Are You Overwhelmed? How Physical Sensations Can Lead You Back to Mind and Body Ease

As featured in: The Huffington Post

You can be doing everything right: eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, even meditating, but then you can’t find your phone, or you slip and lose your footing, or the warning light goes off in your car, and it sends you over the edge. Suddenly, it all becomes too much to deal with. What do you do when everything you’re doing to take care of yourself still isn’t enough to alleviate the stresses of life’s everyday challenges?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when there is “too much” to handle. The mind races trying to figure out solutions, and the body either tenses up in an effort to get things done or collapses to give up, neither of which are helpful in dealing with the overwhelming situation. Training yourself to become aware of your body’s sensations during these moments can reduce stress and teach you how your body can lead you back to mental and physical equilibrium.

The process of noticing sensations in your body is called interoception. It’s how we perceive physical feelings from our bodies, which then determines our mood and sense of well-being. There are a variety of sensations that arise during moments of high stress to notice, including: temperature changes, muscle constriction, trembling, increased or decreased blood flow, feelings of expansion, and more.

Motor nerve fibers relay commands from the brain to the gut, and for every one sent, nine sensory nerves send information about the state of the body to the brain, such as the sensations described above. Even though the sensations might be subtle, they provide important information that can lead your system to a more settled state.

Here are some simple tips to help you become aware of those sensations and calm your nervous system:

Balancing Your Whole Body
When you stand up balanced directly over your feet, you tend to feel more calm and centered. When you lean off of your support, either forward or back, or to the sides, your muscles constrict and your body tenses up to keep you from falling over. This tension in your body can make you tremble and feel uneasy, in the same way that you would feel if there was a chance you would actually fall over. Next time you’re standing and feeling anxious about something, make sure your weight is balanced evenly over your feet. This will allow your body to relax into ease.

Releasing Your Neck
When we are surprised, overwhelmed, or startled, the body goes into a startle pattern of reflex movements. Frank Pierce Jones, an Alexander Technique teacher and researcher, measured the startle pattern with multi-strobe photography, and saw that the first movement of the pattern is the neck tightening. When you feel things are too much to handle, notice the constriction in your body, and particularly the tightening in your neck. Focusing on the back of your neck, where your head meets your spine, allow your neck to release upward. Turn your head from side to side very slowly as you keep your neck elongated.

Soothing With Your Hand and Breath
We hold our own body instinctively when we are hurt. If you bump your elbow, your hand immediately goes to cradle it. Our own hands can be very healing, and most ancient cultures and many religions have a practice of laying hands on the body to heal. Next time you’re sitting in traffic late for a meeting, or waiting for an audition, and you have butterflies in your stomach, put your hand on your belly. Rather than try to push the nervous sensations away, actually feel the trembling or butterflies. Experience your breath moving in and out, and let your hand move with your breath. The nervous sensations will likely subside from the calming attention of the hands and breath.

Supporting Your Torso
What can you do to ease your racing heart if you are sitting at a bar and wondering if your date will show up, or to calm jittery nerves at your desk while anxiously awaiting a job evaluation? As you are sitting, notice your sitting bones on the chair. Feel the connection of these two bones at the bottom of your pelvis connecting to the chair. Allow yourself to feel the support from the contact with the chair. When you are supported you often feel calmer and breathe easier.

Shaking Stress Off
Animals in the wild have their lives threatened constantly, but don’t seem to carry any lasting effects. However, we as humans have much more difficulty recovering from stressful events. From the work of Dr. Peter Levine, author of Waking The Tiger, we know that after a traumatic event, animals tend to shake off the trembling or unused energy, and move on. By doing this they release the excess fight or flight response. Humans, on the other hand, might have a stressful moment and have these strong sensations of excess fight or flight impulses that they can’t enact in the moment. This excess energy gets trapped in the body, sometimes causing lasting stress, which can lead to difficulty sleeping, breathing, and even digestion. Next time you are overwhelmed or feel that shaking feeling, be conscious of the accompanying sensations. Instead of trying to get rid of them, notice them, and allow them to move through your body. If you need to go to a private space and let your body shake, do it. Letting your body feel and release these sensations will allow your system to then settle.

These techniques are meant to help ease life’s everyday moments of stress, but if you find yourself also seeking professional help, I suggest you find a professional who considers taking into account the body’s messages.

The Alexander Technique Lives On

As featured in: The Huffington Post

Over the years, health and wellness trends have come and gone. People are always eager to try the latest exercise regime or find the quickest way to lose weight, but most methods rarely last long. In a sea of fleeting health fads, let’s look at one approach to finding lasting health and overall wellness: the Alexander technique.

The Alexander technique is a practical method for self-improvement through mind/body reeducation. It is studied by Hollywood A-listers, musicians, athletes, and many people seeking to relieve pain or improve general well-being.

Having been around for over 100 years, the Alexander technique’s lasting success is credited to a time-tested basis that is in line with our evolved, upright human design. Children, born healthy, move with lightness and ease that we recognize and admire. As life comes along with its many challenges, we tend to respond either by using excess effort and tension or by collapsing and shrinking, and therefore lose our inherent balance and coordination.

The Alexander technique’s mind/body lessons (taught one-on-one or in group sessions) can help us regain our inherent skills and effortless ease of movement. It doesn’t give you new routines to go through but instead teaches you how to bring more awareness and intelligence to what you’re already doing, which is said to result in a general heightening of awareness and consciousness

By studying the Alexander technique you can learn:

  • How to sit, stand, walk, breathe, and speak with less effort.
  • How your body functions as a whole and not in parts.
  • How all thought is connected to muscular activity, so mind and body are two sides of the same coin.
  • How unconscious habitual patterns can be brought to conscious awareness and changed.
  • How habitual patterns bridge physical, mental, and emotional life.

Examples of Using the Alexander Technique in Your Daily Life.

The work is simple to perform and discreet enough to practice at any moment of the day so that it is incorporated into everyday life instead of separated from it. No need for spandex shorts, sweat, or equipment. All you need is your own mind, body, and spirit involved in whatever activity you happen to be doing.

I have taught this technique to thousands of students all over the world, and people often ask me, “Should I swim? Or do Pilates? Or yoga?” I answer, “It’s not so much what you do but how you do it.” For example, in your yoga class, when you do any type of back bend, whether “Cobra” on the floor or “Sun Salutation” while standing, you want to be sure that you lengthen your spine first and then bend your whole spine, not just your lower back. This way you are using one of Alexander’s principles, lengthening, to improve whatever exercise you choose to do.

The Alexander technique doesn’t call for extreme measures that lead to unattainable results. Rather than only paying attention to your body through exercising for one hour a day and then slumping and ignoring your physical patterns for the other 23 hours, the technique teaches you to bring awareness to your movements throughout the day. You can incorporate simple tips throughout your daily routine to help you achieve your wellness goals.

  • You can do awareness exercises that bring conscious attention to how you’re using your body while moving or while staying still.
  • You can monitor your upright stance as you run errands or take an evening stroll.
  • You can pay attention to your feet on the floor as you sit at your desk throughout the day.
  • You can determine if you are using unnecessary effort in simple tasks such as brushing your teeth or pressing down the keys on your computer.

The Staying Power of the Alexander Technique

F.M. Alexander, the technique’s founder, was a Shakespearean actor who continuously lost his voice while performing in Australia in the late 1800s. He solved his vocal problem and began to teach his findings in the form of educational lessons, using gently guided hands-on work. A qualified Alexander technique teacher must go through a rigorous three-year training program.

Because F.M. was an actor who improved his voice and theatrical presence, the technique is often utilized by stage and screen performers. Among the many celebrities who benefit from the technique are Leonardo diCaprio, Lupita Nyong’o, Judi Dench, Sting, and many more. There is even a photo of Marilyn Monroe reading F.M. Alexander’s first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance.

I have witnessed many moments of transformation with people from all walks of life. Students have reported after learning the work, “I felt a lightness that I never even imagined,” and, “My pain of 10 years is gone.”

Although Alexander lessons are not therapy, the work can have therapeutic outcomes. In a 2008 study published in the British Medical Journal, the Alexander technique proved to be highly effective in treating back pain. The study results showed 86-percent improvement for low back pain after 24 lessons in the Alexander technique alone. Participants went from 21 days of pain a month down to only three days.

For almost 40 years I have been studying, exploring, teaching, and marveling at the benefits of the Alexander technique. My new book, The Actor’s Secret, combines the technique with breathing coordination and Somatic Experiencing® to present a revolutionary new approach to performance training as well as everyday well-being.

Breath in Motion: Why Exhaling Matters Most

As featured in: The Huffington Post

Have you been in a yoga class wondering, “Why is my breathing so shallow?” Have you been singing or performing on stage and suddenly realized you’re running out of breath? Have you been exercising, or even texting, and noticed you’re holding your breath?

We limit our breath for many reasons. Maybe we are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or just lost in thought. Sometimes our breathing changes in anticipation or while holding in a difficult emotion. Essentially, breathing is a response to our activity and state of mind.

Shallow breathing or holding your breath is not exactly “holding” your breath, but it is interfering with the flow of life force and the potential motion of the diaphragm. It can also cause the respiratory muscles to weaken and lose their ability to move optimally.

When we notice a lack of breath, the common response is to inhale and take a deep, forced breath. Let’s look at the design of the respiratory system, and see what other more effective choices are available.

There is great potential for the diaphragm and the ribs to expand and contract as the lungs, which sit on top of the diaphragm, fill, and dispel air. Let’s take a look at the exhale first. The diaphragm (the orange muscle in photo above) is a dome-shaped muscle that rises to get the air out of the lungs as you breathe out. Then, it moves down to make room for the air as you breathe in.

It’s a common thought that inhaling is the important phase in the act of breathing, and people try to control it. Many say, “take a breath” or “tank up” when singing. I find that this controlled inhale can actually place unhealthy pressure on the diaphragm, often tensing neck and chest muscles that do not need to be overly involved in breathing.

Because most people are busy taking an in-breath, they do not pay much attention to the exhale process. Without exhaling completely, excess carbon dioxide — a known stressor in your nervous system — may remain in your lungs. The system detects that there is too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen. Then, it does the only thing it knows how to do: ask for more oxygen, causing another inhale. Since the lungs are still partially filled with carbon dioxide, not as much oxygen can get in. A cycle is set in motion and you keep inhaling for more oxygen, but can’t get enough because the lungs have not been properly emptied. This habit can lead to shallow breathing and holding your breath.

However, when you exhale completely, your body is designed to take a “reflex” inhale. By releasing your ribs and expelling all air in the lungs, you engage the spring-like action of your ribs to expand and create a partial vacuum, and the air comes in as a neurological reflex. This is what I call an optimal breath.

Optimal breath means you do not suck air in to “take” a breath or “push” air out to expel a breath. You allow air to flow in and out, so the lungs easily exhale carbon dioxide and effortlessly fill with oxygen. As your whole system slightly expands and contracts, your nervous system has the potential to settle and reduce stress.

So, next time you are in yoga class holding your breath while reading a text or email or you catch yourself interfering with the motion of the breathing cycle in any way, don’t force an inhale. Remember the potential movement of your ribs and diaphragm. Try putting your hands on the sides of your ribs and gently pushing your ribs down and in a tiny bit as you exhale and then let them spring open for your inhale. Be sure not to collapse your whole torso as you exhale, and instead, lengthen your spine.

Let your breath find its own rhythm. Nothing is as close to you as your own breath. Some breaths may be long and deep, and others shorter. Like the ocean waves, flowing in and out, all breaths are not the same.

The optimal breath brings fresh new oxygen to fill your whole torso and spread throughout your body to enhance life force. Then you can be present and able to engage in your next activity with full body, mind, spirit… and breath!

Check out my book, The Actor’s Secret, for many more of these exercises for personal and professional well-being and growth.

Betsy Polatin is a Movement and Breathing Specialist, Alexander Technique Teacher, Master Lecturer at Boston University, and the author of The Actor’s Secret distributed by Random House.

How to Really Stand Up Straight

If you’re watching the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, the Oscars, or other award shows this season, you may notice how so many of the celebrities walk onto the stage and announce the contestants with such good posture. For most people, that poised walk doesn’t come naturally. Working with actors frequently, I teach them the importance of this upright stance and how to achieve it with ease instead of stiffness.

Whether actors or not, we all have occasions when we want to present our best, confident selves. For an actor, it is stepping onto the stage. For everybody else, it may be walking into a party or into that important job interview.

So, how can you have such a powerful and upright stance? How does an actor pull it off? What is the actor’s secret?

First, let’s look at what NOT to do.

The typical response to “stand up straight” is:

  1. Lift up the front of your chest
  2. Pull your chin up as you pull the back of your head down a little
  3. Pull your shoulder blades together.

Try it. Feels familiar, right? And how long do you stay in this held-up “straight” position? It’s probably not more than a few minutes before you’re back down to a slump or leaning on one leg. It feels like too much effort to stand up this way.

When we look closely, we see that these three steps have the opposite effect of standing straighter and taller.

Let’s break it down and look at what you actually did:

  1. Lifting up the front of your chest looks good in front, but what happens in your back? The lifting is usually done by pulling down or compressing the muscles in your back. From my observations, lifting up the front of your chest actually shortens your spine instead of lengthening it.
  2. Pulling the back of your head down by lifting your chin up has a similar effect. The weight of your head (around ten pounds) is actually going down in the back, compressing your spine even more, and actually positioning you less in the upright direction.
  3. Pulling your shoulder blades together narrows and compresses your spine even more and thereby prevents it from lengthening.

Pulling your whole upper body in this manner often causes you to pull yourself off the balance of your feet and therefore lose your grounding and support. Pulling your chest up, head back, and shoulders in takes a lot of work and does not give the sustainable results you are looking for.

Next time you want to “stand up straight” you may want to try this different response:

  1. Allow your whole head, both front and back to lift a tiny bit upward. You may notice that you feel a small amount of expansion in that moment, or you may feel a sense of lightness.
  2. Allow your whole torso, front and back and including your spine, to lengthen and widen just a tiny bit. You may notice that now you are able to take a larger, spontaneous breath. Remember to allow it naturally and not force or manipulate the process.
  3. Allow the front and back of your shoulders to widen out of your back out to the sides, instead of compressing inward.
  4. Pay attention to your feet on the ground, and feel the comfort of your whole body supported, and aiming upward, from the ground.

When you stand in this way, you can feel your full stature. Your full stature is you as full and expanded as you can be. This is not a rigid or puffed-up stance, but your body will feel slightly expanded and toned. Full stature often includes a feeling of self-confidence because you are aware and engaging your whole sense of self.

And the Oscar goes to…

Read the original blog post on the Huffington Post Healthy Living section.

New Year, Fresh Start

Looking for a fresh start this year? Did things last year not go quite the way you envisioned them? Do you still have goals that seem just out of your grasp?

A new year brings new beginnings, but how can we expect to have altered outcomes when we continue to behave in the same old habitual patterns?

This year, if you’re looking for that longed-for promotion, or that second date, try a few techniques I’ve developed in my new book, The Actor’s Secret. In addition to being a practical guide for actors and performers, as Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage.” People around us judge us and make assumptions about who we are by how we carry ourselves, forming opinions based on how we act in public.

My book offers everyday tips for personal growth and self-improvement by teaching you to change habitual patterns so that you can present the version of yourself that you intend. It will also help you ward off stress and embody the confidence you already have so that you can get the results you want.

As a movement specialist for more than 40 years, I show actors every day how to change their habitual patterns and learn to breathe properly, effectively express emotion, improve their posture and much more. Having access to these techniques allows them to express a specific character, and can help you change your habits to present the version of yourself that you choose to, and to have access to the full potential of your body, mind and spirit.

Based on my knowledge of the Alexander Technique and on my movement and breathing specialties, below are a few simple ways to harness your inner actor for a better new year.

  1. A new way to use your body effectively – Actors perform their best when they use their body – their instrument – effectively, including having their weight and energy evenly distributed. For everyone else, this coordinated balance can release everyday habitual tendencies like tightly held muscles, or favoring leaning on one leg over the other. Becoming aware and altering these habits can even improve workouts and reduce the risk of injury.

    How: Lean forward over your toes, then lean back over your heels. Then lean less forward and less back a few more times until you have even contact on the floor with the front and back of your foot. With this new, balanced stance you can be lighter on your feet, and hold your head high to approach any situation with a fresh perspective.
  2. A new way to release tension – One of the most common places to hold tension is the shoulder and neck area. The neck is a passageway that allows messages to pass from the brain to the body and back. When the muscles in the neck are held tight, blood pressure increases and can limit this passageway for messages. Relaxing these muscles can lower blood pressure, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, not to mention make you feel calmer and more relaxed. When you’re relaxed and at ease you’re able to be flexible in the moment and more accurately assess circumstances to address them accordingly.

    How: Most people release tension by just relaxing their muscles. This cures the result, but doesn’t address the habit of tensing in the first place. Feel the tension in your shoulder and neck area, and rather than immediately release it, focus on that area of tension and become aware of what it feels like. Observe what it makes the rest of your body feel like, becoming aware of the consequences of your tension. Sense any muscle contractions or heat you might feel. Combining the information of the awareness and the sensation, your brain actually reprograms the muscles to gradually let down your shoulders and release the neck tension. While you allow this shift to happen, maintain awareness of how the release makes your entire body feel. Notice the increased level of comfort in your body, and the peace of mind that follows letting the tension release itself with awareness. Re-wiring letting go of tension in this way is much more effective in the long term reducing the habit of holding tension.
  3. A new way to breathe – three-dimensional breathing: When actors hold their breath, whether from anxiety or concentration, they limit communication, availability, and their capacity to express genuine emotions. We all want to communicate more effectively. What I call “three-dimensional breathing” helps us take a fuller breath, allowing more oxygen to flow to the brain helping us think more clearly, so we can translate our thoughts into saying what we want to say.

    How: Sit or stand in a comfortable location. Place your hands on either side of your ribs and sense the sideways movement of your torso as you exhale and then inhale. Continue to feel the back-and-forth movement as you remove your hands. Next, place one hand on your collarbone and one on your stomach, under your ribs. Again, breathe and feel the movement up and down, then remove your hands and sense the movement. Place one hand on your back and one in front on your torso. Sense the movement front to back, then remove your hands. Continue breathing fully and sensing each dimension of the breath — side to side, up and down, and front to back. Practice this three-dimensional breathing this way before you have a stressful conference call, or walk in to ask for that promotion!

Each of these simple exercises can increase your presence and awareness, relax your mind and body, and build your confidence. Being in a more attentive, relaxed state gives you the calmness to change your habits of moving and thinking, which allows you to be present in each moment. Then you are able to face anything life brings you and respond appropriately – giving yourself that fresh start.

Check out my book, The Actor’s Secret, for many more of these exercises for personal and professional well-being and growth.

Read the original post on Huffington Post.

How to Become an Actor

We are all born with some acting skills. Putting on a good face for the boss that irritates us, or acting as if we like the gift we have absolutely no use for, these are acting skills. Some of us do it better than others.

But what about the task of becoming an actor to portray a seventeenth century king of France who just lost his kingdom? This is another level of transformational skill in mind, body, and spirit.

If you are a hard-working, socially engaged, theater or film actor, most likely your life experiences, thoughts, feelings, and postural habits are very different from those of a privileged king of France.

All your thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed in your “use” – your body language and movement. You want to know what your personal patterns are, so you can change them or they can be changed to become the king and tell his story. Your breathing pattern, level of tension, gait, and general demeanor would need to change to become the king.

How to become an actor becomes an issue of understanding the patterns of your body, mind, and spirit. To be able to transform enough of your own habitual patterns, and also connect to where you meet the character…. that is becoming an actor.

Alexander Technique – a Glimpse

For thirty-five years I have been studying, exploring, teaching, and marveling at The Alexander Technique. The Technique, a practical method for self-improvement, allows ease of movement and increases well-being, through neuromuscular reeducation. The work is not about “good posture” or “standing up straight” as is often depicted.

Instead, it is about coming in touch with an internal organization. This deep, all-inclusive organization of body/mind/self seems to be a universal force that is a necessary component of evolution and survival of all creatures. It seems to be the internal organization that survived millions of years of change. In the animal kingdom, this organization can be observed as a two thousand pound polar bear jumps over a cliff as if he weighed practically nothing.

On a practical day to day level, the Alexander Technique can teach you to pay attention to your body/mind/self in a way that can allow balanced uprightness, ease of movement, and a feeling of lightness and internal strength.

Any thoughts?

“The Actor’s Secret” Now Available

I am so happy to announce that my book “The Actor’s Secret” is now available!

In a culmination of many years of teaching worldwide, I’m pleased to share the knowledge in this book with you, whether you’re a performer, or looking to enhance your everyday life.

The information shared in the book can help with improvement in many arenas of life. “The Actor’s Secret” is a journey to an expanded self, using the principles of The Alexander Technique, Breathing Coordination, and Somatic Experiencing. The exercises and explorations can be used to transform your habitual patterns to improve your performance, and to improve your life.

I’m looking forward to discussing principles from my book, presenting stories from my work, and exchanging ideas with all of you through my website, and in live group workshops and one-on-one sessions.

There are some dynamic classes coming up. Please join when you can.

Like my Facebook page for the latest about the book and upcoming events.