by Emma Cataford from The Shambhala Times
During this year’s Yarne retreat, Hope Martin, a Master Teacher of the Alexander Technique, was invited by Ani Pema Chödrön to work with the community to help improve our meditation posture. Alexander, an actor with voice problems, developed his work in the late 1800’s. By studying himself in three-way mirrors, he noticed that he unconsciously interfered with the natural expansive organization of his system, and developed a process through which efficient functioning could be restored. The method brings awareness to postural and movement patterns, focusing on the relationship of the head, neck, and spine to the rest of the body. Similar to working with our mind in meditation, this approach is an active exploration of how we show up in our body.
During silent week, Hope did hands-on work in the shrine room twice a day, quietly tweaking our position on the cushion to help us find more ease, mobility, breath and grounding. Habits that block those qualities also became apparent, making for a rich examination of how our bodily habits influence our meditation practice and our lives.
Experiencing Hope’s gentle adjustments, a contrast develops between our usual way of living in our bodies, and a lighter, more supported, energetic place. Invariably we slip back to our habits but her touch teaches us how to move out of them again. In this way, we gain insight into the quality of our responses that are held in our “posture”, and how we physically display our whole world and state of mind.
Many participants found Hope’s teaching extremely helpful. Padma Rinchen shares her experience: “The A.T. is a practical way of connecting with oneself for a process of physical and psychological positive transformation. The good news is that my lifelong wilted flower stance no longer need define me.”
It is fitting to have the opportunity to investigate the relationship between mind, body and identity while Ani Pema has been teaching on ego and selflessness. As Pema said in one of her talks: “One of the main qualities of ego or grasping is contracting and tensing, based on fear.”
Hope’s practical guidance on letting go of constriction is a “gateway to access these teachings in a very personal way and apply them in our practice and daily life”, says Rigpa Lhatso. Ani Dechen observed: “There is no way to ultimately separate body and mind, so recognizing subtle habitual patterns in my posture has allowed me to see more clearly certain deeply held beliefs I’ve had all my life that have kept a lid on my heart and life-force energy.”
Sharon Meadows connected to the work in a powerful way: “As a singer, dancer, teacher, and administrator, I have spent my entire life standing tall, shoulders back, head up, belly clenched, facing the world like a warrior. It took the gentle touch of Hope to release years of tension in my body. As she moved my head and neck ever so slightly forward and down, she whispered, ‘soften…just soften’…and I began to weep. Years of guardedness fell away. My heart opened. My neck relaxed. My head felt as if it were floating on the top of my spine. My body settled into the cushion with a sigh of relief.”
After silent week, Hope conducted group classes twice a week, exploring the application of the Alexander Technique to sitting meditation and other activities such as walking, bending, and even running. After experiencing the hands-on work, we were invited to think of awareness as a form of touch.
This empowering approach is not about striving for an ideal posture but rather honoring our natural structure and learning to stop interfering with it through excessive muscular tension. Then a balance of support and relaxation can come into play that invites our own aliveness to show up. As Holly Chute puts it: “With a more relaxed posture my mind has been less agitated and more in tune with softer, lighter sensations in my body.”
Padma continues: “From the first A.T. class I had a direct sense of what it means to contact my body using its natural intelligence and magnificent structure. The blind spot of not knowing how to relate with my body is beginning to disappear and I now have a sense of how to use my body and rest within it the way it was designed.”
Echoing one of Ani Pema’s book titles, Start Where You Are, Hope encouraged us to get to know our habits. By not trying to fix them, we become intimate with them and they can be a gateway for kindness toward ourselves. Holly Chute observed: “Learning to relax this habit in my posture has become a kind message to myself.”
Bonapart, Hope’s teaching assistant
Ani Dechen expressed it this way: “This work allows me to practice a more refined way of inhabiting this human body: not simply correcting the body according to whatever my ideas of an ideal posture are, but developing a deep listening and trust of the body, allowing it to come alive and undo its knots with its own particular wisdom. I am very grateful for Hope’s help on this journey of deep listening and trust.”
As with meditation practice, facing our habitual patterns is challenging. “At first I was very skeptical. I had spent a long time trying to perfect a comfortable posture, so I did not want to change it”, says Kunga Rangdrol, “The willingness to look at and change my posture was the doorway to deepening the whole experience.”
For those of us who slump, more support is needed and accompanying tightness can be a necessary part of the process until we get used to the musculature working efficiently. Hope encouraged us to be gentle with the process. She taught a lying down practice called Constructive Rest to help us let go and allow the floor to support us.
More often, pain resolves. Rigpa found relief from years of chronic pain in her meditation: “Now without the struggle aspect, I began to really wake up and move through sleepiness and distraction which was often the result of avoiding the pain in my body.”
Kunga adds: “When Hope corrected my posture, she put me in a position that allowed my breathing to flow completely naturally. For the first time, I wasn’t forcing myself to sit up, rather the earth was supporting my body. This simple yet profound correction has allowed me to be less focused on the tension in my body and more engaged in my actual practice.”
It’s a learning curve, but the results come along not only in the body, but also in the mind. As Dawa puts it: “It slowly sank in, leaving me with a sense of natural elegance, more energy in the body and with a more spacious and relaxed mind.”
Gampo Abbey’s Director, Richard Haspray concludes: “It freshens practice, giving one ease and mobility (instead of tightening, bracing and holding to maintain stability). Sensory experiences are brighter, mind clearer, and you can genuinely relax with whatever arises, because you are sitting with your shape of awake.”
Hope will be returning to Atlanta March 22-28 to lead her sixth annual weekthun there called the Shape of Awake. All are welcome to attend this unique and beneficial program.
Emma Cataford grew up in Italy and studied Journalism in London, UK. She has been in Shambhala for about three years, is a bartender by trade, and loves dogs and diving. She is currently residing at Gampo Abbey for a year of monastic training.
IMAGE: Hope Martin with Ani Pema Chödrön