This is why we are going to cover the topic of alignment.
Alignment is frequently paired with the idea of “neutral spine” in the world of wellness. However, the concept of neutral spine implies the the spine being a static and unchanging thing that never varies or adapts. Because this is incorrect, it may be better to refer to the goal of maintaining optimal alignment rather than focusing on the appearance of the spine. “Neutral spine” fails to convey is the relationship between the pelvis and the ribcage, which is critical to maintaining good alignment.
Let’s talk a bit about some of the major players in alignment, shall we?
The Big Three
First up: the spine. The spinal column is composed of 33 individual vertebrae, some of which are fused together at the level of the sacrum and coccyx. Here’s an image to help you can get an idea of the natural curvature of the spine and its component parts:
The presence of curvatures, rather than a straight line, is a miracle of Divine Engineering that enables the spine to accommodate a wide variety of forces imposed upon it by daily life when properly maintained. The problem is that our activities often lead to deviation from this ideal design, and this leads to tissue breakdown that ultimately manifests as pain and injury.
As previously mentioned, many discussions of “neutral spine” fail to identify the next two players in our line up: the ribcage and the pelvis. You can see the close relationship that exists between all of these anatomical structures in this image:
Alright — now you’ve met the Big Three, which serve as the foundation for all of our movements.
Next up: understanding how these structures should relate to each other.
Imagine an hourglass. In order to work effectively the opening of the top portion of the glass must precisely match the opening to the bottom portion of the glass, right? In terms of your own body imagine that your ribcage is the upper portion of the hourglass while your pelvis is the bottom half. The ribcage should open directly above the pelvis in order to facilitate optimal function of the musculature that connects these parts.
When we deviate from this alignment we alter length-tension relationships of muscles and create shear (i.e., harmful) forces along the joints of our spine, which ultimately leads to injury. Being out of alignment one time is not the problem; rather, the issue is habitually demonstrating poor alignment, which causes the musculature to negatively adapt and contributes to furthering strain to the boney and connective tissue structures involved.
Our bodies tend to follow the path of least resistance. It is entirely probable that you have repeatedly performed behaviors over the course of your lifetime that created alignment issues.
Hmmm. Does that remind you of anything? Or anyone? A certain educational philosopher we all admire has a lot to say about habits. Psst — this applies to our physical bodies, too.
Charlotte Mason wrote:
Growing Tissues form themselves to Modes of Action. — To state roughly the doctrine of the school Dr Carpenter represents — the tissues, as muscular tissue, for instance, undergo constant waste and as constant reparation. Even those modes of muscular action which we regard as natural to us, as walking and standing erect, are in reality the results of a laborious education; quite as much so as many modes of action which we consciously acquire, as writing or dancing; but the acquired modes become perfectly easy and natural. Why? Because it is the law of the constantly growing tissues that they should form themselves according to the modes of action required of them. In a case where the brain is repeatedly sending down to the muscles, under nervous control as they are, the message to have a certain action done, that action becomes automatic in the lower centre, and the faintest suggestion from outside comes to produce it without the intervention of the brain. (Home Education, p. 112)
She was so far ahead of her time, that Charlotte Mason. She continues:
Here we see how important it is to keep watch over the habits of enunciation, carriage of the head, and so on, which the child is forming hour by hour. The poke, the stoop, the indistinct utterance, is not a mere trick to be left off at pleasure ‘when he is older and knows better,’ but is all the time growing into him becoming a part of himself, because it is registered in the very substance of his spinal cord. The part of his nervous system where consciousness resides (the brain) has long ago given a standing order, and such are the complications of the administration, that to recall the order would mean the absolute re-making of the parts concerned. (p. 113)
But, practically, everybody knows that the body, and every part of the body, accommodates itself very readily to the uses it is put to: we know that if a child accustom herself to stand on one foot, thus pushing up one shoulder, the habit will probably end in curvature of the spine; that to permit drooping shoulders, and, consequently, contracted chest, is to prepare the way for lung disease. The physical consequences of bad habits of this sort are so evident, that we cannot blind ourselves to the relation of cause and effect. (p. 114)
Let me carry the illustration further just in case you’re not.
A continually slouched posture, such as when bending over a desk to complete a math lesson, or propping oneself up with countless pillows while lying on the floor and reading a book, or bending over a sink of dirty dishes, or slumping and rounding our backs as we use our hands to type frantically on an iPhone or laptop will lead to a tightness in the anterior chest wall that prohibits full expansion of the lungs.
The negative consequences do not end there, however.
If the lungs are not able to fully inflate and expand the chest, then we lose mobility in the ribcage, which then translates into stiffness in the thoracic spine because the ribcage circles around to attach to our thoracic vertebrae. This thoracic stiffness can in turn lead to lower back pain, neck pain, and even shoulder pain. All of our body parts are interconnected, like links in a chain, and when alignment is lost in one area it quickly spreads to other areas.
Charlotte Mason recognized this bad habit of performing all activities in front of our bodies (think about it — how often do you stretch your arms behind you to accomplish a given task in the course of a day?) to the demise of an open chest that facilitates expansion. See what she has to say about how we should teach our children to jump rope:
For the rope, the very best use is to skip with her own, throwing it backwards rather than forwards, so that the tendency of the movement is to expand the chest. (Home Education, p. 83)
Visionary, she was.
So, how do I find and maintain proper alignment? you ask.
Good question — but not necessarily one with an easy answer. There is no “one size fits all.” However, beginning to understand the relationship between your ribcage and pelvis, and attempting to keep them optimally aligned is the best place to start. You can get a visual of what that looks like here and, if you prefer a human being to a skeleton, here. The difficulty lies in trying to find this position when you are standing upright, without the feedback and input provided to your body via lying on the floor. Experimenting with finding the relationship while fully supported on the floor may be the best place to start.
You can graduate to attempting this with your spine supported on a wall, as demonstrated here:
Ultimately, you want to do this without the feedback of either the floor or the wall.
For those of you who would like a little more anatomy to help you understand this concept, it doesn’t get much better than Katy Bowman’s explanations. You can read some of my favorites here:
In my experience as a physical therapist, I have observed that overcoming tightness and stiffness in the chest and upper back, as well as tightness in the hips and calves, is another critical factor in achieving optimal body alignment. This month I’m including a collection of stretches to promote alignment that you may benefit from adding to your movement arsenal. It should come as no surprise that these stretches are recommended (and demonstrated) by Katy Bowman. In particular, the shoulder release over a ball, thoracic stretch, and quad stretches shown here:
as well as the door jamb stretch shown here:
Try widening your arms by moving your hands further apart, too, when attempting the door stretch, as it will change the angle of the stretch and more effectively apply it to the tight tissues.
And now for this month’s fitness challenge(s):
:: In standing, with your feet grounded firmly into the floor, imagine yourself getting taller. Pretend that there is a string attached to the top of your head elongating your spine towards the ceiling. Make sure your ribcage continues to keep its relationship with the pelvis in the manner of an hourglass, though, where the ribcage lies directly above the pelvis: there should be no forward deviation of the ribcage to the front (ie thrusting your ribs). Does this feel odd to you? It understandably might, but this is your ideal standing and sitting posture and I encourage you to make it a more familiar one.
:: Determine what it means for you to be optimally aligned, and mindfully strive to achieve this position frequently throughout the day. I often tell my patients to pick a color that they see frequently during the day – often red, as in stop signs, red lights, finger nail polish, etc. But picking a color that you will see often throughout your day is the point. Every time you see that color during the day use it as a cue to perform an alignment check. Do I have a long, tall spine? Is my chest open with my ribcage positioned over my pelvis? Initially, you will rarely find yourself properly aligned, but over time good posture will become a habit that you find you are keeping more and more.
:: Finally, keep progressing your playground workout as outlined in last month’s blog post. Just make sure you are properly aligned as you perform the exercises.
Next month we will be back to our regularly scheduled programming and will be rounding out the playground workout with lower body, core and cardio options.
Until then, keep on moving!
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