Did you know you move your head minutely approx 600 times per hour?!
Your skull is heavy (about 5kg) and ideally should balance directly above the shoulders with a natural curve of the cervical spine. This is the case whether you are:
- standing up
- lying on your back (either flat on the mat OR with head + shoulders lifted off (in, say, Ab Prep)
- lying on your tummy (with head down or with head + shoulders lifted off (in, say, Breast Stroke 1)
In fact, most of us have our heads slightly forward in everyday life (bet you do as you’re reading this on your screen!!).
Pilates attempts to make you notice your posture, to get you to use the right muscles to move your head with integrity in order to achieve dynamic stability and neutral alignment.
The two photos (courtesy www.merrithew.com) here show the ideal (and incorrect!!) head placement in both Ab Prep and in Breast Stroke 1 – two moves we do regularly in class. These exercises are the blueprint for so many others; if you get your head placement right in these, you’ll be set up for many other moves.
NOTE: Lifting the head and shoulders off the mat is very hard for some people. This may be because they have a very forward head position AND/OR very weak neck flexors. Supporting the head with the hands is the best option.
The other important thing is not to over-use the big muscles of the neck, the sternocleidomastoid or scalenes. The ‘head nod’ exercise is basic to recruiting the deep segmental neck flexor muscles before you lift your head and shoulders off the mat. The head nod is what I often refer to as ‘lengthening the back of your neck’ or ‘bringing your chin a bit closer to your chest’.
REMEMBER: if you feel neck strain, your position needs adjustment. Never work through bad pain. Bring the head down, relax and try again! And sometimes, it’s better to leave the head down altogether! Your best is good enough.
Good alignment is important – your pilates class is a chance to retrain muscle habits. Quick posture checks before and during any movement can help you avoid injury and get maximum benefit from your class. Here is what you need to know:
- Stand up straight. When I ask you to stand up tall, that means keeping your:
- chin parallel to the floor
- shoulders even (roll them up, back, and down to help achieve this)
- arms at your sides, elbows relaxed and even
- abdominal muscles pulled in
- hips even and level
- neutral pelvis, natural curve of lumbar spine present, with ASIS* & pubic bone in same plane
- body weight evenly distributed on both feet.
*ASIS = anterior superior iliac crest (or front and top of your hips)
- Strive for neutral.
Neutral alignment means keeping your body in a straight line from head to toe except for the slight natural curves of the spine. Whether you’re standing or seated, that means your spine is not flexed (to flatten lumbar) or arched (to overemphasise the curve of the lower back.)
One means of finding neutral is to tip your pelvis forward as far as is comfortable, then tip it backward as far as is comfortable. Neutral is roughly in the middle. If you’re not used to standing or sitting up straight, it may take a while for this to feel natural.
Note: if you have an exaggerated lumbar curve (anterior pelvic tilt or ‘lumbar lordosis’), you should strive to go beyond neutral and tilt towards a posterior pelvic tilt to stretch and decompress the lower back. Also, if weak the abdominals, it helps to tilt the pelvis to achieve stability when legs are raised from the lying-on-your-back postion.
- Focus on angles
Think back to set squares in school. Visualise a 90-degree angle as the letter ‘L’. I often refer to a 90-degee or 45-degree angle for where your legs may be in relation to your torso. Mentally slice the 90-degree angle in half for 45 degrees.
It all takes time and practice. Take a few moments each day to practice better posture – even weight on both feet; roll shoulders up, back and down; lift through crown of head; abs gently contracted, sensing your centre as you quieten yourself through your breath.