Posture, Proprioception and Psoas

Photo by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash

When I'm dog walking (sadly, no more), or doing my walking projects (North DeltaOND, White Rock - OWR, Tsawwassen - OT and next, Ladner - OL), I often think about the 3 Ps - posture, psoas and proprioception. Then, I take what I know about them and make micro-corrections in order to move more easily and safely along my route.

Aging, bad habits, pain and gravity are some of the things that can impact the 3 Ps. Without awareness and strategies, the results are noticeable and measurable and can result in pain.

Posture

When you have some time, find somewhere to people watch, preferably outside. Until we see COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror, I don't recommend doing this exercise indoors.

As people move past you, notice their posture. Is the position of their head mimicking a fedora on a hook? Are their shoulders curving inwards, as if to provide protection from outside forces? Do they appear to disappear into themselves? What is their posture saying that they cannot or will not voice?

Now that you've had some experience looking at others, check out your own posture. Your body speaks volumes. It may be a quiet whisper of intuition or a loud hear-me-now. Choose to tune in to uncover the message your body is revealing to you.

Your posture can change your mood. Like the paradox it is, your mood is reflected in your posture, or walking style, as reported in Science Daily:

"Subjects who were prompted to walk in a more depressed style, with less arm movement and their shoulders rolled forward, experienced worse moods than those who were induced to walk in a happier style, according to the study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry."

In Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Professor Amy Cuddy discusses powerless poses versus power poses. Numerous experiments were conducted that demonstrated a link between emotions, creativity and the way in which one views the world.

"Expansive body language increases our feelings of physical strength and skill; contractive body language decreases them.

Expanding your body physiologically prepares you to be present; it overrides your instinct to fight or flee, allowing you to be grounded, open, and engaged." (Page 223)

A lesson in pain management

If you live with RA (rheumatoid arthritis), pain is inevitable. It could be the red hot "knife arthritis" pain of a flare-up, the crushing pain of a handshake (thanks to COVID-19, this one has disappeared!) or the daily pain of trying to do everyday things with joints that have been ravaged by RA. These are but just a few examples of the types of pain that a person who has RA can/will experience.

Check out Lene Andersen's blog for a creative, yet accurate, look at pain: Like Snow: 13 New Names for Different Types of Pain.

I have lived with chronic pain from rheumatoid arthritis for most of my life. I know that it has affected my posture and the way I walk. Basically, the way I do everything. I also know that if I neglect to work on my posture, I will slump down the slippery slope and, on the way down, end up with even more pain. That is why I choose to be proactive and do whatever I can to put on the brakes to enjoy as much of the view as I can from the top of the hill.

Amy Cuddy described another experiment that demonstrated how people's pain thresholds were affected by dominant, submissive and neutral poses. The result:

"Expanding your body toughens you to physical pain." (Page 224)

Pain makes you want to curl up into yourself. I've been there many times. But what if you can build some resilience and tolerance in order not to retreat into your shell? Remember that your "pain posture" can become a habit, long after the pain has subsided.

Before my first hip replacement, I walked like a duck, or "pooped my pants," as a kindergarten student once said - no, I can't make that up! In order to restore muscle memory and improve my gait, my physiotherapist had me practice walking at a slow pace on the treadmill. Over time, I broke the pain-response walking habit that I had developed. A new hip took care of that!

For the last year, I've been alternating Essentrics with qigong exercises. Click here for an Essentrics program that specifically addresses posture. Here's another one for pain relief.

Disclosure: I am not receiving any monetary benefit from Essentrics. Darn it!

When your pain subsides, ensure that you have no lingering pain-adapted habits. Be proactive and work on adopting more in-your-body of-this-world poses and movement. Proper posture can be practiced.

Here is Dr. Amy Cuddy discussing how body language affects you:

Proprioception

"A sense or perception, usually at a subconscious level, of the movements and position of the body and especially its limbs, independent of vision; this sense is gained primarily from input from sensory nerve terminals in muscles and tendons (muscle spindles) and the fibrous capsule of joints combined with input from the vestibular apparatus." - The Free Dictionary

In other words, your senses pick up clues from your environment. Aging and illness can erode your proprioceptive abilities, leading to clumsiness or even falls.

I always marvel at how forgiving the body can be, even when heaps of abuse are thrown at it. No longer do you have to accept that "that's the way it is." You don't have to give up and tumble into that inexorable decline that you believe must befall you.

An uneven walkway provides an opportunity to work on proprioception.

Whenever I hear "...paved a paradise and put up a parking lot" from the song Big Yellow Taxi, I hear a bell. Not for an angel getting its wings but rather for a lost opportunity to work on proprioception. The truth is, while uneven ground can lead to serious falls, we need that uneven ground to become more sure-footed. Yes, we want to do it in a manner that is safe, especially if you're starting from a negative position - one in which you've already lost proprioceptive ground.

Two years ago, after having yet another bad fall, I was extremely motivated to improve my proprioception. As mentioned earlier, I find Essentrics and qigong to be beneficial, especially the exercises that challenge and guide me to improving my balance, such as these two: Essentrics and qigong. Remember that it is a work in progress.

Always check with your healthcare provider to see what is appropriate for you in terms of rehabilitative exercises.

Psoas

"Deep within the anterior hip joint and lower spine lies the psoas major [so-az) muscle. Sometimes called the 'mighty psoas,' it is the most important skeletal muscle in the human body, as it is the only muscle that connects the upper extremity to the lower extremity (the spine to the legs). This makes it a very significant postural muscle and mover and stabilizer of two different joints: the iliofemoral joint and the lumbar spine. The muscle is located near the body's center of gravity, so its role becomes that of regulating balance, and affecting nerve and subtle energies as well." - Jo Ann Staugaard-Jones in The Vital Psoas Muscle: Connecting Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Well-Being, 2012

If you've ever bought tenderloin, you are buying the animal equivalent of the iliopsoas. The psoas "has been called the 'hidden prankster,' the 'opinionated psoas,' the 'great pretender,' a 'conductor,' and the 'fight or flight muscle.'" (Staugaard-Jones, page 18)

The psoas (pictured here) is also referred to as the hip flexors. It can get tighter and shorter the more you sit. If you walk with your upper body tilted forward, your psoas is also kept in a contracted position.

Stand up in your normal position. Now, lean back ever so slightly. Do you feel a tugging along the front? That could indicate a tight psoas. Imagine how you might practice that every time you walk.

One of the things I notice when I straighten up is that there is less pressure and pain on my metatarsal heads (the balls of my feet). It makes sense, especially since my weight is redistributed over my feet. Check it out for yourself. What do you notice?

After all, the toe bone is connected to the heel bone...!

The psoas and the stress connection

I'm a big fan of having a toolbox full of techniques and strategies. It keeps things interesting. While I coach people on learning in-the-moment-when-stress-is-happening techniques, I like to implement other strategies as well.

The central and peripheral nervous systems are directly tied in to the psoas because of its location. A lot of emotions can be embedded there. Think of terms such as "gut-wrenching," "misery guts," or "to hate someone's guts." It's visceral.

Somatic memory can be stored in the body, as explained in this PubMed article: "Intense emotions at the time of the trauma initiate the long-term conditional responses to reminders of the event, which are associated both with chronic alterations in the physiological stress response and with the amnesias and hypermnesias characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)."

Your whole body is one interconnected network. What happens in one place can impact something else, whether it is an emotional, mental, physical or spiritual event. It goes for both the positives and negatives in life.)

The gut/brain connection is augmented by the heart. Signals from the heart travel via your autonomic nervous system, north to the brain and south to the enteric nervous system (gut). Are you triggering the stress response?

The question to ask yourself is what data are you inputting? One of safety and security, or are you repeatedly depressing the panic button? Your thoughts and feelings matter, whether they are real or imaginary, such as Mark Twain recognized:

"I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened."

Why not use both the "front door" (heart) and "back door" (psoas), to address and undress your stress? Be mindful what you allow into your "home" (body).

Tips for Putting It All Together

  1. Without awareness, it's difficult to make changes. The mirror is your friend. Use it to help you auto-correct. Be patient and kind. Speaking of friends, explain what you are doing, then ask them to help you. Pat yourself on the back for practicing self-care.
  2. As you go on your walks, check in frequently with yourself and notice the position of your head and upper body. Make slight corrections and notice how that changes things for you. Does it redistribute the weight on your feet? How does it feel when you breathe? Is it easier? Keep in mind that it may feel weird at first, especially if you've been "practicing" walking this way for quite some time. Change takes time.
  3. Yes, even if you live in a cold environment, you can still get out and walk. When I lived in Northern Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, winter temperatures would often drop below - 20 F. With the appropriate clothing, a brisk walk certainly cleared the cobwebs. That was before all this high-tech clothing. You can do it. Be mindful of slippery sections. Cleats may be advisable. You can also try mall walking (after COVID-19) or, if you are in a position to do so, get a treadmill.
  4. You may wish to seek professional help from a physiotherapist or a kinesiologist. Consider movement therapies such as The Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais Method.

Minding your Ps

It's already the third month of the year. Are you walking as if you are dragging 2020 behind you? Mind your Ps (leave the qs for now) and walk your way into feeling better. Do it for the health of it!


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