Living has been a marathon for me lately. Everything I do that involves keeping my spine upright causes me pain: sitting, standing, tai chi, cooking. It’s been both challenging and depressing to get myself through each day, forcing myself out of bed to do my exercises and wondering whether I’ll spend the rest of my life with pain every day.
Now I’m thinking that it’s all about my posture. What is “good posture”? Everyone talks about it incessantly, and you read varying descriptions about what it is. Somehow no two descriptions are the same, and it has confused my thinking about how to ease the pressure on my spine with “good posture”.
Several years ago, in one of my desperate attempts to find a cure, I took a series of Alexander Technique lessons. The Alexander Technique preaches that if you position your neck properly, you have the foundation for making the rest of your posture correct. It all starts from the neck, according to that technique.
Last week, Sensei finally related my pain grumblings to my tai chi. He looked at me and said, “you shouldn’t be having any pain with tai chi. Let me see you move.” I showed him Single Whip, which is a typical move where I’ve caught myself out of what I have been thinking was good posture.
“That’s not right, I can tell already. You should not be pulling your shoulders back and keeping your back ramrod straight. You should be relaxing your shoulders forward and moving your hips forward, engaging your glutes slightly,” he exclaimed. I experimented with his instructions. The next week I explained that I’d been trying to do that religiously. “You’re being too rigid in your thinking,” he sais. “Put yourself in a ‘happy place’. Visualize a place where you’re at ease and calm. Be playful.” I scrunched my eyes, trying to visualize.
At my next physical therapy appointment, I decided to poll my therapist. “What is good posture?”
“Good posture means engaging your ‘punch me’ muscies. Don’t worry about your shoulders, butt or hips. I know that you don’t have problems in those areas, so don’t worry about those,” he said.
“But engaging my ‘punch me’ muscles doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything,” I complained.
“There have been studies done that no matter what position you’re in, the muscles you engage when someone is going to punch you help stretch out your spine and provide pain relief,” he explained.
Now it made a little bit of sense. In my mind instead of pretending a mack truck is about to hit me, I’ve started to visualize the muscles that push my lower spine back and stretching it. I did physical therapy, went to the club and did a weight workout, walked for an hour and then cooked my weekly meal of stuffed bell peppers, all the while concentrating on engaging the muscles that pushed my spine back and raised my chest. I was disappointed to feel the next day filled with horrible pain.
The day after, I had a chiropractic appointment. I asked my chiropractor, “what is good posture?” He said “good posture is where your shoulders are right above your hips. Whether your sitting or standing, check to see if your shoulders are directly above your hips. If they are, then you know your spine is completely aligned.”
I tried it. “Am I supposed to feel like I’m falling backwards?” I asked.
“If you tend to hunch your shoulder, yes, it can feel that way,” he responded.
So there I have it. “Good Posture” for me, as defined by the Alexander Technique, Sensei, my physical therapist, and my chiropractor:
Alexander: Neck back with back of the head held high, letting the rest of the spine suspend
Sensei: Shoulders relaxed foward, hips forward, butt slightly engaged, mind in a happy place
PT: “punch-me” muscle engaged (nothing to do with shoulders or hips or butt)
chiropractor: shoulders directly above hips
There never seems to be an end to my learning to live with ease, and the impossibility of anyone conveying the message with absolute clarity has never ceased to amaze me. I wonder how many other people have the same problems as me. Everyone in the world over 50 maybe? Perhaps not everyone. Maybe only 80% of us — becoming 90% over 60 and then 100% over 70? It’s easy to understand how to move when you’re a child and not constantly scrutinizing every minute thing. As an old person it seems to take a lot more than a college degree to understand what’s happening. It seems to take that college degree combined with a huge amount of introspection and deep physical and mental understanding of your own body. Combine all that learning with the nagging thoughts that things may never get better and you have the formula for that marathon that is called life.