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Learn to Destress and Unwind with the Alexander Technique

IMG_2408We have probably all been slightly stressed from time to time. We can put ourselves under pressure or feel pressurised by external situations; jobs, household stuff, exam pressure or illness, to name just a few possibilities. This low to moderate level stress can leave us feeling tired, tight (especially our neck, shoulders and back), not quite our usual selves and reduces our emotional resilience. We may have even experienced deeper episodes of stress or a feeling of anxiety in particular situations. This is all normal and part of the human condition. (I have experienced both stress and anxiety at different times, in my mid twenties I had a period where I suffered with panic attacks and later in my early thirties the lose of someone close to me had a deeper impact.) Our bodies are well designed to cope with short periods of stress or anxiety, but problems tend to occur if we get stuck in a habitually stressed and anxious state. Something we often don’t recognise, it creeps up on us!

The Alexander Technique, along with my meditation practice, have proved to be great tools to combat the effects of stress and anxiety. I find them empowering and calming. The Alexander Technique gives me ways to help myself release excess tension in my body. It also gives me greater understanding of my physical, mental and emotional reactions to stress and anxiety. Mediation and AT skills allows me the opportunity to ‘check in with my body’, by increasing my embodied awareness, I notice my habitual reactions, pause and think of the techniques I have learnt, so I don’t get stuck.

Alexander Technique has been part of the training on offer in many top music colleges and conservatories since the 1950’s, one of the reasons is its proven usefulness in combating performance anxiety. We may not suffer from performance anxiety as musicians do, but we do experience ‘everyday performance’, times when we are in different situations outside of our comfort zone, AT is therefore, a useful technique for all. In a recent article ‘Research Reveals How To Deal With Negative Emotions’ by Matt Bodnar, he writes that there are two reasons to learn to handle our destructive emotions (e.g. stress and anxiety) well; performance and peace of mind. Alexander Technique skills certainly prove useful for both.

Alexander Technique lessons teach us how to deal more effectively with all life’s stimuli; physical, mental and emotional. Therefore it’s very interested in our flight, fright, freeze response, the ‘startle reflex’. This is the response that we often get stuck in with the pressures of modern day living. The ‘startle reflex’ is a helpful and appropriate response to sudden danger that should only last a short period of time. As Elissa Epel PhD* put it recently in an interview with Rick Hanson PhD** during The Resilience Summit, if this becomes a chronic condition it can have the same potent long term effects as smoking on our bodies! This increases physical tension and changes our breathing pattern, increases blood pressure and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (making us hyper vigilant or on edge). It also increases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These responses left unchecked can damage our bodies as well as reducing our ability to think clearly. But the good news is that by learning to look after ourselves with mind-body techniques such as AT, we can undo the damage created by bouts of stress and also reduce its effects when we experience stressful situations in the future.

As well as learning to be more aware of our thoughts, emotions and bodies, in an open, curious and self compassionate way, the Alexander Technique offers us other tools to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety and empowers us to become more resilient.

1) It gives us an understanding of how to release excess tension and bring our bodies into greater poise and balance, this brings better co-ordination throughout our whole bodies enabling us to function better. This is Alexander’s principle of use affects function, if we function better, we feel better and improve our wellbeing in general.

2) It teaches us how to carry out ‘constructive rest’ 10 mins to stop and check in with ourselves, allowing our bodies to release and rest. Click here to find out more about how to practice this.

3) Lastly, it teaches a procedure called The Whispered ‘Ah’, a breathing exercise. This is brilliant for many reasons, but in terms of stress reduction, it helps us to think about breathing in a different way. We focus on doing the out-breath, and allowing the in-breath to do itself. This out-breath focus lets the parasympathetic nervous system be more engaged, which calms us. (Also, as an aside, in a recent presentation I attended by a local sound healing practitioner, when she was asked what sound she thought was the most healing, in her opinion it was an ‘ah’ sound!). For more details on the Whispered Ah, click here.

If you would like to find out more about how the Alexander Technique can help you, email or call me using the details at the top of the page. I will be very happy to answer any questions you have or to book you in for a consultation and lesson.

*expert in the effects of stress on our bodies.
**Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkley, psychologist and meditation teacher.

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Monkeying Around in the Garden

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Gardening is one of my favourite hobbies. I love being creative, seeing my garden change throughout the year, being physical and getting some time to myself in peace. From an Alexander Techniquepoint of view, it’s also a great way of being mindful in activity, and think about my habits and pausing to think how to look after myself as I’m pottering around digging, pruning, racking and picking out the weeds!
My lovely Mum, another keen gardener (and long time Alexander Technique pupil, it’s my Mum who go me into AT!), recently brought my attention to an interesting article in the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) magazine. The article is entitled ‘Digging Techniques: what you should and shouldn’t do’. They say that ‘The nations 27 million gardeners are at risk if they use bad digging technique’. Yes, yes, yes, this is exactly what we say in Alexander Technique. It’s not what you do but how you are doing it that can create problems.

The researchers at Coventry University used motion capture technology, similar to that used in the movies, to map the movement of gardeners while digging and measure the loads imposed on their bodies; joints, bones and muscles.

The finding of the study confirms what I understand as an Alexander Technique teacher and know through experience (as someone who has suffered with lower back pain and sciatica in the past). Bending through our backs (thinking we have a waist joint) and not using and bending our leg joints enough puts a great strain on our bodies.

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The Alexander Technique teaches us the skills to understand how our bodies work best, in a more coordinated, poised and freer way. The way we use our bodies affects the way they function. It’s a bit like having a car and only driving around in first gear, you wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually broke down.
We teach different skills that allow us to do this:-

Body Mapping
Body mapping gives us a more visceral and accurate map of our skeleton, joints and muscles and how they move and work.

Mindfulness in activity
We teach pupils about the importance of being mindful of our bodies while we are doing what we a doing. We learn to ‘stay with the means where-by’ as FM Alexander put it. So, rather than being only focused on the end result so that we don’t care or don’t notice how we mindlessly get there (which is often how we injure ourselves). We learn to in be present, noticing our habits good or bad, efficient or inefficient. It gives us the choice to look after ourselves while digging or weeding or mowing the lawn!

Monkey
We teach something called ‘Monkey’, which FM Alexander called a ‘position of mechanical advantage’. All it is, is a way of bending, picking things up or squatting, something that young children do naturally, but we often forget about. It teaches us exactly the digging technique they found to be advantageous in the RHS article. How to keep our backs long and wide, our necks free and bend through our ankles, knees and hips while staying balanced.

So if you want to monkey around in your garden, and dig in a way that’s safe for your back and neck give Alexander Technique lessons a go, learn ways you can prevent injury and techniques that are applicable to all aspects of our lives, not just gardening.
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Excited or Nervous? Maybe both – How the Alexander Technique helped me with an interview!

IMG_2529Last week I was given a very exciting opportunity, Robert Rickover, an American Alexander Technique teacher, invited me to take part in two interviews for his Alexander Technique podcasts called ‘Body Learning’. I subscribe to these podcasts and there are some great interviews about all different aspects of the technique and how, where and with whom, it is taught. He invited me to talk about my work with the children at Educare Small School (3-11 years old), in Kingston and about my thoughts on teaching children AT in general. I felt honoured and excited to be asked, however, at the same time I felt slightly anxious; what would I say? What would he ask? Would I splutter out my answers or come clearly? The little self critic inside, crept in, something many of us experience!

So, I thought I would give myself the best chance of reducing this nervousness by being as prepared as possible. I chatted things over with my mentors and friends Sue Merry (Co-founder of Educare) and Judith Kleinman (my teacher at LCATT where I trained, AT teacher at the Royal College of Music and other music colleges). Both these teachers are leading experts in teaching AT to young people and I work with them regularly. I wrote notes on points I would ideally like to say. I organised my books and other resources so I could have them close at hand during the interview.

I also found it useful to mentally reframe any nervousness I was feeling as ‘excitement’. Excitement and nervous anticipation activate the same parts of our nervous system (similar to going on a roller coaster). This reframing helps me reduce the negative bias of the unknown and leaves more of a positive feeling. Lastly, when the moment of the interview arrived I was mindful and attentive of the habits of ‘nervousness’ that sometimes arise in me, and employed my Alexander Technique skills as I was speaking. I found I was able to talk and respond to Robert’s questions and still be aware of my body. I was able to think in activity.

Some of the habits and things I noticed and the thoughts and skills that helped me were:

Before the interview I organised myself so that I felt grounded, comfortable and poised, I sat on an upright and comfortable chair with my feet flat on the floor, my back supported, so I was able to sit balanced with a soft and tall body.

When I talk about subjects that are personal to me I often find my physical response (habit) is to start shaking slightly. Over time I have realised that this involves a tightening in my tummy muscles, clamping of my ribs and some tension in my jaw, so my breathing and voice are affected. I used to worry about this happening, which wasn’t helpful and added yet another layer of tension! Through my Alexander Technique and mediation practice I have accepted that this may happen, a self compassionate first step. Then through my embodied awareness, I was able to pause and employ certain strategies to help. I thought about a long slow ‘out breath’ to calm my system, then I let go of my tummy muscles whenever I notice them tighten (using the out breath again to let them go). I allowed my ribs to move freely with my breath and my jaw to release by thinking of freeing my neck.

The interviews, were over Skype and I used a hands free headset. I was able to freely gesticulate and talk naturally using my hands and arms. This freed up my whole body. It was relaxing being able to speak naturally and freely with my whole self. All of these tools also allowed my voice to sound calmer.

If you want to know more about working with the physical affects of anxiety or public speaking, presenting and interview skills using Alexander Technique please contact me. You can learn to make the most of yourself and become empowered to overcome unhelpful habits. To listen to the first of my interviews click here.

 

New Podcast Inteview with me about my Alexander work with Young Children

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The Podcast is on ‘Body Learning: The Alexander Technique’ a great podcast series on all different aspects of the Alexander Technique. There are many different interviews with AT teachers. My interview is called Applying Alexander Technique Principles in an Early Childhood Education Setting Click here to listen 

The Wisdom of Pausing

IMG_2470Pausing is the second key that unlocks the door to change. (The first being awareness of habit, as mentioned in my first blog).

The Alexander Technique offers many unique skills and principles that enable change, but the concept of pausing in order to respond rather than react to a stimulus seems to be a universal wisdom.

Neuroscientists recognise this pause and its importance, our parents and grandparents recognised the usefulness in pausing and ‘count to ten’ before responding to tricky situations. In meditation it is also important. I have been reading a wonderful book called ‘The Book of Joy’ by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in which I found this great quote.

“Meditation is a profound way to develop our ability to escape our fight-or-flight reflex and extend the pause between stimulus and response to act with intension rather than just react out of emotion.”

This is exactly why in lessons we learn to pause, or in Alexander terms inhibit, before we react in a habitual way. Inhibition gives space to think and then direct our response so that we can use our bodies in a more free, co-ordinated and poised way. Our thinking brain helps us deal with our emotional brain and its effects on our bodies (the fight-or-flight response), as well as giving us the chance to do daily activities with less wear and tear on ourselves.

Alexander inhibition or pausing gives us choice, we can pause, inhibit our habitual reaction and either do something different with direction (with more co-ordination), not do anything at all, or do it the same old way but from a place of conscious choice. We practice this in lessons, we can apply it to anything, from getting out of a chair, walking, practicing a yoga pose, using a laptop or playing an instrument. After practice this only need take a moment, not even a second!

Alexander inhibition is not just about letting us use our bodies more freely, it enables us to respond in any given situation with more consideration. For example; in a tricky conversation with a colleague or loved one we might have habitual ways of reacting to particular information which isn’t helpful, but we find just happens! Pausing and noticing this habitual tendency, noticing our emotional and physical reaction, can be helpful, its gives us more choice in how to respond. Do we want to do the same old thing or choose a new, maybe more helpful response, after a few calming breaths.

Lastly, on a slightly different time scale, we can pause for 10 minutes, and enjoy the restorative power of constructive rest or lying in semi- supine. A wonderful new habit to put into our daily routines. For more information on this see my Top Tips Page…… or come for a lesson and find out more.

 

3 Important Qualities that Allow Change

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The first step to being able to use the Alexander Technique is to become aware and mindful of our habits. The useful ones (that allow us to live in a poised and balanced way) and those habits that hinder our good co-ordination. This awareness plus the skills that Alexander Technique teaches allows us to change; so that we can use ourselves in the way we were designed to and make life easier.

Change is really why we have come to the Alexander Technique; we want to change our thinking so that we can change the way we move, that we might, for example, be in less pain or play our instrument better or deal with anxiety more effectively.

But sometimes as we become aware of our inefficient habits we get frustrated or annoyed that we are doing these things. We forget that this new awareness is the key. That now we have the choice and ability to change. The awareness plus AT skills gives us the knowledge and skills to choose a more useful way of doing the things we do.

There are 3 qualities I have found that really help this learning process be one of more ease.

1) Inquisitiveness – being curious about our thinking and how we use our bodies in our everyday lives. It really helps having this mind set, as it leads to being more playful and interested in the process.

2) Self Compassion – Its important to remember to be gentle and kind with ourselves and our habits. For one thing frustration and anger manifest themselves in muscular tension, the opposite of what we want to achieve! Secondly, most of the time these seemly unhelpful habits came about for a reason, that may have been the only way we could deal with a situation at the time, so lets be gentle with ourselves.

3) Allowing ourselves to be ok with the unfamiliar – Habits often make other options feel wrong or weird. This is what Alexander called Faulty Sensory Awareness. For example, if we are use to standing in a very military posture; chest out, shoulders back, chin high (which was a habit of mine!). When we come into balance we may feel like we are slumping forward – even though the mirror confirms that we are not. As we gradually become more familiar and repeat this new habit it then becomes more comfortable. We need to risk feeling ‘different’ because change is what we are trying to achieve. After all we can not change and keep thinking and doing things in the same old ways!

So, pause, think of these qualities, have fun, be gentle and enjoy the new you!

To find out about lessons and workshops email me.