Movement is life and the way in which one moves can have an enormous impact on one's overall health. In the western world many of us have forgotten how to move well; we sit at computers, in cars, we watch TV slumped into a couch and we walk about 70% less than our ancestors did, according to anthropologists.
I've visited India three times, and each time I was there I observed movement that many of us in the western world have let go by the wayside: I saw old women squatting to wait for the bus or to cook the family meal. I saw kids playing and running with abandon. I noticed people walking miles just to get to work.
I marveled at one group of people in particular - the women who perform some of the most grueling work imaginable: the construction workers. Wearing their saris, they would put a rolled up towel on their head, upon which would sit a large metal tray. Then the other workers would load bricks, stones and gravel into the tray. They would hold the tray with both hands, and walk to the next location - the hips swinging gently, the center of the body long and upright and their bare feet taking measured steps. Then they would tip their tray, unload it and wait for it to be filled again. At right is one of those female construction workers.
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.
These women and their movement gave me some insight into a possible reason why rounded shoulders and stooped posture were difficult to find in India: in carrying and balancing their load, the belly and waist muscles were long and extended.The ribs were open and up. In addition, thetheir 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, if the hips are tight and don’t sway and 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, "giving" slightly slightly as we walk or run. This allows for coordinated, efficient and effortless movement. If we walk rigidly, however, with weight pounding from one foot to the other, we stress our hip, knees and feet, and walking is both inefficient and heavy. Moving with a rigid torso and tight abdominals, while thought to prevent back pain, can actually contribute to back pain!
Try this at home:
Lie down on the floor and relax for about a minute. Breathe deeply and sense the weightedness of your body on the floor. Then stand up and take a walk around the room. Walk your normal walk, but pay attention to what it feels like to walk:
- how are your feet hitting the floor?
- are your arms swinging gently?
- are you looking down or up?
- are you "galumphing" from side to side?
- are your shoulders moving forward and back, or from side to side with each step?
- are your hips swinging?
- are your shoulders hunched or straight?
Now stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow, as in the photo on the right. Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up.Notice what your ribs have to do in order to allow your hands to reach up to the pillow. Breath into your ribs 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. Imagine that your pillow is a load that must not fall off your head. Breathe deeply as you walk.
Make sure you’re walking 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.
Remember: if you were carrying a heavy load and you overarched your back, your load would tip backward. Slump forward and the load falls forward. Tilt to the side (collapsing into your waist - the "trauma reflex"), and your load slips to one side. Challenge yourself to let go of the pillow and notice what you have to do in the center of the body to stay tall and balance your pillow.
Now take the pillow off of your head, bring your arms to neutral, and continue walking.
See if it’s easier to walk with your torso upright, your hips swaying and your spine stacked on top of your hips. How centered does your posture feel now? Are you more on top of your hips as you walk? Are your legs swinging? Are your feet reaching for the next step instead of your heel striking down to take your weight?
This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture! Do this for several minutes, then lie down and sense your body on the floor once again. Breathe deeply. Notice any differences. Take this awareness into your day and see how it affects your movement.
This exercise alone can help you to align your posture without straining.