Do you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders? Are you shouldering heavy responsibilities? Are your shoulders tense and tight and wound up towards your ears? I am sure we all recognise these sensations and feelings! I know I have felt either dragged down or wound up at various times, and our shoulders are only part of the story. We might be stuck in the ‘tension triangle’ – a band of tension that falls within the top part or our bodies, involving the head, neck, shoulders, jaw and facial muscles, including the brow.
The muscles of the shoulders, neck, jaw and brow often react dramatically to psychological pressure (emotions), juggling our busy lives without a sense of embodied awareness can lead not just to mental distress but also physical pain. But it’s not just emotional pressures that produce the tension triangle. Sitting at our desks, using laptops, tables and phones for long periods without moving and without embodied awareness can also have the same effect. We often wedge ourselves into our favourite positions and get lost in what we are doing for ages, without any thought of our bodies. Unconsciously waiting for pain as the first piece of feedback that maybe this is not the best way of being while we are doing what we are doing.
The Alexander Technique is a useful tool for unlocking the tension triangle. It gives us the ability to choose more skillful ways to respond to and approach different situations and offers techniques to dissipate the excess tension that may build up. When I started Alexander Technique lessons about 20 years ago I found the learning process liberating. I realised things could be different, easier and there was a way out of my habitual reactions and patterns of body use. There was the possibility of change, and because AT is a psychophysical approach we have a two pronged strategy using both mind/thoughts and our bodies to help be at ease, while being more poised and responsive (i.e. less reactive and tense).
So from both my experience as a pupil and knowledge as an Alexander teacher here are my 5 steps to liberate ourselves from the tension triangle.
1. Be Curious and Notice – both our bodies, what we are doing with them and our thoughts, especially our self-talk. Is the self-talk critical and harsh? Are we focused or finishing a task to such an extent that all body awareness has disappeared? What are our helpful and unhelpful habits of thought and body use?
2. Self-acceptance and self-compassion – its useful to realise that our unhelpful habits may have once been helpful, but are just no longer serving us well. As we bring more conscious awareness to our thoughts and body-use and learn AT skills, we have the choice to change habits for the better. But we mustn’t underestimate the power of habits, by being kind and self-accepting we allow for a gentle noticing of unhelpful habits, rather than producing more tension through ‘telling ourselves off’ every time we notice an unhelpful habit.
3. Pause to choose and breathe – Pause to notice and inhibit our habitual reaction which allows choice in response. Pause to breathe, if in doubt breathe out! – I find a useful mantra, breathing out activates the calming part of out nervous system and helps us let go of tension. Doing a breathing exercise that involves breathing out calmly for longer than you breathe in is very helpful. In the Alexander Technique we have the ‘Whispered Ah’ procedure. But the 7-11 breathing technique is helpful too. Its important to remember that to allow breathing to calm and free up our bodies we need to let go of our tummies and allow them to move with the breath, notice the movement of the ribs and allow the shoulder/ collar bone movement to be secondary (i.e. they will move with the breath, but less so than the tummy and ribs). Thinking about our bodies being soft and tall can be helpful.
4. Direct or think about our bodies differently. In AT we learn to think about our bodies differently so they can be freer and more poised. Within the tension triangle we have specific parts of out bodies we can notice and think about. First think of you head balancing lightly and freely on the top of your spine. In lessons we help body map what this means with the hands-on help of a teacher, so that our embodied understanding of ourselves is more accurate. Secondly, think of the circular muscles round your eyes and mouth releasing and your jaw being easy. To help this allow a small space between the upper and lower molars at the back of your jaw. Third, think about your shoulders flowing away from each other and gentle rest on top of your rib cage. However, be careful not to pull or push your shoulders around. As a colleague, Angela Bradshaw writes so helpfully in her book ‘Be In Balance’, Don’t pull them up, down, forward or back, leave them alone. Releasing tension is not a ‘doing’, we are not trying to create a particular shape, we are allowing the body to free up and release. Last, think about your body being soft and tall (easy and poised), this is helpful whether you are slumped with the weight of the world on your shoulders or wound up tight with your shoulders up around your ears.
5. Get on with your day knowing that you can check in with your body and thoughts again at intervals to offer the previous steps again. The goal is not to try to hold on to this new found ease and poise, that way lies tension and failure. What we are aiming for, is to know we can just keep coming back to our body and refresh our thoughts/ directions. Another helpful short cut I offer is to ask yourself the questions ‘Am I seeing? Am I breathing? Am I balancing? (Details of how this can be useful are explained and discussed in lessons). As we practice this technique regularly it becomes more ‘natural’ and just part of a new helpful habit that melts away the tension triangle and sometimes avoids it all together.
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