Are your shoulders tight? If you're like most everyone I know, the answer is yes. We've created an entire culture that asks of us that we hunch forward for a good portion of our lives: over desks, computers, steering wheels. We hunch forward even when it's not necessary (yes, you CAN chop vegetables without hunching over the kitchen counter). This frequently assumed position is detrimental to our shoulder function.
Try swinging your arms in a circle that extends in front, overhead, and behind you without moving your torso. Most of us find our arms don't really make the backward arc of that circle. Instead, the arms travel out to the sides and only slightly to the back. What is hindering that range of motion? Our habitual misalignment of the upper body. The shoulder blades have begun to pull wider apart, no longer lying flat on the back near the spine. They probably sit at an angle as well, making the collar bones curve forward and the look collapsed.
The solution we hear is "Stand up straight." Well, that is the solution, but not the way most of us have interpreted the instruction. Most people will hear those three words of admonition and promptly pinch our shoulders back, thrust the ribs forward, and lift the chest. While that does give the appearance of being vertical, in that the shoulders and head seem to be stacked correctly, it actually doesn't change the problem, it hides it. It even creates a new problem by tightening back muscles at the place where the ribs thrust forward.
So how does one work on aligning this area correctly? You can start with the feet and build up. (I've covered this in the videos Sit Less Move More - Stacking Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) While that has overall importance, sometimes you want something specific for an area. In Eischens Yoga, we call that Transformational Work. Transformational work is done with a partner (I wrote about this some years ago). But there are other ways to work in a pose if you don't have a partner handy. In today's video, I've got three different ways for you to work in Prone Mountain. (If you don't know Prone Mountain, watch this or even this.)
For fun, check your arm swing. Try Prone Mountain a few times using one of the options given. Then try your arm swing again and see if there is any change.
The more time spent countering all that hunching over, the stronger you will get and the easier it will be to actually stand up straight. And when the shoulder blades and upper body get aligned, you just might notice the other benefits of this work such as improved range of shoulder motion, greater ease in breathing, less tension in the neck and shoulders, and regaining some lost height.
Next time you hear someone say, "Stand up straight," don't think "pinch shoulders, thrust ribs." Think "arms back."
Kneeling and squatting.
Two positions that are missing from the movement vocabulary of a lot of people.
There are numerous reasons why either of the above positions might be inaccessible. Your hips and knees could be the problem areas. So could tight leg muscles. But one particular factor is not having enough range of motion at the ankle. I still struggle with this myself. Notice there are two photos of me squatting. One of them shows my heels off the ground. That's how I squat without assistance. The only way I got my heels down for the bottom right photo was by holding on to the couch for balance.
Why the heck are our ankles so stiff? A good part of that stiffness is from the shoes we wear and from how we use our feet. Or rather don't use our feet. Stiff shoes keep your joints from moving to their fullest range of motion. Having the heel higher than the toes (even most "flat" shoes have a heel) shortens muscles that impact mobility. And walking on flat, smooth surfaces prevents us from exploring the variety of movements that the ankle and foot are capable of making. (And yes, injuries can also be implicated here. I did some serious damage to my ankles decades ago.)
"Who cares if I can't squat or kneel?" I hear you ask. "That is what chairs are for." Well, actually, not using all the range of joint mobility humans are designed for turns out to have overall health consequences. It is hard to miss all the headlines proclaiming that sitting is the new cancer. But it isn't actually just sitting that is the problem. It is not moving that is the problem. And the less you move, the less you CAN move. The ability to get down on the floor and back up with ease (the Sit/Rise test) is a predictor of longevity. Squatting in particular has implications for digestive health as well as hip, knee, and ankle health. Healthier joints = healthier you.
Given all the ways we create tight muscles and joints in the feet and ankles, it occurred to me to show you two simple poses that you can do anywhere. One brings extension to the top of the foot while contracting the muscles in the bottom of the foot and the calves. The other contracts the muscles on the top of the foot and the front of the shin while extending those on the bottom of the foot and the calves. Practicing one pose helps the other, as you'll see in the video. (NOTE: Chair pose is not squatting. If you want to add squatting to your world, you will need to strengthen those gluts in addition to loosening up a variety of joints. A whole other blog post coming soon on the subject. Meanwhile, you can check out this for a bit of squatting help.)
Tight muscles are not strong muscles. They limit your mobility, impinge your joints, and when stressed, they tear. Try these two poses. If your ankles and feet are tight, don't hold these for very long. Go gently. I use the word "Painful" in the video, but really I mean tender or intense. If it is painful to do the Top of the Foot Stretch, try the seated modification I mention. Alternate the poses and see how one pose affects the other. Watch your stiff ankles become a bit more flexible.
I hope this will encourage you to keep your body moving. Ankles are as a good a place to start as any other body part. As you have the ability to move more, move more. Use it or lose it is pretty accurate when it comes to your physical abilities. And improved physical ability leads to Healing and Balance.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.