posture

Mary Bond: Posture is an Exploration (LBP 028)

Mary Bond, author of The New Rules of Posture, talks about how and why the word “posture” is problematic, how poor posture becomes chronic, what muscular armoring is and how it interferes with our functioning, the distinction between support and stabilization, the relationship between facial and spinal tension, and what it means to be a tongue gripper and how that affects people.

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Show notes

Brooke: You wrote the excellent book, The New Rules of Posture. I was wondering if, for contrast, if you could explain the old rules of posture and why we need new ones.

Mary:The book is about posture in name only because that’s what people think is wrong with them. When they look at their body or they assess their body, they think, “Oh, my posture is terrible and that if I could just fix my posture, then everything will be wonderful.”

What I’m interested in is movement and perception. Posture is just one of the outcomes of movement and also of the way that we perceive the world. The book is really a book about body awareness. The publisher didn’t think that would sell books. They put The New Rules of Posture.

On page 12, what you see is a couple of bullet points and it just says that posture is a process of self-study. That’s the first rule. The second part of it is that posture is dynamic. It’s not a static position that you get yourself into and then you’re all perfect.

Mary: Even Ida Rolf said: top of the head, waistline back, that was a rule when I studied with her, (Ida Rolf, the founder of Rolfing). A more common one is spine straight, shoulders back, head up, chin in.

These are all just postures laid on top of our positions laid on top of an organism that is moving and perceiving its environment and responding in the very best way that it can moment to moment. How can you tell what it’s supposed to look like? It’s very visual and static, the old point of view.

Brooke: That's a big passion of mine- that we can’t fix ourselves into the right shape. I don’t think that gets discussed all that often.

Mary: What interests me in working with people is I can assess them. I can assess their posture and movement because I’ve spent 34 years looking at bodies. I have a good eye but I know that if I tell them something to do to change the way they are, it will be an artifact laid on top of their own investigation of the world. What I’m interested in doing is finding the experience with the question that they can internally meditate on to discover the thing I want them to discover.

Brooke:What are some of the ways that poor posture can become chronic?

Mary: How it becomes chronic one way is that it works.We’re responding. We’re organisms responding to a scary world really. When there are threats of any type, we try to protect the vulnerable visceral parts of our bodies. We curl in. That turns into something that society calls bad posture but we keep it that way because it worked. We survived. That’s one way that posture becomes chronic is it’s a habituated response to some kind of threat or trauma or instability.

The other way that it becomes chronic is as a structural compensation. If a person has come out of the womb with feet that don’t mature well and don’t learn how to meet the earth well for one reason or another, then quite often, you’ll get compensation in the knees, for example, locked knees.

A structural compensation like using the knees as if they were the feet, then that becomes a habit. It works. She stays upright with these locked knees until one of these days, the knees are not going to work.

Brooke: There’s also this attempt to feel less vulnerable by becoming more solid but that this solidity actually interferes with our functioning.

Mary: First of all, I’d like to make a distinction between support and stabilization. Support is something we receive. We allow ourselves to be supported. Lots of times, that’s a problem.

We can’t, for some reason or another because of habituation. It makes it difficult for us to trust that we could allow ourselves to be supported by the ground or by another human, by the table. Support is something that we take in and allow.

Stabilization is something that we do. We stabilize the core in order to push off from the ground and lean into the air, for example. We need stabilization but in this culture of hyper-fitness, there’s too much emphasis on stabilization. I think it’s because we lack support and people don’t see that. They don’t see that distinction.

The more we stabilize ourselves and compress ourselves, getting back to your question, we become over-muscled and then, we’re compressing our joints without realizing it.

The freedom to allow our organisms to move as a intricately, complexly integrated system moment to moment through our lives is diminished because our joints don’t work the way they should. We no longer have three planes of motion, for example, in the hip. We have girdles hips and then we totter along from side to side.

Brooke: It’s brilliant. I’m so glad you’re differentiating between support and stabilization because I think in the same way that we’ve stopped distinguishing between movement and exercise which is crazy, we also don’t distinguish between support and stabilization.

Mary: People are running around desperate to feel more relaxed. The essence of relaxation is allowing oneself to be supported. That’s what it is. It’s not something you get from outside.Relaxation is built into the system. It’s the pause in the middle of your breath. It’s allowing your buttocks to feel that the chair underneath you is really there and you could really allow your buttocks and your thighs and your feet …

Mary: That’s what I think you and I are on the same page about is that we want to share that option with more people because it’s precious understanding. It’s the key to life in a way.

Brooke: You already talked about how you’re not looking at posture as a still thing. One of the very common movement patterns that you get into a lot is walking. What are some of the features of healthy walking?

Mary: I think maybe the first thing is beauty. Healthy walking is beautiful to look at. It pleases your mirror neurons. It’s like your body responds as you watch some kind of grace. As we look at a nature movie, for example, we go, “Oh, look at that cat. Look at that elephant how incredibly slowly and yet connectedly it can move.”

It’s the same with people. Watching a beautiful walk is a pretty rare occurrence in our culture at the moment. We’re walking on flat surfaces. Our feet don’t articulate. We’re wearing God knows what kind of shoes, either overly constructed to substitute for the ability of the foot or they’re just decorative. They’re something like earrings that you put on your feet and then you stumble around in them.

From the ground up, there’s a helical motion. The foot actually rotates inward and outward around its own midline. Instead, we put our feet in … One of my colleagues, Philip Beach, calls shoes sensory deprivation devices.

Mary: From the ground up, we’re not rotating. I have a run-through of features of helical walking that I could share with you but I can’t give you an overall picture except to say that it’s beautiful. The foot comes down through the calcaneus and talus and then rotates through the transverse arch across towards the navicular and into the cuneiforms and metatarsals and pushes through and actually bounces off the transverse arch. That’s when all those joints are working well.

Then, there’s a spiraling that occurs through the leg as it sits down through the lateral arch of the foot, the calcaneus and cuboid. There’s a slight external rotation in the hip joint. Then, as the weight translates through the transverse arch and pushes off, there’s a gradual inward rotation of the whole lower extremity into the push-off. When that push-off happens, it lengthens the psoas so that the next leg swing happens without the necessity to pick up the thigh. It just swings.

Meanwhile, the joints of the pelvis are torquing. The pelvis actually twists back and forth like an infinity sign. If you could hold a figure eight between your hands and twist the two loops forward and back, the innominate bones alternately go anterior and posterior in response to what the lower leg has done.

The sacrum of course is following that movement and the lumbars are following the sacrum. Then, up around T8, T9, maybe T10, it depends on the person, there’s a counter rotation in the thoracics.

Of course, up at the juncture between the head and neck, there’s slight movement also because otherwise, the head will be going side to side when this helical motion is taking place underneath. There has to be motion available in the neck in order for the gait to really manifest as beautiful.

Mary: I was lucky to study or to co-teach a class years ago with David Clark, who together with Gael Ohlgren, wrote a study called Natural Walking. I got it firsthand from David.

I should also mention that without the support of the ground, the ability for that body to rest into the ground and the capacity for the senses to open to the space, then none of that can happen because the joints will be too compressed. That spaciousness is actually awareness of space or the use of peripheral vision, peripheral hearing. Awareness of our environment is actually a lifting force that gives span to the joints so that they can rotate in the direction they were designed to do.

Brooke: You recently held a workshop about the face and spine tension relationships. You discussed that that kind of tension in the face and neck can affect the AO joint, which for those who aren’t in the field, it’s the joint where the head and neck meet, and that this can affect the movement of the whole spine.

Mary:The reason that I put that together was that I’ve been invited to teach at some Pilates studios. I really wanted to do this because I feel that the kinds of things that the structural integration community understands about the body and especially about the Rolf Movement community, our understanding of the body would be very useful to the Pilates studios because they’re so alignment oriented.

But they seem to be limited, in my opinion, in understanding of the body in the context of life in general. It’s goal oriented. It’s like you try to do these particular things either with the machines or on a mat class. You do these maneuvers. Y

Where we’ll often stabilize ourselves in order to achieve a strong effort towards a goal is in the jaw, the masseter, the pterygoids, they just clench and the eyes of course yet very, very focused, over focused in this sagittal direction. We’re just trying to achieve that goal.

When that happens, the tension in the face creates a lid on the spine, is how I think of it. It’s like the movement of the energy through the system up through the head and back down into the ground, that then is blocked right there at the juncture of chin and neck.

You have a situation where the spine is compressed. I think in that workshop, the first thing I did was ask them to do a forward roll down. Then, we went through various explorations to open and soften the oral cavity. I was just really working with the temporomandibular joint, the feeling of breath across the maxilla and space behind the uvula and just everything that’s in front of C2, C3.

Then, towards the end of the class, we did that forward roll down again. Sure enough, there’s more perception of spinal freedom even though we didn’t do any exercise in the spine. Then, we applied it to the Pilates sit-up thing where the body is supine and you come up into something they call teaser or forward roll or the hundreds.

The challenge then is can you do that and keep that spatial opening in the face. To do that successfully requires a sense of spaciousness through the whole body. The whole, the feet, the head, the arms, everything needs to perceive the space around it in order to maintain the spaciousness within.

The people at that studio, it’s in North Carolina, they have an online school. It’s called Fusion Fitness Online. They have filmed that class,

Brooke:We live in the age of screens. We’re talking about this kind of face and eye tension, how it affects everything. How do you think the screens are maybe affecting us?

Mary: It’s not good. When you narrow your visual perception that way, it diminishes your peripheral awareness. Your spatial awareness goes bye-bye. The body compresses. The joints compress and pretty soon, you’re stiff because fascia is very agreeable. If you want to be compressed, it will lay down more fiber and let you be more compressed.

It takes the head forward. It compresses the spine. The thing that I think is even worse, it makes us less aware of the wider world. This is odd to think about because with all the connectivity of the internet and this is what you and I are making use of right now, is that sense of being able to reach out globally.

At the same time, the perceptual diminishment that’s involved in doing that makes us less friendly, less aware of one another as organisms in the same boat. We’re both more connected and less connected across the horizon in an embodied way.

I think that’s a threat to the human spirit. Hopefully, there are enough of us who are interested in combatting it, bringing it to awareness and there will be maybe a hundredth monkey place where people wake up and realize that we need to learn to use these tools rather than have them use us. We become enthralled to the electronic device.

Brooke:I want to dive a little more deeply into some of the face-spine tension stuff. Maybe it’s just my personal bias because I’m a lifelong tongue gripper. I’m a tongue gripper in recovery- but I think that it’s really a common pattern. People don’t really think about what’s up with their tongues. You’ve linked this to some things that people do think about more frequently like tension headaches and shoulder gripping, shoulder tension.

Mary: In my book, I have an exercise where I suggest that the tongue should rest in the floor of the mouth. After working with this new information, I went, “Oh, no. That’s wrong.” Apologized to everybody as I’m reading this book but actually, when I went back to check in the book, it was an exercise. I don’t have scientific proof but in my own experience, and I think in the experience of so many people that I’ve taught now, that the tongue rests slightly in the roof of the mouth, not pressing however.

That’s a big distinction because lots of people are pressing the roof of the mouth with the tip of their tongue or doing different things that make the tongue narrow. What I’m talking about is a wide, soft tongue. The back of the tongue is at rest, broadly resting against the molars.

When you do that with yourself, it’s as if you’re smiling inside your mouth. There’s a width that takes place. That width also supports the breadth and width of the maxilla which is this very thin, micro thin arch of bone that is the floor of the nose and the eyes, the roof of the mouth but it’s the floor of the top part of the face.

That tongue maxilla structure is really the place where the whole gut tube is suspended from. When you feel that, you feel that breadth. You also will sense that it’s easier to breathe in through the nose. The widening of the maxilla, the widening of the tongue supports more space in the nasal concha.

It’s easier for nose breathing to occur which takes you into the benefit of breathing through the nose as a stimulus to the diaphragm and an opening of the lower lung where the better oxygen exchange more capillaries. Better oxygen exchange takes place in the lower lung whereas mouth breathing tends to bring the air quickly.

Mary: It’s like a real different energy in your face and also in the sense of how you look out of this face. There’s a different kind of interior support that occurs when you have the tongue in this place.

Brooke: If I push and do the opposite of what you’re describing and really pushing through the roof of my mouth, there is this really narrowing and hardening that I can feel quite a lot in my eyes as well as in my jaw.

Mary: That’s right and also in your nose. Notice what happens to the breath then.

Brooke: It’s true. Breath gets a lot more shallow.

Mary:What’s really fun in classes is to have people model those different places, those three that we just mentioned and notice the change in gait. It’s really very visible because it contributes to decompression of the spine.

Brooke: You have a new online course called Know Your Feet. You were talking earlier about a lot of nuance in the feet with gait pattern. What are some of the other things that that covers that it gets into?

Mary: What I wanted to do with this idea of my foot workshop is to just inform people about the complexity of their feet and give them a few things to assess their own feet and understand their own feet. It’s simple biomechanics, and also an introduction to the relationship between the feet and the body as a whole, when you stand in your feet in a pronated position, how your body feels in that way versus if you stand with your feet in a high arched rigid position and which is your tendency.

Then, also woven into the class is how to feel and receive support because the feet have to be in relationship to the ground, not just on the ground in order for them to work optimally. I couldn’t teach this class without also teaching about gravity and support. Then, there’s some self-help exercises to correct faulty foot habits. There’s some exercises for flat feet and high arches, different ways to work with yourself to improve your functions.

Brooke: Is there anything that you are currently playing with or fascinated by in your own practice these days?

Mary: I practice yoga, not strenuously but I find that it helps me on many levels. Recently, I’ve been trying to build into my home practice of that as well as when I’m in a class the sense of aliveness, homogeneous aliveness inside my skin.

Instead of thinking about the correctness of the asana or how to arrange or contract my muscles in order to do a particular pose, I’m trying, before I began to feel where I can feel myself through everything finger, every toe, my liver, just a quick scan in my all there and then I go into the pose.

I’m trying also to work with finding that balance between working the pose too hard and not working it hard enough. That’s a fine line but interestingly, I found that that practice has started to come across into my Rolfing practice. I am a habitual over-worker.

Brooke: I can relate.

Mary: Backing off to just the right amount within a specified practice, that seems to be beneficial to me. I also do a practice called dance meditation. There’s no structure to the movement but it’s, for me, a similar journey of embodied movement on any particular day that’s different. What it feels like to be embodied today is different from yesterday. It’s nice to know that.

Home play!

Want to play with all kind of good stuff related to the neck/head relationship? I love this exploration from Mary Bond; check it out! http://healyourposture.com/2013/08/free-your-head/

Resources

Mary Bond's website/blog: Heal Your Posture

Book, The New Rules of Posture

Mary Bond's Healthy Posture DVD

Dr. Ida P. Rolf

Rolfing® Structural Integration

Mary Bond's workshop on face/spine relationships at Fusion Fitness Online

Mary Bond's Know Your Feet workshop

Dance Meditation

If you liked this episode

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Constance Clare-Newman: Alexander Technique

Steve Haines: Body Maps and Interoception

Bo Forbes: Mindfulness Expressed in the Body

Constance Clare-Newman: Alexander Technique (LBP 019)

Constance Clare-Newman and I talk Alexander Technique, the difference between un-doing vs. doing (or relaxing into expansive support vs. propping oneself up), tensegrity concepts, common dysfunctional patterns in the head, neck, and spine, why most posture advice is truly terrible, the key support relationships within our body, and how this kind of mindfulness in the body expands into the rest of one's life. Also(hey, why not!) what makes for good sex vs. “meh” sex?

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Show notes

Alexander Technique is a practice of mindfulness that begins with the body. It's about consciously embodying. It's also a practice of neuroplasticity applied to everyday life that includes movement, posture, sensation, gesture, breath, voice, expression, energy, thought, emotion... all of these things together and more are what make up our self. The Alexander work is really about exploring an undivided self.

In reality people usually come to lessons for pain relief, so we start there.

Neuroplasticity: when we have a habit the grooves that make that habit in the brain- the neurons that fire together are used to firing together a lot. To change a habit we usually throw a lot of other pathways on top of that. In Alexander, we undo some of those neurons so you are unlearning rather than adding stuff on.

Ultimately the Alexander work is about changing your habits for what works better for you in your life. Whether those patterns are movement or postural habits, or habits of thinking or reacting, that are not useful anymore. All of those things are things that we work with.

A lot of times people come in with pain or stress, but they don't realize what habits are fostering that. They don't realize what habits they can let go of until someone helps them out of that.

There has been some good data on helping people with pain, particularly back pain, in the British Medical Journal (in resources). The difference between Alexander and other therapies is that it is an education. If you take lessons and you take 10 lessons, in a year hopefully you've been able to keep that practice going and it stays with you through your life. Whereas if you have a session like massage or chiropractic it's an intervention that can be very helpful, but if you go back to using your body the same way in our lives things go back to where they were.

To me [Brooke] it feels like learning how to trust-fall into my own support, which as a Rolfer and fascia-nerd makes me think of tensegrity support. If Alexander Technique is trying to undo and take things away, what is left when you take things away?

We are a nation of doers. We don't have much experience of undoing without utter collapse. Most people are going from holding themselves up, pushing through their days, and striving to get it all right and then collapsing at the end of the day and being drained.

Alexander practice is about that dynamic middle, where our posture is lively, not contracted, our thinking is expansive, not narrow, breath is effortless, not rigidly controlled.

A tensegrity structure is a great model as mechanical models go, because it shows the "just right" amount of tone- tension and integrity. "Tension" is usually thought of as a bad thing, so I use the word "tone". It's not too much, not too little. We're coming into our just right spot with our whole tissue suit.

The system gets so used to its pattern of holding and clenching that sensation is lost. That's why constructive rest is such a great practice to tune into sensations that are usually outside. It gives us a space to return to balance. [resources]

We are infinitely complex- we don't really need to think about "what's my ankle doing and what's going on with my glutes?" If you are focusing on support we find ease for the whole structure. Finding this overall sense of balance where the body's intelligence can bring the body back to homeostasis.

Maybe it's a good idea to find out where your glutes are and how they feel when they are working so that you can better sense them. So I'm not dissing the specificity work.

The ideal relationship between the head, the neck, and the back. We emphasize a dynamic relationship, rather than a fixed one, between the head, neck and back.

Most people have their head pulled down , and when they hear this they usually pull their face up, which only pulls the skull down more in the back. That area at the back of the head and neck is the first place to contract when we get scared, it is a part of our fight-or-flight mechanism. We go into mini startle patterns throughout the day, so we have a lot of preparation for battle and freezing. The tension is traveling down the back of the neck and shoulders.

The pulling down of the head is also pulling down on the spine and compressing those lovely sponge-y discs. We see this pattern all the time- it is the norm.

When we free that up the head becomes able to balance delicately on top of the spine, which allows the fear reflex to unwind.

One comes to lessons to become aware of that excess tension and to learn how to consciously intend how to release. It is this clarity of intention rather than a  particular muscular movement or place to be that is the hallmark of Alexander. We are trying to return the system to where it can function with the most balance and grace and efficiency.

In all vertebrates, when the head releases off the top of the spine and the spine lengthens, then the limbs move. This pattern of movement is what Alexander called the primary pattern of movement, and it is the most efficient in all vertebrates.

These are simple (but not easy) principles that can be explored in all movements in your life.

The functioning of all yous systems work best in an open, lively state in particular in the torso. Actors and martial artists think of this as a state of readiness. It's a feeling of being integrated.

[Brooke] I love that you pointed out that it's not about getting it "right".

The thing about good posture is an awful thing in our society, this idea of lift your chest and pull your shoulders back. It makes things worse. We have to be clear that that language is not helpful. We need language about coming into balance while being upright.

Everyone is trying so hard to do it right, and then they have to give up because it is unsustainable.

[Brooke] So they only experience effort or collapse, they only have these two extremes.

As a dancer Constance was taught strength and correctness at the expense of free flow of movement, and she got into Alexander for this to impact her dancing.

She didn't know Alexander would help with her back pain, so when that happened for her it was huge. And coming to that gradual awareness that the type-A way of being in the world was a choice and she didn't need to do that. She had had a lot of success through efforting, but Alexander made her curious about ease, and about enjoyment of movement.

[Brooke] You've run several workshops about pleasure- just about enjoying movement, or even about sex and what makes for good sex vs. "meh" sex, and I feel like we also have a weird relationship to pleasure in our culture too- binge or purge.

Culturally I think there is so much fear and distraction and an emphasis on speed, striving, and pushing. Coming back to a quiet self just being- and being kind to oneself is so needed and so pleasurable. It's so often thought of as a luxury.

A lot of times in lessons I think the most important thing happening for my students is this coming back to themselves in a fuller way.

An Alexander lesson is often a pleasurable feeling of sensations of undoing.

It's pleasurable to inhabit ourselves fully. Movement can be good for you and yummy at the same time.

We're so busy and trying to live up to our potential, there is so much focus on the external. And there is a renewed interest in mindfulness, and in being kind to oneself and it needs to keep seeping in more.

I mention a study that shows self-compassion as the leading marker of a successful life (in resources, quote from the study: "Individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater life satisfaction, social connectedness, emotional intelligence, and happiness and less anxiety, depression, shame, fear of failure, and burnout.") And it said that self-compassion was the best marker for a successful life.

Sex! What happens when we become less orgasm focused? There's nothing wrong with orgasms, of course. But feeling sensations other places as well. What's it like to explore sensations in one's own fingertips when touching someone? To have a free wrist and enjoy those movements when touching someone. And as a receiver, what is it like to feel sensations more places, and to not contract when you are touched?

The idea that we are supposed to give our partner a certain thing and that we're supposed to have an orgasm in a certain amount of time... there is so much cultural stuff that goes along with sex. And again, the distraction thing. It is so hard to not be distracted even just with ourselves let alone with another person.

Why don't more people know about Alexander Technique?

Alexander has been around for over 100 years and it's such a transformative practice, so this still confounds most of us who love it. It is a paradigm shift away from our normal way of doing, and it does require letting go of expectations. And a teacher is really a facilitator and a guide, like a meditation teacher, and so the student has to do the practice to get the benefit.

I think a lot of people would be willing to do the practice if they knew they were going to benefit so much. So maybe we don't communicate the benefits well enough? And people think the Alexander Technique is about posture, but it doesn't utilize the traditional strengthening techniques that many postural strategies use. And it goes against the traditional medical model.

There is starting to be some research about how the body works together as a whole, that all the systems together need to be coordinated.

I find that students who most take to the Alexander work are so excited when they discover that this work that they came to for their pain, or perhaps to learn how to play their violin better, or whatever it is, are so excited to discover that it is affecting all aspects of being human. Their ability to respond with choice, to everything that one explores.

[Brooke] I think that our culture doesn't understand holism. I don't understand holism, even though I do maybe more than some people because it's my field for many years. But even though I've been in the field for 14 years, I have been a part of this culture for almost 40 years, so I still have to remind myself even about holism. Add to that the fact that "holism" has become this yucky buzz word that means vaguely woo-woo and "different from normal" and it even means less. I think we're in the process of a long, slow evolution as humans to understand what holism means and that our fields are helping us to do that in an amazing way, but it's going to take a long time.

"The undivided self" I love this term (book in resources). It might be that if we keep saying mind-body, how do we experience the self? Language shapes how we experience things.

Constance is currently living in Provincetown and so is surrounded by water. So she loves to move in the water and float around in different ways, and to bring some of that bouyancy and fluidity into my my movement on land.

I [Constance] still ask myself that question all the time, "What would it be like to do this with even more ease?" And all of  a sudden my body knows how to do that. Slowing down a bit, but even not- going fast with ease!

Home play!

Constance put together this excellent one-minute practice: Standing Into Length. Try it out and see what you notice!

Resources

Constance Clare-Newman's website

Randomised controlled trial of Alexander Technique lessons, exercise, and massage for chronic recurring back pain from the British Medical Journal

A video summarizing the same study

A constructive rest lesson from Constance

study: Self Compassion: Conceptualizations, Correlates, and Interventions, Barnard and Curry, from Duke University

The Undivided Self: Alexander Technique and the Control of Stress

If you liked this episode

You might also like:

Judith Hanson Lasater: The Power of Restoration

Bo Forbes: Mindfulness Expressed in the Body

Steve Haines: Body Maps and Interoception