Obstacles For Improving Posture
The main obstacle that gets in the way of posture improvement is what Alexander called ‘faulty sensory appreciation’, and this must be taken into account when we try to improve the way we use ourselves. Faulty sensory appreciation simply means that the feedback mechanisms that tell us where we are in space are defective and are often relaying unreliable information. In other words, although we are often absolutely convinced that we have a particular posture or have a certain way of moving, the reality is that we may well be doing something totally different to what we think.
What that means is that unless we realize that our kinaesthetic sense is probably unreliable, we do not stand much chance of improving our posture, because nearly everyone is relying on their feeling to tell them what is correct or incorrect. So the first thing we need to learn is the difference between what we believe we are doing and what we are really doing. Any belief about posture is based on a feeling that is likely to be distorted. A good example of this is when we catch ourselves on video or in a mirror and our image does not match our sense of where we are in space. This kind of unreliable or faulty sensory feeling is very common when it comes to posture, and an example of this that many people experience during Alexander lessons is when they totally believe that they are sitting or standing up straight when in fact it is clear to an observer that they are leaning backwards or to one side.
The six senses
Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle described the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, which are the ones most people are aware of today, but we also have an internal sense, which even today for the most part goes unmentioned. This internal sense, which we can call the sixth sense, gives us information about balance, posture and coordination and is the result of several body systems working together. In order to achieve balance, we require information from the visual system (eyes), the vestibular system (ears), the body’s sense of where it is in space (proprioception) and the internal sense of movement or motion (kinaesthesia). Kinaesthesia is proprioception while moving. This information is received and organized by the brain. If the information or our interpretation of this information is faulty, then we can never really improve our posture as we will constantly be adopting certain positions because they ‘feel right’ rather than because they are natural.
The kinaesthetic sense
The word kinaesthetic is an ancient Greek compound of cineo¯ (which means ‘motion’) and aesthe¯sis, (which means ‘sensation’). The kinaesthetic sense uses input receptors from within the muscles and joints; it also sends messages to the brain whenever there is movement. These sensations send impulses along nerves to the brain and thus inform us of any movement that the body is making, even the movements of breathing.
The sense of proprioception
The word proprioception comes from two Latin words: proprius, meaning ‘one’s own’, and percepio, meaning ‘to gain, learn, perceive or understand’. It is the sense that informs us of the relative position of parts of the body to each other at any given moment in time. Like the kinaesthetic sense, it is referred to as an internal, or interoceptive, sense, because it is stimulated from within the body itself. This is done via numerous sensory receptors in the internal organs and the inner ear, as well as joint and muscle receptors, all of which are neurologically linked to the brain. The term was coined in 1906 by the English neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1932 for research on the function of the neuron and study of reflex action. Sherrington was also a pupil of Alexander and a staunch supporter of his work.
Faulty sensory awareness
Kinaesthesia and proprioception are often used interchangeably, though the former, strictly speaking, refers to our perception of the relative positions of our limbs and other body parts in space during movement, while the latter is the same thing when we are stationary. They are both extremely important for coordination, balance and overall posture.
These interoceptive senses are the ones that are referred to in the term ‘faulty sensory appreciation’, but why, when and how did they become faulty? The answer is perhaps two-fold: firstly, we now have so many more stimuli directed towards the five outward senses that the information from the inner senses is suppressed or screened out by the overwhelmed brain. Secondly, if our muscles are constantly in a state of tension, it seems that these internal senses cannot work efficiently. As a result, the interoceptive senses become unreliable and begin to give us faulty information about where we are in space. As this tension becomes more and more ingrained, we can become totally unaware of how or what we are doing. Eventually, many of us are continuously reacting to false information as to where we are in space and what we are doing at any given time. In other words, we get caught in a vicious cycle: we cannot feel our own muscle tension because our feedback senses are not working properly, and our feedback senses are not working properly because of our muscle tension. The first thing we need to do is to find out exactly which muscles are over-tensing as we go about our daily activities. We can do this by bringing our awareness to everyday actions and beginning to consciously release the muscle tension that is at the heart of the problem. Usually we don’t give a moment’s thought as to how we move; we simply move in the way that feels normal, comfortable and right to us. Yet this is the main problem: our habits of reacting to stimuli will invariably feel totally normal, comfortable and right to us, yet they are often the root cause of our poor posture or health problem.
Without realizing it, many of us take our poor postural habits and faulty sensory appreciation into every action we perform, with catastrophic consequences. Even worse, we often bring those habits and faulty sensory appreciation into our practice of various forms of physical exercise, such as yoga, Pilates, physiotherapy exercises, martial arts, gym work, running and various sports. If an activity that is supposed to be good for us is done with far too much tension, we can cause ourselves injury, ironically while we are trying to keep fit.
Over the last 25 years I have talked to a great many doctors, physiotherapists, fitness and sports instructors, yoga and Pilates teachers, manual-handling trainers and ergonomic instructors, yet very few of them were even aware of the existence of faulty sensory appreciation. This is very serious indeed, because with all good faith we may be carrying out a series of instructions, but performing them totally incorrectly and could well be causing ourselves harm. A good example of this is in the manual-handling instruction when lifting. Many people are taught that the way to lift is to ‘bend the knees and keep the back straight’, and it’s easy to misinterpret this instruction to mean ‘keep the back vertical’ or ‘keep the back rigid’. So, many nurses and care-workers try to lift heavy patients while trying to keep their backs vertical, and as a result can develop serious back problems. Just look at young children: every time they bend to pick something up, they always bend their knees, hips and ankle joints and although their back stays beautifully straight, it is not vertical – in fact, quite often it is 45 degrees forward from vertical.
The only reliable way of finding out what we are actually doing is to seek verification by external means, such as by using mirrors, a video-recorder or guidance from an Alexander teacher. It is only by getting reliable feedback that we can have a chance to first see and then relinquish our harmful habits. For all we know we may be leaning backwards, forwards or sideways when we stand or sit, but be absolutely convinced that we are perfectly straight. A good example can be found at any hair salon: when a hairdresser tells a client to put their head straight, they often put their head to one side and the hairdresser then has to manually straighten the head for them, after which many people feel as though their head is lopsided.
You can try the following observation exercises at home in order to gain a practical understanding of faulty sensory appreciation:
Stand side-on to a mirror and without looking in the mirror stand in what you think is an upright position. Make sure that you are standing as straight as you possibly can. Then turn your head only and check in the mirror to see whether your feelings of being straight match the reality. If they do not, use the mirror to stand in a way that is straight. Now ask yourself: Does this feel straight? Use a second mirror if you have one so that you do not have to move your body too much when observing.
Now try looking straight ahead and, without looking at your feet, place them about 30cm (12in) apart from the inside. Still without looking at them, place your feet parallel to each other, if they are not already this way. Both feet should be pointing straight ahead. Now look at your feet to check if their actual position matches your inner sense of their position. If not, you are experiencing what Alexander meant by ‘faulty sensory appreciation’.
Next you can look at your feet as you place them parallel with one another and 30 cm (12 in) apart. Close your eyes and notice how they feel. Do they feel parallel? If not, again you are experiencing faulty sensory appreciation.
A somewhat related subject to faulty sensory appreciation is that of ‘body mapping’, which explores our mental image of our own bodies. Our ‘body map’ is influenced by the way we think we are constructed rather than how we are actually designed. Body mapping was first described by William Conable, Alexander teacher and professor of cello at the Ohio State University School of Music. He derived the whole concept of body mapping by observing the way his music students moved while playing their instruments. He noticed that students would nearly always move according to how they thought they were structured rather than according to reality. When he was able to show his students how they were actually anatomically designed, their movement in playing became efficient, expressive and appropriate for the task required. His wife, Barbara, then developed the body-mapping work by writing books and training others.
While teaching the Alexander Technique to musicians, both William and Barbara realized that there was a great deal of confusion among their students about how the body worked and the actual position and size of certain bones, joints and muscles. They realized that by having a clearer idea about the way the body’s mechanisms function anatomically, people can learn to let go of certain postural habits more quickly. If we have an incorrect map of ourselves, we can easily be thrown off balance. If we can start to think of having good balance as synonymous with having good posture, then by improving one, we will often help the other. It might be useful for you to have some anatomical drawings or illustrations available as you read through the information below. These can be obtained from a library or the internet.
Head–spine or neck joint
It is important to know what Alexander meant when he referred to the neck; he was talking about the area where the atlanto-occipital and the atlas-axis joints are located.
The atlanto-occipital joint
This Articulates between the top of the spine (atlas) and the base of the skull (occipital bone), and allows the forward and backward (nodding) movement of the head.
The head–spine joint is one of the main joints in the body, and the freedom of this joint is crucial to the proper functioning of the Primary Control. When asked to locate the position of this joint, many people think that it is at the back of the head, or even at the top of their shoulders. In reality, the atlanto-occipital joint is located between the ear holes, and it is very important to think of the top of the neck being between the ears when directing the neck to be free. It will be much harder or even impossible to obtain a free neck if you are wrongly mapping this joint (See photo 34).
Most people imagine that the bones of their arm connect to their body at the outside point of their shoulder. This is because when we look in the mirror it appears that this is exactly where the arms meet the body, but this is actually incorrect. In reality, the bones of the arm continue under the skin and muscle and actually connect onto the sternum. The upper arm (humerus) is connected only to the shoulder blade (scapula), which in turn is connected to the collarbone (clavicle). It is where the collarbone meets the breastbone (sternum) that the arm actually joins the rest of the body (see photo 35). The arms are therefore, in effect, only 2.5–5cm (1–2in) away from each other. We therefore have five joints of the arm (wrist joint, elbow joint, upper arm to shoulder blade joint, shoulder blade to collarbone joint, and collarbone to breastbone joint), and not three joints as is commonly believed. You can test this out by placing the fingers of your right hand on the left collarbone and then raising your left arm so that your fingers are pointing up to the sky; you should clearly feel the collarbone moving.
Mis-mapping of the body often continues when it comes to finding the location of the hip joint. If you ask most people where their hip joint is, they will point to the top of the pelvis, usually in the region of the bone that protrudes at the side (iliac crest). This is not, however, where the joint is at all, but it is often where people bend from. The actual joint is situated lower and further into the body and is, in fact, situated in the groin area. When people bend down, however, they will usually try to bend from where they think the hip joint is (at the top of the iliac crest). Consequently, they will try to bend the spine (around the area of the lumbar 4th and 5th vertebrae) rather than the hip joint. This action can lead to many lower back problems, especially around the area of Lumbar 4 and Lumbar 5 and the sacro-iliac joints, which all come under pressure when bending in the wrong place.
If you ask people to draw the shape of the spine, many will draw the spine in a gentle S shape. While this is accurate when standing, the spine actually changes shape depending on what you are doing. When you’re sitting or bending your knees, the lumbar area loses some of its curve and becomes much straighter. Observing a domestic cat is useful to understand this point. Its spine will take on different shapes in different situations. When eating its food, the cat’s spine is very straight, and when it is lying in front of the fire its spine is very rounded. When stretching, the cat will arch its back. In the same way, our spine changes shape, depending on what we are doing. Observe how the shape of the spine of children playing on a beach changes. I have found that the lumbar supports found in cars and back shops can encourage an over-arching of the lumbar spine and can actually exacerbate lower back problems rather than bringing relief.
The spine is mainly designed for turning or rotary movements, rather than a bending movement, yet many people tend to overarch their lumbar curve, causing a major restriction in any rotational movements. Again, just observe young children or pre-industrialized people and you will see that they typically keep their spines totally straight even when reaching for something on the ground, yet they freely rotate their spines. Over-bending the spine forwards or backwards is often a gross misuse of the body and can put huge pressure on the intervertebral discs. If this way of bending becomes a habit, it can cause major health problems.
The length of the spine is also often misunderstood: it is a very long structure extending from the ears to beneath the hip joint.
So the key to improving your posture in everyday actions is to become more conscious of what you are actually doing and thinking. Many of us have had incorrect training when it comes to posture, and that training needs to be undone. In the next chapter we will have a look at basic everyday activities like sitting and standing to see if we can improve them.