Why your mother was right when she told you to sit up straight ... and a few things she might not have told you.

By Heather Glidden

I've found myself talking a lot about correct alignment while giving lessons lately. I often hear people call it "good posture" and discuss it primarily for its cosmetic value. There is so much more to healthy alignment than the cosmetic benefits (although those are important too).  Moreover, I find that when people hear the words "good posture" a lot of little calamities happen: they thrust their chins in the air, pull their shoulders back, tense up their backs, and tuck their butts under. In short, they try to make themselves look a certain way, while holding their bodies in a very non-functional manner. Good alignment takes place on a much deeper level than the "chin up, shoulders back, butt in" that many of us have been taught.

Believe it or not, there is a lot of debate in the research world about what constitutes ideal posture, but there are a few points that everyone agrees on:

  • Ideal alignment allows the body to be arranged in a way that doesn't create unnecessary muscular tension;
  •  Ideal alignment allows joints to work freely and correctly, without compression or shearing;
  • Ideal alignment allows the bones to support the whole structure of the body.

The good news is: you can change your posture!

I've had many clients tell me over the years, "I just have bad posture. I don't think there's anything I can do to change that!"

Nonsense! Posture is the habitual way that you hold your body.  You can change any other behavioral habit with enough practice, and you can change your posture as well.  There are three main aspects of changing how you hold yourself, and these are:

  • Releasing tension so your skeleton is free to find an easy equilibrium in gravity;
  • Re-balancing strength to help you maintain your equilibrium;
  • Retraining your nervous system so it becomes accustomed to seeking a comfortable vertical equilibrium.

The bad news is: it takes practice.

"Now wait a minute, Heather!  When I'm more vertical I feel tightness in my chest, and my back feels more tired.  What gives?"

I often hear comments like this when people first start exploring a change in their alignment.  This is what I call re-balancing, and that is the process I outline above. Just like changing any habit, this takes time and practice. If you are habitually slumped forward, for example, then the muscles and fascia on your chest will tighten up, the muscles on your back will get taut and weak, and your nervous system will get used to holding you that way.  In order to stand in a more efficient alignment, you'll have to retrain all of those systems.

Efficient alignment is about making friends with gravity.

What do I mean by "efficient alignment?"  Try this: find something heavy — a weight, a book, a gallon of milk — and hold it close to your chest. How long could you hold it there? Now hold it out as far in front of yourself (away from your body) as you can. How long can you hold it there? Do you feel how much heavier it is? When you slump forward, your head moves away from your center of gravity making your spine and back muscles work much harder to hold you up. When you are aligned vertically your body doesn't have to work nearly as hard to hold you up.

Improving your alignment can lead to:

  • Less strain on your joints and muscles which means fewer aches and pains; 
  • Better breathing and circulation;
  • Increased core strength and energy;
  • Not to mention that you'll look better and more confident.

Do try this at home!

So if you've started to wonder at this point how you might improve your alignment, I have a short exploration for you to try. In the Gyrotonic method, we use three dimensional movements to release tension while building strength and training the nervous system about how to find equilibrium. This exploration uses those principles.

First, find a comfortable sitting position. Notice how your body feels sitting here — how does your neck feel? How do your shoulders feel? Your low back? Your hips?

Move your head forward and backward (like nodding yes).  Can you move comfortably in both directions? If not, try adjusting the rest of your spine and your shoulders until you can. Let your spine be wobbly, try rolling your shoulders around and experiment with letting them rest a little more forward or a little more backward.

Now turn your head side to side (like shaking your head no).  Once again, notice if you can move freely in both directions.  If not, then try adjusting your shoulders and spine--until you find the place where you can turn your head more easily.

Next, reach your sitsbones (those are the two bones that you feel resting on the chair) down toward the earth.  Feel as though they could melt right down through the chair.  As they do, allow your head to float upwards like a balloon.  Resist the temptation to push upward with your spine — instead, let your spine be like the string of the balloon and just hang down from your floating head. 

Let your shoulders pour down away from your head, as though your shoulders are made of water that is pouring down your arms and dripping off your fingers.

Tip your whole body forward a little bit, then find where it settles back in the middle.

Tip your whole body backward a little bit, then find where it settles back in the middle.

Tip your whole body to one side, then let it settle in the middle.  Repeat to the other side.

Then stay in the middle and continue allowing your sitsbones to melt downward, your head to float upward, and your shoulders to pour down away from your head.  Notice if this alignment feels different than when you started.  How does your neck feel?  Your back?  Your shoulders?

You may want to repeat this exercise in standing, feeling your feet melt downward instead of your sitsbones. 

Notice how you are holding yourself throughout the day and if your experience changes when you think about your alignment.  Let me know how it goes!

Heather Glidden is the co-owner of Gyrotonic Tree Town & Pilates Loft Studio, located on East Washington Street in downtown Ann Arbor. Heather is also a Life Coach and Massage Therapist and incorporates elements of both to help clients reach their goals and improve their overall wellness. 

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Posted on May 14, 2014 .