Head and Neck Posture in Tai Chi and Everyday Life

bad posture

Head and Neck Posture in Tai Chi and Everyday Life

The first of:

YANG’S TEN ESSENTIALS OF TAI CHI by Yang Cheng-fu (1883 – 1936)

protrusionHead upright to let the shen [spirit of vitality] rise to the top of the head.

Don’t use li [external strength], or the neck will be stiff and the ch’i [vital life energy] and blood cannot flow through. It is necessary to have a natural and lively feeling. If the spirit cannot reach the head top, it cannot raise.

The instruction to keep the head upright in Yang’s first principle could easily be misinterpreted if simply taken at face value. Just looking forwards rather than down isn’t quite what it means. The posture of any one person’s head and neck is dependent on many genetic, mechanical, health and lifestyle factors. The posture we end up with in later life is rarely the one we started with as an infant.

Before expanding further on the hows and whys let’s take a look at the question, “Does your posture matter?

From a Tai Chi point of view, according to Yang, it does matter if we want to not restrict the flow of life energy. Those of you who have ‘tested postures‘ in the Form will have discovered the big difference that very small postural changes can make to the overall effect on your stability and ability to effortlessly resist being unbalanced. If you have yet to test any postures, please consider trying this under instruction from your teacher.

From a health viewpoint your posture can have varying, from nil through to major, effects on your state of well-being. By posture, we generally are referring to the alignment of, and distribution of weight through, the spinal column. There are three distinct sections of the mobile spine and no one part can be said to be independent, in postural terms, of the rest. This article is mainly concerned with the upper, cervical, part of the spine, but we cannot completely ignore the mid, thoracic, and lower, lumbar, sections and the effect they can have on the posture of the cervical.

What is the difference between a protruded and a retracted head?

good posture tai chiIn the illustration of the bones of the skull and spine, you will see two very different alignments. Picture 1 is showing what is generally agreed to be good posture, and what Yang means when he advises keeping the head upright. You might also argue that in picture 2 the head is also upright. Very true – so what is the difference? If we compare the two pictures from the base upwards there is very little difference until we get to about half way up.

This is the mid-thoracic area and the increased forward curve here is actually having a profound effect on the neck and its relationship with the skull. The angle between the upper neck and head is now equivalent to that when we are looking up at the ceiling. If we were looking at a healthy living person in picture 1 they would have no difficulty in looking upwards, but the person in picture 2 would have very little ability to do this without re-straightening the upper half of their spine.

This person has ‘used up’ most or all of their looking up range, known as an extension, by having their head pushed forwards while still kept level. If looked at more closely the lower neck is bent forwards while the upper neck is bent backwards. In fact, slumping the upper back restricts the ranges of all neck movements other than bending forwards as in looking down at the floor.

This effect would be magnified even further if the lower, lumbar, spine was also bent forwards, obliterating the hollow shape, as in sitting slouched. If you sit fully slouched you will find that your looking up ability, using the neck only, is severely compromised unless you sit up straighter. The effect of a permanently protruded head on the upper neck is very much the same, in mechanical terms, as spending all the time looking at the ceiling! And on the lower neck of looking down at the floor. This can be, amongst much else, a potent source of headaches and episodic neck pains.

Believe me when I say you are best trying to avoid making the posture of slouching your regular habit. In my career I hardly ever saw a patient complaining of mechanical neck, cervical, pain who could easily achieve the posture of picture 1 where the neck is somewhat retracted. The opposite of protruded. A word of warning here – never try to perform the movement of retraction in a slouched posture, nor with the chin lifted. This could hurt your neck.

This is far too big and complex a subject for these pages but I am reminded of an occurrence when I was teaching on the subject of mechanical neck pain to an audience of Italian physiotherapists in Rome, many years ago.

A ‘Doubting Thomas‘ in the group caused me to experience the unsettling feeling that I might be arrested in a foreign country (It seems that much more worrying to be responsible for causing someone physical injury when overseas). I had related the results of a study performed on young healthy individuals who were required to hold their heads in extreme protrusion for one minute. All of them reported symptoms over the next few days ranging from mild aches to severe pain all down one upper limb.

The Italian chap didn’t believe this – so I ‘volunteered’ him to try it, with a result I never anticipated. His neck became stuck solid in its sticking-out position and, as only an Italian could, he made clear the pain he was in. As only a Brit could, I muttered ‘Oh S***!’ (thankfully not picked up by the interpreter). Fortunately, with a little deftly applied handling I got his neck back where it was meant to be. He lapped up every word I said after that! Please don’t try this at home!!

One function of the spinal column is to keep the eyes level. Try standing in front of a mirror looking into your own eyes (smile). Now, keeping both feet still on the floor, let one knee bend so that one side of your pelvis drops. What happens to your head? Are your eyes still level or tilted? Your whole body alignment has changed apart from your head. You should see that although one shoulder has dropped your head hasn’t tilted sideways, or it may have a little if your neck is very stiff. If it’s your right shoulder that has lowered then your neck has had to bend sideways to the left to keep your eyes level. You haven’t had to consciously do this, it’s called the righting reflex.

An essential requirement in performing The Form correctly is to not tilt the head from side to side. It’s unlikely that this will happen unless you are voluntarily doing it, even if you’re not aware of it.

You will sometimes hear the instruction, in Tai Chi, to round the shoulders. This could be misinterpreted as slumping the upper back, but it’s far from it. You now know what that will do to your neck posture. What it actually means is to draw your shoulder blades forwards and downwards which gives the impression of hollowing the chest, which doesn’t move unless your spinal column at that level moves too (and we don’t want that do we?).

Do you think that the position your neck is in could have any effect on the mobility of your shoulder?

(Another WARNING – please don’t try this unless you are sure of your neck and shoulder’s state of health being good).

Stand upright and compare fully raising one arm out sideways with a fully protruded head – carefully! What effect on your shoulder mobility, as you lift your arm, do you feel? Compare this with lifting your arm with a retracted head. If you do it right you’ll notice a big difference.

A famous orthopaedic surgeon named Bill Tucker (1903-1991) published a book in 1960 titled Active Alerted Posture. I have always remembered a quote from it, ‘Posture is a state of mind’. Think about it. How likely are you to see a depressed person sitting upright. Try comparing sitting very slouched with sitting very upright and assess your mood in each position. Could the opposite statement be true too? ‘State of mind is a function of posture’.

Old Hungarian Saying:

‘You can’t get any lower than under a frog’s backside at the bottom of a coal mine’

retraction