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5 Common Posture Myths

January, 2017

Myth #1

Posture is a trivial thing my mother used to pester me about only so that I would look presentable.

Actually, posture is key to optimal health. Just as a building needs a solid foundation and structure to remain strong in wind, rain, and earthquakes, so does your body. Proper alignment of the organs, bones, and muscles improves circulation and breathing, boosts the nervous system, supports organ function, promotes muscle relaxation and stress reduction, enhances athletic performance, reduces risk of injury, and accelerates healing from injury.


These young girls are getting an early start on learning posture to improve their appearance. Good posture is also key to optimal health.

Myth #2​

The pelvis should be tucked to protect the back.


Tucking the pelvis is an unfortunate part of modern ballet training.

A great many people, from fitness instructors and dance teachers to medical professionals, make the mistake of recommending a tucked pelvis. This is discordant with our natural structure. When human beings became bipedal, the L5-S1 disc at the bottom of the spine became wedge-shaped, with the thicker end toward the front of the body. Anteverting (forward-tilting) the pelvis preserves the wedge-shaped L5-S1 space that accommodates this disc perfectly. This natural position protects against L5-S1 disc damage including bulging, herniation, and sequestration. Other structures, from the vertebrae stacked above the pelvis to the organs within the abdominal and thoracic cavities, depend on a well-positioned, anteverted pelvis as a foundation. The pelvis is the keystone to the rest of our structure and it is crucial to situate it correctly.

Myth #3

Belly breathing is good breathing; chest breathing is bad breathing.


In many alternative health circles, students are misguided to breathe only into their abdomens and not their chests.

Different kinds of breathing are needed for different kinds of movement. Belly breathing is appropriate when you have an elevated need for oxygen (as when you are running) or breath control (as when you are playing the saxophone). Otherwise, when at rest, your inhalations should primarily expand your chest cavity and lengthen your back, and only slightly move your belly. The movement in the chest and back is crucial for maintaining normal rib cage size and shape and for fostering healthy circulation around the spine.

In my experience, people who practice belly breathing to the exclusion of chest breathing, develop flaccid abdominal muscles and underdeveloped chests.

Myth #4

Chin up and chest out constitutes good posture.


“Chin up and chest out” is a common misunderstanding of good posture.

This military stance is achieved by contracting the muscles in the neck and low back. Not only does this create tension, it exaggerates the cervical and lumbar curves, hindering circulation to these areas and potentially pinching nerve roots.

Myth #5

Good posture naturally comes about from being physically fit and active.

This idea is equivalent to driving around with a crooked axle and hoping that that the driving will straighten it out. If you have poor posture, increased activity is not an efficient way to arrive at better posture and can even result in injuries instead of improvement. It is better to focus on posture in its own right, or on posture alongside increased activity. Once you have good posture, you will get much more out of your activity; being active will maintain your muscles and your posture. Posture and fitness help each other but for people who are “out of shape,” posture is an easier, safer, and more efficient place to begin.


Running with internally rotated legs and a tucked pelvis can cause damage to all the weight bearing joints in the body.

Rounding the back to do deadlifts can cause serious damage to all the spinal discs.​

Have you subscribed to any of these myths? Were there any consequences? Please tell us your story...

 

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Comments

Hi Esther,

Your blog is always very interesting, thank you! I was wondering if you could comment on the following: sometimes if i am sitting down and roll my shoulders backwards, after a few minutes I get pins and needles in my arms. Did i go too far? Or not enough? (For years i've had my shoulders forward so i'm trying to correct this constantly).

Thanks, Juan

You went too far! The habit of hunching your shoulders forward usually results in your pectoral muscles becoming short and tight. you need to give them time to adapt to a longer resting length. In the meantime, aim for a shoulder roll that takes you partway back from your habitual position to an ideal position.

Thanks!

Excellent article Esther!  I've become more aware of body movements since my personal fitness certification; however I've learned even more about this from my physical therapist over the past 8 months, along with your informative articles. The tucked pelvis myth was pointed out by my physical therapist, so I am trying to be more aware of any slightly-forward bend movements these days.  While standing, I've been told to slightly roll my shoulders back, then hunch a bit forward - engaging the core - for the best stance.  Is this correct?

Thank you,  Barbara

Rolling the shoulders back, if done in isolation like you want to, won't disturb your ribcage position. I teach to improve the ribcage position before doing a shoulder roll (a good one that doesn't arch your back).

Regarding improving your ribcage position, I wouldn't call it "hunching forward" (though it may feel like that to someone who habitually arches). If the low back is arched, you do want to rotate the ribcage forward - I recommend you get one of our teachers to work with you. You want to use your internal obliques muscles and not your rectus adbominis. 

Congratulations on your increasing level of awareness and gathering of skills!

My shorter right leg (yes, my right femur measures 1.3 cm shorter) shows that inward roll at knee.  Can I change/improve this by just concentrating on an outward roll as I walk, etc.?   yes, I do have minimal issues/pain/restriction in my right knee and hip.  Most recently, after xray, chiropractor has recommended shoe lift of .75 cm which I dread because it's inconvenient and counterproductive to barefoot benefits.  Any thoughts?

There's a tradeoff between equalizing the leg lengths and allowing your feet to have direct contact the ground. You need an expert to help you with this. It depends on a lot of factors. That said, 1.3 cm isn't a huge discrepancy. While standing, you can accommodate that by having one leg out a little from the midline. Perhaps the expert yo consult is open to you being barefoot sometimes and shod at other times?

You do want to correctthe internal rotation at the knees. Thinking about it all the time is not very practical (I'm sure you have other things to think about!) In the Gokhale Method, we create habit during intense practice times (in class) that are compelling intellectually, visually, and kinesthestically. It makes sense; it looks right; it feels right. Those sown seeds help change habit. The six-lesson Gokhale Method Foundations course will do a lot for you in this direction. 

The thoracic area of my back is generally very tight and often when I do breathing exercises for chest breathing and feel an expansion of my chest and lungs my back will spasm/cramp.  Should I simply just work through that and it will improve over time?

If tight muscles spasm/cramp when being stretched, you need to ease up a little. They've probably been tight for years and need to be stetched gently. This goes for the intercostal muscles (the three layers of muscles between pairs of ribs) as well. Plan on this taking several days or weeks - not one heroic effort.

Hi Esther,

Thank you for the great tips!

The belly breathing tip is one where I have been taught primarily through yoga and also other places that say that chest breathing generates a flight or fight response and isn't deep enough so we are not getting enough oxygen and if you watch babies breathe, their bellies expand, etc.

This is going to take some acceptance and relearning on my part and I'm sure others who have studied similar modalities. Can you provide more evidence related studies and/or also break it down for us in more detail of when you say chest breathing, what does this actually entail? How high and low into the chest, does it include the lower tip of the ribs, does it have a 360° feel to it that includes the sides of the body and back?

Thank you for all the help you give us!

Blessings,

Laura

We really should get away from the term "belly breathing" as it creates a false image. The goal is to ensure proper use of the diaphragm while creating intra-abdominal pressure to from a dynamic brace of the spine. The belly doesn't have to (and most often shouldn't) move in and out to have good diaphragm movement.

Likewise, chest breathing would be better referred to as accessory muscle breathing. The chest and ribs should expand in the transverse plane (forward, back, and sideways) but should not move up and down along with the shoulders – this is an indication of sympathetic (fight, freeze, or flight) activation. Accessory breathing is quite normal during intense exercise – if you're 'belly breathing' while running, it's a good indication your trunk stabilizing muscles aren't doing their job, and you may end up with excess joint motion in the extremities or spine.

Belly breathing – actual movement of the belly in and out – is fine while lying down at rest or sleeping. It has been shown to increase parasympathetic activity and can be very calming and restorative, hence why it is often taught for meditation and yoga.

Diaphragmatic breathing and accessory muscle breathing are the more accurate descriptions of belly breathing and chest breathing, respectively.

Look into the work of Pavel Kolar at the Prague School of Rehab and Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization for some good explanations and research behind these concepts.

http://www.rehabps.com/REHABILITATION/DNS.html

I"ll go along with naming belly breathing "diaphragmatic breathing," but I don't agree with  equating chest breathing with accessory muscle breathing. I refer to accessory muscle breathing as "neck breathing" - the scalenes, for example, might be over-active as a result of stress.

Chest breathing, in my opinion, is a perfectly natural movement of the chest when breathing. Inhalation puts a healthy stress on the ribcage, modeling the bones to form a larger chest cavity. It also keeps the intercostal muscles malleable and stimulates blood circulation in the area. 

We actually agree on chest breathing, then. I did not equate chest breathing with accessory breathing but tried to explain that what most people call chest breathing is not movement of the chest, but the accessory muscles.

When most people discourage chest breathing what they actually demonstrate is accessory breathing or neck breathing. I have never seen someone who discourages "chest breathing" then demonstrate an expansion of the ribcage and slight elevation and anterior movement of the sternum accompanied by depression of the diaphragm as the improper movement. This would be natural and healthy. Instead, they shrug their shoulders and tighten the scalenes and SCM muscles and call it chest breathing.

Difficult to clarify in words, but we're on the same page.

Hi Esther. I'm 62 years old now and have had back issues most of my adult life. I did ballet from 4 to 15 yrs old with a tucked pelvis. Though I have known better for the last 15 yrs and have and use your book, I still struggle. Is it possible that I am unable to antevert my pelvis without disc pain? Is it just to late too make these changes?

 

Unless your bones are fused, it's never too late to make changes. But you don't want to antevert the pelvis by tightening up your back muscles and sticking out your butt.  You want to get there in a more peaceful, healthy way by toning your glutes, relaxing your rectus abdominis, mobilizing your L5-S1 juncture, and being patient. Come to a class and we'll show you how. This is challenging to learn from a book.