Constance Clare-Newman: Alexander Technique (LBP 019)

photo-for-bio-200x300Constance Clare-Newman and I talk Alexander Technique, the difference between un-doing vs. doing (or relaxing into expansive support vs. propping oneself up), tensegrity concepts, common dysfunctional patterns in the head, neck, and spine, why most posture advice is truly terrible, the key support relationships within our body, and how this kind of mindfulness in the body expands into the rest of one’s life. Also(hey, why not!) what makes for good sex vs. “meh” sex?

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Show notes

Alexander Technique is a practice of mindfulness that begins with the body. It’s about consciously embodying. It’s also a practice of neuroplasticity applied to everyday life that includes movement, posture, sensation, gesture, breath, voice, expression, energy, thought, emotion… all of these things together and more are what make up our self. The Alexander work is really about exploring an undivided self.

In reality people usually come to lessons for pain relief, so we start there.

Neuroplasticity: when we have a habit the grooves that make that habit in the brain- the neurons that fire together are used to firing together a lot. To change a habit we usually throw a lot of other pathways on top of that. In Alexander, we undo some of those neurons so you are unlearning rather than adding stuff on.

Ultimately the Alexander work is about changing your habits for what works better for you in your life. Whether those patterns are movement or postural habits, or habits of thinking or reacting, that are not useful anymore. All of those things are things that we work with.

A lot of times people come in with pain or stress, but they don’t realize what habits are fostering that. They don’t realize what habits they can let go of until someone helps them out of that.

There has been some good data on helping people with pain, particularly back pain, in the British Medical Journal (in resources). The difference between Alexander and other therapies is that it is an education. If you take lessons and you take 10 lessons, in a year hopefully you’ve been able to keep that practice going and it stays with you through your life. Whereas if you have a session like massage or chiropractic it’s an intervention that can be very helpful, but if you go back to using your body the same way in our lives things go back to where they were.

To me [Brooke] it feels like learning how to trust-fall into my own support, which as a Rolfer and fascia-nerd makes me think of tensegrity support. If Alexander Technique is trying to undo and take things away, what is left when you take things away?

We are a nation of doers. We don’t have much experience of undoing without utter collapse. Most people are going from holding themselves up, pushing through their days, and striving to get it all right and then collapsing at the end of the day and being drained.

Alexander practice is about that dynamic middle, where our posture is lively, not contracted, our thinking is expansive, not narrow, breath is effortless, not rigidly controlled.

A tensegrity structure is a great model as mechanical models go, because it shows the “just right” amount of tone- tension and integrity. “Tension” is usually thought of as a bad thing, so I use the word “tone”. It’s not too much, not too little. We’re coming into our just right spot with our whole tissue suit.

The system gets so used to its pattern of holding and clenching that sensation is lost. That’s why constructive rest is such a great practice to tune into sensations that are usually outside. It gives us a space to return to balance. [resources]

We are infinitely complex- we don’t really need to think about “what’s my ankle doing and what’s going on with my glutes?” If you are focusing on support we find ease for the whole structure. Finding this overall sense of balance where the body’s intelligence can bring the body back to homeostasis.

Maybe it’s a good idea to find out where your glutes are and how they feel when they are working so that you can better sense them. So I’m not dissing the specificity work.

The ideal relationship between the head, the neck, and the back. We emphasize a dynamic relationship, rather than a fixed one, between the head, neck and back.

Most people have their head pulled down , and when they hear this they usually pull their face up, which only pulls the skull down more in the back. That area at the back of the head and neck is the first place to contract when we get scared, it is a part of our fight-or-flight mechanism. We go into mini startle patterns throughout the day, so we have a lot of preparation for battle and freezing. The tension is traveling down the back of the neck and shoulders.

The pulling down of the head is also pulling down on the spine and compressing those lovely sponge-y discs. We see this pattern all the time- it is the norm.

When we free that up the head becomes able to balance delicately on top of the spine, which allows the fear reflex to unwind.

One comes to lessons to become aware of that excess tension and to learn how to consciously intend how to release. It is this clarity of intention rather than a  particular muscular movement or place to be that is the hallmark of Alexander. We are trying to return the system to where it can function with the most balance and grace and efficiency.

In all vertebrates, when the head releases off the top of the spine and the spine lengthens, then the limbs move. This pattern of movement is what Alexander called the primary pattern of movement, and it is the most efficient in all vertebrates.

These are simple (but not easy) principles that can be explored in all movements in your life.

The functioning of all yous systems work best in an open, lively state in particular in the torso. Actors and martial artists think of this as a state of readiness. It’s a feeling of being integrated.

[Brooke] I love that you pointed out that it’s not about getting it “right”.

The thing about good posture is an awful thing in our society, this idea of lift your chest and pull your shoulders back. It makes things worse. We have to be clear that that language is not helpful. We need language about coming into balance while being upright.

Everyone is trying so hard to do it right, and then they have to give up because it is unsustainable.

[Brooke] So they only experience effort or collapse, they only have these two extremes.

As a dancer Constance was taught strength and correctness at the expense of free flow of movement, and she got into Alexander for this to impact her dancing.

She didn’t know Alexander would help with her back pain, so when that happened for her it was huge. And coming to that gradual awareness that the type-A way of being in the world was a choice and she didn’t need to do that. She had had a lot of success through efforting, but Alexander made her curious about ease, and about enjoyment of movement.

[Brooke] You’ve run several workshops about pleasure- just about enjoying movement, or even about sex and what makes for good sex vs. “meh” sex, and I feel like we also have a weird relationship to pleasure in our culture too- binge or purge.

Culturally I think there is so much fear and distraction and an emphasis on speed, striving, and pushing. Coming back to a quiet self just being- and being kind to oneself is so needed and so pleasurable. It’s so often thought of as a luxury.

A lot of times in lessons I think the most important thing happening for my students is this coming back to themselves in a fuller way.

An Alexander lesson is often a pleasurable feeling of sensations of undoing.

It’s pleasurable to inhabit ourselves fully. Movement can be good for you and yummy at the same time.

We’re so busy and trying to live up to our potential, there is so much focus on the external. And there is a renewed interest in mindfulness, and in being kind to oneself and it needs to keep seeping in more.

I mention a study that shows self-compassion as the leading marker of a successful life (in resources, quote from the study: “Individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater life satisfaction, social connectedness, emotional intelligence, and happiness and less anxiety, depression, shame, fear of failure, and burnout.”) And it said that self-compassion was the best marker for a successful life.

Sex! What happens when we become less orgasm focused? There’s nothing wrong with orgasms, of course. But feeling sensations other places as well. What’s it like to explore sensations in one’s own fingertips when touching someone? To have a free wrist and enjoy those movements when touching someone. And as a receiver, what is it like to feel sensations more places, and to not contract when you are touched?

The idea that we are supposed to give our partner a certain thing and that we’re supposed to have an orgasm in a certain amount of time… there is so much cultural stuff that goes along with sex. And again, the distraction thing. It is so hard to not be distracted even just with ourselves let alone with another person.

Why don’t more people know about Alexander Technique?

Alexander has been around for over 100 years and it’s such a transformative practice, so this still confounds most of us who love it. It is a paradigm shift away from our normal way of doing, and it does require letting go of expectations. And a teacher is really a facilitator and a guide, like a meditation teacher, and so the student has to do the practice to get the benefit.

I think a lot of people would be willing to do the practice if they knew they were going to benefit so much. So maybe we don’t communicate the benefits well enough? And people think the Alexander Technique is about posture, but it doesn’t utilize the traditional strengthening techniques that many postural strategies use. And it goes against the traditional medical model.

There is starting to be some research about how the body works together as a whole, that all the systems together need to be coordinated.

I find that students who most take to the Alexander work are so excited when they discover that this work that they came to for their pain, or perhaps to learn how to play their violin better, or whatever it is, are so excited to discover that it is affecting all aspects of being human. Their ability to respond with choice, to everything that one explores.

[Brooke] I think that our culture doesn’t understand holism. I don’t understand holism, even though I do maybe more than some people because it’s my field for many years. But even though I’ve been in the field for 14 years, I have been a part of this culture for almost 40 years, so I still have to remind myself even about holism. Add to that the fact that “holism” has become this yucky buzz word that means vaguely woo-woo and “different from normal” and it even means less. I think we’re in the process of a long, slow evolution as humans to understand what holism means and that our fields are helping us to do that in an amazing way, but it’s going to take a long time.

“The undivided self” I love this term (book in resources). It might be that if we keep saying mind-body, how do we experience the self? Language shapes how we experience things.

Constance is currently living in Provincetown and so is surrounded by water. So she loves to move in the water and float around in different ways, and to bring some of that bouyancy and fluidity into my my movement on land.

I [Constance] still ask myself that question all the time, “What would it be like to do this with even more ease?” And all of  a sudden my body knows how to do that. Slowing down a bit, but even not- going fast with ease!

Home play!

Constance put together this excellent one-minute practice: Standing Into Length. Try it out and see what you notice!

Resources

Constance Clare-Newman’s website

Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise, and massage for chronic recurring back pain from the British Medical Journal

A video summarizing the same study

A constructive rest lesson from Constance

study: Self Compassion: Conceptualizations, Correlates, and Interventions, Barnard and Curry, from Duke University

The Undivided Self: Alexander Technique and the Control of Stress

If you liked this episode

You might also like:

Judith Hanson Lasater: The Power of Restoration

Bo Forbes: Mindfulness Expressed in the Body

Steve Haines: Body Maps and Interoception

 

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