by Catherine Kettrick
It is most helpful to do these experiments with a friend. If you don’t have a friend handy, you may find using a mirror helpful. Even more helpful would be an arrangement of mirrors so that you can see yourself from the front and sides at the same time.
Where is your head?
Do you know where the top of your spine is? The bottom of your head rests on the top of your spine. Think about that for a moment, and then put a finger on your neck at the level you think is the top of your spine. Where is your finger? Some people think the top of their spine is at the level of their collar. Some people think it is at the level of the bottom of their ear lobe.
How To Locate the Top of Your Spine
Stick your fingers in your ears. Very delicately tilt your head forward and back about a centimeter or less. Notice where that moving is happening. The top of your spine is at the middle of the bottom of your skull, between your ears and behind your nose. Is that where you thought it was? *
So now, as you sit there and read this, with your fingers still in your ears, gently tighten the muscles in the back of your neck and see what happens to your head. Stop tightening them, and see what happens. Play around with that for a while. Notice that as you tighten the muscles in the back of your neck, your head tends to drop back and down from the top of your spine. As you stop tightening the muscles in your neck, your head tends to move forward and up from the top of your spine. Why does your head move back and down? Because you tightened muscles in your neck. Why does your head move forward and up? Because you’ve stopped tightening those muscles in your neck. (You can take your fingers out of your ears now).
Why Should I Care Where My Head Is?
Because of a simple fact which is true for all animals with a head and a spine (that’s us!): the poise of your head on the top of your spine determines the quality of your coordination–the quality of how you move. Another way of saying that is: the relationship of your whole head to your whole body determines the quality of your coordination. Your head naturally balances easily on the top of your spine, and we are naturally wonderfully well coordinated–unless we interfere with that coordination (and assuming normal physiology, with no trauma pre, during or post birth). When we interfere with the natural balance of our head we dis-coordinate ourselves.
So, How Do We Interfere With That Balance?
How do we go from being well coordinated to poorly coordinated? We start by unnecessarily tightening the muscles in our neck. Try this experiment. Sit comfortably in a simple, straight backed chair. Move your arms around and notice how they feel. Now, while continuing to move your arms, tighten the muscles in the back of your neck very gently and let your head drop back and down from the top of your spine. How do your arms feel now as you move them?
Now stop tightening the muscles in your neck. Did your head move? Did your arms start to feel different? If you aren’t sure, try the experiment again. Let your head drop even farther back and down from the top of your spine as you move your arms.
What do you notice?
Now stop tightening the muscles in your neck. What do you notice now?
(You can stop moving your arms now).
If this experiment went for you as it does for most people, your arms probably began to feel uncomfortable when you tightened your neck, perhaps heavier and harder to move. You may also have felt discomfort in your neck. Hopefully, when you stopped tightening your neck, your arms felt better, and somewhat easier to move. So, why did your arms feel uncomfortable? What caused it? YOU did, by tightening your neck. What caused them to feel better? YOU did, by stopping tightening your neck.
We have been talking so far about the muscles in the back of your neck. You have muscles in the front of your neck also. Many, perhaps most people when they dis-coordinate themselves, tend to over tighten the muscles in the back of their neck. Some people tend to over tighten muscles in the front of their neck, and some people do both! If you would like to make the experiment, try tightening the muscles in the front of your neck, and see what happens.
What About From the Neck Down?
Let’s try another experiment. Sit in your chair, and gently tighten the muscles in the back of your neck so your head starts to drop back and down. (If you need to remember where the top of your spine is, put your fingers in your ears as you drop your head back and down). Continue doing this, continue some more, and notice both what happens to your body and the quality with which you are moving.
What did you notice? Most people notice that they go into a “slump.” How did you get there?
You know how you started to get there, because you know that you tightened muscles in the back of your neck to begin pulling your head back and down from the top of your spine. What happened next? Were you aware that you also had to tighten muscles in your body to continue “slumping?”
To many people, when they “slump” it doesn’t usually feel as if they are tightening muscles to do it. It usually feels like something they would call “relaxing,” especially if they slump after “standing up straight” for a long time, or working hard.
Does your slump feel “relaxed” to you? Do you like sitting there slumped? Or is it beginning to feel uncomfortable? (Remember, you should still be sitting there slumped!) Most people don’t like sitting slumped for very long.
So How Do I Stop Slumping?
Many people would tell you to “Sit up straight.” They would tell you to DO something to stop slumping. So let’s try that. As you sit there, slumped, “sit up straight,” and notice what you do to “sit up straight.” Notice two things: what direction you are moving in, and what quality you are moving with.
Note that “direction” means pathway: what path did you take to get from point A (“slumping”) to point B (“sitting up straight”)? “Quality” means how you might describe how you move: is it easy, comfortable, tense, unfamiliar, light, heavy, etc.
How comfortable is your “sitting up straight?” Could you “sit up straight” for a long period of time and be comfortable? Could you “sit up straight” on a bench without a back for several minutes to an hour, and feel comfortable and free from pain?
Most people are uncomfortable “sitting up straight” for very long. If you are uncomfortable, let yourself go down again into a slump, but as you do it, notice how you are moving–in what direction you move to slump, and with what quality you are moving. Notice especially what you do with your whole head in relation to the rest of you.
Remember that we are talking about your WHOLE head. Many of us think of our heads as everything from the ears forward. This makes some sense, because we seem to do so much with that part of our heads: see, smell, taste, hear. But our whole head (which encloses the brain we need to see, smell, taste and hear with!) is much bigger. If you are not sure, put one hand on the back of your head (where you might put both hands if you are lying on your back and wanted to put your hands under your head) and the index finger of your other hand in one ear. Now tighten the muscles in the back of your neck, and pull your head back and down. Do you notice how your whole head is moving?
So, there you are, slumping. Did you notice how you got there? If not, let’s experiment some more. Start where you are (you should be still slumping)and “sit up straight.” Do it slowly enough that you can notice what direction you are moving in, and what quality you are moving with.
What did you notice?
Did you start moving with a nice, easy quality? Did you continue with that quality, or at some point did you start tightening muscles? Did you notice if your head moved first, or if another part of you moved first? If you are not sure what you did, here’s an easy way to find out. First go into a slump. Now, think about your idea of “sitting up straight.” Now go ahead and “sit up straight,” but after you feel you are “up straight,” consciously “do more” of “sitting up straight.” What direction did you move in? What quality did you move with? Were you aware of what muscles you tightened to do more of “sitting up straight?” Most people tighten muscles in their back to “sit up straight.” Did you? If you aren’t sure, repeat the experiment, observing until you have an idea of what you do to “sit up straight.” If you are not sure what you are doing with your head when you try to “sit up straight,” put your fingers in your ears again as you move.
A Different Way to Stop Slumping
So now you’ve learned something about how you slump, and what you do to “sit up straight.” But you still have a problem: You don’t want to slump, but “sitting up straight” in your usual way isn’t comfortable either. What can you do?
First, do you remember how you got into your slump in the first place? You got into your slump by tightening muscles in your neck and body. You DID something to slump. So what makes more sense: to stop slumping by DOING something else to “sit up straight” or to stop doing what you did in the first place to slump?
Let’s do another experiment, to clarify this concept. Hold up one index finger. Place your other hand, palm down, on top of your index finger. Push down.
You probably observed that your index finger bent, felt pushed down, or in some way distorted. Now take your hand off.
Your finger should have returned to its original condition.
Why did you finger “bend?” Because you pushed on it. Why did it stop bending? Because you stopped pushing on it.
Why did you slump? Because you pushed on yourself, by tightening muscles in your neck and body. How can you stop slumping? By stopping pushing on yourself.
By now we hope you will agree that it makes more sense to stop slumping by stopping doing what you did to slump in the first place. So, how do you stop? Remember what you did to slump? You began by tightening muscles in your neck, and continued into your slump by tightening muscles in your body. So now to get out of your slump, you want to stop this tightening.
Begin with the relationship of your whole head to your whole body. While you are sitting there, slumped, think about allowing the muscles in your neck to relax. Allowing your muscles to relax does NOT mean that you DO something to them to relax them; it means only that you stop tightening them. You will have to think very clearly that you are stopping some muscular activity that you do not want. (Here especially is where a friend or a mirror can help you, to be an outside eye for you, and notice if you are stopping tightening the muscles in your neck, or if you are doing something more trying to relax them). Allowing your muscles to relax (which means you stop tightening them) will probably feel like you are doing “nothing.” In fact, you may not notice any change at first (which is why it is helpful to experiment with a friend, who can report what they see). At this point, many people will be tempted to “do” something so that they can feel something, so that they “know” they “have relaxed” the muscles in their neck. RESIST THIS TEMPTATION! If you try to do “more” you will only tighten your muscles, which is the opposite of what you want. So, go back to your thinking, and very delicately, with the smallest thought you can make, think about allowing your neck to relax.
As you begin to stop tightening the muscles in your neck, your head will begin to move delicately forward and up from the top of your spine. (If you’re not sure, put your fingers in your ears again while you do this). At first, it will be a very little bit forward. That’s fine. Just notice the delicate ease with which you are moving, and allow it to continue. You will probably find that as your head moves just a little bit easily forward and up from the top of your spine, your whole body will begin to follow easily that upward direction. Again, it probably will only be a little bit at first. Again, this is fine. Pay attention to the quality of your thinking, and the quality of your moving. Let your thinking and moving be as easy and delicate as they can be.
When to Stop
How “far” can you go with this new thinking? Eventually very “far” indeed. For now, however, it is most important to make a small, beginning change, and be happy with that. If you try to do too much (see Pitfalls), you will, in fact, be “doing” too much, when what you want is to “undo” what you don’t need to do in the first place. So when to stop is after you have done a little bit of this new thinking, especially if you have noticed a nice change, and especially if you want “more” of that change. Although most people do not want to believe it, it is true: you will succeed far more quickly, and with far fewer frustrations and disappointments if you do a little bit of clear experimenting and thinking, observing, experimenting, and thinking, and then STOP, than if you try to do “more.” So:
TAKE LOTS OF BREAKS!!!
Especially if you do feel yourself becoming uncomfortable or stiff, then REALLY take a break. Go read a book, get into another world, call your mom or brother or a friend, go for a walk, and only notice the scenery, feed the cat, whatever. Take a break!
Continuing to Begin
You now have some information that will make it easier for you to change how you move. You have also done some experimenting with one particular activity, sitting. You can now make this same experiment with any activity you choose.
So, pick some activity to do. Wait a moment, and organize yourself. Notice what you are doing with your whole head in relation to your whole body. As you did with the “slumping/sitting up straight” experiment, think about letting your neck be free. Think about letting your whole head move ever so delicately forward and up from the top of your spine. Remember, you are only THINKING, you are not doing something to make changes. Notice what is happening with your body. Continue all this thinking as you go into the activity.
What did you notice? Were you able to continue your new thinking as you picked up the pencil, or scratched your nose? Did you remember where the top of your spine was? If you got part way through, and realized you had stopped thinking in this new way, that’s fine. It is a new way of thinking, a new skill, and like any new skill requires practice.
For now, from time to time, take a moment to pause before you begin an activity, and organize yourself. Think about your neck, think about your head, think about your whole self being easy and free as you begin the activity. Notice what you notice, have fun, and see what you learn.
*If you look at a picture of a skull and spine in an anatomy book, noticing where the ear holes are, you will see that the top of your spine is actually a little bit lower than your ears. However, FUNCTIONALLY, and in terms of the balance of the whole of your head on the top of your spine, you will find the most freedom and ease of moving if you think of your head moving from a point between your ears and behind your nose.