Body Alignment

Body Alignment
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Body Alignment (Not just for dancers!):

The road to healthy, lifelong body alignment is a process of identifying problems and habits and improving muscle strength and flexibility. It is learning how to stand, sit, and move without causing undue tension or strain. Normal joint motion in the spine and other body areas, as well as balanced muscles on both sides of the spine are needed to achieve good alignment. Below, you will learn how to observe your body and to identify visible problem areas, learn about common postural problems, and learn ways to make improvements.

Don’t Listen to Your Mom: My mom used to say, “Hold your shoulders back.” Sound familiar? Doing this often results in an excessive curve of the lumbar spine, which puts strain on the lower back. We do want our shoulders to fall back, not round forward, but we want this to be their default position due to flexible, elongated chest muscles and strong back muscles. Usually, when people are reminded of their posture, their instinct is to “hold” something into place. This often involves pulling the shoulders back and sucking in the stomach, which can cause tension, physical and mental pain, and other problems.

Static posture is the alignment of your body when you are still, and dynamic posture is the alignment of your body when you are moving. In both static and dynamic posture, there are many components working together, balancing or equalizing the push and the pull from either side. Therefore, holding or focusing on only one area, like pulling the shoulders back, is most likely going to cause more problems then good.

The Frontal Plane (Front & Back View): Look at yourself in a mirror or get a partner to look at you, as you stand erect in tight fitting clothing. If you have a partner, have them observe you from the back, too. Don’t worry about a side view, just back and front. Notice any asymmetry. Is one arm or leg longer than the other? Is one shoulder lower than the other? Is your neck straight? Are your kneecaps aligned? Do your feet turn in or out? All of these things will affect your alignment. For these issues, you may want to seek a specialist, such as a physical therapist, who can either help you or refer you to the appropriate specialist. These problems will only worsen in time and can result in less mobility as we age, so they should be addressed right away.

The Sagittal Plane (Side View): This is where we can focus our attention and help ourselves. Again, stand erect, as you would usually stand, and have a partner observe you. Is your ear over your shoulder, or is your head-protruding forward? Is your thoracic spine hunched (hunch back)? Do you appear to have sway back? (Sway back is sometimes difficult to observe due to differences in soft tissue.) Do your ribs stick out? Do your abdominals spill over? Take note of all of these problem areas.

Your Life Style: Stress, fatigue, and poor sitting and standing habits can cause body alignment problems. Poor ergonomics at work and home, wearing high heels, poor footwear, obesity and pregnancy can all cause issues, too. The rate of muscular atrophy increases as we get older, which can create many postural problems. These things, along with poor muscle strength and flexibility (tight muscles) are all culprits. Sadly, poor body alignment seems to be affecting the very young, especially around the neck and upper back and shoulders, perhaps because of current lifestyle trends.

Body Alignment Check & Practice:

  1. Stand with feet, toes and knees facing forward. Line up your knees with your toes. When moving, think about keeping these aligned.
  2. Slightly bend your knees, lengthening your back. This takes pressure off of your back and makes it easier to isolate your hips. When you begin dancing, you will sometimes need to straighten your leg/s for a pose or move, but most of the time, they should remain soft (slightly bent not extended).
  3. Slightly tilt the pelvis forward (it’s actually a backwards pelvic tilt but most people associate this with tilting “forward”). Bring your pelvic floor closer to your belly button, just a little bit, like you’re zipping up your lower abdominals. Feel your lower back lengthening as you do this. You’re trying to find a neutral position for your pelvis, not too far forward or too far back. Some people may naturally have this alignment without doing anything, but most people need to tilt a bit more forward. When you begin moving you will naturally move in and out of neutral pelvis alignment, but this should be your home base. Unfortunately, if you do not have balanced muscle strength and flexibility on both sides of the trunk, it will be extremely difficult to sustain this neutral position. If this is the case, you should work on finding this neutral position when practicing moves in place, when you can focus on technique. Work on the stretches and strength training exercises recommended below to correct problems.
  4. Shoulders should line up with your hips from the side view. Avoid pulling shoulders forward and allow them to rest back and down. Begin by rolling them forward, up, back and then down…feeling them drop and relax while opening the chest. Extend and lengthen your arms towards the floor on either side. You’ll need to do some regular chest stretches if you have rounded shoulders. When you lift your arms or move your arms forward, do not allow your shoulders to come up or forward with your arms.
  5. Armpits- Put some space under your armpits, slightly moving your arms away from your body. Again, pull shoulders downwards.
  6. Chest should be slightly forward and slightly tilted downward to close the gap under your ribs. In other words, you don’t want your ribs to stick out.
  7. Steps 4-6 above work together, balancing the upper body. Pushing forward with upper erector spinae muscles and traps, while pulling in just under the breasts and opening the chest. It should feel equalized and strong all the way around, front to back.
  8. Your neck should feel elongated. Think about the vertebrae in your neck as a small spring that you allow to stretch out and up through the top of your head. Feel your entire body lifting up and out through the top of your head as you stand and move.
  9. Head -Your ears should line up with the middle of your shoulders. Avoid sticking your chin out. When you elongate your neck, your head should follow.
  10. Weight Distribution- Rock from balls to the heels until you rest your weight into the middle of the arches of your feet.
  11. The Peacock- You want to look confident and open, larger than life, like a peacock on the stage. Do this by following the steps above, pulling and pushing, equalizing the back, front and sides of the body so that you feel slightly contracted all over. Do not focus on only one side of the body but on all sides, which creates strong body alignment for dance, as well as for daily life. Feel confident (pretend if you’re not) and visualize energy coming out of your chest and fingertips.

For a video example, check out the “ballet alignment” link below in the “resources” section!

Common Problems with Body Alignment: 

  • Kyphosis Lordosis (hunch back) – curvature of the thoracic spine, with rounded shoulders, sunken chest, head jutting forward, and/or neck hyperextension. To correct this, you’ll want to stretch your chest muscles and strengthen your upper/mid back muscles (rhomboids and trapezius muscles) with strength training exercises, and improve your poor postural habits. See my favorite chest stretch in the “resources” section below.
  • Lumbar Lordosis (swayback) – This is when the natural curve of the lumbar region is slightly or dramatically accentuated, making the buttocks and abdominals stick out due to the anterior tilt of the pelvis. It’s sometimes seen in dancers who arch their backs, putting stress or extra weight on the lower back. Certain diseases can also cause this and other spinal issues. Too much belly fat and tight, shortened hip flexors from too much sitting can cause this, too. This condition can cause spine compression, tension on ligaments, and back pain as well. For most people, stretch the back extensor muscles, hip flexors (rectus femoris and iliopsoas muscles, as well as the adductors), and strengthen the abdominals and hip extensors (gluteus maximus and hamstrings) with strength training exercises. You may want to stretch the piriformis, too, which can shorten along with the psoas. Work on losing excess belly fat, too, with exercise and healthy eating. People who have lumbar lordosis usually have hunch back, too, so read that section if applicable. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to diagnose from just observation and palpation is needed. See the hip flexor, adductor, and piriformis stretches in the “resources” section below.
  • Tight Chest Muscles – On most untrained people, the chest muscles are stronger and shortened as compared to the back muscles, causing an imbalance. Stretch the chest muscles and strengthen the back muscles (trapezius and rhomboids). See my favorite chest stretch in the “resources” section below.
  • Fatigue Postures- Many postural problems are caused by stress, lack of energy, muscle imbalance, and pain. As with all postural issues, if allowed to continue, the bones will adapt over time causing skeletal deviations that can be irreversible. Get plenty of sleep and efficiently deal with stress. Poor alignment can also cause fatigue.
  • Muscle Imbalance- “Symmetry” Equal strength and flexibility on the right/left sides of the body is needed to maintain good body alignment. If one muscle group is too tight, it may pull the body out of the neutral position, creating an imbalance. Alternatively, if one muscle group is weakened, the body will fall out of alignment on the opposite side. Common example: Erector spinae muscles (back extensors) are stronger and shorter than opposing abdominal muscles, causing lower back pain. In untrained individuals, the quadriceps are usually two times the size of the hamstrings, resulting in an imbalance; thus hamstring strains are common.
  • Irreversible Skeletal Deviations- Over time, all of these poor postural patterns can cause the bones to adapt, resulting in skeletal deviations that can be irreversible. So, begin correcting the problem areas now.

Recommendations:

  • Alexander Technique- Buy a book on this technique and/or see an AT trained specialist. It will help you identify and lose harmful habits and learn to move more freely. AT is popular among actors, dancers, singers and other stage performers.
  • Ergonomics at Work/Home: If you ask, many employers will now provide an ergonomic specialist to help you create a healthy work space. Look below for websites that may help.
  • Massage- If you can afford it, find a licensed and skilled massage therapist. Deep tissue and sports massage are great for people with postural issues.
  • Myofascial Release- A hands-on technique that involves applying gentle sustained pressure into the myofascial connective tissue that has become restricted, causing pain and impairing mobility.
  • Strength Training- Dancing itself will improve muscular endurance and will improve muscle strength somewhat, but regular strength training is recommended, especially to improve core stability and correct imbalances.
  • Stretching- Warm up and stretch daily, and at the least, stretch after each exercise or dance session, but only after you have warmed up the body. A warm up is gentle, dynamic movement (large/generalized movement) with full range of motion of all the major joints. This might look like gently marching in place with arms moving side/up/side until you begin to feel warm. Know your problem areas (chest? hip flexors?) and give these extra attention. Get a good book about how to stretch effectively without injury. Below are the best websites I could find on stretching that included pictures and that didn’t have erroneous information.
  • Chiropractic-  It may be necessary to seek a chiropractor for manual therapy.

Body Alignment for Dance: When we dance, we are sometimes in a fixed position but more often we are moving. Therefore, we especially need to have a balanced, strong and flexible body. Strong core (abdominal, pelvic, and lower back) muscles are important, too. Any issues in muscles weakness, tightness or imbalance are going to appear in your dance, so address any of these problems right away. With a good instructor, your dance training should improve your daily body alignment; helping you prevent injury and pain, as well as helping you prevent unnecessary postural problems associated with aging.

Resources:
Adductor Stretches 

Alexander Technique

Ballet Placement & Postural Alignment A great video demonstrating body alignment for the dancer.

Chest Stretch This is my favorite chest stretch. You can use a towel, too.

Computer Ergonomics  and  Ergonomics.org

Hip Flexor Stretch Keep back straight.

5 Injuries Related to Posture

Hunch Back Posture Problems

Lordosis: Assessment & Care Information on how to assess pelvis tilt with palpation.

Piriformis Stretch and Piriformis Stretch

Stretching A series of safe, easy stretches.  However, the website labels these as “warm ups.” Remember that stretching is not the same as warming up! Always warm up the body first with some easy marching in place or similar activity before stretching.

Hadia’s Body Logic Solutions Renown belly dance performer & instructor and massage therapist who originally taught me her version of an “Alignment Check” which is similar to mine.

Mellilah teaches and performs throughout Seattle, WA.

Mellilah belly dancing at Carco Theatre in Renton, WA.

For more info about the author, Mellilah, please visit www.mellilah.com

About Mellilah Jamal

Mellilah teaches belly dance classes in Redmond and Bothell and performs for private parties and restaurants throughout Seattle.

Comments

  1. This is right on! It’s scary what can happen to a dancer who doesn’t have good posture and alignment. I also reccomend following all the links where the are videos and pictures that demonstrate proper alignment. Making these small corrections seems natural and more comfortable somehow once you do them. I have found myself practicing these corrective techniques while standing in line at the bank. It has improved my posture and confidence.

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