Massage gives your body the skills to better adapt to life: to more deeply relax, to move more fully, and to absorb and diffuse stress more easily.
Everyone knows that slouching is inadvisable, but very few of us have a realistic alternative. When you remember to sit up straight, it might be uncomfortable or even painful, and even if you’re determined, you default back to the slouch as soon as your attention is drawn away from your posture.
This video offers a great summary of the issue of structural balance.
I think postural habits are some of the most difficult ones to change. They are embedded deeply into our muscle memory, and over time our tissue even adapts to our position of choice, making it physically challenging to do anything else.
Here’s an excerpt from my recent interview with in.gredients, detailing a great tool for postural education:
For those that are really ready to take control of their well-being, here’s an exercise to retrain your muscle memory to counteract the collapsing tendency that is so common in our society:
1. Find an empty space on a flat wall the width of your arm span.
2. Stand facing away from the wall, with your heels about one foot’s length away from the wall.
3. Lean back and rest your back, hips, and head against the wall, then bend your knees slightly.
4. IMPORTANT: Push your low back flat against the wall, you should feel your spine contact the wall all the way from the top of the buttocks to the bottom of the shoulder blades. If this is a challenge, just work on this step until you can do it.
5. Relax your neck. With your arms down by your sides, place your elbows and the backs of you wrists against the wall, and slowly raise your arms up, brushing the wall as in a snow angel. When you feel your spine pull away from the wall, stop and correct it, then continue bringing your arms up. When you can’t flatten your spine against the wall any more, you’ve found your stopping point. Bring your arms back down, brushing the wall on the descent.
6. Repeat step 5 a total of 10 times.
7. Do this once a day for a month and see if your posture improves.
You could do more than one set a day if desired, but don’t do more than ten in a set.
If you have a physical practice of any kind (sports, workout, yoga, dance, etc.), do a set of wall angels before you begin and feel the increased ease enjoyed by an upright spine.
Depending on your beginning posture, you may feel a sense of difficulty, shame, hopelessness, or anger, etc while performing wall angels. This is a normal part of the process; your nervous system is quite comfortable with the habits it currently uses and will use many defences against being re-trained. When you step away from the wall after a set of 10 wall angels, you will feel a heightened awareness of your spine’s position. Building that awareness is the purpose of the exercise, and after each successive set, that awareness will last longer until you have formed a new postural habit.
If you’re serious about improving your structural and energetic balance, and thus your overall health, let’s schedule a session, I can help.
Before I became a bodyworker, I had the pleasure of having my eyes opened. A chiropractor I was seeing because of a neck spasm mimicked my posture and asked me “How do you think someone in this position feels about them self?” That was the beginning of a healing journey.
Take a look at these candid shots taken at a haunted house:
They are hilarious, for one, but they are also great examples of the startle reaction. It’s easy to see real fear on some of the patrons’ faces, and of the ones whose faces show terror, take a look at the shoulders, the spine, the position of the head relative to the ribcage.
This posture is familiar to all of us, and it’s a necessary survival mechanism. Caving in around our visceral cavity protects all the soft, vulnerable parts that keep us alive – the abdomen and the throat, but we are such funny creatures, we use this response for all kinds of things that don’t potentially threaten our lives.
We use it when we are three years old and someone yells at us, when we are gloomy, shameful teenagers, and when we become adults with the would be full expression of our true selves slightly compromised, we use it constantly.
Cultivate an awareness of how you use your body to express your standard image of your self, and see if that posture still serves your needs. Most importantly, remember that whatever state you’re in, it isn’t permanent. If you haven’t before, you CAN hold your head high, it just might take some work.
Have you ever gone to a massage therapist with a crick in your neck, or something pulling in your low back, or knots on the edge of your shoulder blade and felt like they didn’t address your complaint at all? Why would this happen, were they not listening to you, are they unskilled? Maybe, but they may have been doing what they felt you needed while failing to educate you on the true nature of your ailment. While a well integrated massage will usually relieve pain, it may not be the work that you expected.
Assuming that the therapist was in fact skilled, the client’s dissapointment in this scenario stems from two sources; the therapists failure to communicate, and the client’s presumption that they know exactly why they have pain. Descriptions of pain are very often accompanied by plausible explanations as to the cause, and understandably so. If we feel something has gone wrong inside our bodies, we want to have a reason at the ready. I know that when I started receiving bodywork what I mostly wanted was something to pin the pain to, something to fill the gap between the healthy person I imagined myself to be, and the pain I was feeling. From driving to typing, to strain from work, I wanted an answer so badly that I even bought a new mattress!
Well the bitter-sweet truth is that all the ergonomics and strong pressure in the world won’t free anyone from their pain patterns. In almost every case, the cause of discomfort or pain is both internal, and very old (even if the pain is new).
At some point, maybe around age three or four in many cases, we all live in our ideal physical alignment. A stable arch in both feet, just the right amount of play at the knees, a neutral pelvis, a spine that expresses its full length and supportive power, a ribcage and shoulder girdle that rest with balance around the spine, and a head that floats majestically and effortlessly at our summit. Three, ten, twenty, and forty years later the picture may be something completely different. So what happened?
Recently, at an Anatomy Trains workshop in Austin ( http://www.anatomytrains.com/ http://www.tlcschool.com/ ) The process was laid out in very clear terms:
Step 1: Experiments become gestures.
We watch the people around us, we test our limits, and we play with the possibilities that our form offers from day one. Eventually, for reasons better left to a psychotherapist’s blog, we choose a set of motions and positions that express what we most want to express.
Step 2: Gestures become habits.
We integrate this set of gestures into our personality, and even our identity, doing them more and more often.
Step 3: Habits become posture.
We no longer have to use our conscious mind to initiate the habits at all, at this point they are the new neurological default. Your posture is not how you are sitting or standing in a given moment, it’s how you hold your self when you aren’t paying attention to it.
Step 4: Posture becomes structure.
To use an example that’s very common in contemporary US society, imagine that the head being slightly forward of the place where it would be effortlessly balanced is one of the gestures that I picked to define myself. Every minute of every day, a number of muscles in the neck, back, and beyond, are carrying an extra load in order to maintain that head position. (To demonstrate this, try carrying a ten pound box of anything directly against your chest vs a couple of inches out in front.) Muscles are made to contract and relax intermittently, so this sustained albeit low grade contraction causes the development of trigger point pain. Fibroblasts – cells that build the collageneous web that infiltrates every corner of the body – respond to the persistent load in these muscles by laying down more and more tough fibers until the muscle becomes the steel cable that’s required to do the job of keeping up that forward head.
Step 5: Structure limits experimentation.
We grow up, we learn about health as an incidental phenomenon but not as a personal responsibility, we carry on our habits healthy and otherwise, and eventually the position of that forward head can’t be played with any more, it’s locked in place. Or so it would seem.
The good news is that the cycle can be intervened upon and reversed. Suppleness can be regained even in advanced adulthood. The fibroblasts continue to be responsive, and they will adapt to new postures if their host is aware and devoted enough to make the changes.
So back to the question of the massage therapist who works on your pecs when you have a knot between your shoulders. Quite often “knots” are the result of exactly the kind of sustained over-demand on myofascia that I described in step 4 above. In the case of protracted scapulae (shoulders forward), the rhomboids (between the shoulder blades) are persistently lengthened, while the pecs are persistently shortened, and the tissue responds to become just what it is asked to be. When cells die in the pectoralis tissue, they are replaced at a slower rate, yielding a shorter structure, while more fibrous collagen is layed down in the rhomboids. The tissue between the shoulder blades becomes tough, tightly stretched, difficult for fluids to penetrate, over crowded with metabolites. This condition is the source of the pain. Manual work is needed in the rhomboids to bring in new fluid and evacuate metabolites, and to regain mobility between the bits that have become stuck, but it is also needed in the pecs to regain length and allow the rhomboids to rest. As one prominent physiotherapist put it, “It is the victims who cry out, not the criminals.” ( http://dianelee.ca/ ). In this case the victims being the cells between the shoulder blades, and the criminals being the pectoralis muscles. Of course this is a gross simplification of a global posture pattern that could be seated at an even greater distance from the pain, but the example holds true.
Enjoy the soothing work, it feels great! Enjoy the confusing work, it will set you free! Ask questions, and seek an understanding of your pain. Once you get to know it, you can invite it to move out.
A human body standing still is the result of a symphony of sensory and motor impulses. Every muscle in your body is constantly updated with input from all over the system to make sure it’s doing what it needs to keep your head over your hips and your hips over your feet. So often when people endeavour to change their postural or movement habits, they approach it from a “fixed position” perspective. For example, you might visit a Chiropractor, and on your drive home think to yourself “If I just keep my neck where he put it, then the vertebrae will stay aligned,” when in fact it’s likely that the tendency to splint your neck in a fixed position is the root of the dysfunction.
Our bodies were made to move – all the time, yes there is an optimum alignment for each part of the skeletal-muscular system, but this is not the place where it stays put, it’s simply it’s ideal resting place.
Postural improvement can’t be fully realized by reminding oneself where, for instance, the shoulders “should” rest, and consciously putting them there any time one remembers to. Posture and movement patterns are programs stored in the cerebellum, and for them to change, the nervous system must re-learn movement and rest the same way it learned it the first time. To paraphrase Moshe Feldenkrais, a person cannot change until they have a new experience.
So when a body is standing there, opposing gravity as closely to vertical as it knows how, what is keeping it from being optimally aligned? What input to key muscles is overriding that which would otherwise bring it into perfect opposition to gravity? If one can answer these questions about oneself, they have a way away from pain.