Last summer I spent a month in India. As someone who observes the world through the lens of movement, I couldn't help but observe the way in which people moved. I saw old women squatting to wait for the bus or while cooking their food. I saw children playing and running with abandon. I noticed how people walked miles just to get to work. However, one thing stood out: I saw no rounded shoulders and hunched backs. In Hanna Somatic Education, we call that the Red Light Reflex. In much of Western medical thought it's the "posture of senility" or "old age." This hunching posture contributes directly to shallow breathing, back pain, neck and shoulder pain and compressed, painful joints. The photo at right gave me some insight into a possible reason why rounded shoulders and stooped posture was difficult to find: these female construction workers were carrying loads on their heads. In carrying and balancing their load, the belly and waist muscles were long and extended.The ribs were open and up. In addition, the their hips swayed gently as they took small steps or climbed stairs.
Fluid and easy makes walking easier
It's impossible to carry a load on one's head if one is stooped, or if the hips are tight and don't sway, or if one takes large, fast steps (think running for the train!). Like an earthquake-proof building gently sways during a tremor, our bodies are supposed to move freely, twisting slightly as we walk or run. This allows for coordinated, efficient movement. Moving with a rigid torso, while thought to prevent back pain, can actually contribute to back pain!
Now try this movement exploration!
- How are your feet hitting the floor?
- Are your arms swinging gently?
- Where are your eyes looking? Up? Down?
- Do your hips sway?
- Are your shoulders hunched or straight?
Stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow. Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up. Notice your ribs. Breath into them and let them expand with the breath. Notice how the abdominal muscles lengthen, yet contract to support the spine and the center of your body. Walk slowly, letting your hips sway and rotate gently. Breathe deeply as you walk. If possible, try this exercise barefoot; this allows for more awareness of the feet as you reach for the floor with each step. Thick sneakers or shoes actually get in the way of smooth walking and awareness.
Now take the pillow off of your head, slowly bring your arms to neutral, and walk. See if it's easier to walk with your torso upright, your hips swaying, and your spine stacked on top of your hips. How's your posture? Are you more on top of your hips as you walk? Are your legs swinging? Is it easier to move your hips?
This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture! My clients tell me that this exercise has helped them eliminate their back pain and remind them not to slouch. Do this for several minutes, then lie down and sense the center of your body. Breathe deeply. Notice any differences. Take this awareness into your day and see how it affects your movement. Let me know how it goes!