Picture a human skeleton. The kind you see in anatomy classes, hanging on a stand, waiting for students to gather round and count the ribs, or touch the vertebrae. Besides the fact that the skeleton is just a bunch of bones, there is something about each and every one that is different from most real humans. They all look more or less the same. The spine has two little curves, at the neck and at the lower back. The vertebrae stack one on top of the other. The arms and legs hang from the torso. And the head rests on top of the neck. Not in front of the neck, or tilted to one side, or dropping down. Right on top.
Yet if you look at most Westerners, (and as we become more technologically “advanced,” other cultures as well), you will notice that many people have their head forward, or tilted, or pulled back. When you change the head’s comfortable relationship to the spine and pelvis, even slightly, it wreaks havoc through the entire system. So many times people come to me and say, “I try to stand up straight, but 30 seconds later, I feel my head sticking forward again.” Or “Is there anything I can do about this lump that seems to be growing out the bottom of my neck? It makes it really hard to stand up straight.” Why do so many adults have head and neck problems, causing repercussions through the whole self?
There was a 60s term that people used when one’s thinking was out of line, “Man, your head is in the wrong place!” Or how about, “Get your head on straight!” Certainly not all of us think the same, nor is being “straight” the solution to life’s problems. But when your head starts to pull forward without a relationship to the rest of yourself, or drops downward, it can actually affect your entire life, including your thinking. Let’s look at some of the different ways—both physiological and psychological—that we are affected by the head’s placement, as well as some of the causes.
One of the primary changes to the use of our skeletons has taken place in the last century. Before that, most people worked outdoors, or engaged in other physical activities. With the Industrial Age came automated jobs and office jobs that required long periods of either standing in place or sitting down.
The skeleton is designed for movement. Standing or sitting for a long time can produce stress on the skeleton—creating a struggle for balance. When you sit a long time for example, the lower back can start to feel tight. You want to slouch, round over, and the head starts to move downward.
Add to that all the different demands for looking straight forward in a focused fashion: driving a car, staring at a computer screen, assembling a product for hours on end. This not only affects the freedom of the head, but it affects the eyes as well.
In so-called undeveloped nations, people have to walk from place to place, often carrying their luggage on their heads. If the head and pelvis are not connected by a flexible spine, carrying a weight becomes uncomfortable very quickly. But with everything working together, the head can easily sustain weights that are too much for the arms. In theater, we often use the carriage of the head to define a character. Someone with his head thrust forward is perhaps aggressive, thrusting himself into every encounter. Or if the head is forward and slightly down, a quality of shyness or weariness creeps into the portrayal. If you take these two examples, out of many others, you can see how the physiological and psychological begin to relate. If your head is thrust forward, it takes the spine out of balance. It demands that you keep moving forward or you’ll just fall down. To compensate, you have to hunch and engage your shoulders, grip the sternocleidomastoid muscles (those rope-like things on the side of the neck), and sometimes even tense your jaw. With that level of tension, no wonder a person feels aggressive!
Once the head is forward and little down, the person’s skeleton is losing the battle with gravity. The upper spine needs to round a bit to keep the person’s head from falling further and to help with balance. The eyes need to peer upward. It is difficult to turn the head quickly from side to side, making the person vulnerable to things coming from the side. And with the spine all rounded, there isn’t enough freedom for a quick directional change. This is a very unbalanced, insecure feeling. Not to mention extremely tiring. Thus, the person is physically as well as psychologically insecure and weary.
Of course, the above are generalizations and each of our postural choices are richly varied. But it’s important to note that they are indeed choices. They may have been unconscious—brought on by imitation, stress or lifestyle. But they are not genetic. Babies don’t have their heads sticking forward. Once a child begins the process of being vertical, the whole dynamics of the system changes. The use of the head can be affected by something as simple as undiagnosed near-sightedness, or as complex as unconsciously imitating an emotionally unavailable parent for approval.
Ultimately, it’s not important HOW you lost your comfortable stance. What counts is how to develop more choices so that you can stand, sit and walk comfortably, using your skeleton the way it was designed. Moshe Feldenkrais, the developer of the Feldenkrais Method® once noted that if the head is not organized in relationship to the rest of the self, a person cannot be fully functional. He developed hundreds of lessons that can help re-organize the carriage of the head on the spine.
These lessons are pleasant movement sequences that can be done by anyone, regardless of ability. If you have noticed that your head “is not on straight,” you may want to explore working with a Feldenkrais® teacher, or taking an Awareness Through Movement® class in your area.