We are designed to stand up straight – with excellent posture; stand tall, scan the horizon and try to spot tonight’s dinner; then lope into action to catch it. There are four fundamental parts of the old brain involved in standing up effortlessly tall: two help us bend forwards and two bend us backwards, so when they are firing well we have harmony. They are called the mid brain, the pons, the medulla and the cerebellum.
I don’t think anybody wants to stoop! We may make a valiant effort to stand up straight, only to fall back into our normal posture after a few minutes. We can attend pilates classes, go to yoga, have Alexander Technique lessons, do a google search, ‘How to improve posture’ and be boggled by the number of instructions we can find. And it really is all good stuff.
But until we address the fundamental brain issues, we will find it all a bit frustrating; we will all get caught out by the sneaky side on photo showing the head poked forwards, the belly bulging out or the granny stoop well underway.
And what makes it all just so much worse is a past head trauma: whiplash, jaw injury or anything that knocks us unconscious. Add to that list a coccyx trauma. How these things play out is incredibly individual – but they will show up in our posture.
The mid brain- good for forward bending.
Activating the mid brain brings us into forward bending. It is where most of the eye muscles have their origin. So when we read something, work at a screen or do any close work, our eyes move towards each other by using the innermost eye muscles, which originate in the mid brain.
The other fascinating piece of the puzzle lies in the part of our nervous system that either ramps us up for action or calms us down for snoozing and other bedtime activities. This is the autonomic nervous system and it has two opposing parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system gets us all steamed up – referred to as fight, flight or freeze. When this gets going, it diverts blood from the digestive system and into the limbs so we can run for our lives – or thump stuff. The sympathetic nervous system begins in the Mid Brain.
Therefore anything that brings our eyes towards each other also ramps up the sympathetic nervous system and takes us down into a defensive position – or a slump.
The Pons – good for bending backwards.
Below the midbrain we have the Pons, and this brings us into extension – or leaning backwards – particularly above the middle of the upper back. There is one set of eye muscles with their origin here and those are the ones we engage when looking into the far distance; they are also engaged when using peripheral vision. Sometimes we hear good advice to look into the distance about every 20 minutes when working on the computer for several hours: this not only rests the eye muscles that help us focus on the screen, but by stimulating the eye muscle that pulls the eyeballs apart, the lateral rectus, we stimulate the pons and so help reverse the brainstem led stoop.
Other important nerves with their origins in the Pons are the muscles we use when we chew, our facial muscles, our ears – both hearing and balance organs – and taste.
The calming autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, begins in the pons and the medulla. When this gets going, blood is diverted to the guts and the sexual organs. So look into the far distance, chew thoughtfully on something tasty, smile, think good thoughts (cough) and this helps us stand up straight.
The Medulla – the tummy flattener.
This is the lowest part of the brainstem and brings us into flexion or forward bending, but below the middle of the upper back; which means that exciting this part of the brainstem helps turn off a tight back and switch on flabby abs.
No eye muscles have their origin here, but stuff like the tongue, the soft palate, ability to swallow and the vagus nerve begin here, as does the parasympathetic nervous system.
Therefore keeping the tongue resting on the roof of the mouth – the entire roof, not just the front, doing exercises like The Cheesy Smile, humming, gargling and singing all help flatten the abs, sort out backache, enable us to chug down a big handful of pills – and help us stand up straight. As that low back lengthens, we will also find our bottom squeezes much more easily, so not only do the abs firm up, so does the bottom.
I won’t refer to the ultimate pons and medulla activity, but reading before bedtime doesn’t really help…
Finally we come to the cerebellum, the back bottom part of the brain. The cerebellum corrects movement – the fastest demonstration is to rapidly clap alternating palm and back of hand into the other hand – just clap fast, turning the hand over and over. Try both hands; it is very common for one hand to suddenly do a double clap, which surprises you. That is the cerebellum reporting a movement error.
Posturally, the cerebellum takes us into extension or back bending; it fires up the muscles on the back of our body. So if you want to lean over backwards, adding, say, a figure of 8 with both thumbs whilst being aware of everything in your peripheral vision, will really help.