Monday, March 24, 2014

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Good Posture Means Wearing Your Own Hat, Not Someone Else's

In some of my recent posts, I've talked about the flip-flopping effect of slouching and then attempting to correct the slouch by pulling the shoulders back and lifting the chest.  Slouching isn't so great, but lifting the chest and pulling the shoulders back is slouching too.  It's slouching backward.  When truly standing up straight, we're neither forward nor backward.  Instead, we're balanced in the middle, comfortable and breathing effortlessly.  Recently, I ventured into to one of my favorite subway stations to try on some hats and further investigate this phenomenon.
Let's take a look at the photos below and make some sense of the title of this blog, "Good Posture Means Wearing Your Own Hat, Not Someone Else's".  

Welcome to the 23rd Street N/R stop in Manhattan, where the walls of the station are decorated with tile-composed hats similar in style to hats worn by various prominent figures (the name of the person printed below each hat).  The hats have been placed on the walls at levels that correspond to the heights of the people who would have worn them.  Here I am trying on hats.  Let's see what I discovered about my posture . . .   

Endeavoring to place my head under this hat belonging to someone shorter than I am, I tipped my head back and down and adopted a slouch.  I'm shortening myself here and clearly will not succeed in inhabiting my full height while wearing this hat.  It's also not very comfortable.  I feel compressed and lack energy.  My breathing feels shallow.

Let's find a higher hat.  How about this one?  It might be a little too high, but maybe I can fit into it if I stand up really straight!  

The problem here is that in my effort to stand up straight, as predicted, I slouch backwards and actually move farther away from the hat.  I'm lifting my chest and pulling my shoulders and head back, which leads me down in the opposite direction from the slouch, but I'm still aimed down, compressing my spine and rib cage.  I feel rigid, uncomfortable, and short of breath.

How about I put on my own hat and stand up at my own height instead of trying to fit into these other hats.  That feels better!  I'm standing much more upright than when I tried on those other two hats.  I feel relaxed, energized, and I'm breathing more fully without extra effort.
I used flip-flop between slouching forward and backward all the time and I wasn't even aware of it.  The Alexander Technique helped me figure out what it feels like to stand up at my full height . . . and wear my own hat!

If you'd like to read another Posture Police Blotter post inspired by NYC subway tile art, check out this one at Prince Street Station.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Futuristic Sensor Device May Train You to Slouch Backward

The following article and video about LumoBack appeared in yesterday's Wall Stree Journal.  LumoBack is a new, wear-able posture-sensing device. It's promoted as a digital "Mom" reminding you to sit up straight.  

Have you ever been reminded to stand or sit up straight?  Did you find the reminder truly helpful?  If you then attempted to straighten, was it comfortable, or did you feel frustrated and think that you could never have "good posture" and feel good?  This device may not be much more help than "Mom" (and it won't make you dinner or send you cupcakes in the mail).  

See the article and video below:

LumoBack is a bluetooth device that you wear discreetly around your waist that connects to your smart phone.  It buzzes when your posture is off and gives you more detailed feedback on the phone app, which include illustrations of correct posture. 

The writer says:

This illustration [on the phone] helps you know how to adjust your sitting or standing position. But it's unrealistic to constantly look at a screen to check your posture so most of the times I felt these vibrating nags, I had to guess how to improve my posture.

I agree, that it's unrealistic for us to trust our own judgement regarding our body position, unless we've had some training.  I would go a step further to say that the drawings on the phone are likely not terribly useful as people will probably attempt to imitate the images by stiffening, which may not be any more comfortable or sustainable than slouching.  The writer also says:

I know it's good for me, but I don't necessarily enjoy it.

Truly "good" posture should feel relaxed and comfortable.  It should feel "good" and lead to what ever you are doing feeling more enjoyable and sustainable.

Referring to a typical "momism", she goes on to say:

LumoBack or no LumoBack, your mother will probably still bug you about your posture. So save her the trouble: Keep your shoulders back.

Nearly all of my students explain to me that someone has told them to keep their shoulders back.  Most people have the idea that a military sort of posture of lifting the chest and pinning the shoulders back is the proper and healthy way to sit, stand, and counteract slouching.  To combat the fear of slouching forward, most people actually end up "slouching" backward.  Take a look in the mirror at yourself from the side.  Hold your shoulders back will pin your shoulder blades together and down, causing tension in the upper and lower back, restricting rib movement for breathing and compressing the spine.  When my students stop doing this, they typically report relief of pain or discomfort in their backs and that it's easier to breath.  Truly "good posture" is upright, balanced and comfortable, but typically, verbal instructions and images are not enough to change long-held postural habits.  We get used to our habits and unable to accurately gauge our body position and whether or not we're using the right amount of effort in the right places.

Here I am bending a plastic knife.  This photo on the left mimics what we typically call "slouching" (dropping or pulling forward and down into the chest.)  

This photo on mimics pulling the shoulders back.  It looks like the same image, just flipped around with the "slump" in the opposite direction.

While viewing the video that accompanies the article (see at the top of the post), I learned that LumoBack may exhibit some of the same postural misconceptions as "Mom".  Pay close attention to the sequence of the woman in the burgundy shirt being monitored by the devices as shown on the smart phone on the right side of the screen. If you take a look at about 1m18sec into the video, you'll see a woman stand up out of a chair and the stick figure on her device "mirror" what she's doing.  When she is fully standing, she's leaning back (pulling her shoulders back aka "slouching backward").  The stick figure is standing perfectly straight, indicating that she exhibits good posture here, while she's actually leaning back and in effect pulling her upper body back and down.

Though I think that this device may help people become more aware of their posture and of how much time they spend sitting, it doesn't appear to always give accurate feedback, and even if it did, it doesn't provide a kinesthetic experience, like an Alexander Technique lesson does.  It could be useful, especially if used hand-in-hand with kinesthetic education, but left to its own "devices" I think it's likely that people will continue to find sitting up straight to be a pain and a strain.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Up Side of Tension

As I was just looking through some photos I took of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge yesterday, I thought I'd write a post in support of my good friend, tension, because I get a lot of support from him/her . . . it.                     

Tension gets a bad rap.  Relaxation = good.  Tension = bad.  Tell that to this bridge!  Suspension bridges maintain their support and structure through tension and balance and so do we.  You may associate tension with stress, when in fact, it's tension that keeps us upright.  You wouldn't be sitting at your desk or standing and holding your smartphone, walking, running, jumping or doing anything at all without tension.  

So, what happens when we get stressed?  We end up tensing muscles that we shouldn't be tensing, muscles that are intended for movement instead of postural support.  These muscles are only supposed to work in short bursts and fatigue quickly.  This chronic tensing of muscles that shouldn't be tense all the time often feels uncomfortable and results in strain and pain.  Because of this misplaced tension, our postural muscles, the muscles that should be holding us up all of the time,lose tone.  Postural muscles work to hold us up without any conscious effort on our part.  If you have the intention to stay standing or sitting, they'll work to hold you up without you having to tighten or move them, but they don't work so well if other muscles are doing the work for them.

Then what's the problem here if it isn't tension?  The problem is balance.  Your muscle tone throughout your body gets out of balance when you react to stress by overusing muscles that shouldn't be working so hard all the time.  If you are stressed and straining at your desk all day, holding your shoulders up or pressing them down, tensing your neck, arms, and your thighs, then you will train your muscles and brain to understand that this state is normal and is how you should hold yourself up.

Alexander Technique lessons help people feel that what they are doing normally isn't necessarily natural and may be the source of discomfort and pain.  If you learn to react to stress differently and not tense your moving muscles all day, then you're postural muscles will tone up and sitting and standing can feel comfortable.  We have our own suspension system and if any area is too slack or too tense,the whole structure becomes distorted and tends to pull down and in on itself.  Return to balance and you'll expand up and out, reducing strain on any particular part.  That's the "up" side of tension. 

Good thing that bridges don't have desk jobs!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mind or Body? Duck or Human?

Yesterday evening I was humbly enlightened by one of my children.  She and her sister presented me with two similar drawings pictured above.  When speaking of the creatures they had drawn, I described one as featuring a human head and duck body and the other as featuring a duck head and human body.  Upon receiving my description, my daughter replied, "A head is a part of a body."  I laughed at myself and agreed with her, stating that I disagreed with my initial take on the drawings.

This conversation may come across as a debate in semantics, but I think it's much more than that.  The language we use reflects our thoughts, beliefs, and habitual ways of living. People often talk about being stuck "in their head", which keeps them from feeling present and fully embodied.  We often think of exercising our minds and bodies separately as if they were disconnected parts of us.  A split is created between mind and body that weakens our ability to accurately feel what our bodies are doing and makes us more prone to strain and injury.

It's easy to get the idea that since with your head you think, listen, see, hear, smell, taste, that the rest of you, your "body" just takes you around and gets you places and you exercise it so that it will look good.

There's a lot going on cognitively and in terms of our senses in our heads, but our heads are just as much a part of our bodies as everything below.  The more we live as a whole person, the more present we feel.  We feel more integrated and lively, less likely to strain or injure ourselves when working out, and more likely to be aware of our posture when we're tapping away on our electronic devices.

One of F.M. Alexander's books on the Alexander Technique is titled "The Use of the Self".  "Self" gets around the division unifies mind and body.  When learning the Alexander Technique, people learn to use themselves well.  Sometimes the tune of "using yourself" rings oddly to the ear, which makes sense.  It's not something often said if we think of mind and body as separate.

So here's the big question that you can feel free to answer in the comments below . . . Would you rather have a human head and duck "rest of body" or a duck head and human "rest of body".  :-)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Improve Your Relationship with Your Chair

The more we sit and compute, the more of an adversarial role we tend to take with our chairs.  Just recently the Posture Police were called in to resolve the fight pictured above between a beagle and lounge chair.  

Earlier this week Businessweek published an interview with Alexander Technique teacher, Teva Bjerken advising on chairs in a SOHO furniture shop.  At the end of the article, she idicates after having rated many chairs, that if the person uses their body poorly, they may use any chair poorly.  Agreed!  A well-designed chair does not guarantee that a person will sit in it well.  Nonetheless, a chair designed well for the purposes of working at a computer can encourage less strenuous sitting.

Here are some guidelines to consider when purchasing a desk chair or modifying one that you already have.

1.  It's the right size - Make sure that you can adjust the chair so that your feet touch the floor when you are sitting all the way back.  A foot rest and or added back support can help if you would prefer to modify a chair you already have.

2.  Not too cushy - Whether you'd like cushioning at all is up to you, but either way you should ideally be able to feel the firm surface of the seat of the chair.  Sitting on something firm helps to prevent us from sinking down and too much cushioning near the front of the seat can put a lot of pressure on the backs of the thighs.

3.  Angle of seat - Make sure that the seat isn't angled back.  Instead check that it's flat or even angled slightly forward and down toward your feet.  This will help to keep your thighs from tensing up.  A foam wedge can do the trick if you'd like to modify a chair that you already have.

4. Back of Chair - For working at a computer, make sure that the back is straight up and that when you lean back, you're butt is all the way back in the corner so that you use the support and don't slump.  Save chairs that angle back for lounging.

So, Snoopy, after taking these tips into consideration, have you decided on a chair that will suit your needs?

snoopy sits upon his house typing 

You manage to sit human-style with very little trouble.  No chair required.  You look upright and comfortable.  Is that a PC or a Mac you are using?

Check out the Businessweek article for more information on choosing a chair.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Posture Check-List for Using Your Devices

New and varied technology is being developed so quickly, that these rectangle screens on which we view content, make content, send emails and messages, and place phone calls are generally being referred to as "devices".  A nice blanket word for a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or tablet that morphs into a laptop, and vice-versa.

If we thought that we were developing back, neck and shoulder pain sitting at a desk in front of a computer, we now don't even get a rest from our technology-induced postures when we are on the go.  The good news is that using a device does not have to be synonymous with strain.  

Here are a few things to keep in mind when using your devices:

1.  Move down, don't drop down - Typing on a smartphone or tablet usually involves holding it far than your eyes and looking down at it.  What causes strain is when you collapse down toward the thing that you are looking at.  Resist the urge to push your chin forward and sink down into your chest.  Instead of collapsing down, move down.  Start by looking at your device by first only moving your eyes, then let your head tilt by moving your brow first, not your chin.  

2.  Lift your device higher - This may seem obvious, but it is commonly ignored.  Move your device closer to your face with your hands so that you don't have to move down as far to see it.  Make sure that you don't lift your shoulders or pull your shoulder blades together as you lift.

3.  Less "work" doesn't mean less strain - Touch screens and the soft keyboards on laptops hardly require any effort to use . . . hardly any effort for the finger that is touching them, that is.  The low impact-typing that is required can actually be more of a strain than a relief.  The keys on ergonomic keyboards are designed like the old-school keyboards from the 80s and 90s.  You actually have to exert some effort to press the keys down and that effort demands that your arms, back, and even your legs be  engaged in a very positive way.  When softer pressing is required, it begs very little support from the rest of the body.

You may find it useful to purchase an ergonomic keyboard at your desk, but when you are out and about with your device, give yourself an extra reminder to be aware of your feet on the ground and of your back and neck and head as you touch-screen-type.  Also, imagine that the sensation of your finger touching the screen is traveling through your arm all the way to your back.  
If you really want to experiment with high-impact typing, then invest in a typewriter!  Kidding!  (Sort of.)