Sound Direction Blog

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

Practice and Results: Facing a Challenge

Think for a moment about the last time you faced a challenge. It could be minute 37 of spinning class (that was me today!), it could be learning a piece of music with a difficult passage, it could be a stressful situation at work…

Whatever it is, YOU HAVE A CHOICE about how you approach that challenge.

How do you deal with hurdles, roadblocks, or quagmires in your path? Do you push forward, head-strong, determined to bust through the hurdles by sheer effort of will? Do you turn around and ignore the challenge for as long as possible? Or do you pause and then glide effortlessly through the challenge without anxiety?

During the last several weeks of my class at IU, we were looking at end-gaining – that’s Alexander-jargon for being totally focused on results, or the “ends” of an endeavor. When we become results-oriented in our thinking, we forget about the process. We forget to allow free movement, and instead do what we hope isn’t too tense, if we’re even thinking about our Use at all (Use is the how of our movements and state of being). Whatever we’re doing – whether it’s gardening, learning music, biking, or working at a computer – we are constantly practicing, and what we practice gets laid down in neural pathways, eventually becoming a habit if it is done without awareness.

We can choose to practice effort or to practice ease.

I created this chart for my class in April. Assume that you intend to get from point A to point B. Somewhere between A and B is a challenge, represented by the purple line. Your path is indicated by the black line running between A and B.

Effort Indirect Path

The first time you encounter that challenge (insert your own particulars here), you have some choices – do you effort your way straight through, or do you take an indirect path? I say “indirect” because that’s how it can seem – that you’re not headed for your destination at all. For example, in lifting something heavy, do you focus on the goal of lifting that weight at any cost, or do you bring your attention first to the how? Do you use all the muscular effort you think you need, or do you allow your neck to be free and your back to lengthen and widen so that you eventually can find the strength and stability to lift the weight with ease?

If you look at each line, you’ll notice that the effort needed the first time was concentrated around the challenge itself. You’ll also notice that the indirect path was pretty loopy – it took some thinking and attention to figure out how to do this new thing without increasing the effort. In both cases, you still got to point B, no matter how long it took.

Now imagine that you’ve practiced this new thing 25 times. Each time, you may anticipate the challenge, and in the effort-ful path, you may start adding effort earlier, either unconsciously, or because you remember how hard it was and you’re “getting ready.” In the indirect path, you remember that the challenge is coming up, but you choose not to react…and when you get to the challenge, you still take a detour, but it’s less extreme than the first time.

After 100 repetitions of weight-lifting, digging with a shovel, practicing a musical passage, tricky conversation or whatever you have… the patterns may become extreme. In the path of effort, you’re prepared: You know this thing you’re about to do is HARD, so you get ready. You go into the activity using lots of effort, and you use it the whole time. You did it, but it was SO MUCH WORK…or you might be in pain, and not enjoying the activity as much as you used to in the beginning. In the indirect path, you’re also prepared…by not preparing. You’ve practiced effortlessly navigating the challenge so many times that when it arrives, it takes thought, but less effort than ever, and even less time. You have more creativity, awareness and presence in the moment, because you’re not devoting all of your energy to the hard labor of the activity.

Are you convinced? Do you want to use less effort to achieve terrific results?

Start by not focusing on the results at all.

Be in the process.

Practice doing less, even if it “feels wrong” at first. Your brain is calibrated to your habits, and when you start to use your whole-body intelligence, you may be surprised at how little you “feel” the work.

Stop in for an Alexander Technique lesson, where we put this process into practice in every moment. You’ll thank yourself for taking the time! I would also love to hear how this process of indirect thinking works for you.

New Student Special & Referral Bonus

Would someone you know like to try out the Alexander Technique?
I’m offering a new student special for spring!
Three 50 minute lessons for $180 (a 25% savings).

And for you? A REFERRAL BONUS! If you are a current or previous student of my studio, when you refer someone to take a lesson with me, ask them to mention your name when they schedule their first lesson and you will get a credit good for 25% off your next lesson. Win-win!

Spring in your step

 

Stop. Think.

IMG_3455A 2011 article in The Onion (a “farcical newspaper”) posits that “all American problems—from stuck jacket zippers to the national debt—could be solved if citizens just stopped, took a deep breath, and thought for two seconds before they acted.”

In The Onion, it’s a joke, but it hits close to home. Can you think of the last time you (or someone else) could have used an extra pause before acting?

When we react to stressful situations by rushing forward into them, we take all of our tension with us. We literally have less room to think. Alarm causes a physical response, usually beginning with the ‘startle pattern.’ We’ve all seen it: in response to a loud noise, for example, the neck contracts, pulling the head down, the shoulders jerk up and inward, and if significantly startled, we might find our legs and arms tensed and hands raised defensively. We can be startled by news, by a loud sound, by an onslaught of emails, or by another driver weaving into our lane, but the same response may take place.

The startle response is biological, and a precursor to Fight-Flight-Freeze: the effect of the Sympathetic Nervous System getting us ready for intense action, say, fighting a bear we’ve just stumbled into, or running away from it, or playing “dead” and hoping the bear ignores us. If you’re confronted by a bear, this is a useful response! If you’re confronted by a difficult social situation or antagonism at work, it’s not.

Add that to the amount of stimulus most of us take in every day (email, social media, news, not to mention the regular happenings of our lives) and the rapid-response culture we inhabit, it starts to make sense that many people seem to be locked into a constant state of startle and fear. (Notice how we even call high-stakes situations “pressing”?)

Choices made out of fear don’t tend to have positive results.

The good news: changing your response is as simple as stopping.

The next time you’re confronted with something startling or fear-inducing, STOP.IMG_3456

As you continue to pause, notice what’s happening in your head/neck/torso. Is your head pulled down?

If yes, STOP AGAIN. Don’t try to “fix” it by pushing the head up. Instead, become aware of the muscles deep at the back of your head, where the skull connects to the spine. Release them. Take notice of the SPACE around you: above, behind, below, in front, to each side. Allow your whole self to release into that space, from head to feet.

Once you’ve released out of the startle pattern, you can choose how to respond to whatever stimulus is in front of you.

Getting out of the cycle of rapid-response, fight/flight/freeze decision making is really as simple as stopping to think. Next time you’re faced with a potentially “pressing” choice, try pausing, noticing, and thinking your way to release of tension. I would love to hear what you notice!

The Simple Pleasure of Mindful Movement

Moving furniture with mindfulness

Last week, I was cleaning the mats that my students at IU use for Constructive Rest. It could have been a chore (12 mats, two sides, lots of squirting the cleaner and wiping). I had just been presenting on some of the core principles of the Alexander Technique, including the idea of process-oriented (as opposed to goal-oriented) action, and of releasing into length (as opposed to “stretching”). Each moment of movement – releasing to fold to a kneeling squat, then lengthening through my arm and back as I made each wipe of the mat – became a moving meditation. It was simply enjoyable just to be moving freely, sensing my own dynamic poise in action.

Mat cleaning is not glamorous, and in itself, perhaps not something one would consider “fun.” But quiet attention to activity allows us peace and presence, not to mention relief from tension and strain. What do you do each day that might offer you a few moments of simple movement pleasure? Folding to reach milk from the refrigerator for your tea, or to retrieve the carrots from the crisper? Opening the curtains to the morning sun or closing them at dark? Washing a plate or bowl?

The first step is to “say no” to rushing onward to the next thing. Draw your attention to the process. I can say from experience that it doesn’t actually take any longer, but you will have more time if you’re not telling yourself you have to rush.

Then allow yourself to release into movement. This might mean letting your feet meet the floor, if you’ve been holding yourself “ready to go” to the next activity. It might mean releasing strain from your neck, back, and shoulders before you begin to move. For example, in the action of folding to clean the mats, I might observe myself in the following ways:

  • Allow my whole foot to meet the floor, including my heels.
  • Allow my neck to be free, to allow my head to lead me in movement as my back releases into length and width.
  • Fold from my hip joints and at my knees, sustaining the buoyant integrity of the torso as I lower in space.
  • Lower one knee to the floor, continuing to allow the back to lengthen and widen.
  • As I hold the cleaning cloth on the mat, release my hand and fingers away from the back, allowing the whole arm to coordinate in movement as I lengthen through the shoulder and ribs.
  • Allow the spine to be gently flexible as I draw my hand toward me in the down-stroke of cleaning.
  • Notice how my breath flows easily as I move.

When I was finished cleaning the mats, I was more present, calmer, and happier. As an added bonus, the mats were clean, and I felt free in my body, with no residual tension from over-working. And it only took a few minutes: I didn’t move slowly, but I did move presently.

If you added a few spaces of moving meditation to your day, how much more would you enjoy your self? What benefits would you discover?

 

 

 

Space Clearing with the Alexander Technique

BoxesI moved earlier this year, and there is one room in my home that had accumulated all the “extra” boxes of things that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Today, I decided to start tackling that mess of boxes. It was hard to walk through that room, hard to get to the closet, hard to put things away…you know. It was amazing to me how one hour of sorting, putting a few things away, emptying boxes to send to recycling, and moving some furniture around gave that room a whole new energy.

There are disciplines that teach us about the arrangement of spaces (Feng Shui, for one) or about how to clear out unnecessary things and re-organize your physical environment (KonMari being a recent popular example). Now, anyone who has ever lived with me or even visited knows that I am NOT a particularly organized person when it comes to my ‘stuff.’

But it IS important how I am organized within my Self.

The Alexander Technique is a process of neuro-muscular space-clearing. We practice awareness, so that we can identify places of “clutter:” physical tension, mental tension, collapse, holding, unnecessary stress and strain. We take a moment to pause, with attention that allows us to undo and release the clutter…like putting that empty box out in the recycling. Then, we learn direction, a way of organizing our neuro-muscular system and our thinking in any activity…perhaps like moving items of furniture in ways that allow energy to flow freely in a space.

The metaphor does break down. Rooms are mostly static, with furniture that we don’t move often and less dramatic regular cleaning necessary to keep the space clear. We humans are living, breathing, changing beings, not a room of furniture to be arranged and maintained. But the process of awareness, attentive pause, release, and direction gives us tools to continuously and consciously reorganize our Selves for an optimal flow of energy, allowing us to live with ease and meet the challenges that come our way with freedom and poise.

If an hour of space clearing can make such a difference in a room, what benefits would you notice from an hour of Alexander Technique for your Self?

 

Recalibrate and Restore

I got a flat tire on my car earlier this year. I had driven over a screw in the road going past a construction site, but I didn’t notice until a sensor light in my car told me the tire pressure was low. I parked, checked the tire pressure, but couldn’t find the problem. I even put a little air in the one that seemed low, but the light stayed on. tpmsIt was a new car to me, and I was unfamiliar with the tire pressure alert system. I then learned that after refilling the tires, I had to hold down a certain button for a certain length of time to recalibrate the tire pressure system; otherwise, it would sense that something was still amiss. I did this, and at first all seemed well, but then the light came back on…and I tried again, and the tire got lower, but I was busy, so I kept refilling it but didn’t take the time to do anything more permanent about it… until the tire was so flat that it had to be replaced. I’d been driving on a flattening tire for most of a week, damaging the inner tube material and the tire itself…all because of a measly puncture AND my lack of response to the tire pressure warning light. I’d gotten used to it, had decided it’s just the way things would be for a few days – I was SO BUSY, remember? I’d ignored my car’s request for recalibration, and I ended up replacing a 6-month old tire.

When we study and practice the Alexander Technique, we are learning to recalibrate our own neuro-muscular system. We’ve gone for days, weeks, years, perhaps, with slowly flattening spinal discs, or compression in the joints, or tension that causes pain and strain. Headaches, jaw tension, and even flustered thinking are also signs of a system out of balance. At first our bodies give us warning signals, but often we are too busy and preoccupied to do much about them. Our sensors (neuro-muscular sensory system) get used to this state of affairs and start to malfunction, no longer telling us that we aren’t in optimal working order. Pretty soon, we may have chronic pain or repetitive motion injuries, and we take it for granted that “it’s just how life is.”

Let me tell you: it’s not!

Since we are not replaceable in the same way the parts of a car can be interchanged, it is vitally important that we learn this recalibration of our own systems, to stop the injury before it starts, and to get our lives moving toward poise and freedom. The first step to pushing the reset button?

Just Stop.

Pause.

Let some breath out.

If you can, find a place to lie down for 5 minutes in semi-supine, and practice some constructive rest.

Doing this repeatedly will begin your journey to recalibration! You’ll recognize your stress, strain, and pain more easily. But to unlearn the habitual tension that’s holding you back, stop in for an Alexander Technique lesson. When you’ve returned to optimal functioning order – the way we all start as children! – you’ll feel so much better, you’ll have more choices, and you’ll be in a place of freedom to enjoy life more.

Curious how it works? Please contact me for a lesson! Mention the code RECALIBRATE and receive $5 off your first lesson.

Free Your Neck: First Aid for Stressful Situations

Everybody has something that “pushes their buttons.” When your “buttons” get pushed, what happens? You feel frustrated, maybe angry. I sometimes feel caught up in a whirlwind, a little out of control. That’s when my training kicks in. See, we don’t have just an emotional reaction. We respond with our whole selves, and I learned early in my Alexander Technique journey that there was a “physical” reaction right along with whatever I was thinking and feeling. F.M. Alexander called this “psycho-physical,” because the self really can’t be easily divided into two parts – we are unified, work in unison, and our psycho-physical selves can be mis-used in unison, too.

Many people acknowledge that the Alexander Technique helps to lower stress. As your overall coordination improves, and your level of background tension decreases, you may notice a decrease in stress. But can the Alexander Technique help in intensely stressful situations?

There’s a story I often tell in my workshops about an experience I had not long after I began taking Alexander lessons. I was in grad school in Ithaca,  NY, where (in the grand scheme of things) there really isn’t a lot of traffic. But when there is…it can be intense. Like some other eastern US cities, Ithaca’s downtown is a web of one-way streets, and because of the hills surrounding downtown, there was only a narrow neck to get from my home up to campus. And I was LATE. I started feeling really frustrated, angry at the situation, at the traffic lights working against me, at the other cars and drivers taking up the road, and I noticed something key – I was tensing through my whole neck, shoulders, and back, and pulling down, contracting through my spine. It didn’t feel nice at all. Since I was stuck at a red light, with no where to go, I tried an experiment: what would happen if I freed my neck? I did… and my rage simply evaporated. I was suddenly free to choose how to respond, and I realized that creating more tension in my body and feeling angry about something over which I had no control just didn’t make sense. I was still late, but I was now much more poised in the midst of my lateness, and would be more ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead.

This experience isn’t isolated. I’ve used my Alexander Technique skills myriad times over the past ten years to come back to center in a whirlwind of frustration, and it never involved me telling myself to “calm down.” There are times when anger or frustration is justified, of course, but we don’t have to be pulled into a spiral of tension and collapse. We have “fight or flight” responses to many stressors in our modern lives that don’t require actual fighting or actual fleeing. I may be angry over a situation, or afraid – but I don’t actually have to defend myself against, say, a bear, so I can release all of that unnecessary muscular tension that was preparing me to wrestle the bear when I’m only faced with a person… or a computer screen!

So here’s an experiment for you: Next time something pushes your buttons, take a moment to become aware of your whole self. Don’t “try to relax,” just notice. Are you contracting or holding your neck? Raising your shoulders? Tensing your arms or legs? Then:

  • Release whatever breath you have in your lungs, then allow some air to return. Maybe you were holding your breath, too! If you have learned how to do a “whispered Ah,” this would be a great time to do one!
  • Give yourself some Directions: Allow my neck to be free, so that my head can balance forward and up, my back to lengthen and widen, my knees to go forward and away. Arms releasing from the torso, legs extending from the back.

Repeat as necessary, noticing your “state of mind” in the process. Is your frustration still as intense?

It may be, and you can move on to other tactics to work with your emotions (and about which I am unqualified to give advice. I’m not a mental health professional.) For me, physical activity is key when dealing with a “big” emotion, but I always try to sustain awareness of my whole self in the process.

I’d love to hear from you if you try this experiment. Drop me a line or give me a call. If you tried it and it didn’t work as well as you hoped, please know that the skills involved are learned over time, and that type of learning is what lessons in the Alexander Technique are all about. You can find a teacher near you at www.amsatonline.org/teachers.

Hands On, Online

Calling all actors!

The Balance Arts Center in New York is offering an online/live class, “Freedom for Actors,” this spring. Check out the details at http://www.acting-alexander.com/online-classes/ I will be participating as a local resource teacher for private lessons – you receive a 30% discount coupon as part of your registration for the course.

This course is focused for actors, teachers of acting, and coaches. Here’s why it’s going to be great:

  • It allows actors to be introduced to the Alexander Technique in the context of movement, voice, acting, and performing
  • It allows actors to deepen their study of the Alexander Technique and how it directly relates to their craft
  • It gives coaches, movement and voice teachers information to add to their toolbox when working with actors
  • While the course is online, in-person contact with an Alexander Technique teacher is vital, and I’ll be providing that on the ground here in central Indiana.

Please be in touch to book your lesson. I look forward to working with you!

Space for Change

The turnings of the year are times that I relish for reflection. Some people make resolutions, some don’t, but I have a few words to toss into the fray about how we approach our intentions to change…

“I Resolve.” To me, this wording has a head-strong feeling about it. To make a change by will-power alone. And it’s true: our wills are immensely powerful. But there is a place where our habits meet our will-power and it can start to look like tug-of-war between two evenly matched teams… or maybe our habits have been practicing longer and are just that teeny bit stronger. So we leave the sink full of dishes, or don’t exercise, or we do whatever it is that we’ve resolved to change.

I love this quote from Viktor Frankl (1905-1997): “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It is when we give ourselves space – physical, mental, spiritual space – that we have power. Space for Change - The Alexander TechniqueThe power comes not from striving and straining toward the goal. The power comes not from pushing and denigrating ourselves when we fail. This type of stress just doesn’t help! The power comes from pausing, making space and taking time where we thought there wasn’t any, freeing up our selves to release our power into the decisions we make.

For me, the Alexander Technique has been an invaluable tool in this process of releasing into change. I have found, personally and professionally, that the possibility afforded by allowing the process (rather than striving toward the goal) is much richer than the goal I had in mind to begin with! I can open to these possibilities as they unfold, and then make conscious choices about how to proceed.

There is so much ahead of all of us in the new year! I will be here, doing my best to release with mindful and joyful energy into the possibilities around me. Stay tuned! I have a newsletter – you can sign up right over there in the side-bar – and a facebook page you can follow if you’d like to be notified when something new happens. I anticipate an article series on Alexander Technique and the Choral Musician as I look forward to some great opportunities in store throughout the year.

Happy New Year, friends! I look forward to seeing what will be possible for you, too!

(This article was originally titled ‘On Resolutions, Habits, Change, and Possibility,’ and was posted on January 1, 2015).

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