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Develop Healthy Posture

Purpose: Healthy posture may improve breathing, reduce physical and mental tension, and allow the body to feel stable and move freely in relation to the environment.

Background

Posture is the way that a person stabilizes their body and moves in relation to the environment. Stabilization and movement patterns evolve throughout a person's life and cause the nervous system, muscular system, fascial system, and skeletal system to shape the posture that they have today. The nervous system listens to how the brain perceives the environment and will tighten or relax the muscles accordingly. The fascia, which wrap around each muscle and connect muscle groups together, will then tighten or relax in relation to the muscles. 

 

Chronic stress can cause the muscles and fascia to remain tighter than usual even after the mental stress is gone. When this occurs, the bones and joints may be unable to move as freely as before and nerves, blood vessels, and organs may become compressed causing aches, pains, and dysfunction. Therefore, creating healthy posture requires both a mental and physical approach. The mental practices will remind and train the nervous system how it feels to hold healthy posture and the physical practices will relax the muscles and fascia and train them to stabilize and move each part of the body with healthy posture. With practice, healthy posture will begin to feel more and more natural and become the dominant way that a person stabilizes and moves their body.

Practice: This practice may help someone to develop healthy posture.

Healthy Breathing, Abdomen, and Chest

Each practice is best performed while using healthy breathing, therefore this Practice section starts by focusing on healthy breathing. Healthy breathing can also calm the nervous system, helping the muscles and fascia to relax. The mechanics of healthy breathing are part of what creates healthy posture.

 

The breath: At rest, healthy breathing should be 12 to 16 breaths per minute, with exhalation lasting slightly longer than inhalation, and a slight pause after exhalation before starting the cycle again. For example, 12 breaths per minute could involve a two second inhalation, three second exhalation and one second pause after exhalation. It is important to keep a balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. Carbon dioxide is produced by metabolic activity such as muscle use. Overbreathing can occur if metabolic activity stays the same, but respiratory rate increases, which can happen when a stressful thought occurs while sitting at a desk. Overbreathing will cause too much carbon dioxide to be exhaled and will stress the nervous system leading to symptoms such as anxiety, lightheadedness, and muscle aches. Overbreathing can be corrected by practicing healthy breathing and healthy posture, which will relax the nervous system, muscles, and fascia.

 

Nose: Breathing with the nose sends oxygen deeper into the lungs than does breathing with the mouth. It engages the lower ribs which relaxes the nervous system, whereas breathing with the mouth engages the chest and stresses the nervous system because chest breathing is intended for times of exertion.

  • Sense: If breathing through the nose is not comfortable, then it may take several months of practice before it feels natural. To increase comfort, try the following visualization technique: Imagine slowly inhaling a pleasurable aroma through the nose. This may relax the nervous system, widen the nostrils, and make inhalation more smooth.

 

Diaphragm: The diaphragm is the primary muscle used in breathing and contributes 70% to 80% of the muscular activity used in breathing when at rest. Inhalation pushes the diaphragm down about an inch and exhalation allows it to relax and move back up. The downward movement of the diaphragm during inhalation pushes the abdomen forward.

 

Crura: The crura are muscles that attach on the back of the diaphragm and on the front of the spine between the level of the diaphragm and waist. Tension in the crura can make the diaphragm work harder to move.   

 

Ribs: Muscles weave in and out of each rib. During each inhalation, these muscles allow the front of the lower rib cage to expand outwards and sideways and the back of the lower rib cage to expand backwards. Tension in the rib muscles can prevent proper expansion of the lower rib cage.

  • Sense: To sense the movement of the lower rib cage, try the following: Inhale slowly through the nose and feel if the front of the lower rib cage expands outwards and sideways and if the back of the lower rib cage expands backwards. 

  • Relax: If the front of the lower rib cage did not expand forwards or sideways or if the back of the lower rib cage did not expand backwards, then there may be tension in the rib muscles. To release this tension, try the following. Kneel on a comfortable surface with knees hip-width apart and big toes touching. Rest the forehead on the floor and allow the arms to rest wherever they are comfortable. During each inhalation, focus on expanding the front of the lower rib cage sideways and this should help the back of the lower rib cage expand backwards. Practice lower rib cage expansion throughout the day, when standing or sitting.

 

Scalenes: The scalene muscles run along both sides of the neck and attach to the first two ribs. They contract during inhalation, causing the first two ribs to rise. Tension in any of the other breathing muscles will cause the scalenes to work harder.

 

Abdomen: The abdomen contains the inner corset muscles and the outer corset muscles, which make up the “core” and play a large role in stabilizing the body. 

 

Outer corset muscles: The outer corset muscles run vertically from the breastbone to the pubic bone and diagonally across the lower ribs and groin. Tension in the outer corset muscles will draw the chest and pelvis closer together and restrict movement of the diaphragm.  

  • Sense: To sense the outer corset muscles, lie on a comfortable surface and flatten the lower back against the floor. Now, do this same motion when standing to feel how a tucked pelvis and compressed chest restrict breathing and leg movement.

 

Transverse abdominis (TA): The TA is the main muscle of the inner corset muscles and runs in the front of the body from the breastbone to the pubic bone and in the back of the body from the top of the pelvis to the back of the lower ribs and attaches to the lumbar spine. The TA helps move the lumbar spine during walking and stabilizes the lower back. Healthy posture will require that the TA is engaged at 10% to 25% effort when standing or moving.

  • Sense: To sense the TA, try the following: Kneel on a comfortable surface, sit on the heels, relax the abdominal muscles, and lift the chest. Now, place a hand on the abdomen and contract the perineal muscles as if trying not to urinate. Hold this contraction for three healthy breathing cycles. The sensation of the abdomen moving slightly away from the hand is the TA contracting.

  • Strengthen: To strengthen the TA, try the following. Kneel on a comfortable surface, place hands on the ground directly beneath the armpits with elbow creases facing forward and knees directly beneath the hip creases. Keep a gentle curve in the neck by gazing 12 inches (30 centimeters) in front of the hands. Keep a neutral curve in the lumbar spine and relax the hips and abdomen. Draw the shoulder blades towards the sacrum to open the chest and broaden the upper back. Now, to strengthen the TA, slowly draw the lower abdomen in and up with 10% to 25% effort. Hold this contraction for one healthy breathing cycle, then repeat and hold for two healthy breathing cycles. Keep practicing until capable of holding for eight healthy breathing cycles.

  • Strengthen: To strengthen the TA, try the following: Kneel on the floor as in the practice above. Now, engage the TA and slide a leg backwards, with the kneecap facing downwards, until the leg is in line with the trunk. Hold this position for up to eight healthy breathing cycles. Then, raise the opposite arm out in line with the trunk and hold for up to eight healthy breathing cycles. Repeat this practice with the other side.

  • Strengthen: To strengthen the TA try the following: Stand with weight distributed evenly over both feet. Place one hand on the lower abdomen and the other on the lower back. After an exhalation, draw the abdomen in and up away from the hands and hold this contraction for up to eight healthy breathing cycles.

 

Pelvic Floor

The pelvic floor supports the abdomen and the stabilization and mobility of the spine and legs. It is a diamond shape and is defined horizontally by the two sit bones, the pubic bone, and the coccyx. The diamond is divided in half by a muscle, creating a front triangle from the two sit bones to the pubic bone and a back triangle from the two sit bones to the coccyx. 

  • Sense & Relax: To relax the back triangle of the pelvic diamond, try the following: When standing, imagine tightening the back triangle, which will cause the pelvis to roll slightly backwards, lower back to flatten, and chest to drop. Now, imagine relaxing the back triangle, which will cause the pelvis to roll forward to neutral, lower back to move forward to neutral, and chest to lift. Practice relaxing the pelvic diamond when standing and sitting to achieve healthy posture.

  • Sense & Strengthen: To create a healthy sitting posture, try the following: Sit in an adjustable chair or add an ergonomic cushion if needed so that the hips are slightly higher than the knees and the ankles are slightly in front of the knees. Distribute 60% of the body’s weight on the thighs and the front of the sit bones and 40% of the body’s weight on the legs and feet. The pelvis should be rolled slightly forward so that the back triangle of the pelvic diamond widens and the pubic bone drops. The lumbar curve should move forward slightly to lift the chest and neck. The head should not extend forward past the front of the lifted chest. If working at a desk, then the desk should allow a slight incline from the elbow to the forearm. Wrists should be inline with the forearm as the fingers touch the keyboard. Eyes should be level with the top third of the computer screen. If needed, use a footrest to obtain these heights.

  • Sense: To sense the position of the pelvic floor when sitting in unhealthy sitting posture, try the following: Start by sitting in a chair using healthy sitting posture and then slouch. When slouching, notice that the body’s weight shifts to the back edges of the sit bones, the coccyx tucks under, the space within the pelvic diamond is compressed, the lumbar curve flattens, the feet support less weight, the rib cage rests on the abdomen and restricts movement of the diaphragm and rib cage, and the head leans forward and strains the neck.

 

Feet, Legs, Knees, and Hips

The feet should function as springs and absorb the impact from the ground. There are fascial connections travelling from each foot to the crown of the head. Releasing tension in the foot can release tension throughout the body.

  • Sense: Stand using healthy posture and notice whether the body’s weight is distributed more on the right or left foot, the heel or front of the foot (area before the toes start), and the outer or inner edges of the foot. Next, take a step and notice which foot feels more comfortable pushing off, how the toes are involved in the push off, which part of the heel touches the ground first upon landing and whether the outer or inner edges of the foot contact the ground first upon landing. Notice if there is a sensation in the middle of the foot as it touches the ground.

  • Sense & Strengthen: Repeat the practice above, but this time try the following: When standing, distribute the body’s weight evenly over the right and left foot, the heel and front of the foot, and the outer and inner edges of the foot. Next, take a step and push off with the non-dominant foot, imagine the foot as a spring and use the toes to push off, land on the middle to back portion of the heel, and land on the outer edge of the foot which will then naturally rotate inward. If there is no sensation in the middle of the foot as it touches the ground, during the time between when the heel lands and the toes push off, then there may be tension in the middle of the foot.

  • Relax: To relieve tension in the middle of the foot, try the following: Place a firm ball the size of a tennis ball under the sole of the right foot, where the heel meets the outer arch. Bend the right knee until both hips are level. Then, to increase the pressure on the ball, bend the knees as far as is comfortable. Hold this pressure for two healthy breathing cycles. Repeat this sequence five times per foot.

  • Relax: To relieve tension throughout the foot, try the following: Stand with a firm ball the size of a tennis ball under a foot. Roll the ball under the soles, heels, and toes of that foot for a minute to massage and relax any tension. Repeat with the other foot.

  • Sense & Strengthen: Imagine a line extending from the center of each kneecap. If the line points outward then the pelvis may be tilted back and if the line points inward then the pelvis may be tilted too far forward. To create a line that points directly forward, try the following: Stand using healthy posture, with feet slightly farther apart than the sit bones, weight distributed evenly over each foot, and kneecaps facing forward. Then, aim the line on the kneecap over the second toes, relax the pelvic floor, and imagine the skin of the soles spreading out. Then, slowly move the shins forward and slightly bend the hips, knees, and ankles. To come up, push down through the soles. To ensure the pelvic floor is moving correctly, place the fingers on each sit bone and make sure they are moving up and back with each bend.

  • Sense: Walk using healthy posture and notice the sensations of the feet touching and being touched by the ground. Imagine using the toes and gluteal muscles in the back leg to push and propel the torso forward.

  • Sense: Walk using healthy posture and notice if the belly button is moving slightly toward the forward-swinging leg. Tension in the hip joints can restrict the mobility of the pelvis.

 

Hands, Arms, and Shoulders

Tension in the hands, such as from gripping a computer mouse or steering wheel too tightly, can travel to the arms and into the shoulders. The hands, arms, and shoulders are not designed to stabilize healthy posture, but as a way to support the movements of healthy posture and to interact with the environment. The following practices will help to relax and create better support in the hands, arms, and shoulders:

  • Relax & Sense: To release and prevent tension in the hands, try the following: When doing tasks that involve using the hands pay attention to the grip. Relax the grip and notice the sensations of the object.

  • Strengthen: To strengthen healthy movement of the arms, try the following: Before raising the arms, shift the shoulder blades down along the back towards the waist. This will engage the lower trapezius muscles, support the upper arms through the shoulder socket, and allow for better support and range of motion. If the arms are raised without shifting the shoulder blades down, then the upper trapezius muscles will be engaged which will allow for less support and range of motion.

  • Sense: Notice how the arms swing when walking. If the forearms swing more freely than the upper arms then there may be tension in the upper arms and shoulder blades.

  • Relax: To release tension in the shoulders and rib cage, try the following: Use healthy standing posture and place toes three inches from a wall. Rest the breastbone and forehead on the wall and place the hands on the wall next to the ears. Then, slowly inch the hands up the wall as high as is comfortable. Hold in the highest comfortable position for up to eight healthy breathing cycles and then release by bringing the hands back down.

 

Head and Neck

The eyes and inner ears help to balance and orient a person to the environment. The suboccipital muscles are located in the back of the head and keep the head aligned with the body as it moves. Tension anywhere in the head can strain the eyes, inner ears, and suboccipital muscles, affecting balance and orientation.

  • Relax: To relax tension in the eyes, inner ears, suboccipital muscles, and jaw, try the following: Using healthy breathing, slowly inhale and imagine the upper molars moving slightly outward towards the cheekbones and then slowly exhale and imagine the upper molars relaxing back to neutral position. This visualization can release tension.

  • Sense & Strengthen: To create healthy head and neck support, try the following: Imagine a line dividing the head into a “front half” in front of the ears and a “back half” behind the ears. Using healthy standing or sitting posture, turn the head to the right by turning the “back half” to the left. Now, try again, but use the “front half” to turn the head. Most likely, leading with the “front half” was less smooth and caused the head to lean forward slightly. When the head leans forward in front of the chest, this adds tension to the neck and shoulders.

  • Relax: To release tension in the eyes, try the following. Use peripheral vision to take in more of the environment around the object of interest. 

  • Relax: To release tension in the eyes when walking in a crowd, try the following: If feeling uncomfortable when walking in a crowd, keep the eyes focused ahead but bring awareness to the spaces between the people that are walking by. This will decrease tension in the eyes that is caused by the mental stress of feeling uncomfortable. 

  • Sense & Strengthen: When inspecting uneven ground, momentarily tip the head down without sticking out the neck.

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