Category Archives: Head Balance

32 Where is Your Attention?

Often my students lament that working at their computer is causing their neck, shoulder and back pain and contributing to their poor posture. They constantly find themselves pulled in toward the computer screen, head and neck jutted forward, collapsed through the front of their torso, shoulders up to their ears.

The first thing to come to terms with is that it is not working at the computer that is causing your problem. How you are working at the computer is the problem. And how you are working is not just about your body. It is also about your mind.

Before you lament the fact that yes you know you should have better posture, sit up straight, keep your shoulders back, yaddah yaddah yaddah, let’s stop and look at where you are placing your attention.

Because you physically follow your attention.

Often your attention is narrowly focused on one thing. Typically that thing is external, in front of you and what you are looking at, such as your computer screen. Or your smartphone as you read and send texts. Or your friend across the table telling you that interesting story. As you focus on this one external thing you exclude everything else, including yourself. We often call this concentrating.

At the same time your attention is placed externally on your computer screen you can place some attention internally on yourself (for example on your breathing, your contact with your chair and the floor, the balance of your head on top of your spine). You can do both at the same time.

Notice that placing some attention internally relies on senses other than sight–your sense of movement (noticing the expansion and contraction of your torso as you breathe); your sense of touch (noticing your contact with the chair and the floor); your sense of position or proprioception (the balance of your head on top of your spine).

The ability to place some of your attention internally on yourself as well as externally allows you to pay attention to important signals from your body as your work. You will be able to notice more readily the tension that you are holding in your shoulders (and choose to let it go) or that your nose is stuck in your work (and choose to come back away from the task in front of you) or that you are holding your breath (and choose to exhale).

The skill of consciously placing attention externally and internally can be learned and is a wonderful skill to have in your toolbox. However, if you are habituated to concentrating on your tasks with a laser like intensity it will not be easy. Don’t shy away from trying. Take it one step at a time.

To get started try this—pick an activity (for example working at the computer, working on an art project or gardening—something you tend to get sucked into and really concentrate on). Set up something to cue you while you are doing the activity to remind you to place some of your attention internally. This may be a kitchen timer set to ring every 15 minutes. Or some computer programs have a reminder you can set to pop up automatically. Or if you tend to drink water or coffee while you work, decide that when you reach for that cup or glass that will be your cue that you get to place some of your attention internally for a few seconds.

 

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31 Are Your Glasses a Pain in the Neck?

Eyeglasses resting on an open bookAs you age vision often changes. The first indication I had of this was several years ago. I began to notice that I was having a harder and harder time reading the small printed instructions that are on the back of medicine bottles and cans of various sorts. Sound familiar? Moving the bottle or can farther and farther away helped but one’s arm is only so long. Soon after I started to notice that I was also having a bit of an issue with focusing comfortably on the text in my book as I read. I now am the proud owner of a pair of prescription reading glasses that have made my life much easier and my eyes much happier.

As we age, needing glasses in the first place or changes to your existing prescription happen to a lot of us. Many of us end up needing bifocals or progressives. Moving from a single lens to bifocals or progressives presents challenges that require some adjustment that I find many of my students are unaware of.

Because you need to look out of the bottom part of bifocals or progressives to see what you are reading, what you are reading will need to be placed a bit lower than you probably held it when you didn’t have the bifocals or progressives.

The mistake I see many people making is that the reading material is held to high. It might have been a good height when they had single lenses or none at all but the new glasses require a change in habit.

What happens is that without thinking you tend to rotate your head back and down, raising your chin so that you can look through the bottom part of the lens. This puts tremendous compression on your neck and spine and I have found is often causing neck pain and headaches in a lot of folks.

You need to adjust your reading material instead of compromising your head-spine relationship.

This is true as well for computer screens. The normal ergonomic advice is to have the top of your computer monitor at the level of your eyes—so that you have to look down a bit to see the middle part of the screen. If you are looking through the lower part of your glasses to see the screen it will probably need to be lowered. Try it and see how it goes.

If you tend to use a computer a reasonable amount (which is most of us) and need glasses to see the screen, it is a worthwhile investment to get a pair computer glasses. These glasses are single-vision lenses with a focal length designed for computer work. This will eliminate the need to look through the bottom portion of the lens.

Check out this video for ergonomic tips on computer monitor placement with bifocals or trifocals.

Picture Credit: Image of book and glasses courtesy of hyena realty at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

30 Vision and Posture (Part 2)

The detrimental effects of typical smartphone and tablet use on posture is not a problem of our modern age. It is just an extension of the problem of the flat work surface.

picture of women hunched forward over an i-pad

Our bodies are not designed to read things that are flat on the table.

Plopping a paper document flat down on your desk in front of you to read has the same effect on your posture as placing your smartphone or tablet flat on a table. Same thing with reading a print magazine or newspaper laid flat out on the table as you graze over your lunch or held flat in your lap as you relax in the sauna at the gym.

Because the joint at the top of the spine (way up high between your ears) only allows the head to look down so far you end up bending the spine at the base of the neck, dropping your head forward or bending your whole spine (as I am doing reading on my ipad above).

Many years ago it was not uncommon for people to work at standing sloped work surfaces. At some point our current standard desk that accommodates right angled sitting and has a flat surface took over.

I am not debating the pros and cons of sitting vs standing desks. I’ll save that for later.

What I want to focus on is that the angle of the work surface is important regardless of whether you choose to sit or stand.

The optimal angle for reading is 60 degrees off the horizontal give or take. For writing, 10 to 20 degrees off the horizontal. You don’t need a lot of expensive ergonomic equipment in your home or office. However, some simple tools can go a long way to help your posture.

I have previously talked about a book stand, such as the bookchair below, which accommodates not only a tablet but also print magazines or books.

A bookchair like this can hold a book or a tablet in a much easier position to read comfortably.

A bookchair like this can hold a book or a tablet in a much easier position to read comfortably.

Reading an i-pad that is supported by a book stand at a good angle for viewing

Ah much better! Notice I have also given my entire back support with a big firm square pillow

I have recently also invested in a good quality slant board desk primarily for writing. It is adjustable and designed to hold reading materials but also comfortable for writing by hand.

Both a bookchair and a slant board can help transform a standard flat work surface into a more posture friendly work surface. If you invest in one or both make sure they are adjustable. See the Resources Page for some suggestions.

29 Vision and Posture (Part 1)

In late November and early December of last year a slew of articles appeared in the media with titles such as OMG, You’re Texting Your Way to Back Pain and Texting is Bad 4 UR Spine.

I know that texting or tablet use is correlated with many people’s neck, back and shoulder pain and poor posture. However just how much pressure you put on your spine when you are texting in the typical texting posture was shocking to me.

The famous evolution cartoon ending with a person using a smartphone

The media blitz on the texting topic was in response to a study that came out in the journal Surgical Technology International. The study found that as much as 60 pounds of pressure is put on the spine by the weight of the head when it’s bent in the position typical when using a smartphone or tablet.

Vision has a powerful influence on your posture. Your body follows your eyes.

Remember that you have a joint between the spine and the skull (way high up between your ears) that allows you to nod your head and look down a bit from. Well that joint does not allow enough movement to look at something flat on the table in front of you (which is where I notice the majority of people place their smartphone when using them while seated). What happens is that as your eyes lower your body follows and you end up bending the whole spine forward.

Try this experiment: Take your smartphone or a piece of paper with some text on it will do. Stand holding it at eye level and parallel to your face. Place your free hand gently on the base of your neck (for most of us the C7 vertebra sticks out a bit more there). Slowly lower the paper and angle it a bit until it is at about your belly button and parallel to the ground (where the man on the right in the cartoon above has his smartphone)

Notice that initially you can look down with your eyes a bit without needing to move the head at all.

To look down further without straining you eyes,  you can allow your head to nod slightly way high up between the ears—still without bending the spine at the base of the neck.

At some point you will start to bend at the base of the neck to continue reading. This is a point where you have lowered your reading material too far.

The ideal reading angle will differ from person to person. 60 degrees from the horizontal give or take is often given as the ideal. If you wear bifocals it will be a bit lower as you must look through the bottom part of your glasses to read.

Remember you can BITY instead of disrupting you delicate head spine relationship.

Get a cover for your tablet that folds to hold it at a good angle for reading or use a book chair. There are stands as well for smartphones. A smart investment but I rarely see them being used.

Picture Credit: Evolution and Texting cartoon: Yale Alumni Magazine Nov/Dec 2014.

7 Is Someone Pulling on your Ponytail?

Go for a walk around your room. Walk the way you normally do.

Now tighten your neck and pull the weight of your head down toward your spine. Don’t worry about doing it correctly. Just do it. While you maintain that downward pull go for your walk again and see what you experience.

How does your body feel? How about your breathing?

Tighten your neck again and pull your head down toward your spine. Maintain this while you go for walk but halfway through the walk stop pulling your head down. You don’t have to pull your head up or push your head up away from your spine (remember post 6?), just stop pulling your head down.

I am going to repeat that because it is important: You don’t have to pull your head up or push your head up away from your spine just stop tightening the neck and pulling your head down toward your spine. Your head will release up and away from the spine if you simply stop pulling it down. You do not have to do anything extra. See what you experience.

How does your body feel? How about your breathing?

I had you do this experiment so you could experience what it is like to compress the weight of your head down onto your spine. Most of us do this to some extent all of the time. However, because it is habitual we do not notice it. By exaggerating you get a feel for what it is like and how it affects your body underneath and your breathing.

One place in everyday life that is relatively easy to start observing a habit of compressing the head down onto the spine is to notice what you do when you stand up.

Sit down. Now stand up. Sit down again. This time place the palm of one of your hands very gently on the back of your neck. Don’t push the neck forward with your hand, but just have gentle contact. Stand up again and notice what happens with your head-spine relationship.

Did your head rotate backwards and downwards compressing your hand on the back of your neck?

If it did try standing up again without pulling the head backwards and downwards onto the back of your neck and hand. You might let your gaze drop a bit as you go to stand up, instead of looking straight ahead.

Remember that the joint between your skull and spine allows for a simple nodding motion. As you go to stand up from sitting you can let it very gently nod forward from between the ears (refer to post 3)

 

Going to stand up by compressing the weight of the head backwards and downwards onto the back of the neck. Ouch!

Going to stand up by compressing the weight of the head backwards and downwards onto the back of the neck. Ouch!

 

Standing up by letting the head gently nod forward at the top of the spine.

Standing up by letting the head gently nod forward at the top of the spine.

When you compress the head back and down onto the back of the neck when standing it is as if  you had a ponytail and someone were pulling on it. You don’t want to let people pull on your ponytail.

Observe what you and others do to the head-spine relationship when you stand up from sitting.

6 Balance Your Top Hat

In the past it was suggested to me to think of my head like a helium balloon on a string.

I don’t recommend this image for two reasons. First of all it is not a great analogy. The head does not exert a pull on the spine like a helium balloon exerts a pull on a string. You would need a muscle between your head and the ceiling that would contract to create such a scenario. Last I checked that was not part of the human anatomy.

The second reason I don’t recommend this image is that when you imagine it, it is very easy to start creating excess tension in your body so that you feel like the head is lifting off the spine. I invite you to go ahead and imagine the image of the balloon pulling on the string and try to make it happen for you. And exaggerate it. Where are you working? I can feel tension in my neck, shoulders and torso for starters. This will just create a sore neck, shoulders and torso…for starters.

A better analogy is to think of balancing your skull on top of your spine like balancing a top hat on the tip of a cane which in turn is balanced in the palm of your hand*.

Your skull rests gently on top of your spine and is moveable. It doesn’t press down on the spine. It doesn’t exert a pull up on the spine. As your body and spine move underneath it is free to respond and subtly adjust. Just like that top hat on the top of the cane in the palm of your hand.

Remember the talk about What is Posture? back in posts 2A and 2B? Posture is not a right position. Well, there is no right position for your head. There is a healthy relationship between your head and your spine that allows your head to adjust as necessary.

Experiment with thinking of the weight of your skull balancing on the top of the spine way up high above your ears like balancing a top hat on the tip of a cane in the palm of your hand. Try it when you are walking your dog, waiting in line at the supermarket, driving the car, working at the computer, wherever.

*I’d like to credit Los Angeles based Alexander teacher Brett Hershey with the top hat analogy.

5 Itty BITY

My last post was about how we disrespect the head-spine relationship by pushing the head and neck forward toward objects that we interact with—such as our book, fork or a coffee cup.

Each and every time you push (or drop) your head and neck forward toward objects you are encouraging what has often been called Forward Head Posture. The more up to date term is Text Neck. Take a survey of people texting on their smartphones today and you will see why this is an appropriate term.

If you are concerned that you have Forward Head Posture or Text Neck, you might look for some exercises to correct this (such as pulling your chin down and in and your head back and holding it for 10 seconds—repeat 5 times—this is one I have had students show me they have been taught) I am not necessarily recommending that you do said exercise.

Instead of adding something new to do (exercises) you might find it more effective and interesting to observe what you are already doing (how you habitually react to objects that you interact with) that is encouraging the posture in the first place and choose to respond differently (by bringing things to you).

Eve Bernfeld, an Alexander Teacher in Portland Oregon, has coined a wonderful phrase to remind you that you can….Bring it to You (BITY). You can read her blog about BITY here.

I have changed it slightly and call it the itty BITY principle. It rhymes and is easier for me to remember.

It’s a lot to pay attention to these things especially if you have not been used to it up to now. So start observing and choosing how to respond to one object and only one. I’d suggest your fork. In order to observe what you are doing and choose how to respond you have to slow down a bit at first. And slowing down and taking more time to eat has many beneficial effects for your heath.

As you get used to paying some attention to your fork you can move on to other objects. Take it slow. At a pace that is right for you.

What if I drop food on myself? I usually find that this is happening because I am overloading my utensil and trying to shovel the food into my mouth in an attempt to rush and finish my meal. Try putting 1/3 less food on each forkful. Slow down, enjoy your meal and BITY.