Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Better Way to Sit Up Straight in a Chair

We all have been told to sit up straight, don't slump, and maintain good posture.  Have you ever taken a close look at such advice? No doubt, if properly understood, it is a good thing. Chronic slumping is not conducive to concentration,  personal growth, maturity or success - that is for sure.  But have you considered that there are many ways to "not slump" and of all the many choices, stiffening the back, pulling the shoulders back and lifting the chest is probably the least desirable?

Probably before about 1950, when  there was less stress, pollution, no computers or video games and less TV, and people got more exercise and movement naturally (people did not drive so much, walked more, etc)  - "sitting up straight" would have naturally been more functional (people would have naturally, dynamically organized their pelvis, legs, chair, abdomen and breathing  to facilitate elegantly balanced upright posture) and it would have made sense to give others, and yourself, that instruction as a helpful reminder. 

Remember, it was in the early 1950's that the cold war intensified, and we had all these stiff chested generals on TV or newspaper images, telling us to build fall-out shelters, and how much we should be afraid of Russia and nuclear war.  Before then, also, kids were outside playing, not sitting motionless watching TV. They had better movement, they did not have a frozen pelvis like most of us today do. Most of us have a pelvis that can do nothing more than be sat upon for many hours, with the tailbone tucked under as well, and hold stiff while walking! I see that everywhere. Most people today cannot initiate movement from their pelvis (due to long sitting, with an immobile pelvis and a deadened tailbone, while moving the torso, eyes, head and neck and arms). If I ask a new client to do such a thing, I will get a blank stare. So deep is the hypnosis! A person without a functional pelvis is a person without any real personal power; he can never be fully involved in any activity, even if he tries, since a large part of his nervous system (related to the pelvis and balancing etc) is shut down. So many brilliant intellectuals sadly fall into that category. 

Normal human movement means at a minimum that the pelvis knows about and is responsive to what is going on in the rest of the body. Now, the funny thing about this is you can't see the lack of  this in others unless you yourself have a functional pelvis. Until then, everybody else looks like they are just doing the normal thing - what's wrong with it? But when you yourself - perhaps after taking a Feldenkrais Training or martial arts training for some years - have a pelvis that has a larger vocabulary than just be sat upon, hold stiff while walking, and sex - you'll see that what most people do "normally" is grotesque. 

In addition, before the 1950's most folks did not have staring eyes - from TV and computers, as is the case today. Compare magazine pictures of people from the 1940's or before to those of today! Especially compare the eyes of young children. Today, we all have dead eyes, by comparison. TV, video games and computers have done that to us. It has come upon us so gradually that few of us understand what has happened. Staring eyes creates head forward posture, stilted breathing, and fixity in every muscle in the body - that is not how you want to be. Yet, today, it is considered normal. 

One more item:  Since the 1950's the mania for tight abs, suck up the gut, has evolved into cherished cultural dogma  - and few indeed are those who have the courage to challenge it. Perhaps this is related to our increased exposure to all types of media - no longer just magazines, newspapers and radio; we now have in addition TV, movies, live action billboards, video games, computers etc.  On all these media, there are advertisements, where the young women or men are sucking up their gut while they pose for the photo or video clip.  Before 1950 or so, and throughout all of ancient history - if you study the pictures, photographs and artwork, you'll see that people had bigger bellies. They were much more relaxed in their core. They could breathe. Today, stress has multiplied so much that it is rare to see anybody like  that. What a paradox and a pity! That our culture worships flat bellies, the very thing that will create even more stress, anger, high blood pressure, anorexia and burn-out. It was not like this, not so much, before 1950.   

Sitting up straight, "good posture" now means to most people stiffen the back, suck up the gut, pull the shoulders back, lift the chest, stay that way at any cost, as long as possible. What is your interpretation of such advice? How have you taught your children?

It has become internalized, and we now tell ourselves to do this many times a day. It is a form of insanity, yet we can't help it. It's part of who we are. It is nearly impossible to stop doing this, cold turkey. Other people, teachers, parents, our boss, demand this of us every day. We have practiced this dozens of times a day for many years. We demand it of ourselves. Yet, stiffening like that is clear body language for panic, anger, stress, fear, submission and dogmatic, tunnel vision thinking. While this scenario has been facilitated by TV, video games and computers, and chair sitting as opposed to floor sitting,  primarily it is due to our own lack of understanding about what we are doing. 

What can be done? Somatic intervention, ATM classes or private work is not feasible for everyone. At least start to sit more on the floor. Use pillows to make yourself as comfortable as you can. Start with 10 minutes a day, say while using your laptop. Increase slowly. Shift positions often.  While sitting cross-legged (or any other way) on the floor, the pelvis learns to do a variety of things, and erect posture is nearly guaranteed to be more relaxed in the upper back and chest. Because you are closer to the floor, falling is not such an issue, the body is more relaxed, there is better blood circulation to the brain, there is less body tension or stress going on to stay balanced upright. I'd be curious to see cross-cultural studies concerning whether cultures built around floor sitting are different (and how) compared to predominantly chair-sitting cultures. For sure, there are less hip problems and hip surgeries, and less need for chiropractic, when there are less chairs. Perhaps we need to rethink our idea that floor sitting is uncivilized. 

With a little mentoring, a little understanding of what is going on, it is possible to quickly learn a much better way to sit up straight in a chair, and to have better posture at other times as well.  But some of your cherished ideas about posture will be challenged. It means being open-minded, patient and adventurous. I do hope you take the time to  read all of this long post, consider it carefully, and maybe try out some of the ideas.   

It is crucial to learn chair sitting scientifically - to do it elegantly, effortlessly. You'll amaze your friends. It is the ideal way to sit in meditation posture, or to sit at a computer. If you have children, please teach them like this, instead of just telling them sit up straight. These ideas work; they have been tested on thousands of people. It is called The Feldenkrais Method.  Try them out - Please!  I know these ideas work - when I feel my own back muscles as I sit, they are as soft as butter. Most people are shocked by that, and so I have to let them feel  for themselves. To have a relaxed back while sitting runs contrary to everything they think they have been taught to do, and be. Yes, I am sitting fully erect. I have yet to see a new client who can do that. It comes naturally to me, and soon it can be that way for you, too. 

This is a deceptively long list, because actually each item comes naturally - it's built into our ancestral nature  - with just a little encouragement. It's not like it's hard work to learn all these things. It's what a young, healthy person would do who was very conscious, body-smart, supple and adaptable, who had never before sat in a chair.  You won't have to think about all this once you know what to do. It will be second nature. It quickly becomes just one easy thing to do, not many things. 

Yes, this list is artificial. Much better would be to do Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes, where each week, you would fully embody some helpful somatic idea. You'd have a whole week to assimilate it, play with it. It is not possible to fully assimilate, or even fully understand, somatic ideas just from reading printed lists and playing a few minutes with the movements. A long list like this can give you a headache, it seems overwhelming. But here all I can do is write it down, I have no choice. At least, reading this list will give you an idea of how much work there is to  do, and you'll begin understanding why chair sitting causes back pain for so many people. Using this list is 100 times better than to continue to sit up stiffly, for hours without end!

By the way, if you're thinking you are OK because you have a fabulous, expensive and form fitting orthopedic-designed swivel office chair (or any kind of office chair - no matter how clever or unusual - besides a hard, flat wooden bench or stool with a flat backrest or no backrest), think again. Paradoxically, such expensive chairs encourage a form of body-stupidity and lack of competency, so that our internal self-care and self-adjustment mechanisms get rusty. That sets us up for injury and pain. When we do have to turn our head quickly (God forbid that we, and not the chair, should actually have to do any real movement), or get up out of the chair, or lift a heavy object while sitting, can we be easily, quickly organized (body-wise) for that activity? I think not.  In time, that chair will betray you and your old troubles, and new troubles will emerge. You'll be very puzzled since you don't want to blame a chair - it cost so much money - and came so well-recommended - but your pain will be very real. What happens?

Again, we are not built for immobility. Just imagine a wild - or even a domestic - cat or dog or bird who was required to sit in a form fitting little chair, or bucket-seated-rounded-back plastic abomination type garden chair. You'd have a very hard time to make that happen. You'd have to drug the animal. You'd have to train the animal for years to have a dead-to-movement pelvis. You'd really warp the animal's personality. They be like half zombie-dead with staring eyes.  So why do we do that to ourselves? For animals, the very idea sounds insane, so why not for us humans? It is actually insane, too, for us humans: such an office chair. The swivel feature means you cannot plant your feet, get grounded, or you go spinning. It means you never need to turn your head or swivel you eyes. It means you get way too frontally oriented, since you rarely need to organize your body, or your awareness to deal with what it to the side of you (to say nothing of what is behind you!) - all you do is swivel the chair! All the joints get lazy, and immobile. Immobile  joints soon become compressed with unconscious muscular holding all around the joints. It's like the body says: "You want immobility? OK I'll help you by tensing all the muscles around every joint".   This greatly magnifies joint pain of any kind. What an abomination (somatically speaking)!

Because we  humans have a higher-level cortical brain control of lower brain functions, that animals don't have, we are able to suppress (but not entirely eliminate) our awareness of all the many body-signals that would (initially, before we got habituated) warn us about long-continuation of doing that crazy thing: sitting in a form fitting swivel office chair. We thought it was a good thing, so we "trained ourselves" to get used to it. After all, everybody else is doing it, it feels so cool at first, so it must be good, right? Wrong. Just look at the statistics for work-related back pain! It's at epidemic levels. 

Granted, if you are very body smart, say doing martial arts or dance or yoga for hours every day, or at a very high level of athletic excellency,  you could no doubt endure (but not thrive) in such a chair for long periods of time. But you'll do much better with a hard, flat wooded bench or stool. My recommendation is that you buy such a chair, as soon as you can, and start using it for 20 minutes a day. Gradually increase. Use an inch or two of cushioning if you want to - like a folded blanket. That is fine.  It will be uncomfortable at first. Over months and years it will become your favorite chair. I have clients for whom that has become true, and they have no pain or trouble from sitting. Start using your piano bench for your home office chair! 

Form-fitting comfort of any kind, long continued, dampens movement. Granted, it sure feels good at first, maybe for half an hour, as a sort of an indulgent excursion. That is why soft sofas and expensive form-fitting office chairs sell so well. People think that comfortable, easy feeling will continue forever. It never does. I myself enjoy soft sofas and swivel chairs. But I know 20 minutes, half and hour max, and I will want to end it. My body and my brain tell me, and I listen.  It minimizes activity in the brain that is part of being human: balancing in gravity, being competent to move the body appropriately, awareness of what is happening and of objects in close proximity. Whatever a person sitting in such a chair writes, or composes, or organizes, will not be of the highest quality, compared to what he or she would produce if their nervous system were not so deformed by the chair they were sitting upon, and their habit of pelvic fixity. 

Our tendency to stiffen, the cultural dogma about tight bellies, and our staring, fixity-prone eyes have created a long list of disabilities that interfere with functional, relaxed, easy erect sitting posture.  So, it has to be a long list, for now, since each item is like an antidote to some wrong habit or faulty way of thinking about chair sitting. Play with each item for a few days; each one should give you a sense of great relief, as if your body is telling you "thank  you, finally you are doing something sensible while sitting in a chair, please do more of this." In a few weeks (if you seriously pursue this line of thinking and sitting) you will have amazingly effortless, erect and powerful looking - yet relaxed, chair sitting posture. This list is the magical formula giving how to sit erect in chair sitting posture without tensing the spine, without stiffening the chest, without fixity - yet with maximum relaxation, and minimal effort and easy balance.

Somewhere in this list, also, is the one special item that you need more than any other - I cannot predict what that may be - and that item will take away most of your back or neck pain, or shoulder pain, or  "computer stress" or "office stress and fatigue". It is worth some time to search for that. 

Consider this list as an antidote to the advice sit up straight. That simplistic advice has done more harm to individuals and society than you can possibly imagine- please read my prior posts, for more on that.  Again, the only reason this list is dauntingly long - is because our list of wrong habits and wrong ideas about movement, posture and sitting is equally long.  And remember, each item is to be understood in a dynamic context, it does not mean to be frozen motionless like that - it means to gently explore something new in a relaxed and playful manner. You should be able to move, breathe, turn the head, look around, reach - restfully - while using these ideas. From now on, when you hear that internal voice saying sit up straight, do  one or more of the following  (no more than that or you may get overwhelmed):
  • Feel the contact of your sitting bones on the chair.  Deliberately do not stiffen your chest as everyone else does. Deliberately slump, staying that way. Stiffening is what people do in moments of panic and fear. You don't want to communicate that! Better to slump for a moment while you figure out a better way to come erect. If you can't feel your sitting bones, your chair is too soft, or too rounded in (like a bucket seat). Do something there to sit straighter (i.e. roll forward on sitting bones).
  • Than, lean far forward, almost putting your head between your knees; as you do that walk your sitting bones as far behind you as you can do, comfortably (even doing it to a point of a little minor discomfort would be good). By walking your sitting bones behind you, you are creating a solid foundation for erect, effortless posture. It creates a lumbar curve, and prevents tucking the tailbone under (body language for cowardice and slumped posture). 
  • Remember, do not stiffen or lift the chest, first let the pelvis do its proper job. Otherwise your pelvis will never learn to get involved. Eventually, your pelvis should be dynamically, continually adjusting it's tilt (in any direction) to respond to what your upper body is doing. That takes the right kind of chair, sensitivity, training and long mentoring in the  Feldenkrais Method. You can't learn that by reading a list.  But for now, it will be very good to just more or less get the pelvis tilted at the right angle to support erect sitting posture with a good lumbar curve (instead of tucking the tail, the tailbone and pelvis under, as most folks do chronically).  
  • Be sure your chair is stable, the right height, and has a relatively flat, firm surface, with not too much cushioning - otherwise these ideas won't work very well (if at all).  
  • Spread your knees apart, sense the space behind you, beneath you, and above you - in addition to the space in front of you. Imagine that you could instantly look up, look down, slump, turn, get up, roll on the floor,  each with many different variation, in any possible direction. Sit over your center, able to move in any direction. Center your breathing. Imagine you are a marital artist, and you are ready to fight or defend yourself, in any direction. Posture automatically becomes ideal when you even  think in this way, even for ten seconds.
  • Once or twice a day, squeeze your eyelids tightly shut (as tightly as you can, comfortably without straining) while looking with your imagination into the far distance. Then open your eyes and look around the room - roll your rounded eyeballs in their sockets. This will reverse the tendency for the eyeballs to remain elongated from prolonged near focus vision work. Elongated eyeballs almost force you to stare, they do not rotate in the socket normally. Haven't you noticed that people look "bug eyed" if they sit at a computer for too many days in a row?  Just a little of this exercise will also release a lot of tension and stress. That's because radiant (direct) light (ie computer, TV, video games, cell phone display) are not natural in our evolutionary history (our ancestors did not look at the sun, or the moon or a fire at night, they'd lose their night vision). When we force ourselves to sit all day gazing at radiant light (computers) there is inevitably some mild low-brain shock or trauma happening (any animal would know that staring at the sun would mean going blind, and death would soon follow). That means you'll tend to squint, no matter how much you try not to squint. There are some very ancient structures in your brain that will override any conscious attempts not to squint, as soon as you stop making a deliberate effort.  Squinting puts pressure on an already elongated eyeball (eyeballs naturally elongate with near vision, and become more round with distant vision), and this mechanical pressure communicates a sense of frustrated stress to the whole body. The eyes control the body in a very real sense.  Personally, I don't think most people can sit comfortably in a chair, at a computer, unless this issue is handled. Of course, a monitor glare filter also will help. 
  • Simply sense the bottom of your feet on the floor (sitting now and then without shoes is good). Simply notice if your feet are relaxed, or are they gripping the floor, holding tension. Chronic tension in the feet is where belly tension, lifted shoulders, ungrounded feelings originate. 
  • Sit without shoes and use a magic marker to massage your feet - roll your feet over the marker. Or use a glass coke bottle as a foot roller, or use a couple tennis balls in a sock (to keep them from rolling away). Pressure and stimulation to the bottom of the feet (something lacking while wearing shoes on flat surfaces) encourages relaxation, grounded sensations, and whole-body relaxation.   
  • Imagine you are being attacked with by a person with a stick, and you must defend yourself using your forearm. The attack comes from any direction, and you must twist, turn, look up, down etc to defend yourself, using both arms and legs. Playing a game like this with kids will give them an ability to acquire the best posture of anyone in their school, within a month or two at most. Hint - involve your pelvis. 
  • Roll your pelvis to create the proper lumbar curve (ideally you'd want to support your pelvis just like that with a folded blanket, a foam wedge, or by sitting on the edge of the chair).
  • Again, walk your sitting bones behind you to insure that your lumbar arch won't collapse. This is so crucial, it is worth repeating. 
  • Relax your abdomen and belly enough so that you are not straightening your lower back, destroying your lumbar curve. Without a lumbar curve, there is no support for the upper torso, and this greatly encourages stiffening the chest or pulling shoulders back. 
  • Fully relax your muscles, and imagine that they are hanging on your skeleton like clothes on a hanger. 
  • Keep both feet squarely under the knees. If the feet are too far in front, it will push you into the back of the chair. If they are too far behind, they will encourage slumping forward. For a few moments feel that your feet are supporting the carriage of your head. 
  • Keep your knees a good distance -at least hip's width - apart. Any closer and you'll automatically be propelled (however slightly) into a slump. It's because of the geometry of the hip joints: If the knees touch you want to slump, if they are far apart, you sit erect. It is easy to demonstrate this on yourself - just try it out.  Knees touching makes it easier to slump, and harder to sit up erect.  
  • Maintain stable, erect posture using a properly positioned or dynamically responsive pelvis and relaxed torso. (The pelvic muscles are very strong and have endurance - unlike the back muscles!). This takes time, mentoring, and movement classes to fully embody. 
  • Imagine you are breathing in from the back of the throat, or at a point between the ears, or from the back of the skull. Breathing should migrate more towards the back and sides, rounding out the sensation - instead of just being frontal.  In frontal breathing the belly expands out and in with every breath. Abdominal breathing must be more dimensional than that. If  your awareness - vision and breathing - is mostly preoccupied with only what is in front of you (like sitting at a computer) your head will tend to go forward, and other postural distortions will occur (depending on how you hold yourself).  
  • Feel that you are resting on, or supported by, your skeleton. This means, among other things, being able to easily sense the skull resting upon the top of the spine (at least be able to imagine it). This is located (for those interested in physical or spiritual anatomy) where the medulla/spiritual eye is located - exactly halfway between the ears, not lower! It means withdrawing the attention from the front of the face, the front of the eyeballs, the mouth and nose. Surprisingly, this shift in focus produces a slight - but highly beneficial - mechanical adjustment of the carriage of the head, less protruded forward and more over the spine. 
  • Allow your chin to stay level in a relaxed way (by relaxing the back of the neck, not by tensing the front of the neck as most folks do).
  • Avoid protruding the head forward (imagine a feather brushing against the chin. This inhibits the universal tendency to jut the head forward - which is what we are accustomed to do while reading or using a computer). 
  • Avoid using force to retract your head back over your torso. That is damaging and pain-inducing, and there are better ways to go about that - a future post will cover that topic). It is more than enough to just inhibit the tendency for the head to jut forward. Imagine a feather brushing  up against your chin. Be content with that.
  • The best quick fix (if you must have one) for head forward posture: momentarily (not habitually) push your shoulders gently straight down (without even a trace of pulling them backwards. Pulling shoulders backwards creates head forward posture see my prior post on that topic). You should feel a gentle stretch between your shoulders and your neck. Continue to do that as you relax your back as much as possible (still sitting up erect) while at the same time lifting your upper chest- expand and lift the upper sternum. This creates grounded shoulders and retracts the head nicely. This quickly creates body-language for personal power, responsibility, competency. Chronically lifted shoulders (most folks have allowed their shoulders to drift into that configuration, through lack of proper training and understanding) is body language for "I give up", as in shrugging the shoulders. In order to do serious weight lifting, or be good at martial arts, you must learn this posture - especially grounded shoulders. Visit any gym or martial arts studio, and you'll see this.
  • Lean forward and hang your arms and head between your knees. It's an extreme form of slumping. Let all the tension in your back drain away, as you progressively settle into this posture -- stay like that for at least 30 seconds, preferably up to five minutes. Relax  your neck, let your head hang fully down. Back and neck muscles never relaxed unless they are encouraged and allowed to lengthen - here they are lengthened!  And gravity does all the work. Most folks think stretching backwards is a back stretch - no, that is a belly stretch, the back muscles are tightening. When you can stay slumped down in your chair like this, you are refreshing and relaxing your back muscles so later they can do an even better job of holding your erect. Many people never relax their back muscles, ever, even for a lifetime. This is one of the best ways to do that. When you come up, do it very slowly, and use as much arm strength as possible (instead of using the back muscles to come up). That way, when you are sitting erect again, your back will be much more relaxed, and you'll begin to get a sense of how it feels to sit with a more relaxed back and softer chest.   
  • Avoid over-tensing the belly (which causes slumping). A little belly tension is OK, though, as long as it does not freeze the reciprocal (agonist-antagonist) relationship between the lower back and the belly. To be sure that kind of fixity is not happening, for a few seconds arch or protrude your lumbar spine and belly far forward (as if you had a pot belly) and while you push it forward roll  the pelvis forward, and as you suck up the gut tightening the belly again, roll the pelvis back into a slump, and as you push your slightly distended belly to the right, your pelvis rolls diagonally to the right. You can even make circles, using the belly as the motivator/initiator, and the sitting bones and pelvis describing the circle. Toddlers have big bellies and they all know how to use their belly to help their balance, and movement. It is only when they start to "grow up" and get adult instructions about sitting up straight, concentrate, pull in the belly etc, do they lose that.  All this takes a lot of words to describe, but only a few seconds to do it. If it means taking a belly-dancing class to learn how to do this, go for it. That's better than sitting for years with a frozen belly, and frozen lumbar spine - thinking you are being very good, sucking up your gut like that. 
  • The next time you see an olympic gymnast with a flat belly, instead of thinking you need to suck up your gut to be more like that, think "they have worked 6 hours a day for years to be like that. What beautiful coordination between their belly and low back! It is not just a stupidly held, sucked-up gut. There is tremendous suppleness, intelligence and strength there. They are eating a controlled diet, they burn off all of what they eat, they have good coaching. If I really aspire to such a flat belly, I'd be well-advised to do all of those things, instead  of foolishly thinking "do more sit-ups, suck up my gut all the time, try out a new diet."
  • Remember, a belly that is holding too much tension will  encourage slumped posture. When muscles in the front of the body tighten, it causes us to slump, unless we tighten back muscles to counteract that - and that means co-contraction of flexors and extensors, resulting in tremendous compression of the spinal vertebrae. Unthinking, excess belly tension freezes the lumbar spine and pelvis motionless, it grossly distorts normal breathing, it continually creates self-dialogue, images and feelings related to panic, fear, withdrawal, anger and even rage,  it demands that we do more inefficient and stress-inducing chest breathing,  it creates co-contraction of the lumbar and belly muscles which puts the lumbar vertebrae in a vise-like compression (ever heard of compressed discs?), it reduces blood flow to the lower extremities (because those arteries pass  through the diaphragm, which is being continually drawn up with tension), it reduces circulation to the entire pelvis area, it is body language for fear or panic, it means you are being uptight and ungrounded, it means you are also drawing up the floor of your pelvis. When you unconsciously maintain tension for years in the floor of your pelvis, you are creating trouble with the lower intestines, with the sexual function, and with the bladder function.  So it is really crucial that the belly hold just enough but no more tension than you need to stabilize your erect posture. A tiny bit of tension, or neurological activation, in the belly is a very good thing; it wakes us up, it is congruent with mental alertness, it means we can be responsive to life from our core. That neurological intelligence in their core is really what we admire in the olympic gymnasts.
  • Simple tell yourself many times a day "soft belly."
  • If your belly is too protruded, and you still cannot imagine relaxing most of your suck-up-the-gut tension, then begin at least to explore, during  the day, some moments of relaxing the belly. Notice how much easier you can turn your head. Think more in terms of total body fitness (find a trainer) rather than over-focusing on strengthening your "abs". And consider that food allergies and parasites are a prime suspect for distended bellies.
  • If you still cannot more fully relax your belly, then stop reading all the popular magazines where flat bellies are worshipped, where every magazine has an article about how to get "flat abs" in 3 minutes a day or less. Instead, look at ancient art, particularly the statuary, where you'll see even that the attractive maidens had bellies like a 4 month pregnant woman. Consider portrayals of the Buddha - is that a pot belly, or a breath belly? You'll quickly discover that the mania for flat abs, with a sucked up gut, is only a "modern-age" aberration in the long sweep of human history. Are you sure we are right, and everybody else was wrong for all those thousands of years? Personally, I vote for ancient cultures. 
  • If you still cannot relax your belly, you'll need to take drastic action: stop doing video games, and trash your TV, stop going to movies, and minimize your non-essential computer time. Try not to look at billboards.  Flat belly mania is strongly communicated in all these media. And remember, that image you admire - with the flat belly - the person is probably sucking it up, after a long exhale. Plus, before they started acting in that movie, or posing for that ad, they went on a diet or fast, hired a personal trainer, and did colonics (Mae West started that trend) - just to have a flat belly! It is not natural to them, any more than it is to you. How can you breathe if you hold your belly flat, and your chest is stiffly held as well? How? 
  • If that does not work either, you'll need private body-work or therapy or both. Possibly you need to release trauma, or there are abuse issues. I like Somatic Experiencing (SE)  as a therapy adjunct, since it works with the body and sensations.  
  • Imagine that your tailbone is sinking to the floor (for this you need a hard flat-surfaced chair, with minimal cushioning. Otherwise your tailbone is compressed. A foam wedge with a hole for the tailbone can also be used (Tush-Cush is the brand I prefer). 
  • Let gravity create - moment by moment - just exactly the appropriate lumbar curve to effortlessly support erect posture in the upper torso. This can happen automatically, but it takes a freed-up tailbone that hangs down without touching the chair or being pressed upon by foam or other cushioning, and some months or years of Feldenkrais mentoring. It depends on how dead your pelvis has become (relative to the job of dynamically supporting an erect torso in gravity) and how willing you are to change. 
  • Imagine growing taller - but without effort - from the top of the head.
  • Relax the hands - imagine quiet hands. Tension in the hands means tension in the shoulders, and slightly lifted shoulders. This will distort the posture, interfere with breathing, compress the neck and more. Quiet, restful hands are so important. 
  • Practice reaching forward to use a mouse or keyboard with relaxed hands, wrists and fingers. Once your hand arrives at the destination, then use just enough tension to do what is needed. This is how accomplished martial artists throw a punch. Most folks are reaching with tense hands,  that means frozen shoulders, tense neck, restricted breathing and compressed joints in the fingers and wrists (conducive to carpal tunnel or arthritic pains). 
Soon, even one of these items will remind you to embody all the others. They all come as a package, and your body knows all about it very well. Trust that instinct. The only reason you have forgotten is you have stiffened all these years to sit up, instead of these things.

Recently I saw a heathy, normal 19 year-old young man with chronic back pain. We played this game, where he sat in a hard, flat surfaced chair (no backrest) while I pretended to attack him  with a foam roller, as if it were a sword. His job was to use his forearm(s), hands or legs, to defend and block my strikes. He was quick and flexible and did pretty well, considering. But, the whole time, his pelvis remained motionless.  I could not induce him, non-verbally, to initiate movement from the pelvis. I pointed this out to him, and mentioned this comes from years of sucking up the gut, and sitting in chairs, especially at school, or at video game consoles or at a computer, studying or "paying attention".  We have (most of us) learned that "paying attention" or "concentration" or "doing my best" means stiffening the spine, freezing the pelvis, tensing  the belly, restricting the breathing, tensing the fingers (to grip a pen), with a frozen facial expression. Most folks have a chronic case of this. Those rare examples who don't have this syndrome, we admire as outstanding athletes, or as people who appear to "make no effort at all, but look at how much they accomplish! It is amazing." 

Going through the above list might help, but for many of you, it will take more than that to rehabilitate a frozen pelvis and chronic sucked-up-gut, bringing them back to normal everyday function. We'd all have functional pelvis movement if, from birth, we never sat in chairs, looked at TV or computers or video games, and our teachers never asked us to sit up straight, or if we never bought into the culturally-induced idea of sucking up the gut all the time - now and then to do this is beneficial, it is good for circulation, it massages the internal organs, it releases tension. But not all the  time! Additionally, we'd need to never have acquired any ideas that sex or elimination is somehow so unclean or prohibited that therefore I must not sense or move my pelvis - many people have done exactly that (this is a somatic statement, and  no implications are intended regarding lifestyle, or what is appropriate sexual behavior), and finally, we had had appropriate athletic/movement classes while growing up - that would mean a school system where not just the talented athletes had good coaching!  For me, it took a four year Feldenkrais Training Program. And I am certainly not alone - talk  to anyone who has been through such a program, and they will all say about the same thing on this topic. 

Once you have been though such a program, or have completed some years of weekly one-hour Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes, you won't need this list. All of that will come naturally to you. It will be stiffening the back, tensing the belly and freezing  the pelvis that will seem very strange, artificial and personal-power-diminishing. You'd look at this list and think "what a waste; I do all that automatically, without thinking".  

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sit Up Straight - Be Good! Control Your Lower Nature!

This post is very blunt.  I don't know any other way to say all this. I see so many suffer from lack of understanding this. I did, for years, so again, I speak with passion and understanding. I was raised as a minister's kid, and I took all that good advice and preaching deeply to heart.  In some ways it was good, but in many other ways it really messed me up. Because I did not rebel, and took it all to heart, I suffered for many years for it, until at age 44 I entered a Feldenkrais Training  Program.  Near the end of this post I get to the blunt part - I sort of approach the topic by twists and turns. 

This topic is unusual and rarely discussed: sexuality, toilet training and defecation as it relates to a functional pelvis, sitting posture and our attitudes about all that, and the implications. When this material becomes clear, a load is lifted off your shoulders. Life makes more sense. It can bring light and awareness where before there was subconscious cringing or outright repulsion. 

Now, just because I wrote this post, don't think as a body-worker I discuss such things with clients. Well, maybe with long term clients I know very well.  No, and with the hands-on work my hands of course never ever go near the floor of the pelvis. Some people are so terrified when they read this, thinking I work in that area directly, they would never dream of making an appointment to actually see me. That area, however, is "worked" but indirectly, through movement and positioning. Please relax. I have professional boundaries, I am kind and thoughtful and my thoughts are about Feldenkrais and movement, and you are in charge of the sessions; what you don't want, I don't do. You stay fully clothed during a session.  Even so, I suspect that out of every 10 persons who read this, and would become clients, I will probably lose 3. If that is you, I would beg you to get involved with a good therapist. 

As Moshe Feldenkrais said, and I agree 1000%, the worst thing  your parents (or society, or the voice in your head) can do to you is demand that you to sit up straight. First, it means you learn  to think, sense and feel the spine - your very core of life and support and movement - as something to hold stiffly straight. It destroys the natural curves of the spine. It makes good posture and functional human movement impossible. It makes the pelvis immobile or dead to life and movement and postural support  - I see this in practically every client I have ever had.  

The tailbone, the bottom of the spine, is in the very center, the heart of the pelvis. When you think "pelvis" your first thought, your clear awareness, should go to the tailbone, not sex or defecation or urination or childbirth or soft tissue. People who can do this don't need Feldenkrais (usually). They  become the outstanding athletes; even the coaches don't know why some people are just "more talented." For sure, the best athletes have never, ever taken to heart the insane advice sit up straight. True, the independence and perhaps rebellion that allowed them to stay strong and independent of that very harmful advice will also frequently manifest as sexual promiscuity. But their sexual behavior is not the cause of the freedom of movement  in their pelvis (although it may be related), nor of their athletic ability. They just refused to listen, refused to obey, when people were telling them this crazy thing about sitting up straight, don't slump, don't squirm in the chair. For the most part they sit in the back of the classroom, as far away from the teacher as possible - probably a wise choice. For that I honor them. For the rest, well let me think about it. 

A dead pelvis is mainly the result of sitting hours and years at a desk in school, working the eyes and brain and hands, with a dead-to-movement pelvis, combined with lack of good movement and play while growing up, and not getting involved in sports at an early age.  The pelvis just sits there. Sitting up straight by stiffening the spine and chest just puts the final nails into the coffin.  If that were done to any wild animal, it would go nuts, it would know it would be a death sentence. I doubt you could train any animal to do such an insane behavior. Our pelvis is our power center, our strongest muscles attach there. What kind of horrible personality distortions do you think will happen if you immobilize them, for years on end, all the while thinking you are being good? Now, I am not saying you need to be a sexually active brute, God forbid, I am speaking about personal power, movement, athletic ability, poise, being able to sense the root chakra  in meditation, and no pain in the lower back. It has nothing, or very little, to do with sexuality.  

Our trouble is when we think of the pelvis, we think only of sex, or the toilet.   So, if we are trying to be good and nice,  we usually do not allow ourselves to even sense that area (of course some persons with more sensible upbringings don't have these issues, not in this way). Again, learn to think of your tailbone when you think of your pelvis, train yourself to do that. That will benefit you.  Learn to sense and move your pelvis from your tailbone (for most folks this involves many years of Feldenkrais. So many people have injured tailbones, which compounds the issue). The pelvis is just an intellectual concept for so many. A childhood of supinely succumbing to sit up straight be good don't squirm will tend to  launch you into a lifetime of struggle, back pain, body aches and stiffness as you grow older, neck pain, failures, unnecessary fatigue and more. You'll probably even end up angry, since you tried so hard to be good, while others who don't try so hard, have much easier or more successful lives. The hard truth is - those others were making a more intelligent effort. I am being very blunt - giving some hard truths in a direct way. Psychological counseling will be sometimes good, but more often frustrating, if this crucial somatic issue is totally ignored. 

Most every post on this blog, up to now, as been about the damaging effects of stiffening to sit upright, and how to go about it in a better way. Please read all the posts prior to this date for that information. Today, as you can see, we cover a different aspect. 

When sitting up straight is combined with "BE GOOD" the usual message, if you are a girl, is keep your knees together (which collapses posture forward, causing stiffening of the spine and chest to sit erectly - most women suffer from this), don't have sex until you are married and can support a child. Be modest. If you are a boy it means don't be immoral, be good and spiritual and celibate, until you are married.  Such a culturally entrenched and even religious moral message cannot be bad can it? It is well-intended , but sadly the results can be opposite to what is intended. 

In order to have any hope, any possibility, of channeling the youthful hormones into non-sexual avenues, or as some say, transmuting or uplifting or transforming the sexual energy for sure the pelvis must fully exist - as something to easily, naturally sense and move - in a person's consciousness. If a body part is unconscious, tension becomes chronic there, and the resulting bodily, emotional and mental distortions end up controlling a person's behavior. 

In other words - the harder you try to obey and sit up straight be good the harder the time you will have controlling that energy. When you can - God forbid! Am I legally allowed to do this? - let the "sex" hang down with gravity, relax and drop the floor of the pelvis, wear looser clothing,  let the belly not be held so tight, sense the tailbone as the essence of the pelvis - you enter a kinder, more sane and gentle world. Sex is considered in our internal milieu in the right perspective. It has absolutely nothing to do with becoming promiscuous. Quite the opposite. To get a pelvis like that, you need to do some serious Feldenkrais work, or at least learn to squirm intelligently in your chair! And you'll need to stop using over soft or curved-bottom chairs that compress the tailbone. You need a chair that is hard and flat enough so you can clearly rest on your sitting bones.  

Much of what our culture, and too often our teachers and parents, teach us is like poison to our posture, to our movement and our future prospects. Particularly that is true of anything  to do with posture and movement: those who give the advice have never studied the issue, not even for a moment, but still they speak with assumed authority!  Sadly, TV, video games, movies and computers aggravate postural immobility, pelvic immobility, staring eyes and stiff ribs in the young. We all have to get a lot smarter, quick.  Feldenkrais is like an antidote to the poison we have all ingested - wrong advice about how to be good, how to sit up straight. Really, it just takes a little bit to straighten out the whole situation. It's like a dish that is has no salt - just a little salt make it delicious. If I seem to be ignoring Yoga, or Tai-Chi or Qi Gong, or dance, it is because in past years I have recommended those things to clients, and the results were generally not good. We always had to go back the Feldenkrais basics to create the necessary changes. You can do all of those things while still holding on to harmful chair sitting behaviors, for example. You can do all of those things while keeping your chest stiff, thinking that is a good thing,  or unconsciously drawing up the floor of your pelvis, as most people in fact do.  

We want to enter a world where we don't have voices in our head telling us to do something insane like sit up straight be good when such advice actually does exactly the opposite of what is intended. Using muscles to stiffly hold the spine will guarantee that someday they will give up and you will have serious almost intractable postural distortions. The rigid pelvis that went along with the package guarantees that sex will always be mysterious, dark, inviting, something perhaps delightful, but uncontrollable, unconscious. Maybe it is that way anyway, but we don't need to exaggerate it!  It  will probably control you, more than you want, to one degree or another, if sitting up straight is a priority for you. That's almost guaranteed. The first advice I would give a man who was obsessed with pornography (if I were asked, which of course I never will be) would be to start somatic work with his pelvis. If I ran a 12 step program for sexual addiction, I would be sure this was on the agenda. 

Of course sexuality has to do with desire, diet, culture, belief system, exercise, parental example and training, religion, spirituality, habits, environment etc. I have written this blog to highlight what almost everybody else is ignoring - the somatic aspect. 

The somatic side of things is often the controlling factor in our lives and in society as well. The puzzle is why so few recognize this! Any neurologist will confirm that most of the brain activity of every person concerns movement, and what is related to movement. It takes a lot of work by our brains to allow us to function in gravity - and be coordinated, balanced, locomote, etc, even while we do other things. If  you arbitrarily impose bizarre  constraints  on how the low brain should do all that (something it knows all about without our conscious interference) the effects will not be good. And if all the "good people" in a society are taking on body posture ideas that actually disempower them, that society will take on major distortions as well. 

Toilet training is a clear example. If we are trained even a few weeks too early, before we could voluntarily control the sphincters, we learn "control" by tensing the entire pelvis, and by drawing up the floor  of the pelvis. This is our first, and perhaps most impactful mentoring for a lifetime of being uptight. We  thought  we had to do that to please our parents, and to be good. So from then on, to be "good" means tense, don't sense, don't allow natural feelings, anywhere in the pelvis. Instead - control it with constant effort. That effort becomes unconscious, yes, but it is written into the body language of almost everyone I see walking down the street, every day. You won't be able to see this until you first have learned to release the floor of your own pelvis down, and let go of all that effort. Then it will suddenly be clear to you what everyone else is doing. 

Then we go to school and learn to sit still, and stiffly straight in chairs, while "paying attention." So we learn that to concentrate, we must immobilize the pelvis, be uptight and stare straight ahead. From then on, unless a person has strong counteracting behaviors or attitudes, the pelvis becomes more and more hypnotized into rigidity. Yes, we know we have a pelvis. Yes, we can feel it. If we sit down, we feel our pelvis - yes, of course. What I am referring to is the ability of the pelvis to naturally, without thinking or willing, actively, dynamically support the weight of the torso, to respond with precision appropriately second- by-second to minor changes in the carriage of our head or the movement of our arms, and be a place from which we can initiate movement, and not just be a passive participator. If you have a pelvis like that, congratulations, you are a most unusual person. You'll go far in life. Obstacles will fall at your feet. 

The lumbar spine and pelvis are designed most easily to move in flexion and extension. People associate that movement with sexuality, rightly so. However, it need not have an exclusively sexual connotation. Because of this stigma, many people are shy to move their pelvis in flexion and extension, even to adjust their sitting posture in a chair!  When bending down to pick up a box or any object, few people allow their buttocks to stick out ("rudely") behind them. Yet, that is the only way that integrity of the spine can be maintained while lifting.  Most people keep their tailbone, their pelvis, tucked under (body language for cowardice) for fear of being rude or suggestive. When I teach people not to do this, their back pain usually goes away. Granted we have all been trained into this since childhood, but still, it can only be called absurd.

It is entirely possible to do aerobics, yoga, tai chi, any kind of sports activity - all the while with under-utilized pelvis, or worse yet, a pelvis that is doggedly remaining in the "tucked-under" mode. The harder you work at sports or yoga, like that, the more trouble you will create for your body. Without the pelvis tilting movement available, chair sitting becomes a trial and pain-inducing, we cannot have personal power or real integrity, we cannot have a relaxed chest and we cannot even have relaxed shoulders or necks. We cannot sense our tailbones - and this alone can create a tendency towards chronic anxiety. Untreated tailbone injuries aggravate this situation. With a pelvis like that, everything else has to compensate - we become ungrounded, over-tense, uptight and all the joints over-compressed. That means lots of pain, eventually. No matter what the medical diagnosis or treatment for joint or muscle pain might be - if you work this angle as well, you'll get better results.  

That America has the world's highest rates of constipation and colon cancer is certainly not unrelated to these issues. We are trying to be so polite and proper and good that we are literally killing ourselves in the process.  

When the only place in a society where there is any hope of normal pelvic movement is sex, then sex will take on an artificial glow of desirability, even of necessity or normalcy for all people of all ages in all conditions. Never in he history of the world has that been an accepted truth, not in any ancient culture that I have heard about, yet we seem to be moving in that direction. Morality aside, it strikes one as absurd, just taking it at face value.

Because normal pelvis movement has taken on an overly-sexual charge or connotation, those people in society who are trying to be good or religious or moral or spiritual - won't allow themselves to do that movement (except maybe if they are able with a marriage partner, during sex). It is considered unclean or at least improper. So they hold themselves uptight as a way to be correct or good.  They'll even walk with a pelvis like a stiff board, the legs just swinging as if on immobile hinges. This can quickly wear out the hip joints.

Sadly, and paradoxically, such people will be more or less impotent in both their personal and public lives. The bottom of our spine, our tailbone and pelvis, is the very foundation of our life, our energy, our power. When we never sense it, and hold it all immobile, for whatever reason, we are continually affirming to ourselves and to the world that we cannot fully commit to any action, that we are neurotically, unconsciously committed to unreasonable or dogmatic ideas, that we are blocking our own personal power for some weird reason, that we are easily influenced by other people, that we are not in full control. Living like that - and I've experienced it - is like rowing a boat upstream, and the river is flowing fast. It is a lot of work, you get nowhere and often get swept downstream. 

Children can be our teachers. Rather than fear that they will grow into wild animals, with uncontrolled instincts - and therefore we demand they sit stiff or still and straight and concentrate to do homework, etc -  we should encourage them to sit and eat and play on the floor, encourage outdoor play, sports, involvement  with Feldenkrais, crawling, creeping, dance and minimal chair sitting. They need to be taught how to sit in a chair intelligently - such as I have outlined in these articles. Paradoxically, if kids are denied a functional pelvis while growing up, in their teenage-hormone years, it is highly likely they will be powerfully attracted to anybody with a functional, moveable pelvis.  It will seem so natural, so right, so normal, and "what my parents taught me was so stupid". And they'd be right. Yet, that person may be the last person on earth you want your  child to hang out with!  


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Chair Sitting 101

Your life will become SO much easier when you learn how to sit in a chair. In my case, for at least 35 years I was sitting to study or meditate by tensing the back and spine, to ENSURE that I never slumped, which I was warned against strongly. My mental dialogue went like this: If I slumped, I would be "like a bum" or "the energy will not flow in the spine" or "slumping posture creates depression and lethargy" or "only irresponsible lazy people, and teenagers, slump - never do it!". I was persuaded by all these arguments. I've now learned that those arguments do not tell the whole story. There is some truth there, but the other side of the coin has merit, as well. So, like most everyone else, I was stiffening to sit. And, that was especially true if I had fear of any kind: such as somebody watching me who had authority over me (like a boss or parent or teacher), or if I was facing a deadline and I had to "concentrate hard".

This little-know information will absolutely change your life. At first, though, you may be confused by it, since much of what is here will contradict what you think is true about sitting posture.

In ancient India a sage named Patanjali described the spiritual yoga path as consisting of 8 graded steps, each of which needs to be mastered before moving to the next step. His first two steps involve moral living. His third step is called asana which can be interpreted as learning to sit comfortably erect. I've known that for at least 40 years, but it was not until about 15 years ago that it finally dawned on me that perhaps there was something for me to learn there, before trying to move on to the next step. Perhaps there is more to sitting than stiffening the spine, lifting the chest, pulling the shoulders back, keeping the chin level, and then trying to relax (which I could never do very well). I would always collapse into a slump unless I tensed my back or used a back rest. It took a Feldenkrais Training to rescue me from this dilemma.

During my Feldenkrais training (1990-1994), and subsequent years working with various mentors, and later my own clients (who actually mentor me more ways than I know) - I learned that my habitual way of sitting was one of the most damaging habits I had created in this life. I would never have believed it, if I had not experienced it in my own body. I gradually learned how to sit - in a chair particularly - with minimal or zero chronic tension in the back and along the spine. And, what I learned allows me to find long-term comfort even if the chair is poorly designed. It is not something a person can learn from one day to the next. I have never witnessed this. However, in the course of an hour, a situation can be created where a person is sitting in a chair without back tension - fully erect and without a back rest. But the client cannot reproduce this on their own. Old habits are stronger.

Test yourself: Sit as you normally do long periods of time - to study or meditate or whatever. Place your hand along your low back. Press or poke hard there - how soft are those muscles? Is it painful? Do that all up and down the spine - you'll need a back-scratcher or some other tool to do this. Or ask a friend to help you. If those muscles are painful to touch, rock hard, or like hard rubber or wood, then you know you have many things to learn. When I do that now to myself, the muscles are buttery soft, and there is no pain with hard poking. If you were my client I would tell you - "your life has been too much of a struggle up to this point, in my opinion. Life can be much more pleasant than you know. Do you work like this? Do you meditate like this? To meditate that way is like spending years telling yourself to relax your hands, while strongly clenching your fists. It is crazy making. It tends to create depression, rebellion, fatigue, and progress in meditation is likely to be very minimal.

Sitting stiffly is body language for stress and worry - even panic. It's what you'd do if suddenly a threat to your physical well-being presented itself. When you create that type of body language, and with great persistence continue in that way for many years - it is almost inevitable that you'll sooner-than-later attract to yourself unpleasant circumstances: abusive supervisors or bosses, abusive coworkers, negative environments of various sorts, chronic anxiety or worry, depression, exhaustion. Your body language can absolutely draw those things to you, no matter how hard to you try, by positive thinking, meditation, etc to avoid them. You may think it is your fate, or your karma, or that they are necessary learning situations for your personal evolution. That may be true; However one of the "karmic lessons", for sure,  that needs to be learned is how to sit more sensibly, learning to use a little intelligence and common sense.

Chair sitting is not a simple thing. It is a deep study. For instance, consider this: If  you find a person who always has a soft, pliable chest and upper back (even if their habitual posture is a bit stooped, like Mother Theresa) and practically never stiffens their chest, for any reason, for anybody - that person is either:
  • Highly trained in somatic work and emotionally integrated.
  • An extraordinarily exalted being, a saint, an angel-in-the-body (Like Mother Theresa) who is always filled with tender and open-hearted practical compassion, wisdom and a power beyond our understanding - who never needs to resort to direct force. 
  • Insane or continually drunk or on drugs or lots of muscle relaxants or psychiatric drugs.
If a group - or organization - of people all have the unwritten contract to vigilantly self-enforce good posture by stiffening unconsciously (I know such organizations), that organization, I'd predict, would not be a comfortable or relaxed  place in which to work or live, not for long (I have heard many stories to confirm this).  Unreasonable rules, pressure, worry, fear-motivated thinking and even abuse and nonsensical management practices would continually mysteriously surface. Tension and friction - under the surface, would be high. If everyone is constantly affirming a non-sense situation internally, it has to manifest outwardly.  It is sad that the only choice appears to be rigid stiffening or apparently despicable slumping. There is another way!

It is hard to describe how deep this habit runs in many people. One could say it has been their habitual way of thinking and being for many many past lives (if you believe in reincarnation). The very idea that it does not have to be that way challenges who they are, their very identity is shaken. Although this new and better way of sitting is very simple, to implement it takes great courage, skill, patience and persistence. 

Again, I'll share my lament that we don't all sit on the floor more often, cross legged, or Japanese style. If you sit cross legged - for one thing, the pelvis naturally goes into more extension, because the knees are separated by a wide distance. If you keep the knees together, as women in particular do in chair sitting, this creates a skeletal geometry to force the pelvis into flexion=slumping. I hope as America as a culture matures, chairs will be used less and less.  
When somatic education is undertaken, even minimally, many other choices appear, and the scenario internally and externally softens significantly - amazingly quickly. The most popular Feldenkrais book on Amazon.com is Awareness Heals by Steven Shafarman; it has a couple lessons on chair sitting - these are wonderfully effective in creating major positive shifts in a short time. If I ran an organization, I'd make it required reading.  

One problem is that most people who stiffen to sit, do not know they are doing it. It has become such a deep habit! It is as if somewhere deep inside their chest and upper back, there is steel-reinforced concrete, covered up by layers of unconsciousness.  It often takes years of working with a client before the rib cage will soften and ribs can differentiate and move somewhat! During that time their personality undergoes a positive transformation, gradually. 

It takes clever strategy, lots of repetition and variety and skill and months of intensive work and willing cooperation to bring such a person to understand and embody the idea that not only can they fully relax their torso at will, but also that they can learn how to sit, stand and walk with minimal tension there. That's why it is necessary to find a good somatic teacher, or take regular ATM (Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement) classes to keep you on the right track. You cannot correct what you don't even know you are doing.  

When I see clients sitting stiffly while meditating, I'll ask them: "Patanjali's idea of asana, which he says must be mastered, what is your understanding of it?" Most clients say either Hatha Yoga, or learning to sit to meditate in a comfortable posture. Then I ask - have you ever spent any time scientifically studying, or taking classes, or even seriously thinking about chair sitting, what is involved and how to do it? The answer is almost always "No." 

"Would you be willing to learn how to sit comfortably erect without back tension?" Of course they all say "yes". I point out that it is highly unlikely that Patanjali would have included asana as one of his 8 steps if there was nothing to learn except "stiffen the spine and sit up straight. Or if it only involved "find the right chair."

Chair sitting takes times to learn. It needs to be understood and approached scientifically. It boils down to some very simple things, but that does not mean easy or quick. Yes, of course, the right height chair is the best starting point. But there is lots more. A crucial thing is: what kind of attitude and understanding to you bring to chair sitting? The purpose of this post is to upgrade that. If you approach sitting with the idea that there is some fixed, ideal posture, or there exists an ideal chair that will solve all problems - you'll hit a dead end, sooner or later. The truth is, as any neurologist will confirm (and any healthy child will demonstrate) - the brain and the body is built for learning, and human movement (not static posture - which actually never can exist) is what occupies at least 95% or more of the brain's electrical activity. 

Human movement involves appropriate response to any possible change in present circumstances.  It is always ongoing, except during complete unconsciousness. Specifically it involves: balance, support, environmental mapping, memory, counter-balance, keeping movement options open enough so security is not compromised, coordination, reciprocal inhibition of opposing muscle groups, vision, hearing, carriage of the head, and much more. It is vastly complex if you study it, as movement scientists do. A lot of behind-the-scenes brain work is going on in that arena, and the only way to quiet it down, so to speak, is to learn strategies for better balance, clear support, properly arranging the body, and not doing crazy things like stiffening (which actually makes elegant easy balance more difficult). 

Correct posture must come from within; it comes from playful exploration and making mistakes,  while gradually becoming more competent. This comes from movement exploration. It cannot be imposed. Good posture comes from good movement. Period! Movement lessons, somatic work - it the best way to go about it. If you want good alignment, correct sitting posture, no slumping - then start taking Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons. External guidelines and vigilant self-enforcement of good posture are dead-end shortcuts.

You may have been told to line up your shoulders and hips, or to hold in your abdomen. Do you really think that is a natural way to go through life? Feldenkrais teachers will never, ever give such advice. Yet, they get wonderful results. How?  

Sitting in a chair or on the floor is best conceived as frozen movement, or very slow-motion movement. The body is always engaged, as long as it is upright and awake, in weight bearing, balance and counter-balance, proprioception, etc. You may think you can so stabilize or fix your sitting posture that no work is required to stay there, but you are wrong. We are not made of concrete - we are made of many cells, filled with fluid - and there are no joints in the body that fit together like stacked bricks - not one joint. Do you think no intelligent, ongoing work is required to balance erectly an unstable collection of little water balloons (called cells)? The human body is an unstable machine, built for movement, not static posture. All this is not to say that you cannot sit quietly, apparently perfectly motionless, fully erect without a backrest, almost fully relaxed, while concentrating or meditating. But the angle of approach to achieve this desired state is through movement education, not brute-force stiffening. Please, if you can learn just that one thing, just believe it for now, and act on it, it will change your life. 

Scientists who study movement have very sensitive machines that can detect nerve impulses to muscles, and even the slightest muscle activity. In the early part of the 20th century, they believed that the human body had "static" since there was always a little "buzz" or "noise" in the nervous system, which had apparently no functional purpose. Later, as their listening devices became more sensitive, it became obvious that this "buzz" was actually intelligent ongoing activity: The brain was sending messages - four times a second - to every joint and proprioceptor, asking "where are you" and "in what direction are you moving" and "where is the support". Calculations were then made as to what movements were needed to remain erect in weight bearing. All this is so automatic we are rarely aware it is happening.

You can actually demonstrate this for yourself. Sit in a chair. Reach one arm directly out to your side. Notice, you did not fall over even though your arm was held out to your side. Why not? Because your body automatically did some counter-balancing activity, shifting some weight in the opposite direction. Try it again, but this time freeze your body so that no counter-balancing can happen, as you were a bronze statue, frozen in good posture. As you extend your arm out to the side, you'll tend to fall over to that side. Your body has a vast collection of such automatic behaviors; it is almost like a software program. This program is going to be running whether you want it to or not - for billions of years, our nervous system has evolved in gravity, in weight bearing, to be functional and cope (meaning: to fall over is not allowed, you'll soon die) so it is best to cooperate with it and learn to speak that language: the language of stability, movement and balance. Particularly this requires a pelvis that can instinctively, dynamically support the torso in real time. You are not going to correct this situation overnight! Sadly, most of us have trained our pelvis to be like a dead weight down there, cradled immobile in a soft or rounded bottom chair. Then, and only then, does sitting in a chair make sense, and eventually become easy and elegant. Paradoxically, by working with movement, we more quickly and effectively learn to sit motionless, relaxed and erect - apparently in "static" posture.

While it should be obvious that we need to learn - and embody - something about movement, for optimal sitting - the unfortunate truth is that most of what is found in every culture - and what most people believe -  about sitting ignores movement. It's all about correct posture. You'll find things like: "pull your shoulders back....keep your shoulders in line with your hips....don't protrude your head......don't slump...keep your chin level and in....lift your chest.....and relax! (which is completely impossible doing all those things).  Often such advice will be packaged with certain exercises to stretch or strengthen muscles optimally for sitting. Yes, such an approach can give beneficial results, but they do not compare to somatic results, from what I have seen. 

For sure, the static, approach absolutely requires personal supervision from an experienced teacher who understands the essential dynamic nature of erect weight bearing - for there to be any real benefit. Otherwise human nature dictates that a person will just take the "easy-but-disastrous-long-term" approach of stiffening, alternating with full-on slumping to rest from all that hard work. It is best to completely abandon the idea of fixed, rigid sitting and begin to patiently work with movement; then you'll get permanent, and magical results, from the inside out - not imposed upon you. The results probably won't be as quick as you like, but they are permanent and entirely beneficial.

But it is also true that if our modern age gave us better mentoring about movement and posture such advice would be more palatable and useful. Instead of growing up playfully, climbing trees, running and playing games, today our children sit in front of a TV frozen motionless. We have jobs that require we sit and stare at a computer monitor. Postural fixity is the curse of the age. We need to take positive action to undo the damage that we have taken upon ourselves. 

Would you like to do a movement lesson, right now? Google "The Open ATM Project" and click on a movement lesson that appeals to you - preferably one sitting in a chair.  This will give you an idea of what we are talking about when we speak of working patiently with movement. Doing one such lesson a week, or even one per month, in time will remake your whole life. 

So again, in the long term, you cannot sit comfortably erect if you do it by stiffening the spine and tightening the belly. For starters that creates compression of the spine, restricted breathing, and compromised balance - to say nothing about the constantly tight muscles that are sooner or later going to get fatigued or sore. Neither can you be comfortable, long term, by depending on a special kind of chair or back rest. The body and the brain are not build to depend on things; we thrive on challenge, acquiring independence, learning to adapt, variety, diversity - rigid fixity in sitting is like a form of death, there is no life there. There has to be a way to sit comfortably, calmly, motionless in a chair with a relaxed body and without depending on a back rest, a lumbar support or some special kind of chair. Certainly, the answers has to be within us, not outside of us. .

Of course it is much better to sit on the floor in loose clothing, in whatever style fits you at the moment: cross legged, Japanese style, legs flopped to the sides, legs in front, using pillows creatively, etc. This ensures open hip joints, good skeletal support. and constant variety - a healthy thing, since our brains and bodies are basically learning and adapting machines. We're not meant to stagnate.

For specific details about what has to happen in functional sitting, please see my post titled "If You Constantly Pull Your Shoulders Back..." dated June 8, 2008.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rib Cage -A Fresh Perspective

Learn this one, and you will never be the same again.  Your life will sparkle with joy, love, spiritual advancement, compassion, people will love you and you'll get RICH!! (OK I may exaggerate, but you move in this direction). A lot of our self-image lives in our chest region and our somatic anatomical self-image has a lot to do with how this area moves, and how it continually re-creates or affirms our self-image. If we think people are talking behind our backs, we stiffen our backs. We forget to remember the ribs can be supple, and they can relax after stiffening.  If we feel shamed or diminished in any way, we tighten (and perhaps slump) in the chest. How long do we hold that tension? We've all been told that we should lift our chest while sitting or standing in order to have good posture. We do this and forget to relax now and then. We even sleep with our rib cage and hard as a brick. We've all learned that our rib cage is built to protect the fragile heart and lungs - a strong, protective cage. Once we know that, we think that is all there is to know. Well, there is more to the story. 

For starters, your ribs on the left are separate from those on the right. They can actually move independently. Can you even imagine such a thing? Probably not. Well, you could, if you were taking an ATM class regularly, or seeing a Feldenkrais Practitioner

From today forward, as you exercise, walk, do yoga or sit quietly - if you can have in the back of your mind that your ribs can be soft, that there is an independent left and right side to the rib cage - then you will be slowly progressing in the right direction. Most folks, because they don't understand this, are moving in the wrong direction. The older they get, the tighter becomes their rib cage. And also, the more their pain (shoulder, neck, hip and knees  - the major joints that overwork when the rib cage is like a brick), their long-held resentments, their anger will be increasing. It is an unfortunate way to grow older, yet very common. 

We need soft ribs to be human and kind and open hearted, but we also need (always available) hard ribs, lifted chest - in those moments when we need to set a boundary, or when we need to muster extraordinary courage or will power, or when we need to be physically strong in the ribs, as when we are carrying a backpack.  That is normal and healthy!  Actually we need to have many choices available as to how we configure our rib cage, moment to moment. It is not so simple as soft vs hard. But in this blog I am writing about both extremes, mainly, since the concepts are more easily understood (by contrast) that way. But there are many shades of grey.

Life is hard today, it is like a cement mixer. If ever there were a time where boundaries need to be set, to protect our own well-being and comfort - it  is today. Just look at the world! So it is almost inevitable that most people end up with rigidly held rib cages. We put that on, like a costume, in order  to survive, and "be tough".  It is not wrong to have a rib cage like that. Better that than to be run over by life, by others, by circumstances! The main point is that we need more choices than just that one compulsive behavior. 

So many people today are turning to meditation, to acts of charity, to yoga postures that "open the heart" and to other spiritual practices. If they were to add to all that a little somatic work, they would get quicker and more lasting benefits for their efforts.  

There is an aboriginal tribe that actually can hold objects, like a wooden spoon, between two ribs. That is normal in their culture. What is normal in our culture is to consider the ribs like a sturdy cage, unmoving, held stiff in good posture. Trouble is, that reduces circulation, muffles or deadens heart feelings, creates insensitivity to the suffering of others, and more. 

Everytime you use the words rib cage or hear them spoken, you reaffirm the concept of rigid holding of the chest. I propose that everytime your hear or read the words rib cage - from this moment forwardyou replace it with a more functional concept, such as:
  • Rib accordion
  • Rib slinky
  • Just plain ribs
  • Supple chest or supple upper back
We tend to think of a military chest as admirable. Well, you need to have a chest like that to kill people. That's a fact. F.M. Alexander, the founder of The Alexander Technique was a somatic  pioneer in the early 1900's. He was teaching people how to have effortlessly erect posture, with a relaxed and lengthened spine, soft ribs and easy breathing. He was also one of the early teachers of  Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of The Feldenkrais Method (You can't go wrong if you study the Alexander Technique, I recommend that to anyone who wants better posture). Well, when he visited England he found an opportunity to teach some soldiers (with the permission of the British Military) his method of standing  tall. He was horrified at the usual military methods: Lift the chest, pull the shoulders back, keep the chin in and level - and now stay that way forever! What happened? Well, his experiment was successful - the soldiers had wonderfully elegant and tall posture -  but ended quickly. The British military did not like soldiers that no longer had the killer instinct.

True strength is like a blade of grass in a storm - it will survive, while the oak tree will fall. A person with authentic strength has a supple rib cage. They can take a blow - physical, mental or emotional - and absorb or roll with the punch. A person with a stiffly held rib cage (whether in chronically stooped posture or admirably erect, it does not matter), will be damaged. When life deals a hard blow, he will suffer much more than a person with a supple rib cage. 

A little child can do a forward roll - and adults usually cannot,  unless he/she learns to move again like a little child (not as hard as it may seem). Stiffening the chest is part of being "adult" and I'd even guess it is a major factor in aging. For sure, I can say that when a client learns to soften their chest, they look many years younger.  When an adult learns again to soften his chest enough to do a forward roll, his life will improve in amazing ways. I learned this from a Dr. Brady, who  wrote a book about 1953 summarizing his life work as a medical journalist (I can't remember the name of the book). One whole chapter of the book was dedicated to forward rolls  - he said that whenever a patient learned to do this (using lots of pillows on a large soft bed) many of their symptoms went away - including even serious diseases, mental depression, and more. 

Few persons today have supple ribs. Some little kids do, before they learn to read, before they go to school - provided they have not been using video games, watching TV, using the computer, and have not been abused in any way. That is rare, today. Long time students of the Feldenkrais Method have fluent rib cages - able to soften or harden as appropriate or anything in-between. Any person with deep emotional sensitivity, with spiritual advancement, who also knows how to set boundaries, with real practical compassion  - all have  supple, intelligent rib cages (not hard like bricks). Just look around and see if it is not true. Mother Theresa was such a one. Even a small gesture with her hands, her rib cage responded like a soft sponge. When she reached with a hand, her heart was in her hand, somatically speaking. In other words, her ribs participated in the arm movement of reaching. Most people with "better posture" hold their ribs completely rigid when reaching out an arm. Although she was hunched, she nonetheless had good movement in the ribs. 

When the ribs are tightly knit, tensely held, our self-image of that area and all our movements becomes severely distorted.  We even forget we have ribs (that always happens when a body part is held unrelentingly tense for decades). When you lie down on your back or on your side, is it immediately clear to you that your torso is supported by (resting upon) your rib cage? For me it was not. When I first consciously sensed my ribs while lying on my side, about 16 years ago, during an ATM class,  I was shocked. How can this be? I was, up to that moment, always thinking of "my back, my chest, my torso" and never the ribs. I knew the ribs were there, intellectually, but somatically there were gone. Or, consider abdominal breathing: with tightly held ribs, for sure you are going to get a distended belly from that practice. The ribs need to participate appropriately, no matter what kind of breathing you do. 

You'll find soft and fluent-to-many-configurations rib cages more often amongst women than men. But if you find an emotionally mature man with a rib cage like that, he will be extraordinary - combining the best of the feminine qualities like compassion, understanding and love with his masculine nature. Such men are exceedingly rare. 

Imagine a married man with a wife and two young children. He loves them, but, alas, he has fallen in love with a very beautiful 18 year old woman, who just graduated from high school. She also loves him - and his money!  He intends to divorce his wife, leave his kids, take the money, sell the house and move, leaving his previous family destitute.

How would he go about preparing to actually execute such a deed? By going 4 hours a day to the health club, doing all those exercises with a stiffly held, rigidly lifted rib cage. 

This actually happened. I heard the story from a Feldenkrais Trainer - the man came to him, before the divorce, because  he was having pain (I think in the shoulders). The Trainer was struck by his very tight, military chest, and was also puzzled as to why he was working out so many hours at the gym. Later he understood, when he found out what the man had done. It made perfect sense.  And by the way, a stiff chest is almost always the "foundation" for chronic shoulder trouble, for chronic heart disease, for chronic emotional troubles, for breathing issues and lung trouble. But this information is almost like a closely guarded secret amongst the somatic community. One only hears this in private conversations between practitioners - vague suspicions that have not been proven. We don't want people to think we are unscientific, or on the lunatic fringe, so we keep it quiet. Yes there are good ways to treat these issues, with therapy, medicine, diet, etc - but if they are combined with somatic education you'll get better results, quicker and longer lasting. 

When I see a person with "admirable" posture, a stiff and lifted rib cage - I think to myself:  He/she is not feeling his deepest, truest feelings. He does not know who he really is. Poor man, he thinks good posture is the main thing. He  has sacrificed his humanity for that. I don't care how much money he has, how much power he has, how much others admire him - he is really a very poor man. Probably he does have money and power - but look at what he has sacrificed!

So what does this have to do with left and right sides of the rib cage? Well, if you able to keep thinking that way, and exploring movement that way (guided movement classes like ATM are good for this purpose, and also see a practitioner privately for some sessions) amazing things begin to happen:
  • Your image of the rib cage softens.
  • Mysteriously, shoulder pain will diminish, as will knee, hip ankle and back pain. 
  • You begin to be able to actually move left and right sides independently. 
  • Spiral movement - the best, most organic kind of movement - opens up to you. A brick-like rib cage cannot participate in spiral movement. All the other joints suffer for that.  
  • Life becomes easier. 
  • You'll  be more emotionally intelligent (this is a very elusive, difficult quality to acquire without some kind of somatic intervention)
  • You will become more soft-hearted, kinder, personal relationships will smooth out. 
As with all other somatic concepts, this one requires practical application over a prolonged period of time to be fully embodied. There is a whole lot more to learn, and sense and embody, than what I have covered here. You'll be amazed at everything that is involved in learning to soften the rib cage. Early developmental movements need to be revisited. Many challenging movement-learning situations need to be confronted, and more, to fully soften the ribs. A four year Feldenkrais Training Program will give you the opportunity to experience those things. In fact, Moshe Feldenkrais once said "Soften the ribs, differentiate the pelvis" was a good concise definition of his work. That covers a whole lot of ground.   

The truth is, you'll get minimal benefit just by reading material like this, then forgetting all about it. The only way to understand The Feldenkrais Method or any other kind of somatic work is to get involved. Sign up for a class. Find a teacher. This is not only because the concepts may be strange or difficult to learn. Mainly, it is because we acquired our habits of tension and holding (usually) when we were very young, while we were interacting with our parents, siblings, teachers and others.  It is how we thought we had to be, in order to survive. These habits are very deeply etched - it is who we think we are. What has been learned in a social setting - as a matter of survival  -  will most easily be changed only in another, more helpful (meaning safe, comfortable, pleasant) social setting. 

Another way to say this: during an ATM class, if everyone is learning to soften their ribs while doing a specific movement, the group energy will help you to give yourself permission to do the same thing. You'll get breakthroughs and insights you could never acquire alone, at home, even if you were on the floor everyday doing your very best to do ATM lessons from a recording.

And, while it is true that yoga classes have many postures that help to make the ribs more supple, there is a difference between yoga and somatic work. I love doing yoga, this is not a criticism of yoga,  I am just drawing a distinction.  In somatic work you are continually presented with strange new movement or postural challenges and situations. You get very good at creatively finding solutions, within your own  body.  You develop a natural facility to create comfort, to reorganize your body appropriate moment-to-moment no matter what is happening. It is not quite like that doing yoga. where you are learning specific postures, with specific directions. How easily does that transfer to daily living? True, there is some transference, but if somatic work is combined with yoga classes, results will come more quickly. It is like the best of both worlds. That is how I like it. 

Consider backwards bending. In yoga you will perform perhaps dozens of postures like that. In an ATM class, over the years, you'll explore thousands of variations - spirals, sitting, standing on the knees, cross legged, in early developmental configurations of creeping and crawling, one legged, standing, lying down, chin in, chin out, in chairs, lying on your side, head turned left or right, eyes up or down, combined with side bending, dancing, reaching up, holding the breath, reverse breathing, normal breathing - the variations are endless. The focus is not on developing flexibility or the ability to backwards bend, as it may be  in yoga. It does happen, but the focus is instead on being functional,  being alert, supple, adaptable - becoming more mature, more fully human. At the same time you learn to not be invested in holding on to inappropriate movement patterns or tensions acquired in the past.
In yoga, for example, you might always be looking up as you backbend - that sort of makes sense, because it makes the back-bending easier. In real life, however, you might need to look down while back bending. So, in an ATM class we practice that also.  You never know what is coming next in an ATM class, so you learn to be on your toes. You develop that facility. Is that true for your yoga class? In a well-taught ATM class, you simply cannot zone out, you will be left behind, and you'll feel a little embarrassed. You quickly learn to pay better attention. You become amazingly intelligent, facile, at arranging your body to meet the needs of the moment that way. 

In 1988 I had a full extension whiplash; I  was rear-ended at high speed by a big, lunky old Chevrolet driven by a distracted mother on drugs (going to pick up her child). I was looking up into my rear view mirror just before the collision.  So, I learned in that moment to have stiff and guarded ribs while looking up. So what do you think would happen, if all I ever did was yoga back bending, while looking up? Questions like these get you thinking in a somatic fashion. 
Let me say that a yoga class is a wonderful place to relax, to feel nurtured, to give the body helpful and restful movements, to calm and slow down the mind, to work out kinks in the muscles, to strengthen the muscles, to improve balance and flexibility, to reacquire the natural breath rhythm and much more. I myself take a yoga class regularly. I love it. But it is helpful to be clear about the  distinction between ATM and yoga. Somatic work is like seasoning on food - if you add it to yoga, gym workouts, sports - it makes it more palatable. You'll get better results, you'll have less trouble with your body. You won't hit any dead ends.