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Posture and why it matters - Stand up straight!

Do you remember when you were small your parents telling you to stand up straight and not slouch? You’ll have given all sorts of postural advice over the years, all of which you have probably systematically ignored. I know I have. You wear high heels, carry heavy bags on your shoulders, do jobs which involve standing in strange positions for hours on end, dig your garden, carry your children around, paint your living room and drive a car. None of these are good for your posture.

Look at this little girl. Note how she’s balancing her weight evenly over both feet, unlike her companion. Now look at the silhouettes at the top of this article. Not a single one of those people is standing straight and square. They’re sticking one hip out, sticking their bottoms out, standing on one leg, carrying something heavy, sticking their stomachs out, just about anything other than standing evenly on both legs with their backs straight and their hips and shoulders level.

That might not be a problem, of course, if you only do it occasionally. But I’m prepared to bet that you do it all the time. Let’s think about that on an anatomical level. As you probably know your hip is a ball and socket joint and your spine is a column of rather oddly-shaped vertebrae stacked on top of one another with discs of cartilage between them. They’re held together by muscles and ligaments, not nuts and bolts. Muscles are only able to pull, so they can’t push your pelvis back into shape. If you stand on the wonk, the muscle on the low side is going to stay contracted while the one on the other side will be extended. The contracted muscle will stay contracted which will make it ache, as well as holding your pelvis crooked all the time, even when you’re lying down.

This picture shows what happens when your pelvis is tilted to one side or the other. Note how the stacking of the vertebrae is affected. Do you think this might cause backache?

(Hint: It does).

After a while your body gets used to this position and thinks it’s how it’s meant to stand, so even if you think about standing evenly on both feet you’ll probably find it a bit uncomfortable. You’ll also forget very often, so you’ll suddenly realise ‘you’re doing it again!’ Because the muscles on one side of your pelvis (the ‘upward’ side) aren’t stretched as much, they’ll be tighter and will actually pull your legs out of alignment, so one leg will be longer than the other. All the time. (The fancy word for this is Anisomelia). When you’re walking one leg will still be shorter, so you’ll actually be limping slightly, exacerbating the strain on one side of your body and contributing to the aches and pains that your incorrect posture has given you. The same thing happens if you stick out your bottom (for example because you’re wearing high heels), your stomach (for example counteracting the heavy weights you lift in your work) or your hip (to counterbalance a heavy handbag). Carrying a baby on your hip will not only make you tilt your pelvis to one side but it will also make you stick your stomach out. Two problems for the price of one.

What can you do about it? Well you can start training yourself right now to stand straight, but if you’ve been wonky for years it’s not going to be easy to straighten out by yourself. In fact if you try too hard, you may actually make matters worse.

The natural tendency when you try to stand up straight is to push your shoulders back and your chest out, elevate your rib cage and stick your head forward slightly. If you do this in the traditional way, as this lady is, your shoulder blades will get closer together and your spine will curve slightly more in the lumbar (lower back) area. What this does is cause tension in the muscles between your shoulder blades and in your lower back. Before long you'll probably find that you have pain in those areas. Sticking your stomach out will also make you look a bit fatter. And it all looks a bit uncomfortable and unnatural.

Take it easy!

The key to good posture is actually to relax, as this lady is. Your spine is designed to stack neatly and to be a slight S-shape. Your shoulders should hang from your torso, not be forced into a certain position. Have a look in the mirror and check whether your shoulders are the same height, whether you're round-shouldered or look as though you left the coathanger in your jacket, and whether your bottom sticks out or not. Put your hand on your sacrum (the big triangular bone at the top of your buttocks) and see whether it's upright or at an angle. Don't be fooled by the shape of your bum but feel through the soft tissue to get to the bone underneath. If it slopes - and a lot of people's do - try adjusting the position of your pelvis until it's upright - the easiest way to do that is to imagine you're going to sit down, but not actually do it.

If all of that just sounds far too complicated, the good news is that one Bowen session can be enough to reprogram your muscles and put your pelvis back into neutral. It releases the tension in the ‘short’ side of your body and allows the under-used muscle to lengthen back to its proper dimensions so it matches the one on the other side. This can put your legs back to being the same length and take the excessive curve out of your lower back. Not only will you not have pain, but the chances of your developing pain in the future will be much reduced. That sounds good, doesn't it?

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