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 it that is different from most live humans. All skeletons look more or less the same. 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 heads 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. Have you ever heard: “I try to stand up straight, but 30 seconds later, I feel my head sticking forward again.” Or “I have this hump that seems to be growing out the bottom of my neck.” Why do so many adults have head and neck problems, causing repercussions through the whole self?
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 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 produces stress, creating a struggle for balance. When you sit a long time, the lower back can start to feel tight if the head/pelvis relationship is not comfortable and supported. You want to slouch, round over, and the head starts to move downward. Add to that 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 the eyes as well. In so-called undeveloped nations, people walk from place to place, often carrying their luggage on their heads. If the head and pelvis are not connected by an integrated spine, carrying a weight becomes uncomfortable very quickly. But with everything organized, the head can easily sustain weights that are too much for the arms.
In theater, the head’s position often defines a character. Thrust forward it signifies aggression. When forward and slightly down, a quality of shyness or weariness creeps into the portrayal. In just these two examples, you can see how the physiological and psychological begin to relate. The head thrust forward takes the spine out of balance. You must 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! With the head 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 head from falling further and compromising 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 insecure feeling. Not to mention extremely tiring. Thus, the person is physically as well as psychologically insecure and weary.
The above are generalizations -our postural choices are richly varied. But it’s important to note that they are indeed choices. They may be 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 dynamics of the system change. 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.
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. So take a look in the mirror, it really might be all in your head.