By Stephanie Ila Silver-Silberstein
“Sit up straight!” This all too familiar line, heard by millions of adolescents by their nagging mothers, causes one to have a knee-jerk, or actually, ‘back-jerk’ reaction that may actually do more harm than good. Contrary to popular belief, having good posture does not mean sticking one’s back, chest and buttocks out like a peacock. To truly reap the benefits of good posture, one needn’t stick out anything but rather, focus on the core.
An example of poor posture
Posture is something that can define you as a person. The way you hold your body can be seen as a language of its own and can speak volumes as to your emotional state and your self-concept. The reasons to improve your posture are countless: To name a few, you can decrease back (not to mention full body) pain, reduce your chances spinal related injuries, breathe easier and more efficiently and most obviously, look better and maybe even a couple of inches taller! Posture is determined at a very young age, usually by imitation of parents and older siblings, and habits are not easily broken. So, take baby steps, or better yet, watch baby steps. Observe a ‘habit-free’ child first learning to walk and notice the ease of movement despite the trips and falls.
According to the American Chiropractic Association (www.amerchiro.org), one-half of all working Americans admit to having back pain symptoms each year, and experts estimate that as many as 80% of the population will experience a back problem at some time in their lives. So, before you spend countless dollars for massages and chiropractors, take some advice from pilates guru, Jennifer Read and start feeling, looking and standing better.
1) Stephanie: What, simply stated, is Pilates, and how can it be used to help improve posture?
Jen: Stott Pilates, the form in which I’m certified, improves core strength and balances the muscles around the joints, improving the way your body functions, looks and feels. Every workout incorporates the following elements of stability and mobility:
1. Breathing and Concentration
2. Working from the Core or Centering
3. Control / Precision of form
4. Proper Alignment
5. Integration to create a total mind-body workout
All of these elements work to align the body properly to maximize efficiency, coordination and flexibility of movement and when your body is aligned, you have what we understand as ‘good posture’.
2) Stephanie: In graduate school, I studied Alexander Technique, which is a method that works to change (movement) habits in our everyday activities through the decrease of unnecessary tension throughout the body. Learning its principals helps a person improve ease and freedom of movement, balance, support and coordination. But it’s more of a mental reeducation of sorts than a physical ‘technique’. Would you say Pilates provides a tangible way of reeducating your mind and body to function more efficiently? How?
Jen: Alexander Technique is a wonderful approach to using the body efficiently but it’s more of a way of ‘thinking’ than ‘doing’. When doing a Pilates exercise correctly, you are teaching your body to move a certain way that promotes ease and strength simultaneously. With enough repetition, your body will learn and remember to the point when correct movement will become habitual. The muscle memory, flexibility, balance and strength that develop as a result of doing certain exercises can be extended into all types of movement – whether you’re in the Pilates studio or not..
3) Stephanie: My Alexander teacher showed us a quick fix to lessen back pain, stress and unnecessary tension – it’s called the ‘whispered ah’. Basically, you breathe in through your nose (without raising your shoulders) and exhale on a whispered ‘ah’. You automatically start breathing correctly (i.e. into your back and using your diaphragm) and sitting/standing better and no one even knows you’re doing it! Do you have any quick fixes or Pilates exercises that don’t require a lot of space that you could share with our readers?
Jen: Usually, I end each session by having the student stand with her head and tailbone against the wall and her feet about 6 inches from the wall and hip width apart.. On a slow exhale, roll down head first with the neck, shoulders and each vertebrae following. Before rolling back up, breathe deeply 2 or 3 times into your lower back and feel the ribs and scapular area open up. On the last inhale, draw your belly in and roll back up while keeping your head and neck free and relaxed.
Also, if you have a gym membership, grab one of the large physioballs and simply sit on it with your feet on the ground and hip-width apart. Move your hips around in a circular motion and feel the tension in your lower back release as you use your core (rather than your feet) to balance on the ball. You could also simply hug the ball and feel your scapula stretch and open up to provide a better breathing pattern. It’s not an ‘exercise’ in the conventional sense, but it helps ingrain the principles of Pilates into your mind so that eventually, you’ll find that you use your body correctly – automatically.
4) Stephanie: Often, people think good posture or standing up straight means keeping the shoulder blades close together and creating a deep curve in the lumbar region (see “poor posture” picture above). But in fact, if your core is strong, the rest of your body will lie correctly. What is all this talk of using ‘the core’ and walking ‘from your center’?
Correct alignment (L); Slouching (R)
Jen: So often, I see people come into the studio, dancers especially, with deep lumbar regions, and they think they are standing ‘properly’. This unnecessary stress will undoubtedly cause lower back pain that could possibly become chronic. By strengthening your core or center (a more spiritual way of describing your abdominal region), your body will naturally be in proper alignment (a technically correct way of saying ‘posture’) and no part of your body will be working overtime under stress. The lower back and the neck/shoulder region usually take the heaviest beating and need the most attention when releasing tension.
The best way to describe proper alignment when standing is to find the mid-point between sticking your buttocks out and thrusting your hips forward (i.e. the neutral position in a hip tilt). Think of your pelvis as a bucket with water that will spill if not kept in alignment and to do this, you must use your core. When sitting, intentionally slouch and draw yourself up by using your core muscles. In turn, your shoulder blades will draw into each other at a soft angle and your rib cage will be hugging together properly (i.e. your upper back should be flush with the chair making it feel as though your shoulder blades are almost concave but this position, when achieved using core strength, is actually correct). By working from your core, the rest of your body can function properly and each part can perform the role it was originally meant to perform.
5) Stephanie: If I want to take up Pilates, should I start with a floor mat class or can I start using the reformer right away? Can you tell me more about that particular piece of equipment?
Jen: It’s tempting to want to get right on that interesting looking contraption of springs and pulleys that is known as the reformer. The design, which was developed and based on that of a hospital bed, incorporates the use of springs for resistance based training as opposed to weight training. This promotes balance and flexibility and reduces the risk of injury. But to use the reformer correctly and in turn, receive all the benefits of using one, I definitely recommend working one on one with a Pilates instructor. Even before entering a mat class, which can be crowded and lack the individualized attention you need in the beginning, try an introductory pack of 3 private sessions to fully understand the principals of Pilates and know that you’re performing exercises correctly. Then, if you like this form of exercise, try a reformer class, which has a smaller student to teacher ratio or incorporate what you learned privately when taking a mat class. d
6) Stephanie: In addition to decreasing back pain and improving posture, what are the benefits of doing Pilates over other exercises done at say, a gym?
Jen: Like with yoga, you can tell if someone does Pilates as opposed to working out at a gym. By doing Pilates, you can develop a certain body type that coincides with a certain aesthetic in today’s society. The exercises, when practiced with the principals of Pilates in mind, causes the body to get leaner and more flexible while also becoming stronger and forming defined muscles. Also, by strengthening the core, you lessen the chance of injuring other, more fragile parts of the body (like the knees). And, because elements of correct breathing, meditation and relaxation are incorporated while doing Pilates, your mindset is one that promotes a healthy lifestyle and an overall feeling of well being that extends into your everyday life.
The balance, coordination and flexibility you will get will prove invaluable in sports, dance and in daily activities from sitting at your desk to standing on the subway. Finally, the gym may not offer the same sense of calm and relaxation that a Pilates studio or class would. And in New York City, a calm, serene environment can be a major necessity!
To sum up, Pilates is clearly a great way to have better posture, but if you’re not quite ready to grab that physioball, simply spend a minute or so becoming more self-aware. How are you sitting right now? Stop and take note of how you’re standing the next time you’re washing the dishes or folding the laundry. And when you’re ready, take responsibility for your health and incorporate an activity that promotes good posture and efficient use of the body. And in New York City, the nearest Pilates studio is right around the corner.
Alexander Technique classes are offered at the http://www.92ndstreety.org or visit http://www.alexandertech.org/teachers/NY.phphttp://www.alexandertech.org/teachers/NY.php
Related Link: http://www.feldenkrais.com