Let me explain first what happens when I DO NOT work on the Alexander Technique. It’s no secret that we are always really busy within this program which is fine and expected. When I return from a holiday I am fresh and rested. I enjoy and am able to practice the lying down work with regularity. I like doing at least two – 20′ sessions a day and sometimes even more. I might even slip in shorter sessions if I have the time as I feel able to do it almost anywhere and reap benefits.
As the semester goes by and the weeks and months pass, everything becomes busier and more stressful. The schedule of classes, rehearsals and projects becomes non-stop. This may be bearable at first, but eventually I begin running out of energy and I start depriving myself even of my most basic needs in order to keep up with the required work. I don’t sleep enough, I don’t eat well, I don’t have time for exercise…and well, Alexander, no time for this either.
And yet I know that when this build-up of stress occurs is when the Alexander Technique could serve me the most. Having the tool and skills to restore and recharge the good use of the self as a practice is what I have established here in this program and yet there does not seem to be enough time for me to even choose to practice it in this beneficial way.
All of this may begin as a little more agitation and feeling beaten down by how I am choosing to relate to the stress of the moment and the sense that I cannot stop to recharge. I start slouching around, and I soon find that ability to allow the Alexander directions (neck free, head forward and up…) to have their positive effects diminishes and that unclear sensory feedback sneaks in as well.
I start losing control over my body and mind, and my old habits sneak back into my breathing. My breathing coordination becomes shallow; my ribs don’t move as much and I become tighter and diminished. This directly affects my voice which gets more constricted and opaque. I’m not good when having to deal with stress or multi-tasking, and I start to experience more rigidity in my functioning which directly impacts the presence of unnecessary tension in my acting work and in my daily life.
Then, pain comes– real pain– as a result of the excessive and un-necessary tension. At this point I realize what I have lost and what it will take to restore some equilibrium and get back the strong coordination I had before I abandoned the technique. Frankly, it’s upsetting! So yes, I TRY NOT to get to this point and recognize that there are other options for me to integrate the Alexander Technique in my life other than stopping and having a lie down.
The truth is that when I’m able to combine my Alexander practice with my everyday life and my acting work I have a very different perspective and attitude. I seem to respond better. How you may wonder? If we focus on the acting part, I would say that there’s a significant boost in spontaneity, grace and creativity. I usually have performance anxiety, and the Alexander practice helps me to re-focus my thoughts and my energy when this happens. I stop worrying about whatever it is that produces the anxiety; being able to go step by step in the inhibition and direction process connects me to the present moment. It opens me in a way in which I’m ready to accept whatever may come. I experience more freedom and creativity in my choices and certainly more joy and pleasure moment to moment in the acting process.
Energy and confidence are issues for me, and here the Alexander Technique helps me in a similar way, I become more active when I consciously bring the technique to my work. From my perspective, the technique translates on stage as REAL THOUGHT, and this alone is huge. It’s real moment to moment active and positive thinking that encourages you to give yourself as you are, and which translates in presence, vulnerability and connection; not only within yourself but with your surroundings and circumstances as well. Needless to say, this opens possibilities on how you use yourself in terms of efficiency and in terms of expression.
What do I do to keep up the work? I very much like the lying down work as it allows me to practice Inhibition and Direction without attending to other demands. I also practice when doing some simple basic daily activities, such as standing, sitting, walking, washing dishes/brushing my teeth, getting dressed and putting on my shoes, as well as giving my attention to my listening and responding to others in interaction. All of this practice in my daily life builds skill at having a heightened capacity to know what is happening when I am onstage dealing with the heightened stressors of theater.
When it comes to acting, rehearsals and performances, I lie down until the very moment before I’m called to the stage or, I complement this quiet thoughtful repose with a more active warm up in variants of physical practices we did in your class with you last year –the Grotowski Archer with breath and sound release for example– or I might go thru some of Grotowski plastiques and return to the floor for a lie down for a mental preparation for becoming my character and entering the world of the play. I then allow this preparation to inform my standing/walking/gestures back up on my feet as I enter the imaginative world and meet others in this space onstage.
I have so appreciated your classes and hands-on sessions as they have opened a path for me to pursue in the years to come. You totally give yourself to us and our growth as artists in a way that is comprehensible, personal, specific and supportive. Your language and methodology are a great balance between technique and inspiration. Thank you.
Ignacio Garcia-Bustelo Martinez, actor
I am a huge believer in the power of the Alexander Technique, in both my life onstage and off. I find that, when I rid myself of unnecessary tension with the embodied thoughts of “neck free so that my head can go up” that my entire instrument opens up and I am able to live a fuller life which includes the characters that I play.
I remember in my first semester of Alexander work when Teva had me look in the mirror and see how my head tilted to the side. I thought, “Oh, but that’s just today. I don’t do that all the time.” I went back and looked at old pictures of myself later that night, and I saw that I had been compressing my neck in that same habit since I was a baby. What an incredible and daunting realization this was for me: that I didn’t know my own habits. And, this was only the beginning of coming to know how habit had shaped how I live in my body. For the rest of the week I made a pointed effort to tilt my head in the opposite direction; for some insane reason I thought that if I did this long enough, it would all just even out.
Throughout my two years of studying the Alexander Technique, I found that end gaining in this way is not the most helpful or healthy approach to changing a habit. Sure, my head still tilts a little to the right when I’m not thinking about it, but certainly it is less and I sense an overall improvement. In fact, as I was typing this, I noticed it. Sometimes it’s frustrating for me to re-discover these old habits that I think I’ve discarded through my hard work. When this happens I try to remember that my habits were layered into my way of being for twenty years before I was even aware of them. Three years of reordering my coordination isn’t anything close to this original input period and I’ve made much headway in becoming a more open, available, decompressed version of myself with more potential for growth.
In my acting career, the Alexander technique has been extremely helpful in opening my instrument to create fully embodied sounds, movements and expressions of emotions that all connect to one another through the common denominator: me! Before a scene, I find it helpful to have a brief lie down. Often, I listen to one of the “Body, Breath and Being” talks to remind myself of all of the releasing I can do. In the simplest situation, it helps to just lay on some books and remind myself that gravity rests my head on the books, and that my neck doesn’t have to work in order for this to happen. I’m often astonished by how much I can de-constrict just through this one simple direction. Another helpful warm-up for my acting is to do “hands on the wall” or “monkey.” These procedures remind me to be fully embodied, all the way from the tip of my toes to the crown of my head. They help me to bring my arms into dynamic relationship with my whole self, as I often neglect them. Of course, the ultimate warm-up– if I have 15 minutes– is to lie on the balls and gradually roll and release with the Whispered-Ah thru my entire length of torso. This opens my chest and my whole body in a way that makes it impossible for me to compress or restrain emotions. Sometimes, I fear that this powerful exercise is a little too much for a scene, but it never is.
While I’m in a scene, I often use images to remind myself to continue expression as coming from my whole body. An image of big wings on my back helps me to decompress my spine and open my chest. The image of my legs as pipelines into the floor helps me to release tension in my legs. Two of my favorites are: a fountain image (coming out of my head and radiating all around me), and the image of my head meeting releasing into a hat, which is wearing a series of hats. These each help me to let my neck/head be free and back to lengthen, which in turn helps with a lot of the other constrictions automatically.
I find that when I am open and free physically onstage, my emotions are full and more clearly interpreted by my fellow actors and audience. My face is more relaxed and easily read-able, and my actions and reactions onstage are considerably more genuine and complete. I also find that the less I compress, the less restricted I feel: mentally, emotionally, physically and vocally. In a free body, I am able to give myself permission to do whatever I want to do, which, in a method-based school is the freedom to succeed. My impulses are clearer in my own mind, and my body follows its own impulses without excessive filtering. In addition, when I practice the Alexander work as a background of conscious thought which serves as a a recalibration for my level of tension, I have received comments from my cohort telling me that I am very relatable and that they feel for me instead of just watching me feel. Additionally I have consistently received the feedback that I am a more generous actor for both my partner and the audience. Isn’t it funny how, when I focus on my own Use, I become a “generous actor?” I have seen in my peers how, once Use improves, whatever is really going on in the scene becomes apparent. The literal “text” is less important, and the story of the play is conveyed more clearly.
I wanted to talk a little bit about how I converse with myself to make the Alexander work most effective for me. One of the tools that I have found most effective in my Alexander work is my self-talk. I find that if I say to myself, “My head is pulling back and down!” or “My legs aren’t releasing, they’re grabbing up into my torso!” I begin to end gain; I panic and over-compensate by forcing more tension instead of releasing what already exists. For a while, I re-languaged those thoughts to sound more like this: “My head can release up and away,” and “My legs will still hold me up when I let them release into the ground.” Although these thoughts reaped more positive results, they were rather hit-or-miss. I had a huge breakthrough in my work when I discovered the trick of thinking as if I was already releasing what I hoped to release. For example, I would say, “My head is freeing away and my legs are releasing so that I can receive the support of the floor. It is effortless to be here.” And lo and behold, my body reacted by doing exactly what I said it was already doing. This kind of thinking allows me to feel validated in my work, which makes me want to go even further in this direction.
Lastly, I wanted to mention the effect that the Alexander Technique has had on my life off of the stage. I have had fibromyalgia for thirteen years (since I was twelve years old). As a result of this, for a decade of my life I was constantly fatigued and frequently in pain. Until I learned the Alexander Technique, I did not have a method of coping with these symptoms outside of medication, which always had unwanted side effects. I found it frustrating to have no control over my pain and energy levels. The Alexander work has completely changed the way that I interact with my fibromyalgia. To be clear, I still experience frequent fatigue and occasional pain, but the Alexander work helps me to accept where I am on any given day, and it gives me tools to cope. I find that if I lie down once I day, I have much more energy. When I am able to “do less” in each moment of my life, those little bits of saved energy add up to a lot at the end of the day. Tasks that used to exhaust me (sitting for long periods of time, walking to and from school, doing the dishes, or even doing scene work) can actually invigorate me when I utilize my Alexander process while performing them.
In addition to finding relief from fatigue, I have found a great relief from pain through Alexander work. I don’t exactly know how to describe it, but sometimes if I am able to release an area in which I am experiencing pain (often my arms, shoulders and back), some of the pain is released with the unnecessary tension. Even when the pain doesn’t completely dissipate, focusing on the Alexander work can take my attention away from the pain, which is often what I need to continue with my day. One last thing about Alexander in relation to Fibromyalgia is that the Alexander work has given me a mind-body awareness that I lacked prior to my classes at The New School. Through this awareness, I am often able to sense far in advance when I am starting to feel “fibro-y.” Where attacks used to sneak up on me, I find that I can now feel them building a couple of days before they hit. This means that I am able to avoid the worst of the bad bouts by sleeping more, taking more time to myself for exercise and stress reduction, and even pre-medicating when necessary. I am also able to sense the connection between my mental state and my physical pain status. Sometimes I am capable of pinpointing the pain and releasing it mentally (something I’m not sure how to explain, but I know it to be true through the Alexander work).
In short, the Alexander work has completely transformed my life, both on stage and off. I am so grateful for everything I have been able to do with my newfound knowledge, and yet I see that I have only taken one step on a long path. I am excited to continue my work on the Alexander Technique, not just until May when I graduate, but for the rest of my life.
Julie Morris, actress and NSD graduate
Working on the physical life of my character in terms of integrating the Alexander Technique was very informative for me because we were able to address the complexities of the character’s physical life. It was fascinating that while exploring my body in a completely different external shape–that of an old man–I brought to my process the same habits that I have recognized throughout the year. Namely, the habit of compressing and narrowing my torso, bringing stasis to my pelvis and tightening my legs, as well as losing connection to a liveliness in my breathing. I have been working with this and you keep encouraging me to address these habits indirectly though the refining the head/neck/back relationship. I have come to understand how to approach this relationship and refine my Use because I have become able to recognize what it’s like to have improved conditions. So, as I inhibit and direct I start to experience clear sensory feedback of ‘ah yes, there’s the feeling of expansion and freedom.’
In assuming the physical life of the old man, the connection between my legs and torso still had to be there despite the fact that it was within a completely different physical position. Engaging with this demand was very informative of my understanding of the leg/torso relationship as I was looking at it from two different angles which oddly gave me more understanding of my habit and choice around moving away from habit. So, the first real benefit of the session was a deepening of my understanding of my own Use.
The second benefit was the freedom of expression the improved Use gave me. Before I began learning the technique, if you wanted to talk to me about the physical life of a role I would immediately have thought of convention and aesthetic. I would talk about physical positioning and how important core strength and flexibility are and how the nature of the world of the play dictates what kind of movements you can make and how abstract your expression can be. And although all those things are still important, the Alexander Technique comes before all of them. It is a way of understanding and using your body that allows you to connect to your instincts and impulses, and deliberately remove tensions that are blocking these elements which are fundamental to good acting.
When I began working with the physical life of my old man I was very concerned with positioning and speed. What parts of himself move and what does not, as well as the pace and rhythm of all his reactions. In rehearsals my attention was almost completely on these pursuits and I was not pleased with my work. l was disconnected and observing myself the entire time. I knew that I had to have some kind of physical altercation to live in the man’s body, but what I started with was far too much emphasis on this.
After our session I came to realize that by making the AT a priority, I was exploring many choices as to how he moves which were informed by my impulses and feelings. Your note to allow responses to filter through the whole of myself was really helpful to keep an open state of listening and responding. Once you helped me realize that I was gripping in my legs in order to ‘maintain’ his body, but I was able to accomplish the physical life that I wanted yet still be perfectly comfortable in my young body, with no physical pain or discomfort. I began to utilize the ability to remain connected to myself as a way to be gain connection to the character and the text without excess tension.
I am very looking forward to next year and further integrating the AT within the experience of acting as I see how the AT provides skills that are basic acting skills.
Thanks for everything Teva, it was a great year.
— first year MFA student at the end of the second semester
Running is something I never thought I could do well, nor thought I would ever grow to enjoy doing. This semester I decided, “Why not see if you can change this experience? I am about to get an MFA in Acting so why not do something else that I have only ever dreamed of?!”
To begin with I began the practice of being in the attic of my mind and connecting with three-dimensional space around me. With this I added the thought– which seems so little but helps tremendously– to think of something pleasant. It creates the inner smile.
When I manifest a thought of something pleasant as I exhale the Whispered Ah, I realize a quality of lightness. Instead of feeling like I’m going down into the earth with my joints being compressed by the impact, I feel more expansive and up. Most importantly is the accompanying positive feeling of accomplishment that arises in the act of running. This tends to override other thoughts like, “my legs are heavy” and “how long until I finish?”
I also like to employ the sense of letting my feet roll forward thru the joints and be directed by the big toe propelling my whole foot which we had worked on in my walking. This goes with the direction of the knees releasing forward and away which really begins to bring a fluid quality to my legs. I still find that I have to wish my neck to free, head to release away and my shoulders to widen, but not as much as I did when I first started learning the AT.
When I warm up with my walk, I give my attention to all of this and find visual landmarks that give my head some poise and alleviate the tendency to pull my head back and down, compressing on the top of my spine. I keep asking myself, “What are you seeing?” to keep myself externally present.
Now when I run I find myself not so much in my head thinking of other things, but rather giving my attention to my breathing and finding a sense of meditation in the activity. The activity of tending to my Use becomes a cycle of attention given to all that I have included here. As the runs get longer, I go through the cycle regularly as a way to renew my presence in running. I really benefit from engaging with the AT outside of the acting world to begin to do things that are not easy for me, while also building skill at Inhibiting and Directing for my acting.
— MFA graduate in her last semester
In retrospect of this year, I have let go of so much that I used to hold on to so dearly. Anytime I had an idea of how a character would hold them-selves, how to deliver a monologue, or how I should prepare for a role… I have relied on my preconceived notions and tended to focus on an end-gaining approach for my work. Fortunately I have come to recognize that there is another way to engage myself in a process of discovery.
I have been integrating some of the classic Alexander procedures into my daily practice such as the whispered “Ah” and actively releasing and redirecting myself throughout each day for some time now. If I am riding on the subway– or standing talking to a friend– I will remind myself not to sit in my hips. I gently wish to release unnecessary tension in my neck and expand thru my torso which is extremely helpful in conjunction with freeing my legs and letting my ankle be a source of active balance. I invite my feet to open and root with the earth and I allow this connection with an energized state of being, flow through all my exit points of head, hands and feet. Another words, my whole body is participating in the activity and I am not unduly compressed.
I still need to work on staying connected throughout the entirety of a monologue and taking my time so that the words continue to affect me rather than me putting some kind of contrived affectation on the words. Increasing my endurance at having a unified experience of internal and external attention simultaneously, will help me stay with the story and use my body as an instrument through which a character can talk rather than me forcing a character to say the words. A lot of my work up until now has always been very performative, and I am working on and will continue to work on the process instead of the product. Focusing on my Use is very helpful because it keeps me present in my body. It is also very difficult to lie with your body language, and if during the process I feel like my instrument not telling the Truth, I can help connect with the Truth through my Use. In this way, Alexander is extremely helpful in helping me become a better storyteller, as well as helping to improve my everyday life experiences.
— MFA candidate after one year of AT studies