Semi-supine, known as constructive rest in the Alexander Technique world, is the procedure of lying on your back, with books under your head and your knees pointing up. If you ever experience discomfort in your neck or back while you are practicing, then this is a great way to spend your practice break! Semi-supine allows the spine to rest in a neutral position, which permits the muscles along the spine to release, and the curves of the spine to lengthen. Semi-supine also gives the intervertebral discs a chance to recover. The discs that lie between our vertebrae act as shock absorbers for our spine. During the course of our day, these discs are slowly compressed. Lying down at night allows these discs a chance to expand and recover; but we can also give them a break during the day by lying in semi-supine.
First: The Head
When lying in semi-supine, you may find it beneficial to lie with a couple books under your head. The reason for doing this, is so that the head can remain in a neutral relationship to the rest of the spine (as it is in standing). Use books instead of a pillow, so that your head cannot sink backwards. If you find the books feel too hard and uncomfortable, you can place a towel on top of the books for greater comfort. Experiment with different heights to find a place of comfort and ease. If the books are too high, you may find yourself tucking your chin into your neck. If the books are too low, you may feel that your head is falling back. Search, like Goldilocks, to find the arrangement that is just right for you.
Second: The Knees
In addition to finding the right height of books for under our head, we also want to bend our knees. Bending the knees takes pressure off of the lower back, and allows the back to lengthen and widen. When I first began practicing constructive rest, I found it difficult to keep my legs up; they would fall outward or shake. I found it useful to modify the procedure by placing a large cushion under each knee.
Or, if I was in the practice room, sometimes I would place a short chair or adjustable piano bench under my lower legs. The trick is to be sure that the chair/bench isn’t taller taller than your knees.
Third: The Arms
Your arms are placed on your torso such that they are not touching. Don’t hold your hands, as this can create unnecessary work. Find a place to rest your hands that feels comfortable. For me, some days, that place is on my tummy, other days it’s closer to my hips. If resting your hands on your body doesn’t feel comfortable, then experiment with allowing the arms and hands to rest beside the body.
How To Proceed:
When you first begin practicing semi-supine, you will do well to simply observe your body and your mind. Instead of trying to correct or adjust anything, just be with yourself; give yourself time to get to know your habits and your tension. When I first began incorporating constructive rest into my day, I found it helpful to set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, so that I could let go of my fear of being late to my next appointment or class. You may begin to notice, over time, that time itself begins to take on a different flavor. After several months, time began to feel longer, more spacious to me. This was another reason I liked setting the timer: my perception of time changed and I didn’t trust myself to monitor the time with my internal clock. If setting an alarm makes your feel anxious, however, then don’t set one. Do whatever it is that YOU need to do, to give yourself the time and space you need to allow your own process to unfold.
As you explore the different sensations in your body, allow yourself to expand your awareness to become more inclusive. (For more information on inclusive attention/awareness, read my previous blog posts: Practice Like You’re on Vacation, Further Exploration of Inclusive Attention.) As you expand your awareness, take time to understand how one area connects to another area of the body. You may discover that the culprit to your pain isn’t exactly where you are feeling the pain; the source of discomfort may actually be in a different area. Becoming aware of the different sensations in your body, all the subtle movements, and how they relate to other parts of your body, will eventually lead you to understanding how to ‘direct’ your body. (‘Direction’ might have to be a topic for a later post. Stay tuned!)
If you are already familiar with the process of constructive rest, and you have been exposed to Body Mapping (or Alexander Technique) in some form (workshop, private lessons, text books), then you may want to consider checking out these audio guides: Constructive Rest, The Audio Guide Series. I have been using “The Body Map Edition – Balance” as well as “Sleep Constellations” on and off for about a year now. I find these guides to be especially useful on days when I am feeling a bit restless, and having difficulty allowing myself the time and space I need to accomplish whatever the task at hand is. These guides help to cultivate inclusive awareness, encourage muscular freedom, and promote accurate adequate body maps.
When I first began practicing constructive rest as an undergraduate student, my teacher at the time, Barbara Conable, suggested that I should allow myself two ten minute sessions every day. I found her suggestion to be an effective prescription. I began each day’s practice with 10 minutes of constructive rest; and about two thirds of the way through my practice day, I would complete my second ten minute session. If you are having a particularly stressful, tense day, add additional sessions.
Final Words of Wisdom
When we are working to eliminate unnecessary tension from our playing, we must apply the same high standards that we do to the rest of our practice. Remember the words of our great flute pedagog, Trevor Wye, “It’s a matter of time, patience, and intelligent work.” We must apply this same advice to our mind-body work. Practice breaks really should be body breaks; and one way to allow for that time, patience, and intelligent work, is through constructive rest.