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Apr 18
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Finding Balance: On the Cushion and Off

photo by Charles Blackhall

An Interview with Hope Martin by Debra Hiers
Hope Martin will be leading a weekthun in Atlanta April 22-28, 2012 teaching the principles discussed in the interview below to intensive meditation practice.

I take my seat on the cushion, settle into my sit bones. Hands resting on thighs, palms down. Check in with my body. Eyes stay open. Slightly downward gaze. Turn my attention to the breath. Thoughts permeate mind like a wild goose demanding attention, thinking you might feed it some crumbs of bread. Let it be. Don’t feed the storyline. And don’t go chasing it away. Come back to the breath, come back to the body. When I’m chasing the goose I find that my body is leaning forward, rigid, holding tight. Coming back to the breath is where I notice this tension, relax and adjust. But how do I make that adjustment gracefully and naturally? How do I regain my balance when my mind full of thoughts pulls me this way and that way, pushes me into tightness and habitual holding patterns?

One way of working with the body in meditation is to work with the Alexander Technique, a process that enhances body awareness. This subtle yet powerful modality offers a way to be more relaxed and comfortable in your body by teaching you to recognize and let go of postural habits that cause discomfort and that distance you from being fully present in your life. It is communicated through a teacher’s verbal and gentle hands-on guidance, but ultimately teaches you how to be your own teacher and apply the principles for yourself.

Hope Martin began taking Alexander Technique lessons in 1980, and completed a three-year training program in 1987. Shortly after that she participated in a month long meditation intensive and found that even with her extensive Alexander training, she still had “a lot of trouble sitting, a lot of burning in my back, a lot of pain and discomfort.”

She knew from her own experience the obstacles people encounter sitting on a cushion or chair for extended periods of time. “When you’re sitting, and all you can sense is your own physical pain, it makes it very difficult to meditate,” she offers. Martin has spent 25 years bringing the Alexander principles to meditation practice and teaching that to others. It is one of her greatest satisfactions to introduce people who meditate to the Alexander Technique.

“One of the reasons the Alexander process fits so well with meditation,” says Martin, “is the way it makes us aware of how we interfere with our innate ability to be upright, balanced, and at ease. In meditation we are noticing how we interfere with our inherent capacity to be awake and fully present. Since there’s no separation between mind and body, letting go of bodily holding patterns while meditating makes the practice so much more personal and experiential, and brings tremendous ease to sitting.”

Our posture is molded by the way we habitually hold ourselves, formed over time by an accumulation of our many responses to life’s experiences and challenges. “Our responses have become our shape,” she says. “Learning to pause and make different choices, changes the patterns that keep us tense or in discomfort. When you change your responses, your body changes. Alexander teaches you to let go, lengthen, expand, and be supported.”

While the Alexander instruction ultimately makes the practice easier, it may also be uncomfortable at first because you are unwinding the habitual patterns you’ve developed over a lifetime. “Your musculature has adapted to those habits and now that you are sitting in a more balanced, upright, and supported way, your muscles need to change to support you in that way,” she explains. “If you’ve been chronically slumping, then your back muscles are overly long and your front muscles are short. As you come upright you are actually changing the resting state of your musculature over time. So you might experience some burning in your back or some pain even if you are sitting up properly. That pain disappears as you change your habits and live more often – on and off the cushion – in a balanced, supported way.”

I mention to Hope that I’ve always appreciated the emphasis which Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche places on body awareness in his approach to meditation instruction and practice, and she agreed. “I’m really glad to see this development in our community. It’s so needed. I think it’s the only way to go. You could say that your posture is the practice, that being in your body is the practice. It’s a complete expression of what is going on in your mind. When I am practicing and I’m being discursive, I notice that I tend to lean into the thoughts. That has a particular shape and quality in my system. The willingness to come back to being more upright, more balanced and supported — what I call downright/upright — is the willingness to come back to the present moment. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called it ‘good head and shoulders.’

“A lot of us, when we sit in meditation, don’t know how to be in a vertical orientation. Our habitual patterns are so strong we don’t know that we’re leaning back, leaning forward, or leaning to one side, yet those tendencies produce discomfort. Our habitual patterns are our default setting; we go there without knowing it. In this practice, we’re shifting the default setting from our unconscious habits that have our particular stamp of identity on them to a ‘neutral’ that’s less dictated by our habits and in line with the intelligence of our structures. We learn to stop holding ourselves tight, and to let the earth support us and the space all around us to be our home.”

“When you’re upright, supported and at ease, you have direct contact with your life in the present moment. The tendency we have to sink and be preoccupied with our thoughts is a way of interfering with this fluid, dynamic presence. So, when you come back to the present moment with an awareness of letting go of holding patterns and inviting the balance and ease of your body, there is subtle flow and movement that expresses being alive. By not fixing or freezing experience, you are present right now. This is a personal, direct experience of impermanence.”

Martin points out that even holding what you consider a ‘perfect’ posture “causes as much interference” as slumping. “Trying too hard always produces rigidity and tightness and it affects your practice adversely,” she says. “So the idea is to get balanced and to quit working so hard, to relax into the present moment, and to receive support from the ground.

“In the week-long program I teach in Atlanta, we have a luxurious amount of time to get to know our habitual patterns and make lasting changes. All the hands-on work gives the experience of a more supported and movable way of being in your body. Again, what I mean when I say movable is that you’re not being stiff, you’re not being held. There is subtle movement that happens all the time and you don’t have to interfere with it. The more you allow the transfer of weight to move though your skeletal structure into the earth without collapsing, the more freedom there is.”

I am beginning to sense the profundity of what Martin is talking about and why so many individuals who have worked with her in our community say their practice has been transformed by what she is teaching. Hope explains, “When you have this kind of training it feels good to sit because you’re not fighting with your practice by collapsing or holding some shape you think you should be in. Instead, you make contact with yourself.”

“If you have spent your life shrinking and holding your body, making yourself small — if you have lived your life that way, then when you sit on a meditation cushion you have to actually deal with that habitual pattern. Your muscles are used to holding you in a certain way and when you change that, you’re shifting your perception and your whole relationship to your life. It actually shifts things on the level of your own personal karma. It’s the same thing for someone who is all pushed out into the world. They may be overly upright, held and lifted. For them to soften that and melt the armor and to let the ground support them – that’s huge. It’s beautiful. What I see in the shrine room when people start to get the hang of this is that they are so much more present and soft and heartfelt. They change — they change into who they are.”

The process brings an experiential appreciation of how our bodies hold our lives. Hope refers to it as a process of deeply befriending ourselves. “The patterns can only unwind when we make a friendly relationship to what is living inside us, rather than trying to change.” says Martin. “It’s not just about having a good posture on your cushion. You will learn that, too, but you will also become intimate with strong habitual patterns and soften to them in a way that transforms them. It’s a very beautiful process.”

“You’re a biped. You’re supposed to be upright. That’s your human birthright. Not interfering with that is an expression of your unconditional confidence and dignity – of being awake, alive, and appreciative of your life.”

Hope Martin is a meditation instructor and teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition. She is also a Senior Faculty member, training teachers at the American Center for the Alexander Technique. She runs her own studio in New York City. www.hopemartinstudio.com

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9 responses to “ Finding Balance: On the Cushion and Off ”
  1. Aaron M. Pincus
    Mar 11, 2013

    I used to think that physical, emotional, and pyschic tension in my pratice and life
    where just facts, and that I just had to suffer through them. With Hope’s instruction
    of finding a balanced, rooted, open seat and letting life express it more freely, I can settle
    into ups and downs of living more directly. Hope’s teaching helped me to see that feeling cut off, dulled out, wound up, and tense are not the only way to experience the natural pain of being. I can return to softness and vulnerabilty and joy of my body breathing.

  2. Brenda Collins
    Mar 11, 2013

    I signed up for the retreat to just relax and perhaps learn another technique. This retreat not only allowed me to relax, It provided me the opportunity to get to know me in a deeper sense. It allowed me to experience my limitations; when I shut doiwn, when I am confident and much more. It also allowed me to opportunity to be OK with it all. It simply alowed me to experience and accept all of me.

    As a result of this retreat, daily, I am a witness as to how I move in the world and at the same time look at my posture. There is a definite connection. For me, my posture represent me and how I move into the world. Thank you Hope for sharing this gift. I look forward to doing this on an annual basis.

  3. Kim Nelson
    Mar 6, 2013

    Awesome program! Many thanks to Hope for teaching me how to soften. My mind, body, heart and partner thank you!

  4. Attending my second weekthun with Hope was as insightful and meaningful of an experience as it was the prior year. Our workshop doubled in number of attendees from last year, and each person still had individual attention during small group sessions, and received hands-on work during the meditation sessions. It was an opportunity to go deeper into the content and discussion.

    This year my body reflected a different state of mind than the year before, so I discovered new habits while revisiting the usual ones. I am grateful for the tools and practices that Hope teaches, and the genuine energy and care she brings to each weekthun. It’s like receiving a thoughtful gift, but that gift is just understanding how to know yourself….gently, kindly, through the body.

  5. I am delighted to read this article. It’s been about a week since I returned from my weekthun with Hope, an experience of sitting and noticing that has altered my meditation practice.

    I haven’t really gotten to know a “mind-body connection” prior to this. Even in my line of work (teaching acting), the physical embodiment of the moment often has no reference point. The breath and grounding into the earth are great starting points for locating yourself in the moment, but Hope’s constant reminder to “inhibit the desire to fix yourself,” to not make yourself wrong by changing where you are in space encouraged me to “befriend my habits.” The nature of habitual pattern, Hope told us, is that they feel right, and therefore growth can sometimes feel wrong.

    Changing ourselves is, let’s admit it, part of what we seek. We want to be better. I know I do. Where is the basic goodness in that? Noticing the habitual patterns and the way we lock ourselves, hold ourselves and attach to our ideas is evidenced in the body, our posture and ways of moving or not moving that keep us in our ideas.

    I am so committed to Alexander in my meditation practice but also in my life – driving, sitting, walking have been forever influenced by noticing myself.

    Thank you –


  6. Adam Haslett
    Mar 4, 2013

    Hope Martin’s weekthun at the Atlanta Shambhala Center was the single most profound and transformative meditation retreat I have ever been on. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If, like most of us, sitting is for you a deeply physical activity than the awareness she will lead you to–not just in your mind but in your muscles and body by her hands on work with your position on the cushion–will change your very breath. I sit differently now, I walk differently, I feel differently. No through strain or effort, but through awareness and allowing ease. The Atlanta Center is a great, welcoming, and relaxing place to spend the week. If you can find the time, this is it, the real thing: go!

  7. Lori Abbott
    Mar 3, 2013

    Shape of Awake was a life changing experience for me. It seems to have relieved me of the post traumatic stress disorder I had been struggling with for two years. Under Hope’s loving, skillful guidance, the combination of meditation and Alexander technique brought about an awareness and letting go of the habitual holding (in mind and body) that had been so painful. I feel more presence and joy in all aspects of my life and I’m inspired to continue on the path.

  8. Kevin Winters
    May 26, 2012

    Hope’s weekthun was a very insightful path. I can honestly say that I am sitting (and walking, working, running, etc.) with significantly more ease due to her masterful guidance and skillful way of transmitting the Alexander Dharma. Having grown up performing, including dance (modern and ballroom), including a relatively strong yoga practice, I though that I had good posture. However, after feeling the fluidity and ease that comes with “downright/upright”, I was able to see how much tension I was holding even in my “best” posture. For me, as the week and teaching progressed, I felt a noticeable and sometimes painful expansion of my upper back (where I tend to hold a lot of tension and, usually, the first place to tire out when sitting on the cushion) as my muscles and spine were transformed from their “botched kinesthesia” to a more natural and ease-filled relation. It was fortuitous that this happened just before I took Windhorse, which gave me a more potent relation to “Take your seat”.

    I would suggest Hope’s skillful weekthun to *anyone* who meditates, and who plan on meditating for longer sittings through a greater part of their lives. The warmth and service of the Atlantla Sangha makes the weekthun even more enjoyable. Also, the “urban retreat” setting helps to punctuate the ability to integrate meditation into everyday life. While I greatly value my weekthun at Karma Choling, apart from my everyday concerns, there is certainly something to be said about practicing so intensely within a more urban/everyday environment and setting. Again, cannot suggest this enough.

  9. Brandy Amato
    May 13, 2012

    Hope’s workshop was excellent. The most curious aspect was seeing how my own thoughts and emotions actually expressed themselves in my body, and that I could let them pass through me with a few small adjustments in my alignment. On the most practical level, I applied some of the techniques as I returned to office. How refreshing to have a different perspective and to be able to make an spontaneous mind/body connection by changing my posture…I showed up as myself instead of a reflection of my old habits! It was liberating to be introduced to my physical habits, relate them to my habits of mind, and then to allow them to pass through me. This practice is transformative and enriching, and seems essential for anyone practicing meditation.

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