by Kathleen Porter
Toddlers Hold the Key
Toddlers may have to rely on grown-ups to teach them how to tie a shoe and use the potty, but when it comes to knowing how to sit, stand, bend and walk with ease, we can take our cues from these agile little ones. Moreover, toddlers, in spite of their tender age, hold the secret of how to age comfortably. Sound nutty? Read on.
All healthy babies teach themselves how to stand and walk by falling down enough times to discover the central axis or "plumb line" along which they must arrange their bones in order to balance a heavy head on top of the spine. A comparison of people in the world who age into their 80's and 90's with long spines and no back pain with the typical person who experiences chronic back pain, reveals that the back pain sufferer is far more likely to have veered off from this axis. The shocker is that true natural alignment is surprisingly different from what your mother may have taught you about sitting or standing "up straight."
Five Things Toddlers Know that Most of Us Have Forgotten
One of the first things toddlers learn when standing on their own is that their bones do the primary job of holding them up, not muscle strength. Without aligned bones, they fall down.
Toddlers do not actively lift up their chests, nor do they slouch. To do either would cause them to lose their balance.
Toddlers don't have firm "abs" or sucked-in bellies. Their relaxed belly muscles on the surface allow breathing to be free and natural, as well as their skeletons to align themselves. Only with aligned bones can the deeper "core" abs provide stabilizing support.
Toddlers do not pull their heads up and back. The fact that their heads are proportionately larger and heavier at their age forces them to discover how to delicately balance the skull on the spine (somewhat like a bowling ball on a stick).
Toddlers don't breathe into their upper chests, but rather experience a gentle natural breath in the lowest and broadest part of the lungs, filing the back, as well as the front of the body.
Children are losing their natural alignment at increasingly younger ages due to a long list of influences that include such things as poorly designed strollers, car seats and desk seats in school which often cause the pelvis to tuck in a "sad dog" position. Hours spent slumped in front of television and computer screens cause muscles in the front of the hips and torso to be trained to shorten in an unnatural, chronic way that becomes habitual in all that they do.
To counteract our society's ever-growing tendency towards slouching, we have developed an entire culture of exercise and fitness that is based on the belief that strength and flexibility are qualities that must be worked at to be maintained. However, authentic strength and flexibility are simply the natural byproducts of living a normally active life in an aligned body, where muscles remain elastic and joints have full range of movement.
People who age into their 70's, 80's and beyond with elongated spines and flexible joints, as well as those small women in the world who successfully carry heavy loads on their heads without developing problems, have never lost the skeletal alignment they first discovered as toddlers.
Things You Can Do to Align Like a Toddler
While specific instructions for how to realign in a natural way is beyond the scope of this article, some simple explorations can help you get started. Keep in mind that the steps outlined below may feel awkward, weird or just plain wrong at first, especially if your muscles are accustomed to doing the work of holding you up.
Locate your sit bones or "butt bones." Sit on a firm, level surface. Slide your right hand, palm up, under your right buttock. Let your weight come down onto your hand and roll around until you feel a boney "knob" pushing into your hand. This is one of your sit bones (there's another one on the left side). A baby or toddler always sits perched on these sit bones.
Park your pelvis in neutral. Bring your weight directly onto both sit bones (pulling the flesh of the buttocks out behind you may help you do this). Bring your awareness to the pubic bone, where two bones of your pelvis meet low in the front. Slowly move the pubic bone upward, away from the seat, noticing the rounding that comes into the spine. Notice, also, how your weight has rolled off the back edge of the sit bones. Now press the pubic bone downwards into the seat until you experience the rising length that comes into the spine. This will give you a sense of how the position of the pelvis determines the stability of everything above it.
Relax your belly. This can be one of the most difficult things to do when we have been told constantly to "suck it in." However, tightening the abs (rectus abdominis) interferes with natural breathing. Give it a try. Suck in and hold your tummy in for a few seconds, long enough to notice that you've stopped breathing. Now relax your belly ever so slightly, then a little more and a little more, and you will experience how breathing returns quite naturally. Don't worry. Your deeper core abs can only do their job when this surface tension is released.
Let your chest settle "in" instead of lifting "up." This can be hard to accept if you've been taught to sit up straight by lifting your chest. However, lifting your chest not only arches the spine, it compresses the spinal cord through which every nerve in your body passes. For many people, longstanding back problems are resolved almost immediately when they learn to "settle" the chest and open the back. Pay attention to how your back widens and relaxes as you do this. Note: It is essential that you park your pelvis in neutral first, or releasing your chest will put you into slouching mode instead.
Let your neck be soft and free. Perhaps the most difficult instruction of all requires that you stop "working" to hold your head up. Try this for yourself. Lift your chin and notice how the back of your neck (and your cervical spine) shorten and compress. Slowly drop your chin and feel your spine lengthening through the back of your neck. Again, this is likely to feel weird when you first experience these new ways of inhabiting your body. Put the emphasis more on how you feel than what you believe you should look like.
Embracing Your Inner Toddler
Slouching and sitting "up straight" represent opposite ways to be off the central axis. This simple fact explains much of the tension and pain experienced by millions of people today. Truly good posture aligns along the center and is comfortable, loose, easy and relaxed. Living in an aligned body adheres to fundamental laws of nature that govern physics, engineering and architecture.
By re-learning how to return to what you once knew (in other words, embracing your inner toddler!) you will be able, once again, to rely on the structural framework of an aligned, living skeleton to provide all the support you need to be naturally strong, flexible and pain-free.
Kathleen Porter has traveled the world researching natural skeletal alignment in people who have never lost what we all once knew as healthy toddlers. The author of Sad Dog Happy Dog: How Poor Posture Affects Your Child's Health & What You Can Do About It, and Ageless Spine, Lasting Health: The Open Secret to Pain-free Living and Comfortable Aging. She has taught principles of natural alignment through the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon and is currently on the faculty of the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. For more information visit her website.
Copyright © Kathleen Porter. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.