Sunday, June 8, 2008

If You Like to Pull Your Shoulders Back...

If you must continually do something with your shoulders, then do this: push your shoulders directly down (with not even a trace of pulling them backwards) while at the same time lifting the chest up, while relaxing the spine(don't stiffen and straighten your thoracic spine). As much as I dislike any type of "posture correction exercises" that must be done almost continually, this is one that will actually help you. It's an intelligent thing to do, if you must do something like that at all. 
If  you can understand that, and do that continually (if you must) instead of pulling your shoulders backwards, you'll be far, far ahead. Weight lifters do this. It makes them look macho, powerful and grounded. Most folks with shoulder trouble have elevator shoulders, they are continually hiking up towards the ears, day by day, year by year. It is very good to keep the shoulders down. It is extremely pernicious to keep the shoulders pulled back habitually. I think this post will absolutely convince you of that. 

Yes, many yoga classes, many exercise classes will teach you to pull your shoulders back, or to do shoulder circles. These are good, but not if pulling shoulders back is done 24/7. Then it becomes a neurotic disability, and even worse. I have found that most people with shoulder trouble have internalized such advice, to one degree or another, and they unconsciously pull their shoulders back many times a day, thinking they are being good in some strange way. Please study this post, and you will want to quickly destroy all traces of that habit, you'll be motivated to pull it out by the roots, and never ever do it again. 

In my private Feldenkrais Functional Integration practice, I occasionally see a person whose mission in life appears to be pulling their shoulders back. It's painful to see. I easily recognize the type, and can speak with some passion, since I myself suffered from "pulling shoulders back syndrome" for about 30 years - until I got involved in Feldenkrais at about age 45.  Thank God for The Feldenkrais Method, and thank you, Moshe Feldenkrais!  When I see pictures of myself from my Army days, or my US Postal Service days, it is excruciatingly painful. There I am - shoulders pulled way back, head way forward, going through life like that. I am speaking to myself, 30 years ago, in this post. If it is blunt, it is because that is what I would have needed to change that behavior. 

If you constantly pull your shoulders back -  stop it.  Please, stop it. Give up this insane practice and your life will improve. A pathway to better relaxation, more energy, and better posture will open. Who told you to do it? Go back and ask if they intended this as a vigilant habit - perhaps they meant it only as a momentary postural correction after which you fully relax and "be normal" ? That can actually be a good thing, if not overdone. Did they tell you to relax after doing it? That meant do not do it compulsively, unrelentingly. 

Yes, pulling your shoulders back while sitting in a chair does temporarily straighten your upper spine - and that is a good reminder. But it is one-time event, after which other things need to be happening:
  • Feel the contact of your sitting bones on the chair. If you can't do this, your chair is too soft, or too rounded in (like a bucket seat). 
  • 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).
  • Walk your sitting bones behind you to insure that your lumbar arch won't collapse.
  • 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 not support for the upper torso, and this greatly encourages stiffening the chest or pulling shoulders back. 
  • Fully relax. 
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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!)
  • Breathing should migrate more towards the back and sides, rounding out the sensation. This means breathing must not be only "frontal" wherein the belly expands out and in with every breath. Abdominal breathing must be more dimensional than that.
  • 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 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. Be content with that.  
  • Avoid over-tensing the belly (which causes slumping). A little belly tension is OK, though. 
  • 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. 
There is a lot to learn, and the sooner you begin, the better. All of these things can become automatic, in time. But there are no shortcuts. If you go through this list every time you sit, taking one or two items, your sitting will improve greatly. Pulling your shoulders back and lifting your chest seems like an expedient shortcut, but actually it is a dead end, if it means you think you don't have to learn all these other things - at least a little bit! Let's use our intelligence.  Long continued relaxed erect chair sitting is a fine art form, not a matter of brute-force-will-power-endurance-tense-back! it takes time to learn, and it won't happen just by reading that list (above) and practicing each item for a few moments (this is not so true for sitting cross-legged on the floor, where the foundation is more stable and the lumbar curve is automatically produced). More intensive mentoring is needed, over a longer period of time. Pulling your shoulders back - then relaxing -  is simply a momentary reminder about not keeping the chest locked into a depressed slump (a reminder we all need). 

For chair sitting, a distinction needs to be drawn between sitting dynamically - as when we move our arms and turn our head often, as when we are working at a desk or eating - and when we want to sit statically (more or less) as in meditation, reflection, quiet rest. 

To sit dynamically, a hard, flat surface is needed so that the pelvis can articulate on the two sitting bones. The sitting bones must not be immobilized by cushioning or by a bucket seat. 

To sit in a chair motionless, as in meditation, it is essential that the pelvis be so arranged that the lumbar curve is properly positioned and stable. Otherwise there is no support and the back muscles must over-work, and the shoulders-pulling-back syndrome is encouraged. One solution is a foam wedge, such as the Tush-Cush or using a blanket to create an equivalent configuration (this is done by placing a folded-square blanket on your seat, and rolling or folding in the back two corners diagonally, to create elevation for the sitting bones, and a "hole" for the tailbone to remain suspended). 

I frequently witness folks who are determined to sit upright, without any support - as if it were an act of manhood, courage and necessity. Perhaps they have been told that it is important for meditation to never let the spine touch any support.  They are very determined. But all that admirable effort is being spent on pulling the shoulders back, stiffening the chest, and tightening the back.  Their neck is locked tight, keeping their chin level (instead of just relaxing the back of the neck to let the chin drop naturally to chin level posture). Relaxation is impossible, true meditation is hindered. They are not efficiently using their time, even though they think they are making a heroic effort. It is a form of mental laziness - they prefer not to do the real, internal spiritual work, focusing instead, blindly, doggedly on  the simplistic and futile (no thought required) battle to sit erect. Just a little intelligent analysis or deep thinking about sitting posture in a chair would give them a way out of the dilemma. It is like butting your head against a wall twice a day, and years later, wondering why you have not gone anywhere. Here is a case (if ever there were) where Moshe Feldenkrais' words apply: "Use your skill, not your will." To acquire good posture and good movement, it is the only way. 

When I attend events where people are asked to meditate in chairs, I cringe. Because I know what will happen. I wish it were more like India, where people sit cross-legged at such events. Anybody who meditates should try to learn to sit more on the floor, to sit cross-legged. At least do that at home when they meditate.  But, we westerners have a disability that way. Unfortunately, it is not possible for all of us to sit cross-legged, to say nothing about lotus pose! That's mainly because the hip joints are not genetically programmed. They are formed only through weight bearing as the bones are forming. If a baby never does weight bearing, there will be no hip sockets. Did  you know this? If a western child never sat cross legged when younger, their hip joints will be so configured as to make it impossible - later on -  to sit cross legged - even with years of hatha yoga and strong determination. Their bones are configured differently. 

Let me share what goes through my mind (when I happen to open my eyes) as I witness people meditating in chairs. I wish I could interrupt them and say: "Look, your tailbone is tucked under. You are collapsing into your pelvis. You have no lumbar curve. There is no postural support at your base.  Your back and shoulders are doing all the work. You'll go crazy doing this year after year. Stop it! Instead, if you don't have a foam wedge or blanket to support your pelvis into a more rolled-forward configuration, use the back of your chair to stabilize your pelvis in the right configuration. Just push your pelvis up against the back of the chair. That is 100 times more intelligent than struggling as you are doing. Yes, that will cause you to be touching part of your spine (upper sacrum or lower lumbar) to the chair, but this allows your torso to relax, and that means you can make progress in meditation. The way you are doing it now, it is impossible. It would be much better to simply lean against the back of the chair, than to continue as you are doing.  How can you relax, while continually tensing? How can you feel your spine, or work with energy in your spine, when all the muscles alongside your spine are as hard as rock, and painful to touch? How? Better to compromise a little bit your admirable determination to never let the spine touch the chair. Alternately, you can sit on the forward edge of the chair, to allow the pelvis to roll forward by gravity. That may be an even better choice, since you don't touch your spine to the chair." 

When I see such a person as a client, I'll ask them to sit in their best meditation posture, and feel their muscles along their lower spine.  They'll be hard as a rock. Then I'll sit next to them, sitting in erect posture also, and ask them to feel my muscles - same place along the lower spine. They are soft like butter. This is a surprise to them - always they seem shocked and confused, even disoriented-   because I have challenged one of their most cherished beliefs: "The spiritual path is mostly about using lots of will power to always sit up straight, especially in meditation, never relenting." 

It does make me wonder how much quicker people would benefit from meditation if they were not spending so much of their will power on a pointless struggle to stiffen  into erect posture. Spiritually speaking, aren't there better uses for will power?

Pulling shoulders back protrudes your head more forward. Look in a mirror from the side, pull your shoulders back, and you'll see your head grotesquely protrudes forward. If not, you are doing even more grotesque compensation activities with your neck and back muscles. When your head - which is about as heavy as a bowling ball - is always forward of your torso, it is mechanically  inevitable that eventually it will pull the torso into stoop-postured configuration. So, paradoxically, long-continued pulling your shoulders back causes exactly the problem you are trying to correct!

It not only creates stooped posture,  but over-tight neck muscles, frozen cranial bones, a depressed emotional attitude,  a frozen facial expression, impaired breathing, a narrowed airway, reduced blood flow to the brain, a frozen rib cage and much more.  In addition, it immobilizes your collar bones (clavicles), which severely distorts normal shoulder function. For sure, it sets you up for eventually getting chronic neck or shoulder pain. Pulling your shoulders back - and trying to keep them frozen there forever -  gives your body no choice but to tighten your rhomboid muscles, creating tremendous, unrelenting tension in that area between your shoulder blades, in your back. If you don't believe that is a problem of yours, just let someone poke you firmly, right along the inner border of the shoulder blades. The more the pain, the tighter you have been holding. 

Really, you cannot be a normal, relaxed human being with such an idea constantly in your mind and intention. One of the saddest sights to me is to observe a sincere spiritual seeker meditating, all the while keeping his/her shoulders pulled back with chest lifted. After awhile, of course, they will slump and rest - before they go back again to their "tension meditation" as I call it. They think such misplaced vigilance is what it means to be sincere on the spiritual path. It is sad because I suspect that eventually they will give up the whole project due to lack of results, pain, frustration and lack of ability to relax or be comfortable. Or, if they don't give it up, they will become a psychological case of one type or another. To continually perform an activity that effectively frustrates achievement of your goal cannot be good for the psyche.  To say it more bluntly, it is crazy-making. 

When I see a new client with chronic shoulder pain, and has this habit - I take a deep breath. Because I'll have the hard job of convincing them that they have created much or all of their trouble by doing this crazy activity for many years. They are usually deeply invested in the idea that pulling shoulders back is the only, best way to be a good person with good posture. They will fluently recite their mantras about what the MD told them, what the chiropractor told them, their diagnosis,  about why their shoulder or neck is the problem, about their long suffering, why the old medications no longer work, how many surgeries they have had, what their MRI showed, how hard they have worked all those years at pulling their shoulders back to have the best posture,  the new medication they are taking, etc. 

Such clients will test me to see if I know as much about all of those things as they think I should know. Unless I answer correctly and am also very convincing and get quick results, I will probably lose the client. One session, and they are gone.  They have to loosen their hold on those mantras, for this new way to work. For an elderly client like this, it is almost a lost cause, unless they are the type that has stayed young, has enthusiasm, is open minded -  and is willing to do some work.  Plus they need to be open to the idea that it is appropriate to spend a little money on themselves for such a project. All I can do is explain the situation, offer them hope, making the invitation to this new way of "therapy" as inviting as possible. Usually the invitation is declined, in one way or another. Some even find the idea repugnant; they want a quicker fix. There are plenty of people who offer that.
It all begins with replacing ideas about postural correction with ideas about good movement. While improvements may come gradually at first, they keep coming for many years. It opens a whole new world. It gets better and better. Your age does not matter. 

As you pull your shoulders back, thinking you are helping yourself, you damage not only your posture. It can quickly become a neurotic habit. As compulsive behavior it serves no useful purpose. It makes you think there is always something wrong that needs correction. You are training your mind to be occupied with useless endeavor.  You are training your nervous system to be like a crazy man who spends hours each day yelling at a brick wall, to get out of his way. The brick wall is not going to disappear. But that man will certainly be unreasonable, yell at his friends and family, and be a real psychological case - in his "ordinary" life. I have actually witnessed this. One client was so invested, after 60+ years of pulling shoulders back - that I absolutely could not convince him to stop. It was part of who he "was".  That was his one, best claim to being a good person who has tried valiantly to have good posture all his life. Physically, he was a wreck. Emotionally, he was a firebug - overreacting to every little thing. If you saw him with his wife, as I did, you would want earplugs. They actually yelled at each other, as their normal way of communicating. 

As body language (if done compulsively) it communicates "I am neurotic and compulsive, I don't understand much about posture or movement,  I am  dogmatic, I believe something is wrong with my unrehearsed posture,  I want a quick fix - I don't know how to do intelligent, effective work,  I am being blindly obedient to whoever told me to do this,  I can be motivated by guilt,  I don't think for myself,  I must keep correcting myself because my posture is naturally bad,  I don't trust Nature, gravity is my enemy, my pelvis is held stiff, I am so determined to have good posture that I am willing to destroy my peace of mind, my body and relaxed normal human functioning."  All that is pretty blunt, and I apologize, but there is some truth there. Are these the messages you want to project?

While it is true that many of these issues are best addressed in therapy, it is also true that when somatic intervention is added, results come more quickly, and are more permanent. 

This body language is not clear to many people only because they also have poor understanding of what really comprises good human movement and posture. But there are certainly those who "have eyes to see." Even for those who don't consciously understand the message, the subliminal communication is there. It can attract to you unpleasant situations and also that element of society that thrives on abusing others, on draining and manipulating (through deception, guilt, control, shame, etc) others. We don't want to attract such people!

If your goal is to sit and stand more erectly, there are much better ways to go about it. The ideas in this (very incomplete) list take a little time and effort, but are well worth it (choose one or two that appeals to you):
  • Take a movement oriented class in postural improvement.
  • See a movement oriented bodywork practitioner, such as a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner or an Alexander Technique teacher.   
  • Stand, walk or sit with a book (or a beanbag or a folded hand towel) on the top of your head a few minutes every day - work at a computer like that (use a folded washrag, not a book) This worked for our great-grandparents, and it will work for you, too. 
  • Take up a martial art, find a convenient local studio.
  • Study all the posts in my blog. You'll find many useful ideas for better movement and posture. 
  • Find a good yoga teacher or personal trainer, and follow up on their advice.
  • Sign up for Bikram Yoga  (there are many other good types of yoga, but this is what I know best, and I know it works). 
  • Ask a friend or acquaintance who has admirable posture, how do they do it?
  • Read a book about The Feldenkrais Method.  
  • Learn to lift your sternum (meaning front of rib cage) without involving your shoulders,  and without tensing your spine and back muscles (you'll need mentoring). Hint: it  involves clarifying support, pelvic rolls, breathing, self-image, attitude, movement exploration, and creating healthy spinal curves, starting with your tailbone, working up.  
  • Lie down, bend your knees and do pelvic rolls. 
  • Reach up to a high shelf, look up at trees, birds or airplanes, at least twice a day. 
  • Learn the The Pelvic Clock, a classic Feldenkrais ATM Lesson.  Do it daily for a month.
  • Roll forward on your sitting bones while sitting, relaxing the belly. 
  • Best of all, take an Awareness Through Movement- ATM  class once a week. 
I deliberately omitted take ballet or other dance classes from this list, since most of the former and current dancers I have seen in my practice are holding incredible tension between the shoulder blades, and the upper rib cage. They've learned to vigilantly "stand tall, lift the chest"- and stay locked like that forever. That is the anchor around which all their flexibility and amazing movements occur. This is not true for all dancers, of course. But it is true for most beginners- and even many veteran dancers who are not at the highest level. Dancing is usually performance oriented - not healthy-human-movement oriented. There is a difference. 

For a time you may feel like you are slumping, without the constant correction of pulling your shoulders back. It is worth waiting for a few weeks, enduring that feeling, while you start doing more sensible and effective postural corrections. 

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