Posture and Awareness - Sensing Space

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An effective and fun way to work on your posture is to begin to notice how it is influenced by the space around you.  One of my clients who commutes daily to New York City through Grand Central Station, has learned to use her sense of this vast space to her advantage.  Improving posture could be described as more fully taking up all of your own space, so it can be interesting and useful to notice how we relate to external environments, what helps us feel expanded, compressed, contained, heavy, light, and so on.  Walking through the station helps her to feel expanded, especially in an upward direction.  She imagines the top of her head aiming toward the ceiling 125 feet (84m) above as she passes through the main concourse., which lends itself especially well to this experiment.  

Now let's change scenes and enter a different sort of space that she frequently inhabits...a corporate environment.  One day she arrived at her lesson after a day of work, which she had finished up in her cubicle on a phone call.  As her call came to a close, preparations for an office relocation were beginning to unfold (literally around her).  As she sat in her cubicle, the panels of the other workstations were coming down and her cube gradually became an enclosed little island in a vast office space...almost like working in a little pod in the middle of an empty main concourse at Grand Central.

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Cubicles divide up large, open office spaces to cut down on distraction, to help us focus, and offer some privacy while working.  Add in a screen, a phone, and a deadline though and you might become so focused that you literally forget where you are.  When you forget your body, you are probably compromising your posture and creating a lot of tension and strain by jutting your chin toward the screen, slumping, pulling your shoulders forward, lifting your chest, or tensing your legs and feet.  I'm not suggesting that you take down your cubicle walls, but you could simply use your awareness and attention to bring some of your focus out into the broader space above you, behind you and out to your sides.  Listen to the sounds around you to help bring your focus out.  Get creative with it and think about how the room would feel if the cubicle walls were removed.  Imagine you're in your cubicle in the middle of Grand Central Station!  Even if you're in a open-layout workspace, you can use your awareness and focus to help you stay centered and balanced in your body.  Try it out for yourself!

Improving Posture Means Getting Yourself Organized

Good posture isn't about standing up straight.  It's about getting organized.  I've been seriously pondering how I can better organize my stuff.  I've been guilty of taking clutter and instead of sorting through it and tidying it up, stuffing it haphazardly into a closet, cabinet, or shelf.  The clutter isn't gone.  It's just been moved and eventually the spot where I keep putting it will fill up.  

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Similarly if you try and fix your posture by lifting your chin, lifting, your chest, pulling your shoulders back, sucking your belly in, or tucking your pelvis, you'll be doing the same thing.  You're taking tension from one place and moving it somewhere else or swap slumping forward for slumping backward.  Sit in a chair and slouch and then pull yourself up.  You may or may not feel it, but if you pull yourself up with your chest and upper back or by pulling your shoulders back, you end up leaning back and really just slouching backwards.  Try it in front of a mirror.

New clients come to me looking to change their posture because what they are doing isn't working.  It's like filling your closet, closing then door, walking away and then finding that everything has spilled out.  These quick fixes aren't sustainable.  How many times have you tried to sit up straight at work and found yourself slumping within minutes?

The problem isn't sitting or standing up straight.  It's how people go about it.  It should actually be comfortable.  Hoisting yourself up and then just as soon collapsing probably isn't very comfortable, is it?  And you may wonder how having good posture can ever feel good and be sustainable.

It can.  You just need to get organized.  And that's where the Alexander Technique comes in.  Continuing with the home and clutter analogy, you may have heard of the popular website fly lady.net  Flylady asks, "Have you been living in CHAOS?  FlyLady is here to help you get your home organized! She teaches you to eliminate your clutter and establish simple routines for getting your home clean!"

Let's change her pitch to fit the Alexander Technique...."Does improving your posture feel like CHAOS?  The Alexander Technique is here to help you get your body organized.  It teaches you how to eliminate tension that's putting you wrong and establish simple routines for changing long-held habits."

The flylady guides us to organize our homes by starting with the kitchen sink.  Make it shine and get your kitchen sparkling before you move on to anything else.  The Alexander Technique helps you get organized by starting with your head and neck.  Why?  Your head is right on top of your neck and it weighs 10-12lbs!  And it's the top-most part of your body.  So what that means is that if your neck gets tense, like it might if you're straining to look at your screen, the tension in your neck is pulling your head down, putting a lot of pressure on your back, hips, and legs.  In order to begin resolving any other postural issues, we have to start by reducing neck tension to relieve the pressure of the head pulling down onto the spine (think taking the lid of the jack-in-the box.)  

Here's what to do to get started.  You've got to get the top of your head to aim up toward the ceiling.  Not your eyes, not your face, but the very top of your head.  Put your hand there.  Feel how high it is.  Give it a little scratch (right in the center of the top of your head).  Now take your hand away.  Do you still feel where you scratched?  That's the top.  Now that you're aware of it, imagine that there's an arrow pointing up to the ceiling right from that point.  Don't pull up (that will make you stiff), just aim up.  Think up.  Orient yourself up.  

Taking lessons or classes can help you understand this concept more clearly and what else follows on the road to better posture, but you can start right now as you're reading this.  Just scratch your head and aim up from there.  

Now I'm going to tackle a sink full of dishes.

 

 

 

Is that me skateboarding? Posture, Fitness, and Balance

When I was a kid, I just assumed that skateboarding was something that I couldn't do.  The most fun I ever had with a skateboard was posing my cat on one so that she looked like she was pushing off with one of her back legs and taking a picture.  If I'd had four legs, maybe I would have succeeded.  Other 2-legged humans managed to do it though, so I simply watched in awe.  I could ride a bicycle, ice skate, and roller skate just fine.  Get me on a skateboard and it was like I suddenly had no feet or legs and like if I didn't abandon ship quickly, I would soon land on my bottom.

Fast forward to this April, age 37.  I was in Ireland assisting with a workshop on Alexander Technique and running and one of the participants brought his skateboard to the track.  I suddenly had the urge to give it a try.  No uneven sidewalk, twigs, traffic, or pedestrians to worry about.  It seemed relatively risk-free, yet I still expected that I was simply humoring myself by making the attempt.  Within the past year I had mastered the art of riding the two-wheeled scooters that my daughters ride, but those have handles, so that accomplishment didn't give me any confidence.  I put one foot on the board, pushed off and to my surprise found myself easily placing a second foot on the board.  I kept going and realized that I could speed up and even turn a little.

To what can I attribute this improved agility and balance in an activity that 25 years earlier I had concluded I just couldn't do?  First, the Alexander Technique has given me the ability to stop the habit that I began at age 6 or 7 of holding myself up with my neck and shoulders.  Without the Alexander Technique and with increased computer use, plus add a smart phone, I imagine this all would have gotten worse.  If you're holding yourself up with your upper body, it's hard to sense where your feet are and to feel where your hips knees and ankles actually bend.  You end up compensating in all sorts of ways that throw your balance off and you may not even really feel your feet on the ground.  To sum that up, we could say that my posture and body awareness have improved quite a bit since I began studying the Alexander Technique in my early 20s.  

Also, I've gradually become more active.  I now run regularly and do some strength training.  If you exercise with good posture and body awareness, you're more likely to tone in the right places rather than just exacerbating the "text neck" that you've developed using your smart phone.  Feeling stronger in the right places helps me to stabilize and balance as well.  I guess I have the track to thank in part for my new found abilities!

I followed up my skateboarding discovery with a surfing lesson when I was in San Diego at an Alexander Technique conference a few weeks ago.  I still have a lot to learn, but this time it felt much easier than the first time I took a lesson a few years earlier and I was able to stand up fully on the board most of the time.

I used to think of myself as a slow learner, so it amazes me now how quickly I find myself improving old skills and excelling at new ones thanks to the Alexander Technique!

Getting the most out of your work-out and avoiding strain and injury begins at your desk, on your laptop, and smartphone.  

TRY THIS:
Look down at your phone and do your best slump or scrunch.  Exaggerate it.   Now put the phone down, but maintain the phone posture and try to walk briskly, jog, or lift something with your smart phone posture, often referred to as "text neck".   This is the exaggerated version, but is likely an exaggeration of the work habits that you may be unconsciously taking into your work-out.  

If you're interested in improving your posture and fitness, check out upcoming Art of Running classes and workshops where you can learn how to improve your form, run with more ease, flow, enjoyment, and avoid injury.  Click here for more information.  

Arming You with Handy Posture Tips

Need a hand with your posture?

Whether you're using them to type, wash dishes, throw a ball, or letting them swing by your sides, your arms and hands are part of you and effect your posture.  Your whole body, your thoughts, feelings and environment all have an impact on your posture, but today we'll take a closer look at arms and hands and I'll offer you some handy tips that you may find especially handy when using your smartphone or when you are at your desk.

First, I want to review a bit about staying upright.  As I'm talking about your arms, I'll also be reminding you to let your body lengthen upward.  One of the simplest ways to get this upward direction going is to bring your attention to the very top of your head.  Try scratching the top of your head and then take your hand away.  Do you feel where you scratched?  Think of that spot that you feel aiming upwards toward the ceiling.  See if you can just have that intention without pulling up or moving your head around.  Good posture is not so much about positioning as it is about having an upward intention.  So often throughout our day, we pull ourselves down, sometimes unconsciously.  Having an upward intention helps those downward pulls to let go and unwind rather than adding more strain to hoist or pull yourself up.  Pulling up doesn't lead to a sustainable posture.  Try it.  How long do you want to stay there?  Probably not long.  So, keep that awareness of your top-most point (where you scratched the top of your head) and have the upward intention...now onto the arms and hands...

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Arms and Hands

Arms and hands are a pretty odd and unusual thing on this planet, but they give us great advantage.  They can also pull us down, tense us up, and generally mess with our posture.  Most of our vertebrate friends are on all fours.  They can't pick apples, play the piano, or bake a cake (though I'm sure someone will prove me wrong and post a YouTube video of a cat doing all of these things). Imagine your favorite 4-legged friend for a moment.  All of its paws or hooves (including the front ones) are on the ground most of the time, constantly being stimulated to respond to gravity, which activates healthy, supportive tone in the animal's back and whole body, while allowing it to breathe totally freely.  Your friend here has good posture and doesn't have to think much about it.

So, where are your arms and hands now?  How do they feel?  Tight?  Heavy?  Not sure?  Are you reading this on your phone?  If so, notice if you are tightening your wrist, upper arm or shoulder to hold the phone.  Try to make more of the effort come from your hand, rather than further up the arm.  Imagine your find fingers lengthening around the phone and not just tensing to hold it.  When you hold things, you still grip them without strain simply by thinking of the effort as wrapping your hand around the object.  

We don't want to over-tense, but holding an object, such as a smartphone, loosely is unnecessary and may lead to excess tension in the wrist.  If a baby has ever grabbed your finger, you've probably noticed that they have quite a grip for such a small person.  The baby is likely not jamming the wrist or over-tensing the upper arm and shoulder.  Like with the cat or dog, the baby hasn't interfered with his/her coordination and the use of their arms and hands contributes to good posture rather than tensing things up.

Here's a little game...Put your hand out and ask a friend to hand you your phone with your eyes closed. Notice if your hand naturally does more of the work and if there is less gripping elsewhere.  Then see if you can keep that going with your eyes open.

Here are two more tips for when you're at your desk:

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Take frequent breaks and raise your arms up without hiking up the shoulders.  Extend your fingers and imagine that the tips of your fingers are leading your arms out of your sides and back. Keep the idea of your head aiming up as you lower your arms back to your keyboard.  As you lower them and as you reach the keyboard, maintain the idea/sensation of your arms being lively and connected to your back.  Most importantly, don't let them flop and get heavy at the last minute.

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Place your hands flat on desk, palms down.  Allow your hands to melt into the desk and think of your palms widening and fingers lengthening (all the way to the finger tips).  Release gripping that may have accumulated from typing or using your mouse.  Maintain the upward intention of the top of the head.

When clicking the mouse or typing, let the fingers do the work.  Don't tense the hands, wrists, and shoulders.

When walking:

Allow your arms to swing naturally as often as possible.  This can be challenging if you carry a lot of stuff.  Try to carry less as often as possible and keep the arms lively and swinging. 

If you are putting any of these suggestions to use, let me know how it's going in the comments below.  Cat videos welcome as well!

 

Guest Blogger, Dan Cayer: The 4 Biggest Myths about Learning to Swim

Looking to improve your swimming?  Work with Dan Cayer - Alexander Technique teacher and Art of Swimming Instructor

Learning to swim is a major bucket list activity, and for many people it stays on that list far too long because of basic misunderstandings about what it takes to swim. Recently, I met a woman in her 40s who was ashamed to admit that after months of group lessons, she still couldn’t swim more than a couple yards without total exhaustion. She described herself as “unteachable,” and figured that she just wasn’t a “water person.”

As I worked with her, it was clear that she had as much swim capability as the next person, it’s just that she was trying to learn in the wrong way. In this article, I’ll debunk 4 swimming myths that I’ve observed in my years watching people go from hugging the shallow end to swimming out past the waves. I’ll also tell you what to look for when evaluating a potential swim teacher.

Myth 1: Only very fit people can swim.

Baloney. Go to any pool at 10 in the morning on a weekday and tell me if you don’t see a number of elderly adults plodding their way back and forth across the pool. You won’t confuse their lap swimming with Michael Phelps, but what’s impressive is that one can swim for 30 minutes or more without vast reserves of strength.

Sure, swimming can be an intense cardiovascular workout. But most beginners get winded in a lap or two, not because of fitness, but because they haven’t yet learned how to float or use their energy efficiently.

Myth 2: Stroke technique is paramount.

Before you can swim, you should be able to float. It’s fruitless to spend time on the arm pull, for instance, if you haven’t yet learned how to float and bob with confidence. Our brains simply can’t learn new coordination at the same time that it feels we’re drowning. We may know we are only in the shallow end, yet some part of our nervous system will not relax until we’ve gained control in the water.

Learning how to float and not inhale water is the foundation of every other swimming skill.

Myth 3: Drill, baby, drill!

Drills can reinforce specific skills, but they won’t necessarily turn you into an intuitive or efficient swimmer. That’s partially because many of us are extremely results-oriented when it comes to drills, which means we prioritize accomplishment, like swimming a certain distance, rather than relaxing into the water.

When I was a kid, I spent probably hundreds of hours bobbing, floating, diving for rings, and generally rolling around like an otter in the water – much of this before I had learned any of the competitive strokes. Children who are lucky enough to have spent a good deal of time in water already learned how to be comfortable and efficient simply by playing.

Some portion of your swim practice should be undirected and intuitive, letting yourself sink and bob in the shallow end, blowing bubbles under the water, and just pushing off the wall and gliding without being too attached to a specific result. All animals (humans included) learn complex behaviors and skills through play and experimentation. It may feel silly to roll and sink in the shallow end, but I promise it’s time well spent on becoming a natural, confident swimmer.

Myth 4: Sinking is “Bad.”

In my experience, nearly everyone can float to some degree; it’s just that beginners interrupt the floating process by trying to hang onto the surface of the water. Think of an ice cube dropped into water: first it dips down and then bobs back up. If your concept of floating is that you should hover at the surface of the water without any downward movement, then you’re in for a long struggle. I often find that beginners respond better to the idea of “bobbing,” which includes some natural up-and-down motion, as opposed to floating which many people see as a static, permanent position.

Ironically, the most important skill-building exercise for floating is, you guessed it, sinking. In the shallow end, give yourself permission to sink over and over. Specifically, tell your arms, neck, and legs that they do not need to ‘help’ you float. Floating is not a concentrated activity like holding a yoga pose, it’s what happens when we let ourselves go in the water.

Depending on your body characteristics, you may be suspended perfectly horizontally like a raft, or your legs may sink (mine do). Don’t worry whether it’s only your head or upper back that stays close to the surface. By giving up your struggle to float, you will find more buoyancy and that will free you up to think clearly and soon learn how to swim.

That formerly “unteachable,” non-water person, spent hours learning to relax and gradually enjoy being underwater. She practiced sinking and gliding and had fun along the way. I see her swimming laps these days and think, now there’s a natural.

Finding a teacher:

A great swim teacher can help you swim with more ease and confidence than you ever thought possible. But sadly, many people have low expectations from swim instructors. Just as literacy doesn’t qualify a person to be a reading teacher, you should expect more from a swimming teacher than the fact that they know how to swim. How are they going to take you from the shallows to the deep end, and help you enjoy the process along the way?

– Find a teacher who prioritizes making you feel comfortable in the water. It’s a good sign if they’re willing to get in the pool with you.

– Does the person seem friendly or encouraging? You’re going to want to feel comfortable and non-judged in your lessons – trying not to disappoint your teacher is a distraction.

– How do they work with adults who may have anxiety about swimming? Does their answer indicate skill and experience, or a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach?

– Like a piano teacher or family physician, you don’t have to settle on the first one you find. Keep looking until you find a good fit.

Dan Cayer is a teacher and writer committed to helping others change habitual patterns, find freedom from pain, and create a sane relationship with their body. Dan is a certified Alexander Technique teacher, a trained meditation instructor, and offers a unique form of swim instruction called the Art of Swimming, which emphasizes comfort in the water and efficiency of movement. He teaches privately in NYC and also leads retreats. His next retreat in the Hudson Valley is on March 17-19th, "Cultivating Your Body's Wisdom: Posture and Presence."

Posture, Creativity, and Starting the Big Project You've Been Putting Off

In the fall of 2014, I received an email from New York Times editor, Phyllis Korkki asking if she could interview me on the topic of posture and creativity.  She was writing a book about people with creative projects outside of their day jobs or "big things" as she terms them in her book.  It turned out the the book itself was in fact, her own big thing, so her curiosity was far from purely theoretical.  She also was interested in learning about how she could potentially apply what I was teaching about posture to her own writing process. 

I perked up at the prospect of speaking to Ms. Korkki on this topic, as it clearly doesn't separate the physical from the mental.  Often people think of posture as a way to hold yourself, but it's more of a state of being.  The initial interview lead to a series of lessons and continued discussion on the topic

We may think of writing as an intellectual activity, but it's just as physical as soccer.  You're just thinking and using your body in a very different way.  If you're playing a team sport, your attention extends in all directions.  There's a lot of thinking going on, but quick thinking about where to move next.  The mind and body are clearly working in unison and you might find your posture improves without you having to think much about it, just like when sitting at a desk you might find your posture degenerating without even thinking about it.  

If you're writing, sitting, and thinking you're focus is more internal and on the screen or pad of paper in front of you (rather than in all directions tracking where the ball is going), but it's still physical.  You might stop noticing the physical sensation of sitting as you get wrapped up in the process of writing until something hurts or feels uncomfortable.  When things start to feel uncomfortable, you may have less patience and focus.  My personal experience with writing is that my ability to concentrate wanes and I have trouble finding a sense of flow if I don't feel present in my body and my environment.  This disjointed feeling affects my ability to concentrate and to create.

Here's what Korkki says in her book about posture and creativity:

phyllis Korkki & me at the big thing launch (aug 2016)

phyllis Korkki & me at the big thing launch (aug 2016)

To create something new, I realized, I would need to perform certain actions, like typing, over and over again.  It would be wise for me to consider my physical position as I did so.  Repetitive movements, if done incorrectly, could cause discomfort and injury....Initially I had looked at the posture lessons as a preventative health measure.  But once I started taking them, I realized that good posture literally opens you up to heightened creativity by reconnecting your head to your body.

If you've resolved this new years to get moving on a big project, click here to check out Phyllis Korkki's book, The Big Thing: How to Complete Your Creative Project Even If You're a Lazy, Self-Doubting Procrastinator Like Me.

Anticipation & Posture...And How Texting Relates to Tango

You're opening an email on your phone.  It's not loading.  That little circle keeps spinning.  You refresh the screen five times.  It keeps spinning.  How do your neck and shoulders feel?

The subways were delayed or you were stuck in traffic and you're running late for work.  You get onto a full elevator and press the door close button in quick successions at each floor as people exit.  How are your neck and shoulders now?  Do you feel your feet on the floor?  

In the email loading situation, the wifi was temporarily out and the elevator doors are on a timer, so those door-close buttons are just for show.  Both examples describe a state of anticipation.  If you've been in one of these common situations, would you say you felt present?  Were you aware of you body?  How aware of your surroundings were you?

Now you're trying to finish a project.  You put it off and now you're afraid that you don't have enough time to do it.  Your so tense and focused on finishing that you're not thinking straight and keep making mistakes.  The clock is ticking and you're even further behind.

We can look at posture and the way we use our bodies from various perspectives.  Here I'm looking at how posture relates to anticipation.  Anticipation isn't necessarily bad.  We run into trouble when we over-anticipate.  Neck tightens, shoulders pull in, breathing gets shallow.  There's a purpose for this "startle" response and you may have seen it on a nature documentary when an animal is avoiding a predator, an example of appropriate anticipation for that particular situation because it makes the animal very still and less detectable.  In office work environments things that stress us out, such as as slow email, running late, and deadlines won't be helped by stiffening your body and breathing shallowly.  

We can also under-anticipate, or "check-out".  I realized that this was my problem when learning the tango.  You may be wondering what tango could have to do with using your phone or waiting for your floor when riding the elevator.  It's really the same principle.  When we over-anticipate or push to hard, it doesn't help.  When we under-anticipate, we check and and don't fully engage, so nothing really happens.  I was working in Buenos Aires two weeks ago and decided to take up the challenge of taking some dance lessons.  I went into it thinking that I'm not so good at the following role because I over-anticipate and try to lead, so I gave up on trying to lead, but that didn't work so well either.  I went from straining to get the next step right to being in checked-out, disengaged mode, which didn't get me anywhere either.  There's a state that's somewhere in-between, that's ready, active, and present, but not pushing, pushing, pushing to no avail.  

In my tango lesson I didn't realize that I was disengaged until the teacher insisted over and over again that I should follow like I'm leading.  At first, I wasn't sure what that meant and I tried to take control of the dance, but that didn't work, so I gave up and disengaged, again not really realizing that I was disengaging until I realized that "follow like your leading" simply means to commit to your choice to move fully and with your whole body.  Even though I was technically "following" another person's cue, I could more effectively follow if I did so with the same assurance that I lead with.  Maintaining that presence and assurance meant moving with my whole body in a confident manner, rather than tightening my neck and leading with my chin while I tried to figure out which way to step.

So, let's look at the email loading and the running late for work on the elevator examples again.  Who or what is leading?  When you're email is loading, the leader is your phone or the wifi/cellular data connection.  Does over-anticipating the arrival of the email, pushing for a result by straining your neck and shoulders, do anything to make the email load faster?  No.  Is there any benefit?  No.  Not unless you enjoy having a sore neck and shoulders.  Instead, maybe you could space out and sink down in your chair and five minutes later, you might realize that the email loaded three minutes ago and now you're late for your meeting.  What's the happy in-between state?  Try waiting with confidence and presence.  Feel your feet on the floor.  Notice how your holding your phone  Become aware of your surroundings while you watch that annoying little thing spin.  It may not seem easy, but you could enjoy this little moment you have with nothing to do but to wait for the text to pop up.

Similarly with the elevator, the "door close" button is likely having no affect except to give you the satisfaction that you are exerting control over the speed of machine that you are entrusting to take you upstairs.  On the other hand if you disengage from the situation, you might miss your floor, making you even later.  How about becoming aware of your feet on the floor and taking a moment to simply notice where you are in space and walk into your office calm, without a stiff neck.  Being late in an agitated state of over-anticipation will likely make your lateness more obvious and will certainly make you no less late.

And what about the project with the deadline?  Over-anticipate the deadline and you'll interfere with your ability to calmly focus and get the job done and create a ton of neck and shoulder tension to get yourself into this counterproductive state.  Get too relaxed and you might end up catching up on your favorite Netflix series and never get the job done.  The trick is to meet the challenge without strain.

One of the keys to improving posture is to be mindful and present in your body and your surroundings in a state of readiness, which involves neither over or under-anticipating.  Presence and balance are keys to good posture.  Poor posture can be characterized as being stuck in a constant state of over or under anticipation.  Or some combination of the two.  

Using the framework laid out in this post, see if you can notice when you are straining in anticipation or disengaging from the present moment.  See if you can practice changing some of these habits during every day activities and notice how you feel.  And anticipate if you'd like, just remember to stay present and not tighten your neck.  Think of a child waiting to open a present!

Feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

 

Poor Posture = Driving Through Life with the Emergency Brake On

You are probably familiar with many of the benefits of good posture:
Less back, neck, and shoulder pain
Less stress
More energy and less fatigue
Improved mood
Improved breathing
Greater confidence and more positive body language

...But what is "poor posture" really?  Is it a physical condition?  Slumping?  Something you're born with?  Something you grow into by age 18 that will just keep getting worse?  A sign that of personal inadequacies and shortcomings?  What your iPhone did to you?

If you are concerned about your posture (or someone else is!), no need to fear!  You actually have quite a bit of control over your posture, but the trick is all in how you do it.  

Let's start with what not to do.

Step one:  Don't lift your chin or chest.
Step two:  Don't roll your shoulders back.

These common misconceptions regarding improving posture will actually make your posture worse and make you more tense and uncomfortable.  Start by avoiding those two things.  Why?  Because even though you might think that you are hoisting yourself up and opening up your chest, you are actually pulling your head and upper body back and down, creating some serious compression in the spine, ribs, and shoulder girdle.  In trying to improve things you'll actually be making yourself more tense, stiffer, and shorter.

One way to look at the postural problem is that it's a form of putting on the brakes in your body.  We habitually tend to press ourselves down.  For example, when the neck gets tense (like when you're stressed at work or frustrated train hasn't arrived), the overly tense muscles in the back of the neck pull the head back and down, which creates a domino effect of compression all the way through the body to the feet.  Why?

Because your head weighs 10-12 pounds!  And for every inch that you are pulling your head out of alignment with your spine, it's as if that weight is multiplied by 10!  

Yikes!

In addition to the strain and pain that this downward compression can cause, you then have to use extra effort to counter-act it when we do stuff - normal stuff like walking, running, speaking, and using computers and such.  It's like your driving through your day with the emergency break on.

To help illustrate this point, imagine that you have your hair in a ponytail (just imagine, even if you don't have long hair) and there's someone standing behind you all the time tugging the pony tail...and following you everywhere you go holding onto that ponytail.  

The image on the left shows the head tipping back and downward as the chin pokes out. the whole body is affected by this downward pressure.  The image on the right shows the head balance on the spine, which facilitates staying upright and relaxed.

The image on the left shows the head tipping back and downward as the chin pokes out. the whole body is affected by this downward pressure.  The image on the right shows the head balance on the spine, which facilitates staying upright and relaxed.

Sounds absurd, right?  Like it would mean you'd have to exert a lot more energy to do anything?    

Well, most people are doing this to themselves to some degree all the time, often unconsciously.  And that's usually the source of poor posture.

Posture isn't just physical.  It's a psychophysical (mind/body) state that we get into in response to our environment, technology, emotions, furniture, and people with whom we interact.  It's easy to get stuck in these habits and then metaphorically spin in circles trying to get out of them.   We can make things worse by trying to fix them in away that intensifies the exact habits that we are trying to change (i.e. The lifting the chest and pulling the shoulders back phenomenon.)

In upcoming posts I will discuss how what I've talked about here relates to moving, interacting with others, and using technology and what you can start doing to change your posture during those activities.

How can you start changing your posture?

Alexander Technique lessons or classes are highly effective in educating people about how to hold themselves in a way that they are undoing these problems rather than compounding them.  Good posture then feels as it should - more relaxed and energizing.

What can you do right now after reading this?  


1 - Don't lift your chest or chin or roll your shoulders back

2 - Do be more in the present moment.  Bring your attention to the space around you to the front , back and above you.  Feel your feet on the ground.  Breathe!  Also try out constructive rest to practice being more present aware of your body.  Click here for my audio guide.

3 - Click here to inquire about Alexander Technique lessons and classes.

The Effect of Baggage on Posture

You may have noticed that I chose the word "baggage" instead of "bag" in the title of this post.  I considered it for a moment, knowing that the focus of the post would be on physically carrying bags (like backpacks, purses, and briefcases), but this is an ideal opportunity to point out how inseparable the physical and emotional aspects of things are.

In a recent post, I discussed how hunching over your smartphone right before and interview or meeting can lead you to feel more fearful and less confident.  Carrying your bag can affect how you feel and come across as well.

You've likely heard the phrase, "She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders," an example of language employed in day-to-day conversation that points to how linked what we do and how we feel are (and vice versa).  

Take a moment to imagine a person walking around with the weight of the world on their shoulders and then imagine the same person carrying a heavy backpack or bag.  The way we carry stuff affects our postural habits, which may then stick with us even when we're not carrying it.  We may in turn feel less "up" (light and springy), in addition to the potential for neck, shoulder, and back pain.

Let's take a look at several types of bags (The backpack, messenger bag, shoulder bag, briefcase or shopping bag, and rolling suitcase) and I'll offer you a few tips on how to keep the spring in your step and the pain out of your neck, back, and shoulders.  You've probably heard the expression "pain in the neck" too!  

The Backpack:  These days children and adults of all ages carry backpacks, especially us city-dwellers who don't have a car to toss an extra sweater and bottle of water into.        

Good News:  Back packs can be worn on both shoulders and more evenly distribute weight.  

Bad News:  There's often a tendency to either lift the shoulders up into the straps or to let the backpack pull your upper back back and down.                                                                      

Try this:  

1) Wear the backpack on both shoulders and cinch up the straps so that the middle of the backpack reaches the middle of your back.  (For children, make sure the backpack isn't too big.)

2)  Don't jut your chin out.  Remind yourself of how tall you are by tapping or scratching the top of your head before you start walking (This will help prevent you from sinking down).  

3) Think about your whole body from the tops of the shoulders and below all the way to the ground supporting the backpack.  Don't lift the shoulders for "extra" support.  You'll only strain.  Holding onto the fronts of the shoulder straps is fine so long as you don't tighten the shoulder, upper arms, or wrists to do so.

The Messenger Bag
 

Good News:  You can add some support with your hand.
 

Bad News:  This one's twisted (literally).  If you're not careful, the bag might put you in a twisted state if you wear it in the typical shoulder/opposite hip style.  

Try This:

1) When you first put the bag on, notices how the weight distributes through your body and see if you can avoid letting it twist you or throw you off balance.  Don't stiffen.  Keep breathing.  Make sure your weight is evenly balanced on both feet.

2)  If you get tired, place your hand (on the same side as the bag) under the bag and give it a little support without tightening your shoulder.

The Shoulder Bag

Good News:  You can hold it high up and close to your body.

Bad News:  It's all on one side, so it might throw you off balance.

Try this:

1) Don't lift your shoulder to support the bag.  

2) If you are holding the strap with your hand, don't over-tense your wrist and forearm

3) Feel your feet on the ground.  Imagine that the weight of the bag is becoming part of your weight and is being supported by your whole body.

The Briefcase or Shopping Bag

IMG_5557.JPG

Good News:  You're more likely to put it down when you're standing (ie waiting for a train).

Bad News:  It's held further from your center than other bags, which adds additional challenges for the arms, shoulders, neck, and back

Try This:  

1) If your shoulder wants to do more of the work of holding the bag, transfer that effort to your hand (without tightening your wrist).

2) Bend your elbow slightly.  It's a good way to distribute the effort throughout your arm and remind yourself not to overdo it with the shoulder.

The Rolling Suitcase (or backpack on wheels)

Good News:  You don't have to deal with carrying it.

Bad News:  It's easy to overwork the shoulder and upper back.

Try This:

1) As you are pulling don't tense your upper arm and shoulder into your body.  Use your hand more.

2) Pull the bag, don't let it pull you.  Stand tall. Don't lead with your pelvis or chest as you walk.  

Paying attention to how you carry your bag is one of many ways that you make sure that you arrive at your destination feeling relaxed, energized, and ready for work, an interview, or meeting with a friend or client.

 

How Mindfulness Affects Your Posture

What comes to mind when you hear the term, "mindfulness"?  Before reading further, take a moment to think about what it means.  Perhaps make a mental note or jot down a few words that you associate with it.  Let's call this being mindful about your assumptions about the word "mindfulness".  Notice your associations.  Don't just them or come up with a right answer.  How did you feel and what came up when you saw the word "mindful" in the title of this post?  Why did you decide to click on the post and read further?

I will get to the point of this post soon...how mindfulness affects your posture but first, let's define "mindfulness".  Ellen Langer, who has been researching  mindfulness since 1970, defines it as "the very simple process of noticing new things" and calls it "the essence of engagement."  She also points out that people often confuse mindfulness with "effortful thinking and stress" or with the act of meditation, whereas meditation is a means of developing mindfulness.

I'm concentrating really hard on being mindful, but i feel really tense!

I'm concentrating really hard on being mindful, but i feel really tense!

If mindfulness is simply noticing, it's often this simple thing that evades us.  When examining concerns regarding posture, many people want to change their posture, but may not be certain of what they are doing to cause the problem in the first place.  Part of figuring that out and changing it starts simply with noticing and this is where The Alexander Technique comes in really handy.  In lessons, the teacher guides you with their hands, so that you can sense your body and how you're holding it more accurately and then as you start to notice the habits, you also learn how to undo them and establish better postural habits.

If an important step to changing your posture is to first notice how you're making the "poor" posture happen in the first place.  At first, you may spend some time simply noticing your body.  I don't mean checking out your waistline in the mirror.  I mean actually sensing your whole body.  This sense is called proprioception.  Our sense of proprioception helps us understand where we are in space, allows us to sense where are limbs are, helps us gauge the amount of effort we need to do something, and includes balance.  To improve your posture, you need to sharpen this sense, which is exactly what Alexander Technique lessons and practicing this sort of mindfulness on your own do.

Take a moment and take note of where in your body you most sense yourself.  Many people who are just starting Alexander Technique lessons come into their first lesson telling me that most of the time they are only sensing clearly from the shoulders up and they aren't fully conscious in their whole body.  They may say that they have very little awareness of their backs.

Try this:

Sit in a chair with a back and sit all the way back with your feet on the floor.  

Notice where you are most aware in your body.  After taking note of that, bring your attention to your back on the back of the chair.

Then bring your attention to your sit-bones (to knobby points at the base of the pelvis) on the seat of the chair.

Notice your feet on the floor.

Bring your awareness to the top of your head.  To better sense the very top of your head, tap it or scratch it a bit and then notice the lingering sensation.  It is common that people sense clearly about up to eye level and that the 3-4 inches above the eyes is kind of vague.  If you want to improve your posture, you'll want to come up to your full height, and in order to do so, it's pretty important to be able to notice the top of your head.  

After noticing your back on the back of the chair, sit-bones on the bottom of the chair, feet on the floor and top of the head a few times, take note of where you are most aware in your body.  Can you sense your whole body more fully?  If so, how did you do that?  Did you do it by moving or creating any muscular effort?  If you followed the instructions, you just did it by noticing (with a little help from your finger to tap the top of your head).  

Now that you've noticed where you are, take a moment to notice two things outside of yourself.  Notice something that you see and something that you hear.  As you take in these stimuli, do you stop noticing where you are?  If so, go back to the areas that you focused on and see if you can continue noticing them while noticing what you see and hear.  If you can do this, you are beginning to learn how  you can stay present and focused on activities, other people, and what's going on around you, while still noticing how you are holding your body and not letting that more internal noticing distract you.  

Ellen Langer's recent article in the Harvard Business review is aptly titled "Mindfulness Isn't Much Harder than Mindlessness".  The effort you are employing to improve your posture may be excessive and possibly worsening the problem.  If you've been trying very hard to hold yourself up straighter to improve your posture, it's likely that you find your efforts uncomfortable and perhaps even painful.  You might pull your shoulders back and lift your chin and chest, which likely leads you to feel stiff and like you're not breathing fully.  Stop trying and start by noticing.  Take Alexander Technique lessons to turn up the volume on your noticing skills and learn how to stay upright in a natural, comfortable way.

Check out my audio guide for "Constructive Rest", a daily practice for learning to be mindful in your body.

Smartphones, Posture, and Confidence

Photo by AlbinaTiplyashina/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by AlbinaTiplyashina/iStock / Getty Images

 

"Posture doesn’t just reflect our emotional states; it can also cause them," says Amy Cuddy in a recent New York Times Article about the effect that using mobile devices has on our posture.  Cuddy is professor at Harvard Business School and presenter of the popular TED Talk, "Your Body Language Shapes Who Your Are."

You don't have to be an actor to imagine how you might hold your body if you feel a certain way - depress, stressed, frightened...but this process works in the opposite direction as well.  The way in which you hold your body influences how you think and feel.  

Let's look at this phenomenon as a loop or cycle.  Here are two examples:

1) You think and feel a certain way, which influences your posture and then the posture becomes a habit, which in turn reinforces your habitual thoughts and feelings.

2) You adopt a posture based on ways that you sit or stand for work and tasks that you perform (like writing email on your smartphone), which becomes an unconscious habit that you carry around with you, influencing how you think and feel.

According to Cuddy's article, studies suggest that when we use mobile devices and take on a collapsed position, we become less assertive and productive.  Research shows that the smaller the device, the more extreme the effect.

In several prior blog posts, I've offered advice on how to avoid collapsing/slouching when using your smartphone.  Click here for a few simple tips.  Cuddy's article offers tips as well.

Two further pieces of advice...

1) Limit your time using your device and don't glue yourself to it right before a big interview, audition, meeting, or date.

2) Take some Alexander Technique lessons.  You'll learn how to better gauge for yourself whether or not you are collapsing physically and/or beginning to loose your edge and feel less present and confident due to too much time looking down at your iphone. Poor postural habits can cause physical injury, but they can also potentially cost a job, a deal, role, or a second date.  

Challenge:  Put your smartphone away for several hours before and during a holiday event.  Notice your posture and how you feel and interact.

 

Posture on a Post-It

Good evening!  Did you know that post-Its are really good for your posture?

Keep reading to find out what to do with this post-it...including a tip for remembering to think about your posture when using your phone.

Alexander Technique lessons can help us make dramatic changes in terms of how we look and feel.  By dramatic, I mean helping us overcome postural habits that we may have just assumed were there to stay or were so part of "who we are" that we hadn't even noticed them.  There are two major components to making these sorts of changes...

1) Taking lessons - so you can figure out what's going on and get a physical sense of how it can be different.

2) Working on your own - meaning paying attention during your daily activities so that you can integrate what you learn during your lessons into what you do in your life outside of the lessons.

Jessica Chou, a Refinery29 writer, worked with me to create her own "posture challenge", which she shared with readers.  Click here to read the article.  Some key highlights of her process are that she created a simple structure for herself and a few reminders.

Something that appealed to me about the Alexander Technique when I first started taking lessons was that I didn't have to stop and do exercises.  I could just incorporate it into being more conscious in everything that I do.  The potential pitfall to "everything" though is that it might feel overwhelming or not specific or structured enough to get going.

So, I've started to approach the process in more digestible pieces, like you would if you wanted to  make cleaning a messy apartment more manageable.  Do a little bit every day and eventually, you'll get to the whole thing.
Good evening!  Did you know that post-Its are really good for your posture?

Keep reading to find out what to do with this post-it...including a tip for remembering to think about your posture when using your phone.

Alexander Technique lessons can help us make dramatic changes in terms of how we look and feel.  By dramatic, I mean helping us overcome postural habits that we may have just assumed were there to stay or were so part of "who we are" that we hadn't even noticed them.  There are two major components to making these sorts of changes...

1) Taking lessons - so you can figure out what's going on and get a physical sense of how it can be different.

2) Working on your own - meaning paying attention during your daily activities so that you can integrate what you learn during your lessons into what you do in your life outside of the lessons.

Jessica Chou, a Refinery29 writer, worked with me to create her own "posture challenge", which she shared with readers.  Click here to read the article.  Some key highlights of her process are that she created a simple structure for herself and a few reminders.

Something that appealed to me about the Alexander Technique when I first started taking lessons was that I didn't have to stop and do exercises.  I could just incorporate it into being more conscious in everything that I do.  The potential pitfall to "everything" though is that it might feel overwhelming or not specific or structured enough to get going.

So, I've started to approach the process in more digestible pieces, like you would if you wanted to  make cleaning a messy apartment more manageable.  Do a little bit every day and eventually, you'll get to the whole thing.

How about some specifics?

The assignment that I give out now to new students is the following:

1)  Decide on 3 activities that you generally do every day during which you will think about improving your posture.

2)  At first, at least, only concern yourself with remembering during those 3 activities.

3)  If you have trouble remembering, choose activities which lend themselves to displaying a reminder.  Post-its are helpful for this.  Jessica at Refinery29 placed a post-it on her computer.  One of my students recently chose "washing dishes" and "brushing teeth" since it would be easy to put up a post-it.

4) Keep a very short journal if you'd like to track what you notice and your progress.  Only use a journal if it's helpful and doesn't become a hindrance to doing the exercise.

If you limit yourself to deciding to pay attention to your posture during these three activities, you may just find that you are naturally more conscious during other activities because you've made a point to practice.

TIP for using your phone:  Here's one reminder that could make a huge difference:  Put a note to yourself on the screensaver of your phone so that you are reminded every time you use it. (That's a lot of time, right?)  You could just put up the words, "Think Posture" or a photo of something that will help you to remember.  

Feel free to use my post-it photo up top.  If your kid, significant other, or best friend hold that spot on your screen saver, how about taking a photo of them holding a "Think Posture" sign?  

Texting and Exercise - How They're Related

June '15, Boston, MA - Imogen Ragone, Alexander Technique teacher from Wilmington, DE imogenragone.com

June '15, Boston, MA - Imogen Ragone, Alexander Technique teacher from Wilmington, DE imogenragone.com

Texting and Exercise...Emailing all day and then lifting weights...Huddling over your phone and then going for a run.  How are these all connected?  

The Phone:

In the image to the right, the woman texting is holding herself in a balanced, relaxed way.  She has excellent posture without being stiff.  She's sitting, holding, and looking at her phone in a manner that is balanced and efficient.  She's not sinking toward the phone nor is she lifting her shoulders to bring it nearer to her eyes.  

Notice how you hold your phone.  Can you tip your chin gently toward your chest and let your head rotate forward rather than poking your chin out and letting your head drop?  Also, try lifting your phone more with your hand than with your shoulder (ie don't lift your shoulder to raise your phone.)

How about putting a reminder photo or message to yourself on your screen saver or wall paper to cue yourself to be conscious of how you're holding your body while using your phone?

Oona Short, writer and Alexander Technique student, with Lindsay Newiter during a lesson.

Oona Short, writer and Alexander Technique student, with Lindsay Newiter during a lesson.

Lifting Weights:

If you spend a lot of your day sticking your chin out with your head bend down looking at your phone, you'll be fueling and reinforcing habits that can cause a lot of compression in your spine.  Your head probably weighs about 10-12 pounds, so if you are doing this, it's like pressing a bowling ball down on your spine all day and this sort of habit affects the whole body down to the legs and feet.  

So, if you are reinforcing a downward pressure of the head into the neck, which then pushes the upper back down into the lower back, you are very likely doing the same thing if you lift weights, adding even more downward pressure in this more demanding activity.  

If you practice lifting your phone without dropping your head down and without hiking your shoulder up, you'll be preparing for your workout all day.  Seems that you might get more out of it and be less likely to injure yourself.

The woman in the photo above is lifting weights without overusing her neck or lifting her shoulders.  Her torso remains steady, but not stiff as she lifts.

Walking and Running:

If you are compressed from the top down from your texing habits, you'll likely be using a lot of extra effort to move forward.  You may be pushing your chin forward and lifting your shoulders or chest.  When we walk and run efficiently, the upper body aims upward, freeing up to top of the head (instead of pressing down) to allow the power to move to come from your hips and glutes.  If you are pressed down, you prevent the hips and glutes from engaging properly.  This is the case with both walking and running.

Master the Art of Running workshop in Limerick, Ireland.  August '15

Master the Art of Running workshop in Limerick, Ireland.  August '15

In the photo to the right, notice that the woman in front isn't sticking out her chin or chest or tightening her neck in order to move forward.  Her upper body stays balanced and upright, but not stiff.  Her legs stay under her and  she doesn't  do what's called "over-striding".  When we over-stride, we are out of balance and have to compensate for pressure  that we are sending back and down.  Try poking your chin forward and lifting your chest when standing.  You'll probably find that you lean back.  Over-striding, when walking or running, means that we reach ahead with the feet, often to compensate for the upper body leaning back.

If you just let your head tip forward and your chin to gently move toward your chest when you use your phone when you are standing, you can avoid leaning back.

Start your warm-up while you text!  Put that reminder on your screen saver!  Let me know how you do in the comments below.  

I'll be offering a workshop called "Mind Your Gadgets" twice in October (on the 15th and 22nd).  Click here to find out more and to sign up.

Contact me to find out about my Alexander Technique running lessons that I offer and how I can help you improve any type of work-out by helping you to change your postural habits.

This Isn't A Violin

Melissa tong - melissatong.com

Melissa tong - melissatong.com

When you pick up a cup of coffee or a bottle of water, do you immediately tighten your upper arm and shoulder?  Do you tighten them before you’ve even touched the object that you’re picking up?  How about picking up a heavy backpack or a musical instrument?   

A little trick that I’ve been using myself and suggesting to my students to help avoid strain and compression when picking up and holding objects is to first tell themselves that the object isn’t what it is.  This may sound like an idea for a surrealist paining, but think of it as a way of suspending judgement and expectation, allowing for something new to happen.

An good example of this game came up in a lesson recently with my student, Melissa Tong.  Melissa (pictured here) is a professional violinist who has been playing since childhood.  She began taking Alexander Technique lessons with me because of chronic pain in her bow arm.  We quickly learned that the root of the problem began when she lifted the violin up to her shoulder.  She would twist to one side and press her opposite shoulder down.   Long story short, resolving the problem in the arm was dependent on changing what was going on in the shoulder and the back.  She made progress in leaps and bounds after just a few weeks and we began looking at the issue of lifting the violin as beginning at the moment her hands first touched it to lift it out of its case.  The years of playing had given the instrument a certain high-stakes “weight” that in subtle ways, contributed to how she would react it, so I encouraged her as best she could to tell herself that this wasn’t necessarily a violin in the case.  She could approach it with a fresh perspective and learn something new about it and herself each time she picked it up. 

When we decide not to know, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn and sense in ways that we may not have expected.  We give ourselves permission to learn about and change habits in regards to things in our lives that we tend not to question.

Here’s a little game you can play with the objects around your home to help you to suspend your habitual reactions to picking them up and avoid using too much effort where you don't need it.   A small book or a cup are good objects to start with.

  • Pick up the object without really thinking about it. 
  • Close your eyes and pick up the object again.
  • Go back and forth a few times, picking it up with the eyes open and closed and notice if you feel a difference.  (Usually there is less effort in the upper arm and shoulder when the eyes are closed)
  • Now that you’ve had these contrasting experiences, see if you can pick up the object with less effort with your eyes open.

In this exercise there is an element of suspending what you know about what you are picking up.  In the example of lifting an object, closing your eyes forces you to sense the object more keenly with your hand and then to respond to the weight of the object as you feel it in your hand.  All that is needed is to move the fingers and thumb together to grasp it, rather than tensing the bicep and shoulder in preparation of picking it up.  The rest of the body will respond to the weight of the object, but that will happen automatically and without strain (if you get out of our own way).  For example, in addition to focusing on grasping the object with your hand, avoiding tightening the upper arm and shoulder, also make sure you don't tip backward by letting your lower back cave in to the weight.  Instead, allow the weight of the object to become part of your weight. 

Pretend you don’t know!  Practice sensing the things around you with a fresh perspective and see what you learn and if you are able to get rid of some of that pesky shoulder tension!  Leave a comment below and share what you practiced lifting and what you observed.

Also, visit melissatong.com if to check out when Melissa's next gig is!

You Have No Back, but You do Have a Spine

Imagine the following conversation...

Ionesco-affiche

A:  What's wrong?

B:  My back hurts.

A:  Your back of what?

B:  The back of my hand.  What going on with you?  You don't look so well.

A:  My back's been bothering me.

B:  Back of what?

A:  The back of my leg.  Last week it was my back and now it's my back.

B:  So the same, both weeks?

A:  No, the back of my arm last week and now the back of my leg.

B:  Oh, sorry about that.  I hope your back feels better.

A:  I hope yours does too.  Hey, I know a good back doctor if you want a referral.

B:  Back of what doctor?

A:  Back of knee...I went to him last year when I had that soccer injury.  I guess that won't do you any good though.

B:  Thanks anyway.  See ya.

A:  See ya.

Do you feel like you just read a page of absurdist drama?  If so, then consider something that you may take for granted...your back.  Back of what?  Back of your TORSO.  To consider what is popularly called "the back" a separate body part may well be just as absurd as isolating the back of your hand as "the back".  

The way we think about our bodies influences how we use them.  If we think of the back and front of the torso as two separate planes, then it becomes difficult to coordinate ourselves in an integrated way and we become more prone to compression, leading to strain and injury.  

The back is the back of the front the front is the front of the back...and there are sides too!  Start in the front and touch your  ribs.  follow them around your torso and you'll find that they attach at your spine.  This may look obvious on an anatomical drawing, but most people have so little awareness of the backs of their torsos, that they for get there are ribs there.  The rib cage is three dimensional.  Put your hands around your sides and take note.  Notice movement of the rib cage as you breathe.  Ideally it should expand and contract with each breath like bellows.  

Lower down, we hear lots about lower back pain caused by hyper-extension of the lower back.  There's also a lot of concern about bellies sticking out.  The belly and the lower back are the front and back of one another.  If the lower back is arched, the belly will stick out and vice versa.

And as for the spine, your spine isn't just those bumpy bones that you can reach back and feel.  It's quite deep and you might want to consider the front of your spine lengthening as well as the back of it.

As  always, to free the torso, first think about releasing excess tension in your neck, particularly the big muscles in the back of the neck and think of the very  top of your head aiming up toward the ceiling.  Relieving pressure below must first start with releasing downward pressure from above.  That means, to free your torso, you must first make sure that your neck and head aren't pressing down into it...and then let your torso lengthen and widen three dimensionally. 

Let's get rid of this idea of "the back".  Notice how you feel when you sense all sides of your torso and share your experience in the comments below.


The Art of Running - For Seasoned Runners, Beginners, & People Who Don't Like Running!

In a couple of weeks, I'll be assisting Malcolm Balk, Canadian Alexander Technique teacher and running coach extraordinaire.  He's put the two together and developed The Art of Running and is the author of Master the Art of Running:  Raise Your Performance with the Alexander Technique.  When I first encountered his work by attending a workshop, I thought I'd just get some tips for my students who run, but have since taken up running myself.  Malcolm travels all over the US, Canada, and Europe teaching The Art of Running.  I interviewed one of my Alexander Technique students, Oona Short, who participated in his last workshop in NYC last Fall.  She took the workshop because she didn't like running, but wanted to see what there was to like about it.  Competitive, casual, and beginning runners alike can benefit from this workshops.  Click here for more info on the workshop and to sign up and check out my conversation with Oona below.

That's Oona in front, wearing blue shoes.

That's Oona in front, wearing blue shoes.

LN:  Tell me what you told me about seeing the photo of yourself running that was taken during the last  workshop and that now appears on the flyer for the current session.

OS:  I was very excited to see  the photo because it’s the first time I thought that I was showing good form! I knew I’d done it in class, but I thought that as soon as I started to run, I would probably revert to some prior incarnation--especially because there was a goal in sight and a lot of beginning runners like me think that’s the time to stick out your chin and go for it.  

Not only did the picture make me happy, but at the end of the session, Malcolm said to me “You have the potential to be a very good runner.”  I never thought of myself as being any kind of runner-- even though I thought I was was capable of doing any other sport or physical activity. The difference was that all those other activities seemed to be in a separate category from actual life.  You shoot hoops, hit a ball with a bat, hit a ball with a tennis racket-- whereas running is an exaggerated version of what you do everyday.  You walk faster and faster until you’re running.  I associated it in my life with running for a bus with heavy bags in your hands, or while wearing a backpack.  It seemed pretty stressful and  I didn’t understand why anybody would do it for fun. I understood endorphins, I understood getting a good feeling from an aerobics class…but running? I just couldn’t get it.  Part of that was because my “use” wasn’t good.

LN:  Can you talk about that?

OS:  My neck had just about atrophied after years of reading and writing. I’m a writer, so I spent a lot of time just looking down at texts.  I also had a structural problem in my back, which made it pretty immobile.  The percussiveness, the repetitiveness of running-- at least the way I did it--it hurt!  But  I didn’t know the way my feet were supposed to come down, I didn’t know how to use my arms. I realized that people trained to be good runners, but that it was just to learn how to go faster and faster. And I just wrote it off as something I’d never do...that it was something for other people, but not for me.

LN:  But you took the Art of Running workshop last October, so there was a reason.  You were curious about something.

OS:  Well, one reason was that my partner likes to run and I thought at least one of us should go. Then I thought, well, if he and I both go, it’d be an experience we could share.  I was also feeling more confident about how I was using my body because of the Alexander Technique classes I’d been taking  and I read Malcolm’s book, which I liked.  So I  thought that maybe I would give this a try. I live in a neighborhood where there is plenty of space and running tracks. Plus, running is  something that you don’t need to get a lot of equipment for, you don’t need to assemble a team, it  doesn’t cost a whole lot.  And also I wanted to try something new! I’d learned from my Alexander classes how to do other things without injuring myself,  so I thought maybe there’s a chance that I can run without feeling my back kind of disassembling.  It used to feel like the vertebrae were stacked loosely, one on top of the next,  and if I jarred them too much, the whole thing would fall apart.

LN:  Something that people say to me since I’ve been coordinating these workshops is something like, “well, I’m kind of interested, but I’m not really a runner.”   That’s one reason why I wanted to interview you, because you weren’t running at all beforehand and your were sort of confused as to why people would like doing it, but there was something that you wanted to figure out.  You wanted to figure out what the enjoyment was and you started to get that feeling.  So, I do encourage people who already run and competitively run to take this workshop, but I also encourage beginners, more casual runners, or people who even think that they don’t like running to take it.   It seems like it’s something we just do.  Even if you don’t run for sport, you probably run for the bus and I think that people can think that the way they run is just the way they run and that’s how running feels and to feel a change in something quite habitual and to be able to move at that speed and feel really free is quite an amazing thing.  I think it’s an experience that can change your perspective in life, not just how you’re moving your arms and your legs.  

OS:  It’s funny you should say that because the sense of freedom was really pronounced. I was dealing with a shoulder problem for a few months prior to the workshop and off and on there were various aches and pains. But when I was running in the workshop, nothing hurt!  The clanking and banging in my shoulder wasn’t there.  Nothing bothered me!  Isn't it nice to say that? “Nothing is bothering me!”It was very, very liberating.  I didn’t feel like I had to worry about what I was doing.  I just did it.  

But in terms of encouraging people who are intermediate or advanced runners-- everybody can benefit. My friend who’s run a couple of marathons wants to take the workshop because she’s read Malcolm’s book and says that the Alexander Technique approach is not something you would hear from a non-Alexander-trained running coach.What was amazing about the workshop was that all  these ideas I had about running being stressful and me not being able to do it vanished pretty quickly!   It’s very hard to enjoy something that you aren’t doing right.  If you’re making it as hard for yourself as you possibly can, it isn’t going to feel very good, and of course you’re not going to do it again.  But after the first circuit we made around the little fountain in the park, I thought, “this feels good!”  And I got very excited.  It’s very exciting to get enjoyment out of something that is there for you, that can be there for you for years to come, that’s good for you, that you learned how to do properly and aren’t kind of making up as you go along.  Whenever I had studied any sport, tennis, whatever, I’d always wanted to work with a coach first, take a few introductory lessons, because I didn’t want to waste a lot of time with trial and error.  I’d never thought of doing that with running, but here I saw, ok, I don’t have to try and figure this out all by myself.  I’d probably get it wrong anyway and Malcolm  is very sensible.  It’s all very logical.  

LN:  How has your running gone since the workshop?

OS:  Well, it feels good!  I’m not sure if I’m doing it exactly the way  I was doing it in the workshop, but it certainly is an improvement over anything I’ve done before.  And even when I’m walking, I do the arm movements that I learned.

LN:  I’ve noticed that it’s led to a change in how you hold yourself in general, being in my class every week, particularly since that workshop.  You’ve been taking Alexander lessons and classes for 2.5 years now?  

OS: Yes

LN:  But I think there was a leap after the workshop.  Do you agree?

OS:  Yes, I think it’s funny-- you know there’s a Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”  It just seemed to be that all of the team that I needed [of teachers] was appearing.  My chiropractor has always been very helpful,has encouraged me to take Alexander, has raved about what you’ve done with the Alexander work.  And he often says, “Lindsay’s taken what I’ve started and brought it to a whole other level.”  And here comes Malcolm and to supply more of the pieces that I needed to have.  I was taking something I’d learned and applying it to my everyday life and then to something new [running]. I’m aware that I don’t have to be doing it the old way.

LN:  Even if you’ve had a lot of training and coaching there’s still quite a bit you can learn.

Malcolm offering video analysis during the workshop.

Malcolm offering video analysis during the workshop.

OS:  Yes, you pick up the Alexander principles and if you’re already a runner and you’ve had some blockages or injuries and you can’t figure out why, Alexander can help you unblock. For example ,you might be thinking all along that the problem is about your hips or your knees, but maybe it’s more about your neck.  Maybe people don’t give enough thought to their necks.  You walk around, you have a pain in your knee, and you don’t think about your neck, but everything is connected, as we’ve come to find out.

LN:  Yes, if the neck is tight, it’s like pulling the weight of a bowling ball (your head) down into your spine, affecting your whole body.  When you study the Alexander Technique, you learn that how you use your body filters into all things.  Something that people can really get from The Art of Running workshops is that they can see how the habits they develop doing day-to-day things, like sitting for a long time and using the computer, for example, can in turn affect other things they do, such as running and people can start noticing, “Ah, if I work on how I sit at my desk, that’s going to help my running.”  

OS:  I was watching the Knicks game last night--why, I don’t know.  The almost never win. Their coach gave them their little pep talk before the fourth quarter and I think afterwards he felt he’d misspoken, but I thought was he said was great.  He told the players they lose because they don’t believe that they can win and their energy flags. He said, “Remember, your body is part of your mind.” I think that most people think that your mind is part of your body, that your body holds your mind--but the coach is saying that  it’s the mind that’s the all-encompassing container for your body.  The way you hold yourself is how you think about yourself.  

Click here for more info on the workshop .

Why NOT to Pull Your Shoulders Back (It's actually a form of slouching!)

If you've ever been instructed to stand up straight, chances are that you've pinned your shoulders back, drawing the shoulder blades down and together.  Not only is this move a very common reaction to the idea of standing up straight, it's also become an explicit instruction or tip exemplified as a key to maintaining better posture. 

I'm going to keep this post short and hope that you'll take one thing away from it...Don't pull your shoulders back!  There is a cultural fear of slumping forward.  We think it's unhealthy and that it doesn't look good, but going in the other direction doesn't solve the first problem and instead creates additional problems.

Take a peek at yourself from the side in the mirror and pull your shoulders back and shoulder blades down and together.  What happens?  You will likely notice that you lean backwards, or as I like to say, you slouch backwards.  Slouching forward compresses your body and so does slouching backwards.  You'll be pressing your upper back down and in and that pressure then sneaks down into the lower back, where a lot of folks are already having pain.

Where should the shoulders be then?

Balanced...neither pulled forward nor backward.  Not pulled up toward the ears nor pressed down.  Alexander Technique lessons help to achieve this balance and maintain it.  Notice in the photo on the left that the hand-shaker is slumping and pushing his shoulder forward.  He's not fully present and engaged in the handshake.  In the photo on the right, he is present and engaged in his whole body and exudes confidence.  He does not achieve this state though by pulling his shoulders back and lifting his chest up, which could be described as "trying to be confident" rather than "being confident".  

Here's a a little something to try on your own:  Think of your shoulders releasing out toward the sides, as if there were an arrow pointing out to the left from the left shoulder, directing it that way and one pointing out to the right from the right shoulder, directing it that way.  Just think it.  

And then add this:  Imagine that your armpits are domes.  Think of the shape of the bottom end of an egg.  You could imagine and egg in each armpit, encouraging you not to squeeze your arms into your sides and allowing the shoulder girdle to be buoyant and balanced on the rib-cage, allowing you to breath fully (without hoisting the shoulders up).

After giving those two suggestions a go, feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

How Avoiding "Text Neck" Could Make You A Better Kisser

Happy Valentines Day!

The title of this post may have captured your attention, but are you wondering how these two things could really be related?  The way you kiss can be affected by how you text.   Let's look at how you can make sure your kisses aren't "texty"

All of our responses and reactions to everything and everyone we encounter add up to our posture, which physically, is how we hold ourselves.  Now, when I talk about people and things we react to, I'm not just talking about being yelled at by your boss or waking up to find your bathroom flooded.  We respond to everything around us - people we're having casual conversations with, the chairs we sit on, and yes, the technology we spend hours and hours per day using.

"The average adult is awake for 15 hours and 45 minutes every day and 45 per cent of that time is spent using a proliferation of technology." says The Daily Mail.

To sum things up here, how we do any one thing that we do often, then affects everything else we do.  Think about every you enjoy doing and then look at the amount of time you're spending computing and texting.  You are very likely worsening your posture when engaging in these activities and if you spend 45% of your time doing them, those habits will likely stick and you'll carry them with you into exercising, socializing, sleeping, and, yes, kissing.  

This is what we tend to do to our posture when we don't use our smartphones mindfully.  Chin pushed forward, head tilted back, lower back over-arched when standing or doing the downward slump when sitting.

Now, here's how that translates to kissing?  Yikes!

The Science of Kissing, What Our Lips Are Telling Us by Sheril Kirshenbaum says  "A good deal of the scientific literature speculates that kissing may have evolved to help us choose a suitable partner, or to realize when a match is a bad idea…The exchange of olfactory, tactile, and postural information might trigger unconscious mechanisms that guide us in deciding whether we should continue, and a kiss might even tell us about a potential partner’s level of commitment and genetic compatibility."

Now let's consider what could be meant by "postural information".  When we're using our phones, what tends to happen is that we make ourselves shorter.  This is a common habit, that when we want to reach to look at something or kiss someone, we push the face forward and press the head back and down into the spine.  Compressing the head and neck is different from tilting the head, which is is possible to do just by tipping it back and not over-tightening the muscles in the back of the neck.

"Kissing presents some interesting kinaesthetic challenges.  A tall partner tends to stoop and reach down to the shorter one, misusing himself (or herself) in the process.  Unwittingly, the shorter partner aggravates the problem by making herself (or himself) shorter still."  - The Alexander Technique, A Skill for Life, by Pedro de Alcantara

This shortening of the spine leads to a lack of tone along the spine "like trying to play a violin with a loosened bow".  

In describing the opposite effect, de Alcantara describes an actress in a film kiss who "lengthens her neck, which becomes a natural extension of her spine, and makes herself taller...even as she tips her head backward.  This makes the act of kissing...kineasthetically easier, and one imagines, more satisfying for both parners."  The taller partner can tip his/her chin down, without letting the chin and whole face slide forward and down, maintaining the tone in the muscles along his spine.

If you think of ballroom dancing, there needs to be a certain amount of open, springy tension in the whole body for the give and take of the partnership to work most effectively.  When kissing, texting, and in general, this elastic springiness will happen if we stop pressing ourselves down.  We, in turn, feel more present and find it easier to connect with others physically and conversationally.

Here's what you can do right now to work on not pulling down..  Start with texting.  Give yourself an assignment to remember every time you text to imagine you are like the taller kissing partner and you are tipping your head down to look at the phone, not sliding the chin forward.  Just let your chin come closer to your chest, but done sink or close in on your upper body.  Also bring the phone a little closer to your face (but don't lift your shoulder)...and then, well I guess you could ask Siri if you could kiss her. She/he will say "What makes you think...never mind", so don't bother.  

Next step, ask Siri to tell you about The Alexander Technique, or better yet, take some lessons or sign up for my "Gadget Class".  Click here to sign up or schedule a lesson.

Give Up Your Seat for Fewer Wrinkles and Less Back Pain!

This is another one for New Yorkers and other frequent public transportation travelers.  In a recent blog post, I talked about how you can practice working on your posture in a mindful way while sitting.  So, what happens when you rush for that open seat and loose the battle?  Standing and holding on provides a rich context for getting your posture and energy going.  I might sound like a geek about this stuff by calling standing and holding onto a subway poll a "rich context", but, really, there's a lot you can work on here and you don't have to stop what you're doing and do exercises.  Instead, you think.  Just think.  And, we can also work in the hot topic of texting or reading your Kindle while standing and holding on.  The technology we use is so relatively new and we're already seeing the damaging effect of using smartphones and the like on the spine and if that's not enough, it's even been shown to cause neck wrinkles!  So, protect your back and your vanity and listen up.  

Here are a few key pointers to maintaining good posture while standing, particularly standing while holding onto the subway poll and your device.  It starts with accurately mapping your body out in your mind, so that you not only know where your stop is, but you know where you are in space.

1) Know where the top of your head is.  You've probably heard me say this before, but give it a little rub or scratch to remind it where it is.  We easily loose a sense of the very top of us and behave as though it's around where are eyes are.  Think (just think) of the top of your head aiming up toward the ceiling.  don't stretch your neck.  Don't lift or lower your chin.  Just think it.  You're aiming your head rather than pulling it.

2) Know where your feet are.  Don't look at them, just notice the feel of them contacting the floor.  Did you loose the feeling of the top of your head?  Go back to that.  Can you sense both simultaneously?

3) Hold onto the pole with your hand, not your shoulder.  What does that mean?  Try this.  While holding the poll, let your elbow drop slightly, very, very slightly, without dragging your torso down with it and without loosening your hold with your hand.  This should help release some excess shoulder tension that you might be using to hold on.  You really don't need it.

4) Lift your device closer to your face with your hand, not your shoulder.  (Follow instructions in #3.)  

5) Don't slide your chin out or drop your head down to look at your device.  Look at it with your eyes first, and let your head follow.  Your chin should move toward your chest without your head and upper body sinking down.  Imagine your head rotating up and over.

6) Do you still feel the top of your head and your feet?  The big challenge is to see if you can sense the top of your head, feet, your contact with the pole and your device all at once.  

7)  Have fun!  Don't get too serious about it.  Make it into a game and, as always, make sure you're breathing!

To learn more about how to use your devices and not strain, join one of my "Gadget Classes"

 

 

Who's Standing How - The Posture Under the Glitz

Celebrities are constantly under scrutiny for their fashion choices and as usual, in regards to this year’s Golden Globes, much attention was paid to evening wear.  On a more refreshing note, this article from the UK skipped over fashion choices, went straight to posture and actually grazed the surface of some common postural faux-pas and misconceptions with pin-point accuracy that we can all take some pointers from.

Looking Better and More Confident

We'd do well to stand a bit taller, just like Kate Hudson and Heidi Klum demonstrated last night - and not just because it adds grace, decorum and confidence to your stature. 

Improved posture helps you to feel more centered, present, and less reactive to situations that otherwise might lead you to feel ill at ease.  You’ll convey more confidence and presence to others and may find that they respond differently to you, thus creating a cycle of conveying and reinforcing confidence.  On a more superficial note, standing taller can help you look thinner.  I've had students report that friends have asked them if they’d lost weight, when it was their posture that had changed. 

TIP:  Contrary to the advice in the article, I don’t advise pulling the shoulders back to improve posture (this causes compression down through the back – in effect, backwards slouching.  Many people actually need to release their shoulder blades up and out to achieve good posture).

Core Strength

…good posture starts with good core strength and work on your abdominal muscles

Core strength is your postural support and you can only really let it work to its full potential if you stop tensing and compressing your neck, shoulders and upper back.  If you keep holding in those areas, then they are doing extra work to hold you up.  Those muscles aren't supposed to be doing that.  They get taxed and overworked from a combination of stress and a sedentary lifestyle.  Learn to let go of the upper-back/neck/shoulder grip on yourself and you’ll give your core a chance to work properly so that you’re actually using it and can really work those core muscles as intended if you do core-strengthening exercises.   Click here to read my blog post on core strength.

Having a Perky Butt

The whole trend for sticking your bottom out doesn't help either - women force themselves to change their spine's natural position when they poke their bottom's out, which causes the lower lumber spine to slouch. Rather than working the muscles in the bottom so it becomes perky, women tend to just stick it out, which actually causes the whole body to move out of sync. 

This one relates to the previous topic, but I wanted to highlight it as the article pointed out a habit in some folks of arching the back and endeavoring to lift the behind.  This position throws off your whole alignment, weakens, your back, and disengages the natural connection between the legs and the lower back working in tandem, which is key to actually building muscle in your glutes.  Many of us get ourselves around with a lazy butt (literally) by walking or running in a way that over uses the quads and underutilized the hips and backside as the powerhouses of moving you through space.  To get this working though in a way that really works, you can’t just try and use those muscles.  The upper body must free up first to allow the legs move freely under you.  To read more on this topic, check out this article in Runner’s World.  How perky your butt is may be in part genetics, but with proper coordination you can make working your glutes a natural part of exercising and getting around throughout your day…and not being so genetically inclined, I can personally attest that this does have an effect!  Sorry, no before/after pictures! 

Next topic!...

Breathing

Breath is improved, so that you feel brighter more energized

The article mentions breathing as a benefit of good posture.  As I've often brought up, truly good posture is never stiff or held and allows you to breath better, meaning that your ribs (front back and sides) move freely, your belly is neither poking out nor tight and held and can move in and out with the breath, and the lower back (the back of the belly) expands and contracts with each breath.  Take a moment to feel that your ribs go all the way around your torso.  Notice how high up they are near your collar bone and how low they go.  They should expand and contract like bellows as you breathe.  But don’t try to force breathing.  You can’t really stand up straight or breathe well if the back of your neck is tense and pulling the weight of your head down through your spine.  Alexander Technique lessons always start with freeing the neck and then letting the torso widen and the breath just pours in without effort.

Taking Alexander Technique lessons to change your posture has wide-reaching benefits that can affect you physically, mentally, and socially.  I invite you to share your experience in the comments below.