posture

It's Not About Effort

3682269259_316ef32678_bWe just kicked off the first Liberated Body 30-Day Challenge today- which is like a "cleanse" that is more about your movement nutrition than your dietary nutrition-  with a fantastic group from all over the world (don't worry, there will be more in the future!), and we're starting our first week by focusing on letting go of efforting in our bodies. Why? Because feeling good in our bodies is not about effort! It's about connecting with our innate support- the glorious architecture of you from the inside out, from the cellular level on up. We are all born with support built right in.

Yet more often than not, in my practice my clients always want to know if I hold the magic answer to the age-old question, "How can I effort in my body the right way." Only the question is never phrased that way. It usually sounds like some variety of these, "What should I do with my shoulders?", "What should I do during the day to fix my lousy posture?", "How should I hold my neck?" You know the questions, because if you're like me you've asked them of your body and yourself plenty of times.

There's nothing wrong with these questions. All of the people who ask them are asking because they are suffering in some way- whether it's from their perception of their posture as failing, or chronic pain, or movement restrictions- it all boils down to physical suffering.

So to seek answers isn't problematic (it's downright heroic when you think about how easy it is to hide from our "stuff"), it's the presumption behind the questions that is problematic. The presumption is: "I have no support, how do I get some?" When a more useful, and more anatomically correct (heh heh) question would be, "I have lost my ability to feel supported in my body, how do I find my way back to my natural effortless state?"

First, a word on the word effortless: I kind of hate it. It's been corrupted by people trying to sell us things like "effortless hair" and "effortless weight loss" and "effortless investing" and they use that word because they want to associate it with people thinking that effortless = checking out, not having to work for anything, and generally drooling on the couch while magic happens.

So let's clarify: effortless = strain-free connection with innate support.

And oftentimes to find it we have to go on a journey- in this case one that is about awareness of our own physical selves. We have to get inquisitive, dial in, explore, tinker, and perhaps most of all know that we are looking for something that has been obscured, rather than trying to build something from scratch.  We have to trust-fall into ourselves rather than bullying ourselves.

Much of this can be explained by tensegrity which, to be fair, is something that it took me a decade to start getting a handle on. (But then again I can be a slow learner.) Whether it instantly makes sense to you or not, it's a beautiful framework for understanding what I'm talking about and it also happens to be anatomically and physiologically true! How handy!

I wrote in Why Fascia Matters (which P.S. is free), "In tensegrity- in this case in regards to the human body- structures are stable and functional not because of the strength of individual pieces, but because of the way the entire structure balances and distributes mechanical stresses. Tension is continuously transmitted through the whole structure simultaneously. Which means that an increase in tension to one piece of the structure will result in an increase in tension to other parts of the structure- even parts that are seemingly “far” away."

I love that our bodies are built this way because it's like this delicious reminder that balance is strength. Not strain, not effort, not achieving, not strife; balance. Which, not to get too woo-woo on you, can extend to our worldviews as well. Are we dragging ourselves by our fingernails to our goals or are we getting into flow? Can we allow ourselves to believe that we have what we need, and we just need to find our way to inner resources that already exist? Sorry I just can't help digressing in that direction! I think it's so interesting.

Back to tensegrity: whenever the Olympics are on I have this fun game I play with friends or family who I'm watching it with: I like to pick who is going to win the event at the beginning, before they have begun moving, based on how balanced their structure is. This is especially easy with runners, swimmers, and power lifters. Not always, but more often than not, the people who triumph are the people who are the most balanced, because they have this whole structure to draw on for strength, speed, and agility, rather than blowing out one region of their body. Go take a look at high level power lifters on YouTube and you can see that these people are tensegrity in motion- every part is doing its right job to lift that weight. If not, ouch. It doesn't go particularly well.

And so it goes for us, in our regular non-Olympic competitor lives, if we can't rely on the whole by finding our way back to our inherent balance... ouch.

Of course this a dance we're engaged in forever. I think we assume that we have two options: perfectly balanced, or a mess. Really we're always tinkering, so ideally we make that a compassionate dance. Finding balance can be a delightful exploration or self-flagellation but I think it's clear which one I'm voting for.

photo by Erik Meldrum

 

 

DIY Friday: Upper Back and Shoulders Part 2

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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.*

CA350181Last week we began tackling that crunchiest of crunchy bits: our upper back and shoulders. If you're like most people, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's that place that you squeeze at the end of every workday, the relentlessly congested upper trapezius and levator scapula (and the supraspinatus and rhomboids come in to play, as well as plenty of other musculature). Unfortunately, the way many people deal with this is through postural efforting patterns that cause only more harm, leaving your poor upper back and shoulders in worse shape than they started out. To see my rant on the trouble with the "pull your shoulders back" cue, you can check out last week's DIY Friday. And for more information on the lousy posture cues and why they don't work, you can read more here.

That said, let's dive into more at home help to get your shoulders genuinely happy rather than trapped in unpleasant fake-it-til-you-make-it posturing.

First up, Katy Bowman takes on that other annoying and unhelpful cue, "pull your shoulders down". You can read her take on it, and watch a video explaining how external rotation is the name of the game, not yanking your shoulders away from your ears. It's here! 

Katy also has some short and sweet products that you can use to work on your own shoulders here (this is the whole collection, so you'll have to scroll to the appropriate shoulder goodies): Alignment Snacks

And lastly, here's Jill Miller with some Yoga Tune Up® help in the form of the active pose Pranic Bath. This is one of my favorite ways to get your shoulder mojo moving. And with no toys needed, it makes for a great movement to use when you're taking your (frequent) computer breaks during the day. In fact, I'm going to go do that right now! Do it along with me:

Go forth and have happy shoulders!

photo by hiromy

Are You at War With Your Fascia?

3965901338_8b663c765f_b“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

DIY Friday: Upper Back and Shoulders Part 1

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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.*

4927974025_116c045142_bI recently asked the Facebook tribe what they wanted me to give them help on in this week's DIY Friday and there was a whole lotta talk of shoulders and the upper back! I can't exactly say I'm surprised. We live in a culture that puts an awful lot of demand here in ways that our bodies are not well designed for. All of that looking at screens, sitting, and typing causes upper back, neck, and shoulder pain that our hunter gatherer ancestors were not having to deal with. I used to joke that the first person who came into my Rolfing® practice with no tension pattern in their upper trapezius would win a treasure chest of prizes. I have not given out any prizes. Call me a defeatist, but I have not even gone shopping for treasure chests. Ok partly that's just the practicality of having a hard time finding stores that carry treasure chests...

But in the hopes that I'll be handing out prizes for supple upper trapezius muscles soon, here's part 1 of a 2 part post on some of the most crucial alignment issues that we face in our shoulders and upper back, as well as some very juicy self massage strategies that are likely to have you shouting, "Hallelujiah!"

Before we bust out the therapy balls, here's a video from me ranting about one of my most despised hall of shame alignment cues. You've all heard it before, "Pull your shoulders back." Argh! To see how this cue may be causing a significant increase in your upper back pain and why I would get so complain-y about something so seemingly innocuous, give it a watch:

And now, finally, the moment you've all been waiting for. Knowing how to work on that cranky tissue on your own. First, to deal with the internal rotation, shoulders creeping up and forward thing that I describe in the video, here's a quickie therapy ball strategy to unglue your pec minor muscle, one of the main culprits in forward rounded shoulders (it's an oldie from before FFF):

Last but very, very much not least, this is the good stuff that you're wanting to get into at the end of every workday. Jill Miller shows you her Yoga Tune Up® therapy ball strategies for getting at the upper trapezius, supraspinatus, and rhomboids. Heavenly! This is a powerful 4 minutes and 55 seconds everyone. It might just change your life (as it does mine at the end of every Rolfing or writing day).

 

*Jill and I are both using the original sized therapy balls in these videos, and they can be found here

photo by Sam MacKenzie

 

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

The One Alignment Cue That Changes Everything

posture_like_gorillaFor the last twelve years in my Rolfing® practice I've given people this alignment cue over and over again, so it seemed ripe for a post! And when I saw it appear in Katy Bowman's great book, I knew it was ripe for a post (because, well, I have a major body nerd crush on her and think she's an uber genius). So here's the deal, this is a very common structural misalignment in our culture; that being the pelvis is forward of the ankles. What's the big freaking deal you ask? Well it causes a whole host of problems from knee, hip, low back, and neck pain and strain (including wear and tear on, and mis-loading of, those joints leading to osteoarthritis over time), as well as giving us lousy posture and an unenviable belly pooch. And it's oh so easily remedied. So check it out (Bonus! Learn about my aspiring Goth girl past!):

 

 

Illustration by Ari Moore

DIY Friday: Posture

diyfriday (2)*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.*

2499047949_47fb90e481_zI predict that FFF will ultimately have somewhere approximating 63 gajillion posts on posture. That would make this the first of them! Oh, posture. Such an overused and misunderstood word. Quick! Have good posture! Did you just yank your spine up straight, tuck your butt under, and shove your shoulders back while puffing up your chest? Well stop it. Stop it I say! That sh*t is exhausting and will only sow the seeds of chronic pain. Like I said, 63 gajillion posts coming your way over the years on posture, so I’ll get into the nuance of that more later but for now I need you to trust me on 2 things:

1) “Good” posture should be effortless. It should involve standing in a way that allows you all the glorious support you are designed with so that you can feel that sense of poise when upright without efforting or gripping your way through it. Forget anything you ever learned about posture in ballet class or the military. Or from your harping parents. Please.

2) Today’s 3 DIY posts have been chosen because they will help you to experience and attain that effortless sense of poise. Have fun!

  • First up, yep, this is a re-post of yours truly on the Yoga Tune Up® blog. I am slightly obsessed with getting people to stop shoving/pinning/pulling their shoulders back (it causes so much unnecessary pain!), so a few months back I wrote this article. It also has a video on how you can release your own pec minor, the main culprit in forward shoulder position, using therapy balls. If you are therapy ball-less at home you can use a tennis ball or a rubber dog ball. Lacrosse balls, baseballs, and softballs (or anything of this consistency) are too hard in this area. This is one of my favorite end of the workday things to do: When your pec minor becomes a major pain.
  • Second, Whole Living just posted this fascia focused workout creator by Jill Miller, creator of Yoga Tune Up (and, full disclosure, my teacher). While they don’t talk about this workout specifically as a posture improver, it really does hit so many of the key areas that need to be addressed in order for you to have a shot at experiencing ease in your body. Give them a try, they’re harder than they look! And my one caveat is to be super, duper, uber mindful when you do any of these movements (especially Matador Arm Circles and Sliding Chest Extension) to turn off your upper trapezius! It’s the part of your upper back/shoulder that you’re always groaning about at the end of the day, and it is, if you’re like most people, hyperactive. You will need to keep telling yourself to let that area soften as you go through the movements in order to open up your posture instead of just reinforcing old habits: Fascia Focused Workout
  • Lastly, the woman who literally wrote the book on posture, Mary Bond, has this great post on how spatial awareness/support can affect your posture. It might sound kooky, but try it! Go for a short walk seeing primarily with your peripheral vision. Or try sitting in your work chair while being aware of the space above your head and behind you (and try to avoid the temptation to pull yourself up when you notice the space above you). It can be powerful stuff! Spatial Support for Your Posture. Oh and that book I mentioned is The New Rules of Posture.

Now get out there and strut your effortlessly sassy pants stuff!