Jean McClelland leads The Mindful Body- New Ways to Release Stress to Feel More Relaxed, Vital and Strong.
By Jean McClelland
Last fall, I was invited by one of the state universities in New Jersey to give a presentation to its music students on muscular-skeletal and vocal health. The presentation fulfilled a mandate from the state that required all music students to receive instruction on how to keep themselves “healthy” in four basic areas: muscular-skeletal; vocal; auditory; and psychological. While I think it’s wonderful that young musicians are given this instruction, I think it is also alarming that they may be under so much stress that they are at risk of hurting their bodies and voices while studying their art. I emphasized to them that even though they play an instrument or sing, their primary instrument is their body, and how they use their body will determine how well they perform on their instrument. For all of us, our body is our instrument, and how we use ourselves determines how well we function in life. Learning to use ourselves well requires awareness and mindfulness. It requires a “mindful” body.
Over the past year, I have been giving Alexander Technique lessons to a young jazz guitarist who developed tendinitis in his wrists and shoulders from over-practicing. When I asked him what he thought happened when he started to play in pain, he gave me an answer which was incredibly perceptive. He said, “I lose my body.” It was an amazing insight and applicable to most of us. Most of us would agree that it often feels like we have “lost” our bodies. Pain is, of course, the body’s way to remind us that we are not using ourselves with ease. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed with low energy and fatigue are also signals from our body and mind that we have somehow “lost” ourselves. But there are simple ways for us to become aware our body throughout the day that will help us use ourselves with more ease. I hope that in the upcoming webinar—and in this blog throughout the next several months—I will be able to guide you in some new ways of thinking and working with your body that will help you recognize and release tension and build greater strength and endurance. Let’s start with an activity that is often more passive than it should be…sitting!
Sitting is something we do throughout the day, and sitting is crucially important in how we use our bodies. It’s not just a matter of “sitting up straight” but rather really learning what it means to sit “up.” Sitting “up” should not feel as though you are forcing yourself to have good posture. It should feel light and easy and energizing. It’s helpful if you have a full length mirror so that you can sit in front of it sideways and see your back. As you observe yourself, what do you notice? What I usually see, as I look around a room when I’m teaching, is that most people tend to sit by rolling behind their sitz bones. The sitz bones are the bottom bones of your torso and are technically referred to as “ischial tuberosities.” Try to find your sitz bones by sitting on your hands, palms up. Roll around on your hands and you should be able to feel two bony protuberances. They will feel somewhat pointy to you. With your hands still under your sitz bones, experiment with rolling forward and back on them. When you look in the mirror, you will see that when you roll too far back behind your sitz bones, you will be sitting on your tailbone and you will take away the lumbar curve in your back (not good!). It’s unlikely that you would roll too forward on your sitz bones, but do that as well and notice the unnatural stress on your abdominal muscles. Clearly, it is much healthier for our bodies—and our minds—to sit balanced on our sitz bones. When we sit behind our sitz bones our entire body gets pulled down into a state of collapse. When this happens we can’t breathe fully and strain is put on our joints and muscles. Our body is forced to work in a way for which it was not designed. Lower back pain and shoulder and neck tension are a result of this collapse. When we bring awareness to sitting on our sitz bones, our backs become more stable and our arms, legs and necks can move freely. Our spines become more flexible and our ribs free so that we can breathe. At first, you might need a small pillow behind your back to help you sit comfortably upright, but in time, your back muscles will become strong and give you great support.
Learning how to sit “up” is such a simple tool but it has enormous implications for the use of our body and our breathing. One caveat though: don’t worry if you find yourself slouching again within seconds. That’s what building awareness is all about. Remember, though, every time you remind yourself to sit on your sitz bones, you take a step towards improved use and greater strength and better mental focus. Mother was right. We really can think more clearly when we sit “up.”
If you have a question for Jean that she can answer in future postings of “Our Mindful Body,” please write to her at email@example.com