Balanced Posture in West Africa: Part 2
Sitting In Comfort
We spend a large portion of our lives sitting. It might even be said that with the onset of computers, television, and cars that we spend more time sitting than our bodies would like. The good news: there is a way to sit that supports the body's weight through the spine that is healthy and pain free. The bad news: most people in the United States do not sit this way.
The best way to illustrate sustainable seated posture is to compare someone who has an optimal relationship to gravity and someone who does not. The boy in the photograph on the left has what might be called sustainable posture. He could sit here comfortably all day because his bones are bearing the weight of his body and his muscles are relaxed. His pelvis is positioned on the chair in such a way that allows him to rest on his sits bones (ischial tuberosities). Because he has established a stolid base at the pelvis, his body is able to remain long in the back and in the front. His belly is relaxed, the legs hang loosely from his body, and his head rests comfortably on his shoulders. There is little effort in this position.
The young man on the right does not have an optimal relationship to gravity. His pelvis is tucked, meaning his weight is resting on the fleshy part of his butt, not his bones. To compensate, his low back must curve, compressing his lumbar vertebra. You can see this in the slight bulge at his low back. Travel up his back and you notice a curve starting at about shoulder blades. His vertebrae are not stacked evenly here. If you were to peel back the layers of skin and muscle the spine would look like a staircase, not a stack of blocks. This position is stressful on the body, making his muscles work harder to hold him upright and weakening the jelly-like discs that act as cushioning between each vertebra. Every time he sits and tucks his pelvis he is putting painful pressure on his spine and tightens the surrounding muscles.
The young man in the photo on the right is healthy and strong. However, habits formed early in life can lead to pain and discomfort in the future. Because of the constant muscle tension required to hold his body upright, his muscles are slowly becoming stiffer. While his muscles are strong, they are not resilient. His range of motion is decreased, making certain activities more difficult to perform and likely, more painful.
It is often misconceived that people who sit up "straight" are tense, not comfortable. This misconception stems from the notion that "good" posture involves sucking the belly in, puffing out the chest, and lifting the chin. These three actions are guaranteed to create tension and fatigue. A different set of guidelines was created by Jean Couch, founder of Balance Center and author of The Runners Yoga Book. These guidelines mimic people who do not have back pain and do manual labor late into their lives. They are simple:
1) Tilt the pelvis forward (anteriorally).
2) Sit on your sits bones (ischial tuberosities).
To find the correct orientation of the pelvis for sitting, try practicing pelvic tilts, an exercise Dr. Smith prescribes for most patients experiencing low back pain. Place your hand on your hips and slowly rock your pelvis forward and back, exploring its range of motion. As you tilt your pelvis forward, notice the softening of the crease of your hip flexors. As you tilt your pelvis back, notice the tension created in the same place. To see a nice visual example of pelvic tilts, go to the exercises tab, then select low back exercises, and finally select pelvic tilts.
Once you have your pelvis in a slightly forward position, you are ready to sit. Bend your knees, and allow your butt to come closer to the chair. Think of you pubic area as a triangle pointing down and back through your legs. Once you have found your seat, you want to make sure you are on your sits bones. Lean forward from the hips and reach your right hand under your right butt cheek. Find the bone and grab a hold of it. Pull the bone out and back and feel the bone on the seat of the chair. Repeat on the left side. If you are not used to sitting on your sits bones, you might feel a slight discomfort from the pressure. This is okay, as bones are designed to bear weight and actually get stronger as they do. You can always put a soft cushion under you when you sit to relieve some of this pressure.
The final step seems easy, but can be a challenge for many people. Relax. Relax your belly, your shoulders, your neck, your belly again, your jaw, your butt, you belly again. Many of us are used to holding muscles in a constant state of tension. Relaxation is a process and takes awareness and practice.
By following the three basic guidelines each time you sit, you are bringing awareness to a posture you perform every day. Next time you are seated and feel discomfort or even pain, notice where you feel the sensation. That spot is where muscles are working harder than they need to because your spine is not in an optimal relationship to gravity. Bring awareness to that area and try repositioning your pelvis, then relocate your sits bones, and finally relax.
*Laura Albrecht teaches yoga in Santa Cruz and is a student of Jean Couch. E-mail her for more information about classes and privates: [email protected].
*Jean Couch is the director and owner of Balance Center in Palo Alto. Her center offers classes that teach sustainable posture and Iyengar-based yoga in balance.
*Thanks to Christopher Albrecht for sharing photos from his travels in West Africa and for Brain Spear for allowing me to critique his posture, which has improved greatly since he started practicing yoga in balance.