Thursday, May 8, 2008

"But I Need My Lumbar Curve"

It's OK to slump while sleeping! This strange advice is practically guaranteed to give some relief from back pain or trouble. It can even change your life! It costs nothing, is very easy and pleasant, and has no downside. But of course you need to understand it thoroughly first, and practice it for a few weeks. Then you'll do it automatically, since it feels so good. This is a longer post, so please bear with me. 

As a Feldenkrais Practitioner I often tell people (if they have back pain, and sleep on their side) "It's helpful to curl into fetal pose - slumping while lying on your side - and be sure to have a good pillow (preferably down) under your head and under your top leg." While this may seem counter-intuitive, the opposite of good posture, surprisingly it offers relief from back pain, and people feel more rested, refreshed.

Many are resistant to this, thinking it will interfere with good breathing, it will create a tendency to slump, the internal organs will be compressed, or "I need my lumbar curve" as a client recently told me. Other therapists have explained to her the importance of a good lumbar curve. So she wanted more explanation for my strange advice. So I launched into one of my Feldenkrais explanations, as I love to do.  

Would it make sense for you to keep your fist clenched all day long, because in the evening you are going to work out with a punching bag? Of course not. A lumbar curve is needed for weight bearing, in erect sitting or standing particularly. You don't need a lumbar curve while side lying in bed. You don't need a lumbar curve while resting on your back, either. Some folks keep their lumbar muscles so tight, I can feel their heat with my hand. Muscles can't and don't fully relax until they are encouraged and allowed to lengthen. 

Lumbar back muscles cannot lengthen unless you explore rounding out the lumbar curve. Sleep is a good time to do that. Let those muscles rest then, and they will work better for you for the rest of your life. But if you keep vigilantly tensing them, to keep your "proper" lumbar curve, eventually they will get so fatigued, or go deeply into rock-hard spasms, that any sudden or over-strong movement in that area will over-stretch the ligaments. Or more commonly, the entire back is recruited to take the place of the lumbar curve, which should be down near the sacrum. This stiffens the entire back, creates an elevated or lengthened lumbar curve and destroys the natural curves of the spine. That's a high price to pay! That describes so many people. Then you'll have lots of movement challenges and compensation and possibly  chronic back pain. I've seen too many cases of low back surgery, where the patient is left in chronic pain. Get smarter before you need surgery (That's not to say that there are not good back surgeries, I just never see those people). 

We need supple, intelligent, strong and responsive body parts - with nothing being held obstinately, unresponsively stiff all the time. Body parts need to cooperate, coordinate with each other. If you have any ideas of holding yourself in any "correct" posture, you create havoc with body part coordinations. It is useful to consider posture in the context of movement - after all, posture comes from movement, and is a dynamic (not static, as many believe) process, as scientists are confirming today. 

This very desirable, human-birthright natural level of functioning is not found in repetitive or corrective exercise, stretching or yoga, or practicing holding yourself in a particular way. It takes a variety of creative, challenging, yet safe, movements in a comfortable learning environment for that.  That is one way to describe Awareness Through Movement. 

For instance, in walking the lumbar spine does (or should do) something different on the left vs the right side, with each step we take. Holding the spine and pelvis stiff, as most do, will prevent this, overworking the hip joints - i.e. compensation areas take over - such as Lumbar 1, which is a trouble spot for most everyone. It's not the fault of Lumbar 1. It's doing the best it can. If you keep correcting Lumbar 1 (or wherever) with chiropractic, yoga, stretching  - you name  it - without dealing with the underlying issue, you'll have L1 trouble for life. And, because of constant manipulation or adjustment of the lumbar spine, or wherever,  the ligaments there can eventually become unstable; then your troubles multiply. 

In Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes you'll spend hours exploring various concepts - such as the pre-curser infant movements to walking, where you actually practice differential activation of the lumbar spine. Or maybe you'll do something apparently completely unrelated to the lumbar spine, yet, after the hour, you stand up to stand and walk, and it is like you have a new lumbar spine. It is not something you can acquire any other way, as far as I know. We have to slow down, feel, be adaptive, creative and  playful (yet focused)  to create this kind of organic learning (like a baby does). It is so different from exercise or yoga that group classes are extremely helpful. On our own, alone at home, with a ATM tape, we too easily revert to our old patterns - obey instructions mindlessly, be goal oriented, work too hard. When everyone in a group is actually not doing those things, it is much easier.  

Will curling up into fetal position cause restricted breathing? Perhaps, but you don't need much air as you sleep, so shallow breathing is appropriate. Plus, the curling will gradually encourage relaxation and breath movement in the upper, middle and lower back (instead of the front) - a new concept to most people who are overly frontal in their body image. Abdominal breathing, for most, is too frontal, with the belly going in and out. Lots of people believe abdominal breathing is good, but don't do it for this reason. Who wants a large belly? So instead the belly is continually held too tight, and the poor lumbar spine has to work much harder to keep us erect. Unopposed belly tension means slumping, and we vigilantly prevent this by tensing (hard!) the lumbar spine - and upper and middle back. This tension is aggravated by harmful emotions (we over-tighten the belly) - which is why emotional clearing work can help back pain. This creates a scenario that Thomas Hanna called "The Dark Vise" where the lumbar spine is like in a vise. Discs get damaged, nerves get compressed, etc. 

When we breathe more to the back and sides of the abdomen, and not just the front, we begin to feel relief,  pleasant feelings. Relaxed fetal position is one way to teach yourself that.

Will curling up into fetal position cause compression of the internal organs? Certainly, but this kind of compression is beneficial, if you don't overdo the rounding at first. There is a breath rhythm, and no weight bearing, so the process is gentle. WIth compression, toxins can be squeezed out, like with a sponge. Many spend hours  doing yoga, to compress and flush out toxins, and provide the internal organs with fresh blood. For instance, if you always keep your chest lifted (even while sleeping) , as in "good posture" when will the front part of the lungs ever be squeezed (like a sponge) to eliminate their toxins? Never.  

By side-lying in fetal position, we take the legs out from under us, as they are in standing. This gives our brain a message to relax the back extensor muscles, which always must tense to hold up upright in standing. This neurological release of back tension can be felt immediately. A rounded back while sleeping means the back muscles can lengthen and relax. 

Also - consider that a martial artist in ready-position, a baseball player receiving a ground ball, a tennis player in ready-position - is curled up into "slumped posture".  It is actually a very functional stance - lots of movement choices, lots of power, like a coiled spring. If one of these persons were instead to stiffen their back, as in "good lumbar curve" or "proper erect posture" their athletic performance would suffer.  It's obvious that Nature never intended that we should never slump. 

Why shouldn't we consider that sitting is a form of athletic activity, that requires some mentoring?  Truly, it does. Consider that sitting or standing stiffly erect is not stable - you could be pushed over backwards very easily (hence, the popularity of lumbar supports and back rests). Can unstable sitting be good? 

When I first heard these arguments, I was taken aback. It contradicted much of what I thought I understood about posture, but I could not deny the truth of it. 

All this is not a recommendation to slump instead of having good posture. Experienced Feldenkrais students don't inappropriately slump when sitting. Yet, neither do they have rock-hard - painful to touch -  back muscles, like almost everyone else. They spent years learning how to do this. 

Slumping has a proper time and place, like anything else. If you want to learn to sit or stand without stiffening the chest and back, a good choice would be to get involved with the Feldenkrais Method, find a practitioner, or take ATM classes. There is a surprisingly lot to learn, and weekly Awareness Through Movement classes, for your entire life, is the cheapest, easiest way. 

To sum up this strange Feldenkrais advice:
  • Take 3-5 seconds as you lie in bed to adjust your body, "chin in, knees to to chest, soften the ribs - put a pillow under the upper leg." and perhaps once or twice during the night if you waken.  It's easiest in side-lying but can also be done lying on the back with pillows under the knees, and a small cushion tucked under the lower part of the pelvis, to round out the lumbar.
  • If you use a body pillow or sleep on your stomach, still you can round slightly and keep the chin slightly more in, etc.  Whatever you can do is fine; gentle persistence is the key. 
  • Start slowly, relax into it, never use force. Force can over-stretch ligaments, making joints unstable, especially when muscles are still tense.   
In a few weeks, this can be a reliable habit, then you won't need to even think about it again. When you wake up and go about your day - forget all about this, just be normal. You don't have to keep doing anything at all. By doing this, life will be easier for you. Relaxation will become more accessible, you'll be more gentle with your co-workers, and yourself. Your breathing will naturally be easier and fuller. This simple protocol is pure magic, in many ways. You'll never give it up if you explore it in a gentle, easy manner. 

Actually, you can forget all these details, and simply remember "it's OK to slump while sleeping" and that is all you need to know.   


1 comment:

Craig said...

Steve's Jnana approach is much too
dry for me. For centuries humanity has preferred the
Carthusian Chartreuse
or the Deo Optimo Maximo Benedictine or
the Shamanistic
Agavero method of
achieving slumber's
optimum alignment.