Add in some secrets from Rolfing…
Now there’s a recipe that’ll make you feel super.
You’ve probably already got some of the recipe down, I’m going to provide you the other half of the formula: 10 actionable (and interesting) tips for improving your posture — inspired by Rolfing Structural Integration:
Tip # 1: Getting grounded is essential
Rolfing recognizes a principle of organization called palintonicity.
Essentially this means that every muscle or muscle-chain has two poles.
One is up and one is down.
And the most important secret to having good posture is to attain length in shortened muscles via both poles.
To do this you have to start by releasing both ends of a muscle or muscle-chain.
If you’re like most people you think of lengthening a muscle as stretching it until lactic acid releases.
That stretch feeling.
In reality, you shouldn’t be reaching toward the muscle’s limits.
Actually, it’s much simpler… which is why, incidentally, most people can’t do it.
It actually takes retraining your neuromusculature.
Here’s what you do:
- Stretch halfway to the muscle’s stretch limit.
- Trace the muscle group you’re stretching to any joints it intersects with
- Relax and gently let go of any tension in the muscles surrounding those joints
In the case of the above picture, the athlete is stretching their hamstrings.
They could lean back halfway and begin focusing on releasing muscles around the glutes, the knee, and the heels.
This deepens the stretch by includes the entire muscle-chain involved in the restriction.
Nothing exists in isolation, so why are we taught to “stretch our hamstrings” like they have nothing to do with our lower leg and pelvis?
This principle is the beginning of genuine relaxation within the entire body and the foundation for excellent posture.
Actionable Advice: Whenever you’re working on your posture think about the opposite extremity of what you’re working with, whether it’s a single muscle, or a long chain.
On to the next tip.
Tip #2: To resolve back pain issues go to the heels
Sometimes the principles that govern anatomical physics are just plain counter-intuitive.
But to be fair, so are most big physics discoveries, such as the Copernican model of the solar system or Newtonian mathematics.
One of the most important discoveries that have emerged from Rolfing and other myofascial work is that fascia connects muscles along chain pathways. A famous proponent of this work is Tom Myers, whose work is now at the forefront of many massage, bodywork, and myofascial release courses.
Here’s how it works:
The fascia that begins on the plantar surface of the foot forms a chain with all of the muscles going up the back of the leg. This fascia is in turn continuous with the lower back and pelvis, which is continuous with the entire upper back and neck.
Do you notice the smooth sheets of tissue around the heel and the ankle? This is called fascia and surrounds all the muscles and nerves of the body.
It’s like a sock that covers your whole body, and it starts just beneath your skin.
This stuff has a sort of gluey stretchy quality and it’s the reason muscle chain pathways act as functional units.
This fascia continues up the leg, becomes the IT band, hooks into the pelvis and pelvic floor, wraps around the sacrum, and then splits off to merge with the rectus abdominus (six-pack muscle) and the fascia of the lower back.
Often when people have back pain they’re not grounded through their back line. All of the muscles running down the back of the leg might be tight and there may be a preference to stand toward the front or the medial edge of the foot. This in turn continues to crank on the already shortened fascia, which pulls the pelvis into a posterior tilt and restricts the natural curve of the lumbar spine.
Hence, lower back pain.
Here’s some actionable advice if your lower back feels tight or you have lower back pain:
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart with your heels on the edge of a wall.
- Bend your knees and notice which parts of your feet lose contact with the ground first.
- See if you can relax your ankles, lower leg, and feet so that you can make broader and better contact with the ground.
- Once you feel like you have better contact, straight your knees while keeping the connection to the ground.
- You should feel a slight different in your height, as your back line should have just lengthened!
If you have back pain and you’re in Austin I’d also suggest coming to see me or another Rolfer.
I’d be happy to recommend Rolfers to you if my schedule or rate don’t fit your needs.
We can also work with your body systemically to ensure that the deep root issues affecting your posture get resolved.
You can also find a list of local Rolfers through this link.
Tip #3: Don’t Pull Your Rounded Shoulders Back
It seems intuitive, but it’s totally wrong.
It’s also probably the most common myth about posture that exists in our culture.
Firstly, the shoulders are affected by everything above them, below them, in front of them, and behind them.
The neck, the ribs, the sternum, the diaphragm, the pectoral muscles, the trapezius, arms, rhomboids, serratus anterior, etc.
You don’t need to know what any of that means. You just need to know that you can’t will your shoulders into place.
If you do want to know, check the glossary for more details on anatomy and kinesiology.
It’s a simple and common mistake to naively treat the body like it abides by 2-dimensional or even 3-dimensional laws. But there are way more than 3 simple planes of motion involved in human biomechanics.
The body is incredibly complicated.
Let’s simplify it without getting into too much anatomy.
Here’s how the shoulders get balanced:
To balance the shoulders the following common structures need to be addressed:
- Pec minor, that little guy under your armpit that connects your scapula to your ribs needs to be released. If you’re hunching forward, pec minor is almost always tight. Check out this Livestrong article I found for some stretches that help release pec minor. Don’t expect to do it all yourself. This tough little muscle needs to be manually worked with to really let go.
- Your head – the talking, sobbing, smiling, gnashing thing up on top of your neck – needs to be in proper alignment. Because most of us are spending more and more time goose-necking over our cellphones and computers, chances are your head is too far in front of your midline. To support the extra forward weight, your body finds it easiest to collapse forward, making the ribs pivot forward to provide a broader base of support. Finding your appropriate head posture through Rolfing or Alexander Technique is a great step toward finding better posture.
- You need space in your back if you’re going to move things in that direction. This one’s a little harder to grasp. I’ve been studying Rolfing for a while now and it’s just clicked for me. The body isn’t merely a mechanical system. It’s actually highly responsive to a little something called interoception (the sensations within the body).So if your body hasn’t gotten the message that your back is open for habitation, it’s not going to support the notion of bringing the shoulders back in that direction. Luckily, about half the time, people just aren’t aware of the space behind them. It’s like a nice open, clean room for rent, except nobody advertised that it was available. I’m biased, but I think Rolfing is good at that. The other half of the time, the back space is a mess and is going to require some cleaning up before it’s “inhabitable.”
Let’s check out some other tips.
Tip #4: Free Your Core From Your Sleeve
A unique insight that Ida Rolf had, and which as been verified by studies in fascial anatomy, is that our core structures and surface structures tend to get bound to one another via a sticky collagenous substance called fascia.
Unfortunately there’s all sorts of bad advice on improving your posture via strengthening your core.
Even reputable sources like WebMD are offering a mixed bag of awesome and terrible advice.
So what’s the deal?
There are two types of muscles in the body: tonic and phasic.
Tonic muscles are more generally core muscles and don’t respond to our will or effort.
Phasic muscles are the ones we contract to do things and get things done.
Here’s how to actually improve your posture:
You have to get your phasic muscles to stop imposing themselves on your core.
“Core strengthening” exercises, performed improperly, are just forcing your core to contract and shorten, effectively turning your low tonus tonic muscles into high tonus phasic muscles.
A good Pilates instructor or a very good yoga teacher can help you avoid this confusion.
But, if you’re hitting the gym by yourself and “tightening your abs” and “strengthening your lower back” you’re most likely tightening structures that are not, by design, meant to be tight.
This isn’t going to help your posture.
To get your core and sleeve differentiated I’d highly recommend finding a Rolfer in your area. If you’re in the Austin area or just have questions feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to give you some direction on how to proceed.
Tip #5: Become Friends with Subtlety
If there’s anything my greatest teachers in Rolfing SI have taught me, it’s the power of subtlety.
The way doctors, chiropractors, PTs, physical trainers, and massage therapists all treat the body is basically rooted in textbook anatomy. While this certainly isn’t 100% true, nor is it by any means a “bad” thing,” it has its shortcomings and is partially accurate.
Textbook anatomy is all well and good in diagnosing general patterns of dysfunction, and in prescribing general formulas for recovery.
But it’s also very… murky.
Do you really want to be treated by someone who categorizes your condition based on a checklist of symptoms? What if your case is different? An anomaly? Wouldn’t you want to know what’s actually going on before starting a 50 week chiropractic series, or undergoing surgery?
In the best Rolfers there’s a sort of sonar that the hands have developed that lets us find things that wouldn’t show up in a regular examination.
Just the other day I went and saw my favorite Rolfer all the way up in Boulder, CO (Her name is Suzanne Picard if you’re ever in Colorado and want to see one of the best Rolfers in the country).
About a year ago I had an accident at a parkour gym where a heavy guy landed heel first on my neck from a 10 foot jump.
Ever since then I’ve been going through bits and pieces of the recovery process when I have a minute to attend to myself.
Suzanne used cranio-sacral principles to sense into the subtle restrictions associated with my injury. She started with my ribs on the left side, released some nerves on my right side where the injury happened, and then she put on a glove and worked with a cranial compression deep inside my skull.
It was the most sensible step of my recovery so far to have someone decompress the bones of my cranium from within. My pain reduced from about a constant 7 to a very occasional 3/10 after that session. That’s a full 8 months after the injury. I can guarantee nobody else would think to go into my mouth to help work with the injury.
Here’s the point:
As Ida Rolf used to say, “where you think it is, it ain’t.”
Getting super subtle — and I can’t think of any better way of honing that sensitivity than to go see a Rolfer — is totally essential to figuring out your own posture. Because the nervous system finds new options for feeling and behavior within subtlety.
Actionable Tip: The first place I recommend people to develop sensitivity is the spine. Here are a few things you can do to develop sensitivity (subtlety) to your body.
- Sit in a chair with your feet firmly on the floor. Let your hands be relaxed and heavy on your thighs.
- Curl your spine back while letting your neck go into flexion (slack the neck forward) and keep pushing back with your spine until you’re in a comfortable but significant state of spinal flexion.
- Starting with the top of your head and letting your entire spine follow, bring yourself back up to regular seated pose – but, do this step slowly and as if you were a snake leading your body with your head.
- Pay attention to each vertebra as they unfold and return to seated posture.
Tip #6: Get Your Feelings Out in a Healthy Way
I think half the work of getting posture right is just convincing the ego that it’s attitudes are superfluous.
Most slouching, spinal rotation, “chest puffing,” and other patterns originate in emotional patterns of relating to others and to the world.
You don’t have to carry emotions around in your posture.
Emotions come from your consciousness.
It’s clearly a subjective thing.
You’ve got the neurotransmitters and stuff, of course, but the beauty of being human is that with a little awareness, that stuff doesn’t have to follow you around.
You’re not your neurotransmitters.
Part of the process of getting Rolfed is just letting things that don’t serve you drop off.
I’m always telling my clients, “that’s gotta go. You can’t keep that and evolve.”
If I run into some tension in their body, I’m like “that’s leaving. Hope you’re ready,” and off we go setting it free.
Tip #7: Your Pelvis Has Something to Say About Posture
For whatever reason we usually leave the pelvis out of our conventional definition of posture.
And yet, the pelvis is the most important structure in the body in terms of alignment.
I guess we obsess with the shoulders because they’re so obvious.
But Rolfing isn’t about the obvious.
It’s about getting to the root of issues.
So here’s a list of things to keep in mind about your pelvis.
Generally speaking there are two main patterns that afflict the pelvis – anterior pelvic tilt and posterior pelvic tilt.
But to get more specific, the pelvis affects our abdomen, our digestion, our sexual health, our legs, and our spine in many different ways.
It’s not in the scope of this article to cover all this in detail, but rest assured I’ll be getting to it in another article soon.
So for now, here’s a bit of information you can take with you.
There’s an inside and an outside.
The inside includes pelvic floor, iliacus (more on this cool muscle later) and organs.
Here’s where things get cool:
Those muscles in turn affect your hamstrings, your calves, lower back, sacrum, and the resting tone of your vagus nerve — which in turn affects your digestion, breathing, and heartrate.
The outside includes hip rotators, glutes, various ligaments, which affect your legs, feet, spine, back, and abs.
Now it’s not in the scope of the article to explain how it all works, but if you can take away something from this tip, let it be this:
There’s more going on around your pelvis than you think.
One of the primary areas of the body that I work with in detail is the pelvic girdle. My Rolfing in Austin practice can help you get some clarification on what’s going on in this very important area.
Actionable Tip (The Pelvic Roll):
- Lay on your back with your your feet planted firmly in the ground
- Pushing into your feet, allow your pelvis to come up off of the ground
- Make sure you are not using your abs or your quads to get your pelvis up. You are lifting purely by pushing down into your feet
- Continue pushing until your lumbar spine and some of your thoracic spine are off of the ground.
- Slowly let your spine roll back down onto the ground. Try to drop exactly one vertebra at a time down to the floor. You will probably not be able to do this! That’s the point. You are developing new mobility.
- When only your sacrum/tailbone are left, imagine they are going to unfold onto the ground. Very gently place them on the floor and imagine they are unfolding onto the ground, almost like petals spreading open.
- Repeat 3 – 10x a day for two weeks.
Tip #8: Put Slack in the Body (Learning about The Rolfing Line)
We mentioned earlier that tightening things up doesn’t necessarily lead to better posture.
Well, the converse is that putting slack into the system doesn’t hurt posture.
Actually, it helps. A lot.
The human body is already designed to be upright in gravity.
Well, most of the time anyway.
That’s what we’re talking about when we talk posture, right?
In fact, this principle constitutes one of Ida Rolf’s most important conceptual discoveries:
That everything organizes itself through The Line.
Trees, houses, cups, shapes, they all find their most stable orientation in gravity via a Line that runs through their center. And in the case of organic mechanisms like ourselves, The Line actually helps us by organizing our bodies around itself.
In a sense gravity is both nature and nurture in that it influences us from within and without.
So consider this:
If we lived in a world where the gravity was always changing vectors, we’d be all lopsided and strange looking. In fact, life would probably be impossible. But we spend our entire lives being organized by one primary mechanistic force: the Line of Gravity.
Gravity is so fundamental that it is considered one of the four fundamental forces of physics.
That being said, tension in the body is fundamentally resistance to the gravitational field.
Some of this tension is healthy.
Most of it is unnecessary and habitual.
If we’re doing tension, adding it to the system, it’s unhealthy.
So what we’re looking for is to find slack where there was previously resistance.
As this process unfolds, the core can find unimpeded length through the center of the body.
This in turn brings the central nervous system, the organs, and limbs (so sensing, being, and expressing) into alignment.
Sounds like a recipe for happiness to me.
Actionable advice: Meditate for 24 minutes a day, whenever you can. Meditation reduces the resting tone of muscles. You can read about these effects in many science articles.
Tip #9: Establish Support Across Horizontals
Back to the esoteric stuff.
Horizontals depend on each other from the top down.
The floor of the mouth, the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, the knees, and the ankles are all examples of horizontals. Getting each segment of the body fully supported by the structures beneath it is crucial for good posture, whether while sitting, standing or moving.
You might be wondering:
What does the floor of the mouth have to do with posture?
For starters it’s continuous with the esophageal fascia that can pull your neck, head and spine out of alignment from deep within.
But that’s some super nerdy stuff. You can contact me personally if you want to know more.
Support is both anatomical and functional-perceptual.
The anatomical component is that anywhere within, say, the feet and ankles, there can be structures that are physically too tight to function properly. Those can be worked out with some patient and intelligent touch.
The functional component has more to do with habit.
For most people, nothing is more habitual than moving.
And the average person could give a rat’s ass what I have to say about how they stand, move or sit.
Luckily, there’s a very wise teacher built into the human body that’ll turn any skeptic into a hopeful seeker in a matter of minutes or days: pain.
Tip #10: Listen (or Don’t) to Your Pain
There’s a lot of new science coming out about how the brain is fully responsible for pain.
In short, new pain science indicates that tissue injuries of any kind are almost always fully healed within 4 to 6 months.
Chronic pain around an injury occurs because the nervous system continues perceiving an injured region as injured far longer than it is actually in any danger.
This triggers a response from the immune system to cause inflammation, which limits blood flow to the area. The mind begins to map the area as permanently damaged because it interprets the inflammatory response as an indication of an injury.
The brain then remembers the injury and amplifies the signals from the injured area and sets off an alarm called “pain.”
A lot of it is pretty interesting. But it’s also reductionistic and extreme in many cases.
What it indicates is that when you’re working on improving your posture there are times when your brain is going to send you the message “that doesn’t feel good. That isn’t right.”
But sometimes your brain is wrong, especially if you’re trying to recover good posture after a serious injury.
The point is that you need to be discerning. Learn some pain science and give your body a chance to show you that it can heal and improve.
It seems that pain is a messenger from the body to the brain that something isn’t right. Or, actually, from the brain to the brain that something isn’t right.
Before your body’s going to permit you to radically transform it from the inside out, sometimes you need to take practical steps to turn down the alarm that’s going off.
The great thing about the pain science is that it really might be just be in your head.
The not great thing is that your brain won’t know that until it knows it.
So I’d recommend seeing a specialist about your pain to see if there are structural roots.
— Thanks for reading! —
My practice is in Austin, TX if you’re ever in the area and want to try Rolfing. I am also happy to make referrals for conditions like scoliosis, digestive issues, and other health conditions.