Awareness of Excess Tension to Improve Posture
From the view of an Alexander Technique teacher, poor posture is usually caused by habitual excess tension. Weakness is seen as a result of poor posture, not a cause. To correct posture problems, Alexander Technique teachers help people to consciously recognize and prevent these habits of excess tension. For example, as one recognizes and prevents excess tension in the neck, the neck will tend to lengthen and the head will sit higher. As excess tension is reduced, the coordinated activity of the postural muscles improves, resulting over time in increased range of movement and postural strength.
Learning and benefiting from the Alexander Technique usually requires a trained instructor, but you can also make progress by observing habits of excess tension on your own. It is a process that requires patience, but the results for you and your clients can be worth it. Start by trying the following investigation.
First, as you are reading this, don’t get ready to do anything. Don’t change your position and don’t try to sit “correctly.” In the next few minutes, I’m going to ask you to become aware of some very subtle tensions you may be causing in your body. During the investigation, you can move if you want, but do not confuse movement with what I am asking you to do. Think of these activities instead as stopping what you are already doing, the habitual excess contraction of muscles.
Again, neither freeze in place nor change your position; just experience yourself sitting there reading this. Without changing anything, place your attention on the back of your neck and the area just below the base of your skull. Almost everyone has tension here, and if you become aware of what you are doing, you might be able to get rid of that tension with just a thought. But still, don’t do anything about it. That part of your neck at the base of your skull isn’t the end of your neck. Your neck extends all the way to about the level of your ears, or as high as the roof of your mouth. Your head is perched there at the top of your spine with most of its weight forward of the spine. While still noticing the tension in the back of your neck at the base of your skull and without muscularly moving your head, gently allow the top of your head to fall almost imperceptibly forward and just a little bit away from the top of your spine. If you are able to allow your head to free away slightly forward, as opposed to moving your head muscularly, you might have felt a little relief at the back of your neck, and it may also feel your neck is a little longer.
|How we usually sit. Notice the back of the head falling backwards, causing the spine to shorten.
||Improved posture. Notice the back of the head more forward and the spine lengthened.
If you have become tired of sitting in one place, you may want to change your position. Do this if you want, but do it a little more slowly than usual and pay attention to that spot at the back of your neck. As you move your body, the muscles in your neck will tighten. When you have found a new position, or even if you haven't moved, once again allow the top of your head to gently, almost imperceptibly, free away and forward from the top of your spine. And as you allow the top of your head to free away forward, don’t let your neck or the rest of your spine go with your head. Instead, without trying to change your position again or trying to sit up straight, allow your spine to point toward the ceiling as if you were pointing your finger. In other words, as you allow the top of your head to fall imperceptibly away from the top of your spine, you can allow your spine to point as if it were gently reaching past the back of your head. If you allow all of this to occur, you might experience a little extra length in your spine, a little extra room in your back and some improvement in ease as you sit in your chair.
The picture above on the left shows how you might usually sit while the one on the right is an example of something better. Notice that the picture on the right shows the back of my head a little forward and up from my back, compared to the picture on the left where my head seems to be falling backward and down.
Still, without trying to sit “properly,” add your feet and ankles to your awareness. (You can also go back to your head and neck at any time and go through the same process you did before.) As you place your attention on your feet and ankles, think of them just as you thought of your head and neck. Notice where your ankles meet your feet. Just as you did with your neck, notice if there is any tension there. Without moving or tightening, allow your heel to fall away from your ankle. Don’t pull your toes up; just allow your heel to fall toward the floor. As you allow your heel to fall away from your ankle, experience your lower leg lengthening from the bottom up as you allow it to point toward the floor - again, just as if you are pointing your finger.
As your heel falls away from your ankle, you might experience a slight rotation of your foot. This rotation is similar to what happens to your head as you allow it to free forward and away from the top of your spine. You can think of it as two parts of the same event. As you sit in your chair gently allowing your head to free away from the top of your spine, also allow your heel to free away from your ankle and your spine to point up past the back of your head and your leg to point to the floor from the bottom up. If you are successful in allowing these things to happen, you might be able to experience a little extra space in the rest of your body in between. If you don’t experience anything, try not to move or readjust too much to find the “right” position. Instead, move only if you are uncomfortable and then start again from the beginning, noticing the tension in the back of your neck near the base of your skull.
If you are ready to continue, still with your awareness on the back of your neck and ankles as you point your spine up and your lower legs toward the floor, bring your attention to the space behind your knees and notice if you are clenching your lower legs as if you are about to bring your foot up and back toward your thigh. Try instead, again without muscularly moving your legs, to allow for expansiveness in that space behind your legs so that you are not pulling your calf toward your thigh. Notice if you have a slight feeling that your lower legs are swinging away. As that happens, allow your whole back, from your sit bones resting on the chair to the top of your spine, to go gently up and back as you allow your heels along with your lower legs to go slightly forward and down. As you allow your lower legs to swing slightly, almost imperceptibly away from your thigh, your whole back will be able to do the same in opposition, to swing back and up as you continue to allow the top of your head to free forward and away and your spine to lengthen as it points past the back of your head. Remember these are not movements, but the active release of muscular tension that is causing the change.
Adding Movement - Leaning Forward
If you are feeling a little longer and more open, now might be a good time to gently put yourself in a better position. Without losing awareness of your previous activity, let your feet, including your heels, touch the floor. Put your hip all the way back into the corner of the chair, and feel your sit bones directly under you. Allow your back to rest against the back of the chair.
|Less length in Spine
||More length in Spine
Once again, allow the top of your head to free forward and away from the top of your spine and your spine to lengthen as it points past the back of your head as you allow your heels to fall away from your ankles and your calf to swing slightly away from your thigh so that your back can rest comfortably on the back of the chair. Once you are organized, gently bend forward from your hip joint, without bending at the waist, as if you were going to get out of the chair, and then rock back. You should feel your pelvis rotating on the chair. Do this a few times and try to memorize exactly what you did. Then, gently place the fingers of one hand on the back of your neck so that your pinky is as in the upper photo to the right. Without changing your previous rocking movement, do it again. Slowly rock forward and then back. Did you notice that your fingers were squeezed a little behind your neck as in the photo to the right below? This shortening of the spine is a habit of excess tension and most people will engage this habit when they bend forward. The constant engagement of this habit during the day can be a contributor to poor posture. Once again, go back to the beginning to organize yourself. Allow the top of your head to free forward and away from the top of your spine and your spine to lengthen as it points past the back of your head as you allow your heels to fall away from your ankles and your calf to swing slightly away from your thigh so that your back can rest comfortably on the back of the chair. Paying attention to your hand, gently rock forward from your hip joint again. The photo on the left is closer to what you are looking for.
The skill of bending forward from the hip in a chair without shortening your spine is useful because we do this movement all the time. Just reach for your computer keyboard and you’ll see. But by paying a bit of attention, you might be able to be a little easier on yourself and your neck.
Taking a few minutes every day to go through this investigation can help you to strengthen your back and recognize when you are slouching. Visit my web site for more information about the Alexander Technique or to find a teacher in your area.