Not many people find long periods of standing easy. If you have to stand while listening to a long speech, for example, does your back start aching? Pain and muscle strain arise when the body is not aligned with and hence not served by the line of gravity. When we manage to find this straight downward pull, standing becomes more natural and effortless. It can make us experience a deep sense of peace. This blog considers two common types of misalignment that make long standing harder.
To stand for long times in an effortless way, our body’s weight has to be centred in the line of gravity, which is straight. You can imagine that when the weight of your head, shoulders and hips are not stacked on top of each other, this is like trying to keep a precariously balanced tower of blocks upright. If the body is off balance, muscles have to work much harder to hold the vertical position. Think of a pencil that can stand when you put it straight, but it falls as soon as it is only slightly tipped over. Looking at a person sideways, being in the plumb line means that the ears, the centre of the shoulders, the centre of the hips and ankles are aligned. When this happens, the pull of gravity assists in standing and muscles don’t have to work needlessly.
Standing exercise 1:
Look at yourself sideways in a long mirror and observe the alignment of your ear, shoulder, hip and ankle. Here are two common holding patterns and how to start correcting them:
Hips pushed forward
A misalignment that often happens is when the centre of the hips are in front of the ankles and the centre of the shoulders are behind this imaginary line. This way of standing makes the lower back muscles work harder to keep the body upright. This ‘leaning into the hips’, can be seen in combination with either forward rounded shoulders or with the chest pushed forward. We will examine rounded shoulders in the next blog.
–Shift your hips back so their weight is centred above your heels. It may feel like your heels carry more weight than you are used to, but our toes are not meant to carry weight. Think of your weight going down through the centre of the heels and behind all the toes.
-It is likely that you will now also have to bring your upper body forward to bring the shoulders in line with the hips. This may feel very strange at first, as if you are leaning forward.
-Once you see a better alignment in the mirror, stay in this position and breathe. Try to connect with the force of gravity pulling you straight down.
Chest pushed forward
In this holding pattern, the chest is pushed forward and the shoulders are pulled back. The muscles in the middle and lower back are strained. This posture is often adopted in an effort to stand straight and tall and avoid slumping forward, but it is an over-compensation.
-Place your hands on the solar plexus (between the floating ribs) and allow this to soften this down and back.
-Place the back of your hand on the lower back and feel this area relax and lengthen down.
-Breathe, and connect with a sense of greater ease.
Once you have found the gravity line, you can feel in tune with the pull that comes from gravity as well as the rebound upward. Gravity allows us to be stable and grounded, but the result is obviously not a complete slumping: there is also a rebound from gravity that allows us to stand tall. This phenomenon is explained in Newton’s third law of motion, which says that if one body exerts a force on another body, this second body exerts an equal and opposite force on the first body.
This law and its relation to the spine was one of the passions of yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli. She wrote in Awakening The Spine (1991): “This double movement of force and anti-force, which may sound like a contradiction, also operates in our bodies, and more precisely at the waist, dividing simultaneous into heaviness (towards the ground) and lightness (towards the sky), obeying a universal physical law.” Exploring this grounding and simultaneous lengthening helps us free and elongate the spine in standing and yoga poses.
Standing exercise 2:
-Breathe out and feel the connection of your feet on the floor.
-Every time you breathe out, feel heavy and stable, “grounded” from the waist down.
-Once you have found the “grounding”, keep focusing on that as you exhale and every time you inhale feel lightness and length from the waist upward.
-Keep breathing in this way for a few minutes, with the sensations of both grounding and lightness in mind. Our breath and our focus help us feel stable and tall at the same time.
More help: It is not always easy to correct your own postural habits and movement patterns. It may be even harder to find the role of breathing in all of this. If you would like to benefit from an improved posture, my starting programme of 5 sessions is aimed to help you find more freedom in alignment, flexibility and coordination.
How a slumping posture can influence our mood will be discussed in the next blog about sitting.