7. CORRECTING YOUR POSTURE:

Yoga, the Alexander Method of posture correction, Osteopathy and Chiropractics can help you to improve your posture. The first two involve learning to use your body in a better way, while the last two depend on external manipulation.

Let us however look at the problem from an Engineering perspective. There are 206 bones in the human body and more than 600 muscles; these interrelate with one other in complex ways. Clearly, posture cannot be corrected the way in which you would repair a motorcar. Since the problem is mechanically very complex it is necessary to evolve simple principles which will help the body to naturally go back to its correct alignment.

It is useful to keep in mind, as we attempt to correct our posture that all humans have precisely the same number of bones and muscles in their bodies. If one person moves more gracefully than another, or he looks better proportioned, it may not all be due to any major difference of equipment, but rather the way in which the equipment is used.

7.1 STRATEGY FOR CORRECTING POSTURE:

Fig 7. Correcting posture has three important aspects:

  1. MECHANICAL ASPECT
  2. MENTAL ASPECT
  3. BEHAVIORAL ASPECT

The Mechanical aspect can be split as follows:

  1. PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
  2. BALANCING POSTURE

We can put together the individual activities and prioritize them:

  1. PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
  2. MENTAL ASPECT
  3. BALANCING POSTURE

7.2 PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT:

  • CLOTHING
  • FOOTWEAR
  • CHAIR
  • SOFT SURFACES
  • TAKING EXERCISE

7.2.1 CLOTHING ……………

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou was naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

……….. The Bible, Genesis 3:9,10,11

The instinct to cover the naked body has prompted all cultures to tie something or the other around the waist. Humans (Proto-humans) could have started to tie things around their waist as long as 2 Million years ago! Tying anything around the waist will however prevent proper functioning of the stomach muscles. For girls and women therefore the best items of wear are frocks and gowns. Skirts and saris are not advisable unless you can find some way to suspend them from the shoulders. For boys and men, shorts and trousers, which are loose around the waist and suspended from the shoulders, are best. Anything tied around the waist, even loosely, like dhoti and pyjama will create problems. Pyjamas should also be suspended using shoulder straps. Elastic used in clothing has the potential to create problems; children's clothing sholud not have any elastic. The important thing to remember is that we are not born with our clothes on and no animal other than ourselves wear clothes. Clothing should not inhibit movement of the body. If the musculoskeletal system is inhibited in any way, at any location, it will upset the postural balance of the whole body.

7.2.2 FOOTWEAR …………

Improper footwear will cause major problems. The best thing to wear is leather slippers with thin soles, in which the soles, both where they come in contact with the feet and where they come in contact with the ground are perfectly flat. We will find invariably that slippers available in the market have heels. It is important to have the heels removed. It is more difficult to find suitable shoes: shoes may severely restrict freedom of movement of the feet and thus affect posture. Hawaii slippers provide tremendous freedom of movement, hence they are recommended – a firm material such as leather is however better than rubber which provides cushioning. Proper gait is a complex wave like motion starting at the feet. Improper footwear will alter this gait.

7.2.3 CHAIR ………..

The thighbones are attached to the pelvic bone by means of ball joints and actuated by very complex arrangement of muscles. It is very important to sit in such a way that the freedom of movement at this joint is not seriously compromised. When sitting in standard chairs you are effectively sitting on the muscles which move the thighs, thus severely restricting their freedom of movement, Fig 8a. The problem can be solved by sitting on chairs and benches, which are lower, or by using footrests, Fig 8b. It is better to sit on hard surfaces rather than on cushioned surfaces.

Fig 8a: In a standard chair the thighs make intimate contact with the chair, inhibiting free movement of muscles. Fig 8b: By limiting contact of the thighs with the chair the legs can be made more active and postural balance can be achieved. Fig 8c: Soft cushions will prevent free movement of muscles.

7.2.4 SOFT SURFACES …………..

Our ideas about comfort are closely associated with soft surfaces. Excessively cushioned surfaces on chairs, shoes, bed, pillows etc. however will inhibit use of muscles and prevent them from achieving postural balance (Fig 8c). Use of hard or firm surfaces will help to keep muscles active and thus promote good health.

7.2.5 TAKING EXERCISE ………..

Taking exercise and improving posture are basically incompatible. Small children and animals do not take exercise, they play, they are active and maintain superb postural balance: they are much healthier than human adults. When exercise is heavy it is impossible to ensure that all the muscles will be exercised uniformly: because of this, different persons doing the same exercise can end up with markedly different results. Walking is perhaps the best physical activity to keep us fit; it should not be viewed as an exercise, rather it should be interwoven in the fabric of our daily life. Exercising with anything tied around the waist and while wearing faulty footwear will distort posture. (When exercising or doing heavy physical work we should also try to be in present space – see below)

SCIENTIFIC BASIS FOR TAKING EXERCISE

It is difficult to establish a scientific basis for taking exercise, especially heavy exercise. From an engineering perspective, if a structure is distorted (Fig 6), it is necessary to remove the distortion. You never load a deformed structure!

Doing exercise with clothing and footwear, which are likely to distort the muskuloskeletal system, is equally questionable. In Greece, where the Olympics first took place, participants did not wear clothes! (Women were not invited to these events.) Perhaps, they understood human posture better than we do.

7.3 MENTAL ASPECT

There are 206 bones in the human body and more than 600 muscles, it is impossible for us to figure out consciously how to hold them all in a proper way. Only the subconscious mind can accomplish this difficult task. To improve our posture therefore we have to periodically move into PRESENT SPACE. Using this principle we can begin to understand why small children and animals naturally maintain good posture, and why for human adults it presents a difficult task. Moving into present space is simply seeing things around you sharply and clearly…

The principle can be explained by a simple experiment, which does not need any tools. Become fully conscious of your immediate surroundings by looking at things sharply and clearly – the beautiful painting on the wall, the floral designs on the curtains, the walls of the room, the books on the table, the beautiful green of the lawn outside. Don’t strain to see any particular object – keep the eyes relaxed by moving gently from one object to another.

Next, while looking clearly at external objects think of something – anything. Perhaps the pleasant holiday you spent last summer. Or try to conjure your wife’s / husband’s face. What happens? When I persuaded a few friends to try this experiment, not one was able to think in any way when he was fully focused on his surroundings – it is in effect an animal state, of becoming one with the environment. If you try to force yourself to think while holding on to the images of your surroundings, the eyeballs are put under severe strain as they try simultaneously to turn outwards (towards the surroundings), and inwards (towards a thought or mental image). Hence we can form a principle:

YOU CAN’T BE FULLY CONSCIOUS OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS AND SIMULTANEOUSLY ENGAGE IN A PROCESS OF THOUGHT.

Fig 9: Experience tells us that animals can occupy only Present Space, while Humans can occupy Present Space, Thought Space or a Space in-between.

The concept is explored further in Fig 9. The space in which the brain can wander (when the subject is awake and alert) can be divided into two parts, Present Space and Thought Space – the two separated by a barrier. Observations of animals suggest that they are always alert to what is happening around them, they are never ‘lost in thought’ in the human sense. Hence it can reasonably be assumed that they can occupy only Present Space – the construction of their brain does not permit them to do otherwise. Human beings, on the other hand, can occupy Present Space, Thought Space or a Space that is in-between the two. For occupying an intermediate state a price has to be paid in the form of increased physical tension, which is first felt in the eye-balls and from there, the rest of the body.

In the Alexander method of posture correction two complementary principles are used which achieve the objective of bringing the mind to present space in different ways. The first is the principle of INHIBITION in which you are advised to inhibit your movements, that is, let us say you are reaching for a book, you should deliberately pause for a fraction of a second before you start your movement. The pause will make you focus on the task at hand.

The second principle is AVOIDING AN END GAINING APPROACH. Let us say you are driving a car, you are late and in a hurry to reach the railway station. If you keep worrying about missing the train, your muscular coordination will automatically become faulty. On the other hand if you say to yourself OK it does not matter whether I catch the train or not, your muscular co-ordination will improve, you will be less likely to involve yourself in an accident, you will enjoy your drive to the station and probably reach there sooner.

Good posture can be defined only when we are in present space. When we are thinking our posture will automatically become faulty! It is important to move into present space at periodic intervals to keep us healthy and also to improve our mental functioning. Both, the human body and mind work better in the subconscious state.

IMPROVING PERSONAL RELATIONS

Moving into present space will help improve our personal relations. In this state we can make eye contact, and judgment of others, which vitiate many relationships will be temporarily suspended.

7.4 BALANCING POSTURE

Fig 10: A balanced system is easy to oscillate too and fro.

Balancing posture is very similar to balancing weights using a weighing balance, Fig 10. Discovering how the large number of bones and muscles in the body are linked is however not easy. To balance posture we must not lock our bodies externally or internally.

Crossing one leg over the other when sitting down, crossing hands over the chest and passing the weight of the upper body through the arms when sitting next to a table are all examples of external locking of the musculoskeletal system. The body should be held symmetrical and the weight of the body should be passed to the ground uniformly on both the legs – the woman in the plaque fixed on the Voyager spacecraft is striking an attractive pose, but supporting the weight of the body mainly on one leg is a form of external locking, which provides poor postural balance. Even using the backrest when sitting in a chair, which will prevent proper use of a large number of muscle groups, can be conceived as external locking.

Internal locking is when joints are held at their extreme position. For instance the knees should always be slightly flexed to keep all the muscles active. If the knees are moved to an extreme position many muscles will have no work to do. Just as a shark must swim continuously in order to breathe, so also, we must balance our posture continuously to maintain the shape of the body.

When balancing our posture we have to minutely adjust the musculo-skeletal system to get a feeling of strength and flexibility over the whole length of the body. We must rediscover the contour of the spine and we must be able to flex it, somewhat the way in which a snake slithers on the ground. We must attempt to poise the head gracefully and strongly over the spine. (Postural balance is easier to feel out early in the morning in bed, after a good night’s sleep; make sure your pillow elevates the head by no more than 2.5 cm, so that the natural curvature of the spine is maintained. Note: please visit my blog for a fresh perspective on the use of pillows). The girl in (Fig 11) has good postural balance, observe that she is very much in present space.

Fig 11: Child demonstrating good postural balance. (From The Alexander Principle by Dr. Wilfred Barlow).

Balance is a fundamental concept in Engineering. Many stationary systems and practically all systems that move must be balanced to function properly. The concept of balance is important for the following reasons:

  1. Posture can only be corrected by trial and error. By keeping this concept in mind we can avoid going dramatically wrong.
  2. It helps explain why 99% of adults will have postural faults. A concept of balance (lacking in our environment and social interactions) is required to integrate the musculoskeletal system.
  3. The concept of balance provides a suitable guideline for the science of ergonomics. The dress we wear, the footwear and the design of our physical environment must ensure that we are able at all times, to keep the whole body in balance.

7.5 BEHAVIORAL ASPECT

Fig 12: Fredrick Matthias Alexander, (1869-1955), developed the Alexander Method of posture correction, achieving in the process, deeper insight into the problem of faulty posture than any one before him. He discovered the very important principle, USE AFFECTS FUNCTIONING, known as the Alexander Principle.

The Alexander Principle states that ……

USE AFFECTS FUNCTIONING

Because correcting posture is difficult we have to try to maintain good posture at all times, this is in marked contrast to the concept of taking exercise, where we exercise for say half an hour and then use the body carelessly for the rest of the day. Considerable organic changes have to take place in the muscular system before good posture can be achieved. These changes will take place in the positive direction only if we try to maintain good posture at all times.

IN DR. BARLOW’S MEMORY

Individuals closely associated with the Alexander Movement have informed me that the Alexander Principle was actually coined by Dr Barlow, even though he himself calls it the Alexander Principle.

To commemorate Dr. Barlow’s memory - he has contributed a great deal to the understanding of Human Posture - let us agree to call this principle the Alexander/Barlow Principle.

(The Alexander/Barlow Principle is a very important concept. It is a concept we can use in other ways to enrich our lives )

7.6 SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

  1. The musculoskeletal system is enormously complex. If your posture is already good, you are lucky. If you have to correct your posture you are taking on a difficult task. It is best to start by paying attention to your ‘Physical Environment’
  2. Parents should protect the posture of their children by paying attention only to the ‘Physical Environment’. Consciously correcting posture should be delayed till after the age of 20.
  3. In the process of correcting posture it is likely that you may feel dizzy at times or you may have a muscle pull (when muscles not used for a long time suddenly come into play). If there is any physical distress do not make any sudden movement and move into PRESENT SPACE. Your subconscious mind will know how to protect you.
  4. It is not possible to maintain good posture if you are mentally agitated. Personal worry should be converted into plans of action so that you can focus on the work at hand.
  5. You should feel very comfortable in Present Space, if there is any feeling of discomfort it will be because of the following reasons. a) Your mind has blanked out – you are not thinking of any thing, neither are you focused properly on the surroundings. This is a very disorienting state. b) You are not able to suppress your thoughts – if you are worried about something you will find it difficult to move into present space c) you are trying too hard – being in present space is a natural state!
  6. When you are tired your posture will become faulty. Lying down for 5 to 10 minutes will rejuvenate you physically and mentally. You can lie down on a mat or rug. If you habitually use a soft bed it is important to find out what a hard surface feels like! Slumping in a chair is a bad way to relax.
  7. Posture should not be corrected consciously for more than a few minutes at a time – move into Present Space periodically. Or engage yourself in other activities.

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