WHY JOHNNY & JOANIE CAN’T STAND UP STRAIGHT
We’ve heard it all our lives: Stand Up Straight! … Sit Up Straight! … Stop Slouching! … And we usually do, or try to, for a minute or two. We keep searching for that Effortless Great Posture little children have for a few years after they can sit up then stand up.
We can sometimes get it for a while. Then we collapse back down to our usual slouched positions. … And we forget about it until someone or something reminds us again.
And we’ve all heard things like Life is a Fight against Gravity, and we must condition our ABs or back muscles to “support the spine”* and be strong against its downward pull, and that we have to train ourselves to develop the “habits of good posture.”
* This Near-Myth Conception — that AB & Back strengthening exercises are critical to “supporting the spine” — is one of many you’ll learn about in my Simple Steps to Yoga program, described at the bottom of this page.
So we go to classes or trainings or hire a personal trainer or whatever to see if we can learn how to train our body in the so-called Good Habits of Proper Posture, and strengthen those allegedly “Weak” Muscles so we can counteract the never ending force of gravity.
Now, this goes against the Common Wisdom out there, BUT … strengthening can work up to a point, and some people do achieve a superficially trained, habitual posture. But many people engaged in strength training — and not enough Tension Reduction Strategies (TRS) — sooner or later develop all kinds of problems from these increasingly and excessively tight muscles.
Now, this might come as a Big Surprise to many people, BUT … if you strengthen and tighten your ABs without sufficient TRS, you’ll actually destroy the balance between all your internal, natural forces that produce effortless great posture. …
What do I mean?
WHERE EFFORTLESS & PROPER POSTURE COMES FROM
You may have observed very young children sitting, standing or walking. Most of them are very upright without ever having gone to a strength conditioning or Pilates class. Nor did they go to a posture or Alexander Technique class to develop “proper” postural habits. Their movements are usually quite fluid and relaxed, even if not yet very coordinated. And very young children often have a surprisingly strong grip for their size; yet they ONLY use the muscles necessary to exert their force. All their other muscles stay relaxed except the ones they are using to grip — no recruiting of unnecessary muscles.
How do they do it?
Their bodies are still working with the Natural Forces built into all normal bodies at birth. Forces requiring no training or conditioning or habit patterns to work … IF you let them. Although they DO need to develop more strength and coordination in many ways, young children have not yet accumulated or learned the Chronic, Excess Muscle & Nerve Tension (C.E.M.&.N.T.) patterns and neuromuscular imbalances that interfere with or overpower the natural forces of proper posture and neuromuscular action.
What Natural Forces are we talking about? … Good Question! …
YOUR HYDROSTATIC, TENSEGRITY, ANTI-GRAVITY SYSTEM
Actually, when your neuromuscular and myofascial systems are balanced and not too stressed, your body is not actually ANTI-gravity, but works in harmony WITH gravity. Here’s how the system operates:
1. TENSEGRITY STRUCTURES
The bones, muscles and connective tissues (fascia, including tendons & ligaments) of your body form what’s called a Tensegrity structure, which can be very tall with a high degree of strength yet flexible and resilient with a high resistance to outside pressures and stress.
For the Technically Minded, a tensegrity structure is an advanced form of the geodesic dome. The bones, muscles and fascia of the human body work together in what’s called a Tensional & Compressional Integrity Structure (Tensegrity). The musculo-fascial system is tensional & flexible, the bones are compressional and comparatively rigid. … It is the ultimate structure in strength yet flexibility, and you ARE a Tensegrity structure.
Yet too much tension in the Tensional components (muscles, tendons and fascia) — even if they are symmetrical — can buckle and collapse the whole tensegrity structure.
2. FLOATING ON WATER & AIR
You’ve probably heard that your body contains a high percentage of water, approximately 65 to 75 per cent on average, and that water is contained within very tough and resilient, slightly elastic bags (made of sheets of fascia) that form each body segment.
Your belly is itself a water tight fascial compartment and, because the intestines are hollow and the tissues thin, with lots of blood supply everywhere, it is probably about 80 per cent or so water. Also, every joint and body segment, every muscle and blood vessel, throughout your body are compartments filled with high percentages of water.
Now, water is, of course, buoyant. Very heavy things can float on water, especially if they are hollow with air in them.
Well, your lungs are not really solid and are filled with tiny pockets of air! Your UPPER torso — containing large amounts of blood (which also is mostly water) along with your air-filled lungs — will literally float effortlessly on top of your water-filled belly. The water (hydrostatic) pressure literally buoys your body parts upward along the lines of your vertically stacked tensegrity structure (the bones and muscles). IF you’ll cooperate.
This is especially true of your belly and spine. When the abdominal muscles relax and lengthen, the water pressure within will literally buoy your rib cage and chest UPWARD and BACK into proper alignment with your pelvis, nearly eliminating the need for your back or AB muscles to work much at all. Keeping your AB and back muscles more Relaxed & Lengthened* than is common, you are allowing your internal, natural forces to work correctly.
* EMG readings — machines used by medical researchers to measure muscle activity — indicate that in a properly balanced body, when standing correctly upright, the muscles of the back actually Relax & Lengthen! … Hopefully you are starting to get the picture that while strong muscles are definitely good things, there is FAR more to the story than you’ve probably been told!
And, counter-intuitively, when they Relax & Lengthen and your chest buoyantly drifts upward, your ABs will pull more taut and flatten, actually reducing pot belly and love-handles! Most people get taller and straighter when their ABs get longer, very often at least a quarter to half an inch, and sometimes an inch or more.
BUT … if you continually flex and contract your AB muscles without sufficient TRS (primarily backward and side bending), the downward pull of your ABs will pull down on your rib cage, overpowering the internal water pressure in your belly. You’ll lose your upward buoyancy, and turn your belly from an hourglass into a beach-ball. … NOT what most of us are looking for!
(Some people DO avoid the Beach-Ball Belly look when doing sit ups, crunches, and the like by FIRST pulling their AB muscles IN before the actual sit up or crunching action. However, over the long-term, the amount of pressure this is exerting on their internal organs, diaphragm, lungs, etc. is immense. It might look good, but the price is high. A lot of people fall for the Hard-Body Mythology — another one of those Myth-Conceptions I told you about, but a relatively flat but RELAXED belly is much better for your health.)
3. BONES MAINTAIN BODY LENGTH
Within each body compartment is a bone or bones keeping that body segment long and mostly vertical rather than squat when upright. Bones, therefore, as primary parts of your tensegrity structure, help channel the water pressure within each body segment upward rather than outward and down.
But over-contracted muscles will constantly pull down on your bones and stress your joints, fighting against the natural upward forces.
4. GRAVITY IS NOT THE ENEMY
Now, with gravity pulling equally and simultaneously on all 360 degrees around your body, gravitys’ opposing forces neutralize each other and actually keep you from falling over in any direction. Your muscles are no longer necessary to work hard to do this job that gravity naturally does effortlessly.
So gravity, pulling equally all around on your vertically stacked, upward pushing bones and buoyant water compartments, can actually assist to hold you upright rather than pulling you down! You only need small amounts of muscle contraction to maintain the relationships between your bones, your water pressure and gravity. Rather than directly holding you up all day long, your muscles are more available for other functions, such as movement, lifting or pushing.
Rather than working hard at holding you upright all the time, your muscles can, for the most part, RELAX!
5. MUSCLES ARE ALSO FINE TUNED ADJUSTERS
Postural muscles can adjust in exquisitely small to very large amounts to instantly adapt to every slight change in balance as well as pressures from around and outside the body. And if you do not lean over, as in slouching or weird stances, the muscles do not have to engage much to hold you up.
Additionally, because these tensional units (muscles, fascial compartments & tendons) run in many different directions across and through your body, and can instantly change length in coordinated fashion, your tensegrity structure is able to move about in a nearly infinite range of motion and action while maintaining very coordinated upward forces … and not fall over!
Yet Too Much Muscle Tension interferes with the fine-tuned responsivity and coordination of your muscles, interfering with this entire process.
6. PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Your bones, muscles and fascia form a strong but flexible tensegrity structure that naturally pushes upward. That upward push is greatly assisted by the internal water and air pressures buoying your bones and body segments further upward against gravity, even without much muscular force.
Gravity pulls equally on all sides of your body, keeping your tensegrity/water structure from falling over in any direction, saving your muscle strength for more important tasks such as when you need to reach or lean off center, moving around, exerting force, carrying weights, etc.
Your muscles can use very small adjustments to manage the ever-changing relationships between the water pressure, your bones and muscles, and gravity. They also provide mobility to your tensegrity/water structure when needed.
WHAT GOES WRONG?
As we go through life, we unconsciously and a-symmetrically accumulate C.E.M.&.N.T. (Chronic, Excess Muscle & Nerve Tension), leading to over-shortened and out of balance muscles. Even just sitting slouched on a couch or in front of a computer for periods of time can shorten many of our muscles. (When you slouch forward, the muscles on the front of your body actually and actively contract to take up the slack. They do NOT go truly flaccid, even though they might FEEL like it. They are constantly accumulating subtle, incremental tensions, slowly, or quickly, becoming C.E.M.&.N.T.)
Over-shortened muscles begin to pull us out of alignment and into the field of gravity. Opposing muscles must therefore contract to pull us back against gravity, keeping us from falling over, further stressing, compressing and distorting our tensegrity structure. Those muscles become less available to generate and coordinate normal movement and stabilization. Over time, we suffer local compression of our joints, spinal discs and other tissues, nerves and organs, and overall structural compression. … Our buoyancy disappears.
Muscles begin to feel and act weak, when in reality they are only over-worked and exhausted from constant irritation and doing work they were never designed to do. Over-stimulated nerves irritate the various systems of the body, including internal organs. The slow, overall process of so-called AGING sets in. And no matter how good your nutrition, if you do not utilize sufficient TRS (Tension Reduction Strategies), the body WILL slowly break down from accumulated C.E.M.&.N.T. and structural imbalance. … How much? That depends on many factors such as genetics, dietary history, history of trauma, age, your level of nutrition and detoxification, and so on.
RELAXATION, MUSCLE LENGTH & STRUCTURAL BALANCE
So in order for your tensegrity, hydrostatic, gravity-harmonization system to work properly, all your muscles must remain sufficiently relaxed, lengthened and structurally balanced. You must learn how to Feel, Relax, Lengthen, Balance, Coordinate & Control your neuromuscular and myofascial system. Yet most of us, over the years, have certain muscles become over-shortened, while their opposing muscles over-lengthen. (However, the over-lengthened muscles are often pulling harder to stabilize the body, so the too-long muscles are often contracted even MORE tightly than the too-short muscles!) So BOTH muscles are OVER-CONTRACTED, TIGHT & TENSE.
As we get older, the challenge becomes less and less about having enough strength, but more and more to keep muscles from getting too tense. Yet many people are very surprised to find their “lost” strength — AND their “lost” balance and coordination — returning IMMEDIATELY upon having the excess tensions in their muscles released! Chronically, over-shortened or over-lengthened muscles just CANNOT deliver their available power, nor can they deliver coordinated action, which is necessary for good balance an agility. But in many cases, the INSTANT their tensions release and balance, their natural abilities return!
YES, strength, endurance and cardiovascular function are VERY useful and important for many things. But not NEARLY as much when it comes to Proper Posture & Fluid Movement — and fully functioning organs and systems — as many would have you believe. Attempting to over-power your Inner-C.E.M.&.N.T. with more strength and conditioning is, in the long-run, a losing — and exhausting — proposition.
AN IMPORTANT, SECRET KEY TO EFFORTLESS GREAT POSTURE:
Very Little or NO Mental Control or Muscular Effort Necessary nor Desirable
Little children never think about their posture. Neither should you have to. When it comes to just standing or sitting with no weights or external forces to contend with, our cerebral cortex, and the thinking mind, should not need to be bothered by this at all. The natural forces within should be doing that job without your having to issue mental commands to your body or even think about it.
If you find yourself trying, for example, to hold your shoulders back and down, or to not slouch, or holding your spine and/or pelvis in a particular way, or lifting your head and neck in a particular direction, or gripping muscles in your pelvis … you are, in the long-run, working against yourself. You are most likely building Too Much Tension. In fact, if you find yourself needing to do any of these things, then you know that SOMEWHERE, your body is working against itself, that various muscle groups have gone out of balance.
In the rare case that a particular muscle (or muscles) HAS become too weak or somehow deficient, it works FAR better to look for relaxation, length and balance FIRST, then discovering and targeting the TRULY weakened muscles. Yes, quick fixes with your trainer or at the gym are often possible, but again, this is a long-term perspective we are talking about here.
RELAX — NOT CONTRACT — INTO PROPER ALIGNMENT
IF you know or can feel what’s going on, and you can RELAX certain muscles into proper alignment, that can be fine for a short-term effect. But ideally, we want to use Conscious Stretching or physical/mental Yoga to keep those muscles maintained in such as way that, throughout your day, such things are not an issue, or only need an occasional stretch to keep things balanced and functioning properly. If you find yourself continually contracting muscles to push, pull or hold your self in your so-called ideal alignment, then the compressions on your body will slowly accumulate over the years, very possibly causing you trouble later on, if not sooner.
For Maintaining Proper Posture . . .
For MOST People: As a General Rule, and a Minimum Focus, you’ll especially need to focus on lengthening — and KEEP lengthened to the degree possible — the front and sides of your abdomen (your waist region), your hamstrings (backs of thighs from knees to buttocks), and your gluteal muscles (the hips). … DETAILS on HOW TO DO THIS are included in DSL’s SIMPLE STEPS TO YOGA (see below)
This means to STOP all actions like pelvic tucking or scooping, flattening your lower back to a wall or the floor, dropping your tailbone, and any other such movements so popular in many yoga, Pilates, ballet, and tai chi classes, or in various forms of therapy.* The problem is that performing the flattening or tucking exercises puts increasing amounts of pressure on the lumbar discs and regional nerves, strain in the deep and surface core muscles, and leads to degenerative problems in the lumbar spine, including degenerative disc disease, facet joint syndrome, and trapped or irritated nerves.
* The number of people who actually have the often alleged forward tilted pelvis or excess lordosis, is quite small, and requires very close examination to determine this with any real accuracy. You might be surprised how many so-called Postural Experts make this determination with a very superficial assessment, quite often wrong. They will tell you it is obvious … I tell you it’s NOT so obvious, until you see how it actually works. The majority of people are neutral, or posterior tilted, with loss of lumbar curve. And a LOT of people are not so much tilted one way or the other, but are under a LOT of COMPRESSION in their lumbar region. But there are some illusions that appear in many people that are deceiving to the eye.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT MANAGING YOUR POSTURE & STRUCTURE:
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Thanks for Reading & Take Care,
David Scott Lynn (DSL*)
* DSL: Your Hi-Touch Up-Link to the Inner-Net
The Inner-Net: The Psycho-Neuro-Muscular-Fascial Network