When it comes to fitness & health–even in the more holistic disciplines like yoga and pilates–we’re still stuck in the mindset of moreMOREMORE. Dude, relax. More is not better. Better is better. If we’re doing it right, we can do less, better & be more at ease because of it.
Poor alignment is characterized by excess & extra effort. When we actively pull shoulders down and back, we add more tension to a system already overloaded by strain. What we’re looking for in “proper alignment”, “perfect posture”, and the like is more being, and less doing. See, alignment is this:
"A dynamic experience, in which the skeletal system bears the stress of gravity, leaving the muscles free to leverage the bones through space according to signals from the nervous system.”
More simply: alignment gives us options for better movement, movement that is integrated throughout our whole being. It is a state of dynamic possibility and potential (for contrast here is what alignment is not).
We see the trend of excess tension in 2 major patterns in the body: a collapse and an arch. You can probably think of a few people who fit the mold.
The collapse is a whole-body withdrawal, a sinking into oneself. It is inherently protective in nature. The collapse is caused by excess tension through the front of the body, and although I’m a fan of patterns over pieces, the rectus abdominus and psoas major come to mind as likely suspects for holding tension.
The collapse is hugely limiting because it essentially turns off the muscles of the posterior chain, those huge powerful muscles along the back of the body. Thanks reciprocal inhibition! When one muscle is contracted, it’s antagonist lengthens, and with habitual contraction we find excess tone in one half and low tone in the other. Both states cut us off from the possibility of integrated movement.
There’s a powerful emotional attachment here as well, one that we need to be mindful of in pursuit of Whole Human Health. Find the collapse in your own body and pay attention to the attitudinal shift. It’d be pretty tough to stand up for yourself when you’re caved in, right?
The arch always strikes me as a “Come at me, bro” type of alignment. It is a puffed-out chest, hyper-lordotic thrust into the world (Freudians, have at it). Very often it shows up as excessive tension in the musculature of the back. If we’re thinking of pieces, the spinal erectors come to mind, along with the trapezius.
Now in addition to huge amounts of pressure on the lumbar vertebrae the arch can manifest as tight hammies as well, due to the huge pelvic tilt in play. Where the collapse takes the form of withdrawal and passivity, the arch is expansive and focused on action. It is a constant state of doing.
Now this is dangerous territory. Because of the moreMOREMORE mindset, we often fall into the trap of using one extreme to counteract the other. This is a chronic pain cycle if ever there was one. We fight tension with tension, waging war in our own bodies. When our back tightens, we’re told we have a weak core, so we strengthen it, leading to elevated tone, which in turn results in counter-tension in the already strained back. Or our shoulders cave inward with tension, so we actively pull them down and back. I’ll say it again: more is not better. Better is better. Dude, relax.
Do This Instead
Find your way onto your back with your knees comfortably bent and feet resting on the floor, in your Constructive Resting Position (CRP). Take a moment to simply scan your body, bringing some awareness to yourself. You might tune in to areas of tension, or where you feel your weight on the floor. Perhaps you pay attention to the curves of the spine, particularly the shape of the neck and low back. There’s no need to fix anything. This is a time to do less.
If there are tense areas, can you let them soften? Can you feel your bones settling into & through the floor? Nice, huh?
We’re very often completely blind the the fact that we hold excess tension. We’ve been doing it for so long that it has become our new normal. Bad news: chronic holding is not a good normal. So let’s see if we can re-learn what tension and release feel like in the body. Contrasts are a helpful tool; we see shadows through light, right?
After a few minutes resting and scanning in CRP we’ll begin this exploration of tension and release. Couple of ground rules here:
-Do NOT move into pain
-Move slowly and with control
-Be aware of present sensations
Starting out, slowly exaggerate the arch of your back, contracting the extensors along the back of the body. Return to normal. Move in and out of this 8-10 times, noticing the effort required to actively arch the back and the relative release when you let go.
Next we’ll address chronic contraction across the front of the body. From a starting point of CRP, slowly attempt to flatten the curve of the low back to the ground. You’ll feel an effort in the front of the body as you engage the spinal flexors. Think of it as just the tiniest fraction of a sit-up. We’re not going for ripped abs here, we’re exploring tension and release. Move through this 8-10 times.
These small movements can have profound effects on the body and serve as a great reset to release tension. After exploring this extension and flexion spend a few more minutes in CRP and notice any subtle shifts from your previous scan. Have you found unexpected release? Have you settled your weight more evenly through the body? Has the quality of your breathing changed? Use this time for being, rather than doing.
If you noticed any shifts through these movements, I’d love to hear them in the comments below!