inbalanceatinbalanceat Complaining!]]>Eve Bernfeld, 10 Jul 2019 17:54:57 +0000
When I was little, my mother put a piece of paper on the fridge with a magnet. On the paper she had written “NO COMPLAINING!” That paper stayed there for years. I wonder if it’s still there…
I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I’m a champion complainer. If there were a Complaining World Cup, my kids and I would dominate. So my interest was piqued when I received an email with the subject “Not to Complain” from Rabbi Brian, who sends out a funny and thought-provoking non-denominational spiritual newsletter.
Turns out the Rabbi had started a 21-day no complaint challenge and he was suggesting, gulp, that I, that is to say, his readers, including me, gulp, gulp, try it too. Well I’m not quite ready to commit to 21 days (yet), but I thought, heck, I’ll try it this morning and see what I find. I’m now a few days in, and I have been noticing some very interesting things.
On my early morning walk around the neighborhood that first morning, I found myself thinking, “What a beautiful morning. I’m so grateful to be out in it. Except I’m SO tired—” I stopped myself mid-complaint, and wondered: Why am I complaining to myself? I know I’m tired! And I found not only that I could let the thought go, but that it was a relief to let it go.
While my husband and I got everyone ready to head out the door to camp and work, I told him about the challenge. (And in the back of my mind I wondered if we would even be having a conversation right now if I hadn’t taken on this challenge, or if instead he’d be listening to me complain about the kids and the cat getting me up in the night…) A question came up: What is the line between complaining and observing? We decided that it was the attitude and whether or not I intend to do something about it. For example:
“I’m STARVING!!!” (Said in an eardrum splitting whine.) [complaint]
“I’m hungry. I think I’ll get something to eat.” [observation/action]
Later in the day I noticed that—drat—I have indeed caught the children’s summer cold. Thanks summer camp! Ordinarily this would lead to a great deal of complaining on my part. But since complaining wasn’t an option, when Brian (my husband, not the Rabbi) got home from work, I informed him that I was sick and would be skipping my Spanish Class and getting into bed directly after dinner. The craziest part of this was that the whole evening was almost completely free of the usual guilt and insecurity.
Later in the week, during the SNOT phase of the cold, I had more thoughts on not complaining. They came when my son woke me at 2 am and again at 3:30 am from my tenuous and hard-fought sleep. “I WANT TO COMPLAIN!” I gurgle-growled through my phlegm. I flopped over angrily, anticipating it would take me a looong time to fall asleep again. And thinking that maybe this no complaining thing is not all it’s cracked up to be. I mean sometimes it’s good to complain, right? Sometimes it lets off steam! Right?
Well I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know that, without my typical pattern of griping and complaining, something sort of magical happened. My grumpiness went away. It was as if the fire lacked oxygen and just sputtered out. I didn’t fall asleep right away, but I realized I felt comfortable. Content.
These experiments are making my Alexander Technique spidey sense all tingly. It occurs to me that complaining takes a lot of energy. Complaining, I’m finding, is a little like stiffening my neck (and is no doubt accompanied by stiffening my neck). It’s an unconscious pattern that takes conscious attention to resist (or as we say in AT, Inhibit). But when I Inhibit it, I realize how hard I was working, and how much easier and lighter life is without it.
So I realize that I haven’t really had a lot to complain about this week. No (KNOCK WOOD!) crises. That’s a whole other kettle of fish. But no complaining about the regular old grind? Maybe I’ll keep it up for a few more days… Maybe you want to try it with me?
For further exploration of not wasting energy check out this blog.
How to Improve Your Child's Posture]]>Eve Bernfeld, 02 Jun 2019 17:42:54 +0000
So maybe you notice that your child hunches while he writes. Or she slumps at the dinner table. Or is it only my kids who manage to spend a good chunk of dinner halfway underneath the table?
And I think “Boo hoo hoo, so recently they were toddlers and it was as if they didn’t even know how to slouch. But now they are proving to be slouching prodigies!”
First of all, why should we care about our children’s posture? Well, let’s start by briefly defining posture as the ability to be upright easily and without strain (for more details, read my “What is Good Posture?”blog). Being slumped over makes it harder to breathe, harder for circulation and digestion to function properly. And it may well lead to back and neck pain down the line. Also, how we posture, to use the verb form, is a terrific indicator of how we are balancing our systems overall. We can’t see the nervous system, directly. But it’s written all over the body. Hunching over or puffing up are not benign, but are instead powerful information about what is happening inside our children (and ourselves).
Helping our children maintain their natural poise might be one of the most powerful and long-lasting gifts we can give them.
Step 1: Start with YOURSELF (I mean it!)
Really and truly try everything below on yourself first. Don’t even tell your kids about it. They might notice on their own that you’re a little more upright or a little less harried. Which will give you the perfect opening to share what you’re learning… Even if they don’t notice it consciously, one of the (myriad—don’t get me started) reasons we slouch is that almost everyone else does too. From our earliest days we are surrounded by a sea of slumping grownups. So is it any wonder we unconsciously do the same? Do yourself a favor and harness your kids’ mirror neurons for good. If you’re more “UP,” they will start to be as well.
Step 2: Don’t nag them to Sit/Stand Up Straight (no matter what your Grandmother did to you)
I confess, this step is SOOOOO hard for me. But nagging, badgering and bullying are particularly ineffective educational strategies. In fact they often backfire. Instead try…
Step 3: Play Games and Cultivate Curiosity (like Mary Poppins)
Can you imagine you have a floaty balloon head?What if your shoulders and your ears needed a little space from each other?Can you make yourself HEAVY? Now can you make yourself LIGHT?
What happens if you think of yourself as SOFT and TALL?
Ask yourself: Am I SEEING? Am I BREATHING? Am I BALANCING?Say Hello:
Hello Head
Hello Feet
Hello Back
Hello World
[An aside (sort of): Do you ever resolve to be more patient with your children? I know I do ALL. THE. TIME. Unfortunately, I have come to believe that the intention to “be more patient” is basically worthless. The best intentions in this direction are vague and mushy and don’t help me in the moments when my hair spontaneously catches fire. But here’s a goal that might just work instead—CONNECT MORE. All of the games and activities above are silly, fun opportunities to connect. When my kids and I connect, there is less need for me to be “patient” because we are all happier and more present.]
Step 4: Model
When you want to say “Sit Up Straight (!!!),” instead take a moment to PAUSE, let yourself breathe, let yourself be Soft & Tall. Then ask your child to try one of the above with you.
Step 5: Time for a Change
Sometimes I think collapse is functional. We shut down when we are over-stimulated, over-tired, over-cooked. When you noticing your child slumping, maybe DON’T try to get them to not slump in whatever they are doing (homework? video game? noisy restaurant?). Instead their slumping may be valuable information that they desperately need to change position or activity or venue.
Now I realize that some of these activities are geared toward younger children. My teen students might be okay with a “floaty balloon head” because they can dig silliness. And because I’m not their mother. Please be creative in adapting these ideas to your surly teenager and then report back so I have a head start!
Still, Not Stiff]]>Eve Bernfeld, 15 May 2019 18:27:26 +0000
The middle-aged man with the receding hairline and the wedding band leaned down the bar to nudge my college roommate conspiratorially. “Your friend” (pointing to me) “needs to loosen up.”
“If I were any looser,” I deadpanned, “I’d be asleep.”
He left us alone. (Attending college in New York City, I triple majored Theatre, Philosophy and getting rid of creeps.)
This story spontaneously came back to me the other day, from the depths of my memory bank, as I was pondering the difference between “Stiff” and “Still.” They are often mistaken for each other.
Stiffness, rigidity, bracing. All words for a common strategy of working (too) hard to hold ourselves upright.
And when we start to notice we’re stiff, we may attempt to counteract it with what feels like the opposite—movement. Stretching, jiggling, shaking ourselves out, leaning back and forth, changing positions nonstop, rolling the shoulders and head, etc.
I’m a big fan of movement. But sometimes this moving-to-try-not-to-be-stiff is counter-productive. We go from working (too) hard being stiff to working (too) hard to stay moving (so as not to be stiff). It’s all a lot of WORK. Also, we may be still bracing in some parts even as we shake out others. We haven’t actually addressed the underlying problem of habitual stiffening. We’ve just added habitual wiggling.
So what if we had another option? It’s also totally possible to just be STILL, without stiffening up. To do only what it takes to be sitting or standing here and no more. Not moving any more than I need to conserves energy for when I do want to be moving. And also allows me to move easily and freely when that time comes because I don’t have to un-stiffen my braced joints in order to do it.
Sort of like a 22-year-old perched confidently on a barstool. Self-contained enough to reject a bad come-on without working too hard.
To dig deeper into how the Alexander Technique helps us to be upright without being stiff, check out this blog.
Weekend Warrior]]>Eve Bernfeld, 06 May 2019 18:11:37 +0000
“I’m so mad at my body!” my student reported to me on Monday morning. I imagine many of us have felt this way, but not being in the business of body-transplants, I dug a little deeper to see what the problem was, specifically. We talked for a bit and then she rephrased it: “I’m mad that I overdid it this weekend.”
Now that we can do something about.
And then it occurred to me that I am having exactly the same problem. And I was reminded of that old saying about learning the most from one’s students. Yep.
On my walk that very morning before work I had been pondering my Sunday. It was a fantastic day with my kids, only marred by intermittent grumpiness from me. What’s up with that? Why do I get so crabby? They weren’t even being particularly naughty, so I really had nobody but myself to blame.
I was able to break it down to factors:
Food. I waited too long to eat breakfast and then found myself stomping around the kitchen. A handful of nuts could solve that.
Trying to do Work. Sundays are typically a workday for me, but I had cancelled my students in order to attend an event with my family in the morning, and a rehearsal with my choir in the afternoon. So I had to fit in emails and admin work around the edges—before they got up and after they went to bed. Which actually was okay. The problems start when I’m hanging out with them and they seem totally occupied, so I sneak into the other room and open my computer. They have a sixth sense for this and before I know it there are three children looking over my shoulder, asking me questions. I shut the computer and then fume that I can never get anything done. So, FINE, I will try not to accomplish anything work-related when I’m with my kids. (I have to re-learn this lesson all the time…)
Tired. I’m just tired. It’s been a long couple of weeks. It’s been a long five years. I’m a mom. I’m tired.
As I completed my walk I basically shrugged my shoulders about number 3 and said, “Well, I can’t help being tired.”
It was only later, talking to my student during her lesson, that I saw the parallel between my belief that I couldn’t do anything about being tired, and her anger toward her body. Both are a little bit of clever buck-passing. In my case, I realized that while I may not predictably be able to get as much sleep as I’d like, I can still DO A LIE-DOWN. This is the sort of thing I tell my students on day 1: Take a few minutes each day to lie down on the floor and do nothing. I promise you’ll come up refreshed.
Did I lie down on Sunday? Nope!
So for my student and me and any other weekend warriors out there, while we can’t change how we overdid it last weekend, we CAN plan ahead for next time. My self-created tools? Stay fed, don’t try to work with the kids around and take a lie-down. My student decided that taking some moments to PAUSE might go a loooong way. That actually sounds doable (if we can remember).
What are your plans?
For more on how I use the Alexander Technique to Remember Myself in the midst of busy-ness (weekend or otherwise), check out this blog.
Ready List]]>Eve Bernfeld, 23 Apr 2019 16:24:47 +0000
Standing in the jet bridge, waiting to step onto the airplane, I remembered something I often say to my students: “We are in the habit of making ourselves small all the time—sort of like when you’re on a crowded airplane and you hunch yourself down a bit to take up less space, whether or not you are tall enough to need to do that.” So I decided not to shrink in response to boarding the plane, but instead to breathe and Lighten UP as I stepped on. Whooo, what a difference it makes!
I was able to engage in this whole, lovely thought process because I was boarding the airplane BY MYSELF, rather than surrounded by kiddos. I was on my way to New York to participate in a four-day workshop called The Developing Self, which addressed applying Alexander Technique to Education.
One of the first things we learned in the workshop was a practice called the Ready List. It’s so brilliant and simple—created for kids, thus perfect for adults. Very similar to my own “magic words” formula. It was the first of many moments in the workshop where I thought, “Ah this is what I’ve been trying to say!” Here is the Ready List:
StopSeeBreatheSoft and TallGo! (or not)
The group—Alexander Technique teachers from all over North America (plus the two teachers running the course who came from England) spent the weekend applying the Ready List all over the place.
When transitioning from one activity to another.
When preparing to do something scary, like make up a story or lead a game we just invented, or present our own work to the group.
When the noise and chaos of five small groups inventing crazy games in one studio became over-stimulating and we needed a time out.
While walking down the street.
While eating.
While riding the subway.
Let me unpack it a bit for you. Stop is classic Alexander Technique Inhibition (Pause, No, or “I have time” are other ways we often articulate this). “We can’t do the right thing until we stop doing the wrong thing,” F.M. Alexander explained. It’s our chance to notice what we’re doing and choose if that’s how we want to proceed. Shoulders to ears? Maybe not…
See involves letting ourselves see the room or wherever we are with a broad, panoramic view. It’s not necessarily about looking around, but about widening our focus. “Tunnel vision” is associated with stress and rigidity in the body. It’s amazing the changes people notice through their whole body and attitude when they suddenly are invited to See the room.
Breathe does NOT mean “take a deep breath.” It means let the breath out, so it can come back in. I often suggest people blow an imaginary feather. When we’re stressed, when we’re concentrating (tunnel vision?), we are often also holding the breath. This is a gentle reminder that everything works better, from the brain on down, if we let the breath move out and in.
Soft and Tall corresponds with the suggestion I often give to “Lighten UP.” What I particularly love about Soft and Tall is that we typically associate “Soft” with being slumped over and “Tall” with being stiffly upright, like a drill sergeant. What if we could be both SOFT and TALL at the same time??? (Hint: we can, and it’s awesome!)
There was ever-so-much more to the workshop than the Ready List. But that alone was enough to travel across the country.
Why bother with the Ready List? What’s the point? Well, the opposite of each step tends to be how we typically behave:
Don’t see anything except the ground right in front of my feet or my screen or the work I'm really trying to concentrate on.
Hold the breath (breathing just enough to not pass out)
Making myself small—hunching, slouching, stiffening, flinching, apologizing
All of these habits are associated with stress. They are unconscious, and they are ubiquitous (for most of us). They have gotten us to where we are today, but if we’re not fully happy with where we are (like, maybe we experience back pain or headaches or anxiety or our shoulders always hurt or we’re short-tempered or we’re overwhelmed, etc.), it behooves us to try something new.
I used to live in New York. I went to college in Manhattan, then worked at a theater on 42nd Street. I could hunch and hurry and weave through pedestrians and traffic (never waiting for the walk sign) with the best of them. It was sort of a rush. And also exhausting. I recall hurting all the time—particularly my left shoulder, which felt like it was separating from my trunk.
So what a revelation to be in the city, and to See, Breathe, and be Soft and Tall. To be present, in a way I never was in my 20s. To keep the pace, more or less, and yet arrive at my destination neither in pain nor stressed out.
Stepping out into the golden hour following the final day of the workshop, rain clouds starting to break up, I wondered: Is it an extraordinarily beautiful evening? Or am I in extraordinarily good shape to experience it?
Life-Changing]]>Eve Bernfeld, 20 Mar 2019 18:13:44 +0000
I’ve noticed recently that a lot of things are “life-changing.” As in…
“Marie Kondo-ing the kids’ drawers has been life-changing.”
“Adding collagen to my diet has really been life-changing for me.”
Or, a variation:
“Advertising on Pinterest is a game-changer.”
Sometimes I feel like I’m on the local train, while everyone is flying by me on the express line, transforming their lives in a flash. I wonder: can real change happen so quickly? We all wish to be transformed. We all wish for it to be a relatively fast, easy and painless process. But I think we’re really all stuck together on that local.
The only truly “life-changing” experience that happened to me overnight was becoming a parent (which is neither easy nor painless). Real change is a much slower and slipperier process. Like a lot of women I know, I’ve been on an endless mission of self-improvement since I was about twelve years old. I’ve gone down some dark alleys (usually involving self-loathing disguised as a fitness or diet routine), and I’ve also made a lot of—very slow—progress.
Here are some baby steps I’ve made recently:
1. I’ve set aside time on Friday afternoons to CLEAN MY HOUSE!
This has inspired more cleaning the rest of the week. Cleaning has never been my strong suit. Bake a chocolate pecan pie for Pi Day? Sure! Organize the overflowing shelves in the office? I don’t want to! And I don’t have time! Can’t you see I’m busy with work and pie-baking? If you stepped into my house right now, you wouldn’t say: “wow, it’s so clean,” but you also might not say, “yuck!” And perhaps more importantly, I’d feel okay letting you in without two hours of hard cleaning first. There’s been an upgrade in the state of “normal.” Which feels a lot better to live in.
2. First thing in the morning, before I stand up from my bed, I take a moment to…
Blow a Feather
Lighten Up
And I notice that I’m weirdly tense and hunched from sleep and I’m able to let that go and start the day a little lighter and freer. This is the “magic” formula I teach to my students and suggest they do throughout the day. But when I start the day with it, I find it so much easier to remember to do it later on and later again and even when I’m stressed and especially when I’m tired…. As with the cleaning, once I’ve started, the practice tends to expand.
3. My family is going on four days in a row (whoop whoop whoop!) of getting out the door for school without anyone losing their temper or freaking out.
This feels like a small miracle. A miracle that involves a great deal of tedious work: everyone getting dressed sooner, a bunch of check-ins, a big heart on our kitchen calendar with—now—the number 4 in it, me accepting that I have to be more hands-on with all this than I want to be. And all of us getting to school/work in a much better state.
I confess I’m a little wary of reporting these small changes, because I know how precarious change can be. How easy it is, for a looooong time, to slide back into old patterns. But that’s in the nature of change too. It gets boring to keep working at it once the novelty has worn off. Or to start over when I’ve been up half the night with a sick kid and the bed’s not made and the floor is covered with Legos and I’m yelling at people to get in the car and my shoulders are up to my ears…
We all want (easy) transformation. We want the poetry workshop or the Ted Talk to be life-changing. We want, as Alexander Technique teacher Patrick Macdonald wryly observed, to “change without changing.” People come to me seeking change. They ask: “how do I play this song better?” or “how do I stop my neck hurting?” or “how do I deal with my husband/mother/kids/boss/self being so impatient?” They want the answer to be miraculous, and by tomorrow night, thank you very much.
But the only path I know is long and leisurely.
Blow a feather
Lighten Up
Slowly, slowly, slowly it will change your life.
If you want fast, I guess you’d better talk to Marie Kondo.
Want some more specific instructions on "Lighten Up"? Check out this blog.
The Warm-Up (Part 2)]]>Eve Bernfeld, 03 Mar 2019 23:01:54 +0000
One Day…
I’ve been diligently doing my Warm-Up all week (See Part 1 for the full explanation and examples). And what an interesting week to take on this experiment. For various and intersecting reasons, this has been a week filled with anxiety for me, a gnawing sensation at the pit of my stomach. In fact, just writing about it, I’m feeling it well up again. How interesting.
But the warm-up has provided a remarkable reprieve. Oh, it feels good to move. Oh, I can breathe. Oh, no I’m not wearing armor—I’m flexible, malleable, awake. And while I’m sensing all these things, I’m NOT sensing the “fear and loathing” that have been my companions the last few days.
Another Day…
The warm-up sort of did itself. I didn’t really feel like doing it. I wasn’t motivated. I had other things on my mind. And before I know it, I find myself lying face down on the floor, lengthening each leg and allowing the breath to move all the way down to my pelvis. Oh, so this is happening. Much better than what I had intended (i.e. get straight to work because I don’t feel like warming up).
And yet Another Day…
Sunday afternoon at 2:30. I’ve been up since 5:30 am and taught all morning. This is my least productive time of day. But this is the time of day I have, so I’m valiantly trying to buckle down and finish this blog and a million other things on my to-do list.
Warm up? What was that about? Did I do anything today that could count as a warm-up? I took two walks. I made that epic to-do list. I Paused. Blew some Feathers. Lightened UP. These are good things. The most essential, in fact. But not quite what I intended when I suggested I do a daily warm-up for a week. So maybe now would be a good time to STOP and…
check to see if B. got cat food?
have a snack?
I’m back. I got myself down on the floor and loosened everything up for about nine minutes. I don’t feel like a new person. But I do notice I’m breathing more. I also notice that my hip and head aren’t currently aching, the way they were before. My fingers are moving faster over the keys. Actually, I feel quite a lot better.
The hardest thing for me is not finding the time. That’s a handy story, but it’s really not true. The hardest thing is the RESISTANCE. Because actually taking the simple, straightforward steps that would make me function better is still SO HARD.
So I invite you once again to join me. To continue to find ways to pause and re-tune ourselves. To continue to find this process challenging and rewarding and worthwhile. How’s it going for you?
For more on how to practice (even with resistance), check out this Blog.
The Warm-Up (Part 1)]]>Eve Bernfeld, 21 Feb 2019 17:18:16 +0000
Last Friday I woke up feeling hung over. I had NOT been drinking, but I had been burning the candle at both ends by traveling (including a red-eye) over the previous weekend, and then rolling right into a week where I taught four extra classes on top of my normal schedule. And I still had a two-hour class on Embodied Education to teach that morning at the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education. Ugh.
As I trudged around the house getting ready to go and wondering how I would possibly have the energy I needed to teach, I remembered a part of the lesson plan: the power of a warm-up. Oh, right. I should probably take my own advice. By then I didn’t have much time. My warm-up lasted approximately seven minutes. I did a brief lie-down on the floor and then rolled a tennis ball under each of my feet. And I swear, I felt like a new person.
Of all the tools I routinely use to keep myself from completely losing my head, this is probably the oldest, and one I keep rediscovering.
The Warm-Up.
A warm-up is a preparation. It may, quite literally, warm one up, but it also gets one in the right frame of mind to do whatever is next. Dancers are all about the warm-up, as are singers. There’s an old saw about the actor’s warm-up being a cigarette and a cup of coffee, though I think most take their craft more seriously than that. I hope you would warm up before running a 5K, and I also want to suggest that a warm-up can be just as effective for everyday life.
I have done a warm-up before an interview. Before I’ve sat down to write. Before giving a presentation or teaching a workshop. Before heading to work in the morning. A friend recently told me that she did a warm-up before her mammogram. No, she didn’t imagine it would improve the results, but she certainly went in feeling more at ease.
So what do I mean when I suggest a “Warm-Up”? There is no particular recipe. I have my own preferences based on a few decades of movement research, but that is not a prerequisite. I’ll describe some ground-rules (for you to take or leave) and then give a few examples.
Features of a Warm-Up:
It involves your Whole Body. This one is kind of easy, as I like to tell my students that everything is a whole-body activity. But most of us tend to forget that, so it’s good to remember that whatever you do, it should de-gum you in a generalized way.
It is Mindful. If you do it while you watch TV or check your email, that doesn’t count. Three minutes spent mindfully moving is, for the purposes of centering and preparing you, far superior to 30 minutes sweating on the elliptical trainer in front of a screen.
You Enjoy it. This doesn’t mean you don’t experience resistance. I can convince myself to just about anything except what I most need. But I am ALWAYS glad I did it.
When you are done you feel centered, yet lively. Your engine is running but not racing. You’re ready to go, but not amped. If you try an activity that doesn’t do this for you, try something else.
I gave you an example of what I did last Friday (Alexander Technique lie-down and rolling a tennis ball under each foot). Here are a few more ideas:
Dance to a favorite song.
Walk backwards around your house.
Empty the dishwasher very slowly and thoughtfully, as if it were Tai Chi.
Engage in your favorite workout or movement routine, but, again, slowly and thoughtfully. Allowing yourself to be present.
Take a walk or a run or a bike ride (sans headphones).
A warm-up can be as short or long as you have or need.
I am hereby challenging myself to take my own advice and do a warm-up every day for a week. Will you join me? I’ll check back next week to tell you how it’s going and I hope you will too!
Foiled Again]]>Eve Bernfeld, 30 Jan 2019 17:27:31 +0000
Day 10 of this New Year and already a theme emerges—things rarely go according to plan.
Kid-friendly New Year’s Eve bash? Didn’t make it due to puking kid.
Students eager to get back to work after winter break? Five lessons cancelled this week due to various sicknesses and work obligations.
Visit to the Alexander Teacher Training course to work with my teacher? Her car wouldn’t start so I ended up running the course for the morning.
Brunch with mom friends? Didn’t make it due to puking me.
I’m a planner, see? I already have my summer schedule of kid camps and family travel more or less ironed out. So it’s a hard pill to swallow when everything goes awry. But it occurs to me that there is a bit of a silver lining (as I lie here in bed typing a blog instead of brunching and chatting). Because this deep attachment to planning is kind of a control-freak thing. As if I can control life, death and the unruly world itself by scheduling the right meetings and picking the right summer camps. Which is, to use one of F.M. Alexander’s great words: delusional.
So I’m reminded AGAIN to keep a light grip on the wheel. I’m reminded again of Heraclitus’ basic philosophical tenant: “There is nothing permanent except change.” Which I love in theory and hate in practice. I’m reminded again that the only thing I can (sometimes) control is how I react to this constant flux.
I’ll keep making plans. And hopefully some of them will work out. And hopefully I can still get something out of it when they don’t.
For more about a time when things REALLY didn't go according to plan, check out this blog.
Lighten UP--Holiday Edition]]>Eve Bernfeld, 16 Dec 2018 19:39:35 +0000
The Holiday season can be a stressful time of year for many of us. This was never more evident to me than the year I worked the customer service desk at REI through December. Oh my goodness were people stressed and grumpy!
But perhaps inside that preposterous fruitcake of December are some little pockets of transcendence. Here are a few moments that have really helped me Lighten UP and the lesson I took from each…
The other night found me sitting on the floor of a steamy bathroom at 2 am holding a croupy child. I was tired and anxious and trying not to show any of it as I explained how the steam helps her lungs open up so she can breathe better. Suddenly I heard my daughter make a strange noise and I peered down at her in the half light—was she having more trouble breathing?? No, this four-year-old was practicing the “Whispered Ah,” an Alexander Technique procedure to help coordinate breathing. A few minutes later, helped by steam, ibuprofen and “Whispered Ah,” her breathing was easy enough for her to go back to sleep.
My Lesson: OH MY GOD MY KIDS ACTUALLY LISTEN TO ME! (even if they don’t want me to know)
Near the end of the semester at Lewis & Clark College, I asked my students to start class by writing on the board all the things from the semester that they would like to revisit that day. A predictable assortment of our favorite games and “how to” questions (like “how to shake a maraca for 40 minutes without my arm falling off”) went up. I was surprised to see “Singing Together” appear. I do that exactly once per semester and I thought they all hated it. But there we were, sitting in a circle, enjoying a round of “Row, row, row your boat.” It was sublime. And everyone left (to go finish papers and prepare for finals) looking noticeably lighter and happier.
My Lesson: Singing with other people really is magic.
My children (sort of) learned the song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at preschool last week. On the way home they explained it to me. There is nothing more hilarious/endearing than hearing three Jewish 4-year-olds (for whom Rudolph and Santa aren’t cultural touchstones) earnestly tell the story of a deer who had mean friends who wouldn’t let him play. But it worked out ok because…and here an argument broke out: did Santa let him “guard” the sleigh or “pull” the sleigh?? I resisted settling the argument and just enjoyed the conversation.
My Lesson: Life is more fun when I’m not a know-it-all.
I hope you too will find delicious moments of light as you navigate the Holiday Season. If you want a little help, try the following:
Whispered Ah (a simple version): Blow out your breath on an Ah sound, as if you were fogging a mirror (but take care not to jut your chin toward your imaginary mirror). At the end of the breath, close the lips and let the breath drop back in through your nose. Repeat til you feel better.
Imagine you are a candle. Your head floats up with ease like the flame. Your feet melt into the ground like wax. Maybe you even make light for someone else!
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Walk*]]>Eve Bernfeld, 12 Dec 2018 18:31:03 +0000
6:45 pm. Dad’s in charge, I head out to walk. It’s been a loooooong afternoon and evening with my children. I feel too tired to walk. But walking is less tiring than being home with them. They won’t let me sit down. So I walk, slowly, through the dark.
Foggy morning, seagulls in the park.
Coyote springs home, fast as a greyhound, light as a bird, at dawn.
Crows, crows, crows.
Red sky, orange sky, blue sky, pink sky, gray sky.
Sometimes mountains. Sometimes oceans. These days largely the tiny awe of the neighborhood.
Anger Management
Launching myself out the door, vibrating with a stew of anger, sadness and guilt, I stomp around the neighborhood, thoughts churning, childhood traumas revisited, blood boiling. Then suddenly, after about a mile, all of that is gone. I don’t feel it depart. I just find myself in a park. With trees.
5:30 am. Get up? This means tea, a moment to think, a walk when it’s only me and the dog walkers. Depending on the time of year, I may see the sunrise. Or stay in bed?
Trash picked up on one short walk: several straws, a dozen candy wrappers (give or take), various plastic bits and scraps, a moldy, crushed tennis ball, a bag of dog poop someone forgot to come back for, receipts, the remains of a balloon, bits of ribbon, a can…
My grandfather used to pick up aluminum cans by the side of the road. To recycle.
Phone in my pocket, bud in my ear, boots on the ground. I’m ready for a long walk and chat. Sometimes I can walk and talk with people in person.
Smaller steps. Smaller steps. The feet stay mostly underneath my pelvis. A big step with a strong heel strike is wildly inefficient. Smaller steps, pushing off my back foot, rather than pulling the ground underneath my front foot. Works my bum, not my quads. Safer on ice.
I ask myself: “Can I have a little quiet?” Spinning thoughts quiet for a second, or two! Then return. After practicing this for several years, I can find long moments of delicious silence in my head. I practice while I walk, but I reap the benefits in the middle of the night when I am going down the 3am rabbit holes. “Can I have some quiet?” I ask, maybe a few times. And I get some.
I feel embarrassed filling out the medical office paperwork. Exercise: Walking. Like I should be doing something fancier, sexier, with special gear.
One time walking to work in Chicago after a big snowstorm. Trudging though a foot of powder, climbing over tremendous snowdrifts, sweating and laughing. I passed a gym. A line of people on treadmills looked out at me like I was crazy. I looked in at them like they were crazy.
What big decision did I ever make without walking? What inspiration ever came to me indoors? When am I going to clean the bathroom?
With Kids
Run, stop, “Don’t dawdle while we cross the street!”, wind up the robot so it can move, pick up the one with the skinned knee, touch the trees, walk backward.
I put my glasses in my pocket when I walk in the morning and let my eyes flick back and forth and feel the wind on my eyeballs, making me tear up.
My best words don’t come to me at the computer, or in my notebook. They come into my head while I walk. And if they are sticky and I am diligent, I am able to get them down when I finish the walk.
*Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
For some thoughts on Alexander Technique and Walking, check out this blog and this one.
The Good Stuff]]>Eve Bernfeld, 10 Oct 2018 17:21:48 +0000
I vowed to take it easier in October, after way overdoing it several months in a row. But before I had a chance to voluntarily do that, nature intervened and I was hit with strep throat and then a nasty cold. Yuck. “Taking it easier” was thrust upon me.
If you’ve been reading this blog (or studying with me) for any length of time, you know I go on and on and on about the need to PAUSE.
Take a day OFF,” I prod. “It will make you more productive!”
Pause before you eat,” I nag. “You’ll feel better!”
When you’re too tired to carry on, lie down,” I pester. “You won’t be so exhausted at the end of the day!” As if I have it all figured out.
As if the sole purpose of the pause is to improve the time when I’m not pausing.
But what if the PAUSE is where the good stuff happens? The PAUSE is the place of inspiration, of creativity, of discovering the unexpected.
Last Wednesday I admitted that I was sick. I dropped my kids off at school and retreated to bed with a cup of tea (having cancelled my appointments). In the afternoon, only slightly more ambitious, I took the children to a newly rebuilt playground in our neighborhood and parked myself on a bench in the sun while they explored. And there, in the forced PAUSE of that icky cold, the ideas started to flow. Musings on various directions I want to explore in my work. Ideas about writing I want to do. Thoughts on the future of my business and how I might be able to help people.
And I felt a rush of gratitude for the cold and the PAUSE it forced on me. Maybe next time I can achieve that without the help of snot.
"PAUSE" is just one way to practice what we call "Inhibition" in the Alexander Technique. This blog has another suggestion.
C for Effort/Conservation of Energy*]]>Eve Bernfeld, 26 Sep 2018 17:55:25 +0000
Yesterday, after teaching two lessons, a class and a workshop, I found myself with an unexpected slice of unscheduled kid-free time in the afternoon. So I packed up our over-due books and took a stroll through the beautiful day to the library. It was lovely. But the way back is up hill, it was getting hot, I had a heavy bag of new library books and, by about four blocks from home, I was DONE with this outing. The stroll had become a trudge.
And as I trudged along, thinking a groan might be in order, I suddenly remembered the workshop I had just taught. In it, I had suggested to 40+ people that merely thinking “Lighten UP” was enough to change their whole experience—body and mind—in the moment. And, through a series of explorations, we had shown that to be so. There’s little more satisfying than seeing a room of people completely transform just by changing their thinking.
Drat. Maybe I should try that.
“Lighten UP,” I thought.
It worked! I felt lighter, I felt freer, I felt more fluid, more mobile and like I had just put down a huge burden. The burden? My unnecessary work/effort/stiffening/bracing in response to fatigue. Isn’t it funny, I thought to myself, that I react to fatigue by doing things that make life harder for myself?
It’s not just fatigue. I look around and I see everyone WORKING SO HARD at life. I’m doing it too. Our habits involve continually pushing harder, going faster, in ways that are totally inefficient. Like the woman in the workshop who felt sure that lifting her shoulders to her ears would help her walk faster. As strange as that may sound, it reflects the belief we have in the necessity of a felt sense of effort in our muscles, which we associate with walking fast or working hard or being good little busy bees.
But what if we’re wrong?
Remember in Elementary School when they gave you a grade for Effort? I always got an A for Effort (actually, I think it might have been an E—Excellent, but you get the idea). Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea behind this, that we are assessed not just on Product, but on our Process. The trouble lies with associating a good process with EFFORT (which usually involves hunching over my paper, scruching my shoulders, stiffening my neck, holding my breath and showing the teacher how diligent I am). I have been Effort-ing though my whole life. Working harder than is necessary, exhausting myself, trying to be perfect. What a waste of energy!
I don’t mean to suggest that we should all be slobs with no integrity or work-ethic. I’m suggesting that these are not the only two possibilities. I am suggesting that EFFORT, in the sense of excessive muscular tension, is only making us tired. It’s not actually helping us achieve our goals.
So may I suggest you conserve some of your precious energy? That you Lighten UP and see what it feels like to not work so very hard moment-to-moment?
Let yourself have a C for effort today and then tell me all about it!
I can’t take credit for either part of this two-part title (nor could I choose one, so I used both). A beloved movement teacher named Judith Koltai once asked, “Could you get a C for Effort?” And recently a student of mine described the Alexander Technique as “conservation of energy.”
For more on the siren song of unnecessary Effort, check out my What is Good Posture?blog.
Stay]]>Eve Bernfeld, 27 Aug 2018 15:26:14 +0000
I am a master of Escape. My skills were honed in childhood—razor-sharp. I escaped a boring lesson in the 4th grade by hiding a Nancy Drew book in my spelling book. When I was caught, I had to change my tactics. By the 5th grade, I didn’t need a book. I could make the hours fly by imagining myself as an undercover detective assigned to Mrs. Calabrese’s classroom. Keep my cover as an attentive student, but never lose focus on the mission.
By high school, my escapes involved dragging the huge Peterson’s Guide to American Colleges and Universities to a table in the public library and poring over the lists of colleges, imagining myself studious yet chic as I walked to class through the crisp fall air. When I was actually in college and the going got tough, I repeated this ritual in the huge Barnes and Noble that used to live across from Lincoln Center in Manhattan. I imagined college would be better—I would be happier—somewhere else.
Now, of course, I have a computer in my pocket. And despite getting that B.A. and M.A. and spending three years training to teach Alexander Technique, I still haven’t graduated from the habit of escaping my life by imagining future education.
It has occurred to me over the years that this is not my healthiest habit.
The other day I was reading a book on Mindful Parenting (I need all the help I can get) and I was struck by the suggestion to STAY. This simple word articulated so much of what I’ve been experiencing with my children. Things go so much better when I am radically free of agenda. When I’m fully present.
Of course this can’t be the case all the time. We really do have to get to school and I really do have to cook dinner. But maybe I don’t need to check my email just now. Maybe I don’t need to stew about that situation at work. Maybe I don’t need to fantasize about a future PhD or make a plan to vacuum this afternoon. Maybe I can just…
This is yet another example of Inhibition. Stopping myself from mentally escaping (whether through flights of fancy or more down-to-earth concerns) from what is happening right here right now. And when I stop and really STAY with my kids in this moment (or with myself or my husband or my friend or my student or with this blog), I suddenly realize the effort that I was making to try to be in two places at once. It’s a little like the sense of relief that I get when I realize I was holding my breath and then I let myself breathe. Ahhhh…so much better!
I invite you also to…stay awhile.
For more on my ongoing battle to resist the addictive siren song of my phone, check out this blog or this one.
Stop the Insanity!]]>Eve Bernfeld, 13 Aug 2018 17:09:29 +0000
This, as you know, is not a food blog. But if I wanted to, I could write about the following, all made during one recent week:
Homemade larabars (“Bar” did not happen—they were a crumbly, gooey, yummy mess.)
Homemade jerky (Quite a bit of work, but very tasty and SO much cheaper than store-bought.)
Homemade sesame candy (A snack only counts as “nutrient-dense” if your kids will eat it—two of mine would not. Also, in a hot car driving through Oregon and Idaho, individual pieces melt back into an enormous sticky blob.)
Homemade molasses cookies (Should have tested the recipe. Even I found them bitter.)
Homemade hummus (Nearly always worthwhile. Though my blender is on its last legs.)
However allow me instead to sum up my adventures in cooking all of these foods (on top of normal meals, work and getting ready for a 2000-mile road trip) in three words:
By Friday I was so stressed out that I was vibrating, weeping and yelling at anyone that moved (or didn’t move fast enough). As I took a tearful 5 am walk through the neighborhood, I realized:
“I did this to myself.”
It occurred to me that I have two values that are coming into conflict:
1. My desire to not be a raging lunatic to my children and
2. My desire to make wholesome food from scratch.
Honestly, it’s easier for me to make the freaking jerky. That is much more straightforward than learning to PAUSE and listen to myself. Take my psychic temperature and STOP overdoing it before I get so stressed out that I’m miserable to be around. In the Alexander Technique, we call this Inhibition.
Sometimes people misunderstand the concept of Inhibition. They think it means “Yay, I don’t have to do anything!” But it doesn’t really work that way. Inhibition is a form of Executive Function. It’s what allows us to do the harder thing. The non-stereotyped thing. It’s not just learning to stop tensing my shoulders. In this case, for me, it’s about eschewing a straightforward, well-defined parenting path (cook lots of food from scratch, feel virtuous) to stumble down a murkier road (set sterner limits for myself so I have some life-force left to be a decent human being to my children).
Fortunately, the two are not entirely mutually exclusive. But sometimes I have to force myself to do the harder thing and throw those bars and that box of mac & cheese in my grocery cart because I know that, despite all my best intentions, I will overcommit myself if I try to do it all from scratch. And then before I know it, I’ll be the crazy lady yelling, “NO YOU CAN’T HELP ME MAKE THESE GRANOLA BITES! YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE FOR SWIMMING!”
No. Pause. Stop the insanity.
For more on how Alexander Technique helps me not completely lose my head while parenting, check out this blog or this one.
The Essentials]]>Eve Bernfeld, 08 Jul 2018 17:30:12 +0000
Sometimes life sends us a splendid opportunity to attune to the essentials. Of course it typically doesn’t feel like an “opportunity,” but more often like: Ahhh—I have too-freaking-much to do!!!
Parenthood is like that. I know I’m not the only parent has become unbelievably efficient with my time and energy (at least with regards to work), because, well, survival. My kids' summer break has upped the ante on this for me. As I find myself with more hours of responsibility for the care of my children, I have really had to tighten my belt on what activities are truly essential.
Facebook? A world of nope.
Finishing my new website? It’s going to have to wait.
All those marketing activities I had planned? Again, it can wait.
I could keep plowing through and trying to get everything done. OR I could yield to the rhythm of the year—to my own natural ebb and flow.
Blueberry picking? Yes!
A mud-free hike? Yes!
Dinners in the backyard? Yes please!
Reading books that have nothing to do with the Alexander Technique? (Or do they….??) Of course!
I am still attending to the essentials. I am teaching and loving the opportunity to connect with my students—new and old. I am writing this blog. Newsletter will go out soon. And I am Inhibiting the habit of uselessly stressing myself out over everything else. Because there will be a season for those things too (or not).
To quote that hero of mindfulness, Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
For more musings sparked by summer, check out this blog. Or this one.
Alexander Technique in Practice]]>Eve Bernfeld, 01 Jul 2018 18:15:03 +0000
“Only something we do every day has the power to transform us.” –Alan Lew
Do you have a meditation practice? Or an exercise practice? Or a spiritual practice? Do you practice the piano? Gaming? Italian? What do you practice every day?
I practice the Alexander Technique. At least I try to. Every. Day.
I have been at it for over a decade and the practice has looked different at different times, and I have to keep reminding myself (and my students) that it is a daily practice*. And yes, it has the power to transform us.
Practicing the Alexander Technique (or anything, really) is the exact opposite of the 30-day challenge or the crash diet or the 10-simple-steps. Practicing means remembering even when I don’t want to. Even when I’m not inspired. Even when the cobwebs fill my brain and I’d much rather check out and watch the end of Spiderman than pause, notice myself, and get my tired ass to bed.
When I first started taking Alexander Technique lessons, this practice meant, in addition to a weekly lesson for about six months, lying down on the floorfor a few minutes every day. My teacher John Henes quizzed me: “What do you do when you’re lying down?”
“Um, nothing…?”
As I got more curious about trying to hang onto the feeling of freedom that came in those lessons, the practice also began to include reading books John suggested and learning a process of self-talk and testing it out while strolling on the shore of Lake Michigan, and walking from the Skokie Swift station to my job teaching drama and dance at the JCC.
Later, when I moved to Portland, and just before I started training to teach the Alexander Technique, my teacher Rebecca Robbins added “No.” I was to think this to myself many, many times each day.
The process got intense during my Alexander teacher training. I was in class, working on myself and getting hands-on guidance, three hours a day, 10 months a year, for three years. Oh, and I was supposed to be practicing it all the time outside of class.
And since I graduated in 2011, the process has shifted many times again, especially as I’ve dealt with the ever-changing reality of parenting three small children.
Sometimes I’m diligent about taking 10 or more minutes to lie down on the floor and do nothing. Every day. It’s a life preserver—buoying me up in the midst of stormy seas. Other times I encounter extreme resistance. I would rather do JUST ABOUT ANYTHING other than stop and leave myself alone for a few minutes. But something (pain, losing my temper too often, talking and writing about the work, etc.) always brings me back. And I remind myself that I don’t need to want to lie down. I don’t need to feel inspired. I just need to do it. As my Aunt Frances likes to say: “Action precedes motivation.”
And I still think “No” many times each day. And I still remind myself to let my neck be free, to allow my head to release up, to allow my back to lengthen and widen and my knees to release away from the hips and my ankles to release and my heels to drop. Or I think “Lighten Up.” And I let the breath out, so it can come back in. And all of this stuff has, in some ways, gotten very, very easy. Thinking these words (which seemed, in the beginning, at best, mystifying, at worst pointless) now produces results that are immediately apparent—not unlike what I first experienced in those early lessons with John. Because I’ve been practicing it. Because it is a practice. “The thought is enough,” as F.M. Alexander reminds us, to change our whole state of being.
The other day I had the pleasure of teaching a small workshop to four adult piano students. They were all lovely and we had a splendid time. One activity was a simple pitch-matching game. Someone played a note and we all hummed or sang it. Easy peasy. Then I added in the idea of Alexandrian Inhibition, and asked them to PAUSE before they jumped on the note. To take time (or even think “No”—the “No” is not defiant, it’s more of a relief “No, I don’t have to work so hard. No, I don’t have to respond immediately to this. No, I don’t have to ‘get it right,’ whatever that means.”) and then hum or sing the tone (or not).
Perhaps not surprisingly, when it came time to discuss the activity, the two people who had had Alexander Technique lessons loved the second variation. They found the pause liberating and grounding. They stopped trying so hard and were able to be with the activity in a less self-conscious way. The two who had not had Alexander lessons found the second variation—the PAUSE—unsettling.
Yes, that sounds about right. Learning to bring ourselves out of the frenetic pace of modern life to a more balanced state is a process. It takes practice. And it can be unsettling or even upsetting to go against the force of habit (not to mention culture) in such a profound way. Some people who try a first Alexander Technique lesson run for the hills when it’s suggested that they have to 1. Show up, 2. Pay Attention and 3. Don’t Be Attached to the Result. That it’s a process that I can’t do for them or to them. And it starts with stopping.
I’ve done that pitch matching game several times now and I find it fascinating. Because taking the time to PAUSE before singing the pitch doesn’t just help me to do the activity “better” (more in tune, less unnecessary tension, etc.), it makes it an entirely different activity. It transforms something that was, for me, about “getting the right note” into a completely different animal where I am with the pitch. I am the pitch. The pitch is in me. And I might let it out. Oh, it’s fun!
But only if I keep up that daily…practice.
* Over the years I have spent many, many, many hours studying the Alexander Technique with excellent certified teachers. The sort of daily practice I describe in this blog is not a replacement for lessons. I just chose to focus on the daily part for the purpose of this blog.
To read more about the Practice of the Alexander Technique, check out this Blog.
I Have Space]]>Eve Bernfeld, 30 May 2018 16:38:58 +0000
I want a rug! And other recent musings on space…
Sitting in a hidey-hole in a tangle of underbrush beneath a giant Sitka Spruce, I closed my eyes. Sounds that had been a background soundtrack as I watched a banana slug go by were suddenly amplified. So much forest noise—bird calls, branches, hikers going by… And I noticed something else—my brain began to map the locations of the sounds, creating a web of three-dimensional space, spreading in all directions. I realized that I can expand in all these directions—if I stop scrunching myself in.
The other day I took a walk with a friend. In addition to kibbutzing about our children, we joked about our mom deficits. She was lamenting that she didn’t get the meal planning “gene” and I complained that I didn’t get the decorating “gene.” My home will never be mistaken for a lifestyle magazine. So my friend, who had recently moved, asked if I wanted this or that beautiful piece of furniture she had no place for in her new home. “No thanks,” I replied. “Unless you have a Persian rug you’re looking to unload?” She did not.
Over winter break, we took our annual trip to St. Louis to visit my husband’s family. My kids were in an intense Nutcracker ballet phase, so promptly on our arrival, Nana and Grandpa moved all the living room furniture to the walls. All that was left was an open, expansive dance space outlined by a big rug. It stayed that way all week and much dancing was enjoyed, plus epic games of Hungry, Hungry Hippo and building with blocks. And after the kids went to bed at night I had the most splendid time lying on the floor in front of a roaring fire and reading a Dorothy Sayers novel.
The night before we flew home from St. Louis, I helped my father-in-law return two couches (Alexander Technique is very helpful for lifting furniture!) and a large coffee table to their place in the center of the living room. Gone was the dance floor. Gone was the fireplace lounge spot. In fact the contrast really struck me. All that space—all that potential for a great variety of activities—evaporated. And the only activities left as options were weaving around the furniture and then sitting down. I don’t say this as a dig on my in laws (who I think actually read this blog—Hi!), but as an observation of what most of us do with most of our rooms. We see space and think it needs to be filled, not with activity, but with furniture. Furniture that reinforces our habitual shapes, movements, postures.
Maybe I do have the decorating impulse in there somewhere, buried under all that meal-planning. Because I have been craving more peace and comfort in my home. I know the best way to do this would be a massive decluttering project. (Aside: When I was pregnant, I was so moved by all the moms who gave me bags and bags of hand-me-downs. I am still very grateful, but now I understand the gleam in their eyes as they were able to unload the piles of stuff that accumulates after it’s worn a few times and promptly outgrown.) But what I really, really want is a rug.
Unlike so many friends in Portland with old houses, we are blessed with a large bedroom. We could get a bigger bed! We could have a desk or a reading nook! I could take my friend up on the furniture she was giving away! But what I really wanted was inviting floor space for rolling around, taking an Alexander Technique lie-down, dancing, crawling… And the wood floor with a couple random throw rugs was not at all inviting.
Watching Canada Geese fly overhead in a V. They are soooo far up there! Bobbing and weaving, giving and taking the lead. And it occurs to me that they are mapping space in an extra dimension. While I hug the ground, not unlike an ant, flying animals go up and down at will. How exciting it must be to be a pilot or a diver or a freestyle skier—giving the brain access to another dimension of space to map.
My husband found me a rug. Hallelujah! Not a Persian rug, but a nice, big, soft rug from an estate sale. Now I want to roll around on my floor all day, dance with my kids, feel the rug under my bare feet. Allow myself to map and take up space in all directions. Expand.
I have Space.
Here's another blog that makes me think of spaciousness.
Play]]>Eve Bernfeld, 22 Apr 2018 17:15:40 +0000
“Life is more fun if you play games.” –Roald Dahl
6 am on Saturday found me, as it often does, walking thought the park. It’s a nice quiet time when I typically encounter nobody but a few dogs (and their people) enjoying the peace. And as I walked I spied a tetherball where none had been before. Oooh!
I changed my trajectory and soon found myself walloping that ball in both directions, having a splendid time. Suddenly the thoughts that had been churning about as I walked disappeared. I was completely present in the moment-by-moment decisions of this little game I was playing with myself. Hit it this way? Hit it that way? Wrap it all the way to the end of the rope? Jump and spike it? Tap it gently?...
Once upon a time we were children. And, if not interfered with too much, we had a pretty good idea of what we needed (candy and resisting naps notwithstanding): love, food, movement, exploration and a deep, genuine absorption in play. Everything we did, from hug to rage to build, we did with the whole self.
I did not particularly like tetherball as a child because it typically involved being humiliated by someone faster and stronger than me and made me want to cower as the ball careened toward my head.
On Saturday I finally understood why people like it. Subtracting the fear and the shame, tetherball is fun! When I felt done, I stopped. I walked home pondering how delightful it is to PLAY. And how easy it can be, if one is open to it. And how play primes us to accomplish something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:
For those few minutes playing by myself, I was totally THERE.
Then something tragic happened: Peter Pan’s deepest fears came true. We grew up and lost our curiosity, lost our intrinsic sense of what we need, lost our rhythm. We lost our ability to play, we lost our ability to be happily absorbed. And we didn’t even notice because we were too distracted by the noise of the world we created. Sometimes we felt empty or lonely or discombobulated. Sometimes parts of us hurt. We took a pill or sought help from experts—people who know about these things. But we didn’t turn down the volume in our lives. We scarcely took a pause before jumping back into the fray. We were tired. But we were too busy to do anything about it.
Later on in the day I was doing the mother of all boring grown-up duties: paying bills. Blah. And I was trying to just get it over with so I could go back to thinking about bringing my whole self to my life…
Might this story have a happy ending? As a lover of stories, as a lover of fairy dust, as a life-long lover of play, I hope so.
I realized, “Oh, shit. THIS is my life and I guess I should bring my whole self to it.” So I paused. And I invited back up the spirit of my morning tetherball game. And while I didn’t find myself dancing about the room snapping my fingers and paying bills a la Mary Poppins, I did find that the job was much less tedious when I stopped mentally being somewhere else.
This blog offers no advice on how to improve your diet or make time for exercise. I have no opinion on whether or not you should meditate. But today I offer an invitation to PLAY. To allow yourself to be absorbed. To be lively and to be contemplative. To find the magic inside of yourself and realize that—no matter what your age or mobility—you are still the curious child you once were. You are all of you and you can bring your whole self to your life (even the boring parts).
Come PLAY with me for two days at the Oregon Coast! I'll be teaching a course May 26-27, 2018 at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. For more information and to register, click HERE.
Temptation]]>Eve Bernfeld, 08 Apr 2018 18:06:50 +0000
I woke up in a funk two days this week. Blah…
Which gave me some interesting opportunities to be curious about myself. I think if there’s magic in this world, it may be curiosity. It’s sharp enough to puncture the seemingly impenetrable armor of ennui.
Awhile back, I wrote a blog called “Diary of a Pain-in-the-Neck,” where I suggested that when we experience pain, we’d be well served to not react immediately, but rather pause, so we can work out an appropriate response*. This week I observed that the same is true for emotional pain.
Because “first, do nothing” is exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do. This may sound counterintuitive. When we feel sad, don’t we want to just sit on the couch and zone out in front of a screen? I would argue that that is NOT nothing. That is decidedly something—that is a direct desire to distract myself from what I’m experiencing.
I found myself resisting numerous impulses to distract myself. In the Alexander Technique, we call this Inhibition.
Check my phone?
No, not now.
Get on facebook?
No, not now.
Turn on NPR on the way to work?
No, not now.
First do nothing.
Which is not to say that I ultimately did nothing. Resisting the siren song of distraction (which I know from experience doesn’t make me feel better) gave me the space to think about how I got here and thus some things that might actually help.
I decided it was likely a matter of being TIRED—the typical state of a parent of young children. But sick kids and a few bad nights in a row had really taken their toll on me. And overwhelmed—I worked a lot last week, and this week is another super busy one. And also a little isolated—another common experience for parents of young children.
So here’s what I did do:
I fit in two walks. My typical before-everyone-else-wakes-up walk. And a second one, while my husband put the kids to bed.
I took a nap while the kids napped. (Why do I feel so embarrassed to admit that???)
I texted two mom friends. The brief back-and-forth was a helpful reminder I’m not alone.
I added an avocado to our breakfast and made sure I had some veges in my lunch. Eating better couldn’t hurt, right?
I treated myself to a kombucha.
I ran around in the sun with my students at Lewis & Clark.
And, miracle of miracles, I felt better. So the next time you find yourself in a bit of a funk (see disclaimer below), won’t you give yourself the gift of FIRST DOING NOTHING before you try to distract yourself out of it? You might just be able to attend to what you really need.
*As I did with that blog, I am including this common sense reminder that my musings are no substitute for support and medical care if you are experiencing depression or anxiety or other challenges.
For more musings on being in a funk (apparently that's a term I like), check out this blog.
Freaking Myself Out]]>Eve Bernfeld, 14 Mar 2018 22:21:31 +0000
Lately I’ve been freaking myself out. Over the fact that I haven’t freaked out, in a number of situations where, historically (hysterically), I would have.
I’ve been…coooool, man.
Here are a few examples:
When my car got stolen in January.
(spoiler alert: the police found it a week and a half later—not much the worse for wear)
When I accidentally parked (slightly) in a loading zone and came back to find a $95 ticket.
(at least it wasn’t stolen!)
When my Great Grandmother’s milk pitcher fell out of the dish drainer and chipped—irreparably.
Maybe these are things that would freak you out. Maybe not. But they are exactly the sort of things to which I would typically respond with some or all of the following: a frenzy of weeping, yelling and stomping, casting around for someone—anyone—to blame, self-flagellation, and just feeling sick about the whole thing for days. Exhausting.
Or, apparently, not.
This is not to say that I didn’t care. I cared deeply in all these situations. And yet I also experienced an absence of the familiar cascade of over-the-top reactions. And this absence was/is so unfamiliar to me I had to ask my husband: “is it okay that I’m not freaking out about this?”
I’ve heard stories like this from my colleagues and my students for years:
“My parents aren’t any less annoying, but somehow I don’t take it personally now.”
“We couldn’t go see the pandas on vacation, which I had really wanted to do, because I forgot my Zipcar card. And I was like ‘oh well.’”
Stories like these have always bowled me over (especially when they come from my students) because I can imagine myself in that situation totally freaking out. What’s wrong with me?
Just like anything else, how we respond in these sorts of situations is habitual. It’s a whole body response that involves not just the emotion, but also a stereotyped amount of muscular effort, breath-holding, bracing, etc. And thus, just like any other habit, it is both highly automated and susceptible to change—if we can work out HOW.
I’ve written a lot about how the specific tools of the Alexander Technique help me to cope with a lot of stressful situations in my life. Like parenting. And did I mention parenting? These blogs are about me walking myself through, moment-by-moment, something that seems impossible.
But what I’m talking about here is something altogether different. When my car got stolen, I didn’t “keep my shit together.” Rather, I never fell apart. It’s as if I had somehow readjusted the freak-out threshold to a whole different level. Which again begs the question: HOW?
I have a hypothesis.
Lately in my personal exploration of this work I have been diving deeper into what Alexandrian Inhibition really means to me. Stopping long enough to notice how chronically over-stimulated I am, I’ve been seeking out Quiet. I’ve been carving out a Day OFF each week. I have been asking myself, often, “can I not work so hard right now?” and then noticing myself drop a whole lot of tension I hadn’t been aware of holding. And while these practices sometimes feel hit-or-miss in the moment, I think they are starting to have results in the way I experience the world. It’s a virtuous cycle—the more space I allow for overall quieting, the easier it is to cope when things get crazy, the more I am able to allow space, etc…. Since I’m not in the same state of extreme excitation all the time, it’s not quite so easy to blow my top.
Don’t get me wrong. I still freak out. Plenty. But what a relief to realize that—sometimes—I don’t have to.
What is Good Posture?]]>Eve Bernfeld, 01 Mar 2018 17:41:50 +0000
Disclaimer: Some things in this blog may diverge from what you know or believe about good posture. Will you read it anyway? Because divergence can lead to questions and questions can lead to conversation and conversation can lead to learning…
Some adjectives to describe good posture: springy, light, adaptable, mobile, dynamic, easy, lively…
It is NOT: stiff, arduous, effortful, militaristic, braced, armored, static…
Good posture is more Black Panther and less Iron Man (though out of his metal suit, Robert Downey, Jr. typifies all of those nice adjectives).
And yet, nearly everyone, when they decide or are instructed to “stand up straight,” will do the latter—the stiff, effortful stuff. And if they can’t hold it, they blame lack of will or lack of core strength.
To paraphrase John Dewey (the American Philosopher and Educational Theorist and friend and pupil of F.M. Alexander): If we knew HOW to stand up straight, we would all do it.
Part of the problem is the word: “Posture.” It’s a perfectly good word, in itself, but it has become forever tainted by the association with stiffness and a static position. “How you hold your body…” (please don’t “hold” your body!) And it is always linked with either “good” or “bad.”
So let’s start over with a new term: “Postural Tone.” Ah, this one is fresh and unsullied. And it needn’t be good or bad. It’s just a fact. Like gravity. In fact it’s an adaptation to the constant of gravity. It is what keeps us from collapsing into a heap on the floor. And since I rarely see complete-human-heaps, it seems to be functioning ok.
It could function better.
And now, a little history:
We spend our first two to three years of life learning to be exquisitely upright, balanced bipeds. Small children typify all those beautiful adjectives at the top of this blog. (And I might add they have never seen a “core exercise” in their lives.) We spend the rest of our lives forgetting that skill.
We’re told: “Stop making a fuss!” So we brace to control our emotions. We’re told: “You need to concentrate to learn how to write!” So we hunch a little more over our paper to show our teacher we’re diligent. We’re told: “School is important for your future!” (I agree.) So we spend six hours a day sitting statically in poorly designed furniture. (I disagree.) Is it any wonder that after a few years of this we have morphed into a sea of slumpy teenagers?
And to the present:
Here we are, out of whack, with no idea how to fix it. And being a practical species of go-getters, we attack the problem directly, (rather than unearthing the causes). “Stand up straight!” “Engage your core!” “Lift your chest!” “Pull your shoulders back!” And then…?
Hold on for dear life!
Hoisting oneself into a “proper position” and then holding yourself there does not achieve that panther-like fluidity and adaptability we’re after. It’s a metal suit and a pain in the ass to lug around.
I had an interesting experience the other day that really brought this lesson home for me. I was in a class of various wellness practitioners (chiropractors, a yoga teacher, a massage therapist, a Feldenkrais practitioner…). We were instructed to perform a “postural analysis” on a partner. My partner was a muscular male chiropractor. To look at him, it was hard to spot anything wrong with his alignment. Everything stacked up nicely.
He had clearly been practicing “good posture” as most people understand it. Then, with his permission, I put my hands on him. (Alexander Technique is taught with hands on and I can “see” a lot more with my hands than with my eyes alone.) It was like putting my hands on a block of granite. He was so stiff. There was no spring, no mobility.
I hypothesize it would be a challenge for him to fluidly and easily move if he suddenly had to duck or jump or catch a ball. I took it as a reminder that “alignment” and “postural tone” are not the same thing.
So… the million dollar question: how do we reclaim that easy, free, springy, adaptable, dynamic postural tone we had as children?
Of course my first suggestion is: GET THEE TO AN ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE TEACHER!
But if you’re not ready to pick up the phone this minute, and you want to try a little experiment on yourself, try the following. Place yourself near (but perhaps not directly facing) a mirror, or maybe do this with a buddy, so you can see each other:
First, try this:
Use your core muscles to pull yourself up to your fullest height; engage the muscles in your abdomen and lower back; feel your neck and trunk muscles working to pull you up; pull your stomach in, your head and chest up, and your shoulders back.
Now, check yourself in the mirror (or check out your partner). Pretty upright, eh?
Are you breathing?
Okay, relax. Shake it out.
Now, try this:
Notice that you are pulling yourself down and give yourself permission to stop doing it; let your head balance easily at the top of your spine; allow your spine to be uncompressed and your torso to open effortlessly; let your shoulders and chest be open and light.
Again, check yourself or your partner. Pretty upright, eh?
Are you breathing?
Okay, relax. Shake it out.
Talk to me about the difference. Okay, I’m not there, talk to yourself (or comment below!)…How was your experience different when thinking the first set of directions versus the second set? Was one easier?
I have done this little experiment with literally hundreds of people and most of them report that Option 1 feels hard, stiff, a lot of work. Oh, and no breathing. Option 2 feels easier, less effort, lighter, and hey, I’m still breathing. I hope some of these words are reminding you of the adjectives at the top of this blog.
One more question: Which variation do you think made you more upright? Hmm…?
Most people say version 1. No pain, no gain, right? Hard work is good, right?
Actually, there is excellent evidence to suggest that version 2--the EASIER one--makes you more upright. These directions are a direct quote from a study* done at OHSU (Oregon Health and Sciences University) a few years back. It was examining whether Alexander Technique thinking (we call it “directing”) could affect the uprightness and mobility of people living with Parkinson’s disease. A previous clinical study in the UK had shown lessons in the Alexander Technique to be very helpful to people living with Parkinson’s. This recent study was looking at the thinking aspect of the Technique, without the hands-on guidance. That first set of directions, above, the researchers called “Pull Up,” and they reflect our cultural ideas about how to achieve “good posture.” The second set they called “Lighten Up” and are based on Alexander Technique self-talk.
The researchers found that the “Lighten Up” (AT-based) directions helped people achieve more uprightness, less spinal rigidity and easier step initiation than the “Pull Up” directions. These results have since been replicated with normal, healthy adults.
In other words, if we want to be more upright, if we want improved postural tone, if we want truly good posture, we need to stop working so freaking hard and instead LIGHTEN UP!
One very last point on muscles…
But don’t we need muscles to hold us up??? Of course! However the true postural muscles are deep deep deep. They can’t be turned on directly, the way you can flex your bicep or squeeze your butt cheeks. All this stiffening we’ve been practicing is compensating for the loss of functioning in those lovely, small, deep postural muscles. We can only turn them back on through indirect means. In Alexander Technique, we use a combination of hands-on guidance and very specific self-talk. Other people have had success, I understand, with visualization.
When I’m flying on an airplane and we’re coming in for a landing, I used to consciously engage my core muscles in order to prepare for the possibility of a jolt, if the landing wasn’t smooth. Now, instead, I think “lighten up” and find I have no trouble dealing with a bump, if it comes. This is how I aspire to be in life too—not braced for impact, but light and free and able to adapt to whatever comes next.
* Cohen, R.G., Gurfinkel V.S., Kwak, E., Warden, A.C., Horak, F.B. (2015). Lighten Up: Specific Postural Instructions Affect Axial Rigidity and Step Initiation in Patients with Parkinson’s Disease. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, 29 (9).
Photos of me by the amazing Andrea Leoncavallo. Block photos taken with the help of three-year-old assistants.
Like geeking out about Alexander Technique research? Check out this blog!
The Icky Feeling]]>Eve Bernfeld, 07 Feb 2018 17:44:13 +0000
A few things lately have provoked The Icky Feeling (a name I invented in childhood and still totally use):
I gently called out a friend on facebook (an actual old friend, not just a “friend”) for a post I found to be casually misogynistic. (Icky Feeling!)
I got an email from a mentor challenging some of my business choices. (Icky Feeling!)
I asked some friends to help me spread the word about an upcoming class I’m teaching and heard…crickets. (Icky Feeling!)
The Icky Feeling is my term for a specific kind of emotional discomfort that I never thought to analyze until last week. I was enjoying a sun-break in what had been a dreary week in Portland as I walked back to my car from my class at Lewis & Clark College. Fresh in my mind was my lesson on what F.M. Alexander calls “Faulty Sensory Appreciation”—allow me to briefly take you through it.
Let’s do a little experiment:
Cross your hands (as if to pray or plead).
Now, cross them the other way (with the other thumb on top).
How does that feel?
In this particular class, answers included “Not right.” “I hate it!” And my personal favorite, “Icky!”
We do this little game to demonstrate a fundamental principle of the Alexander Technique: whatever our habit is, it will feel normal and right to us. This is true of a benign habit like hand crossing or a damaging habit like slouching. Thus interrupting an automatic pattern might not feel immediately awesome. We might encounter some resistance—it might feel not right, icky, we might hate it!
And it suddenly occurred to me as I walked that The Icky Feeling is specifically my resistance to situations where I feel emotionally vulnerable and fear that people won’t/don’t like me. Aha! Like the sun popping out from behind a cloud, I realized maybe the Icky Feeling isn’t a sign of a bad thing, but rather a sign that I’m pushing my own limits.
To use a different example, not two hours after having this revelation, my car was stolen. (Grrrrr!) After Lewis & Clark I gave a talk to nursing moms on a few simple Alexander Technique ideas to help them feel better while nursing. I left the talk feeling good about connecting with some lovely moms and seeing some adorable babies and walked back to my parking spot to find…NO CAR. I felt (and still feel) sad, frustrated, annoyed (though weirdly not as angry as I’d expect—even though I loved that car, it was worse when my stroller got stolen). But I did not feel the Icky Feeling.
No, the Icky Feeling is reserved for allowing myself to take chances, to be myself, rather than whatever I imagine others want me to be. So rather than shrinking from it, perhaps I should welcome The Icky Feeling. Because I have wasted way too much energy in my life trying to be liked. When I take a stand, no matter how small, it feels icky, not because it’s wrong, but actually because it’s breaking a pattern that really needs to be broken.
For more on vulnerability, check out this blog. Or this one.
Late!]]>Eve Bernfeld, 26 Jan 2018 19:08:52 +0000
Standing on a corner of North Denver Avenue, waiting to cross at the light, I saw my neighbor drive by to pick up her daughter at preschool. We waved at each other.
She thought (she told me later) “Oh how nice, Eve is taking a walk. She looks so relaxed.”
I thought, “Oh shit, I’m going to be late to pick up my kids from [the same] preschool!”
I jogged/speed walked the six blocks home, leapt into the car and threw it in reverse. Adrenaline pumping. Shoulders to my ears, no doubt. And I wasn’t late. Hallelujah! But this was the second day in a row that I was nearly late to pick up my kids. I need to look at my behavior. Because in the Alexander Technique, the ends do not justify the means. Being (barely) on time, but arriving all of a dither, doesn’t count as success.
If you achieve your goal, but you damage yourself in the process, was it really worth it?
I used to be one of those people who was often running 5-10 minutes late. Rushing in with my hair on fire, always with some excuse that felt legitimate to me. Or if I wasn’t actually late, I was nearly so. But I counted it as a win if I arrived on time, even if I was panting and tense and sweaty, having yelled at someone I loved as I scrambled out the door. This behavior not only felt normal to me, it felt inevitable. I might have described myself as someone who is always running late—as if this were an immutable character trait like my dazzling sense of humor (wink wink).
But actually I wasn’t late to everything. I can think of exactly one time I was late to an Alexander Technique lesson. And one time I was late to a voice lesson. Both involved misunderstanding public transit (in two different cities) and not leaving myself an extra half-hour. Memory is unreliable, of course, but in general, I think it’s safe to say that I planned better for things I was really excited about. Which disproves the character trait theory. Grrr…
When I started training to be an Alexander Technique teacher, something mysterious happened. I stopped being chronically late. And I say mysterious because I never made a resolution to be timely. It happened organically. As I came to be more aware of myself and what I was doing, I stopped being so delusional about getting just one more thing done before sprinting out the door. Not only did I start to arrive on time or early, I arrived in a much better state. Not frantic, not harried. Ready to go.
Running late occasionally is inevitable. Running late chronically, I realized, is a HABIT. Not unlike the habits of holding my breath and stiffening my neck that don’t serve me and that I’m working to break. So when I find myself running late to pick up my kids two days in a row, for no other reason than that I tried to do one thing too many or things took longer than I anticipated, I realize I’m falling back into old habits of unawareness and oblivion.
The antidote?
Time to STOP.
Let my breath out so it can come back in.
Lighten Up.
[Epilogue: I was going to post this to my website yesterday morning before going teach my class at Lewis & Clark College. But I feared that I didn’t have quite enough time, so I took my own advice (oh, it’s hard!) and stopped. So I wasn't late.]
For another exploration of my penchant for rushing around mindlessly, check out this blog.
(dance) BREAK]]>Eve Bernfeld, 10 Jan 2018 18:19:28 +0000
Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” is 4 minutes 59 seconds long. Perfect for a dance break in the middle of a busy morning of writing blogs, answering emails, preparing a talk on the Alexander Technique for Physical Therapists, registering students, pitching more talks and workshops to various venues. Because the best way for me to be efficient and productive, I've found, is to TAKE A BREAK!
I have noticed lately that I am a little obsessed with efficiency. I suspect it has something to do with the craziness of raising three small children. Anything I can streamline is a huge win. But I think it goes back even farther and is one of the reasons I was so drawn to the Alexander Technique in the first place—the work epitomizes efficiency of effort, of movement, of purpose.
And the results are in—working for long, uninterrupted hours is completely inefficient. Sitting (or standing) at a desk for longer and longer hours may be commonplace, but that does not make it helpful or productive. If we want to be more productive, we need to take BREAKS. Five minutes every half hour? Or every hour? There are various suggestions, but our productivity takes a nose-dive after 90 minutes.
One of F.M. Alexander’s more famous pupils was Aldous Huxley. Huxley was in a state of collapse (literally and figuratively) when he came for lessons, and he was so transformed by the work that he wrote glowingly of it and based a character on Alexander in his book Eyeless in Gaza. But for his part, F.M. was a little frustrated with Huxley because he could see how the author was holding himself back with his refusal to take BREAKS while he was writing. F.M. suggested that every hour Huxley stop and either take a lie-down or a brief walk. Huxley insisted that this would interrupt his train of thought—so he carried on with his preferred method and then slumped back to F.M. to be put right again periodically.
There are a couple of things I love about this little story. First of all it illustrates a tendency that so many of us share—the desire to “change without changing” (as AT teacher Patrick Macdonald characterized it). We love the idea of being different, but we are so attached to the familiarity of our habits that we balk when a specific change is suggested. And I love that F.M. didn’t just say “take a break.” He made specific suggestions of activities that got Huxley up from his desk, into a different space, into a different body geometry and thus into a completely different head-space.
Because if you work at a screen, taking a five minute “break” to check social media or play words with friends or read the news does not count as a break. It’s more of the same thing. You need to get away from that screen and get yourself into something completely different: a short walk, a lie-down...
... OR, as previously mentioned, a dance break!
Now before you dismiss what I’m saying on the grounds that “I could never do those things in my work environment,” let me invite you to use some creative thinking for yourself. I too have worked in spaces (classrooms, offices, stores) where none of the above was acceptable. Here are a few stealthy suggestions: go get a drink of water or tea or coffee, go to the bathroom (and do 2 minutes of breathing), empty your trash, go check to see if something printed/arrived/departed, go ask a colleague a question rather than sending an email or message, reach for something on a high shelf (heck, put things you will need often on high and low shelves so you’ll have to move around to get them), get down on the floor to pick up something you lost… Think of the atmosphere of your work and the demands, then be creative about finding ways to do something different on your break. I bet you could come up with something that would work for you.
Let me know what you come up with! And now, I’ve been sitting here writing for 35 minutes. I think before I re-read, edit and post this, I’ll get up and take a little (dance) BREAK.
This is part four of "ways to pause." Here's 1, 2 & 3.
day OFF]]>Eve Bernfeld, 03 Jan 2018 18:22:42 +0000
You know it’s a bad sign when you can’t remember how to turn off your computer. Evidence of the epic need for my newest undertaking: day OFF*. Once a week. What a novel concept, right?
It all started about a month ago, when I…drum roll…took a day off. No, I didn’t head to a spa or stay in bed and binge-watch 30 Rock. I took the kids to an activity, did the week’s grocery shopping, cooked dinner. But I did NOT do any work. And perhaps even more amazingly, I stayed away from screens.
Maybe this sounds obvious to someone with a 9-5 job. The kind of job you leave at work (what?). But as a small-business owner**, there is always, always more work that could be done. And there is always more work that really should be done. Having talked to lots of other mom-business-owners, I know I’m not alone in trying to fit just a little more work into every nook and cranny of my day, from my 5:30 am wakeup to when I fall into bed at night.
And I suspect in the age of all our “helpful” technology, it’s not just business owners who feel pressure to be available day and night. We’ve been sold the lie of infinitely increasing returns on our investment of time: DO MORE! BE HAPPIER! I don’t know who is getting rich off this Ponzi scheme, but it certainly isn’t me. Instead I’m beating myself up that I haven’t gotten more done. That is when I’m not anesthetizing my brain with just a quick look at my email, or facebook or The New York Times online.
I’ve been observing my addiction to screens for some time. Despite our “no phones at the table” rule. Despite trying to not be on my phone when I’m around the children, unless I “need” to be… Despite removing facebook from my phone. It creeps me out to admit it, but near the end of the day, when I’m tired and grumpy, I have found myself wandering away from my kids (into another room) for the “hit” of dopamine that comes from checking something—anything—on my phone. I could justify it if it made me feel better—hey, parenting is hard—but it really doesn’t. It just makes me grumpier, and less present to my family.
So I committed myself to taking Saturdays off every week. And my rules are: no work, no screens. Otherwise, it’s still my crazy, lately-snot-filled parenting life. But I’ve started to notice a few things. A sense of relief to not have to worry about work for a whole day. It’s not like I was accomplishing much on a Saturday, but I still felt the weight of all that stuff to be done. And a sense of really being present for my family. “Mama, can you…?” “Yes, I can!”
It’s not perfect—in fact I set myself up for some failures by expecting life to be AMAZING for 24 hours, simply because it’s my day OFF. I still get grumpy with my husband and children. I still feel tired and overwhelmed.
But something else is happening too. I’m noticing I’m more productive around the edges of my day off. When I know I can’t work tomorrow, suddenly I’m more inclined to do more today. To stop procrastinating and accomplish the things on my list. And this is even spilling into the other days of the week. Noticing that I do better when I commit to really working and then really not working, I find myself more efficient during those work hours. There’s less inclination to multitask or follow unnecessary tangents or goof off because I know I will have more meaningful rest (like taking a walk or reading a book or playing with my kids) later in the day, without the pressure of all that stuff I should be doing hanging over me.
And by taking the complete and dedicated time off each week from screens, I’ve started to feel my phone's claws loosening their hold on me. The sense of needing to check it is diminished. Is it melodramatic to pick up my phone and yell at it: “You have no power over me!”?*** And here’s another incentive to back off from the phone: This morning Brian—without a single nag from me—mentioned he wants to put down his phone more too. We were watching our children hunch over play phones, devastatingly imitating the behavior that they apparently saw a lot of on our recent trip to visit extended family (and, to be fair, that they probably see at home too).
Do any of these experiences/behaviors I’ve just copped to sound familiar? I am officially slapping you with my glove to challenge you to try taking a day OFF. Or half a day? Or an hour? And please report back on what you observe!
“Welcome to the real world.”****
*This idea was inspired by the book
**When I describe myself as a “small-business owner” I sometimes get a puzzled look. People think of a small business as a store or a coffee shop. They picture my work as me in my studio, imparting the wisdom of the Alexander Technique to eager students. Yeah, that’s what I thought too. And I do get to do that, and it’s awesome. But then I remind the puzzled friend of all the different departments in a business: administration, bookkeeping, marketing, outreach, research & development…I do all of that too!
***How many is too many footnotes for a blog? Anyway that’s from one of my favorite movies: Labyrinth.
****The Matrix.
This blog is the latest in what is turning into a series that I'm loosely calling "ways to pause." There's at least one more in the works, and in the meantime feel free to check out this one and this one.
Shhhhhhhhhh!]]>Eve Bernfeld, 06 Dec 2017 17:53:23 +0000
It all started with the radio breaking in my car. That was some years after the part-that-plays-recorded-music broke (also known as the tape deck—yes, it’s an old car). And suddenly, quite against my will, I was plunged into silence while driving.
At first it was excruciating. And then it was sort-of-okay. And then it became calming. And then it was wonderful to be able to hear myself think! Like, even when I’m in our other car, with a working stereo, I NOW DRIVE IN SILENCE, by choice. (Bonus: I don’t arrive at work totally stressed out about all the latest (bad) world news.)
And another thing: I used to go for walks in the evening after the kids went to bed. And I think one of the coolest things about phones today (as opposed to my youth—wow, I’m really sounding ancient in this blog) is that you can chat with your mom or your friend in Phoenix and also take a nice walk. No more “sitting by the phone.” But that can become a habit too. Out the door, ear-bud in ear, calling…someone…anyone…
But for the last six months or so I’ve been walking at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. Don’t worry—I won’t call you at that hour! So once again I was forced into quiet. And it has really grown on me. Today as a work break I walked to the library. Perfect time to make a call, but actually, I chose not to and just walked in silence, to clear my head. (Sorry Mom.)
When my children were first born, a mom friend confided: “three kids are so loud. Sometimes I hide in the closet just to have a few seconds of quiet.” Yep, I get it now.
The more quiet I get, the more I find I need. Like a sailor with scurvy, I am deeply depleted in this essential nutrient. But seeking quiet seems to be making a difference, even in the louder times. My baseline state is turned down a notch, toward CALM (I wouldn't claim I actually am calm, but I'm closer!). I can keep my head just a little bit longer. I find my Alexander Technique self-talk to be more potent. I can attend, just a little better, to that which is essential and let the rest go, because I have the space to notice which is which.
I invite you to try it! In the age of music streaming and podcasts, infinite opportunities for entertainment and information, when was the last time you did something quietly? You don’t need to carve out extra time, just try doing something that ordinarily has a soundtrack in silence. Driving? Washing the dishes? Going for a run? It might not feel awesome the first time, but if you stick with it for awhile, I bet you five (play money) bucks you feel better.
This blog has a companion piece. I’M ON A quiet TEAR! Check it out here.
Know Thyself]]>Eve Bernfeld, 23 Nov 2017 04:26:00 +0000
I could give you a good sense of each of my three children’s personalities by sharing the stories of how each one learned to walk. (If you want to hear the stories, let’s meet for coffee sometime.) Each story, like each child, is totally unique. And I try to remember that individuality and those personal quirks when parenting each of them.
Recently it has occurred to me that I’d be well served by doing the same for myself. What are my unique needs as a human being? What is going to help me get through this crazy day, and the next, and the next? Funny that it should take me until age 40 before I ask myself these questions. But once the question was posed, an answer came readily enough:
I need a little QUIET!
So this morning, the day before Thanksgiving, house full of kids off from school and parents visiting (with their dog) for the holiday, I paused long enough to notice that my head was about to explode. And I knew just what to do (though it took me a lot of kvetching and stomping around before I actually did it). Put on my raincoat and head out for a quiet walk by myself.
I got nearly out the door before my mom offered to come with me. I felt like a jerk, but I told her no. We’ll take a walk together later, but I really need a little QUIET.
Of course it started to pour as soon as I stepped out the door, but that didn’t matter. I savored a few moments alone, kicking through the leaves, tiptoeing around the puddles (my rain boots have holes), hearing a crow and a seagull and seeing nobody. It was probably only 15 or 20 minutes, but it was exactly the QUIET I needed. No head explosion today (at least not yet).
What helps you remember you? Can you find a moment for it today? You can tell me about it over coffee (or heck, comment below!).
For more meditations on mindfulness and the Alexander Technique, check out this blog.
habit BOUND]]>Eve Bernfeld, 23 Oct 2017 19:21:17 +0000
“A hinge blew out on one of our kitchen cabinets,” my husband explained to me when I got home from work one recent day. “I’ll fix it when I get a chance, but until then just leave it open so it doesn’t fall off.” Our upper kitchen cabinets, like our house, are old. Over five feet tall and probably 10 different layers of paint (most recently white). I did NOT want one to fall on me or the children. “Right. Leave it open.”
What a splendid and humbling demonstration of the power of habit. Not once, not twice, but every-single-freaking-time I went to use the teakettle (and I drink a lot of tea), I automatically reached up to close the cabinet. Not because it was in my way, but because apparently that’s what I do.
So I got smart. I took some blue painters tape and taped the cupboard open. Now I had the visual stimulus to remind me to leave it alone.
It didn’t help. Oh sure, I noticed the tape. As it peeled off the wall while I closed the cabinet.
“Change,” says F.M. Alexander, “involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life.”
In the Alexander Technique, we make a practice of pausing throughout our day, so that we might become aware of what we are doing, and have the potential to make a better choice. In the realm of self-discovery, I believe this is the simplest, the most profound and the hardest to do. And sometimes something as simple as repeatedly closing a cabinet door helps me remember that it is all processand I will never, ever be done. So rather than beat myself up (okay, I did a little of that too), I work to make the teakettle a reminder that I can STOP. Where am I? Here. What am I doing? This. Okay, carry on.
I’m sure I would have gotten it eventually, but before I had the chance to fully unlearn this pattern, Brian got around to taking off the whole door—thankfully before it fell as a result of my mindlessness. In fact he decided to take them all off, so now our dishes and oatmeal and little bags of nuts and random things are on display to the whole kitchen. My new challenge is to not trip over the cabinet doors where they’re leaned against the wall in the back room. But I’m still trying to use the kettle as a little reminder to pause.
For more on one of my best-honed habits--worrying--check out this blog.
Nothing Personal...]]>Eve Bernfeld, 20 Oct 2017 22:35:50 +0000
“It’s nothing personal,” the email assured me, “but…” Thereby guaranteeing that I would take everything that followed (some mundane business) totally personally.
My knee-jerk reaction was to answer the email quickly with a lot of false enthusiasm (just to show I wasn’t taking it personally) and “get over it.” Maybe distract myself with another project or a piece of dark chocolate.
Fortunately that little Alexander Technique voice in my head told me to take a moment to Pause. “I have time,” I remembered, and allowed myself the luxury of not responding immediately and of not trying to feel (or not feel) anything in particular.
There’s some discomfort involved in stopping and staying with something unpleasant. It seems easier to tell myself to forget about it. But from experience I’ve learned that this tactic is temporary at best, and usually I’ll spend the next three days stewing about it. That hardly seems like “getting over it.”
So here’s what I did instead:
I took a moment to stop. I felt grumpy, deflated, unappreciated. And then, not ten seconds after allowing those feelings to exist, they evaporated! I was able to send a brief response and be done with the whole affair. No rumination required.
Plus I got a blog out of it. Score!
For more adventures in feeling the fear and doing it anyway, check out this blog.
Meet Your Ankle Joints]]>Eve Bernfeld, 27 Sep 2017 16:19:13 +0000
I had the great good fortune to attend college in New York City. I went to Fordham College at Lincoln Center, poised just on the west side of Central Park. One day my freshman year my friend Brenda and I walked across the park to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As the one who had been to the museum before, I was charged with leading the way. A Wyoming girl, brought up on the trails of the Tetons, I tramped happily overland, heading Northeast over lawns and boulders, eschewing the paths that led not quite the right direction. At one point I turned and saw Brenda white-faced and unstable, picking her way carefully over what looked to me like a flat and easy rock. It hit me that this particular city kid had NEVER navigated uneven terrain like this before. My brain, not to mention feet and ankles and the rest of me, was accustomed to crossing all types of terrain. Brenda had spent her whole life on flat and even surfaces. And she was no couch potato, I should add. An accomplished ballet dancer, she was in great shape. As long as the floor was underneath her.*
In my work as an Alexander Technique teacher I often find myself introducing people to their ankle joints. We talk about how the ankles and feet are adapted to give us a tremendous amount of information about the terrain we are walking on, so that we can keep our balance in all sorts of situations. But we have, in essence, removed terrain from the equation. Almost every surface one encounters these days from morning til night is flat and even. Add to this the cultural practice of protecting our feet in sturdy shoes from infancy on, and you have a system that is grossly atrophied and underutilized. We compensate for lack of information by bracing and stiffening through the ankle joints (and knees and hips and neck, etc.), hoping that will keep us from falling. But the bracing only makes us more unstable. No wonder a folded rug or a cracked sidewalk is such a trip-hazard!
In a series of Alexander lessons we get to know that ankle joint again. We learn to un-stiffen the ankle a bit so it can again feed vital information to the brain and help us to stay upright on all types of surfaces.
You can play with it now:
Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and see if you can let yourself sway slightly from the ankle joints. You might feel a little like a tree swaying in a slight breeze. Or you can stand about an inch away from the wall and let yourself fall back until the wall catches you. Make sure you don’t lock the knees!
Last night I had a meeting on the campus of the University of Portland. As usual, I went straight from the parking lot toward the building I needed across soft green lawns, enjoying the squishy sensation under my feet and the slight wobble in the ankles. I looked around and noticed I was the only weirdo walking overland. All the college students were politely sticking to the paved paths.
I invite you to join me off the path! Grass, gravel, cobblestones, sandy beach. Not to mention the hiking trail. All great for waking up the ankle joints and helping us improve our balance and mobility.
(Please use your common sense and BE SAFE when trying new things!)
*It was a fair trade. I took Brenda on a nature adventure and after we went to the Museum, she took me to a diner and introduced me to the grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. Yum.
For more on balance, check out this blog.
Living Skillfully]]>Eve Bernfeld, 13 Sep 2017 17:06:08 +0000
My children got to experience their first s’mores this summer while camping with parents and grandparents. We collected our firewood and everyone vibrated with anticipation, but then the whole operation was shut down by a brief downpour. We hid in our tents and later emerged into a beautiful and drippy twilight and a big pile of soggy firewood. Various shenanigans ensued to get the fire lit, including but not limited to burning a used kleenex. What finally worked was me lying on the ground, blowing on the embers for 15 minutes straight. I cheerfully endured the wisecracks from husband and father about being a “windbag” and “full of hot air” because I knew that I was doing something skillfully. I was moving great quantities of air without making myself lightheaded or breathless. I was using the breathing coordination (not to mention the patience) that I have cultivated through the Alexander Technique to do useful work and the only casualty, as I stood triumphantly over the roaring fire, was a bit of my left eyebrow that I singed off as a result of a particularly effective blow. S’mores were enjoyed by all.
The other day a student commented to me that on her Alexander Technique lesson days she does everything better—even unloading the dishwasher. We had a laugh over that. Anyone who has studied the technique will understand what she meant, but most of the world would probably be confused by the idea of skillfully unloading the dishwasher.
Skillfully shooting a basketball? Skillfully scaling a rock wall? Skillfully monitoring wolves in the forest? Skillfully writing a poem or removing a tumor or knitting a beautiful sock? Sure! But unloading the dishwasher, or, in fact, most of the content of our day-to-day lives seems not only beneath the level of skilled activity, but beneath us to even devote our full attention to.
I beg to differ.
People often study the Alexander Technique to help them do a challenging activity better, like play the violin or run a marathon. But one of the first lessons I try to impart is that we have the potential to improve or damage our playing or running (or whatever) not just while we’re practicing or training, but all of the time. How skillfully we carry out the most mundane acts of living sets the stage for how well we will function overall and thus how well we will be able to perform these specialized and demanding skills.
Not to mention the fact that it feels so much better to unload the dishwasher without hunching and scrunching. And now and then the skills you have cultivated will allow you to be a hero to your family.
More musings on the power of doing simple things well in this blog.
Use it or Lose it]]>Eve Bernfeld, 24 Aug 2017 18:50:11 +0000
This morning before work I did a load of laundry, spent a few quiet minutes in nature, did a short but focused mobility workout (multiple full and partial squats, reaching arms above shoulder and head height repeatedly), admired my children’s lego creations, and conserved some energy.
In other words, I hung my laundry on the clothesline.
It’s perhaps a stretch to write an Alexander Technique blog about hanging clothes to dry, but I have such a love affair with line drying that I hope you’ll bear with me.
Here’s an example of a canary in a coal mine: most adults in American society have lost the ability to go into a full squat. Which makes it pretty hard to poop if you visit great swaths of the planet. Many older adults have lost the ability to extend their arms over their heads. Which makes it pretty hard to reach the high shelf in the kitchen. These movements are not only helpful for accomplishing the sort of life activities listed above, they are normal and natural human movements that contribute to overall strength, mobility, bone density, circulation, respiration, elimination and who knows what else?
And why have we lost these abilities? Well one explanation is our attachment to convenience. Yes, it’s easier to dry the clothes in the dryer. I’m a busy working mother. And I can afford a few more dollars on my electricity bill. But what opportunities have I lost when I outsource my movement in this way three or four times a week? (See above re. multiple full and partial squats, reaching arms above shoulder and head height repeatedly, time in nature. No gym or special clothes necessary.)
I inherited this love affair with the clothesline from my mother (who lets the intense rays of high-altitude Wyoming sun dry her clothes when there isn’t snow on the ground), who got it from her mother (who, at age 92, has never owned a dryer and continues to hang her clothes in the bathroom to dry in the Arizona air), who got it from her mother (who took her clothes out to the clothesline until she was 100 years old). Here in Portland, I hang up my clothesline on Mother’s Day and enjoy the dry summer months before packing it up in the fall.
So, once again, what does this have to do with the Alexander Technique?
It’s not really about the clothesline at all. It’s not even about the movement per se. The Alexander Technique gives me the practice of interrupting habitual patterns. Patterns like throwing the laundry in the drier on a 100° day or waiting for my husband to throw away that giant box the kids were painting on—rather than using the opportunity to improve my strength and mobility by wrestling it into the already fullish recycling bin myself. The Alexander Technique also influences how I do all these things—enabling me to move with grace and efficiency, rather than unnecessary tension and effort.
Okay, so maybe I’m not going to convert all the readers of this blog to hanging up a clothesline. But maybe we can help ourselves and each other by agreeing to take moments to pause throughout the day and observe how we are unnecessarily limiting our mobility and how we might try something different.
(With thanks to two inspiring people: Katy Bowman and Mr. Money Mustache)
For more musings on mobility, check out this blog.
Against the Habit of Life]]>Eve Bernfeld, 09 Jul 2017 21:06:11 +0000
I lost my 3-year at the playground the other day. Only for a few minutes, but it was a terrifying few minutes for both of us. Fortunately, a few amazing moms came to the rescue, and we also benefited from my doing something “against the habit of life.”
“Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life.” --F.M. Alexander
Here’s how it all came to pass. One recent summer morning we headed to Peninsula Park in North Portland to play. The playground was crazy-town, filled with families and children in summer camps. Also this particular playground is incredibly spread out. But my kiddos insisted on jumping into the fray and playing on the big-kid structures. No scrawny toddler slides for them. As I followed along, lugging our bag of snacks, extra clothing, water bottles, sunscreen, etc., I happened to see a woman I vaguely knew. We attended maybe three meetings of a business group together, over two years ago.
My habit, in this situation, is let my social awkwardness win and to assume she won’t remember me and to look at the ground and move on. It is easy to mistake a pattern or habit for a law of nature. “I’m shy.” Or “I’m introverted.” As if these were immutable qualities, as unchanging as my hair color (wait, my hair color is changing…gray replaces brown). But they are nothing more than stories I tell myself to justify continuing to behave in the same old ways. Even if those ways don’t serve me.
“We can throw away the habit of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains.” --F.M. Alexander
Luckily, I have a niggling voice in my head called the Alexander Technique, which reminds me that I can do better, that change is possible, and that facing the unknown is always worthwhile. So I forced myself to approach her to say hi even though I found it scary and awkward. She did remember me and as we chatted briefly, I remembered that I had quite liked her when I met her before. We exchanged numbers. I was glad I made the effort.
A bit later I decided it was time to go home and went about wrangling my cats. . .er. . .children. I finally managed to get R & R together, on the ground, but I couldn’t see H anywhere. Alarm bells were going off in my head as I climbed up the play structure to stick my head in the 20-foot tunnel and also survey the playground from above. (Did I think saying hi to someone was scary? No this is terror.) No luck, and I was having trouble searching effectively for fear of losing another child. So I marched back to my acquaintance from the biz group, introduced my two children and asked her if she’d watch them while I searched for the third. She (and her friend) said of course and fell to work chatting with and introducing my kids to their own.
Now I was able to look farther afield, and moments later I found him, face down in the grass, wailing for me while yet another amazing mom patted him on the back and said, “She’ll be here soon, don’t worry.” I scooped him up, promptly started weeping myself, and thanked the stranger profusely. Then headed back to collect my other children and thank those moms.
As we trudged back across the park to where I’d parked our bike (carrying 35-pound H the whole way, of course), I thanked my lucky stars for my children, for the community of marvelous moms, and for the Alexander Technique reminding me to go outside my comfort zone.
For more on going outside my comfort zone, check out this blog.
Thinking vs. Thinking]]>Eve Bernfeld, 25 Jun 2017 16:31:13 +0000
When people learn that the Alexander Technique involves thinking (a lot of thinking), they are either intrigued, or they want to run for the hills. “The last thing I need is to think more. I think waaaay too much as it is!”
So it may be time to define what I mean when I say thinking. And it may not be what you imagine.
Many of us associate “thinking” with a kind of endless, unproductive rumination. It keeps us awake at 3 am, paralyzes us in social situations, causes us to replay the worst of our day over and over. Good lord, we do NOT need more of that.
But when F.M. Alexander talked about thinking, that’s not the kind of thinking he was… thinking about. In fact he called that “mind wandering” and warned us to not indulge in too much of it. As my friend A. says, it’s a bad rabbit hole to go down.
No, when he said “thinking,” Alexander was referring to a specific kind of self-talk that involves refusing to consent to patterns that do not serve us and suggesting, consciously and specifically, what we do want instead. For example, he noticed that most people’s bad posture is tied to a lack of coordination between the neck, head and back. It typically involves stiffening the neck, jutting the chin forward, compressing the spine.
In order to not do this, Alexander suggests we engage in a process of thinking. I’m going to outline it very briefly below.
First…STOP (no hope of changing a pattern if we are rushing, pushing, trying to just-get-this-done)
Think of allowing the neck to be free.
Think of allowing the head to release up, away from the torso.
Think of allowing the back to come into its full length and width.
If I engage in this process of thinking, several things could happen simultaneously:
I might feel better physically because I’ve stopped, at least for a moment, my pattern of compression. My spine (not to mention my organs) will thank me.I might feel better emotionally because I’ve stopped, at least for a moment, making myself small, taking on the shape of panic.I might feel better emotionally because I’ve stopped, at least for a moment, ruminating. It is impossible to engage in the above process of thinking while simultaneously ruminating about icky stuff.
Would it help if we called this process “self-talk” instead of “thinking?” Recently I read a fascinating piece in the New York Times that extolled the benefits of talking to yourself. It was nice to be reminded of what F.M. Alexander suggested all those years ago: “The thought is enough.”
For more on the link between my shape and my emotional experience, check out this blog.
Stronger (musings from the other side of 40)]]>Eve Bernfeld, 12 Jun 2017 17:56:04 +0000
I recall sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table (eating a cookie, I’m sure) when I was about 12 years old. My 22-year-old cousin was getting ready to go out for a bike ride and we all thought she was crazy. It was midday, in Tucson, in July—over 100°. She responded airily to us: “I have to start somewhere, because I am going to be in better shape at 40 than I am now.”
At 12 (and probably 22), 40 sounded old. Better shape? Crazy!
Having recently turned 40 myself, these memories have been coming up. And questions: How am I doing? What do I want to accomplish in this next decade?
One thing I can say for sure: I am stronger and in much better form now than I was ten or twenty years ago. I credit the Alexander Technique.
When people come to me with a problem with pain or performance, they often already have a belief about the cause: either they are too weak or they are too stiff. So they assume strengthening or stretching certain muscles is in order. Never does it occur to them (or me, before I found the Alexander Technique) that the problem is neither weakness nor tightness, per se, but LACK OF COORDINATION. We don't need to strengthen or stretch this or that part on its own, but instead to re-learn how to use the parts all together, in a coordinated fashion. Then strength and mobility (an idea I find much more useful than "flexibility") take care of themselves. We want to move more, because moving becomes a pleasure again. So then we continue to get stronger and more mobile, in a beautiful process of reinforcement.
I used to think that carrying kiddos on shoulders was a dad thing. Then I saw a picture of Katy Bowman carrying one of her children on her shoulders. “Oh,” I realized, “I could do that!” And I have, and I do. The key is good alignment (good “use” as we say in the Alexander Technique—which is a broader term than merely alignment or posture) and directing myself UP into length (rather than letting the weight push me to collapse). It’s fun and makes me feel a little badass.
Parenting has improved my strength tremendously. All that lifting, carrying, schlepping. A weeping child who needs to be carried home over sand dunes will motivate me to push past my comfort zone better than any yelling trainer could ever do. Putting that 30-pound child on my shoulders and then realizing I left his shoes on the ground? World’s best squat.
But many parents find that all the lifting and carrying leads not to amazing strength, but instead to pain and injury. How do we do it without hurting ourselves? Again, coordination.
We tend to think of coordination as a fixed quality—you are either a natural athlete or you’re a klutz. I reject that assessment. Yes, we all have varying degrees of talent in all things. But the beauty of the Alexander Technique is that it helps us to learn to utilize ourselves efficiently and to stop unconscious patterns that get in the way of ready mobility and strength.
Hm… how to carry this 40-pound bag of chicken feed to the car? I’ve done it awkwardly in my arms, leaving dust all over my shirt. Can I put it on my head? Hell yes I can!
Not something I could have accomplished at 20 or 30. Not something I would have even conceived of. Not something I would recommend without a series of Alexander Technique lessons (unless you grew up in a head-carrying culture).
For more adventures in improved coordination, check out this blog.
Origin Story]]>Eve Bernfeld, 04 May 2017 22:01:52 +0000
I first heard the words “Alexander Technique” when I was 15 years old.
I had the great good fortune to attend Interlochen Arts Camp that summer, and an introductory workshop in the Alexander Technique was offered. It promised things like “ease” and “freedom.” Sign me up!
Unfortunately I was not able to attend this workshop, because when the day arrived I was in quarantine in the infirmary, having come down with a pretty spectacular case of Chicken Pox. (If you want to be an instant celebrity at a large camp full of hugely talented people…get the chicken pox!) My friend Lisa went though and reported back that it was amazing and that her head felt so light!
I don’t know if actually going to the workshop would have had this effect, but missing something that sounded so great insured that I never forgot about Alexander Technique, despite the fact that it took me—ahem—another 15 years before I started taking lessons.
In the intervening 15 years, I had a few close brushes with the work. I got undergraduate and graduate degrees in Theatre, which absolutely should have included Alexander Technique (I know that at least Fordham University, where I did my undergraduate work, now does). I eyed it in the brochure I picked up for the NY Open Center. I noticed a class offered at the Singer’s Forum, where I took voice lessons. But I was always too busy, or too broke, or both. And what little extra time and money I had went to voice lessons, improv classes, you know, practical stuff.
Rising Action
30 years of age found me living in Chicago with my boyfriend and my cat. Trying to figure out what to do next with my life. I was burned out with drama teaching. Burned out with non-profits. Burned out with feeling stiff and having daily neck and shoulder pain.
Yes, daily pain*. What was up with that? Not debilitating pain, but pretty much constant. So that my dearest wish was to get a massage about once a week. (I managed maybe two a year.) I was reading books with titles like Pain Free and The Body Has Its Reasons. I even went to a fancy movement therapist, who took some pictures of me, plugged them into her computer and then the computer spit out a series of about 20 exercises for me to do every day. (“That will be $250 please.”) Actually the exercises did help with my chronic pain. But something still seemed off. Surely I didn’t need to spend an hour a day doing physical-therapy-type exercises for the rest of my life just to feel normal!
Happy Hanukkah! A card and a check arrived in the mail from my aunt. And for the first time in my life (or so it felt) I had both time and money. What to spend it on? ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE! Finally a chance to try this thing I’d built up in my imagination for over a decade.
I found the teacher closest to my apartment and called and left a message. And drummed my fingers. After about a day I gave up on that. Having waited fifteen years, I didn’t want to wait any longer! I called the next closest teacher. He answered! My lesson was on the books.
On the day of my lesson, I took the L to Evanston and walked the ¾ mile or so to the address. It was all a blur of anticipation. With a little niggling voice in the background warning me not to get my hopes up too much. I was setting myself up to be disappointed.
I went into a building that seemed largely populated with therapy offices and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Knocked at the door. And was admitted into a large, airy room with a beautiful Persian rug, a tiny desk to one side and two chairs. Nothing woo-woo, nothing clinical. Very appealing. I met John Henes and we started with a bit of a chat about why I was there. I told him I was an actor and drama teacher and he said something interesting about how useful it would be, as an actor, to have a true neutral, from which to build a character. Sounded reasonable. Then he guided me through moving in and out of the chair. And I was moving in a way I had never moved before.
Let me back up and say I’m a pretty experienced mover. I grew up in a dance studio. I trained with Alvin Ailey, Ballet West. As an actor, I’ve studied Suzuki and Viewpoints and Grotowski and Boal and Spolin and more. I’ve done my share of yoga and Pilates. Dabbled in Gyrotonic. Studied Aikido. I’ve skied since I was a year old, climbed a 13,000-foot peak and mountain biked on many a badass trail.
But I had never moved as easily or smoothly or freely as I did in that first (and the subsequent) lessons.
Then he had me lie on the table in his other room (fully clothed, eyes open) while he gently made me about three inches taller (or so it felt).
As I floated out of the studio at the end of the lesson, I had two thoughts:
“That was sooooo much better than a massage.”**
“That was sooooo much better even than I had anticipated.”
Falling Action
On my walk back to catch the L home, everything looked different. The colors looked brighter, the buildings more three-dimensional. I was in a very different state. I was quite relaxed, but not in that groggy way that I experienced following a massage or acupuncture treatment. Instead I felt totally alert. And completely at ease.
After about three lessons, I asked John: “How do I learn to do what you do?” [Answer, enroll in a three-year training course. I chose the Oregon Center for the Alexander Techniquein Portland and am forever grateful for the wonderful training I got.]
After a few more lessons: “Why the hell did I waste so much money on voice lessons all these years?!”***
I had found what I was looking for. So after a couple dozen lessons with John, a cross-country move, a wedding, 1600+ hours of hands-on training over three years, three children and a decade of life, I still get excited to go to work every day and teach the Alexander Technique.
* I no longer have pain in my neck and shoulders (not counting the occasional weird pain). For real.
** I hesitated to put this part of the story in, as I don’t want people to associate Alexander Technique with massage. They are completely different. But at the time, massage was the only other thing I had experienced where someone touched me and I felt better. Also, I don’t want to diminish massage. I know some fantastic massage therapists and have had some wonderful massages. Again, totally different thing.
*** To clarify: Studying the Alexander Technique is not a substitute for voice lessons or any other specific kind of technical practice. But it often has the effect of providing the missing “aha!” piece of the puzzle as it teaches us to get out of our own way and to sing (or play tennis, or whatever) with more freedom and ease than we ever thought possible. Also, in my early lessons with John, I realized that I had cultivated some really unhelpful habits around breathing from my voice lessons. It took me awhile to untangle them and learn better breathing coordination.
(Sign... No, I'm not Wonder Woman. Nor Nancy Drew, nor Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Just a tired mom with messy hair. But I can still dream!)
Remember Me?]]>Eve Bernfeld, 28 Apr 2017 22:24:07 +0000
Q: What is the Alexander Technique?
A (today): The Alexander Technique is how I REMEMBER ME.
We’ve struggled, over the years, to describe the Alexander Technique. Teachers and students alike are often asked that fatal question: “What is the Alexander Technique?” We shudder and stutter and sweat. And then suggest (perhaps) that it has something to do with habit or posture, or movement. Or that it helps with back pain. Maybe we tell people it’s about mindfulness. “Embodied Mindfulness.” “Somatic Education.” “Self-Regulation.” I once had a student suggest “mental yoga.”
Here’s what my teacher, Rebecca Robbins, has been saying lately: “In the Alexander Technique, we learn to improve impulse control and stop engaging a particular muscular pattern associated with stress.”
I love it!
But I’ve been going a little simpler…
The Alexander Technique is how I REMEMBER ME.
In the midst of attempting to balance the demands of being a working mom to three three-year-olds (no, that’s not a typo), the Alexander Technique is a set of proposals and procedures that I can carry out throughout my day that bring me back to myself, here, now, doing this. Without excessive strain or tension. And it doesn’t take any extra time or money*.
I was going to end there, but that seems cruel to my readers who haven’t had Alexander lessons (yet?). So while the following will take on a lot more meaning with the help of a teacher, here are three steps to try, right now, to help you remember yourself.
PauseLet the breath out, so it can come back inLighten Up (physically and emotionally)
*Okay, so there was that initial outlay for lessons (followed, in my case, by teacher training and more lessons and teacher refreshers)…But it doesn’t cost me any money to be practicing it right now… and now… and now.
Here's the fun I had the last time I wrestled with this question on the blog.
Taking Up Space]]>Eve Bernfeld, 20 Mar 2017 03:08:12 +0000
I had a student tell me a story the other day that I found so fascinating, I asked her permission to share it here.
She was at a symposium, and found herself sitting next to a tall man. He was engaged in a classic “man spread,” occupying the space in front of his seat and a good portion of the space in front of her seat as well. She’s no shrimp herself, but before she was even aware of it, she had instinctively (habitually) shrunk herself, crossed her legs and leaned toward her friend on the other side. But, having been studying Alexander Technique for a couple of months, she suddenly caught herself doing it, observed that it was highly uncomfortable and decided to do something about it!
So she sat up in her seat, uncrossed her legs, and placed both feet on the floor in front of her. She allowed herself, in other words, to occupy the amount of space she takes up, without shrinking in response to someone else.
Her neighbor, judging from his behavior, immediately became uncomfortable. Rather than merely moving his legs into his own space, he spent the rest of the talk fidgeting around, crossing and uncrossing his legs restlessly, leaning this way and that.
Finally he rested his leg against hers, perhaps hoping (consciously or unconsciously) that she would shrink again. But she was in full “Constructive Conscious Control”* mode and she let her neck be free and held her ground. Soon he pulled his leg away and went back to fidgeting.
At the end of the talk, the speaker asked the audience to discuss some questions with the person sitting next to them. My student turned to her neighbor, but before she could get a word out he bolted out of his seat and across the room.
Of course we will never know what his experience was in this situation. Was he conscious of what was happening, or was he experiencing discomfort in a way he couldn’t explain? Did he feel entitled to her space because he was taller? Had he ever encountered a neighbor—a woman—who wasn’t willing to shrink to accommodate him?
From her perspective, she reported that she felt empowered at the end of the talk, by refusing to be small for someone else’s benefit. And as an added bonus, her back didn’t hurt from slumping and twisting for an hour!
* The title of F.M. Alexander’s second book is Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. A tall order!
Want to read more about adventures in human interaction? Check out this blog. Or this one.
Daily Desperation]]>Eve Bernfeld, 12 Feb 2017 18:51:49 +0000
We often use words like “ease,” “lightness,” “freedom” to describe how it feels to practice the Alexander Technique. I have certainly had this experience. But some days it feels more like the Alexander Technique is the only thing keeping me from smashing all my dishes while screaming my head off. You can take your “ease” and shove it!
Did I mention that all my kids have horrible colds? And that their grandparents just left after a nice long visit? So they have to transition from an all-access pass to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory back to Little House on the Prairie, where you have to churn the butter and grease the bear traps before you can play and then you only have a corn-cob as a toy. Or at least I imagine that’s how it feels to them. Plus snot.
At the most trying times on these days, I find my Alexander Technique self-talk has a tinge of desperation:
Can I not react to this stimulus?
“You can take off your own socks, darling. Sit on the floor.”
I would like to not react to this stimulus.
“Here, let me wipe your nose.”
“Here's a rag. Please go and clean it up.”
Can I let my neck be free?
“What’s wrong, darling? Can you tell me why you are crying?”
Can I not react to this stimulus?
By “not reacting” I don’t mean ignoring my children or ignoring my own emotional state. I mean can I avoid the standard reaction to stress: tightening the neck, compressing the spine, raising the shoulders, holding the breath? These reactions are appropriate when I need to FIGHT or FLEE, neither of which I can do in these moments. And which I know from experience will lead to me screaming hysterically at three sick children. Not my finest hour.
Talking myself through these incredibly challenging moments feels really hard. “Sticking to procedure” in this way takes all my strength of will. But the benefits are immeasurable. When I go down the path of freaking out and losing-my-shit, it’s as if I’ve blown down an entire house, which takes tremendous energy and which I then have to take the time and energy to put back together again. Or, I can avoid the whole mishegas and when the moment passes (as it inevitably does) I can move on to having fun with my kids, rather than weeping in the rubble. And at the end of the day, my neck and shoulders don’t hurt. Hallelujah!
It doesn’t work all the time, and yes I am working to bring more of that “ease” and “freedom” to the process. But at least I still have all my dishes…
Want to read a little more on how the Alexander Technique helps me manage myself as a parent (and human)? Check out this blog. Or check out my favorite way of dealing with stress here.
How to Walk on Ice]]>Eve Bernfeld, 16 Jan 2017 18:26:28 +0000
I’ve never written a straight-up “How To” Blog before, but as someone born and raised in the mountains and an Alexander Technique teacher to boot, I thought I’d award myself temporary expert status.
I mean it. Little, itty bitty, I-feel-foolish steps. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Walking to the grocery store just now over ice and snow from Portland’s recent “Snowpocalypse,” I saw a few other intrepid walkers and I also saw a few people nearly wipe out because they committed too much weight to one foot. Take smaller steps! (Yes, like a penguin!)
2. Slow Down
It takes the time it takes. In your car too, pretty please.
3. Pay Attention
This is not the time to text and walk or to look for Pokemon. Is that still a thing?
4. Lighten Up
Our common responses to the fear of falling actually make falling more likely. Blerg! We get rigid, jam our heads into our spines, hunch our shoulders. All of these reactions make us less mobile and less agile, and create incredible downward forces that make it that much harder to stay up on our feet! So I suggest instead a thought to “lighten up.” Let your head rest easily at the top of your spine. Let your spine uncurl. Let your shoulders and ribs be light and open.
5. Keep Your Hands Out of Your Pockets
Dig out those gloves or mittens.
6. Use Help…
If there’s a railing on those icy steps, I hope you have a hand on it.
7. But Not Too Much
This is a phenomenon I first noticed with my kids, then myself and others. When my kids hold my hand to walk in the snow, they are actually less stable. When we depend too much on external help to steady us, we often give up our center of mass and make ourselves unstable. Think of that handrail as a guide and a safety net, not as something to haul yourself up by.
8. Footwear Matters…
I have a super-cute pair of boots that I think might have soles of teflon. I thought I was going to eat it coming down some wet steps the other day and it wasn’t even icy! I have some other boots with a nice vibram sole. They are my go-to for wet or cold or icy and they haven’t let me down.
9. But not as much as the other stuff
I know a lot of people who swear by Yak-tracks. Excellent! Be safe! But the above still apply. Keep in mind that we accomplish more by adapting our own behavior, than by buying a product and behaving the same as always.
10. Temperature Matters
It’s a helluva lot more slippery at 30° than at 20°.
11. Did I mention TAKE SMALLER STEPS?
Happy Walking!
Looking for a nice summery blog? Check this one out!
Subtraction]]>Eve Bernfeld, 08 Jan 2017 17:49:00 +0000
Friday I chopped down a tree in the back yard. With a hatchet. In a full squat.
It was a little bitty tree, in a very awkward position, threatening my raspberry patch, so I chose this 25-degree day to take my kids out in the yard to work. We were making the most of frozen pipes to the washing machine (thank goodness not the rest of the house) and playing pioneer. Also did laundry in the sink and baked bread. Ah the cushy post-industrial, pretend-pioneer life!
Saturday I drove to the coast and back (about 5 hours total) on iffy roads to teach an Embodied Mindfulness (read: AT) workshop for new lawyers.
Sunday—today—I had to cancel all my lessons due to ice storm (blerg), so I’m sitting at my desk catching up on administrative work and writing this blog.
I feel very lucky and privileged that my life affords me this kind of variety of activity. And that I’m able to do such diverse activities without being in pain (mostly—check out my recent tango with pain). I attribute this second point to the Alexander Technique.
F.M. Alexander claimed that a person could go from working at a sedentary job one day to pushing a plow the next and suffer no ill effects, if he (or she) used himself well. I think there’s some hyperbole here. And also some truth.
I often characterize the Alexander Technique as a process of SUBTRACTION (for more on this, check out the podcast I recorded with Courtney Townley of Grace & Grit). The work is about subtracting patterns and habits that interfere with natural, efficient functioning of the whole person.
For me it has involved an unending process of subtracting excessive tension around my neck and shoulders, shortening patterns in my back, gripping in my glutes, breath-holding, gripping in my feet, claw-like hands, etc., etc., etc. It was taking me a ton of energy to sustain all that unnecessary, useless (but automatic) tension. Energy I was expending all of my waking moments (and even while I slept). It also severely limited my mobility and, of course, caused pain.
So as I learn to subtract these habits from my life, I suddenly free up so much energy, space, mobility to do things like care for three toddlers, run an Alexander Technique business, build community, chop down the occasional tree and roast a chicken for dinner.
It’s not perfect, and I still have plenty of parental exhaustion to deal with. But once I got a taste of moving and reacting in a more efficient manner, why would I ever go back?
For more on how to subtract unnecessary tension, check out this blog.
Diary of a Pain-in-the-Neck]]>Eve Bernfeld, 11 Dec 2016 19:35:31 +0000
Many of my students come to me because they are experiencing pain. Somehow they found their way to this awesome neuro-muscular re-education we call the Alexander Technique and they are eager to learn to stop causing or exacerbating their own pain. Sounds pretty cool, right? But they often balk at the first step: When you experience pain, FIRST DO NOTHING.
“What?! No, I need to stretch it or massage it. I need to do my exercises. I need to DO something!”
I know. It’s mystifying. It goes against all of our instincts. So let me share a story of a recent opportunity I had to take my own advice…
Last Sunday I taught through the morning and early afternoon, then ran a bunch of errands. When I got out of the car at the grocery store, I had a sudden sharp, profound pain that shot from underneath my left occiput (around my hairline) all the way down my back to my left hip. This was not your run of the mill tweak. This was intense. And I have absolutely NO idea where it came from or what caused it.
So I stood in the parking lot of the grocery store and said to myself: “Can I not react to this pain?” And I let my breath out and I let my neck be free and I repeated my AT directions to myself and I again asked myself not to react to the pain. So yes, I was thinking a lot, but I wasn’t “doing” anything, by which I mean trying to fix it.
Well, my kids gotta eat, so I walked slowly through the store, refreshing my thinking, utilizing Inhibition and Direction. Keeping my attention up and wide, rather than zoomed in on my pain. I could feel the pain juuuust fine, without focusing on it!
By the time I had finished shopping and dinner and started on the bedtime routine, I was having trouble holding my head straight. It wanted to fall slightly to the right (I checked in the mirror, to see if what I was sensing was accurate). And I was starting to feel queasy, which I associated with the disruption of my vestibular apparatus because of the tilted head. (I could be wrong.) And the pain was still as strong as ever.
I was getting a little freaked out.
Can I not react to this pain? Can I not react to this fear?
So without going into every detail of the subsequent hours and days, here’s a quick audit of everything I did to help myself:
Sunday night: Made hubs smear some icy-hot-ish stuff on my left side from neck to hip. Went to bed early, leaving toys, dishes and laundry.
Monday: Did my normal routine, but with four lie-downs, for a total of about 45 minutes flat on my back.
Monday night: Took a walk—slower and shorter than usual. No phone, no music. Just me walking slowly and mindfully.
By Tuesday morning I had a run of the mill stiff neck. Now it’s Sunday again and I can’t remember exactly when that went away, but I can say that I’m now totally back to normal.
So the cost in “treatment” of this shocking pain = a few cents for sports cream and a few extra minutes of my time.
Mostly it was a whole lot of AT thinking and mindfulness. This is why I sometimes describe Alexander Technique as “self care you take with you.”
So here are the disclaimers, before I get a load of offended comments: No, I would never advocate avoiding diagnosis or treatment of medical disorders. No, I don’t have any problem with seeking help (I have worked with fantastic acupuncturists and massage therapists over the years). No, I’m not saying that my weird pain is the same as someone’s years-long battle with chronic pain.
Here’s what I am saying: When pain flairs up, whether it’s new or chronic, whether it’s from oral surgery or breaking your elbow or a slipped disk or stubbed toe or whatever…
Even if it’s only for a moment. You may find, as I did, that nothing is enough. And if not, at least you will avoid exacerbating the issue and setting up a feedback loop of pain. By taking a moment to do nothing, you will be in a better state to decide what’s next.
To read more about this magical Alexander Technique "lie-down" check out this blog.
Peeking Out]]>Eve Bernfeld, 17 Nov 2016 18:08:34 +0000
To say I’ve been in a funk following the election would be a wild understatement. But I like the word funk, so I’m sticking with it. Friday night following the election, I took my funky, sad, exhausted self and got on a train to Seattle. I was lucky enough to attend a two-day training with senior Alexander Technique teacher Missy Vineyard, all about Inhibition.
Two days of working on preventing patterns (of awareness, attention, movement, tension, posture, thought) that do not serve us, but which are nearly impossible to change because they are so automatic.
I wanted to share some things that I learned in this blog.
Picture me, Gollum-like, bending over my precioussss. I’m sending my thoughts downward from my brain through the rest of me, narrowing my attention, and polishing my discomfort—emotional and physical—like a gold ring. Fixated on my sadness and disbelief. And while I’m there, wow, my shoulder hurts. Let me really feel that out for a bit. Yep, it hurts more now. And while I’m down there, let me examine how tired I am. Yep, I can barely keep my eyes open. Woe is me, I never get enough sleep! And while I’m down there…
You get the picture. It’s a rabbit hole that doesn’t end.
Missy suggested another route. She pointed out that we will experience all of our sensations and emotions without trying to feel them. Any more than you have to try to smell the turkey roasting on Thanksgiving. So instead of zooming our attention in on those sensations and emotions, what if we instead widen our attention? What if we bring our awareness back upward and outward?
In the workshop, it was fascinating to watch what happened with my colleagues when this occurred. Their brows un-furrowed, their eyes began to sparkle. They suddenly looked lively, alert, present. Their breathing freed up. And they released tension they hadn’t been aware of.
So I’ve been practicing. It’s not easy, because even after all my years of practicing the Alexander Technique, my work with Missy showed me that I’m still wasting a lot of energy zooming in on what I’m feeling. Bringing my awareness back up and out—forward and up, as F.M. Alexander suggests—is both a challenge and a relief.
To complete my Lord of the Rings metaphor, I like to think I’m working to become a little more elven. I can walk on top of the snow, rather than sinking to my armpits. This work is allowing me to peek out of my own anxiety and sorrow. I am not dominated by them, but am again in charge of the only thing I can truly control in this crazy world: how I respond. And what I do next.
For more on my journey with Inhibition, check out this blog. Or this one.
What Was I Scared Of?]]>Eve Bernfeld, 29 Oct 2016 20:52:04 +0000
I did four super scary things this week:
I ordered a steak at a table full of people eating vegetarian curry.
I spoke (terrible) Spanish to the parents of one of my students who were visiting from Mexico.
I left a bunch of friends at a get together and took a walk by myself.
I wore a bathing suit in front of a dozen college students (one of my students wanted to work on swimming, so into the pool we went!).
Okay, these are not among the most courageous things I’ve ever done in my life. But they struck me as having some common themes. All of them made me feel vulnerable. And so it would have been very easy to NOT do any of them. In each case I could have put my head down and gone with the flow. Eaten the curry, given verbal instructions from the side of the pool. And nobody would have been the wiser. Except for me.
My children and I love a little story by Dr. Seuss called “What Was I Scared Of?” In it, a little Seussian dude keeps encountering some empty green pants that scare the bejeezus out of him. Only after his whole life is disrupted does he realize the pants are scared too and they make friends.
If this story seems far out, maybe it shouldn’t. F.M. Alexander noticed that we are all suffering from what he called an “unduly excited fear response.” We talk today about being stuck in “fight or flight” mode. Of having too much cortisol, too much stress. It’s the same phenomenon Alexander observed over 100 years ago. On constant overload, it’s easy to see danger everywhere, and to begin to live smaller and smaller and smaller lives—and I mean this figuratively and literally. We literally shrink when we feel we’re in danger. When we feel vulnerable. Not a very comfortable or healthy way to go through life.
The Alexander Technique reminds me that if I take a moment to stop, to Inhibit that immediate fear response, I have a chance of behaving differently. A choice about how I respond to the world. The possibility to live a fuller, richer life, standing at my full stature. I get to experience something new, rather than same old same old.
I really enjoyed that steak, and nobody else at the table blinked. My broken Spanish was greeted with courtesy and patience. I came back from my walk refreshed and ready to be social. My student raved about the experience in the pool and how helpful it was.
What was I scared of?
For more on things that scare me, check out this blog. Or this one.
Liberation]]>Eve Bernfeld, 09 Oct 2016 16:02:32 +0000
I think I’ve fallen into the negativity trap. When I’m working with new students, say the new crop in my class at Lewis & Clark College, I explain F.M. Alexander’s principle of “faulty sensory appreciation” something like this:
“It’s normal for us to judge what we are doing based on how it feels. We feel our way through life, assuming that the information we receive from our joints and muscles is accurate. But it may not be. In fact it may be steering us wrong. Whatever our habit, no matter how damaging it may be (like slouching or hunching or lifting our shoulders to our ears) feels normal to us. So any deviation from that tends to feel strange or awkward or downright wrong. For example, I used to habitually tilt my head a little over to the right—more so when I was showing that I was really listening. When my teacher put my head straight, it felt, for all the world, like she was tilting it over my left shoulder. My sensation was unreliable.”
I tell them this because I want them to know that IT’S OK if the changes I’m suggesting don’t immediately feel awesome. Stick with it!
But this sound awfully arduous. I forget to accentuate the positive. Alexander Technique generally does make me feel awesome! It is such a relief to walk around without my shoulders up to my ears. To stand at my full height without strain or effort. To breathe freely.
Here’s what one of those students from Lewis & Clark said at the end of a semester: "The liberation gained from the Alexander Technique is hard to beat. This class has helped me in many aspects of my life and has improved my musical performance and has reduced my overall stress."
Yes, liberation. I like that.
For more on my adventures with faulty sensory appreciation, check out this blog.
Morning, September]]>Eve Bernfeld, 12 Sep 2016 18:29:47 +0000
September 11 crept up on me this year. I’ve been busy with a new semester starting at Lewis & Clark, teaching a workshop for musicians at the Coast, sick kiddos. And then bam, here it is.
On September 11, 2001, I was awakened by the phone ringing. I was sleeping in on my first day of freedom after leaving a stressful job. It was my mother calling from Wyoming saying: “Something’s happening there. I don’t know what. You should turn on your TV. I have to go—I have a meeting.” I turned on my little tiny television in my little tiny Brooklyn apartment in time to see the second plane hit, three miles up-wind in Manhattan.
It was sort of like watching a movie, until my neighborhood was engulfed in smoke. White soot snowed on my fire escape. I went down the stairs and looked out the front window of my apartment building. The smoke was so thick I could barely see across the street. Deserted except for two people, bent nearly double, running with dust masks covering their faces. I thought: Oh, this is what it’s like to be in a war zone.
Later the wind shifted and the smoke cleared and it was back to being a gorgeous, sunny day. My friend Kirsten and I walked from our respective apartments and met at the hospital in the middle. They couldn’t take any more blood, so we hugged and headed back our separate ways. I stopped at the grocery store. That’s what you do, right? While waiting on line (as I would have said back in my New Yorker days) to check out, the man in front of me was buying an empty box of Haagen Dazs bars. He had already eaten all the bars. “I’m just so glad to be alive,” he said, to the room. We all nodded.
Later the phone calls. I didn’t have a cell phone, and when I got home my land-line was ringing off the hook. Aunt Jane, checking that I was ok. John, a college friend I hadn’t spoken to in several years, checking in from his neighborhood in Brooklyn. Uncle Ken offering to drive his truck from Tucson, Arizona to pick me up. I assured him I was fine and didn’t need a ride. Later I told my dad about it and he bristled. No, he would drive his truck from Wyoming to pick me up! Thanks. I’m fine.
I changed my voicemail message to say “Melissa and Eve are both fine.”
Melissa, my dear friend and temporary roommate—she was camping on my floor while she was between places—called to say she might just stay in Manhattan. She had left work and spent the day wandering around. Finally buying new shoes because her pretty work heels were giving her blisters. She did come home, thank God, because I really didn’t want to be alone to see Peter Jennings cry on the evening news.
These are just a few of my memories from that day 15 years ago. They came flooding back, right on schedule, this year, but I wasn’t prepared. I put in my annual call to Melissa. Message this year—she was out with her husband and children. I stood on line—in line (who am I kidding, I’m a Western girl, first and last)—at Grand Central Bakery getting myself a snack on the way to work and had a strange split-screen experience. It was as if time collapsed and I was seeing these memories while simultaneously listening to the woman sing in French over the speakers and seeing a toddler enjoying a chocolate croissant with her parents and the two women outside smiling for a selfie. I was the 24-year-old single New Yorker and the nearly-40-year-old married lady with three kids and a lot of gray hair and Portland chickens.
What does this blog have to do with the Alexander Technique? Well, on the surface, not much. But the Alexander Technique has become so fundamental to the way that I live my life that no moment is lived without the thread of it showing through. Alexander Technique is the self-care that I turn to as I stand in line, threatening to hyperventilate. I let my neck be free and let the breath out so it can come back in.
Driving Fast]]>Eve Bernfeld, 05 Sep 2016 16:16:44 +0000
Doing 80 on the freeway between Twin Falls and Pocatello, Idaho. First light. Three children and husband asleep in their seats. Passing semis stresses me out. I start to notice my shoulders up toward my ears. Hands gripping the wheel. Chin jutting forward. As if this helps.
I let out my breath on a whispered “Ah.” I direct my arms to go out toward the wheel, rather than retract in toward my shoulders. I let my neck free up. Immediately I notice two big changes:
I feel much less stressed.I got this.My driving improves.I stop overcorrecting as I change lanes.Things smooth out.
It almost seems like magic, but it makes total sense. The shape I put myself in, my emotional state and the performance of a task are not three separate things. They are the same thing, examined from three different angles. As we like to say in the Alexander Technique, “Use affects Function.”
When you’re on the floor doing your lie-down (you do that daily, right?), this non-doing stuff is pretty, well, nothing-doing. But in activity, non-doing is the grease that makes things work with tremendous and surprising efficiency. Jedi-like. We got this.
What is this "lie-down," you ask? Check it out here. And here's another fun way to manage stress.
Just Keep Moving or Stop and Think?]]>Eve Bernfeld, 21 Aug 2016 17:18:43 +0000
Four precious hours of childcare for me to prepare for our annual drive to Wyoming (13 hours each way), including going to the grocery store. I found myself running from room to room trying to organize, pack, clean all at the same time. Thinking:
“If I just keep moving, somehow I’ll get it all done!”
Which, fortunately, was a big red flag. Endgaining!* I realized:
“No. I need to stop and think for a minute.”
And I had a moment of surprising serenity, standing in the middle of the kitchen holding my phone in one hand and diaper cream in the other.
I realized I was, as usual, reacting habitually to my circumstances. And as usual, this was not very helpful. The automatic reaction was not only to be stressed, tense and rushing. It was also to do the things I’m most used to doing: clean up the toys, empty the dishwasher, throw in a load of laundry. But these were NOT the things most useful in getting me out the door! And furthermore, they are things I can do surrounded by kids. So if I rushed around for my allotted time not only would I be super stressed, I’d be no closer to actually being packed!
“Just keep moving” is a trap. It feels righteous, but it doesn’t produce results.
No, I needed to take that moment to stop, think, make a plan. So toys stayed strewn, dishes untouched (laundry was actually a good idea), while I worked my way through stacking and packing up clothes, toys, toiletries and more.
Somehow, it got done. Groceries and all. Amazing what we can accomplish if we manage to keep our heads!
* “Endgaining” is the term Alexander used to describe this incredibly common human condition of rushing headlong toward a goal (or “end”) without any thought for the most efficient way to get there.
To read my thoughts on Endgaining and Injury, check out this blog.
Parenting Lessons, Part 1]]>Eve Bernfeld, 24 Jul 2016 16:33:19 +0000
I’ve been on this amazing, insane journey of parenthood for a little over two years. Do I dare share a few lessons I’ve learned through trial and lots and lots of error?
Lesson #1: Inhibition*
When my children are climbing up the stairs for nap or bedtime, they go so slowly and stop so often that I feel like my head might explode. They dawdle. They pick a speck of dirt, real or imagined, off the floor and hand it to me. They say “goodnight” to the apple painting, and the door and the window. They turn around and head back down… I wish I were an easygoing mama and I could just naturally let them do their thing. Instead, I have discovered that this is an excellent time for me to practice Inhibition. If I can let them go at their own pace, if I can bite my tongue or silently count to 10 (or 1000), let my breath out, let my neck be free and let it take the time it takes, something magical happens: we all get there! With no nagging! And no fighting or hysteria. (Disclaimer—this doesn’t work 100% of the time, but most times.)
Lesson #2: Inhibition*
When I was in graduate school, studying education, one of my professors shared a tool I have used about a million times in the classroom: After you ask the class a question, silently count to 10 in your head. She pointed out that many teachers ask a question and, in their discomfort with silence, only wait a second or two before they re-phrase it or answer their own question. The students learn pretty quickly that the teacher will do all the work. But if you let the moment s-t-r-e-t-c-h, the pressure shifts onto the students and nearly always someone will speak up before you get to 10 (if not, then rephrase the question).
I use this all the time in parenting too. People talk about counting to 10 when you are angry and this is great advice, but it also helps whenever I get impatient (which is not only going up the stairs). Or when I ask one of my children a question or request they do something. Usually they will do it, if I give them time to process and lay off the pressure. The toddler brain does not move at the same speed as my own, and inhibiting my unnecessary urgency empowers them and helps avoid power struggles (sometimes).
Lesson #3: Inhibition*
Feeding toddlers is a nightmare for many parents because they can be so-freaking-picky! I was lucky enough to be exposed to the revolutionary strategy that follows before I had kids and it works remarkably well for us. It may strike some parents as crazy, but it might be worth a try if begging, cajoling, praising, reprimanding, bribing, etc., isn’t working. (And of course it’s easier when you do it from the beginning, rather than shifting to it, but I still wanted to share it.)
Registered Dietician Ellyn Satter proposes a “Division of Responsibility in Eating.” She suggests the parent or other caregiver is completely responsible for what food is served and when. The child is completely responsible for what he or she eats and how much. By making each person’s job clear, there is less angst over the whole food situation. Kids don’t get to demand fruit rolls all day. Parents don’t get to pressure (or praise, cajole, bribe, etc.) kids to eat things they don’t want. And when the demands and pressure go away, mealtimes get a lot more peaceful. One caveat: THIS TAKES TREMENDOUS INHIBITION! Because of course I want to encourage my kids to eat another bite of their chicken or try their broccoli. Or praise them when they do. As with everything else, I don’t always get this right, but I stick to it the majority of the time. The result is that we don’t get into fights or power struggles about food. And, coincidentally or not, my kids eat a pretty broad diet—as long as you track it over the course of a day and not a single meal or snack. They also are getting to practice judging for themselves when they are satiated, rather than having someone else tell them. (We save our mealtime power struggles for how close to the edge of the table they keep their water and milk cups. Hmmm…maybe I need to practice more Inhibition.)
Lesson # 4: Inhibition* (failure)
The other week my friend Kylie and her son N. came over for a play date. At one point in the morning, N. and my son H. were at the top of our two-foot tall slide. H. was blocking the slide, but not sliding. N. was getting impatient and starting to push. Kylie and I both found ourselves at the bottom of the slide, coaching.
Eve: “H. you have to go down the slide, N. is waiting. You can’t just sit there.”
Kylie: “N., no pushing. You have to wait until H. goes, then it will be your turn.”
This went on for a long time, and repeated each time H. got to the top of the slide. Our coaching didn’t make a lick of difference.
Only later did I see the absurdity of the situation. Neither Kylie nor I wanted our kid to be a jerk, so we felt compelled to intervene. I wonder what would have happened if we’d both agreed to watch and wait (i.e. Inhibit) and see how they navigated the situation on their own. Maybe next time.
Please don’t let me give the impression that I’ve got this all figured out. Every day is a struggle. But occasionally something comes into focus for half a second.
* “Inhibition” is the term that F.M. Alexander used for stopping. Not in the Freudian sense of repression, but simply stopping something that would have happened, had we not stopped. The term seems to be shaking off its Freudian shackles and is used today in a much more Alexandrian sense. Conscious inhibition (or “self-regulation” or “executive function” or “self-control”) must be practiced in order to become skilled. And skill in this area is crucial to success in pretty much every aspect of life.
For more thoughts on Parenting and Inhibition, check out this blog. Or this one.