DIY Friday: Losing Our Heads (and How To Regain Them)

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*Do it yourself! Every Friday we do a roundup of great posts, videos, or other resources around a theme that help people to turn their bodies from cranky to happy.*

The screens! The screens! What a love hate relationship I/we have with them! One the one hand... Um hi there! I wouldn’t even be communicating with any of you without them. Among many other things, technology has given lots of people a voice and a gathering place here in The Land of Blog, and for that I am hugely grateful.

7275218206_4888f9a1a1_bBut as an embodied person, who happens to write about embodiment via this handy computer I am currently on, ugh! Frustrating! I also notice that running 3 businesses means that I am now fully addicted to my phone as well, bowing my head to its screen as if in some weird prayer ritual a gajillion times a day to respond to emails and texts. Do I need to do it that often? No, but alas I am working on my “rat to the pellet lever” type addiction to the thing. And I suspect I’m not alone. Look around you. We are the pre-cyborgs. Carrying around our not-yet-built-in gadgets and bowing our heads down to the ever beckoning screens.

The addiction piece is a big one here, but, apologies, for now I’m going to leave you guys to grapple with that one on your own, while I grapple with it on my own. (And hey now, if you have handy tips for being less addicted, add them to the comments below). We will instead talk about what is going on when we lose our heads and how to retrieve them before we are feeling 90 years old at any age.

First, there is the obvious impact on the spine. Anyone who has had low back problems is probably very familiar with decoding what I mean when I write “L4/L5, L5, S1”. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, I am referring to a grouping of your lowest vertebrae in your spine, and this bit of letter plus number body code speak is actually quite well known these days by laypeople because so many people have disk herniations* at these levels of the spine. In other words, if you didn’t know what I meant you are in a lucky minority. This epidemic of herniations has happened because the scourge of sitting has been going on for long enough and people do it for so many hours in every day, and improperly by sitting with a tucked under pelvis instead of on their sit bones (aka the ischial tuberosities).  But that's fodder for another post…

Back to the neck: I predict, and I’m definitely not alone here in my prediction, that “C6/C7, C7/T1” will be the new hot trend in disc herniations. I kid. But seriously, we’re headed for some trouble here (as in, we’re already in trouble here and it’s going to get worse.)  These levels of the spine are at a different transition point, right where your neck ends and back begins. In other words, right where you hinge forward when you look at your phone or your while-curled-up-on-the-couch laptop screen. We’re going to see a ton of unpleasantness here, and for those of you with kids (I’ve got a 6 year old) their generation is being primed for this at a very young age. So save yourself and your kids by starting a family project of reclaiming your heads.

Now on to the DIY:

Regain your head intervention #1:

Remember that phone prayer bow that I described earlier? Here’s how I break the cycle:

  • First, a little movement experiment: Get up from your computer and, bow your head forward as if you were looking at your phone. In other words, drop your head and narrow your gaze as if you were looking at a screen. Keep your head and vision like that and then take a little walk around the room you’re in.  Do you feel 90? Well you look 90, so knock it off. Losing your head instantly ages you everywhere, not just in your neck. You start getting shuffle-y all over the place.
  • So let’s reclaim the top of your head first, shall we? Without tugging your head up like you had some imaginary traction device on, simply bring your head back to normal (it bears repeating: do not pull your head up to the ceiling in mock good posture, or shove your chin back to flatten your neck out. This only sets you up for a different pain pattern whilst giving you an attractive double chin).
  • Now you have simply brought your head back up away from looking at the imaginary phone. If you heeded my warning about not tugging your neck long, you’re likely still a little forward with the carriage of your head. Goofy as it may feel, give yourself a gentle tapping on the crown of your head, or the very top most point of your head. This invites an awareness in of where the top of your head is. You can then gently(again no tugging!) follow that awareness to an upright head posture.
  • The top of the head is a very common body blind spot these days. Most of us (including me on my heavy phone use/Rolfing client days) lose connection to that. The gentle crown o’ the head tap is so simple but can have a huge result. Pepper it throughout your day. It may have the bonus effect of making your boss think you are having a nervous breakdown and inviting you to take a personal day. It’s worth a shot.
  • Next up (you’re still standing right? I’m going to make you walk around more) let’s play with your vision. The other thing that shuts down our body-wide movement potential is this narrowing of the gaze via the tunnel vision that exists only for the screen. So instead, start looking very consciously with your peripheral vision. Notice if that feels weird. For most of  us these days it does, because we  wear the imaginary screen blinders for such large portions of our day.
  • Keep that “looking through your peripheral vision” action going and now take a walk around the room. Don’t be surprised if you feel a bit off balance. Your peripheral vision is likely rusty, and you need to reclaim it gradually. This impacts your actual vision, but also, as I mentioned, movement potential and responsiveness (what if a ninja attacks your from the side after all?). Play with turning your peripheral vision on consciously through the day.  This is one you can do without anyone even knowing you’re expanding your movement vocabulary, so go for it.

Regain your head intervention #2:

Want a longer, more upright neck? Jill Miller of Yoga Tune Up® shows you how to lengthen the tissue on the front of your neck, mainly the platysma and scalenes muscles, which, when shortened,  are a large part of why people turn into vultures. Go slow and use broad touch with this. Imagine you are trying to slowly and gently warm up and stretch a piece of dense taffy. Rubber band snapping sensations are no good. 

Regain your head intervention #3: 

Kelly Starrett of Mobility WOD has got you covered for addressing positioning when using your phone and computer. Check it out in his post, Death by Texting. And please heed his warning when he says that he's not asking you to stick your chest out when you externally rotate your arms. Don't shove your chest forward with this! That will only agitate your neck over the long term. 

Lastly, why not cap this all off with a laugh by checking out The Oatmeal's comic on The Evolution of our Spines and Speech. Hilarious perfection. 

Go forth and use your gadgets without hating on your neck!

*Important footnote: The diagnosis of a disc herniation is, in my opinion, a hugely simplified view of what’s going on when people experience back pain. Beyond it being simply my opinion, data shows  that pain frequently does not correlate with what is going on with the discs. Often times when a thing can be easily measured, as in, “Look! There it is on the MRI!” people get told it is the whole story. But nothing in our bodies exists in isolation, so there is always a myriad of other things going on with the muscles, fascia, nerves, etc. So for the purpose of this blog I am using the simplified “disc herniation” issue to illustrate specific locations in your body clearly. It’s also handy because many people know what I mean via the diagnoses they have been given. But please know that it’s not just your discs I’m referring to here, and when you have a musculoskeletal/fascial issue it’s never just one thing. We just happen to live in a culture that loves a good bullet point. But bodies are not bullet points.

Photo by Roger G1