The "J-shaped spine" - is that something I should want?
A couple of students asked me: “have you heard about the new theory of the J-shaped spine?” Well, that I had to see, so I took to the internets. “Posture guru” Esther Gokhale was interviewed last month on NPR about her theory that Americans have a lot of back pain because their spines are too curvy (like an S, rather than straighter at the top with the lowest curve moving out into a J-hook at the sacrum and tailbone). In her research, she observed that indigenous people have straighter spines and do not have back pain.
My translation of her theory: she sees people in our culture being too slouchy. That’s not completely off base. However, if someone tells people that their spines should be straighter at the top, then what will everyone start doing? You guessed it – they’ll sit up straight! This creates a different issue in using muscular effort to hold the spine straighter at the top. It employs pulling the shoulders back and restricting breathing to maintain that position.
In the Alexander Technique, we don’t seek a “position” at all – which at first can be hard to wrap your brain around. Sitting here reading this right now, if you feel slumpy, why can’t you sit up straighter?
Well, certainly you can. But in a little while, you’ll start to feel some other tradeoffs – in mobility and in breathing. It bypasses using your whole natural postural support system in a more balanced and coordinated way - instead it works (or over-works) one part of it.
In AT, we seek a dynamic relationship between the primary organizing elements of body – the head, the spine (including the top section of the spine, the neck) and the whole torso, and out into the limbs. So whether your spine is more or less curved is not the guiding element. AT asks whether you are releasing up through whatever curves you’ve got, or compressing and shortening that stabilizing column. It explores whether the weight of your skull is pulling back and down and pressing on the spinal structure, or whether it’s lightening up and balancing easily at the top of the spine. It looks at whether the ribs are responsive to the ongoing movement of the breath, and whether you are allowing that mobility by not holding your breath. And we do all that indirectly by using thought to wish for a change rather than doing it with muscular effort.
I was heartened to see that Ms. Gokhale added a statement to the NPR story that she had studied both AT and Feldenkrais and incorporated them into her method. I suspect, just as in AT, that working with her is an entirely different story than simply hearing her work boiled down into a few steps easily understood in print. Being a “posture guru,” as she has been dubbed, isn’t a terrible label or aspiration – people called F.M. Alexander “the breathing man” a century ago, and he really helped people’s breathing! I’m glad that someone is publicly encouraging caring for our posture. Bringing awareness that how we are using ourselves affects our functioning means we can begin to have choices about that. We can slouch into pain, or expand into better and better performance. If calling attention to the shape of the spine makes us sit up and notice that it's important, it’s a start!