Befriending Our Habits and Ourselves
By Lisa Montanarelli
The week before Shambhala Day, the Atlanta Center offered “The Shape of Awake,” a weekthun with Hope Martin. Based in New York City, Hope has taught the Alexander technique for 25 years. She brilliantly combines this technique with meditation instruction to help meditators let go of tension in their practice and everyday lives.
Most of the participants lived in Atlanta, but others came from Durham, Tallahassee, and Vancouver. I flew in from New York City, where I’d taken a previous class with Hope. A much larger group of local Shambhalians joined us over the weekend for a nyinthun.
Between lengthy meditation sessions, Hope presented group lessons in the Alexander technique. She also went around the shrine room about five times a day, while we were meditating, and gave each of us gentle hands-on guidance to help us release tightness in our bodies. With Hope’s assistance, we gradually learned to recognize our habitual patterns of holding tension.
Many of us had similar habits. When we weren’t thinking about posture, we tended to round our shoulders and collapse in the chest. The moment we caught ourselves slumping, we “sat up straight” – pinning back our shoulders, sticking out our chests, and tucking our chins like soldiers on parade. This knee-jerk reflex of “sitting up straight” actually caused more stress and rigidity. It restricted our breathing and required so much work that we soon returned to slouching.
The remedy, Hope explained, wasn’t to force our bodies into some fixed notion of “good posture,” but to work less hard and more efficiently. In the Alexander technique, the first step is to allow the muscles at the back of the neck to release into length, so that the head can balance lightly on the top vertebra, called the atlas. When the head, which weighs roughly 12 pounds, no longer bears down on the spine and joints, the whole body responds by expanding and opening. When Hope guided me into this alignment, it felt strange and unfamiliar at first, but there was a sense of spaciousness, lightness and ease. My spine was more supple and my whole body more mobile. As I adjusted to this new way of being, I also noticed how my spine, ribs, shoulders and pelvis moved subtly with my breath, and I gained a more palpable sense of the ground supporting me.
But habits die hard. We’re often blind to our most entrenched ones, and even when we start to notice them, they’re like a default setting that we automatically revert to before we realize what we’re doing. The Alexander technique helps us become aware of our habits and experience a different possibility, so we know we have a choice. While everyone in the weekthun sensed the quality of expansiveness and ease through Hope’s hands-on guidance, it was hard to interrupt the impulse to “sit up straight” through muscular effort. As the week progressed, we struggled with a desire to “get it right” and the tendency to judge ourselves harshly when we found ourselves lapsing into old patterns.
The empathy and warmth of the teacher and of the entire group supported each of us and helped us to be kinder to ourselves. Rather than viewing our habits as a problem we had to correct, Hope encouraged us to soften to our experience and spend time exploring the qualities of both the habit and the change. She suggested that we refrain from self-correction, stay with our habits, and treat them with loving curiosity, so we could get to know how we hold tension in our bodies and be open to whatever emerged.
It was hard to shed my preconceptions about “good posture” and my belief in a goal that I could achieve through hard work. But when I stopped trying to “get it right” – when I became curious about my habits, rather than treating them as a nuisance to get rid of as soon as possible – I gained a much clearer sense of my body’s habitual reactions to anxiety and discomfort, the quality of these holding patterns, and what it felt like to let go of them.
I didn’t realize I was lifting my sternum, until Hope pointed it out to me. When I allowed my chest and ribs to soften, I felt shaky, fragile, and exposed. This gave me a palpable sense of the genuine heart of sadness – and of how my habits of holding tension in my body were related to ego-clinging and the need for something to hold onto: I hardened in the chest to shield myself from the rawness of being present, from the fear of uncertainty, and from having a more flexible and open heart-mind.
In group discussions, others shared similar insights: we saw that our rigid posture was closely tied to fixed mindsets and the tendency to freeze fluid situations into concepts of good or bad, right or wrong. But these holding patterns also expressed a history of how we’d responded to the events of our lives, and we were learning to appreciate how these reactions had literally shaped us. When we held these habits of body and mind in the cradle of loving-kindness, they seemed less solid and less of a problem. By the end of the weekthun, all the participants looked more relaxed, graceful and poised. Despite the pull of familiar habits, our allegiance had shifted from the held, stuck place to the lighter, more expansive, grounded place.
I’m still in the process of finding the middle way between lifting and collapsing in the chest. When I catch myself daydreaming during meditation, I’m usually slouching. Conversely, when I’m micromanaging my posture, chances are I’m also lifting in the chest and ribs. In either case, the antidote is to label it “thinking” and come back to the present moment: the experience of my body breathing.
The weekthun, and especially Hope’s teaching, have deepened my practice dramatically. Though the familiar aches and restlessness haven’t vanished, I’m kinder to myself and more able to stay with discomfort – which often eases as a result. Consequently, I look forward to meditating and practice for longer periods of time. I’m extremely grateful to the Atlanta Shambhala Center and to Hope Martin for this lesson in befriending myself.
For more about Hope Martin and the Alexander technique, visit http://www.hopemartinstudio.com.
Lisa Montanarelli is a member of the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, is the author and coauthor of four nonfiction books and holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from U.C. Berkeley.