A recent study looking at elite sprinters found a correlation between symmetry and performance. The study looked at the Jamaican sprinting team, and observed that the fastest runners had more symmetry when comparing their lower legs. This is an obvious, but important finding. It leaves me thinking about the importance of symmetry, and our obsession with balance, and how structural integration might view the topic.
As a structural integrator, I am interested in form and function, perception and coordination. When a new client comes to see me, they often mention something like: "I've always had a stronger right calf", or, "My left side is my weak side with the problems, and my right side is just…nothing." Or, "My right shoulder always bothers me, but, I'm left handed, why is that?". Issues of balance and symmetry take up a lot of my work, and yet, I think balance and symmetry might be overrated. The study above is a correlation study, meaning, sprinters who are faster, have more symmetrical legs. Not necessarily, more symmetrical legs MAKE runners run faster. I believe symmetry is something that occurs as a result of some combination of luck, genetics, balance, and practice. For myself and my clients, symmetry is something not be obsess over, but something to work towards. Additionally, balance does not require symmetry. I have many clients come in for a first session who have underlying problems (such as scoliosis), but are "in balance".
This activity is one aimed to help you "put your head on straight". When we look at a computer all day (as you are right now!!!), we tend to let our head lose its support from below. Without awareness, it tends to be unavoidable. Try this activity, and if it fits for you, repeat until it becomes second nature. Your neck will appreciate it.
Begin by finding the secure base of your pelvis underneath you. Notice your sit-bones, and have your weight spread evenly between them. Then, imagine your head to be a melon on top of your spine. How is it balanced? If it was separated into "front half" and "back half", which is higher? We tend to allow the front half to float up, and tuck the back half into our neck.
Does your belly ever pooch out? Lower back ever ache at the end
of the day?
The following activity will help you learn to use your
abdominal muscles to support your back, and limit the tendency for the common
back ache. This activity is great for everyone. If it is difficult to master,
keep practicing. The following two techniques will hopefully help facilitate
the activation of your transverse abdominis and internal and external obliques.
These deep abdominal muscles form a corset around your abdomen that, when
healthy, provide a stabilizing support system for your back. When they weaken,
or, when you forget to use them, the back tries to compensate by locking down
other muscles (to hold you up) which often cause pain and tightness. These
muscles are the target area of many pilates and yoga techniques. Increased
familiarity with these tissues will improve your posture while standing or
sitting, and should enliven any fitness practice.
#1 For the first method, if your knees will allow, sit
upright with your legs folded underneath you, so your shins touch the ground,
and your heels press into the base of your buttocks. The tops of your feet
should touch the floor. Your heels will press right in front of your “sits
bones”, also known as the ishial tuberosities of your pelvis. Notice how, when
sitting upright in this position, with your spine tall, you will feel a nice
subtle curve in your lower back. This is a healthy angle to the lumbar curve.
Notice how your pelvis supports the spine.. If you roll your pelvis under
(“tucking the tail”), lifting the pubic bone and pointing your tailbone towards
your knees, you will feel yourself getting shorter. This indicates that your
spine is no longer supported by the bowl of the pelvis. If you allow your pubic
bone to soften and your sits bones to gently spread, you will feel a nice
strong lift in your spine, the chest might broaden, and your head can ascend
towards the ceiling. From here, on an exhale, draw the lower belly towards the
spine, without flatting the back. Use the muscles you would engage to flatten
your belly while putting on a tight pair of pants. These are your transverse
abdominis and internal and external obliques. These are important abdominal
muscles that, with enough tone, will support the back. Try it a few times.
Inhale and let go of your belly, exhale and draw the belly in and up, flattening
the lower abdomen. It might feel like your waist is getting shorter (think:
corset). You also might feel how each side of your pelvis is drawn slightly
closer together. Do this many times over (15-30). As the activity becomes
easier, you will be getting touch with your “core abdomen”. Next time you bend
to pick up something heavy, or are sitting for a long period of time, see if
you can engage these muscles.
#2 The following alternative method is best for folks with
knee tightness who cannot sit in the above mentioned position. Lie down on your
back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Place a small
rolled up towel under your lower back. It should be below the bottom of your
ribcage, and above the top of your sacrum. The towel will help provide lumbar
support, and will assist you in not flattening your back into the ground. On an
inhale, relax the belly. On an exhale, draw the lower belly, and belly button,
towards the spine. Try it a few times. Also notice how your waist shortens when
you contract the “inner corset”. Try this over and over. 15-30 repetitions each
day will help you feel a new relationship with your abdominal support system
for your back.
Following the exercise, stand and walk around. You might
experience an erectness in the spine, a feeling of how the head is now
supported by the spine; maybe more groundedness in your feet. What else do you
notice? Next time you feel like you are slouching in your chair, or having a
hard time standing up straight, see what this activity can do for you.
This activity is a basic exploration in how to connect to
your core abdomen. If this piques your interest, or, if your back ache is unrelenting, schedule an appointment with a structural integrator for a more detailed
The upper trapezius is a tissue that often become contracted due to stress, and prevents our shoulders from feeling supported by the ribcage. Who would have guessed that armpit awareness could do such a thing?
The video is conducted by a mentor and teacher of mine, Mary Bond. She is an Advanced Rolfer, and expert in the field of movement. She is the chair of the Rolf Institute's department of movement training. Check out her webpage for additional activities (www.healyourposture.com).
Eric Franklin is a respected movement practitioner in the field of kinesiology. Pilates practitioners and therapeutic yoga practitioners often train in his methods. I love his website as a resource for activities that put us in touch with our bodies. Here is a link for his video library which includes a number of simple exercises that can help with body awareness. The first video is perfect for anyone who has tight shoulders. Give it a try!
Hi all! I'm hoping to describe a few basic strategies to help ease an age old problem: a stiff back. This activity will focus on the feet. I work on back issues with almost all of my clients, and have had a few myself. Problems in the spinal/pelvic/ribcage can be very complex. Back stiffness should therefore be differentiated from a more acute, localized problem, or a more global, deeper issue. I wake up with back stiffness most days, but not back pain. Back stiffness is something that should let go as you wake up and walk around, or get up from your chair and move. This activity could help with morning achiness, or, could be used to help on days where you are spending many hours seated, and stand to find yourself feeling much older than you really are. This simple activity is a temporary solution, but can become a part of your bag of tricks to help coax your back into the flexibility and responsiveness that it (and you) want.
Materials required: Tennis ball, 3-5 minutes
#1 The first step (pun!) of this exercise is to take your shoes off and rotate your ankles, one at a time, for 10-20 rotations. Warming the ankle joints brings awareness to their movement, while also warming the synovial capsule and preparing it to work.
#2 Place the tennis ball on the ground, and roll each foot on the ball, covering as much surface area of the bottom of your foot as possible. You can also step on the ball the way a cat may step on a pillow to prepare its throne. Spend a minute or two on each foot (literally though, not just "a minute or two"). Did you find any sore spots? As you look at your foot, imagine that each toe continues up under your skin to meet the ankle joint. This actually occurs, and these "pre toes" are called metatarsals. Follow these metatarsals as your roll the ball, from the mid-foot to the pinky toe, mid foot to the 4th toe, mid foot to the middle toe, and so forth. This will "wake up" the intricate tissues surrounding the metatarsals, which will help your feet come back to life.
#3 Have a seat. With your feet on the ground, one at a time, scrunch your foot, 20 repetitions each, as if you are picking up the floor with your foot. Spread the foot, then engage it, lifting the arch and activating the sole of the foot.
#4 Spread your toes and grip the ground with them. Let them relax. Repeat a few times.
#5 Now go for a short walk around the house, down the street, in your office, or better yet, in the grass. Allow your feet to be a part of your walk, noticing how your feet propel you. Walking on an uneven surface like grass will help your brain calibrate to the unevenness and will begin to use some of the muscles in your spine that had become locked in contraction, causing stiffness. Notice how, with each step, your foot meets the ground, providing a spring for your body that helps push into the next step.
"Work on my feet to fix my back?", you might say. Indeed, bringing the feet back into your awareness will help utilize them as a resource for your walking, coaxing your back out of its slumber. "Sleepy" feet put pressure on the pelvic tissues and spine, requiring them to participate in walking more than they should. It also makes our gait more "lumbering", and sloppy, as the feet are not there to support us. So go for a walk, feel the springtime air, and pay attention to your feet!
As always, if your back issue is more deeply ingrained, come in for a session, or seek out a IASI structural integrator to help with the issue.
What is this fascia stuff? Fascia is the most pervasive tissue in the body, wrapping all of our everything. It is a matrix of connective tissue that envelopes all of our muscles, organs, viscera, bones, and vessels. Hear from an expert in the following video. The first is 30 minutes long, but even just a few minutes will give you a sense for fascia. The second video features some of the most groundbreaking research in fascial anatomy to date.
(1) The video
(2) Dr. JC Giumberteau's Strolling Under the Skin, the first video in which living fascia can be observed. Pretty amazing.
I have a lot of clients who suffer from neck pain. The neck, jaw, and facial bones can accrue complex injuries arising from the combination of long term stress, poor posture (especially at a desk), dehydration, car accidents, and a slew of other common problems in our world. Chronic neck tightness can be interrupted by attending to your neck in a new way, and becoming aware of the ways in which we hold ourselves. The following activity will add to the first one, and will hopefully give you a renewed awareness of yourself.
The tongue can play a big role in tightening the nape of the neck and the jaw. To explore, try this simple activity. Place the palm of your hand on the back of your neck, right where it meets the base of your skull. This is the sub-occiptal area. While holding this area, press the tip of your tongue into the room of your mouth, directly above your front teeth. Make your tongue thin. Hold it for a few seconds, and then let go. Repeat it a few times. Can you feel your sub-occipital muscles tighten? Now, allow your tongue to soften, spreading out wide so that the edges of it meet the inside of your upper teeth, with the back of the tongue meeting the inside of the molars, and the front of the tongue resting softly at the front of your upper front teeth. Let the bottom underside of the tongue soften. Can you feel how this allows the subocciptals (muscles at the base of the skull) to relax? Repeat this a few times. Repeat the tongue movements while having your fingers draped over your jaw bones. This will show you how a tight, thin tongue position narrows the face, and a wide, soft tongue allows the face to widen, and jaw to relax. After you are comfortable with this idea, try another. Allow the space underneath your tongue (the lower mouth), to relax. Then, tighten it. You can put your fingers along the jaw line to feel these muscles tighten in the lower mouth. Once you have found how both of these actions can relax, or tense the neck and jaw, check in with the areas to keep them at ease. This can be done before activity #1 to amplify the understanding of how the jaw contributes to neck tightness.
Once this understanding is engrained, you can remind yourself to soften the tongue, and allow it to be wide. Anytime you find yourself feeling stress, cue into this position and see if it can help induce relaxation.
As a bodyworker training in psychology, I'm very interested in the interface between our bodies and our minds. New research in interpersonal neurobiology is very intriguing to me, and illuminates what many of us already know: that movement and presence in our bodies has an effect on our mental states. I recently watched a TED talk by Dr. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist who explains one example of this. Check it out.
Dr. Cuddy's research is particularly intriguing to me because of its implications in bodywork. With Dr. Cuddy's research in mind, it is easy to assume that our alignment, and ease with which we enter the world, embodied, can amplify to convey our true self. Have a look at the TED talk, and try one of her poses. I did, and I contacted myself in a new way. I hope you do too!
I recently had a client who works as a video editor visit my studio complaining of constant neck and jaw tightness. I worked with her to ease some of the tissues that have become shortened, which provided relief, but, I had a sneaking suspicion that the problem must be dealt with in a more comprehensive manner. Her job is so computer intensive and stressful, that I questioned the long term effect of one body-work session. Something more must happen. Subsequently, I gave her this activity. My thought is that bodywork can help open shortened tissues, but, something must be done to change the way of being in one's jaw and neck to keep the tightness from returning a few weeks down the road.
Activity 1: Heavy Jaw/Wide Palate
The tissues of the jaw and palate have a profound effect on the neck, and often are the driving force behind neck tightness. The following activity seeks to illuminate the relationship between the jaw, palate, and neck.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and find your breath. As you are breathing, notice the space in your mouth between your rear molars. Notice how you can widen, and alternatively, contract the area. Allow the area to widen on your inhale. This may prove difficult at first, but with a little practice, you will notice that the palate (roof of the mouth) can widen, even if it is only a millimeter or two.
Next, place your fingers on the jaw bones (mandible) directly in front of, and a little below the ears. If you walk your fingers down onto the jaw bone, and then towards your chin. This is the bony ridge that makes up the mandible. The mandible meets the skull in front of the ears, in a joint called the TMJ. See if you can find it. Once you have explored it, remove your fingers see if you can feel/imagine the weight of this bone as you stand. Can you feel the heaviness of your jaw? You may feel, as you attune to its weight, a softening of the tissues surrounding the teeth, mouth, tongue, and TMJ.
To combine each of these pieces of awareness, on an in breath, feel the widening of the palate, and on an out breath, notice the weight of the jaw. Practice this a few times. How does your neck feel? Can you perceive the softening of the tissues at the nape of the neck, or along the spine? This can be done at your desk, in the car, while you take a walk, or any time where you might benefit from checking in to your body.
This activity was adopted from Mary Bond's DVD: Heal Your Posture, a 7 Week Workshop (2012).