Are you reading this right now hunched over, head hanging down staring at your phone, causing “tech-neck”? Now, it’s easy to say, “Stand up straighter and put your shoulders down!” to try and quick-fix it. I know that’s what my mom would sometimes say to me.
Pilates is known to help you create a better posture, but it’s not as simple as “straightening up.” There’s much more to it. So what can we do to fix stiff necks and achy backs to get there?
In this article, we’ll talk about what creates your posture, how your environment influences your alignment and our helpful Pilates-based tips on putting together your own “posture corrector” program.
Posture: where to start
The idea of fixing makes it sound like you can just take a tool to your body, tweak it, and suddenly your posture is better. The human body is so dynamic, and other factors are at play. Pulling your shoulders down and back may only be a temporary solution for the moment. If this isn’t something you do on a regular basis with the intention to create mindful change though, it’s not all by itself going to fix your posture.
When you hear the term, “posture” what comes to mind first? Do you picture your seated posture first? I think that is pretty common. However, if you think about it in the whole body sense, that’s a rather inactive position. In order to “fix” things, let’s also look at ways your posture is dynamic.
How your Posture is dynamic
While we might think of posture as a still pose in time, your body isn’t meant to be a statue, or be still for long periods of time. How do you stand or position your shoulders when you wash the dishes? When you lift your child out of the car seat, is it always from the same side of the car?
Every move that you make, whatever you most commonly do, brushing your teeth, putting on your shoes, working in the yard, that’s part of posture too. What daily routines have you moving without thinking – ones that are habitual?
Now I know what you may be thinking, “Sarah, that’s a lot of different postures!” Well, yes! That’s how dynamic your body is. Additionally, posture influenced by our devices has become a greater focus as of late, and is a problem that many of us face, and is especially why the topic of “fixing” our posture comes up so often in the studio.
In fact, we’ve included some easy-to-do exercises below, that you can do anywhere, that’ll help you create new habits for posture improvement.
There are a few other important factors that weigh in on how you create your posture. And when you understand those factors better, the more clearly you’ll relate to your own next steps for posture correction.
How you create your posture
First, your posture is highly influenced by your family. Your parents, older siblings, and other family members with whom you spent a lot of time with as a child provided a visual map for you. Our brains are so impressionable at a young age, it just vacuums up all the information that’s around!
Aside from a major injury that could change your patterns, your learning to walk, run, sit, and the way you move in general, kinda-sorta comes as a family hand-me-down.
Another influence is your mood. If you feel tense or have a lot on your mind, you could be unknowingly clenching your jaw. Tension in your jaw might also make you change your breath to be short, and shallow.
These actions change your head and neck position. So it’s for good reason that in Pilates we focus on breath. Inhaling and exhaling mindfully and deeply help bring your awareness to tension. And that you can let it go.
How posture affects confidence
The beliefs about what you look like and how you feel in your body also have an impact on creating your posture as well. For example, I’m 5′ 0″ tall. I’m well aware of the physical height limitation. So growing up, it’s not hard to imagine, I was surrounded by people who were usually taller than me (which is still the case now that I’m grown up too). But for as long as I can remember, I always thought of myself as being closer to average height, like everyone else. I “believe” I’m taller than I actually am.
I absolutely know that I need a stepladder to reach top shelves. Regardless, I always think of myself as being taller. And because of that, I stand in my posture differently than if I had a self-image of myself as being shorter. Self-image and self talk can profoundly impact you for the negative or for the positive.
My suggested tool for you and your own Posture Corrector Program is to make a new habit: Reflect on your self-image and self-talk. And then notice what influence that has on how you hold yourself in given space. Observe if you’re unconsciously holding unwanted tension, and allow it to go on its way.
Your journey to correcting your posture for your health comes from a combination of movement and mindfulness. Again, there isn’t a one all fix all situation!
Your posture and the effect of stress, breathing, and brain capacity
If you’re able to create awareness, you can create your posture differently. A regular Pilates practice reaps the benefit of improved body awareness, which is one of the greatest benefits of Pilates as a mind/body method. Having the senses more finely tuned to your alignment – or misalignment – gives you the opportunity to know when to make small but powerful adjustments.
When your mind is under stress or anxiety, you could find yourself balled into bad posture mode. When you’re in these tense patterns, you’re likely to change to a shallow breath. Shallow breathing is linked to the Fight/Flight/Freeze response.
That trigger is helpful if you’re in a life-threatening temporary situation. But not so helpful a state for growth, learning, and concentration. Not to mention the dramatic effect you have on your overall physical and mental health. If you’re a shallow breather, it’s vitally important to break the chain of this habit!
Your body listens to what your mind is saying
In these times, there’s greater attention to mental health. Along those lines, more than ever it’s vital that you develop the skill of listening to your body. Take breaks to get up, walk around and take deeper breaths. If you’re already moving around, change your focus – like doing the eye-strain exercise we suggest below – or choose a different activity to do for 10 minutes.
Pilates as a system has a variety of exercises that move the spine through multiple planes. It’s been proven many times over that movement helps relieve stress. But you can add an even greater benefit if you add your brain to the exercise too. The following is an example of the ideomotor effect.
Unconscious messages drifting through our heads all the time. Sometimes I hear them expressed out loud in class. Are you thinking “oooooh my shoulders are ALWAYS soo tight” – even while you’re stretching to loosen up? After your initial reaction to the sense of tightness, now’s the time to switch out the message.
Switching the focus on the idea of tightness to the idea of openness will produce more gains. Here’s one example of the new thought to replace the one from above.
“Ok, that’s tight at the moment, and let me see if I can relax and see how I feel after 5 repetitions.” Chances are, by the time you’re done, you’re already creating a positive association, reviving and relaxing the tense areas, and transforming your posture. Your mood, outlook, and concentration get a boost too!
Correcting your posture
So far we’ve touched on the following ways to address posture:
- Developing awareness of your most common day-to-day habits and observing if you’re holding on to unnecessary tension.
- Breathing breaks, where you allow yourself to fully inhale and exhale and clear your mind.
- Reflecting and changing any negative self-talk to a kinder tone.
- Taking movement or changing movement breaks.
- Integrating mindfulness, and specifically supportive messages to yourself, into any exercise, for greater benefit.
Ok, let’s get into a central structure in your posture – your spine. In Pilates, we concentrate on spinal mobility along with strengthening the core. During a typical session, we’ll move the spine in all planes of motion: forward/backward, side-to-side and in rotation.
Take a look at this demonstration of Posture Corrector type movements that can help you stretch your spine, breathe deeper, and relax:
“You’re as old as your spine is flexible”
That’s an often quoted saying from Joseph Pilates. He was obsessed with humans working on their own vitality and health. One of the exercises from the Pilates Mat work that focuses on the central axis is the spine twist. Check it out in detail here: Spine Twist. It is an expansive move with our arms, yet a specific move for the spine.
The aim of the exercise is to create flexibility starting with the head. But because of habitual tightness in areas of their body, I often catch someone in class who isn’t turning their head with their spine.
Get a taste of this while seated on a couch at home. As you twist, look the direction you’re going, rotating your head along with your spine. Are your eyes opened or closed? If they’re open, where are you looking?
Sometimes, people keep their eyes closed to breathe and concentrate, which is in great alignment with a mind-body practice. Yet, if you don’t open your eyes, you could be missing out on the greatest benefit of the exercise..
Eyes ON Posture
We don’t have the lucky benefit of fourteen vertebrae in our neck as owls do, swiveling their head nearly 360 to take in a detailed view of their surroundings. However, focusing on where we look especially during spinal exercises can make a critical difference in the quality of movement.
Here are some quick tips on keeping your head and neck in the game for a successful Pilates practice and posture corrector program.
The head is the top of the spine
All right, I know that fact might seem quite obvious, and it depends on the particular exercise, but if you’re moving your spine, the top of the spine is likely to be participating in some way. For instance, in the spinal move of side-bending, there’s a common faulty pattern I see in many students.
The aim is head to tail flexibility, so your head should stay up on top of the spine, your gaze forward. Pretend you’re sliding your back and back of head against a wall. The common mistake is that students cast their eyes downward the moment they begin to side bend.
Where your eyes go, your body goes, and so with eyes cast downward, your head instinctively follows, and drops out of alignment instead of staying up on top of the spine. Consider the head as something of a leader going into spinal movement or most any movement. Now lets swivel to the primary sensory organ we rely on heavily for balance and spatial orientation– your eyes.
Eyeballs have muscles too
There’s no competition with Mr. Owl since we rotate on average 45-70 degrees with our necks, unlike his 270. No matter your average, you probably are underestimating the power of your monitor-gazing, device-reading eyeballs.
Try this: Turn your head and look in the direction you are pointing your nose like in the above example in Spine Twist. Then let your eyes take over, looking even further the rest of the way in that same direction. Increase your field of vision as far as you can in that direction.
That little enhancement, can actually help you create a bigger rotation. Viola! Your eyeballs are doing Pilates!
While it’s sometimes more Zen to practice Pilates moves with your eyes closed, there are definitely exercises in class where its best to keep your eyes open.
Your eyes have muscles too, and they need to maintain fitness and flexibility. Want to keep your peepers fit and free of computer eye strain? Check out this short video example of exercises to help with computer eye strain (2:33)
One quick note on those who wear glasses: Because we gather so much proprioceptive information from our vision, if you wear bifocals or trifocals during exercise, you might discover that your head and neck position may need adjusting. Ask for assistance from your teacher or schedule a one-on-one for a specific coaching/training session.
Shoulders and Chest
Head and neck positions are highly influenced by the shoulders and the thoracic spine. Your greatest range of movement will be available as you strive toward an ideal posture of drawing the shoulders down toward the hips and keeping breadth in your chest.
Like we mentioned earlier, to be mindful of your shoulders riding up during the day. Take a deep breath and ease your shoulders back and down the ribcage. Since the ribs are attached to the thoracic spine, with that ease, you’ll gain more expansion for your full inhale and exhale too!
Mirror, mirror on the wall….
Again, closing your eyes during a mind-body practice is really great in helping facilitate a “check-in” on how the body feels – tension, weight-bearing, and orientation to your surroundings. However, your Pilates eyeball muscles come in handy for self-coaching.
Use a mirror to provide visual feedback and build even better body awareness of your spinal alignment. View the position as you start; what do you find influences your head and neck position as you move? Take mental notes and file that in your brain – so that you can get your head in the game!
Remember that posture is in fact dynamic and can’t be fixed with one single thing. Exercises are only part of the equation. Joseph Pilates intended his method as “the complete coordination of body, mind, and spirit.”
Practice awareness in your body for habitual static positions or day-to-day movements. Give yourself kind messages. Breathe.
With eyes wide open, we’ll see you in the studio!