This winter, more than ever before, we’re concerned about our health.
We’re all seeking ways to support ourselves – our immune function, our respiratory systems – as well as our emotional resilience. A simple yet frequently overlooked aspect of our health is the interplay between posture, breath, and mood. You know how you slump when you’re sad, and tense up when you’re anxious? And how your breath changes rhythm and depth based on your emotional state? At any given moment, posture – the way you’re holding your body in gravity – reflects the state of your nervous system; whether you feel safe or challenged. Your nervous system, in turn, directly affects your breathing. And guess what: healthy breathing enhances good posture, supports your immune system, and totally improves your mood. Everything’s connected!
In healthy breathing, your lungs are free to go about their business without restriction. They expand and release three dimensionally. The breathing diaphragm – the main muscle of respiration, a double-domed structure right under the lungs – moves with the breath, contracting down as you inhale and relaxing up as you exhale (which is why your tummy moves with breath). Any distortion of your posture can potentially compromise the movement of lungs and diaphragm, and in turn, re-tune your emotional state without you even being aware of what’s going on.
Let’s investigate a way of being in ‘good posture’ that frees your breathing and lightens your mood.
First, some shocking advice: don’t try to straighten your spine. Your spine isn’t meant to be straight. Despite what you’ve been told – the nagging admonitions of your grade school teacher to stop slouching and straighten up – no part of your spine is designed to be straight when you’re upright in gravity. Your spine is a multi-curved weightbearing structure.
There’s a natural inward curve (like a backbend) in the spine of your neck, as well as your lower back. There’s a natural outward curve (rounded, like a forward bend) in your upper spine between your shoulder blades, as well as around the base of your sacrum. These curves aren’t that dramatic. They’re gentle, and slightly different for everybody. But each curve balances the next, and either supports what’s above it (for example, the inward curve of the neck balances the roundness of the skull and bulk of the brain) or makes space for the organs in front of it (the outward curve of the upper back makes room for – spoiler alert! – the lungs. Fun fact: did you know that we have more lung tissue in the back of our bodies than the front?).
Not only that, but these ‘natural’ or ‘neutral’ curves serve as shock absorbers, so as we bounce around the dance floor of our busy lives, force is distributed gently, and our brains don’t get jarred. Given this amazing design, neutral spine is the posture in which the bones of our spine are fully weightbearing, which is necessary for bone health. If you’re concerned about conditions like osteoporosis, this is crucial to understand. And, contrary to what you might imagine, neutral spine is the posture in which your spine is longest – not arching back or curving forward! The spine is structured kind of like an accordion; if one side lengthens, the other side shortens.
I know; your brain is probably jarred just taking in the idea that your spine has curves. We’re used to stick-straight weightbearing structures: the legs of a table, the support posts of a building. And because we aren’t taught anatomy in school (unless you’re super lucky), we have some wacky ideas: straighten your spine. Tuck your tail. Pull in your belly. Guess what: none of those strategies for ‘good posture’ do much good for your body at all. In fact, they can destabilize the spine, and interfere with healthy organ function.
Our grade school teacher was partly right, however: we don’t want to slouch. But we tend to correct ourselves too dramatically when seeking better posture.
Try this: sit up really, really straight. Notice how your back muscles are rigid, and your ribs and chest are pushed forward. What happened to your eyes – did they open wide, like you’re startled? Interestingly, this posture tells your nervous system to go on red alert. Can you breathe like this? Maybe, but your breath probably feels uptight – like it would if you’d been running. This is often how we hold our bodies when we’re anxious, defensive, or plain pissed off: we’re braced.
Then, try this: deliberately slouch. Easy, right? Feel your head bow forward. Let your chest collapse down towards your tummy. Notice how you’ve compressed your inner organs. Can you take a deep breath? I didn’t think so. If you just ate lunch, would this position help digestion? Nope! Yet this slouched state is where we tend to go when we’re feeling blue, or we’ve collapsed on the couch after a long day. While rounding our spines can soothe our nervous systems – envision how you curl up in bed for a long winter’s nap – it’s not a great way to move around the word, and it definitely doesn’t permit free easy breathing: we’re too collapsed.
Bottom line: whether we’re slouching or rigid, we’re cutting off our breath. In trying to straighten our spines, we pinch off the back of our lungs and harden the back of the diaphragm. Literally, this triggers a state of nervousness. In slouching, we close off the front of our lungs, and compress our belly organs. The lack of space makes us feel collapsed, deflated. Either way, we can’t take a healthy three-dimensional breath. So, let’s find a middle ground: neutral spine, a posture that honors the spine’s natural curves.
1) Start with your foundation.
If you’re sitting, feel your sitz bones at the bottom of your pelvis. Rock on them – they’re rounded bones – tilting forward and back. Notice how your spine shifts to follow the tilt. Can you find a place where your sitz bones are right under you, like two little feet?
If you’re standing, step your feet about hip-distance apart and parallel to each other. Feel the ground. Slightly bend your knees, and guide your hips under you, so your pelvis isn’t pushed out (your groins will be slightly hollowed).
2) Then, free your tailbone. Wag it, like a delighted puppy. As you tuck your tailbone under, notice how your low back flattens, coming out of its natural inward curve. As you flare your tailbone back behind you, notice the curve of your low back greatly exaggerated. Then, find the middle ground: just relax your tailbone. Don’t tuck, or flare. Find a place that brings your sitz bones underneath you and allows a gentle inward curve of your low back – not so much that your tummy ‘spills’ forward, but just enough so you’re slightly swaybacked. It’s a little different for everyone. What feels right for you? (Hint: it shouldn’t take a lot of muscular effort.)
3) Bring your awareness higher to your upper back. Are you unconsciously pinching your back muscles, pushing your chest out? How does that affect your breathing? How might a pushed-forward chest change your emotional state – do you really feel open and receptive, or are you defensively armoring yourself? Try this: let your upper back soften and widen, like a curtain gently billowing in the breeze. Can you let the touch of your breath move your back? What’s the balance between freeing the back ribs, allowing your upper spine to be slightly rounded, without caving in your chest? (Hint: if you feel your back softly blooming with breath, you’re on the right track!)
4) Higher still, sense your neck. Very gently, nod ‘yes’, and notice how this changes the curve of your neck. Then let your head float so your eyes gaze forward, level with the horizon (not down, like towards your cell phone!). What does that offer your neck?
5) Then, simply feel yourself. Is this different than your usual posture? Are you typically hypervigilant, or are you a serial sloucher? Might your postural habit reflect your state of mind?
It’s natural at this point to feel awkward. If you do – great! As we move towards health, we may need to undo many old habits. Habits stick around because their well-worn grooves feel comfortable, even when they’re not good for us. When we try to switch to new behavior, our nervous system basically freaks out. Not only that, but when we’re honoring the natural curves of our spine, we’ll feel less muscular engagement. For some of us, that won’t seem ‘right’. We’re so used to contracting, constricting, fussing and tinkering, efforting to do the right thing.
Take a moment now to feel the curves of your spine – one supporting the next – and the related spaciousness of your inner body. Sense your belly organs, your lungs. Do they have more room? Can you feel how your breath has the freedom to move in all directions? Notice that your body is, in a sense, resting over its own structure. This natural alignment of neutral spine actually invites your mind to relax. For thousands of years, meditators from all traditions have organized their spines in this way, so they could settle into their breathing and quiet their minds, creating inner calm and centeredness. Play with these awarenesses as you move into your new year.
Sarah Getz is a yoga teacher and writer. For information about her online offerings, visit www.yogaatspace.com