Selves well so that we are not reacting with a Fight/Flight/Freeze/Faint response to each piece of news, however troubling. Our freedom of movement and thinking will allow us to take action in ways that are life-giving. If you are reeling from this election, regardless of who you voted for, I offer you a space that will be compassionate. We’ll work together to quiet the nervous system response that might keep you in fear. Please contact me if you have any questions or comments – I look forward to hearing from you and hope to see you soon.

Peace.

A Proven Approach to Self Care

The idea of Self-care has been abuzz in the world around me these last several weeks. For those of us attuned to the academic calendar, whether as teachers of university or grade school students, or parents of children in school, the mid-fall rush has gathered. We’re tired. We’re over-extended. We’re doing too much for others, with less time for ourselves.

Self.

That’s a word we use a bit in Alexander Technique circles to refer to the whole person (though the idea of mind-body unity is certainly not unique to our work, nor is the word “self.”) The “Unity of the Self” means that we are not a body and mind, two entities to be treated and trained in two different ways.

Even more than that, it means there isn’t even a mind-body “connection.” They are the same thing – Us!

We are more than the sum of our “parts:” our thoughts, our muscles, our bones, our organs, our emotions, our spirits. Try to separate out any of those things into its own category, and you have problems. Science is continuing to show that our ‘minds’ and our ‘bodies’ are not separate. (For example, here’s a fascinating article about how skeletal proteins in mice have direct correlation to what we usually think of as “mental” health. Our bones effect our brains!)


So what is self-care, when your self is all of you?

Here’s my take:

A quality self-care activity gives you:

  1. time during which you can be mindfully aware of and pay attention to your Self in positive ways
  2. nourishment for your whole Self (remember, body/mind/spirit)
  3. peace for your whole Self (again, body/mind/spirit) – peace is defined as “freedom from disturbance; quiet and tranquility.”
  4. well-being that extends after the activity is over.

Using these guidelines, what are self-care methods that might work for you?

  • Some people enjoy a run or walk, especially outdoors. This is wonderful, and I do it as often as I can!

Ask yourself: Is your walk/run giving you whole-body-mind peace, as well asWalking with Alexander Technique - Mindful Self Care nourishment (exercise, fresh air, time in nature) and time to pay attention to your Self? Or do you “check out” and just run “with your muscles,” unaware of what you are doing? Does the benefit extend back into the rest of your day?

  • Some people enjoy the occasional massage. (I do too!)

Ask yourself: Are you able to take this peace of body with you into the rest of your life, or do you find that the tension creeps back in as soon as you return to ‘business as usual’?

  • Some people find that connecting with others to share a laugh, or reading something uplifting can help you put your burden down for a little while.

Ask yourself: What if you carried less tension around with you in every activity you do, putting that burden down more and more often, and supporting your Self instead with ease?


Ask anyone who has taken an Alexander Technique lesson, and I think they will agree that a lesson gives you all of these things: Time for calm, non-judgmental attention, nourishment for your Self, and peace of body/mind/spirit that can be accessed by you, on your own, throughout your day regardless of what activities you’re doing. The Alexander Technique is mindfulness embodied.

The American Society for the Alexander Technique explains our work in this way:

“A proven approach to self care, the Alexander Technique teaches how to unlearn habitual patterns that cause unnecessary tension in everything we do. It’s used by people of all ages and abilities to enhance the performance of every activity and relieve the pain and stress caused by everyday misuse of the body.”

In our culture, we tend to push our Selves to the limit, and only when we reach our limits do we “indulge” in Self care. What if you were caring for your Self in an ongoing way, and made opportunities for time, nourishment, and peace throughout your busy days, instead of waiting until you are in “crisis mode”?

In this context, you often hear the analogy of the talk given by flight attendants about aircraft emergencies: put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.

When I am under considerable stress – deadlines, family needs, emotional and mental preoccupations – teaching the Alexander Technique is what brings me back to a calm center. In order to be able to teach well, I have learned to put my Self first, and I MUST pay attention to my own Use to have a chance of assisting the person in front of me. I recently had a difficult morning, where I couldn’t “think” myself out of an emotional/physical funk, but teaching four Alexander Technique lessons took me back to a way of being that was poised, free, and light. I still remember what I was stressed about, but it no longer weighed on me. I could move through my days with the grace and ease that is the potential of every person. I am more effective in my work, I am a better parent, and I just feel better in my Self.

The next time you say to yourself, “I really need to do some self-care,” consider trying an Alexander Technique lesson. I’ll even offer you a discount: 25% off your first lesson if you’re a new student. Just mention you read this blog (promo code: SELFCARE) and we’ll make a space for you: for time, nourishment, and peace that you can take back out into your life.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Self Care Promo Code

Permission to Not be Right

Take a minute and think through a typical day. How many times during the day do you feel that you have permission to not be right? By that, I mean you are not expected to: know the answer, build it so it works the first time, even wear socks that match… in general, do you have the freedom to not worry about a set of expectations you feel you’re supposed to meet?

Those expectations come from everywhere. I teach Alexander Technique at a university, and the students are bright, talented, dedicated individuals. But many times in our learning environments, there is a fear of being wrong, of needing to know the “right” answer immediately, and a constant background level of tension and stress that accompanies the living up to these expectations. In order to be “successful,” we think we have to be “the best,” which often leads to becoming afraid of being wrong.

Frequently, when I work with a new Alexander Technique student, they come in with an expectation that there is a “right” way to be in themselves: a “right” way to stand or to sit, a “right” observation to make about what’s happening in their Use. In my work at the university, I give a lot of very short chair turns, and I’ve started reminding my students as a class and as individuals that they have permission, at least for the time they’re in my class, to not be “right.” Many times, a major pattern of holding will drop away simply upon taking in those words.Permission not to be right Alexander Technique

When children are young, they learn through trial and error. There isn’t judgment attached to learning, the way that often happens with older children and adults. It’s possible to continue learning without judging whether our efforts are right or wrong, but sometimes that seems rather counter-cultural.

What is it in your life that you feel you have to be “right” about? Following the “right” career trajectory, with no room for missteps? Living the “right” life-style, espousing the “right” views? What about the seemingly simple question of “right” posture?

You have the power to give yourself this permission to not be right, and if you go to an Alexander Technique teacher, they’ll hopefully remind you! Often, the “right” expectations we place on ourselves keep us from realizing our potential – whether that is the potential of a back without pain, or the potential of singing freely, or the potential of trying a new path in life we didn’t think was open to us.

What would happen if you gave yourself permission to not be right in just one activity or setting? How would it change the way you engage in that activity? Would you enjoy it more?

Try it out and let me know – I look forward to hearing from you. And if you need a reminder, I’m happy to tell you that you have the permission – which you really give yourself – that you don’t have to be right.

You Are Your Instrument – Alexander Technique for Choral Musicians

I’m excited to embark on a new blog series about how the Alexander Technique can help choral musicians – both singers and conductors – rehearse and perform with ease, sing with healthy, free voices, reduce mental and physical strain, and in the end, make sounds that are more versatile and rich than ever!

All choral musicians can benefit from the Alexander Technique

The Indianapolis Women’s Chorus in concert. Photo Credit: Karl Zemlin, zemlinphoto.com.

Here are a few of the topics that I plan to explore:

  • How can the Alexander Technique help singers?
  • Easy, powerful breath energy
  • Using your arms – for both singers and conductors
  • Standing and singing
  • Sitting and singing
  • Creating your ideal choral sound without strain
  • Performance anxiety
  • Ways to incorporate the power of mind-body education into your rehearsal, while exquisitely preparing your music for performance!

Singers, remember: You are your instrument. All of you!

Your thoughts, muscles, bones, emotions, breath, and the way you use them – that’s your instrument. The Alexander Technique is, in my experience, uniquely qualified to help you unlearn the tension that may be keeping you from singing at your best, and to allow you to release into your full potential.

Conductors: You are also your instrument.

Every movement you make, every word you say in rehearsal has a direct effect on the sound your chorus creates. The Alexander Technique can help you learn to integrate your conducting gesture into your whole-body coordination, which gives you both power and precision, and bring more awareness to all of your senses. It also helps you learn to conduct free from pain and strain, allowing you to release into your full potential.

I recently had a couple of conversations on these topics with Robert Rickover, an Alexander Technique teacher and host of the Body Learning podcast. Take a listen to our first conversation, about the Alexander Technique and Choral Conductors, at http://bodylearning.buzzsprout.com/382/409798-how-the-alexander-technique-can-help-choral-conductors, and stay tuned for the next conversation about Alexander Technique and Choral Singers by watching this page or subscribing to the podcast.

Do you wonder how the Alexander Technique can help you or your chorus? Do you have topics you’d like to read about in my blog series? Contact me! I would love to talk with you, and would be happy to create a custom workshop for your ensemble or conducting class.

 

 

The Still Point

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

– T.S. Eliot, from “Burnt Norton”

The world is turning.

I started writing this post in late June, after the attack at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando. I had intended to finish and publish in early July after I returned from a conference, but was rocked again by the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, of police officers in Dallas, and further violence in the US and around the world. From this vantage point, the turmoil appears to be increasing in every sphere you could name: political, social, religious, economic. We sure do have a lot of it here in the US.

It can be overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel hopeless.

My hope is for lasting change – for personal, political, and cultural revolution.

I’m a bit of a word person, and I find it helpful to look at the origins and roots of important words. The verb “revolve” has a few definitions, but here’s a basic one: to turn in a circle on a central axis.

“Revolution” comes from the same root word – it is the turning.

My hope for our world is in people and organizations that are working for revolution – turning things around – in ways that create peace with justice for those whose voices have been silenced and whose lives have been undervalued for too long.

If our world is turning, what is the axis around which the revolution spins?

As Eliot points out in the poem excerpt above, every turning has a center. (This poem has been a favorite of mine for many years, since I discovered it sitting on the floor of a bookstore with a friend in high school. As a whole, the poem speaks to past and future gathering in the still point of the present moment, but as with any great poetry, the language applies to so many other ideas). At the center of any movement, there is stillness around which everything else revolves. In this stillness is the dance that allows all the movement in the revolution to take place.

The Alexander Technique helps us learn to find our own Still Point - just like the eye of a hurricane.

The Alexander Technique helps us learn to find our own Still Point – like the calm eye of a hurricane.

Nature shows us this clearly. Look at a hurricane from above, or the center of a galaxy. You can see the calm eye of the storm in this photo of Hurricane Daniel from 2006.

Look at a bowl thrown on a potter’s wheel. By centering the clay on the wheel, the spinning creates strength and the potter can build a beautiful thing from the center out.

Alexander Technique helps us learn to find a calm center - like the origin point of a piece of pottery.

A piece of wheel-thrown pottery must start from a calm, still center as the wheel spins and the structure takes form.

 

 

 

If we are mindful that we are not the spinning, we find the center.

A center-point that moves isn’t stable. Think of a bike wheel, or a revolving door… without a stable center, the bike wheel comes off, and the door fails to move. But just as Eliot said, we don’t “call this fixity.” It’s not stiff or immobile. There is a place of still, stable, dancing strength.

Alexander Technique - Still Point Sand Spiral

A spiral made of sand on a slowly-spinning wheel, by starting from the still point in the center.

Try this:

Shut off your social media – or even your internet – for  a minute. Notice how you’re sitting. Don’t try to sit up straight…allow a point of stillness wherever there is tension. Don’t try to quiet your mind…just allow that your thinking could be still, even if it doesn’t feel that way now.

When your body has this quality of stillness, so does your mind. When your mind has this quality of stillness, so does your body.

You could be running a marathon with this stillness, or working at a computer, or calling your elected officials, or marching in a protest. The Alexander Technique gives us tools to learn how to find our still point in every activity, and to move through our lives without being pulled “off center.” It’s mindfulness for your whole self – embodied in all that you do.

This stillness is your place of strength.

From there, you can reach out into the spinning world and do what needs to be done. From there, in the midst of a spinning life, you can see the options you have for what they are, and choose how to proceed. When you leave the center and start to feel “wound up,” return to that place of stillness in yourself by noticing where your body and mind could use less effort, even as you’re simultaneously booking it down the street to a meeting or dealing with an emotionally difficult situation.

Being in the center of the revolution means you are at the place of dancing stillness.

It’s this place that is stable and solid.

From the still point, you can reach into the whirlwind and not be consumed.

Refinishing and Re-education

I recently embarked on a project to reupholster the seats to a couple of my teaching chairs.

What I learned in the process got me thinking about habits, how deeply they sit in our selves, how unnoticed they might be, and how difficult they can be to “get rid” of. I started to look at words like “refinish” (as in wood refinishing) and “reupholster” as they connect to the work of the Alexander Technique: re-education.

You have a few options when deciding how to treat a piece of furniture that you’d like to update. Sometimes you can easily add a layer on top (paint, fabric, etc.); other times, the choice is fairly clear that you’ll have to strip it down to the wood.

IMG_0669This chest was covered in an uneven coating of white paint, and some pink fabric and batting that had seen better days quite a while ago. I saw details – dovetail joints, solid hardwood construction – that told me this piece had potential, down under all the layers. So I took it home, un-stapled the fabric, and got to work with some eco-stripper and a scraper. Then sand paper, then paint thinner, and I was finally ready to apply the finish.

IMG_3837This picture doesn’t do justice to the deep red-brown finish or the wood-working details of its original craft. I enjoy the results and learned a lot in the process.

 

 

 

Sometimes the choice is less obvious.

IMG_3752

I knew that the chair seats had at least two layers of fabric and a thin layer of foam. I could have taken a staple gun and simply added another layer of fabric over the top. Easy, right?

But judging that the lower layer dated from a period when loud velour in black, white, and yellow was fashionable, I thought I’d take the fabric off to see what lay beneath.

 

 

What I found surprised me: not two, but three layers of fabric, each stapled on top of the other in a tight mess, with some foam degrading underneath.

IMG_3753

IMG_3751

IMG_3755After removing the top two rounds of staples, I saw that the lowest layer of fabric had lost its structural integrity long before it had been covered. It had been stapled over, and stapled over again. Covering over the fabric was easier than removing all the staples, but that didn’t change the fact that the fabric and foam were falling apart beneath.

IMG_3759

Finally, I found good, solid wood at the base, a sturdy seat. Look at all those staples still left.

Here’s that single chair seat, layer by layer.

IMG_3758

To do a thorough job, Refinishing and Reupholstering often begin with Removing, so that you can work from the base up.

 

 

 

So how do you change a habit?

Do you try to cover it over with something new and more desirable?

Or do you take the time to re-finish what you’re doing?

In Alexander Technique lessons, we first identify patterns of tension (habits) that are causing difficulty. Then come two very important steps: we STOP. Then we practice what AT teachers call inhibition, and what other disciplines might call non-doing. We don’t add something over the top of it, we just stop doing the thing that’s in our way. We un-learn (un-staple?) the harmful habit and follow it up with some direction of what we DO want to see happening in ourselves.

Amazingly, time after time, I see this process result in free and effortless movement.

The example of the chair seat also reminds me why it can be so hard to unlearn a habit. I didn’t count the number of staples in the fabric, but there were likely hundreds. The more we stack habit on top of habit, the deeper and more ingrained they can become. That’s why learning new coordination takes both time and discipline.

You are re-educating your whole self, but I promise you, both the process and the results will be worth it.

Want to try the Alexander Technique? Wondering if it could benefit you? Book a lesson at MJAT.setmore.com, or contact me for more information!

 

 

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