Category Archives: Balance

40 A Leaning Nation

sketch of tower of pisaI observe people. A lot.

I have always enjoyed people watching, even as a young child. As an Alexander teacher I am trained in the art of observation of self (and others). So, it’s hard not to observe people. Occupational hazard, I guess.

Some students ask me when I am out in public, if I am constantly judging people’s posture and Use. I’d say I am more of a curious observer than a critic. I wonder a lot at what people do with themselves and why. People and their Use are an endless source of fascination for me.

One thing that I have observed a lot recently is how most people don’t stand on their own two feet. Instead they lean.

couple leaning on luggage

Fig A: we can come up with an endless variety of ways of leaning on things!

They lean on anything they can. Walls, partitions, countertops, luggage, tables and chairs. And if there is nothing to lean on, they lean on themselves.

woman standing with weight in left hip

Fig B: a common habit of leaning on yourself-collapsing down into one hip.

 

woman standing next to broken down car

Fig C: another common habit of leaning on yourself-leaning back and sitting down into your lower back.

I have my own hypotheses about why this is so. One is that as adults when we sit, which most of us do most of the time, we don’t practice sitting upright and balanced, supporting our own torsos. When we sit down, we lean back against the back of the chair, or lean to the right or to the left supporting ourselves on an armrest.

Because we spend so many hours sitting and leaning we take the same leaning behavior into standing as well.

We get good at what we practice.

I go to a local Chipotle restaurant about once a month. I have been to a many Chipotle restaurants over last few years. Like most chains, the interior of the restaurants are quite similar. And in this chain they tend to have a low wall, about 3 ½ feet in height that people snake around as they wait in line.

What I enjoy a lot about going to Chipotle (besides the food) is watching how people wait in line. I’d say most of the time about 75% of the people are leaning against that low wall in some way or another. And the variations of leaning seem endless. And some are quite creative! The remaining 25% that are not leaning on the wall are leaning into one hip or the other, or are standing with their knees locked, pelvis thrust forward and literally are leaning back and down onto their lower backs.

Observing others is often helpful when learning to observe yourself. Watch how other people stand. What percentage are leaning on objects or on themselves? How do they lean? Do you observe any of these habits in yourself?

Picture Credits: Image of Leaning Tower of Pisa courtesy of TeddyBear[Picnic] at FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Fig A: Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Fig B: Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net; Fig C: Image courtesy of Witthaya Phonsawat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

26 Stagger Your Stance

Without thinking much about it go ahead and stand the way that feels normal to you. Now take a look at your feet. Where have you placed them? More or less parallel to each other? This is the most common way I see people place their feet when they are standing.

If you have been noticing that you stand with your hip joints pushed forward and you tend to stand with your feet parallel changing up the way your organize your feet in standing may be useful.

Standing with feet parallel provides you with stability right to left but not so much front to back.

Standing in a staggered stance, one foot slightly in front of the other and angled out a bit, provides you not only with stability right to left but also front to back.

To understand this more fully find a friend. First stand with feet parallel and ask your friend to place her hands on the front of your shoulders and try to push you over. Then stand in a staggered stance and ask your friend to try the same thing again. Switch roles so you have a chance to experience this from both roles. You will probably find that it is more difficult to push the other person over when they are in a staggered stance.

If you watch people engaged in martial arts practices you will notice that they very often use a staggered stance and one reason is that it is that much more stable.

Standing with feet parallel and hips pushed forward

Standing with feet parallel and hips pushed forward

Standing more balanced with feet slightly staggered

Standing more balanced with feet slightly staggered

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can still push your hip joints forward in a staggered stance but if it is not your normal way of positioning your feet in standing it might help you to be a bit more aware of where your weight is. You can think of positioning your weight right between the front and back foot right down through your apple core.

25 Let Your Spine Be Like an Apple Core

If you find you tend to stand with your hip joints pushed forward and your upper back thrown backward you are in good company. As you observe others you will see how ubiquitous this detrimental habit is. Realize that seeing others tends to subconsciously reinforce this is the way to stand. But now that you know otherwise you can be more mindful and attentive to yourself and make some other choices.

Another reason this habit of standing is so detrimental is that with your upper back thrown backward your weight is situated over the back or nerve part of the spine, not the front or support part of the spine.

The skeleton is standing with the weight transferred down through the front part of the spine

Fig 1: Balanced standing-weight transferred down through the front part of the spine

Look at the side view of the skeleton at the right. Your spine starts at your tailbone located a little higher than your sitting bones and between them. It curves its way all the way up to the level of your ears. Pay special attention to how thick the spine is at the lower end (right above the pelvis) at the level of the lower back and abdomen.

If you run your hand up and down your friend’s back you are feeling the back part of her spine. It is important to realize that this is only part of the spine.

Your spine has two main functions—support (discs) and communication (spinal cord and nerves). The discs are located toward the front. The spinal cord and nerves run along the back.

In the illustration the skeleton is standing balanced with the weight transferred down through the front part of the spine (this is the vertical line)

If you are standing with hip joints pushed forward and upper back thrown backward your weight is situated over the back or nerve part of the spine. Ouch!

Standing with feet parallel and hips pushed forward

Here I am standing with my weight thrown backward over the nerve part of my spine. Ouch!

You want your weight centered over the support or front part of the spine. For this reason when I imagine my spine I imagine the support part (the front part). Because the front part of my spine is actually more or less in the middle of my body (look at the vertical line in the illustration again) I like to imagine it like the core of an apple (albeit a slightly curvy one!). I let my weight transfer down through my apple core instead of thinking of the spine like a rod along my back.

apple core

If you remember in post 8 I introduced the term body map—we all have in our mind maps of our bodies and how they work. These body maps include size, shape and function.

What is important to realize is that you will typically move (and sit and stand) in accordance with how you think you are structured, even if your thinking is inaccurate. If your body map is faulty, movement and consequently posture, suffers.

So to help correct your body map of your spine think of it more like the core of an apple, not like a rod along your back.

How you think does affect how you move, sit and stand.

Picture credits: Fig 1: How to Learn the Alexander Technique by Barbara and William Conable

24 Knee Locker

No, a Knee Locker is not a locker at the gym to keep you knees in. It is someone who habitually locks their knees when standing.

What does standing with locked knees actually mean? More importantly, why should you care?

I differentiate between standing with knees (1) locked (2) balanced or (3) bent.

Three ways or organizing your knee joint. In each illustration the front of the leg is toward the right. On the left the knee is locked. In the middle the knee is straight. Notice how the to leg bones balance on top of each other. On the right the knee joint is bent.

Fig 1: Three ways or organizing your knee joint in standing. In each illustration the front of the leg is toward the right. On the left the knee is locked. In the middle the knee is balanced. Notice how the to leg bones balance on top of each other. On the right the knee is bent.

Standing with bent knees over time is tiring because you have to work to keep the bent joint stable.

Standing with locked knees is also a waste of energy as you habitually contract muscles in the quadriceps (front of your upper legs) to push your knees backward as far as they will go.

More importantly to our recent discussion of standing is that standing with locked knees also often results in you pushing your hip joints forward in response.

Mannequins in a New York City shop window

Fig 2: Mannequins in a New York City shop window. They are all standing with the knees locked and consequently the hip joints pushed forward.

Notice that there is not a big visual difference between the locked knees and the balanced knees. If you find that you are locking your knees, don’t bend them but just stop locking your knees. You will probably notice a subtle change but not a huge change. It may just be a sensation of not tightening in your legs so much.

Standing on balanced knees allows the weight to transfer down through the upper leg bones, through the knee joint and down through the lower legs bones, the ankles the arch of the foot and into the floor. You can think of locking the knees as blocking that easy flow down through the legs.

So if you have noticed over the past few weeks that you do tend to park your hip joints forward another way to work on it is to notice if you lock your knees when you are standing and intervene by practicing not locking your knees.

Here is a great blog post by a physical therapist that talks about this very subject. It gives you a simple exercise to practice becoming more aware of the knee locking habit.

Picture credits: Fig 1: What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body by Barbara Conable; Fig 2: Lindsay Newitter (www.nyposturepolice.com);

23 A New Use for Your Countertop

How did your observations go? Have a chance to check out any mannequins?

Below is a picture of mannequins in a New York City shop window taken by my colleague, Lindsay Newitter (check out her fun blog)

Mannequins in a New York City shop window

Fig 1: Mannequins in a New York City shop window

So you see even the mannequins are standing with their hip joints pushed forward.

Why is standing with your hip joints pushed forward so detrimental?

If you consider the pelvis to be the foundation of the upper part of your body you want it firmly under you so it can support your torso, shoulders, neck and head. When the hip joints are pushed forward your pelvis is not positioned firmly under you.

This is the same principle that we talked about with sitting in post 9.

If you had a house and the foundation shifted it wouldn’t be safe to live in, would it? You would probably be evacuated and not be allowed back in until it was fixed.

When you push your hip joints forward it causes other things to readjust as you attempt to stay balanced.

Look at the picture of me below standing with my hip joints pushed forward. How does that affect my upper back ? Can you see that my upper back is thrown backward behind my pelvis?

Standing with feet parallel and hips pushed forward

An unfortunately typical way to see people standing today: hip joints forward and upper back thrown backward

Often if someone is then carrying something in front of them this unhealthy relationship is often further exaggerated.

 

Further exaggeration of the standing posture above

Fig 2: Further exaggeration of the standing posture above

If you draw a line vertically from her upper back to the ground there would be nothing underneath to support it.

The problem is that the way you habitually stand will tend to feel vertical even if it is not . So, instead of relying on whether you “feel” like you are standing vertically, it is useful to have an external reference point—like a countertop.

When you find that you are in front of a counter (bathroom counter, kitchen counter, store counter…) simply begin by noticing how you are orienting your hip joints in relationship to the counter.

If you push your hip joints toward the counter the first step is to realize this is actually something you are doing. You are pushing your hip joints forward. If you are doing something you can choose to stop doing it, even just a little bit. Let there be some space between the counter in front of you and your hip joints.

It is not so much that you have to do something new. Just do less of what you are already doing.

The key is that you have to start with observation. If you don’t notice you are doing something that is unhelpful, harmful or plain unnecessary you can’t choose to stop doing it.

With observation comes choice.

Picture credits: Fig 1: Lindsay Newitter (www.nyposturepolice.com); Fig 2: Back Trouble by Deborah Caplan.

16 Touch Points, Balance and Posture

Balance is another reason to pay attention to your Touch Points.

Balance and posture are very interrelated.

Poor posture does nothing to help your balance. If you are consistently not balanced you will be holding yourself up with excessive muscular tension, which contributes to poor posture.

How we balance ourselves is very complex but you don’t have to understand it all. What I bring up here is the importance of Touch Points to balance.

Try this experiment:

Part One

  • Stand on two feet with your eyes open.
  • Stand on one foot and close your eyes. Notice how long you can balance easily on one foot before you lose your balance, start to fall over and eventually have to put your other foot down.
  • Do it a couple of times. Notice how your body feels different when it is balancing vs. when it is struggling not to fall over.

Part Two

  • Stand on two feet about 6—12 inches from a solid surface—a wall or a (securely!) closed door.
  • Touch one finger lightly on the wall (or door) in front of you. Stand on one foot and close your eyes.
  • Are you able to stay balanced longer on one foot with your finger on the wall than without?
  • Repeat with two fingers (one finger from each hand) on the wall.

Most people find they can balance longer on one foot when touching the wall lightly with their finger. This is because the finger provides an extra Touch Point. That gives your body information about where you are in space and helps you to maintain balance.

There is a difference between balancing and trying not to fall over. When you are balancing you are moving slightly as you adjust but it “feels easy”. When you are trying not to fall over you will start to tighten and hold in various part of your body. It doesn’t “feel easy”.

Why is this distinction between balancing and trying not to fall over important? Because if you are consistently trying not to fall over you will tighten and hold. Do this over and over again and it begins to feel normal. And that excess tension in not helpful for your posture.

I use Touch Points whenever I can. When I go up and down stairs I always have a finger tip on a handrail. I don’t lean into it or use it to pull myself up. Just a light touch to help me stay balanced and therefore easy in my body. No handrail? I drag my fingertip lightly on the wall (sorry mom!)

When I hike on uneven surfaces I use two lightweight walking poles for just the same reason. I rarely need to lean into them but having four “feet” on the ground instead of two helps me maintain my balance.

I touch whatever I can whenever I can! My balance (and my posture) is much better for it.