"You're slumping - stand up tall!"
This is something you may have heard from your parents while you were growing up. Slumping is not considered good posture, so logic says if you're aware and make an effort to stop slumping, you'll have better posture (and thus look and feel better). This is true to a certain extent. In my last blog post (How to improve your performance) I talked about the awareness of how you're doing something (a movement, activity, or sport) can improve your performance and help you tune in to what might be causing a roadblock or pain.
If you sit in front of a computer for hours, you may already be aware of your posture and make a conscious effort to not slump. This works until it doesn't. Sometimes when you straighten up, there's an effort involved and it feels like you're fighting against something (the body always defaults to what’s easiest). Furthermore, when you lose that awareness (usually because things get busy) you revert back to the comfortable, old pattern. Your "old pattern" might be something else - maybe you do the opposite and arch your back, or always cross your legs, or lean on one leg while standing, or tilt your head sideways when listening to someone talk, and so on.
How to assess your posture
First of all, get to know what your posture is really like. Here's how:
- Stand in front of a full length mirror and close your eyes. Keeping relaxed, sense how you're standing and come to a posture where you feel like you're straight. Then, open your eyes and check: is one shoulder higher than the other? Is one arm/hand hanging lower than the other? Is your head tilted? Are your feet pointing straight forward or out? Really have a good look. Some things will be subtle and some may not be.
- While standing, have someone take a picture of you from the side. Is your head jutting forward? Is your back arched? Are your shoulders rounded?
- Side bending: In a standing position, side bend your torso to the left and notice how far it goes comfortably. Then tilt to the right. Is there a difference? Is one way easier or harder than the other? Do the same for your head: tilt your head left, then right and notice any differences.
- Rotation: Sitting at the front edge of a chair, turn your torso to the left, as if looking over your left shoulder and notice how far it goes comfortably. Now do the same to the right. Any difference? You can also do this lying on your back: with knees bent and feet together, let your knees fall to the left and notice how far they fall. Now let knees fall to the right side and notice any difference. Do the same for your head: turn your head to the left, then turn to the right and notice any differences.
- When you do any stretching (especially after an activity or work out), notice what you tend to always do. Do you reach your arms overhead and stretch? What about lie on your back and hug your knees? Do you stretch your quads? Once you become aware of the habitual stretches you do throughout your day, it can give you clues as to what is tight. For example, lying on your back and hugging your knees usually means you are looking for some stretch of your lower back. In other words, your back is tight. So your posture may have a swayback (opposite of slumping).
What you feel and what you see can be different
You can see how there are probably imbalances in your body, but you’re not ever aware of it because you feel "normal”. But in fact, there's a disconnect between what you sense internally and what you see externally (using the mirror). What you sense internally is called your proprioception. The key to changing your posture is learning to match your proprioception with reality. But how?
A principle in neuroscience says that nerve cells that fire together, wire together. Doing the same things every day, moving the same way, sitting the same way, all create the same experience that stamp the same network of neurons into the same patterns, all resulting in that familiar feeling called you (your proprioception). And if you do this for years and years, you're going to hard-wire your brain into a specific "program" because you're firing and wiring your brain that way. So you're stuck with these unconscious movements and habits that function just like a computer program. You press go and it runs automatically (to read more about how this happens, click here).
How to change your bad habits
So how do you go about changing these habits? Some people would suggest that if you tend to slump forward, for example, that means your back muscles are weak and you need to strengthen them. However, the problem is likely not weak back muscles but rather tight flexor muscles. When these muscles are chronically tight (including abdominal and pectoral muscles), they pull you into a flexed, rounded, slumped position. If these tight muscles were released, then the back muscles could do their job.
In other words, the back muscles aren't weak, but don't get an opportunity to work properly because they are being "bullied" by tight flexor muscles. Releasing tight muscles is not just a matter of stretching them. To undo the hard-wired program that has been set for your body requires a little more participation. It requires you to reprogram things in your brain. Somatics is a gentle and effective way to reprogramming things in your brain and make real, lasting change. But changing long-developed habits is not necessarily easy - it's going to feel unfamiliar, and the body doesn't tend to like that and will often revert to what feels familiar. But with focus and practice real change can happen. It's worth it.