A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself, Pt 3: Shoulders

Several of you are with me on this adventure of standing more firmly in your skin, or more precisely, focusing your attention to your skeleton to give yourself more stability and resilience. I’m thrilled you’re here. If you missed Know Thyself, Pt 1: Breath or Know Thyself, Pt 2: Spine, you can still join in.

By the time you’ve come this far, maybe it’s getting easier to notice what you are doing with your body posture while you go through your day. Maybe you’re finding it’s easier to bring your attention to all those details?

This week, we’ll zero in on our shoulders, for if there’s a vulnerable aspect of our skeleton, the shoulders win the prize. Anatomically, the shoulders are almost entirely anchored in place by muscle, tendon, and connective tissue. The only bony attachment of your entire shoulder and arm is at the joint between the collar-bone (clavicle) and breast bone (sternum). This little joint, less than 1” in diameter is the hinge from which your entire arm and shoulder rotate. Pretty impressive, if you ask me. But, this is also the problem. There is greater risk of injury and more ability to sink into not-great postures.

Crouching Aphrodite. Marble, Roman variant of ...

Crouching Aphrodite. Marble, Roman variant of the Imperial Era after a Hellenistic type: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And ask yourself . . . In what posture are my shoulders? Are they rounded forward? Are they lifted toward my ears? As I look at the keyboard of my computer, do my shoulders slump and my hands awkwardly punch on the keys while my shoulders turn in?

Often when we think of posture, we think of our shoulders thrust back and our chest out. Or, we don’t want to put our chest out and we let ourselves sink in and thus we walk around with a rounded back. Neither of these postures is ideal. There is something in between.

Before we get to what to do or what is in between, you need to study and learn what you do. And when. And for how long. You need to become an expert on the posture of your shoulders. Are you sucking your shoulders in closer to your body as if you were cold? Are you tense and use lots of force with your hands, as if softening your grip might cause you to lose hold? When you do that, the pressure on your shoulders and neck is phenomenal. Are you using your cell phone so much that you end up with pain in your arms, shoulders, wrists or hands?

This week, I want you to notice where your shoulders rest. In any given moment, ask that question, “Where are my shoulders?” If you notice they rest close to your ears, then hold them there and wait a few moments. Just wait. Finally, slowly, let your shoulders return to a comfortable posture.

And, I want you to ask “Where are my shoulders?” again. If you answer “They are caved in, rounded forward, and feel pretty crummy,” you know your posture contributes to your discomfort. The good news? You have the power to shift it. Round your shoulders even more, cave in a bit more. Breath if you can, into those stuck places.

If your shoulders are thrust back in “good posture mode,” keep them there for a few moments. Note how much tension you have in your neck and whether your breathing is free. The let your attention wander away and don’t try to hold your shoulders in that way.

After you’ve spent a couple of days studying and detailing the position of your shoulders, then take a day or two to play with one of the other postures. If you are a shoulder thruster and stand at attention, try rounding and slumping forward. Don’t do it all at once, you’ll need some time to really get used to it. And, once you can round and slump, then alternate between thrusting shoulders back and rounding/slumping. This isn’t as vigorous a movement as it sounds when it’s written here, it is definitely slow and easy moves, nothing abrupt.

If you are a rounder/slumper, try lifting your shoulders toward your ears. See if you can move as smoothly going toward your ears as you do going away from the ears. The focus is on getting rid of any glitches in the bringing shoulders to ears and returning to a resting posture. You could think of it as sanding out the bumps in a table top or stirring the pudding until there are no lumps. Attend to the details.

One thing we know about posture is that poor posture can contribute to all kinds of health problems. It is easy to disrupt the breathing, inhibit the motions of the internal organs, or experience back and neck pain, to name a few. Over time, poor posture takes a toll.

And, one thing your movement teacher knows is that good posture isn’t static, it is dynamic. Healthy humans move freely, not stiffly or hesitantly. When an unexpected situation comes up, your responsiveness will depend on whether you have to re-organize yourself to move, or freeze until you are over the shock.

Finally, after you’ve studied and then experimented, go find a cat you can spend some time observing. Copy the cat. Walk like the cat. Move your back like the cat. Note how natural movement is fluid, sinewy, and languid. Once you have an idea of how the cat moves, then go back to copying humans. You’ll learn so much about your spine and being more comfortable.

You are looking for comfort. Why not find some?

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A Healthy Stepmother . . . Knows Thyself, Pt 2: The Spine

This is the second in a series of six posts, Know Thyself, dedicated to stepmothers everywhere who need extra support as we navigate the sticky situations of holiday gatherings. Our goal is not to magically make life happy, but rather to interrupt our feelings of worry, fear, or frustration long enough to make choices that fit our situation and needs. It’s ideal if you can suspend judgment about what you find in your observations and be willing to stay with it when it seems like nothing is happening. 

Find a place to sit, stand, or lie down.

First, reflect on your observations of your breathing from the activity last week. Is it easier to track your breathing now? Can you tell that the breath causes movement in your back, on the sides of your torso along the ribs, and in your chest and abdominal area? Can you tell when you are breathing in shallowly and when the inhalation is deep?

Now, shift your attention to your spine. Think of the length of your spine and how it is shaped. Are there curves in your spine? At the neck? At the lower back? What about a rounding in the upper back, do you have a sense of falling in your chest in such a way your shoulders round forward? Do you have pain at any point along the spine? How significant is the discomfort?

The lumbar region in regards to the rest of th...

The lumbar region in regards to the rest of the spine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do you believe to be true about posture? Do you think slumping is bad? Do you think your shoulders should be thrown back and your stomach pulled in? How long can you stand or sit in any one pose before you have to move and adjust to be comfortable?

Pay attention to the curves you noticed in your spine? Do something to deepen the curves just a small amount? Please go gently and don’t move so far you cause discomfort. Now, experiment and see if there is something you can do to decrease the curves, again, very gently. Go back and forth between deepening the curves and diminishing the curves. Make the distance smaller and smaller in each direction until you are not moving, but have come to rest in what we might call neutral.

How close is that neutral posture to the posture you normally carry?

When you are out and about in your life, catch yourself and take note of the shape of your spine. If you can, just watch for a few seconds before you make an adjustment to what you think it should be. In fact, each time you find yourself in a posture you don’t like, rather than immediately moving to match the image of what you think you should be doing, just wait and take in even more of the picture. How long is the front of you? How long is the back of you? Are you comfortable? When you know the answers to these questions, then feel free to adjust to something else and go on about breathing and living and noticing the shape of your spine.

Each time you find yourself in a challenging situation or a conversation that feels risky, take note of the shape of your spine. Are there any patterns you can find? Do you hunch your shoulders when you are worried? What do you do with your spine when you feel challenged? Defeated? Are there degrees of slumping and being upright? Can you experiment with the middle, not slumping and not upright?

Incorporate these kinds of noticing into your daily experience, while you wait in line at the checkout, while you sit at a stop light, while you stand at the kitchen sink, or brush your teeth. Don’t worry about spending hours and hours studying yourself, try to fit the observations in here and there so the sequence is simple and fairly brief, just a question, a noticing, and a move on to the next thing. Do this as often as you can remember.

For this week, that is enough.

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