A recent article on body language in the Financial Post states “posture is one of the most neglected power tools. And where your head sits has a lot to do with posture and the power that it can impart.”
The article goes on to say, “keep your chin up.” This, presumably, is how one displays power and confidence. I disagree.
Past columns have dealt with how to straighten the pelvis and the back and to strengthen the muscles that support body weight to hold it in alignment.
As a continuation of the spine, the neck must perforce complete the process of straightening, for the upper back and neck are mutually responsive. That is, when the back rounds out, the neck sinks forward, causing the chin to tilt up and the back of the head to drop. Conversely, when the back straightens, the neck also straightens and pushes the back of the head up, bringing the chin level.
Indeed, when the back is straight, it is virtually impossible for the neck to sink and feel in any way comfortable. Nor, when the neck sinks, is it possible to straighten the back.
It should be obvious, then, that “chin up” is the wrong approach to proper posture. Not only is this in conflict with lengthening the spine, but the muscles that support the head, essentially the sterno-cleido-mastoid and the trapezius, become, over time, severely contracted. This effectively prevents them from lifting the base of the skull and, therefore, the chin can’t drop to its correct, level position.
Most people, when unaccustomed to this position, usually describe the chin as feeling “down.” However, once the necessary muscular changes have been made and the support to the back established, the position becomes normal. It gives, in fact, a sense of lightness to the head and a bearing that exudes confidence and stability.
So the strength – and power (or, preferably, “authority”) – of upright posture comes not from the front, with “chest out, shoulders back, chin up,” but from behind, with the back supported, the shoulders squared, the neck straight and strong and the chin level.
To achieve this placement of the head, the back must, as mentioned before, first be straight. Beyond that, the supporting neck muscles have to be both stretched and strengthened. The accompanying exercises can be used for these purposes.
To Stretch Neck Muscles
Lie supine on the floor and clasp the hands under the head. Take a good breath in, bringing the arms against the sides of the head, shoulders relaxed and elbows toward each other so as to “hug” the head.
Letting the breath out, tip the head off the floor with the hands and bring it slowly forward over the chest, allowing the chin to drop in toward the throat. (The full weight of the head rests in the hands so all neck and shoulder muscles can be relaxed.)
Stay with the stretch for a few moments. Then, keeping the head tipped forward, lengthen the neck back to the floor, letting the breath in as needed.
Increase the stretch from one side of the neck to the other by bringing the head over the chest as before, then, slowly bending the body so the head comes toward one shoulder. (Both arms stay hugging the head, while the shoulders stay “down.”) Alternate slowly from side to side.
To bring the stretch lower on the trapezius and underlying muscles, roll the upper body onto one shoulder, leaving the hips as flat as possible, and pull the head gently down toward the hip on that side. Alternate sides as before. The breath should be let out as the head is pulled down and taken in while rolling across the back to the other side.
To Strengthen Neck Muscles
Lie supine on the floor. Keep the chin down so the neck is lengthened. Take a good breath in. Letting the breath out, lift the head so it barely clears the floor. (The head remains horizontal, neither the chin nor the forehead lifting higher than the other.) Then lower the neck, keeping the chin down, to rest the head on the floor.
To strengthen further, lift the head as before, then turn the face slightly to one side, keeping the head parallel to the floor. Turn the head back to the front, then lower the neck and relax the muscles. If no undue strain is felt, turn the head from one side to the other before lowering from the center.
Finish by pressing the back of the head gently against the floor and slowly rolling across the skull, turning the face toward one shoulder as far as possible. Then press slowly across toward the other shoulder. Repeat to both sides. Then roll the head loosely from side to side, allowing it to drop and rest at its normal stopping point.