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What I say and What I mean

When you're running errands and standing in a line, look around. How many of your fellow shoppers are letting their heads drop forward? And then later complain of a stiff, tired neck? Notice the easy, upright stance of the young woman in the chair.

I last wrote on clear cueing, specifically clearing up some confusion about the core. Today let's look at building awareness around standing or sitting with ease and elegance. In a yoga class I might say... “Standing tall, imagine a string pulling the top of the head skyward. Feel the lightness of the head floating over the spine. Relax shoulders away from the ears. Ribcage stacked over hips.”

Lengthening the spine and aligning the head over the spine are the intent. Length enables healthy spacing between the vertebrae. Alignment refers to how the head arranges itself on top of the spine in relationship to the ribs and the hips.

In fact, the skull is not light, weighing 11-13 lbs. When we jut our chin forward moving the head ahead, the neck muscles contract and work hard to hold up the head. The 20 muscles in the neck are engaged in a variety of vital functions including chewing, swallowing, speaking, nodding, turning, accessory breathing.

The job of stabilizing the head falls to the neck too but good alignment can lessen the load. Without it, gravity draws the shoulders forward and down. The chest begins to cave inward shortening the space between rib cage and pelvis. This head forward, shoulder slump is effortful even if we’re unaware of how it taxes us. Our gaze is down. Our breathing is more labored. Our mood can feel heavy.

The sensation of lightness can emerge from resetting the head over the spine, shoulders relaxed away from ears, arms by your side.

Any stance that never changes becomes habit forming and rigid. Instead of seeking a fixed position never changing, think about good posture as a work in progress influenced by our energy, mood and circumstances.

Jutting our head forward is not the only bad habit to adjust.

We also can sag in the hips moving the pelvis forward letting the belly go and flattening the natural curve in the low back. Remember the core is the community of muscles front, side and back of the body working together to distribute the force moving from the upper to lower body. Our tendency to lay in the hips or lose engagement in our core can put strain on our lower back.

Finally, the cue of squaring the hips forward in standing postures can be unclear. Apart from whether this cue is at odds with the curves of the hip’s anatomy, I find cueing the hips first tends to torque the upper body, which might strain the lower back. Instead, I start with the legs. “Step the feet farther apart like on a railroad track and turn the chest forward towards the top of the mat.” The pelvis follows. The hip is the ball and socket joint on each side of the pelvis where the head of the femur snugly fits. In fact, it does not square forward but turns slightly down and sideways. I find this clarification regarding hip and pelvis to be very informative but essential to practicing safely? Perhaps not. What is essential is developing body awareness or proprioception. Knowing where your body is in space, allows us to self-correct. When your body begins to give you feedback that you’re succumbing to the drift of gravity – rounding down and forward – you can feel the difference when you draw your chin level and roll your shoulders back. This shoulder position initially may over-correct taking the rigid stance of a soldier being barked at by a superior officer. But over time the feedback message becomes more intuitive and yielding. “Today I’ll draw my shoulders back gently allowing the arms to hang by my sides. Chin is neither tucked nor lifted. Look ahead.” Then that lightness in breath and perspective will reappear.


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