Body Alignment & Posture: Chapter 2

I did not put this in yesterday’s alignment post because I did not want it to get lost.

There are 2 very important concepts that inform my approach to alignment: the first is the LANGUAGE that I use and the second is the BALANCE OF THE HEAD.

LANGUAGE
The words we use when discussing anything in this life have an impact. I think we can agree on that. In terms of movement, telling you to nudge the door shut or slam the door shut will produce 2 different results. If I am working with a dancer and I want 2 different movement qualities, saying I want her to move “strongly” and then “daintily” will produce 2 different dynamics… as her teacher, anything I say will affect her thought process. The words are so, so important.

When working on alignment, the language I use, the words, the ideas are gentle, non-intrusive, and passive for a reason. Mis-alignment in dancers is usually caused by actively putting, forcing (easily or not) body parts into a desired, albeit incorrect, place. Natural alignment takes no such force. Does natural alignment take strength? Yes, it does require muscles that are toned and strong to support it, but this support is easily accomplished…lack of strength and tone can allow bad posture to happen and develop into habit. But most dancers have the strength and the tone and too often it has been mis-used to create mis-alignment. So, to counteract the use of excessive force, I employ a gentle, passive vocabulary to influence a non-aggressive use of physical energy. (Yeehaw! Sounds like a psychedelic espionage novel!!! I truly am not as freaky-deaky as this sounds!))

It is a challenge to work with dancers/athletes/movers and their alignment because they are so used to “making” their bodies do what they want, they are so used to “doing.” Dancers are particularly challenging. When dancers ask for alignment help, they ask about what they need to “do!” Before I start helping them, we discuss that they need to really listen to the words I use and most importantly that I will be asking them to STOP DOING. This is so hard!

Now, as every dancer/mover body is different, there is no single approach that works universally. I take stock of body shape, range of motion, bony and ligamentous restrictions, habitual postures, injury compensations, and sometimes even emotional states and current illness before venturing into re-alignment. Then we have the discussion:

“I do not want you to do anything. Instead I am going to ask you to STOP DOING things.”

This is a difficult concept…”Well, how can I fix the problem if I don’t do anything?”

“Trust me.”

“But…”

“Trust me.”

Possible scenario: The head is rigidly held in dancer pose #1 – chin held up & forward, shoulders pushed down, chest thrust forward, gut sucked in, butt clenched to tuck pelvis under… dancer is not breathing and should be unconscious! This one makes me tense! The first session usually goes something like this:

Breathe and relax…PLEASE!

Stop tensing the back of your neck. Come on, you can relax it…there you go…

Let your chin drop…no, do not PUT your chin into a new place, just LET it drop.

Now allow your head to follow my hands…no, no, do not force your head up…relax. FOLLOW.

Let your head float up…no, no, no, do not yank your head up, just let it go. FLOAT.

Let your spine follow…no, no, no, no, do not PULL your spine into a new position, just let the tension go and LET it passively FOLLOW your head…

And on it goes. (I do not actually start saying “No” more times in a row…tone of voice can relay MUCH information!) The dancer does hear the words I use, but because she is so accustomed to the “doing,” the “not doing” is very difficult.

(And for the record, this is NOT a crunchy-granola, “feel-the-energy-of-the-universe” approach. This is about psychology and the effect it has on the physical reality of the body… hmmm, is that crunchy-granola?)

It is the “not doing,” the use of that small phrase, that is so important. Most mis-alignment is caused because the body parts have been “put” into a position, “locked” into an idea of correct alignment, “forced” into an incorrect habit. But fixing the misalignment effectively does not involve more “putting” or “locking” or “forcing.” Instead, it is about NOT doing any of that, it is about not letting yourself put, or lock, or force a body part into a position at all. It is about relaxing the restraining/holding muscles so that the body part can move back to where it belongs.

So, moving forward… what is one to do with all the anatomical information there is about the skeleton and its muscles when it comes to alignment? The pics of correct alignment in Chapter 1 show what it should look like. Does this mean then that we should be PUTTING ourselves in the correct position? Forcing all of our parts into the right place, the right relationship to the other parts?

No.

From a mis-aligned place, finding your balanced alignment is more about what you DO NOT DO than it is about what you DO.

To correct mis-alignment, DO NOT put yourself in a new position…instead STOP doing what you are doing that causes the misalignment in the first place.

(Sorry for all the caps and bold letters…if I were speaking, I would not be yelling, but in writing, this helps me emphasize the right words.)

Through the language, we can learn that this is about relaxing the tensions that pull us out of what should be natural alignment. And I truly believe we first understand this through our use of the language we employ.

Then we get to…

BALANCE OF THE HEAD
When I am working with someone on their alignment, I almost always start with the head.
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The actual place that the spine connects with the skull is usually a revelation to most folks. We have no full sense of ourselves inside our bodies…we know what we can see and feel. We feel the back of our necks, so inevitably most of us think that our spine connects to our skulls near the back. If that were so, in order to keep our faces up, we would have such massive neck muscles that we would look like Patrick Starfish…

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I am not kidding.

In the pic below, notice where the cervical (neck) spine and the connection to the skull actually are…remember that what we can feel on parts of our lower neck are the spinous processes, the protrusions that extend back off of the spine that serve as places for muscles to attach. Those processes are NOT the vertebrae of the spine. (I chose this pic because of the brain…I really had not considered its size!) The “empty” space between the spine and the skin at the back of the neck is actually occupied by muscle.
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Notice how central the spinal body is in the neck to support the weight of the head. Notice that it curves forward. Understanding this image, putting it into your own body awareness is so important to understanding your alignment.

Another pic for your mental image library…assimilate it! I love these muscles!!!
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Ok, so… our spine connects to our skull in a fairly central place so that the skull can balance on top of it like a ball balancing on the end of a stick. When the head is balanced, yes, the neck and shoulders can relax, and that can/should start a chain reaction throughout the entire body as every body part relaxes in turn and moves toward a balanced place. Every time I remind myself to STOP jutting my chin forward (as I will when at the computer), my head moves back into place, my shoulders drop, my chest widens, my lower back lengthens, my hips relax, my tummy comes up, my legs relax, and I feel compelled to take in a huge breath! That moment is always such a revelation that I marvel at the fact I cannot seem to make this a strong habit after all these freaking years!!!! (Ah, the power of neuroses…but that is the subject of a Ph.D I am not going to pursue…)

As an example of the influence of your head position, try this as you sit there reading this: Sit up straight in your chair with your arms dropped by your side. Now stick your chin forward. Feel what happens in your neck and upper back? Now keep moving your chin forward…what is happening to your body? Now reverse your chin by letting it float back into position until you are straight in your chair. What does that feel like?

Now, try that again with these words as a guide: let your chin FLOAT forward, letting your body respond, and then STOP doing that (meaning, do not DO something else, just STOP floating the chin forward) so your head can move back into position, again letting your body respond. Do not force anything.

The position of the head dictates the position of the rest of the body in this exercise, doesn’t it? The position of the head dictates the position of the body all the time!

As a starting place for thinking about your alignment, let it be your head and its balance. Let the balanced position of your head influence the rest of your body. It can be simple because it is the way the body wants to work.

For me, this approach always informed my teaching in a broader way as well. For me, it was about teaching students to get out of their own way. The body does want to be in balance, so get your controlling brain out of the way. Pay attention to what the body wants and instead control the impulses to force something. When it is a misguided desire (say to over-extend the belly area), then step in, but see the body as a whole, learn to use the body’s own instincts, learn to use a passive language when directing the body, your own as well as a student’s…how do you feel when you are aggressively told to do something? Tense? Well, the body “feels” that, too.

Finding and maintaining good alignment and posture is a pursuit that does not end. It changes every day as we change. Changing bad habits take time. Changing a dancer’s mis-alignment can take even more time because posture and dancing habits go together. It will fall apart before it gets better. It was a rare student who came to me at the university who had good alignment. Understanding and changing was always hard, but there was support from the other students who had gone through the process…they could assure them that while yes their dancing was awful now, one day soon, it would again be spectacular.

Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Peggy
    Aug 20, 2007 @ 00:00:00

    Thank you. Very informative and positive.

    Do you think a child, say 8-10 years old (I choose that age because that’s when many serious programs admit students) could understand this type of material? Is it possible to prevent misalignment instead of just correcting it?

    I guess, like you said, it comes back to the language we use. A kid might not be interested in the anatomy, but they could learn to respond to the language that promotes correct alignment. Hmm. What do you think?

  2. Anonymous
    Aug 21, 2007 @ 10:34:00

    Thank you for bringing attention to this valuable information. Could you possibly expand on how to work with children that are growing and therefore have muscles shorter than bones as you hinted at with your daughter? The pelvis it seems might not be able to be aligned because of muscle, so how do we deal with that.

  3. Trackback: Body Alignment & Posture: Chapter 1 « Taoknitter
  4. Trackback: Fitting issues: Dancer mis-alignment « Taoknitter

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