The Value of Doing Nothing: semi-supine practice
– by Ruth Rootberg, M.AmSAT
The hurried, stressful life of some musicians is antithetical to making beautiful music. As a trained classical singer and designated Linklater theater voice teacher, I know from personal experience that we are not at our best when we are stressed. Taking a few moments to lie down in “semi-supine” re-sets our emotional thermometers, rests our muscles, and brings the mind to a state of quiet. Semi-supine is taught to all Alexander Technique students as a means of self-care. It is a must for people already experiencing back pain, and anyone who is serious about acquiring skills in the Alexander Technique. It is a great way for everyone to take a break from the daily grind. There’s nothing quite like literally stopping to regain poise before you resume activity. After just ten minutes, you may feel calmer, ready to continue practicing, or have come up with an inspired new musical idea.
Instructions for Lying in Semi-Supine
- Wearing loose-fitting clothes, and with bare feet or in socks, lie down on a firm surface—a carpeted floor or mat. You want your feet to easily contact the floor without slipping or gripping.
- Rest your head on books or magazines placed under the occiput—the prominent bone in the back of your skull—leaving your neck free of the books. There should be enough height to support your head so your neck is at ease in the front and back. Until you’ve had a lesson with a skilled Alexander Technique teacher, experiment with the height.
- Bend your knees so that the soles of your feet rest on the floor, hip-width apart, heels fairly close to your buttocks. Bend your arms slightly so you can rest your palms on your lower ribs. With your eyes open, see out with “soft eyes” so you can be aware of the periphery. Some people will take their glasses off.
- Notice the several contact places: the back of your head, between your shoulders, your sacrum, bottoms of your feet, and arms near your elbows. Allow your weight to fall through these contact places, without effort, without pushing. You are very stable, and this can ease your whole self. You are not trying to relax, but you will find rest, release, and come to quiet.
- Lie in semi-supine at least once a day for at least ten minutes. Lengthen the time or frequency as much as you want. Brief daily practice will be far more effective than one long session once a week.
Semi-supine can be quite powerful at any time of the day. A jingle composer once told me that after he began doing semi-supine regularly during working hours, he cut his composing time significantly. Some prepare for the day by getting out of bed and lying on the floor. Some do it before bedtime to improve their sleep. If you can’t stop slouching, it is time to rest your back. If you’re worn out from rehearsal but have homework, a few minutes lying down will ease the transition. There are predictable advantages to be gained, but each person will have a unique story of growth, development and change. You will find what works for you.
How Does Semi-Supine Help?
You don’t really have to “do” anything to derive benefit, except lie down. There are times when we feel we must keep going or we won’t finish what we’ve set out to do. But we need to take a lesson from our pets: they have moments of activity interspersed with rest. We need to intermingle rest with activity. Our nervous system will quiet down. This will make us feel better, and we become more productive with less wear and tear.
Taking a break from practice or study allows you to return to an activity, mentally refreshed and emotionally calmed. Your back will thank you for it. The protective cartilage between each vertebra refills with fluid when you lie down. That helps prevent pain or disc damage (and makes you taller!). The postural muscles can keep you upright more easily after they’ve rested. The muscles that lift and stabilize your instrument—or your breathing muscles—may also habitually try to help keep you upright, but that will make you tired, sore, or you’ll lose range of motion. After lying in semi-supine, especially after you’ve studied the Alexander Technique with a certified teacher, your awareness will be heightened, and you’ll be better attuned to changing bad habits and improving your coordination. You’ll learn to use postural muscles for posture; other muscles for other tasks. Try lying in semi-supine for a short period before and after you practice, and see what changes.
What to “Do” While Lying Down
Cultivate “non-doing.” Use your lying down time to quiet your thoughts, and you may experience new levels of peace, confidence, and poise. When you learn the Alexander Technique skills of conscious inhibition and direction, you will practice them while lying down. For instance, repeat this silently: “I allow my neck to be free so my head can go forward and up, so my back can lengthen and widen.” If you become enamored with semi-supine, you might use additional lying down periods for listening to or memorizing music.
Alexander Technique is as much awareness education as movement education. You learn to become aware of your own habits of tension – where you grip or tighten with muscular tension you don’t need – and you learn to change this by re-educating the muscles to support you in a better way. In lessons you will experience explanation and gentle hands-on guidance to help you find ease and balance in simple movement such as standing, sitting or walking. Over time you will learn to reorganise your attention and awareness in how you go about a range of movements – and to undo tension around your body for yourself -enabling you to change long-standing habits. You will be able to take your new awareness and co-ordination into everyday life. Part of the lesson may involve you lying down in semi supine. Many people find semi supine a helpful daily tool that is good for their back and their whole body.
I gave up performance piano after high school- I was sick all the time from stress. Now I play at my church which requires prelude, offertory and postlude music. This is my family and is not a performance yet I STILL struggle with the anxiety regardless of how much I practice. Usually it gets better once the service starts but the 24 hours before hand are exhausting. I’m hoping this form of meditation will give me some relief.