“Stand up straight!”, “Don’t slouch!” Blah, blah, we all had childhoods, and particularly teen years, filled with phrases like these. Sadly, most of us learned how to “have better posture” from vague admonishments like these from our parents. But here’s the thing, if all it took was for us know that we should to stand up straight* or to stop slouching, well then we would all have flawless and effortless posture. Clearly something is off, because judging from what I hear all the time from readers and clients in my private practice (not to mention friends, family, etc) we all universally think our posture sucks and want it to be better. We pull ourselves up, but something pulls us back down again into our familiar slouch. To a certain degree that something is gravity, but more precisely it’s how gravity is interacting with our fascia, aka our connective tissue. If we are aligned well fascially, i.e. we have happy soft tissue and joints, then we are what we call “on our line” in gravity. Which is to say we are supported in gravity rather than dragged down by it because the organ of support and structure in us, our fascia, is doing its fabulous springy upright suspension bridge thing and keeping us aligned and upright.
But for most of us we have a myriad of compensatory patterns in the fascia that get us “off our line” and therefore we feel pulled down in gravity. Let’s visualize the fascia a bit first to get a better handle on this; Imagine that you have a tightly knit sweater lying just under your skin. This is your superficial fascia. From there, this sweater under the skin dives deep to wrap each and every muscle (and organ), spinning continuously into tendon which attaches muscle to bone, and ligament which attaches bone to bone. From there, this tight knit sweater dives yet deeper, forming the interior architecture of each muscle in your body. To visualize this interior architecture fascia, I often tell people to take a bite out of an orange slice and then look at it. What you’ll see are tiny pods of juice that are contained by these thin, translucent fibrous walls. Without those walls, it would just be juice with no structure. Our muscles are similar. Without fascia, we’re just juice (we’re somewhere around 78% water, remember?).
Now attach this tight knit sweater in your mind to the nervous system. As in, it’s not an inert sweater, it’s a living sweater. And the nervous system tells it when, where, and how much to knit more based on the sensory input it is receiving from you. So for example if you work at a lab hunching over a microscope, your nervous system detects your constant forward hunch position and says, “Ah! I get it. You want to maintain this hunched, bring the shoulders around the ears and strain the neck forward position more easily. I’m on it! I’ll help you out by knitting the fascia up nice and tidily to hold you there. Aren’t I super helpful!?” The same goes for anything you are, or very importantly aren’t, doing with your body on a regular basis*. Which, of course, means that when you leave your job at the lab, or more likely leave your desk or couch at home and go to straighten up, you meet with some pretty fierce resistance. This is being at war with your fascia.
Because he’s A) a gifted genius and B) he explains this more elegantly than I do, I give you the famous fuzz speech from Gil Hedley of Integral Anatomy (be aware that if you watch this video you will see some cadavers):
So what’s a knit-up-in-all-the-wrong-places person to do? First, we are you, you are us, we are all dealing with fascial restrictions to one degree or another. So take a breather, this is not dire (yet). Before it turns into unpleasant pain conditions or surgeries however, you have two options which, naturally, work best when combined.
- First, move regularly in multi-dimensional ways. You’re best off moving in ways our ancestors regularly did , which makes MovNat and things related to it a good option. But you can also just work on your squat, carry stuff, balance, walk, reach for stuff, and lift yourself up and over things (go climb a tree while you’re at it!). Or just go have some fun. It's also no secret that I love Yoga Tune Up® and Restorative Exercise™ for smart movement.
- Second, you can check out some of the manual therapies that free up the fascia. Rolfing® and other forms of Structural Integration are great because they deal with the whole which tends to have more thorough and longer term results (I’m biased), and there’s also myofascial release and ART.
Imagine feeling supported by your body from the inside out, pretty appealing right? I encourage you to check out some of the resources I just mentioned above. It's never too late to wave the white flag and make friends with your fascia.
*Footnote: "Stand up straight" is an unfortunate and vague sentence that typically elicits a movement wherein people flatten out their spines, tug their head up, and shove their shoulders back while flaring their ribs forward. Sadly, this is ripe for creating a host of new compensatory patterns and the chronic pain conditions that come with them, so please avoid making this shape, and just try to forget that anyone ever told you that this weird military meets ballerina posture was good for you. It's not.
Photo by Marmite Toast