Balancing Act with Eve Bernfeld


Dr. Michelle Stafford with Eve Bernfeld

Dr. Stafford was joined by Eve Bernfeld, an AmSAT Certified Alexander Technique Teacher, and founder of In Balance in Portland, OR. She offers private classes and serves as an Adjunct Professor at Lewis & Clark College. You can learn more about Eve on her website at www.inbalanceat.com.


Topics discussed in this episode:

  • What is the Alexander Technique?

  • Defining posture

  • How proper movement patterns are like good nutritional habits

  • How AT can help pregnant women

  • How kids tend to develop bad postural habits

  • A brief exercise to feel more balanced

Listen, read, watch! You can listen right here, or with a podcast app of your choice. You can also read the complete transcript below, or scroll to the bottom of this post for the video.


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Dr. Stafford: Hi. It's Dr. Michelle Stafford here with our Mixed Dentition podcast and today my special guest is Eve Bernfeld of In Balance, who has come today to talk to us about the Alexander Technique. So thank you for being here, Eve.


Eve Bernfeld: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really happy to be here. I love the podcast. I've been watching so many-


Dr. Stafford: Thank you.


Eve Bernfeld: ... good things for parents, for families.


Dr. Stafford: Yeah. I'm excited to learn about the Alexander Technique. I guess we could start off with just kind of sharing with the audience what that is exactly.


Eve Bernfeld: Yeah that's-


Dr. Stafford: How it works.


Eve Bernfeld: ... usually the first question I get when I say, "I teach the Alexander Technique." "What's that?"


Dr. Stafford: What is that?


Eve Bernfeld: So there's a lot of different ways that people describe it. It's looking at how we do the things we do. So how we use our bodies in all of the activities that we go through in a day. Whether that's a really specialist activity like playing the violin or how we sit at our desk, how we write, sit, stand, walk, empty the dishwasher. Because we tend, over time, especially as we reach adulthood, to have a lot of habits about how we do things that maybe are not super efficient.


Eve Bernfeld: So I help adults. When I work with adults, I'm primarily helping them to relearn how to move with ease and efficiency the way that they used to when they were young children.


Dr. Stafford: I love this. This is especially important as a dentist. Dentists traditionally have very poor posture because we're kind of hunched over and leaning in, so I'm very excited to talk with you today.


Eve Bernfeld: Good.


Dr. Stafford: So let's define posture. I mean, I just kind of threw that word out there, but what does that mean exactly?


Eve Bernfeld: Yeah. Well, we work a lot with people with posture. Now, it's one of those words everyone sort of thinks they know, but it's a little hard to define. So I'm just going to define posture as the ability to be upright, as opposed to collapsed. We all do it all the time so we don't really think about it, but there's actually kind of complex motor patterns happening in the brain to allow us to be upright.


Eve Bernfeld: But there's more than one way to accomplish something. So we can be upright in a really easy way that doesn't take a lot of effort and is really free and we can move and we can do whatever we want. That's the kind of posture that's typified by children. Or we could be upright in a really rigid way. You think of military posture like lift your chest and push your shoulders back. And I think a lot of adults think that's what good posture is. So we try to impose it on ourselves. Sit up straight. We try to impose it on our children too, "Sit up straight." But I wouldn't actually define that as good posture because it's so much work.


Dr. Stafford: Interesting.


Eve Bernfeld: We do it for 30 seconds at the most and then we collapse again because it's very tiring.


Dr. Stafford: Interesting. So how does the Alexander Technique work into that?


Eve Bernfeld: Well, in my work, I'm helping people either... Well, in the case of adults, relearn how to sort of get out of their own way so that they can be upright and moving and balancing in ways that are easy and functional.


Eve Bernfeld: It's a little bit like nutrition maybe. I mean, we all, I think, are pretty much onboard now with the idea that in order to function optimally, we have to think about what we eat. If we're eating a diet of junk food, then we're probably not going to be optimally healthy.


Eve Bernfeld: I know in your line of work, this is of particular-


Dr. Stafford: That's true.


Eve Bernfeld: ... importance.


Dr. Stafford: Something near and dear to me, yes.


Eve Bernfeld: Well, the way that we move is similar. If we are moving with a whole lot of extra tension all the time, it's going to affect how the whole body functions. Whether that means because we're totally slumped over, we have kind of a lack of tone. Or because we're really rigid and we have too much tone, that's going to impair our ability to breathe well, the ability of the circulation to function, the digestive activity, and our emotional life too because the shape of the body really is a factor in emotions. It both influences how we feel emotionally and is influenced by how we feel emotionally. I mean, if I asked you to make a sad shape, I think you would be able to do that.


Dr. Stafford: It's true.


Eve Bernfeld: So I help people learn to have a little more self-awareness and a little more self-control in how we're using those features of our functioning.


Dr. Stafford: That's so great. I know you often work with pregnant women.


Eve Bernfeld: I do.


Dr. Stafford: As a mother myself, having carried two babies, I feel like pregnancy was very challenge in order to stay upright. I happen to not be one of those women that could workout. I mean, I felt like half the time just making it to work was an accomplishment. And still working and being able to walk. I gained enough weight where I just felt so forward heavy. So you work with pregnant women though.


Eve Bernfeld: I do work with pregnant women.


Dr. Stafford: I wish we had met five years earlier.


Eve Bernfeld: I know, me too.


Dr. Stafford: Eight years ago.


Eve Bernfeld: Well, if you're having any more.


Eve Bernfeld: It's a really challenging time because the center of mass is shifting and-


Dr. Stafford: That's right, center of mass.


Eve Bernfeld: ... everything is changing. So we may be getting along fine with the postural habits that we have going into pregnancy, but when you add all this extra mass, I mean, over the whole body, but particularly out in front, suddenly, those strategies often don't work so well and can really contribute to the back pain that's common and the hip pain and all these... Even the difficulty with breathing. We sort of think of all those as normal pregnancy symptoms, but they may be exacerbated by the way we're using our body unconsciously.


Eve Bernfeld: So I help pregnant women learn to become more upright and manage the weight in a way that is distributed through the whole body and not really centered just on the low back.


Dr. Stafford: Interesting. That's so great. So do you teach classes then for pregnant women?


Eve Bernfeld: I have. I do periodically.


Dr. Stafford: That's great.


Eve Bernfeld: Primarily, I see my adult students one on one. They come to me for lessons. Sort of like a music lesson. I also teach a group class at Lewis & Clark College, which... It's actually sort of interesting that I sort of have these three ages in my view at all time. Because I'm a mom, I have three children. And I teach college age and then I teach adults up into 60s, 70s, 80s. What I find really interesting, and this sort of going back to the question about posture, is that the college students look more like the 60-year-olds-


Dr. Stafford: Wow.


Eve Bernfeld: ... than they do like the four-year-olds.


Dr. Stafford: Wow.


Eve Bernfeld: And they say to me like, "How did I get this way?"


Eve Bernfeld: Then as I observe my small children... I actually used to be a drama teacher, so I've had a lot of experience working with small children and seeing just how easily they move. Then noticing that it can start to go awry right about the time that they enter school, which my-


Dr. Stafford: Interesting. So school kindergarten age?


Eve Bernfeld: ... Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). So I'm getting more and more interested in not only working with people to reeducate when they're already grown up and have a whole lot of bad habits, which is a great thing to do. We have very plastic brains and we can relearn all this stuff.


Dr. Stafford: We do. We can relearn.


Eve Bernfeld: But what if we didn't have to relearn it? What if there was a little bit more attention paid to what we have and not losing it in the first place?


Dr. Stafford: Right.


Eve Bernfeld: Which is sort of becoming a bigger and bigger focus of my work and of my interest.


Dr. Stafford: Yeah, that is really interesting. What have you found is causing this change in posture for our school-age children?


Eve Bernfeld: Well, I think it has a lot to do... Well, there's always a number of factors including modeling like what kids see. But I think when you add writing... I mean, you probably can picture your own kids. And maybe they don't do this, but-


Dr. Stafford: Don't do just-


Eve Bernfeld: ... this kind of thing starts to happen as we start to learn.


Dr. Stafford: Yes, you seem to get closer and closer.


Eve Bernfeld: Closer and closer. I have a student who describes it as sniffing the paper because it's almost as if we... Even coloring and we start to want to hunch toward it. What I've observed is that for most grownups, that looks pretty normal because we do it too. From my perspective as an Alexander teacher, I also know that maybe that's not necessary.


Eve Bernfeld: What's happening is as children are learning these really important educational skills like writing and doing math and reading, they're also learning to do it in a way that's really tense and really fixed and really rigid and really hard.


Eve Bernfeld: So those things become kind of coupled in the brain, and they get to college, the next time I tend to see kids, and it's really hard to separate taking notes from hunching.


Dr. Stafford: Hunching.


Eve Bernfeld: Like, "I'm paying attention now."


Dr. Stafford: Right, that intensity that you're paying attention. That does make sense. Kind of built that habit and the connection in your brain. That's really fascinating.


Eve Bernfeld: But something that's sort of interesting is that this, and I keep sort of... For people who can't see me, I'm demonstrating lifting the shoulders, kind of hunching up the back and kind of drawing my head down onto my spine. If you think of a cat that is startled by a big dog, and their fur on the back of the neck goes up, that's the same posture. It's actually a stereotyped pattern, motor pattern that's associated with stress.


Eve Bernfeld: So we put kids in a mildly stressful, hopefully not too stressful, but it's a little mildly stressful environment, and then we don't teach them about what they're doing and then they take on the shape of stress. That becomes how they learn.


Dr. Stafford: They're learning.


Eve Bernfeld: We wonder as we get older, "Why am I so stressed out?" Not to say that's the only factor, of course.


Dr. Stafford: Of course.


Eve Bernfeld: But I think it is a factor.


Dr. Stafford: That's so interesting. With your own children, I mean, I know you shared with me they're about to go into kindergarten, and they're probably learning how to, at the very least, color and start writing, and things like that.


Eve Bernfeld: Yeah, they're starting to write.


Dr. Stafford: Are you paying attention then closely-


Eve Bernfeld: I am.


Dr. Stafford: ... to how they're sitting and learning to write?


Eve Bernfeld: With my own children, of course it's like, "Yeah, so hard." Because they don't want to hear it from me. So I have to tread very, very lightly. But yeah, I was a little alarmed when they did start writing in preschool that this was happening.


Eve Bernfeld: I ended up having the opportunity to go into their preschool and do a little bit of work with the children and with the teacher. The teacher said something really interesting to me after I had been in for just four very, very short sessions and playing with the children. She said, "For 13 years I've been looking at writing from the wrist down and it never occurred to me to look at the whole body."


Dr. Stafford: Interesting.


Eve Bernfeld: And I think that's true for all of us, but she just nailed it.


Dr. Stafford: I think so too.


Eve Bernfeld: That we're looking at the figure on the page, but we're not looking at the shape that we're creating-


Dr. Stafford: Of the body, mm-hmm (affirmative).


Eve Bernfeld: ... to make that. So the thing is with kids, it's really easy to get them to come back up because they're not that far away from being upright all the time. In fact, if you want, in a minute, I can take you through a couple of really simple things that we can... Little games that we can play-


Dr. Stafford: That sounds great.


Eve Bernfeld: ... with our kids to help them not associate writing necessarily with this hunching, stressful shape.


Dr. Stafford: That stress of pressing down, mm-hmm (affirmative).


Eve Bernfeld: Yeah. I had a student some time ago, private student. When I work with children privately, I usually work with the child and the parent together, which is really great because the kids are usually better at it than the parents.


Dr. Stafford: I'm sure, I'm sure.


Eve Bernfeld: So if I have, say, a 12-year-old and her 45-year-old dad, it's maybe the first time they've done something together where it comes much more easily to her than to him. So they can help each other.


Eve Bernfeld: But that was certainly what I experienced. Her ability to just come out of her kind of slouchy middle school posturing. Posture is also a verb. Think of it as we're posturing what we... And his ability to come up even though he really wanted to and he was really dedicated, it was much more challenging for him to change those patterns.


Dr. Stafford: Right. That's fascinating. For our parents that are listening at home, can you describe an exercise or give us a tip on what we can do with our children?


Eve Bernfeld: Well, the first thing I would suggest is try it on yourself first because it's so easy for me, as much as anyone else, to fixate on like, "Why are you sliding underneath the dinner table? Sit up." I totally am guilty of that.


Dr. Stafford: Those are parents' words.


Eve Bernfeld: But if first, I could just pause for a second and kind of run through some of these things with myself, then it's so much easier to kind of pass it on to the children. And I'm in a much better space to not just be nagging in that sort of stereotypical, "Sit up straight."


Dr. Stafford: Lead by example.


Eve Bernfeld: Exactly. So first, I might pause. And then I might... Do you want to do it with me?


Dr. Stafford: Yes, I would love to.


Eve Bernfeld: Actually, first let's play with the opposite. So what if we both collapsed?


Dr. Stafford: Okay.


Eve Bernfeld: We're totally collapsed.


Dr. Stafford: My back doesn't enjoy this.


Eve Bernfeld: No. Even if you can't see us, you can hear it in our voices.


Dr. Stafford: Yes, we're both collapsed, shoulders are slumped over, my back's rounded out.


Eve Bernfeld: What if we sit up straight like drill sergeant?


Dr. Stafford: Yes. We're very stiff right now.


Eve Bernfeld: We're very stiff and-


Dr. Stafford: Shoulder are back, chest forward.


Eve Bernfeld: ... maybe you can it in our voices.


Dr. Stafford: Really trying hard to be very stiff.


Eve Bernfeld: And I'm not really breathing.


Dr. Stafford: No. I was having to hold my breath a little.


Eve Bernfeld: So in contrast to those extremes, what if we both think of our head as sort of a floaty balloon?


Dr. Stafford: Okay.


Eve Bernfeld: So we have a floaty balloon head and we have shoulders that are like kind of melty chocolate.


Dr. Stafford: I love this.


Eve Bernfeld: So instead of trying to push the shoulders down, which a lot of people do. We just sort of let them melt. Then we think of the whole trunk, or if we were standing, the whole body, as soft and tall.


Dr. Stafford: Okay. Soft and tall.


Eve Bernfeld: Soft and tall.


Dr. Stafford: Like a stuffed animal.


Eve Bernfeld: Yeah.


Dr. Stafford: Okay.


Eve Bernfeld: So usually, we associated softness with kind of collapsing and tall with the rigid, but actually, we can have both.


Dr. Stafford: We can have both.


Eve Bernfeld: So just being soft and tall, and reminding ourselves that we can breathe.


Dr. Stafford: Right.


Eve Bernfeld: Which just sometimes takes reminding. So something as simple as that can make a huge difference with our children, and with ourselves too. I mean, it's certainly not only for the kids.


Dr. Stafford: I love this. Mm-hmm (affirmative). I, as I mentioned, feel very strongly about posture as a dentist, and with my team as well when they are working with our kids and I see them slouched over, I'll actually come by and rub their back a little bit.


Eve Bernfeld: That's great. It's good to have that little feedback.


Dr. Stafford: And try to get them to sit back. But especially when someone first comes to work for me, I notice they often have really bad habits, and I purchased chairs in order to try and encourage... They're called saddle chairs. To try and encourage straighter posture and straighter backs so-


Eve Bernfeld: That's so good. Because I know that-


Dr. Stafford: ... I'm very excited to share this with them.


Eve Bernfeld: ... injuries in dentistry are a big problem. I'm so glad that you're-


Dr. Stafford: Mm-hmm (affirmative). For dentists, the hygienists. Sometimes they can't work as long because of that posture, so I try to make everyone account for each other. I tell them, "If you see me slouching, please say something."


Eve Bernfeld: ... Yeah. Sometimes it's hard, really hard to attend to ourselves. We're always the last priority. Our kids are first or our clients, or our patients, or our students are always first. But if we think of it like, "What am I projecting to the person I'm with?" If I'm projecting this is really hard right now, that might not be creating this sort of optimal relationship. So if we sort of take care of ourselves, a little bit-


Dr. Stafford: And we look and seem more relaxed.


Eve Bernfeld: ... Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Dr. Stafford: Yes, it's very true with kids especially because they sense that. I know if I'm relaxed and feeling good, usually, my kids in the chair feel good and they're nice and relaxed as well, and we can get whatever we need to do done. So yeah, focusing on that posture and balance. I love this. This is great, Eve.


Eve Bernfeld: Good. Well, thank you. I just find it endlessly interesting.


Dr. Stafford: Yes, I do as well. So I appreciate this. Any other tips for parents or families out there? With a family practice, a lot of times I'll meet parents, and then I'll see them again and they're pregnant, so I can't wait if I see a mom struggling to tell her about you.


Eve Bernfeld: Well yeah, any of these things, I think, they are so simple and so helpful to anyone. Sort of floaty balloon head and the melty chocolate shoulders, soft and tall. Or just a little few series of little questions like, "Am I seeing the room?" Which seems like, "What does that have to do with it?" But how I attend to the world around me has a really strong affect on how I'm using my body. So if I'm in that stressed state, I tend to get tunnel vision or kind of glassy eyed.


Eve Bernfeld: So just, "Am I seeing? Am I breathing? Am I balancing?" Because balance is sort of... I don't mean you have to shift around all the time, but it's just to be balanced is perhaps to be not rigid. You have well distributed weight. So, "Am I seeing? Am I breathing? Am I balancing?" Are really powerful tools.


Dr. Stafford: That's really great.


Eve Bernfeld: Even just to pause. Really powerful tool.


Dr. Stafford: Wonderful. Right. Even just to take a pause. Take a breath. That is wonderful. Good advice.


Eve Bernfeld: Yeah, and sometimes I say it, it sounds like, "Well, duh." And yet, if we really attend to ourselves throughout the day, it's really easy to notice, "I never did pause. I wasn't breathing very well. I'm going to bed at night and I don't think I stopped once, and everything hurts."


Dr. Stafford: Right, because I didn't take that moment. So Eve, any last final thoughts for our listeners out there?


Eve Bernfeld: I don't think so other than just maybe after listening to this podcast, pause.


Dr. Stafford: Yes, take a pause.


Eve Bernfeld: Thank you so much for having me.


Dr. Stafford: Thank you. For our listeners, so your company is In Balance and what is your website?


Eve Bernfeld: Inbalanceat, that's as in Alexander Technique, dot com.


Dr. Stafford: Wonderful. And you're here locally. You do private sessions with people as well as teach at Lewis & Clark.


Eve Bernfeld: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and around the region, I give talks and workshops.


Dr. Stafford: Wonderful. I love it. It's been great speaking with you.


Eve Bernfeld: I've loved it too. Thanks.


Dr. Stafford: Thank you so much, Eve. And to all our listeners out there, thanks so much for being a part of our podcast, and remember to fill the world with smiles. Thanks for listening.



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