If the adage that great posture never goes out of style is true, then Penny McCormick is on a realignment mission …
“Posture influences our face and ageing process.” This is skin therapist Agnes Gajewska’s opening gambit during one of her recent Face Yoga workshops, before she tells participants to reposition their tongues on the roof of their mouths. This subtle readjustment, a relatively new area of holistic dentistry she is researching, also realigns posture. I’m hooked: Gajewska’s exercises (from gua sha to buccal massage) are some of many I’ve tried recently, as I investigate the bad posture pandemic.
“When people come to see me, it is almost like a confessional: bad posture often implies a moral failing,” says Dublin-based osteopath William Hauxwell, of Castlewood Clinic in Dublin 8, who echoes how I feel. My mother, never one to hold back, has been telling me I am round-shouldered, something that has become more pronounced with ongoing neck and hip pain, and the fact that, at 5ft 11in, I have alternately towered and stooped most of my life. I am not alone. Nowadays, friends invariably swap stories about assorted physio and chiropractor sessions, where once we discussed dates and designer bargains.
A by-product of this general unease with our bodies is the feeling that clothes no longer fit or suit us. One friend is investigating bespoke tailoring (and recommends tailor Patricia Grogan of The Cut Tailoring), another is adopting style guru Trinny Woodall’s advice to wear shoulder pads, which allow clothes to hang properly and give definition (one of AW22’s key trends by the way), should you tend to sloping shoulders.
“More important than the physical manifestations of poor posture, which can lead to shoulder problems, tennis elbow, headaches, neck and jaw pain among other things, are its social and psychological causes,” believes Hauxwell. “We tend to slump and slouch when we don’t feel good about life. It can also happen when standing or walking, when we can’t blame the ergonomics of the workstation or the chair.”
Pilates professional Eva Berg defines good posture as a sequence: chin parallel to the floor, shoulders even, arms by your side, with a neutral spine, abdominals slightly engaged, hips even, knees even and facing forward and body weight evenly distributed over both feet. Hauxwell goes further, differentiating between acquired and assumed posture, the former often the result of sitting at a 90-degree angle from an early age, (our posture becomes fixed after the age of 18 when our bones ossify) which throws our hips forward unnaturally. As for assumed posture, he says: “It’s impossible to sit in front of a laptop and not slouch.”
We tend to slump and slouch when we don’t feel good about life.
Women genetically have more postural problems than men. Postmenopausal women, as we know, tend to osteoporosis, which can lead to low bone density, balance issues, height loss and stooped or hunched posture. Then there’s the so-called Dowager’s Hump, or hyperkyphosis, an excessive curvature of the thoracic spine. “It’s no longer reserved for ageing aristocrats,” says Hauxwell, “but is also frequent in teenagers and is caused by stooping over devices, a laissez-faire attitude in schools and at dinner tables, and sitting in non-supportive chairs.”
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. “We can rectify elements of our posture by stretching regularly – one of the simplest ways is to arch our back over a rolled towel on the floor to open out our chests – and having an ergonomic workstation, with an adjustable chair,” says Hauxwell.
I am sourcing an Ikea ergonomic stool for “active sitting”, which helps open the hips and activate core muscles, one of many tips Colin Beattie, a Co Down-based Alexander Technique practitioner has shared during inspiring exploratory sessions. “Readiness,” is how he defines the method, invented by the actor Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s to improve his performance on stage.
“Our bodies are a one-piece muscle suit,” says Beattie. “We can create better posture, balance and breathing by replacing habits with conscious choices.” He advises a grounding process: to let tension in your neck and shoulders empty out through your spine, pelvis, so that you can sense your weight and wear yourself more lightly with poise. It takes time to master this process. One of the best things, he says is to lie down regularly, often called “active rest”. “This allows your spine’s shock absorbers, the intervertebral discs, to reabsorb the water they lose while we are standing or sitting and helps put a spring back into our step. Active rest also involves practising refining our awareness of and communication with our bodies and is a popular pre-event practice for performers of all kinds.” I find Beattie’s sessions mindful. He recommends Alexander teacher Chyna Whyne’s YouTube video about walking in high heels – a good reset before mastering autumnal shoe trends.
After a two-year hiatus, I have also returned to Pilates. This method, focusing on breathing and a mind-body connection, has been shown to promote changes in posture by supporting the spine and strengthening the shoulders and lower back muscles.
Eva Berg describes how a car crash earlier this year resulted in spine trauma. “My core weakened and my whole body seemed to bend forwards so I appeared shorter, fatter and lobsided – not a great look for a Pilates instructor!” Five months after the accident, with physiotherapy and a gentle programme of posture-related exercises she developed (which can be accessed online at www.secretpilates.com), she says her spine is opening up and gradually lengthening. “I am still tilted to one side but I’m hoping this will regulate again soon.” Berg’s honesty reminds us that perfect posture takes time and persistence. On particularly challenging mat sessions I will recall Joseph Pilates’ words: “In ten sessions you will feel better, in 20 sessions you will look better, in 30 sessions you will have a completely new body.” I expect nothing less.
For a list of teachers registered with the Irish Society of Alexander teachers visit www.isatt.ie and www.alexandertechnique.co.uk. For updates on future online classes with Agnes Gajewska, visit www.faceyogabyagnes.com.
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