Alexander Technique Classes, Lessons, Workshops by Brett Hershey in Los Angeles Burbank at www.alexandertechla.com
The world-renowned Paola Colette is moving her School for Theatre Creators to Los Angeles this year and I’m excited to join the staff.
Here is an upcoming workshop in April to get a taste of it:
Alexander Technique Classes, Lessons, Workshops by Brett Hershey in Los Angeles Burbank at www.alexandertechla.com
When my husband has a particularly tough workout (or workday), he comes home and says, “I have to roll.”
He’s talking about using a foam roller on body parts including the hips, quads and calves, using his own body weight to supply the force. You’ve probably seen people rolling in your gym; some facilities even offer classes. The rollers are available in various sizes and can cost as little as $10 — more for fancier ones with grooves intended for more targeted pressure.
But do rollers actually work?
According to a review of research published in the spring, yes — but there are still plenty of questions about exactly what they can do and how to best use them.
The rollers — and related tools like plastic handheld roller massagers — are meant to mimic some of the effects of massage therapy by targeting tight, stiff muscles, says Thomas Best, a sports medicine physician and professor at Ohio State University and author of the review. He and his coauthor identified nine randomized controlled studies that used foam or handheld rollers for self-massage.
Their review of those studies found that using the devices can help increase range of motion and promote quicker recovery after a bout of exercise. What is less certain is whether they can also improve direct measures of performance such as power and speed, says Best.
Another big question, he says: “What’s the optimal use of this?” In other words, when should you roll, for how long, and with how much force, to get the best results? It’s hard to glean answers from the published studies, which use different methods, target different muscles and measure different things.
For example, one recent study not included in the review looked at the effects of using a special deep tissue roller on NCAA Division I linebackers; it’s not clear whether weekend warriors could gain the same hip flexibility as the elites did.
While the rollers can never replace a skilled massage therapist, they can maintain the benefits of massage and provide some interim relief to exercisers, according to Kyle Stull, a master instructor with the National Academy of Sports Medicine and also a senior master trainer and education manager with TriggerPoint Performance of Durham, N.C., one manufacturer of foam rollers and other therapeutic products.
To best mimic a massage, Stull suggests doing a slow roll across a muscle — about an inch per second — until you find a tender spot. Hold it for 20 to 30 seconds until some of the tension abates. And then he suggests doing some movement to activate the area you just worked on, like knee bends after rolling a quad muscle or ankle rolls after working on a calf muscle. In his experience, rolling daily — once before a workout and then again afterward — is best.
But Stull has a few caveats. Runners and cyclists sometimes get pain in their knee due to a tight iliotibial band, the band of tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh between the pelvis and the tibia. “If you have to roll your IT band before and after every run, you’re using it as a Band-Aid,” says Stull. With that sort of chronic pain or irritation, it’s important to investigate the root causes with a physical therapist or other exercise pro.
He also says certain areas are best left unrolled. Pain in the lower back is likely to be caused by tight muscles elsewhere, so rolling the back directly isn’t going to do much to address the problem, he says. (He also worries about hurting a kidney or liver if you roll too aggressively.) Tight hamstrings are likely better treated by rolling the quads, he says. And neck pain may be more effectively treated by rolling muscles in the chest, upper back and lats, he says. People with osteoporosis or arthritis should also consult a physician before starting a foam rolling program to find out if there are any areas to avoid.
And how much is this supposed to hurt? “A little bit of discomfort is good,” he says. “Excruciating pain, not so good.”
Katherine Hobson is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She’s on Twitter: @katherinehobson
Alexander Technique Classes, Lessons, Workshops by Brett Hershey in Los Angeles Burbank at www.alexandertechla.com
Alexander Instructor and running coach Malcolm Balk shows good technique.
Here’s a more in-depth article on the pros and cons of stretching after my post on foam rolling yesterday:
Many people stretch when they exercise or play sport. Others don’t stretch but feel they should. And some people don’t see any reason to stretch at all.
The reasons for stretching are diverse. Most people think stretching makes them more flexible. Some believe stretching reduces the risk of injury, reduces soreness experienced after exercise, or enhances sporting performance. Optimists think stretching does all these things.
But do we really need to stretch when we exercise? And does stretching increase flexibility, reduce the risk of injury, reduce soreness and enhance sporting performance? The answer is neither yes nor no.
The only way researchers can get a really clear idea of the effects of stretching is to conduct randomised trials. (Here’s a clear explanation of why randomised trials are special that you can read later.)
In randomised trials, a lottery is used to allocate each participant to either receive the treatment (in this case, stretching) or not. Then the outcomes (injury, muscle soreness or sporting performance) of the trial participants who stretched are compared with the outcomes of those who didn’t. The difference in the outcomes of the two groups tells us about the effects of stretching.
The first two trials of the effects of stretching on risk of injury, conducted on 2,631 army recruits, showed three months of routine stretching before exercise didn’t appreciably reduce injury risk. A more recent trial on 2,377 recreationally active people had very similar findings: three months of regular stretching had little or no effect on risk.
Together, these trials strongly suggest stretching doesn’t appreciably reduce injury risk.
A number of other randomised trials have investigated the effects of stretching before and after physical activity on the soreness experienced after exercise. They suggest stretching does reduce soreness, but the effect is very small.
A review of such trials concluded that:
muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults.
Flexibility And Strength
The effect of stretching on sporting performance is less clear, or at least more complex.
Few randomised trials have measured sporting performance as an outcome. Instead, most have studied the effect of stretching on two intermediaries that are likely to affect sporting performance: flexibility and the ability of muscles to generate force.
To understand the effects of stretching on flexibility and muscle force generation, it’s necessary to distinguish its acute and chronic effects. Acute effects manifest immediately after a stretch whereas chronic effects manifest only after repeated bouts of stretching, perhaps over months or years.
Stretching acutely increases flexibility: after just a few seconds or a few minutes of stretching, joints move further and resist movement less. But this effect is transient. Once the stretching stops, flexibility returns to pre-stretch levels. And recovery is largely complete within a few minutes of finishing the stretch.
It’s possible, but less certain, that stretching also has chronic effects on flexibility. Regular stretching could stimulate adaptations of muscles and other tissues that bring about lasting increases in flexibility.
Everyday observations suggest that’s true, because ballet dancers and yoga teachers, who stretch a lot, tend to be more flexible than the rest of us. But, while it seems obvious that regular stretching makes people more flexible, it has proved remarkably difficult to demonstrate that in controlled experiments.
Stretching does make people tolerate stretch more. That is, it makes people feel able to get into more stretched positions. And this increase in stretch tolerance may make people feel more flexible even when they’re not.
Either way, the effects of stretching on flexibility – acute or chronic – could be exploited to enhance performance of some sports. It seems likely that hurdlers or gymnasts, for instance, could perform better if they were more flexible. More generally, it appears likely that stretching could increase performance in sports that require flexibility.
The other way stretching could affect performance is through its effects on the ability of muscles to produce force. The clearest conclusion that arises from studies on humans is that stretching typically produces a small, temporary reduction in the strength of stretched muscles.
This suggests it may be unwise to stretch muscles immediately prior to sport if it requires generation of large muscle forces.
To Stretch Or Not To Stretch?
For recreationally active people, these research findings suggest stretching might have a very small benefit and probably won’t do any harm. If you like stretching, stretch. If you don’t like stretching, don’t do it and don’t feel guilty about not doing it.
For high-level athletes, there’s more at stake and the decision is harder. Stretching might increase performance in sports that require lots of flexibility but could temporarily decrease muscle strength; it makes more sense to stretch if you’re a hurdler than if you’re a weightlifter.
These conclusions come with some caveats. First, most of the research into the effects of stretching has investigated the effects of “static” stretching – stretches that are applied and sustained for a short while. There are many other ways of stretching, but most have been the subject of relatively little research, or only poor-quality research.
Another caveat is that, while quite a lot is known about the acute effects of stretching, much less is known about its chronic effects. No one has attempted to conduct a randomised trial of the effects of regular stretching over periods of years.
It may be that, in the long term, regular stretching has important effects. Then again, it may be that the long-term effects of stretching are harmful, or that there’s no long-term effect at all: we just don’t know.
Similarly, good evidence of the superiority of one method of stretching over another, or of the long-term effects of particular kinds of stretching, doesn’t exist.
To finish on a more positive note: while it appears that stretching doesn’t appreciably reduce risk of injury, there’s good evidence that warming up does. An intensive, well-structured, active warm-up can substantially reduce risk of injury, so try doing that the next time you exercise.
I’m not saying stretching isn’t useful. I enjoy some stretching and find it beneficial. In fact, stretching and foam rolling can be excellent complementary exercises.
And what’s more important than either stretching or foam rolling is how you use yourself (and any particular muscles) the other 23 hours 50-odd minutes of the day. That’s what the Alexander Technique is all about! To find out more about the Alexander Technique here or to find a teacher in your area, click here.
However, I have found personally as well as vicariously through my students that foam rolling is generally superior to stretching and here’s why.
The point of stretching is to lengthen the muscle fibers. By rolling back and forth over the muscles (exactly like massage), the muscle fibers release and elongate, as they do when stretched (correctly!).
Most of us pull too hard when we stretch. We’re either tearing the muscle fibers or the excess force triggers the STRESS REFLEX, in which the muscle contracts to protect itself. When we do this, we are actually shortening our muscles (the opposite of what we want) and can stress, even damage, the ligaments and tendons.
Furthermore, we often we often constrict and/or collapse other parts of the body in an attempt to stretch a particular muscle:
Contrary to popular opinion, stretching doesn’t cure muscle soreness or release trigger points (tiny knots that can develop in muscles when they are injured or overworked. They may cause local pain, headaches, neck and jaw pain, etc.). In fact, aggressive stretching can cause muscle soreness. Imagine a bungee cord with a knot tied into it (trigger point) and then envision stretching the cord. This just stretches the unknotted portion of the muscle and the attachment points. The knot, however, has remained unaltered. Foam rolling breaks up the knots (think tenderizing meat), relieving myofascial pain, resuming normal blood flow as well as function.
Your body will build up fascia where there’s injury or over-use to provide support. This often occurs when there is misuse, and we are asking a part of our bodies to function beyond its design. The body’s solution often becomes the problem, since this build up of tissue can shorten as well as weaken muscles, restricts movement and can cause pain. Stretching does very little if anything to break up and dissolve these adhesions. Foam rolling
For many of us, the body is a nebulous instrument we use but from which we often feel disconnected. Foam rolling is an excellent tool for getting to know ourselves – where the muscles and joints are (and are not!), where we hold tension, where we don’t, etc. Often we’re not even aware of all the tension we are holding. By applying direct pressure, foam rolling brings this subconscious tension to our attention so we can address it. From the Alexander Technique perspective, it’s a sign we’re over-working that particular area and we can examine and change movement habits that may be responsible.
Would you feel better after a 20-minute massage or 20-minute stretch? Fortunately, foam rolling accomplishes BOTH. You can’t help but feel better when you release unnecessary tension in your muscles as well as break-up restrictive connective tissue. I’ve only felt better after foam rolling, whether it’s 5-minutes or 5o-minutes.
One definition of Alexander Technique is a mental toolbox of instructions/directions one can give themselves at any time during any activity to improve their use. While foam rolling is technically ‘physical therapy,’ it softens the muscles and fascia so it’s more receptive to the AT instructions we give ourselves. It also shows us where we are holding excess tension and can wake-up areas of collapse or atrophy. We of course need to pay attention to how we are (using ourselves as we are) foam rolling, but I find it to be an highly-effective tool when learning the Alexander Technique.
Buying a Foam Roller
Might be the best investment you’ll ever make. Recommendation: Buy styrofoam vs. foam rollers. Foam rollers degrade over time while Styrofoam rollers maintain their shape and integrity forever!
Here’s a link: http://www.optp.com/AXIS-Black-Roller
I recommend the 18” x 6” for easy storage and transport. $13.40 plus shipping.
Want to Learn How to Foam Roll?
Check out my How 2 Foam Roll video:
Alexander Technique Classes, Lessons, Workshops by Brett Hershey in the Los Angeles / Burbank area at www.alexandertechla.com
The following is a guest post from Ryan DeBell. It originally appeared on his site, the Movement Fix, and is republished here with permission.
This article will help show you why athlete comfort should dictate squat stance width, why some people’s (not EVERYONE) feet point out (no matter how much “mobility” work they do), why some people have a really hard time squatting deep, and why some people are amazing at pistols while others can’t do them at all.
This article will answer the question: why do people have to squat differently?
The hip joint is basically made up of a “socket” on the pelvis (called the acetabulum) and a “ball” at the top of your thigh bone (femur), which we call the femoral head. Around the hip joint are a lot of muscles, a joint capsule, and connective tissue. There are many other anatomical considerations when considering a squat, but let’s focus on the hip.
When someone has difficulty squatting, or their feet turn out, or they like a wide stance, we all want to jump on the bandwagon and say “your hips are tight, you need to mobilize them”. If we say that without considering anatomical variations of the hip joint, we can be misled.
Let’s take a look at this first picture. Here we have two femurs from two different people. One points more upwards, the other points more downwards. Do you think these people will squat the same when they have that much bony difference?
If you aren’t convinced yet, take picture 2. Clearly one of the “balls” in the ball and socket joint is extended longer off the femur than the other. This will absolutely change the mechanics of squatting between these two people. No amount of soft tissue treatment will change that.
Now look at picture number 3 below. Look at how different the angle is that the ball is pointing between these two femurs. Guess what? One of these people will have a bony block when they try to squat narrow while the other can squat narrow like a champ.
Alternatively, one will squat wide and the other will have pain with wide squatting. But doesn’t the difference in the shape of the “ball” make that seem obvious? Maybe your piriformis isn’t the limitation after all.
Things get even more interesting when you start looking at the socket. Take a look at picture number 4. On the left, you can see into the socket. This person will likely be able to squat with a narrow stance vs. the person on the right who literally run into themselves when squatting with a narrow stance.
Now look at picture 5. Again we see the difference in how much of the hip socket we can see. There is no way these two people will squat the same. The bony anatomy literally won’t let them.
Picture 6 is a view looking at the hip socket from the side. One is pointing straight out, the other is pointing down and in the front. My guess is one of these people will be better at pistols and one will be worse.
So how do you figure out what squat stance is best without expensive lab or medical equipment?
Watch the video below to see how to quickly test the hip on your client. It’s not perfect, but most trainers don’t have the medical equipment required to get a scan of the joint and it’s unnecessary anyway.
<iframe width=”606″ height=”371″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/b0nJpBGOml4″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>
Athlete’s won’t squat the same, and they SHOULDN’T! I hope I shed some light on the WHY. Athlete comfort will dictate their squat stance that puts their hip in a better bony position. There are narrow squatters and there are wide squatters. That may have nothing to do with tight muscles or “tight” joint capsules and have more to do with bony hip anatomy.
Very few people are at the end range of their hip motion, so hip mobility drills are definitely a good idea.
People will express their hip mobility in different planes, and that is not a bad thing.
Located behind those flab or fab abs is a little known but oh so powerful muscle called your PSOAS (pronounced so-as). The only muscle to connect your spine to your leg, the psoas influences everything from low back pain and anxiety, to full body orgasms and pure pleasure. It is a supple, juicy dynamic muscle.
So why don’t people know about the psoas and why do so few physicians ever mention it?
Subtle to sense, the psoas is not easy to locate and because it is so deep within the human core, it can not easily be palpated (nor is it a good idea to have your psoas manipulated!).
A part of the flee/fight/freeze response, invasive techniques can exacerbate psoas problems. A primal messenger of the central nervous system the psoas is an emotional muscle expressing what is felt deep within the belly core – what is commonly referred to as “gut feelings”.
A tense psoas can disturb digestion, reproductive functioning and create a host of other aliments. Released and vital it fosters feelings of pleasure and comfortable.
Constructive rest is an easy position for releasing tension in your psoas muscle. After work and before your evening meal take 10 – 20 minutes to rest in constructive rest and feel the benefits.
A safe and comfortable position, constructive rest helps to relieve back, pelvic and leg fatigue and tension. Begin by resting on your back. Knees bent and feet placed parallel to each other, the width apart of the front of your hip sockets. Place your heels approximately 12-16 inches away from your buttocks. Keep the trunk and head parallel with the floor. If not parallel place a folded, flat towel under your head. DO NOT push your lower back to the floor or tuck your pelvis under in an attempt to flatten the spine. For best results keep the arms below the shoulder height letting them rest over the ribcage, to the sides of your body or on your belly. There is nothing to do; constructive rest is a BEING position.
In this simple position gravity releases the psoas and you’ll feel more at peace with your self and the world.
READ THE ORIGINAL BLOG HERE
Ballroom dancers are always striving to improve their dancing, but in my observations as a teacher there is one mistake commonly made that’s more severe than all the others, and it seems to affect dancers at every level.
The human head weighs, on average, between 5 and 11 pounds (though we’ve all known people with heads that, based on their behavior, must weigh considerably more). This is about 8 percent of the weight of an average person. As a result, what dancers do with their head has a significant impact on how the couple moves together.
When we hold our posture in a proper vertical stance, the head is directly aligned over the spine. This creates a central point of balance all the way down the body that allows the weight to be evenly distributed for minimal stress on the spine. The diagram at left shows the gravity line from the top of the head down through the feet.
Anything we do with the head can distort this perfect balance point to pull the body in a direction that we didn’t intend, or it can keep the body from going where we want it to go. Ballroom dancers have a unique challenge in that they need to keep the alignment of the head over the spine while moving continuously in very dynamic shapes. Unfortunately, most dancers find themselves using their head incorrectly, applying forces that affect their dancing in undesirable ways.
The normal spine (like the example shown here) is not actually straight up and down but curved. At the neck it has a convex curve to the front. A variety of conditions can impact this curve, and because it’s hidden from view, these conditions may go unnoticed for years or even a lifetime. Whiplash injuries, spinal degradation or poor posture can cause this curve to be affected, sometimes straightening or even curving in the opposite direction. But even those with a healthy curve can do things while dancing that undermine their normally great posture. Naturally, any variation from the ideal curve can impact a dancer’s balance as well as the way they move. For example, trying to spin with the head tilted, even a little, is pretty much impossible. Over time, bad habits can lead to back pain and serious spinal conditions. We’re often not even aware of these changes because they happen gradually and because, short of x-rays, we can’t even see it happening.
The most common dance error is using the head incorrectly. When the head is brought forward, it straightens the perfect spinal curve. This has a significant impact on your dancing. First of all, it adds weight to the frontal part of your body, pulling you off balance. It affects your partner. It adds stress to the spine. For every inch the head comes forward, the spine has to deal with an additional 10 pounds of unexpected pressure. And when your head is in front of the spine, even slightly, it robs you of the power to drive forward from the standing leg.
Shown in this x-ray is an image of spinal flexion, or forward movement of the head. You can see how this brings the body’s weight forward, in front of the spine. Obviously, at the moment we do this, the body’s alignment is no longer perfectly balanced. Body weight moving forward affects the way you move, the way your partner feels, and other factors in your dancing.
You might wonder why I’m targeting head position and not just saying that “posture” is the mistake. That’s because poor posture is the result of poor head position, not the cause of it. We need to deal with the underlying problem rather than the symptom.
These problems tend to start at the very beginning. When first learning to dance, men and women often look down, though for different reasons.
Men are concerned about stepping on their partner’s feet. They look down to make sure they are keeping their feet clear of their partner.
Women look down to try and guess the man’s movements by watching his feet, taking their lead from what his feet are doing instead of feeling what his body is doing. This can lead to a bad habit that is hard to break.
As dancers get more experienced, they usually stop looking down at their feet, but that doesn’t mean they stop looking down.
I see two common problems with intermediate dancers. The first is a tendency to look downwards because of a lack of confidence. Men typically look down because they are too busy thinking about their steps to look confidently ahead. Men might look at their partner just because she’s pretty.
Women will often look at their partner, expecting to find some indication of his lead from the expression in his face or where he is looking, rather than feeling what his body is doing. I understand that women are often challenged because a man learning to dance doesn’t lead clearly. Unfortunately, looking at your partner puts your head in the wrong place, except when done deliberately in a strategic way (such as the man looking at his lady to bring attention to her). If these actions aren’t checked quickly in the learning process, they lead to bad habits.
Shown here are several common posture positions that affect dancing. You can see how looking down brings the head position forward and destroys a clean postural line.
I even see competitors at the Championship level who are looking at a point about 8–10 feet in front of them, obviously thinking about their technique and their steps rather than enjoying the fact that they’re dancing with a partner in their arms. In some cases, men look down at the floor in front of them to judge floor craft opportunities. Despite the honorable reason to be gazing there, it’s the wrong way to deal with a very real need as a dance lead. You can accomplish the same goal by keeping your head up and using peripheral vision to see the dancers in front of you. It takes practice, but this is the proper way to handle that issue.
For every inch the head comes forward, the spine has to deal with an additional 10 pounds of unexpected pressure.
When the head is angled forward, it also leads to other errors such as moving your body forward from the head rather than moving from the center. If the head is placed one or two inches forward, it adds 10–20 pounds of weight to the front of the body. This will cause the upper body to move before the rest of the body can engage, even if you try very hard to avoid it. In essence, you’re already falling into the step before you begin moving. That ruins your technique.
In steps where the head must turn, such as Promenade Position or the Chasse, the timing of that head turn is just as important as the position of the head. If the head turns too early or too late, it impacts the movement of the couple. And if the head is angled downward or towards the partner, it not only affects the couple’s balance, but looks small as well.
Some dancers, particularly women, try to avoid this problem by either leaning back or by angling the head upwards so that the curve of the spine is extended. This is just as bad as placing the head forward. Instead of stretching to keep their head aligned with the spine in a beautiful line, women bend their head back, looking up at the ceiling. That pulls the partner off balance, especially in rotational steps.
A common mistake by ladies is to send the head back before their foot is fully extended behind them. This places the weight of the head behind the spine. Even experienced dancers make this mistake in steps like the Contra Check. Even if the lady takes her head back at the same time as her foot, she will pull the man off balance. Instead, she must send the foot first, then the body and finally she can extend the head. When walking backwards, a dancer who moves the head back before the foot is extended will begin to fall into the next step, causing the action to speed up and get out of control as the feet desperately try to keep the body from falling.
A recently published scientific study looked into the male dance moves that women found most attractive. It compared different amounts of leg, upper body and arm movements, using computer-generated video avatars to avoid any sense of favoritism. The researchers came to all kinds of conclusions about how big the leg and body movements should be, but curiously seemed unaware of the head in their study. What fascinated me was how the results related directly to head position. In every case, the dance moves the women found unattractive were made with the avatar’s head slightly forward, looking down or otherwise communicating a lack of confidence.
We are drawn to confident looking people because that look speaks of strength and victory. We feel safe around them. When the head is tilted even the tiniest amount forward, we instinctively evaluate this as a lack of confidence. A head that is aligned with the spine conveys a look of confidence. It will make you look better, and keeps you properly balanced at all times.
This photo shows a Throwaway Oversway. Notice how the man has great posture, with his head aligned over the spine and not forward. Notice how the woman, though her head is back, has the leg extended well past her head position so that she remains perfectly balanced. Her head is also aligned with the spine. The center of the couple is joined properly in the space that represents the center of gravity for the couple. There are some things wrong with this Oversway (amount of rotation, for example, is incorrect), but those problems aren’t relevant to the discussion of head position.
How is your head position when you dance? Where are you looking? Do you find yourself looking down or a few feet in front of you? Or might you be overcorrecting by bending your head back?
If you’re a lead, try to use your peripheral vision to judge floor craft issues while looking up and past the other dancers on the floor. As a performer, you should constantly be aware of your spine and the angle of your head in relation to your spine. As you move, your spine will adjust. Some steps will cause the spine to be slightly tilted away from your partner. In that case, your head should also be tilted to maintain that clean line from the top of your head through your spine. But when doing so your feet need to be behind you so that you are balanced properly.
At other times, the head should be looking straight ahead. A good rule of thumb is to look at a point slightly above the head of a person standing on the edge of the floor, but this will depend, in part on your height and the step you are making at the moment. Only in very rare cases should the head be tilted downwards, and even then it is still aligned strategically with the spine.
Practice holding your partner in dance hold and swaying left and right to see how it affects your head position. Using a mirror often helps. Practice swinging forward and back to see how your head needs to be positioned to stay aligned with the spine. Most of all, practice compressing vertically and moving from the standing leg so that your head and upper body are not moving before the center.
Author’s Note: The first version of this article referred to the last image as a Contra Check because it looked at first glance as if the lady’s right foot is back and the rotation is not nearly enough for a Throwaway Oversway. The step is in fact a Throwaway Oversway as her left foot, not her right, is behind her.
Q (Guardian): Which book changed your life?
A (Jonathan Pryce): The one the teacher put under my head during the Alexander Technique sessions at Rada. I grew an inch and a half.
By Brett Hershey
We’ve all experienced it. An actor appears on screen, takes the stage or struts into the audition room and instantly commands attention.
How did he do that?
As an Alexander Technique instructor, I’m keenly interested in what fuels an actor’s power and what drains it. Why are some actors cast in alpha roles and others as beta characters (or not at all)? Is power something we are born with or can it be cultivated?
We sense people’s power immediately. Like animals, we are highly perceptive motion detectors. Our brains are programmed to evaluate another’s power and they do it in a blink of an eye. This happens in all our daily interactions, but it’s especially poignant in auditioning and performing. In fact, casting directors have told me that eighty percent of casting is done from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you start your audition.
I’ve had directors/producers send me actors whom they want to cast for a powerful role – such as president, queen or mob boss – but the actor seems too weak or diminished. He or she couldn’t project power.
Some might prescribe a trip to the gym, but true power is not derived from sprouting gargantuan muscles. How is power cultivated? How is your acting power? Are you maximizing your genetic range or is there some room for improvement?
Here are 7 ways to boost your power:
1) Balance Your Head on Top of Your Spine.
Your head weighs 12-14 lbs. There is nothing that ‘holds’ the head up. It is designed to be poised on top of the spine. If you’re head is out of balance, then you are off your center, and that is perceived as WEAK.
And FYI the top of your spine is not in your neck. In fact, there is no neck joint. Your spine meets your skull inside your head. Put your finger in your ears. That is where your atlantic-occipital joint is located. Live from way up there.
True power is generated by exquisite coordination of oneself – mainly, having an excellent relationship between head and spine, and moving from this central organizing principle. Think of the way Brad Pitt moved in Fight Club.
And power is demonstrated by not compromising this ‘good use,’ no matter what activity we are performing (watch Tich Nat Hahn ties his shoes) or who comes our way (a queen’s poise is unaffected by their subjects or surroundings).
EXERCISE: Look in the mirror or at your photos and notice the poise of your head. Are you jutting it out? Tucking your chin forward? See if you can release it slightly forward and up. To feel this ‘release’ sensation, roll down with knees bent in a standing position and let your head dangle toward the floor.
2) Stop Nodding, Fidgeting and Wiggling.
To quote Cool Hand Luke, “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand.” This is often so true with acting. Ever notice how still powerful characters can be?
Think of Vital in the Godfather. People came to see him. They moved around him. The squirmed and fidgets in their seat as they waited for him to make his decisions. Yet, he did very little. He often just listened.
And incessant nodding is a clear sign of weakness. It’s not just agreeing with someone. It’s sending off the signal: Do you like me? Are we okay? Is everything okay? Ironically, if we don’t nod when we listen, we actually can hear more because we are doing less and therefore more receptive to input.
EXERCISE: Notice how much nodding, fidgeting, and wiggling you are doing in your life and in your scene work. Try reducing it or eliminating it and see how it affects the power dynamic of your interactions.
3) Use The Biggest Levers in Your Body.
Put your hands above your hips and feel around the back to your spine. Notice that there is no joint there! I call this the fictitious, pernicious waist joint. Did a fashion designer come up with this? Bending from your waist is like using the emergency brake on your car every time you want to slow down or stop – awkward, clunky and eventually you’ll blow it out.
Instead, use the biggest levers of your body, the HIP JOINTS. To find those, put your hands on your glutes (i.e. your butt). Now feel under to where the legs attach to the pelvis. These are the most powerful – yet often underutilized – joints in the body.
When changing altitude, use these joints along with the knees and ankles. To increase your power, think squat and lunge, even when picking up your phone, purse or keys.
EXERCISE: Try picking up your keys off a low coffee table with your legs straight. Then try leaving your head, neck and back alone and just fold through the ankles, knees and hip joints. You can put a hand on the back of your neck to minimize the tension there and transfer it to your legs.
4) Walk into Auditions Contralaterally.
The weakest form of human locomotion is walking homo-laterally, that is same arm, same leg. This immediately signals that something’s wrong, which could be a good choice for a creepy predator on CSI, but it doesn’t projects power.
Humans are designed to walk contra-laterally, or opposite arm, opposite leg. However, it’s not just opposite arm, but opposite torso. In fact, the arms are just along for the ride. This easy spiral movement through the torso is hallmark of good coordination, health and confidence.
Due to fear, most actors walk into auditions with their torsos frozen. It immediately (and subconsciously) turns off casting directors. Instead, let your torso move with each step and notice how it changes your confidence as well as your performance.
EXERCISE: First try walking homo-laterally. Then try walking contra-laterally, but with the torso stiff or frozen. Now try walking with exaggerated movement through the torso, and let the arms swing freely, along for the ride. What happens?
5) Allow Your Breathing Mechanism to Work.
Nothing zaps energy more than holding your breath. And yet interfering with the natural breathing mechanism by sucking air in or forcing air out, also diminishes your power.
The secret is to let your body breath. Sounds simple, but it can be challenging. Some suggestions:
Soften the eyes. Let the world come into your eyes rather than you looking out at it.
Unlock the jaw. Remember that your jaw is double jointed – it releases out and down.
Release your knees. Locking any joint can create a domino effect, locking other joints and stiffening the body.
Stop sucking in your stomach. It doesn’t make you look better and it cuts off the breath as well as constricts all your vital organs.
EXERCISE: Sit comfortable or lay on the floor with a book under your head and knees bent. After an exhale, set an intention not to consciously inhale. Instead, wait until your body brings in the air. After it does, then wait for your body to exhale. See how long you can let your body breathe you, instead of you breathing your body.
6) Make Strong Physical Choices, Even for Weak Characters or Moments
A common complaint I hear from the other side of the camera is that actors tend to make weak choices. There are, of course, situations in which playing with the lack of power is effective. However, actors too often lapse into powerlessness, by collapsing or constricting themselves. This can easily close us off the actor, and prevent the audience from coming on the journey with them.
Excess tension and collapse are perhaps an actor’s greatest threats. They cause performers not only to lose their power, but to lose each other, to lose the moment as well as their audience. And when actors do ‘try’ to be powerful, they ‘reach’ to generate the emotion and/or ‘push’ it through the congestion, coming across as muted, inauthentic or even melodramatic.
These actors tend not to get cast. Take note of the posture and movement quality of the actors who make it to the screen, especially in the lead roles. There are exceptions, but most have good to excellent use. It’s rather Darwinian – selection of the fittest or those that are in the best psycho-physical shape.
EXERCISE: Recall a sad story from your life. Tell it to a class, video camera or a friend. Tell it the first time, collapsing and constricting into yourself (slouching, hunching, tensing, etc.). Now tell it again, and stay up and available to your audience. Fight against the urge to ‘go down.’ Compare the footage and/or check in with the audience to learn how the two approaches came across.
7) Practice Good Posture in Your Life
I find that if actors are using themselves well in their lives, they can play both powerful characters and weak characters. Actors with poor posture have a hard time rising to the challenge of alpha stature. It’s much easier to shrink yourself down than to suddenly bolster your strength.
In regards to nature vs. nurture, we are not all created equally. Each of us is given a genetic range of psycho-physical power. We can’t change our height or bone-structure (non-surgically), for example. Yet, we can strive to maximize the range of psycho-physical power that we are given.
EXERCISE: Practice Constructive Rest every day by lay on your back for 10-15 minutes on the (carpeted) floor. Place a book under your head (to bring it level with the spine) and bend your knees with feet on the ground. Don’t do anything. See how much tension and stress you can UNDO by releasing into gravity.
Brett Hershey is a full-time, AMSAT certified Alexander Technique (AT) Instructor and Consultant in the Los Angeles area. He is highly effective at improving posture, eliminating pain and increasing performance quality of entertainment professionals – actors, directors, producers, supermodels, stand-up comedians, dancers, etc. as well as students from all walks of life.
This is a whole blog post about laying on your back doing nothing for 15 minutes a day.
Get your mind out of the gutter. Not THAT kind of laying on your back and doing nothing.
By now we all know there is more to training properly for a distance race than just running a lot. Varying your distance, varying your speed, varying your terrain, running in various climates, cross-training, rest, eating right, and so on and so forth. But I’m here today to talk about a form of rest that is conscious, specific, and makes you feel less like a lazy slob using “Netflix all day” as a synonym for “rest day” and more like you actually did something productive toward training for your race.
This may look simple at first. And it is simple, really. But we don’t do it most of the time. If you’re like me, your comforter is WAY too soft and pillowy and like a sleepy wonderland. Also if you’re like me, you have terrible posture and spend most of your work day with your legs crossed, or if you’re standing around, with your weight shifted to one side, or if you carry things you like to hoist them on one side and rest them on your hip maybe… and things get a little out of whack.
When I was in college, I double-majored in English and theater, because I wanted to be really, really rich, of course. Long story short, after 4 years of tuition, I decided I hated spending the majority of my time around theater people (God bless y’all’s hearts, but you know y’all are a special kind of pill to swallow) and really liked spending the majority of my time around animals. So career switch and voila, I don’t do theater anymore.
HOWEVER. You may recognize the above from a yoga or meditation class, even if you aren’t an actor who was trying to teach yourself neutral body. It is the semi-supine position, which I learned through Alexander Technique in my movement classes in college. We learned a lot, through my amazing professors, about how much we take onto our bodies to compensate for things that have hurt us over the years, whether physically or psychologically. Maybe we’re always sucking in our stomachs to look thinner. Maybe we’re always squeezing our tushes in anxiety. Maybe our shoulders are always up around our ears from stress. Maybe someone made fun of us for being super tall in middle school, so we subconsciously hunch to look shorter.
Maybe carrying overloaded backpacks through grade school, slung to one side to look more casual, threw our posture off.
If you lift, if you run, if you’re a person, you may have noticed that sometimes you have bad posture. Bad posture is a lot of the reason I developed hip bursitis this past fall while training for my marathon. After a certain distance, my core was weak and disengaged, and one side of my body really felt the impact of every step more than the other side, as it was much weaker than the other. I had to go back to basics, what I’d spent the first 5-15 minutes of every Movement class doing.
Good ol’ letting gravity take over my back and letting it flatten out.
“So what, you just lay on your back?”
Mostly. But what I find to be most effective are included in the following easy 5-step guide.
So why did I bring this up, you ask? I am supposed to do a long run today, but I have a pesky little pinch in my back ever since my shorter run on Friday. It wasn’t there after I did Body Pump. I only started noticing it after my outdoor run. I can’t say what exactly caused it other than bad posture is exasperated by running. And running is improved with good posture. So I took 15 and did semi-supine, reminding myself this used to be something I did daily. Even as I sit here writing this at my desk I keep reminding myself to uncross my feet and place them flat on the floor hip distance apart.
It’s all about #InjuryFree2015 y’all.
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by Brett Hershey
I had a student once who came in for a first lesson because he, in addition to experiencing back pain, was told by his wife that he had bad posture. Together, they had tried to ‘fix’ it, but to no avail.
I asked him to show me (although I could already see what was happening). He lurched up from the chair and planted his feet, sinking forward and down into his pelvis, and slumping his back down and back. To compensate, his head jutted forward.
His posture was similar to that of the woman in the left photo:
When I used my hands to encourage his fuller stature (like the photo on the right), he reported that it felt wrong. In fact, he started waiving his hands as if he were going to lose his balance, and told me that if i removed my hands he would certainly fall forward.
So I took a photo with my phone and showed it to him. As he studied the image, his hand waiving slowed, then stopped. He couldn’t believe what his eyes were telling him because he ‘felt’ so out of balance. It took him several weeks to get used to this organization, before it became normal.
My student was experiencing what F.M. Alexander called ‘Debauchery of the Senses.” It’s when the mechanism for evaluating ourselves is flawed or compromised.
As humans, we are creatures of habit and excellent at normalizing our current situation. So if we slowly collapse or begin constricting on ourselves, the brain will adjust it’s perception, so that the new habit becomes ‘normal.’
For example, this can become just how we sit, despite the heavy toll on our system:
Unfortunately, while it ‘feels’ normal or natural, it may be far from how the body was designed to function. So without knowing it, we are decreasing movement quality, increasing risk of pain and injury and diminishing our charisma.
When pain does arise, we are often so lost in our habit that we don’t know what it is that we’re doing to cause it. In fact, we often think it’s not us at all. I’ll hear over and over:
“I have a bad back.”
“My neck is killing me.”
“Golf is not good for my body.”
“I’m just getting old.”
And then we’ll do everything – from pills, to massage to braces to duck tape to tiger balm – but examine what it is we are actually doing. How are we standing? sitting? Washing dishes? Folding laundry?
That’s why I find mirrors, photos and video so useful in my practice. They show us what’s really happening, what we’re really doing to ourselves.
This can be a blow to the ego at first, that we are responsible for our misuse. But the good news is that then we can actually do something about it rather than live in the delusional and often painful debauchery of the senses.
Improve Your Posture. Unleash Your Potential.
An actor’s posture and ease is crucial in the audition room. Brett’s no-nonsense approach will help actors enter the room ready to do their best work. – Elizabeth Barnes, Casting Director (The Lottery, Revenge, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, United States of Tara)
Most actors don’t realize that what is holding them back more than anything else is how they are using, carrying, moving themselves. I’ve worked with and taught casting directors, and they’ll tell you that most of the casting is done when the actor walks in the room. Your body IS your instrument and the more excess tension and collapse you are carrying, the less likely you are to get cast. Period. – Brett Hershey
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Whew! The World Cup is (finally) over. I’m a passionate Argentina fan (after the USA, of course), and so it was an exciting, yet ultimately disappointing World Cup. I’m a bit relieved – my adrenals couldn’t handle another game. Watching soccer matches is like getting sucked into Russian novels – long, deep and anguishing.
We clearly witnessed some super-human feats, yet I was reminded by how human we are in watching Lionel Messi. Arguably the current best player in the world (he has a reported $50 million contract with Barcelona), Lionel is undeniably great.
However, from an Alexander Technique perspective, his posture or ‘use’ could be improved. You can see this clearly in the moment after defeat in the top photo. This may seem unfair to pick out such a devastating moment, but here he is off the pitch relaxing with his wife:
He tends to collapse through the neck and back, rounding the shoulders, taking his head back and down his neck. This not only lowers his stature, but can negatively impact coordination as well. Obviously, Messi is super coordinated, but he still has good and bad days. Here he is with ‘use’ much improved:
He looks unstressed, even happy. Perhaps it’s after he scored a goal for Barcelona.
What I noticed, as the World Cup tournament progressed, is that his head jutted increasingly forward from his body and down the back of his spine,. I can’t imagine the pressure of playing in front of a billion people, but it was like you could see the weight of national and personal expectation bearing down on his neck and shoulders. Sadly, as the stakes increased, his performance seemed to decline.
To be fair, Messi risen in the face of other pressure moments, but this one proved too much as he sailed his final kick well over the goal in the final seconds. I’m reminded of other great athletes, such as Michael Jordan, who seemed to expand their bodies, ‘star-fishing’ out, and performing even better in response to such pressure:
I would never venture to give Lionel Messi advise about soccer, but I believe he could have benefitted (and still could) from Alexander Technique lessons. And I would bet they would help his performance on the pitch, especially in pressure situations, as well as prevent injuries in the future.
I posted something to the same effect on FB, and a colleague said Argentina’s loss was more about luck; they had their chances and if one had gone in, I wouldn’t have made the observation about Messi.
He’s right about luck, but I disagree that wouldn’t have noticed or posted. I was noting his use throughout each game, and was concerned. If Argentina had won the final game, I would have wondered how much better could Messi have been if his head, neck and back were in better coordination.
Messi still had a great World Cup. He was fantastic by all normal measurements and I’m still a huge fan. I think he’s such a better role model than Maradona for the youth of Argentina. I just wish I could have put my hands on him and wonder what would have been the effect.
I was recently reminded that we’re all human. We all can succumb to the stressful situations in which we find ourselves . Recently I was reminded of this. Here’s how I show my use to my students:
But here I am, caught straining through my neck and back trying to get a photo of my daughter after her camp play before she left the stage:
I did get the photo. Wish there was a $50 million contract waiting for me after ; )