Back pain, TMJ, weak ankles, and a strained neck are common complaints. Much of this is due to poor alignment and misuse of various parts of our body. How we move comes from copying other people while we are young. Now as adults, to enjoy greater health, we can consciously improve our body’s conditions with exercised for proper alignment.
Biomechanics expert Katy Bowman MS, also author of Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief, has published the first five years of her blog posts in her book Alignment Matters. This is an incredibly rich resource of health information, exercises, alignment tips, and clarity on some confusing topics.
In this article, we look at the different parts of our body and how we can do to enjoy greater health and well-being with proper alignment.
Katy Bowman's Body Wisdom
Some of Katy Bowman’s important messages include :
(quoted from Alignment Matters)
- Exercise is not the flip side of the sedentary coin – movement is.
- Freedom from disease is attainable, by using the whole body in a biological, reflex-driven way.
- You were designed to be a strong-yet-supple dynamic creature of endurance. It’s time to start acting like one.
- Biological movements like walking, squatting to birth or defecate, flexing, extending, and rotating all the joints on a regular basis were decreased to the point that new generations had no handed-down knowledge of how people moved before the population had stopped moving.
- Proper alignment is not posture. Alignment is the position something needs to be in, in order to work correctly. Natural body alignment would be the required position for your body to work correctly as a body.
- Watch your habits, for they become your posture.
Watch your posture, for it creates your boundaries.
Watch your boundaries, for they restrict your growth.
Watch your restrictions, for they create immobility.
Watch your immobility, for it becomes your illness.
One quarter of all the human body’s muscles and bones are found below the ankle, most of which most people do not develop due to early use of footwear.
According to Katy Bowman, the ideal footwear is none. Barefoot walking helps to strengthen the foot’s many muscles. Be sure to build up your barefoot escapades after so many years of support from wearing shoes.
However, given the unnatural and manmade modern environment we live in, wearing shoes is a necessity for the most part. Wearing the right kind of shoe makes a world of difference to our alignment and overall health.
For healthy feet, Katy Bowman recommends daily stretches of the entire foot and each of the toes. So wiggle those toes!
Do you love foot massages? Use aroller to relax tight hips, which then improves foot function.
Tips for good footwear:
① Toe Box
Choose a comfortable toe box for your feet. That’s one where your toes can freely move. Many shoe styles have a small toe box which squishes the toes together and tightens the muscles. A small toe box can also lead to bunions.
While many people believe bunions are from collagen content and genetic, Katy Bowman estimates this only affects between 3% and 10% of the population. In her “Bunion Blog” we learn that the growth of a bunion is due to the “unnatural loading at the joint of the Hallux or big toe.” Hallux Valgus is the condition when the big toe becomes lateral towards other toes. A bunion is formed from the swelling of the tissue on the side of the joint.
Her advice? Wear shoes that are not narrow in the toe as this tightens the muscles between the toes and pushes the big toe toward the others. Stretch the toes, focusing on relaxing the big toe away from the others. You can also use toe alignment socks.
② Go Flat
The body is built to bear weight on a vertical axis. Padding raises the heel, increasing the posterior tilt and the positioning of all the joints above the ankle is shifted off the natural axis and our human geometry is out. High heels also shortens the walking stride, decreasing the work done by the calves and hamstrings, thereby lowering the calories burned and decreasing muscle strength. Shifting the body weight off the forefoot to the centre of the heel helps the body’s overall alignment.
So the bonus of walking in proper footwear is natural weight balance.
③ Minimal Footwear
Opt for minimal and flexible shoes. The best soles for healthy feet are both thin and flexible and the worst ones are rigid and thick. If thin soles are uncomfortable, opt for flexible ones even if the soles are slightly thicker.
④ Skip the Flip Flop
Any shoes that are not attached to the foot requires us to grip and clench with our toes. This changes our natural gait and lowers the nerve conduction to the feet. It also forces some bones down, some bones up into the shoe which can create calluses. This is flip flops, mules, and slippers.
Choose proper sized shoes. This seems like common sense, though wrong sized shoes happens more often than we think.
Knees, Hips, and Back
The way we use our body is what dictates wear patterns and contributes to the very ailment you are dealing with now. Even the resulting injuries from acute traumas (like car accidents and falls) are affected by the stress risers (patterns of wear) that have been developing since your first step.
The three best things for knees are movement, alignment… and squats.
Exercise is a relatively modern idea. Movement throughout the day is better for the body than getting to the gym for one intense hour after a day of sitting.
Sitting, which is a 90° hip/90° knee position, shortens the hamstrings. Tight hamstrings does a few things – knees cannot straighten, the pelvis tucks in (a cause of pelvic floor disorders), and the joint space in both the knees and hips shrink.
Take frequent breaks from the desk, take the stairs or walk up the escalator, stretch throughout the day, squat more, work in some Yin Yoga classes, get outside and be in nature…
Movement also ensures the blood can deliver nutrients everywhere in the body, as well as remove the waste. Years of unhealthy postures diminishes the nourishment of specific parts of the body, including the spinal discs.
“The position of your toes, feet, ankles, knees, hips, chest, and head all dictate the loading in the knee (and all the joints).”
Alignment, matters. Untuck the pelvis. Release the knee caps. Be in the vertical. “Shoulders back” does not mean pelvis forward. Proper “stacking” minimizes joint degeneration that can come from torsional forces and maximizes the hips being weight-bearing to maintain bone density. Torso over hips, hips over ankles, feet pointing forward.
What to do for your back?
① Ditch the high heels
Wearing heels leads to spinal compression.
② Point your feet forward
The position of feet forward is one with the least friction in the ankle hinge. It also allows our arch to support weight and for the toes to properly function. Use the outside of the foot as the marker, rather than the second toe. The toes are attached by muscles and may not point naturally due to years of improper shoe wear and movement.
Stretch. Stretch your spinal muscles, calves, hamstrings, psoas….
Tight lower legs changes the gait, with the upper back moving forward.
Get flexible and do spinal twists, a natural movement that is done less and less, unless in a yoga class.
Strengthen your butt. Weak glutes make the lower back muscles work harder. Get those squats in!
Arms, Elbows, Wrists, and Hands
Want toned arms? The first step, Katy Bowman says, is to have the arms in their proper place. To find out if yours are, simply stand in front of the mirror with your arms by your sides. Where are your arms? Along the sides of the body? Slightly forward? Do you see the backs of your wrists? If your arms are hanging along the sides and the back of the wrists do not face the mirror, your arm bones are in the correct placement.
Exercises for Better Alignment
From Alignment Matters – The Soldier Stand and the Posterior Block Hold. (For images of these exercises, see page 77).
To do the Soldier Stand exercise, keep your arms by your side and press your palms into the side of the thighs and now see if you can work all the muscles (including the lats) to get the entire arm to touch your body.
For the Posterior Block Hold, you’ll need a yoga block that you hold behind you by pressing your palms into the short sides. Elbows should be straight; bent elbows indicate tight shoulders and the lats (the largest muscles in the upper back) cannot work properly.
Shoulders and Necks
Our collar bones or clavicle should be horizontal, not a “V” shape. The muscles attached to these bones hold the head above the shoulders. Katy Bowman reminds us that when we shift one thing out of alignment, we are decreasing the function of many related elements in our body and health. Shifting the collar bones puts the head forward and affects the spinal disks, circulation in the head (hair health, headaches, etc), thyroid health, middle back, among other things.
The bulk of your sensory input (seeing, hearing, smelling), the command centre of your entire body (brain), and our heart (circulation) and lungs (breathing) are all wrapped in and affected by the muscles of the shoulder girdle.
One way to test how tight your shoulders are is to place your arm behind you with the back of your palm on the back. Rotate your palm (supination) and see what happens to your shoulders. The shoulder should not be affected, unless the muscles are tight. When you do this, check to see if your scapula is winging, or when the shoulder blade pokes out which happens when its orientation changes from right-to-left to front-to-back. Winging affects your upper body strength, cervical spine, and the circulation to the head.
Do it for both of your shoulders, which are likely different. When the shoulder is not tight, you will be able to reach your arm back in a vertical position.
“The neck and throat areas are very, very important. Circulation in the brain, lymph node waste removal, thyroid function, and your vocal cords, all require supple, flexible muscles to work optimally” (Bowman 2013, p203). The advice for stiff neck? Steam tense muscles with a hot wet towel, stretch the neck and shoulders every day, and find a good massage therapist to work out those knots.
What’s a good neck stretch? Just let your ear fall onto the same-side shoulder. Does it touch? It should. Do this for a minute several times a day to loosen the tension. Also, while keeping the neck long, allow the chin to drop to the chest. Yep, the chin should touch the chest. Remember just relax and don’t force it.
Did you know it is the action of the jaws that moves the ear wax out of the ear canal? Usually, talking and eating are good enough for this job…until there is tension in the jaws which limits their full motion. We also favour one side of the mouth when we talk or chew food which can lead to one ear having more ear wax.
The body is an amazing piece of “machinery” and architecture. It is well-designed. What’s good to remember is that the “skeletal muscle is only fully active when it is at a specific length, could have an enormous impact on your health for the rest of your life.”
Muscles with the proper length and natural range of motion and flexible allow for electrical communication. Stiffness sends inaccurate information to the brain which leads to inappropriate action to stabilize the body.
Modern lifestyle has changed the way we function, while the proper way to move does not get passed down. Instead each new generation emulates the previous ones and poor habits and postures continue.
Katy Bowman’s solution is to get our muscles back to their optimal lengths and return to natural movement patterns.
All quotes from Alignment Matters by Katy Bowman.