No, there’s no chair for that.

Potentially Unpopular opinion ahead from your loving movement specialist: I know you are looking for relief from the aches and pains you are feeling from sitting so much to teach online. However, no chair is going to really solve the discomfort you feel right now. So, stop looking for an ergonomic chair that you think will magically make things better.

When we sit, we outsource work our muscles should be doing to the chair, so the idea of ergonomics is really just to make us more comfortable when we sit so we can sit for longer periods of time. Ergonomics is not really about optimal body function. However, we each need to be more about optimal body function.


You might get temporary relief from sitting on something different, but it will be a better use of your time to troubleshoot your current set up so you change positions more during lessons and look at how you are moving (or not moving) in between lessons.


Here are a few ideas to consider:
1. How can you create a standing position during lessons? What can you put your device on so you can stand while they sing because right now you don’t need to sit to accompany? What can you put at your feet to do some movement while you’re sitting – think tennis balls, half foam rollers, river rocks.


2. Have you tried standing to play chords and notes for the part of the lesson where you want troubleshoot parts of their songs? In other words, your singer sings through a song with the accompaniment on their end and then you have the phrases you want to check for technique, rhythms, notes etc. Try standing and playing notes on the keyboard to give your singer what they need to start. Everyone’s dimensions are different so if your arms don’t reach, make it into some glute work for yourself and play the notes/chord in a squat 😁).


3. Can you begin each lesson with a standing physical warm up that you do too? No one is maxing out the amount of movement they do every day while we are on stay at home orders, so why not add in some extra and move along with your singer?


4. Look at how you are positioned when you sit: are you head on to your device, or are you turned to the left or right? Can you be head on or swap from one side to the other on alternate lessons?

5. Resist the temptation to crane toward the screen to reach your student – this is like wanting to reach your audience when you perform. Notice when you’re doing it and think about the hyoid bone gently moving back in your neck to help guide your head back.

6. Also, if you don’t have them, blue light blocking glasses will help your eyes/suboccipital muscles experience less strain. Or you can try switching up the settings of brightness and color on your monitor. Between lessons take breaks to look outside at the farthest away point you can identify. All the up close looking of screens means we need to balance with far away looking and let’s face it, nature is also a balm for the soul right now.

7. What are you doing in the rest of your day? More sitting on chairs and couches? Try floor sitting, schedule walk breaks, pull your bike out of your basement and dust it off, join me for a weekly movement class on Fridays. IF you can’t get onto the floor easily to sit, build up piles of pillows/blankets/bolsters to sit on.

If you are aching from sitting, try implementing some of these suggestions and you can also access these videos on my Youtube channel to get you moving in your studio:

Are you asking for the impossible?

Have you ever asked a singer to raise their sternum, or told them to stand tall? Perhaps you’ve had them place three fingers or placed three of your fingers on their sternum and asked them to lift into your fingers? Maybe you’ve even had them roll shoulders up, back and down as a way of elevating and opening the front of the chest.

If you have, I hate to break it to you, but you’re asking for the impossible. That open chest you want, with a ribcage that is buoyant and flexible…It ain’t happening at the behest of a few words or a shoulder roll or even a shove of the sternum.

What we know should be happening and what a singer’s body can actually do are often a few light years apart.

Because most of what we do in life has our arms out in front of us and our heads looking down, our shoulder blades tend to be protracted – that means they are pulled away from the spine. The impact of this is rounded shoulders, a dropped sternum and lack of mobility in the thoracic spine. When we tell a singer to stand up straight or to raise their sternum, they can’t really do it due to the hyperkyphosis (spine rounding) and resulting immobility of the thoracic spine (the part of the spine where the ribs attach).

As an aside, we ALL have that hyperkyphosis, most of us are just able to mask it still. But, when you see an older body that makes a C shape in their torso, that is unmasked hyperkyphosis.

Because we don’t have good mobility in each spinal joint in the thoracic spine, when we’re told to stand up straight, we move from where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet at the bottom of the ribcage and thrust the entire ribcage forward. It might look like the sternum is now elevated, but we’ve created a swayback position and closed off the lower part of the ribcage so it doesn’t move well when we breathe.

And no, the answer is not to tuck the pelvis and bend the knees to address the swayback.

The answer to being able to stand up straight without creating a cascading avalanche of compensations is to improve mobility and build strength in the parts that are tight and weak. Rhomboids are muscles that run between the shoulder blades and the spine. Strength in these muscles helps keep the shoulder blades happily positioned on the back AND they counter the hyperkyphosis that we all have in the thoracic spine. Their primary action is retraction of the shoulder blades – meaning these muscles pull the blades toward the spine.

It would be nice if we could just issue a phrase or move a body into the position we want it to be in and expect it to stay there, but that’s just not how it works. You can’t shove a body part where you want it to go and have that fix years of patterning.

Let’s start being realistic in the physical requests we make of singer’s bodies. Change will happen much faster and actually be sustainable.

Want to get in on this goodness and discover ways of moving the body to make lasting, helpful changes that support the voice? Join me in the Singers’ Online Learning and Movement Library and get unlimited access to movement videos and workshops all geared toward the singer’s body.

Jaw Tension

If you live with jaw tension and pain you are all too familiar with the ways it can impact your singing. You may have observed and experienced how tension in the jaw tends be seen in conjunction with tension in the tongue as well as the larynx and the rest of the neck. That tension can lend itself to struggling to produce the voice easily and sing notes in certain registers, to dealing with a jaw that locks open, clicks, pops, is in pain or is simply too tense to open easily.

Because the jaw is a portion of what determines the shape of our resonator tube and is so intricately linked with the tongue, hyoid bone and the larynx suspended below, jaw tension is not a problem you want to live with when you need your voice to function at its best.

The question we want to get at is this: is the jaw responding to the rest of the body or is it the source of the problem?

The quick fix paradox

We are trained as a culture to focus on the part of the body that is in pain and identify the fastest way to fix it. In this case, the quick fix is often popping a pain pill and/or a massage of the jaw area and maybe the neck and shoulders. Something like massage (or taking a pill) can bring you short-term relief, which is great if you are standing backstage about to go on. Sometimes a one-time fix takes care of the issue in a long term way. Very often though once the quick fix wears off you are back to square one of experiencing tension and/or pain. When that happens you can easily get caught in a cycle of pain/tension, treatment, pain/tension, treatment, with no long-term relief in sight. If you are returning to the quick fix repeatedly, it is time to expand beyond the local area and look for clues in the rest of body.

Long-term relief from jaw tension (or any other tension/pain based issue) begins with embracing the concept of the whole body being connected and developing an awareness of current patterns that exist across the body. Once awareness is raised we can move on to skill building – finding new ways of moving that improve functionality and suppleness in the body.

Before we continue with the physical elements, I want to address the mental/emotional side of tension and pain. There are always emotional/mental connections to the issues we experience in our bodies. Unexpressed emotion can get housed in the tissues of our being.  I often recommend to clients that they begin by becoming an observer in the week following our session. They are to notice under what circumstances their tension or pain increases. For many, simply making that connection is enough to create an a-ha moment, that rather than expressing their rage over great aunt Tillie asking when they are going to get a real job and stop doing this little singing thing, they clench their jaw.

For those who discover they have a long pattern of unexpressed anger or a sense of not being safe to express feelings or be heard in their life, and it manifests in their jaw, I always recommend they find a qualified mental health professional to engage with to resolve the emotional component of the root of their issue. Releasing the emotional component frees them up to being to implement skill building to re-pattern better function in the body.

Exploring the Whole Body Connection

While the whole body is our instrument, we still have long way to go before we better understand how all of our parts inter-relate. If you think of the body like a chain created by all the joints, tension and pain are most likely to occur at the weakest link in that chain. But, the way the other joint links are behaving while we are moving and not moving are also impacting that weak link.

The relationship between the jaw and the pelvis

The jaw and pelvis have a unique connection in the body. Located at opposite ends of the spine, they are bridged by all the tissues of the torso. We can discover several cross body connections between the jaw and pelvis. When there is tension in the jaw it is often mirrored in the pelvis – for example, tension in the left side of the jaw and tension in the left side of the pelvis. Along with that mirroring we can see an excessively tight pelvic floor. Another mirroring connection across the jaw-pelvis spectrum is tension at the base of the skull and a corresponding tension in the front of the lower belly. Bracing at one end or the other, or both, meaning you are holding a higher than normal level of tension as a way of providing stability, is not uncommon.

One quick way of understanding the connection between the pelvis and jaw is to sit comfortably and simply squeeze your anus. While you do that see what you notice in your jaw. Can you feel the muscles of your jaw engaging? Can you feel your breathing change? Now relax everything. Next, purse your lips really tensely. Can you feel a corresponding engagement in the anus? A change in the breath? It’s okay if you don’t. Sometimes connecting the body on a subtle level is tricky, especially if this is the first time you’ve tried.

Looking at how these two ends relate through alignment, breathing, and functionality of the core, all give us big clues as to how to work with the body to address jaw issues.

Alignment

The first place to can assess is your alignment, or how the body is stacked. When the head is not stacked well over the pelvis, meaning it is sitting in front of the shoulders, then we know there is a problematic relationship between the two ends. From the waist down we often discover many people ‘wear’ their pelvis in front of the body – meaning the mid-hip sits in front of the ankle because the pelvis is pressed forward. The pelvis can also be habitually tilted or tucked and not neutral.

Alignment is a wonderful assessment tool. However, it is one thing to look at a picture of a skeleton and understand the concept of alignment. It is quite another to translate alignment into your own body that is covered in clothing, adipose tissue and muscle. Enlist a friend or partner to take pictures of the body from the side to help you better understand how you hold your body. When we uncover problematic postural patterns we begin to understand how the ways we are (and aren’t) moving are impacting the whole body.  If you’d like to learn more about Alignment and how to use it in your studio, I have an entire workshop that teaches you how to use bony markers to align a body and ‘read’ the results. Click here to learn more.

Breathing

Breathing patterns are very telling of how well the body is functioning overall.

The breath provides us with a continuum that spans the distance between the jaw and pelvis. The more supple our body is between ribcage, belly and pelvic floor, the better our breathing patterns are.

Assessing the breath to determine your everyday breathing pattern, gain a better understanding of the quality of your inhale and exhale, and movement (or lack thereof) in the ribcage and belly can go a long way towards filling in the picture of what’s behind jaw tension.

Immobility and tension in the ribcage, observed while engaged in every day breathing and/or in singing are indicators that there is an issue in the torso that relates to the jaw. And yes, even singers can stand to improve their breathing patterns! When we lack fluidity and suppleness either caused or reinforced by poor breathing patterns, we will not align or move well.

Breath work is always a part of resolving issues with our body.

Getting to the Core of it

To resolve alignment issues we need to create circumstances through movement that invite change. We can’t just shove body parts into the location where we know they should be. First, they will quickly fall back out of that position. Second, we need to understand that they are in that position because it is the safest place for the body. Those tensions, no matter how problematic they are, are present to keep you from being further injured.

Insufficient function in the core is frequently the underlying factor contributing to jaw and pelvis tension, bracing and mirroring. The core, as I’m referring to it here, is the entire torso of the body, from where the neck attaches to the torso all the way down to the base of the pelvis and where the upper arm and leg bones meet the shoulder and pelvis respectively.

I’ve written before in Why Core Training Is Important for Singers about the importance of the deep layer of the functional reflexive core which includes the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, psoai, multifidi, diaphragm, and muscles of the throat.

There are other lines of muscle connections that can impact jaw function. For example, in Tom Meyers’ Anatomy Trains he explores the connection between the deep front line: the muscles in the bottom of the feet, those in the inner line of the legs, the psoas, deep neck flexors, tongue and mouth.

Further up in the torso, the muscles surrounding the shoulder girdle are impactful to jaw function.

We also know there are broader connections of the shoulder area with the lower leg –  I’ve written before about the tensions mirrored in the two areas.  Additionally, tension in the shoulder girdle will both be present when the lower core doesn’t function well and the tension can keep the lower core from being able to work.  Even the way your leg bone is moving in the hip socket can have implications for jaw function.

All of this is to say, just looking at one area of the body in isolation just doesn’t give you a complete picture of what’s going on or how to work to improve function. Starting to get the bigger picture here?

All of this work comes together when you move slowly and really feel the body. That can be challenging when we are used to addressing individual parts and quick-fix solutions. When mobility is improved, strength and stability can replace tension and weakness, bringing about better alignment and breathing as well as alleviating tension and pain in the jaw.

Where do I go from here?

You may be able to immediately identify that you have issues in the areas of the body I mentioned above. When I work with clients I follow the paradigm of Awareness, Skill Building and Mastery, where we first get curious and honest about what’s really going on in the body. Then we move on to learning new ways of moving the body and get consistent about it. Mastery comes with time.

Because every body is unique, there is no one-size-fits all approach that will serve everyone well. If you would like someone who can assess your body and bring a better understanding of how parts of your body are moving, how they are moving relative to other parts and how some of them are not moving at all, please set up a 30 minute consult time where we can talk more in depth about where you want to be with your body and voice.

The importance of core training for singers

This blog initially appeared on The Opera Stage site. Their blog is no longer active so I have published it here to continue to allow access.

 

Many singers will avoid doing any core exercises in the interest of having total flexibility of their abdominal area. Other singers will do core exercises in an attempt to strengthen musculature that they know is connected to vocal production. And, still a third group considers what they do as classically-trained singers to be adequate work for the abs and leave it at that.

For many of us, the voice works well even though our core isn’t as well coordinated as it could be. However, when the voice and/or breath aren’t working well or you go through a physical change that results in a negative shift in the functioning of your voice or body, core training is a key element of making a change for the better. A well functioning core is crucial not just for pain-free movement, but also for the voice to perform optimally.

There is an important distinction that needs to be made between ‘core exercise’ and ‘core training.’ Core exercise involves doing a set of repetitive exercises without contemplating whether they are contributing to the functionality of the entire body. Core training, on the other hand, addresses functionality in the whole body: your breathing and your muscles, your existing patterns of engagement, resting tension and how you put all of that together (particularly as it relates to your voice) to establish a synergistic relationship throughout the body.

What are the signs of a core-voice connection that could be improved?
” Tension in the shoulders, neck and throat/jaw region.
” Bracing of the abdomen at the onset of sound.
” A held abdominal area that lacks freedom of movement.
” Low back pain.
” A sound that isn’t well supported.
” Weight loss and loss of support of the sound.
” Reports of the voice being effortful to produce.
” Reports of breathing issues that are elusive to resolve.
” Negative vocal and physical changes post-childbirth.
” Hernias of any kind.

What is the Functional Reflexive Core?
The foundation of healthy movement and singing comes from the deep layer of the Functional Reflexive Core (FRC). The part of our body that makes up the FRC is our entire trunk located between where the head attaches to the neck and where the arms and legs attach to the torso.

It has two layers. The deep layer of the FRC is made up of the throat, the diaphragm, the transverse abdominus, the psoai, the multifidi and the pelvic floor musculature. The outer layer is made up of all the other muscles that fall within that central part of the body. We want stability of the muscles in the outer layers of the core, and imbalances here can create problems when it comes to voice production, but when we talk about the core-voice connection, we are most interested in the functionality of the deep layer of the FRC. And, the relationship of the muscles here is heavily influenced by how we are breathing, how we are moving (or not) through our lives and our tension levels in the upper and lower body.

Why do we have these issues to begin with?
Modern life has left us with bodies that are ‘casted’ by sitting, wearing shoes, and moving through a limited range of motion. The good news is, our bodies are relatively plastic and have an amazing capacity to change. We just need to know how to make the change effectively and be consistent in our efforts.

Patterns in the body and breath that indicate an imbalance in the FRC are:
Abdominal Holding – As a result of sitting in chairs our whole lives, our backsides get weak, the abdominal musculature gets recruited to do work it shouldn’t be doing and we carry resting tension in the abs. Second, there is the cultural message that we are somehow more valuable if our abs are flat. That can result in people sucking the stomach in chronically or over-exercising the abs, creating a flatter but definitely not more functional mid-section.

Abdominal Bracing – When the deep layer of the core isn’t functional, we can over-recruit and use the outer layer muscles to make up for the lack. Bracing can be observed in both movement and singing when there is a very visible hook up in the belly at the onset of moving or singing and then it often appears as a static hold – as though you are bracing to prepare for someone to punch you in the stomach.

Bulging – This can occur on inhalation and/or on phonation and movement. If we bulge on inhale, seen through a distended belly, we overload the musculature of the deep FRC. Once overloaded, the muscles lack the relationship they need to the breath and don’t fire effectively. This type of increase in intra-abdominal pressure can lead to things like hernias and pelvic floor problems. Bulging during movement means the belly pushes out when we are doing something like lying on our back and bringing both legs up into reverse table (see below). Bulging during phonation will also show up as a belly that is pressing out in a rigid, fixed way when singing.

Bearing Down – This is just as it sounds. When we move or phonate there is a sense of bearing down – almost like you are trying really hard to go to the bathroom. This is, in fact, the reverse of the motion we want to experience when we are singing or moving. We also don’t particularly want to be bearing down hard to go to the bathroom, but that’s another post for another time!

Here are a few assessments you can do to test the functionality of your FRC

Do you carry resting abdominal tension?
Lie down on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your belly, near your belly button. Cough. Cough 5 or 6 times. What direction is your belly moving when you cough? Does it push up into your hand? If it does, as it will for almost everyone, it indicates you carry a level of resting tension in the abdominals that is greater than necessary. That means when you are expelling air to either move or sing, the coordination between muscles and breath could be improved.

Do you have a diastasis recti (DR)?
Both men and women can experience DR. It is a separation of an unnatural distance between the two rectus abdominus muscles and the connective tissue, called the linea alba, is stretched and thinned. DR is caused primarily by excessive intra-abdominal pressure. To check your body for a DR, lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Exhale normally and pick your head up off the floor. With the head up, use your fingers to palpate down the midline of your rectus abdominus muscles from sternum to pubic bone. See if you can feel both sides of the muscles and see if there is a gap between the two. The gap is measured by finger widths. It is also measured by depth. It may be normal for you to have some separation between your muscles, but a width of 2 fingers or greater or a depth of a knuckle or more, may indicate you have some issues with too much intra-abdominal pressure.

Do you have a hernia?
Most men are probably familiar with the turn your head and cough test to see if you have an inguinal hernia. Inguinal hernias can also present as swelling or a bulge in the scrotum. A hiatal hernia, which is often associated with GERD will require an x-ray study to diagnose. Umbilical hernias are usually diagnosed through physical exam and present with swelling or a bulge around the belly button. All 3 hernias are associated with excess pressure and weakness in muscle.

What do we do about our imbalances?
Our answers to these issues lie in an approach that addresses the whole body, including alignment, breathing and movement mechanics. When we tune in to how we are moving and where our body is compensating for our limitations we can make gains quickly. Here are some simple movements to begin to explore your current patterns and function. To bring balance, strength and stability to the whole body a more complete practice is needed, but these will give you a sense of where you are in this moment and perhaps inspire you to explore more!

Abdominal Release

  1. Come onto your hands and knees and let your belly sag toward the floor without allowing the back to sway excessively. The pelvis is untucked.
  2. Breathe normally and notice if your belly releases each time you inhale. Focus on letting everything release – diaphragm to pelvic floor on the breath in.
  3. Stay here for about 5 minutes and really tune in to the space from the bottom of the ribcage to the pubic bone.

Notice if you find tension returning and continue to release it each time you notice it. Try singing a few phrases in this position and notice what your body does as you breathe in and as you phonate.

 

 

Waking up the Deep Layer of the FRC

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Bolster your head on a pillow so the lower ribs are on the ground. The pelvis is untucked, with space behind the low back.
  2. Place your hands on your low belly. Take a breath in and notice what moves more on the inhalation –the belly or the ribcage – ideally the ribs will move more.
  3. Begin a long slow exhale through pursed lips or on a hiss.
  4. Midway through the exhale see if you notice the deep part of your core activating in a corseting action this is NOT navel to spine.
  5. On your next breath in, release all engagement and exhale again through pursed lips or on a hiss. Do this 5-7 times. If you do not feel things engaging, don’t worry, keep practicing and the deep FRC will wake up.

Notice if you flatten your back to the floor when exhaling. Notice if you tense in your shoulders or throat when you are exhaling. Notice if your lower ribs pull away from the floor when you breathe in. Be aware that it is easy to engage the obliques more than the transverse abdominus (TVA) muscle in this exercise. Don’t force the engagement of the TVA, allow it to happen organically.

Reverse Table

  1. Repeat steps 1-3 above.
  2. Midway through the exhale, when you have felt the FRC engage, slowly bring the right leg into reverse table.
  3. Breathe in again. And exhale, returning the leg to the floor.
  4. Repeat the above but this time bring the left leg up.

Notice first if one side feels easier than the other. For each side, notice if your belly bulges while moving the leg into the air, or if you are bearing down as you bring the leg up.  Notice if your hips wobble or shift or if your back flattens to the ground as you bring the legs up. Those are all signs you have some work to do to improve function.

For an advanced version of this pose, bring one leg up and then on the next exhale, bring the other leg to meet it. If you have any of the above issues, back up to the phase before.

 

Waking up the deep layer of the functional reflexive core can feel like slow, small work, but the payoff is huge. Having a body that supports you as you move through your life on stage and off, providing you with a solid foundation for the voice to be produced, is an invaluable tool for a singer.

 

If you have questions or would like some help waking up your FRC, don’t hesitate to reach out by email or connect with me on Facebook.

 

The connection between your upper and lower body tension

What is going on in your lower leg is also happening in your neck and shoulders.

Are you working away at reducing tension in your neck and shoulders, but not seeing a difference? Or, are you calf stretching every day, wearing shoes with no heels, but STILL have tight calves? Perhaps it is time to look at the whole body and get a better understanding of how the tension at one end of the body impacts the other.

Here’s one reason why your lower leg is impacting your neck…

Shoes

Yes, even those cushy, comfy, ‘supportive’ shoes.

Why are they involved?
1. They have a heel which puts the ankle into constant plantarflexion (toes pointed).
2. Toe bed is elevated, keeping the toes slightly lifted off the ground
3. Stiff soles prevent all the small joints in the foot from moving well
4. Narrow toe box forces the toes together (bunions anyone?).

The degree to which 1-4 happen varies depending on the type of shoe, but it isn’t limited to high heels. It happens in those $150 running kicks you got from a shoes expert at your local running store.

Think about the shoes you wear most often…running shoes, dansko clogs, 2″ heels from DSW, etc.

When you are wearing stiff soles, heeled footwear with a narrow toe box you create adaptation in the joints of your feet and ankles. Adaptation isn’t a positive shift. It means less mobility.

 

Tension in the Calves

The connection between tension between the lower neck and the shoulder neck, continuing…muscles in the calf.

Not only are our feet impacted by shoes, but our calves are as well. Heels (of any kind, remember, not just high heels) create a shortening in the calf muscles.

Sitting also creates a shortening in the muscles.

We ALL have chronic shortening in the muscles of the lower leg.

This shortening impacts our gait (how we walk). For many of us, our short calves mean we have what is called a ‘negative stride length’, meaning the heel of the foot of the leg that stays behind when you step forward can’t stay on the ground long enough to allow you to push off posteriorly (using your glutes and hams). Instead, you are doing a process of falling forward and catching yourself when you walk.

Why a wave can help explain things

This picture shows a wave in the distance where the water is moving at the same (or close to it) speed. Then it shows waves at the shore that are breaking – the top is moving over the bottom as they crash forward.

The waves break at the shore because the lower part of the water is encountering the rising shore line which slows it down. That slow down creates a whip-like effect at the top of the wave propelling it forward until the top part of the wave falls forward and crashes into the shore.

Our bodies are like these waves. The tension, stickiness (highly technical term!) and lack of mobility in the joints of our feet and ankle make our lower body move more slowly as we walk. Our upper body should be propelled forward by that slow down BUT we know falling forward is a bad idea SO we create extra tension in the upper body to keep ourselves upright. You won’t be aware that you are doing this it is happening on a pretty subtle level.

Is this the only reason you have upper body and lower body tension? No, definitely not, but if you are working on it consistently and not seeing any changes, this is an important factor to investigate!

When you DO have to sit…suggestions for small changes that bring big rewards

Ok, so sitting is a reality in our lives…can we make it work better for our body?

The most obvious solution is to sit as little as possible in your daily life – walk to do errands, walk your kids to school, take regular movement breaks at work.

But, when you have to sit, here are some things to explore:

Sit on the floor – there are a myriad of ways you can configure your body on the floor (I think I’ve sat in no fewer than 11 different positions as I’ve written blog posts this morning). The hardness of the ground lends itself well to making your body shift, which means lots of different joint configurations. It can take time to transition to floor sitting, so maybe start with only a few minutes on the floor a day and slowly add more so your body doesn’t hate you!

Sit on the floor when:

  • watching tv
  • talking on the phone
  • eating dinner (indoor picnic anyone?)
  • your kids are at the playground
  • playing with your kids
  • working
  • waiting at a child’s sports event or in a waiting room

I’m sure you can think of other places you can get your behind out of a chair and onto the ground. Please share in the comments!

Sit better: when you have to sit on a chair or some other raised surface try these suggestions to get you out of a tucked pelvic position

  • If the seat is bucketed (like in your car), fold a towel to fill in the bucket, bringing the seat level
  • Sit forward in a chair so you can sit on your sitz bones
  • Use something like sitonthewedge.com
  • If your legs are long, sit forward and drop one knee toward the floor
  • If your legs are short, put a block or a small step stool under them

You can view a video on how to sit better here.

Create an active standing workstation:

  • You can turn a box upside down on a desk that brings your computer to the right height.
  • Don’t just stand there! Put things at your feet – tennis balls to roll and step on, half foam roller for calf stretching, a cobblestone mat to step on (something like this one, or make your own in a boot tray filled with river rocks).
  • Take breaks from standing and move.

Create a low workstation:

  • Place your computer on a coffee table or other low desk
  • Lie on your belly (create a small bolster with a hand towel that runs across the front of your pelvis to keep your low back from getting crunched – it’s all unhappy from all that sitting, remember?) to write.

Are you still sitting there?

There were some pretty sensational headlines a few years ago claiming ‘sitting is the new smoking‘. These articles talk about research that links sitting with an increased risk for cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The solution, offered at that time, was to get a standing desk. Even better than that, get a treadmill desk. Just standing isn’t a whole lot different than just sitting.

So, what is the deal with sitting and standing?

It isn’t an issue that you sit or stand. The issue is HOW MUCH and HOW OFTEN you are sitting and standing. When we assume positions over and over again, as we do when we sit, our muscles adjust to being a particular length. That length will limit your joint’s range of motion. Those limits create small changes that show up as aches and pains. Those aches and pains lay the foundation of much bigger issues down the line – osteoarthritis, pelvic floor problems, foot neuropathy and on and on and on.

When we sit, there are pressures put on parts of the body (the pelvis in particular when sitting) that create unhappy circumstances of rolling back onto your sacrum (think about slumping into your super comfy couch, or sitting in the bucket seats in your car, or just being so super bored in your latest department meeting) – we aren’t building bone in the hip joint, we are causing changes in the tissues of our glutes (hello, wide, flat butts), creating pelvic floor problems, and without glute strength, we’re over recruiting our abdominals to stabilize the spine.

When we stand we aren’t really using the body, we’re just staying in a relatively fixed position – I well remember my parents starting up their school year of teaching and the pain they remarked on in their body in the first few weeks as they went back to standing for extended periods of the day. Treadmill desks probably deserve their own post. There are benefits that will come from using a treadmill desk, but the mechanics of walking on a treadmill aren’t optimal for the body, so if we are really looking to make a difference in the body, walking on a treadmill won’t do it.

The hard reality is we aren’t meant to be still anywhere near as much as we are in our modern lives. We are built to move. There is no right way to sit, or stand, but there are better ways to sit and stand. Way that have us sitting and standing in as many different configurations as we can.

I do recognize that sitting is a part of modern life so in my next post we’ll talk about how to make shifts in your sitting habits that will bring positive changes to your body.

Welcome to the Human Spine

The spine is made up of 32 bones, and 23 discs stacked and grouped into 4 segments. In the neck are 7  vertebrae referred to as C1-C7. Next are the 12 thoracic vertebrae, T1-T12. It is on the thoracic vertebrae where the ribs attach in the back of the body. Continuing down the spine,there are 5 lumbar, L1-L5, then we have the sacrum which is actually 5 vertebrae fused together to form a triangular shaped structure and finally the Coccyx, 3 bones, referred to as the tailbone. The spinal discs, located between the vertebrae, are tough and membranous on the outside and more gel-like on the inside. They act as shock absorbers, if you will, between the vertebrae.

When it comes to the shape of the spine, we have multiple curves that are indicators of spinal health. These curves are normal and we want them to exist in the spine to a reasonable degree. The cervical and lumbar spine areas have curves that are called lordotic, or inward curves. The thoracic and sacral area have curves that are called kyphotic, or outward curves. It is possible in any body to have a lack of curvature, or a straightening of the spine or excess curve called hyper-lordotic or hyper-kyphotic.

The spine serves as protection for the spinal cord and provides structural support and place of attachment for muscles and ligaments and serves as a connector of the upper and lower body. It can also move in 6 directions – Flexion (forward bending), Extension (back bending), Right Lateral (side bending), Left Lateral (side bending), Right Rotating (twisting) and Left Rotating (twisting). I find the ability to move the spine well in these 6 directions is compromised in almost everyone.

The state of your spine is a direct reflection of how you have and haven’t moved over the course of your lifetime.

When we encounter a body and offer a postural suggestion to try and improve the way the body appears, we need to be careful. For example: If you observe that there is an excessive lordotic (inward curve, swayback, thrust) position in the mid-back, near the juncture of the thoracic and lumbar spine, it is easy to suggest fixing it by tucking the pelvis. That may give the outward appearance of resolving the lordosis, but it has possibly removed the healthy, lordotic curve of the lumbar spine, leaving you with a straightened lumbar spine. Which translates to creating more problems than you think you have solved. A lumbar spine without a healthy curve (in either direction) is implicated in disc degeneration, problems with the knee joint and pelvic floor issues to name a few issues.

We do so love a quick fix in our world. Unfortunately, unraveling the issues of our spines and their excessive or lacking curvature isn’t as simple and just moving one part in another way. Because everything in our body is connected.

Most of the bodies I see are fairly jacked up (which is definitely a very highly technical yoga term) from a lifetime of moving and not moving in certain ways and breathing in limited ways (did you know an optimal breath helps the spine experience extension?). When we turn to an alignment based model that relies on using bony markers, thus putting a body on a grid, we can begin to better understand the relationship of the parts to each other and begin to work on solutions that restore the spine to a more optimal state.

What’s the state of your spine and what kind of postural cues have you been given, or do you give, to try and improve the state of the spine?

Paragons of Posture or Perpetuating Problematic Patterns?

The title of this post is a small nod to my word-smithing grandfather and my English teacher mother. I do so love some good alliteration and I hope it has gotten your attention!

What I really want to talk about is the issue of using a ballet dancer’s posture as the best model for how a singer should comport his or her body while singing. I’ve read many a comment on Facebook threads lauding a ballet dancer’s posture, in particular, first position, as an avenue to teach posture to singers. My short response is ‘that’s probably a bad idea’.

The longer reasoning is this:

I’ve written before about my issues with posture and the power of using a model of alignment based on bony markers instead. My issue with looking at ballet posture and extrapolating it to singing is this: singing and dancing are two different activities. The desired outcome of posture in ballet is appropriate for ballet and ballet only.

There are very clear rules about how to hold the body in ballet – each of the five fundamental ballet positions for arms and feet are practiced as a way of building a foundation to accomplish other ballet moves.

As this image from aballeteducation.com shows us (click the link to see it larger), there are LOTS of things done to the body to achieve first position in ballet. AND lots of these things are contrary to finding a place of neutral alignment that allows for the greatest functionality in the body and voice. The places that I want to look to see if a postural position is going to help singing include: the feet, the legs, the pelvis, the core, the arms and the neck.

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So, assuming you are doing first position correctly, there is no weight in your heels, your feet are turned out to an extreme, kneecaps are engaged and lifted, ribcage is down (more on that in coming paragraphs), THE OBLIQUES ARE COMPRESSED, and the arm muscles are rotated forward. While those elements may lead to a fantastic first position, THEY DO NOT EQUAL ALIGNMENT. The feet as our foundation are off in this position. Of special note is that breathing for classical singing will be greatly compromised if the belly is ‘compressed’, which I’m assuming means engaged on a constant basis.

About the ribcage…I like that the directive is to keep the flat and lifted – I’m not exactly sure what that means in ballet speak, but I assume from this article and the accompanying photo below, that ribcage thrust is not desired in first position, or the other positions in ballet. However, getting the arms overhead without the ribs moving to help, take a level of flexibility and mobility that many are missing.

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A quick search on google for images of ballet dancers turns up lots of pictures, like this one, of young girls who are beginning ballet and they stand with ribcage thrust. It isn’t hard to understand why. We are casted in the way we move from such a young age, that even at the age of 7 it can be challenging to stand without the ribs thrust, let alone raise our arms overhead without taking the ribs up too.

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While it may not be something you want in this pose, there is no doubt that rib thrust is a common part of many ballet positions – and rightly so if that is the desired posture on stage (just as it is in a ‘stick the landing’ posture for a gymnast).

In fact, in my 15 years of teaching, every ballerina I’ve worked with has ribcage thrust (so do most other people, but it is a harder habit to break, I’ve found, in a ballerina) and seriously tight core musculature. Again, both of those elements are appropriate to the event at hand: ballet, but they don’t add up for singing as they don’t translate to functionality in the body and voice..

Ballet is a fantastically beautiful art form. I just want to call a separation between the correct postural position for a ballerina in any circumstance and how we want to stand and move for singing.

Voice professionals will be far better served at educating themselves about what an aligned neutral state is in the body, understanding why so few bodies come to them presenting in neutral and how to begin to work with the body to return it to that place than they are to suggest simply standing in a ballet position and calling it appropriate.

Tuck or Duck, Which Do I Do?

To answer that question in one word: neither.

I’ve read and heard a lot of advice offered from voice teachers saying to deal with lordosis (that’s a fancy word for swayback) in the mid-back region, or pain in the low back we need to tuck the pelvis. I’ve even heard teachers say tuck the pelvis AND engage the glutes to really get support for the high notes.

I get why. Many pedagogy texts offer the same advice on tucking and some of them have been around for a long time. The good news is more recent texts acknowledge this position isn’t correct – a healthy spine is not straight, it has two natural curves in the lumbar and cervical spine.

The position of the pelvis is only one factor in why the lordosis and low back pain are present and in the case of lordosis, it isn’t the most major factor.  And, engaging glute muscles can be a major compensation red flag for a core that isn’t firing reflexively in response to breath and movement.

Let’s unpack these ideas of tuck and duck a bit.  Tuck is a posterior tilt of the pelvis – think standing against a wall and rolling the pelvis back so the low back is flat to the wall. Duck is an anterior tilt of the pelvis – think standing against a wall and rolling the pelvis forward so there is not just a little space behind the low back, but a lot of space.

Bony markers in the body are how we determine tuck, duck and neutral. The markers we use are the ASIS (anterior, superior iliac spine), the nobby points of the front of your hip bones, and the pubic bone, the place the two halves of the pelvis come together in the front of the pelvis. If the ASIS and the pubic bone sit in the same plane (as in, we could drop a pane of glass in front of them and they would both touch the glass equally), then we have a pelvis that is neutral to the leg. When the pubic bone is in front of the ASIS we have tuck. If the pubic bone is behind the ASIS, we have duck. When standing at a wall, a neutral pelvis will allow for a small space behind the low back.

You can click here to see an image on Flickr of a neutral pelvis – it is a right lateral view showing ASIS and pubic bone on the right side of the image. I tried to find a stock photo of a neutral pelvis, but couldn’t!

To figure out what your default position is, take your shoes off and put your hands on those bony marker points, and make an assessment of their position relative to each other. Try it again with shoes with varying heel heights to see if you notice a difference.

My default is anterior tilt, which I see in many women, especially post childbirth – women’s lumbar spine has a bit more give to accommodate the load placed by the expanding womb. But, without question my anterior tilt was likely in place prior to having 2 children. I know I have a psoas that is tighter on 1 side as is my rectus femoris, to name just a few of the muscles contributing to the placement of my pelvis. There are an equal number of people who live with a tuck position. The reasons why our pelvises are in these non-neutral positions is always multi-factorial.

The factors contributing include our footwear, our patterns of lack of movement (sitting) and repetitive movement (running on a treadmill, for example) and simply being a human in the modern age. The solution comes from a shift to greater whole body movement, a reawakening of some dormant muscles and ditching shoes with heels. That means shoes with heels of any kind, not just 4 inch stilettos. Your 1/4 inch flats are contributing too.

Why does a neutral pelvis matter? Well, from the standpoint of biomechanics, when we think about gravity, which is a force that moves in one direction – straight down – to build bone in our femur head and socket of the pelvis, we need gravity to be able to do its job. When the pelvis is at an angle, but gravity is straight down, it isn’t helping to build bone. When the pelvis is tucked and the bottom of the sacrum is further into the body than the top, we end up with pelvic floor problems. From the standpoint of the voice, a non-neutral pelvis means we don’t have a solid foundation for the torso to rest on and that means voice function is impacted because the spine and all attaching bones, ligaments, muscles and tendons are impacted. Your whole body is your instrument so we need your whole body to be a well functioning machine.

Neutral, once you find it, may feel like you are in either tuck or duck. Your proprioception is challenged and neutral will probably feel wrong. I suspect this is why some folks are saying either tuck or duck, because assuming they worked with a qualified someone to address their pelvis position, their new position felt like one of these two ways.

However, giving a blanket tuck or duck to solve the issue of position or pain is a recipe for more problems down the line. Solving the riddle of the issues requires individual assessment and a whole body approach because everything in the body impacts everything else in the body. I always assess postural habits, using bony markers in the feet, lower and upper legs, pelvis, ribcage, shoulder girdle and neck/head to get a picture of the whole person. The rest of the solution requires us to move more and integrate moving in different ways, spending a lot of time simply being aware of our habits.

Hit me with questions….