Head and Shoulders Above the Rest


Autumn 2006

The moment you were born, you engaged your most primitive reflex: the rooting-reflex. This coordinates the turning of your head, eyes, and mouth in search of food – your mother’s milk. At the earliest stages of development, the head, eyes, neck and trunk coordinate most of their rotation in the same direction. When my sons were young and learning to roll, I would take an enticing object and keep moving it so that they would want to watch it; turning their eyes, head, and eventually their whole body. Voila – they would roll over.

More sophisticated movement develops in later years. Differentiation, the ability to move our body parts in opposite directions, is necessary for mature motor development. However, with the evolution of our species from nomadic to agricultural, then industrial, to our current technologically advanced society, many movements of differentiation that would naturally develop are being limited by a singular, straight-ahead focus on the computer screen, TV, or even in the car.

Most children have enough play and athletic involvement to allow them to benefit from the development of healthy differentiated movements. However, the more focused we become on schoolwork or adult-work, the more we impose movement limitations on our bodies that can result in postural changes. This contributes to shoulder strains, neck pains, and headaches.

Healthy, differentiated rotations happen naturally with walking. Your head and eyes remain looking forward while your shoulders and arms swing and your upper back rotates around the axis of your spine. Simultaneously, your legs are advancing in alternating patterns to your arm swing, and your pelvis and low back are rotating in the opposite direction of your upper back. Walking on uneven surfaces further advances the skills and coordination of our differentiated-rotational movements. This additional challenge allows your nervous systems to develop more diverse pathways for balance and strength in muscular tissues.

In sports it is easy to see the necessity of differentiated rotation. Downhill skiers look downhill while turning their skis, and therefore their lower body left and right. A good golfer keeps her head down and focused on the ball, while her shoulders and hips rotate fully in each direction. In basketball, soccer and any number of activities, an athlete must learn to move their eyes towards a goal while their hands or feet may be rotating opposite to their aim to get the ball up the court or field.

Rotational movements also support the natural curves in your spine: Your low back, or lumbar spine, has a natural forward curve called lordosis. Your middle/thoracic spine curves slightly back, called kyphosis. Your neck also curves forward in a lordosis. Your spine’s natural curves, combined with differentiated rotation, work harmoniously for a happy and healthy back, shoulders, neck and head. But if any component becomes limited, excessive strain is placed elsewhere in your system.

Imagine the curves in a snake. If you straightened that snake out, he wouldn’t be able to move very far or very fast, would he? Yet this is what often happens as people learn to “slouch sit” and lose the lumbar curve in their low back and neck.

The loss of lumbar lordosis while sitting is one of the primary reasons people develop neck and shoulder pain. Many movement and exercise programs, including Pilates and Tai Chi, promote a “posterior pelvic tilt” (straightening out the lumbar lordosis) to tighten the abdominal muscles and flatten the stomach. Although these can be fine for short periods of exercise, they are not meant to become a postural habit. It is worth noting that the Asian body-type evolved with less of a lumbar lordosis, and this should not be imposed on the Caucasian body-type as more “correct.”

Next time you go for a walk, do a little experiment. Begin by noticing the differentiated rotations between your head, upper back, and pelvis. The speed of your walk will affect the differentiation: with slow walking there is less, but it increases the faster you go. Once you have a sense of the different rotations between your shoulders and pelvis, bring your attention to the curves in your spine. Play with flatting and exaggerating your lumbar curve and see if you can feel its influence on the ease of rotation during walking.

As you learn to utilize the natural curves of your spine you will find sitting much more comfortable. Simply by employing a healthy lumbar lordosis, you will discover your head resting more easily with less tension on your shoulders. It also allows your shoulders to rest at your sides, without rolling forward which can cause pinching syndromes.

If you’ve been sitting in front of a computer screen for a while, or have taken a long drive, a simple way to reduce the tension in your neck and upper back is to gently begin moving your head from side to side and taking your eyes in the opposite direction. If you’re feeling really savvy, you can include alternating rotational movements in your shoulders or pelvis. My newest on-line Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement® lesson demonstrates all of these movements and provides you with an excellent opportunity to discover them within yourself.

Although it can be challenging to develop new movement patterns after years of establishing “bad habits,” it is possible. New movement and postural patterns are most effective when you learn to incorporate awareness and sensation of how your different body parts are connected and supportive of each other. Rather than replacing an “idea” of proper posture, with a new picture of what posture is supposed to “look” like, healthy posture and movement is a physical inner feeling that, when discovered, can be transferred easily to any activity.

As you employ any or all of these suggestions, your head, neck and shoulders are sure to notice improvements. These improvements will help you age more gracefully and keep you “head and shoulders above the rest!”