May-June 2013 | A Better You | Perk Up With Perfect Posture

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Why straightening up can help relieve stress
By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

I often hear people say they can spot dancers and dance teachers by the way they walk. These observers note the dancers’ grace in motion and vertical stance. That’s true; those qualities are ingrained in us over years of training and performing. But once you’re teaching, all those hours in the classroom and at a computer, plus fatigue from doing too much on a regular basis, can take a toll on even the most aligned backs and straight shoulders.

It’s not necessary or even advisable for teachers to exist in a perpetual state of performance-ready alignment; however, being conscious of posture, movements, and motion is crucial to maintaining good health in the short and long term. And unlike performers, who are only “on” onstage, a teacher is “on” as a role model all of the time. Don’t let your students see you slump!

Hours in the classroom and at a computer can take a toll on even the most aligned backs and straight shoulders.

In my Pilates and physical therapy work, I often hear questions about posture disguised as complaints about pain. Questions and complaints such as, “Why does my neck hurt?” or “My back is sore and I haven’t even been doing anything,” are common. The postures we adopt in everyday life add up over time and contribute to our overall health and well-being. We may think about posture and body mechanics when demonstrating for class, but we also need to monitor everyday postures, positions, and mechanics to look and feel our best.

Awareness

Recently a dance and yoga teacher who’s also a performer came into my office. Armed with MRI results, complaints, and fear about her painful back symptoms, she tearfully asked for help. As I reviewed her case, it became increasingly clear that her symptoms were not a reflection of her rather minor MRI findings. Judging by her posture and motions during our meeting, it was clear that she was completely unaware of her physicality. Her slumping, hyperflexible spine and dramatically swaying lateral spinal motions were delaying healing and possibly exacerbating what seemed to be a postural spinal sprain rather than a full-blown disc problem.

Education was in order. When an injury is not resolving, and diagnostics show minimal problems, examining posture and mechanics is a logical next step.

No one can get through life in perfect condition. Consider all the dings, accidents, and bruises one endures in the course of a typical day while working, doing chores, or commuting. These things can’t be avoided, but what we can avoid are the effects of chronic bad posture, positioning, and body mechanics.

Good posture begins with mindfulness. Teachers spend most of their time paying attention to others, and often only to themselves when they know the focus is on them. The best habit to acquire is becoming aware of what your body is doing in relationship to itself and to the ground.

Try these tips to help keep your body in line.

Positioning your head

The primary relationship to attend to is your head and your center of gravity. Your head should rest over your center of gravity, whether you’re standing or sitting. The center of gravity is located about three inches below your navel and about three inches in toward the back of your body. The center of the head is located between your ears.

Stand in front of a mirror and locate your center of gravity in your pelvic area. Next, place your thumbs inside your ears and place your index fingers on either side of your head, with the tips of your fingers pointing upward. Your hands will effectively be splitting your head into halves, front and back. It will look like you have dog ears.

Gently move your head forward one inch, then backward one inch. Imagining where the pelvic center of gravity is, gradually find the spot where the center of the head is directly over the pelvis.

Most people find that the correct position of the head over the pelvic center of gravity is farther back than they thought it would be. This position helps us to avoid arthritic changes in the spine. When correctly aligned, the spine is “floating,” free of the friction and misalignment that lead to premature wear and tear.

Sitting posture

Next, take that same head-to-pelvis relationship into a seated awareness exercise. The pelvis again creates the foundation. Now imagine that the pelvis has four bony points: the tailbone (coccyx), pubis (actually two bones joined by a cartilage disc), and the two sitting bones (ischial tuberosities). Your body weight should fall on the sitting bones, which means the pelvic center of gravity needs to sit inside the bowl these four points create.

Place the tips of the thumbs together at the navel so that your index fingers point toward the pubis. Now move the pelvis (gently arch and curl) until if you were to drop a line from the thumbs, it would fall just in front of the pubis. This pelvis position allows the weight on the sitting bones to fall a little forward instead of slumping back onto the sacrum.

When we are sitting, our sit bones and pelvis move slightly apart due to the weight of the internal organs falling on the pelvic floor (a parachute-like set of muscles at the bottom of the torso). This is a major reason why people may experience pain after sitting for a while. The hyperflexibility many dancers acquire over a lifetime cause the bones to pull apart more readily, causing pelvic instability that can become chronic.

To help avoid this phenomenon, think of the sit bones as having magnets on them that gently hold the bones together. Coordinate the pelvic foundation with the center of the head, once again by first using your fingers to find the center of gravity, three inches below the navel and three inches inward.

Next, place your thumbs at the navel and point your index fingers toward the pubis. Align the pelvic bowl on the sit bones and imagine their gentle magnetic attraction. Place the thumbs inside the ears with the index fingers along the sides of the head, pointing up.

Now apply some traction, gently lifting the head straight up while keeping the center of the head over the center of gravity. Your central skeleton has now found a base, giving your spine a neutral alignment without forcing anything.

Let your arms hang at your sides, envisioning your shoulders resting on the rib cage. Think of breathing from the back of the ribs and into the dome of the head, and imagine you’re hanging, relaxed and aligned, from the ceiling.

Elongating the spine

Once you’ve found your neutral spine and pelvis, check in with your spinal alignment at three designated times during the day. Remember, elongation of the spine creates good posture.

To further improve your posture, try this self-cueing trick I suggest for clients with spine problems: as you elongate, say to yourself, “Breathe in, get tall. Exhale, get taller.” Repeat this three times while inhaling and exhaling deeply. This kind of visualization really can improve your posture.

Commit to your program. With good posture minimizing stress on the spine (and thus the head and neck), you’ll think more clearly and experience less fatigue. A relaxed body contributes to a relaxed mind.

Renewing yourself by attending to your posture throughout the day will ensure that you are “on” even when you think no one is looking.

I have faith in you.