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:
Soft and Tall
Go! (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 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?