Posture and habitual movement patterns contribute hugely to back health. The way you walk, stand, sit or sleep can influence whether you develop back pain or not. My four blogs this summer will analyse different elements of posture, and how posture relates to managing and preventing back pain. After all, doing yoga once a week is not enough if during the rest of the week you slouch on a sofa or car seat, round your shoulders forward over a computer, or stand out of alignment so your muscles have to work harder to keep you upright. Together with the right exercises, this focus on postural habits can hopefully help you correct bad posture and shape lifelong, sustainable wellbeing. This first blog in the series focuses on good walking habits.
Many yoga teachers claim that good posture starts with the feet, because if these don’t carry the weight correctly, behind all the toes and the centre of the heal, the ankles, knees, hips and back will suffer. Alexander technique teachers, on the other hand, tell you that everything starts with the neck, as this has to release and lengthen upward to free the alignment of the body underneath. Both approaches are interesting and compatible. I will look at both and also revisit it in the next blog about standing posture.
How to walk so as to avoid and perhaps even heal back pain is the subject of one of my favourite books by Sherry Brourman “Walk Yourself Well”. When we walk in a misaligned way, the improper use of our joints can eventually lead to pain. I have found three basic principles that Brourman mentions important for my students and myself, so here are 3 exercises for you. It is good to focus on one exercise at a time for one week and then move on to the next:
- Distance between the feet
Walking with the feet in one line can lead to sacroiliac problems or leg pain. The distance between the feet should not be narrower than the hip joints. Especially women may have learnt that walking in one line, like a model on the catwalk, is the most elegant way to walk, but with time this can cause instability in the lowest part of the back.
Walk with your feet about 12 to 15 cm apart. It may seem strange at first but will soon feel pleasant and stable.
- Place the centre of the heel down first
If you look at the soles of your shoes that are at least a few months old, you will notice which part of the heel strikes the ground first. If you find it is more on the outside or inside, try to correct this every time you walk, as the weight of your body will otherwise be distributed wrongly throughout all the joints. One or 2 weeks paying attention to placing the centre of the heel down first may teach you the new and better habit.
- Walk with your feet at a 15 to 20 degree angle
For the optimal weight distribution as you walk, the best angle for both feet is 15 to 20 degrees. Check if both feet have this small angle – sometimes one foot is turning our more and giving you knee or hip trouble on that side. Walking with the feet straight is not a good idea either.
Recently I was wondering about the optimal way of carrying weight. Shoulder bags or even rucksacks are not a good idea for back health and the best way of carrying something is actually on your head! You may have seen this way of carrying on the head in many parts of the world, in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For some reason the “developed” world has favoured ways of carrying that can cause strain and back pain.
One of my students reminded me of the Victorian practice to make school children balance a book on their head to improve posture, so I tried it out. Every time I went for a walk I would imagine a book or a basket on my head. Even without the actual weight on my head, I felt my neck and back muscles activate. The immediate response for my neck was to lengthen upwards and push against the imaginary weight. The muscles in my middle back engaged to keep a straight alignment.
When there is a weight balancing on the head (imaginary or not) the body adapts to a naturally straighter posture, with the head level, the neck and spine strong and elongated, the hips underneath the shoulders. Keeping this elongated alignment, the legs then just move freely without disturbing the alignment of the upper body.
So here is an interesting exercise for you:
Walking Exercise 4:
- Imagine you are walking with a fruit basket on your head.
- Your head is level: the chin is neither up nor down.
- Observe the crown of the head subtly pushing up against the basket.
- Notice how your neck lengthens upward.
- Observe if other muscles along the back activate.
- Your shoulders relax downward.
- Allow your arms to swing (opposite arm to leg)
Notice how you walk mindfully as you are trying not to spill the fruit basket on your head…
Enjoy your summer walks!