Four-Step Posture Check

(The following post is adapted from an article I wrote for Natural Awakenings Magazine, Lancaster-Berks Edition, February 2013)

There are plenty of reasons to practice good posture. “The more mechanically distorted a person is, the less energy is available for thinking, metabolism and healing,” says Dr. Roger Sperry, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist. By simply “sitting up straight” a person can breathe more efficiently to introduce more vital circulation to the cells of the body. He can improve his mood, digestion, concentration, sense of well-being, and immune function.

yoga_on_a_mountain

The practice of good alignment in the body can also reduce physical aches and pains. When the center line of the spine is elongated, the stress of gravity is minimized throughout the entire system, and important core muscles can engage during everyday movements. In this way, the risk of pain, arthritis, and other inflammatory diseases diminishes.

The challenge is knowing how to find and maintain a tall, balanced posture. Often when a person is told to sit or stand “up straight,” the kinesthetic sense of the midline is distorted after years of aberrant positioning. Sometimes it takes a look in the mirror, a third party to give cues, or a trained professional to identify the ways in which unnecessary holding patterns are preventing a person from reaching his optimal orientation.

That being said, there are four steps you can take to align yourself artfully right now. Find a comfortable seat on the front-half of a flat, firm chair and place your feet squarely on the ground under your knees. Then try the following:

Drop Your Pubic Bone For Weight Bearing – Tip forward until you feel your body’s weight shift to the front of your sitting bones and towards the pubic bone itself. As you do this, you should feel the curve in the small of your back increase as the sacrum nods in and the tailbone lifts slightly up and back. This is the critical first step in creating a balanced base of support for your spine to grow tall.

sitting tall

CORRECT: breathe and maintain the length of your spine.

Elongate the Sides of Your Waist –  Keep the pelvic tilt from step one above. Now lift your heart and head straight up, and imagine the two lines along the side-seams of your torso getting longer. Feel the skin on the lateral sides of your abdomen and ribs stretching. Breathe, and notice how your breath can help you to sustain this action. Keep breathing! (Note, there is a common mistake made here – often we thrust the bottom front ribs forward instead of lifting the sides of the ribs up and away from the hips – see image below.) You will know you have it balanced correctly when you can maintain the pelvic tilt from step one AND feel the weight of your tailbone drop towards the chair.

rib popper

INCORRECT: friends don’t let friends pop out their front ribs.

Gather the Bottom Tips of Your Shoulder Blades – Keeping the side-waists long, now see if you can feel the sweetest of squeezes near the back of your heart. Just above the bra line, most of us allow the bottom tips of our shoulder blades to float off into space. In balanced, efficient posture, these points press slightly in towards each other and towards the center of the chest. This is foundational for the movement to “get your shoulders back,” but if you move too quickly, you will thrust the ribs forward again and lose your long side waists. Gently, coalesce in your upper back. Keep breathing.

Lift the Roof of Your Mouth and Soften Your Eyes – Let’s check in: do you still have your pubic bone dropping down? Are your side-waists lifted? Can you feel the shoulder blades converging in towards the heart’s center? Good work! Now add the coup de gras: lift the upper palette of your mouth. Straight up is an acceptable trajectory, however, if you’re like most people, you live in “forward head posture” with shoulders slumped forward and the head creeping towards the computer screen before you. Therefore, it might be helpful to imagine of the roof of the mouth lifting up and then angling slightly towards the back wall of the sinuses. You will notice then that the chin can drop and that pressure is taken off your jaw (TMJ). Soften your facial features and feel the eyes rest in their sockets. Notice your breath again and again.

These four steps are like a road-map towards good posture in your spine.  Work through the sequence repeatedly until you feel it getting easier to breathe and maintain. You might want to set time aside just for this – a focused meditation. Or see if you can establish these details in your everyday movements – like standing in line at the store, brushing your teeth, or folding laundry.

The goal is to create a buoyant,  flexible “container” into which you can invite full, deep breaths. Healing happens when you make space within yourself. By practicing these four steps, you cultivate a peaceful, sustainable efficiency in your body that can help you in countless ways.

Beatific Jet Propulsion

“Jellyfish… are old, primitive creatures, yet so effective that they hold their own in our modern world….    Although primitive, they nonetheless represent a pinnacle in elegant design and locomotion. Watching a jellyfish move through the water… is always a breathtaking experience.”  – Dr J Floor Anthoni
Jellyfish paintings by Sir Alister C Hardy, 1956 (1896-1985)

Enjoy an expansive upper body as your foundation gathers towards center.

Can you picture the pulsating rhythm of a jellyfish moving through water? When the bell (circular muscles) are contracting, the mouth floats upwards, towards light. Our own body has 8 functional diaphragms, or membranes comparable to the bell of a jellyfish. We’ve already been practicing the alignment of one (the arches of the feet.) In this blog, I will have you focus on two others,  the pelvic floor and thoracic diaphragms; you can use them to develop an elegant method of movement towards “axial elongation.”

Inhale and allow the weight of your pubic bone, tailbone, and sitting bones to drop heavily onto your seat ; feel the lowest part of your belly rise up as a result. (PELVIC FLOOR DIAPHRAGM)    Exhale and gently tone around the core to encourage the lift of your heart towards the roof of your mouth. (THORACIC DIAPHRAGM)

Jellyfish paintings by Sir Alister C Hardy, 1956 (1896-1985)

Jellyfish paintings by Sir Alister C Hardy, 1956 (1896-1985)

 

I make a big ass-umption here that you know where your pubic bone, tailbone, and sitting bones are… and that you know how to let them bear your weight! In fact, most of us usually sit way too heavily on just the tailbone and the BACKSIDE of our sitting bones in a slouched posture (i.e. on a soft couch.)

This technique demands of you a forward tilt of your pelvis in sitting, so that you are heavy on the FRONTSIDE of your sitting bones and approaching the pubic bone. Then, and this is very very very(!) important, you stay tilted forward and let the tailbone get heavy again too.

 

Got it?… Now try to breathe as though each breath is swimming your “inner body” vertically upward, toward the mouth or more specifically the back of your sinus cavity (another diaphragm!)

You will know when you are on it when it feels easy to sit up straight. And by “straight,” I mean as tall as you have ever been in your entire life, and float with the breath even longer, lighter, and more effortless in your being.

{**If you are super — sensitive and have read the foot blogs preceding this one, you might  perceive the similar mechanical advantage of the arch of the foot in standing: allow the big toe root and other 3 corners of the foot to drop down…  notice how the center of your arch tracks up toward the back of your knee.}

Groovy Baselines

“Notice the baseline(s) of healing and softness always present….    That action of returning to the present creates an energy within us that is magnetic, truthful and palpable. To have such close communication with ourselves is a gift to the world.”     ~Elena Brower, Erica Jago

 

If you’ve ever tried to meditate you might have noticed the rascally nature of your mind. The moment you try to think of nothing, your mind races to think of everything! Your thoughts turn towards the past and the future, and most often towards critical judgements of your self and others.

Your feet can help you with this. (Last foot blog for a while, I promise!)

We’ve already discussed how a simple softening in your toes and balanced weight-distribution on the ball of the foot can organize and calibrate your legs for improved health and posture. Now try tuning in:

Sit and stand (and eventually walk!) with your feet turned to parallel. (Use an imaginary line from the middle of the heel to the 2nd/3rd toes.) Once you’ve gone parallel, re-relax your toes and try to coax that rascally big toe ball back to earth.

splayed feet

consistently splayed feet  = weak hips

 

parallel feet 2

stand in the place where you live

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feel that soft groove of your “longitudinal arch?” It’s a candid focal point that awakens your core muscles. Time spent here can help stabilize the SI joints, relieve knee pain, and strengthen the hips. And because it requires great attention to stay that close to yourself, it also anchors the racing ways of a rascally mind.

Stand well.

Standing well rocks.

You’ll find that as you gather your feet and awareness to the baseline of yourself, you take on a certain charge. It is palpable and will positively affect those around you. Be present to the shifts, if you can… and present to the gifts, as you stand!

 

Armpit Magic Tricks

“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”  Pema Chodron

In keeping with my smelly-body-parts blog I’d like to take a brief sojourn up to the armpits.

So often we hear the call for us to “open our hearts” but how can we specifically find this space in our physical body? There are many diverse deviations in posture and alignment I see in my clients and students, so I offer a widely encompassing cue here:

Establish a comfortably sustainable posture using your feet to register the earth. Notice that you are breathing.  Deepen the space under your upper arms. Keep breathing.

That last bit about deepening your underarms while continuing to breathe is The Magic. When you locate the head of your humerus bone for your neuromuscular system, you create the opportunity for your collar bones to widen, your shoulder blades to coalesce upon your upper back, and the length of your neck to increase.

Allow your shoulder girdles to float freely to the top of your ribcage, liberating your heart’s space for other important matters.

You will know you are getting this terrific trick to work for you when you feel like the weight of your arms is being held by (newly) awakened muscles around the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. As in the picture above, you might also note a shallow groove created between the shoulder blades. (Forgive me – my head could be a few degrees further back…  I’m still practicing myself!)

Maybe with time this technique will eliminate neck pain or tension headaches when you sit at the computer. Perhaps now we can forever stop sweating and staining the underarms of our shirts! Or, this might just something to practice while we sit in a traffic jam instead of clenching around the uncontrollable.

Warning! – New-Age Leap Ahead!   …….  But what if with this awareness the autonomic nervous system (the one that adjusts your body to deal with stress) can find the requisite time and space to tender a calm response to the person/situation that used to “drive you crazy?”

Ah, that is a very cool trick indeed! So then let’s widen to find a breadth of gratitude for our stressors / teachers ……  and learn from them how to expand.

How Good Can You Stand It?

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it. ”  – Pablo Picasso

Consider the rectangular (um really, trapezoidal) shape of your foot: There are two points at the base of the big toe and the base of the little toe and two at the inner and outer heel.

Can you tell which foot is using the base of the big toe for weight-acceptance?

 

The most bio-mechanically advantageous thing to do with your four points in static positions (i.e. sitting or standing) is to balance them evenly.  Sound familiar? Just like the toes themselves, the arch/foot structure benefits from balanced weight distribution.

So what’s the hold-up?… The base of the big toe! This point along the “first ray” (inner arch) is almost always bypassed or misrepresented in weight-bearing. You can tell if this is true for you by looking for a callus somewhere along the big toe itself OR check for one on the base of the pinky toe…..  Doh, there they are! …. I’m sorry!

But it’s like Picasso said: we can practice and create ourselves masterfully. In sitting and standing, see if you can softly spread your toes (see last blog) then gently place the BASE of the big toe down on the ground or your shoe. Keep it there and spread the weight of your leg/body to the remaining 3 corners of your feet evenly. (Possibly you’ll now need to re-fluff your toes.)

You might sustain such (balanced pronation) bliss for, oh, 2 seconds or so at first (if you’re lucky!). And then your reflexive pattern will probably contort your inner arch back to how it’s used to being.

No worries! When you’re ready… find it again. And again.  This little practice has big BIG rewards (decreased strain on the plantar fascia, reduction of bunions, better ankle stability, etc). I like to do it while I type blogs, drive cars, and stand at the sink to wash dishes. (Note: a simmering little ache in outer ankle muscles or inner ankle area is normal at first…. that is your body remodeling to the dimensions you seek.)

 

I have to admit: this one is much more difficult than the last blog. But the big toe root is foundational for your consciously-manifested core power! Re-fluff… and good luck!

Start with Softness

“It is only by grounding our awareness in the living sensation of our bodies that the “I Am,” our real presence, can awaken.”   – George Gurdjieff

I propose you start with your toes.  Notice your weight-bearing tendencies today… Can you identify some of these typical issues:  Do you keep all your weight out by the pinky toe or heavy through the inner front tip of the big toe? Do you scrunch the middle toes up against the ground/your shoes?  Do you often find yourself standing with your feet splayed out to the sides with your toes turned out – and how does that effect the tension in your toes?

Tension indicates weakness, poor coordination, and imbalance in the system.

When you’re ready for a positive change in the alignment and therefore health of your body, start here: relax your toes so that they all feel soft against the floor/your shoe. (Extra credit if you can do so with your feet parallel to each other as you stand – more on this in future blogs!)

Hmmm… Soften your toes. Sounds simple, right? Try it and see if you can maintain that relaxation (in sitting OR standing) till the end of reading this blog. If you are like most people, your “ground reaction” will reflexively be one of imbalanced, grasping struggle at first, (it certainly has been for me), but let me assure you it’s normal to cling and hold tension until we find our center.

Indeed, softening your toes evenly will help center the weight of your shin over the arch of your foot, (specifically the cuneiform bones), and this is extremely valuable for the strength and integrity of your arch, the mobility of the foot and ankle joints, and the muscular coordination of your legs and lower back. I dare say: this can even help to tone the pelvic floor muscles!

Use the spread of your toes to bear weight more efficiently.

How so? It’s the privilege of selective neural “awakening…” by releasing our unnecessary holding patterns we create space in our system for the most efficacious action potentials to emerge.

Well?… have your toes gone back to fighting the floor?… not to worry! When you’re ready, start over (again and again) with softness – this head to toe overhaul will pay off soon. For now, feel for the ease and enjoy.

 

Alignment as Invitation

“Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”  – Martha Graham

As both a yogi and physical therapist, I teach people how to hold space within themselves. I offer guidelines for where to place one’s feet, back, or shoulders and ultimately, methods for movement and living that might alleviate suffering and pain.

Such a process requires a calibration of the physical body and thus the nervous system. And for all of us, such a shift requires attention and diligent practice!

What does it take for a person to attend to their posture when they are sitting at the computer, doing the dishes, lifting the laundry basket…?   Vision, faith, desire… an intention to feel better in this body and a belief that if we create the physical container for better health, it arrives.

At first, we forget! We slump over the keyboard and fall into old holding patterns in the blink of an eye. But for the diligent student, a desire for change reengages their conscious mind within their body… and as they remember (again and again and again), they practice and invite the outcome they seek.

If you can work with this cycle long enough, you will realize your intentions are absolutely creating your experiences…. and that soon the fluctuations and forgetfulness start to subside. This is the reward we seek: increased strength, endurance, and energy;  less distracting thoughts and pain; the healthiest, most vibrant possible state of being.

It is my intention to share my knowledge of alignment with my clients, students, and readers. This blog is my means of inviting you to practice with me!