In my experience Yogis and Buddhists practiced in the art of meditation have the best training in postural alignment, although some ballet dancers come close. Most toddlers don’t require training, their posture is instinctual.

A common story I hear is “I carry my stress in my shoulders/upper back/neck,” or “I don’t understand why it’s always the right side of my neck that gets tight,” or “Sometimes during the day I catch myself holding my shoulders up.”

I’m going to shed some light on why these common problems happen, how you can assess and correct yourself, and how you can set up your work station, home station, space station, and playstation to set your back, neck, and shoulders at ease.

The 1st mistake I’ve seen people make is moving from one extreme to another. So they compensate when they notice they are slouching by sticking their chest out as far as possible.

Good posture is virtually effortless, but if there is any effort at all it should be for only one goal, and that’s raising the crown of the head (the place where you would balance a book, or a basket, or a 1 legged donkey, or a barrel full of cannibalistic monkeys) as high as possible away from the center of the earth. This is the 1st step to set things up.

Sticking your chest out doesn’t work because the spine has a concave (lordotic) curve at the neck and low back, and a convex (kyphotic) curve at the upper and mid-back. When people try to stick their chest out they are actually at odds with the natural curve of the upper and mid back so tension prevails and posture seems to them only preventative and not curative.

By pushing up the crown of the head away from the floor the nervous system figures out where the spine should curve in or out without the necessity of your conscious input. This is the 1st step to postural training.

The second step is finding the balance point.

I used to wonder why those guys on the beach would stack the rocks, one on top of the other so that they look precarious and unstable but seemingly miraculously the rocks balance. Are these guys just trying to show off? Are they bored? Is this the most creative outlet they could find for OCD? Are they exhibiting their conquest and dominion over the lowly rock? Can’t they pick on someone their own size?

Now I see the rocks as a metaphor for the vertebrae in the spine. Once the rocks are aligned they don’t require any outside force to remain upright. Once the spine is aligned it does not require any muscle tension to remain aligned. And this I believe is one of the primary contributing factors of chronic pain in the neck, back and shoulders. That is, if the vertebrae don’t sit balanced one atop of the next like those rocks at the beach, then muscle tension is required to keep your head from falling into your cereal bowl. Over time that tension subjectively feels like pain and/or stress.

This technique is most easily done standing or walking. But many people prefer to practice sitting, and this may be more practical if this is how you spend the majority of your day. If you are sitting it is best to sit at the front one third or one quarter of your chair, and keep your knees lower than your hips. If your knees are at the same level or higher than your hips then unless you have some superhuman hip flexibility your lower back muscles (erector spinae) will have to remain flexed to maintain posture, which would defeat the whole purpose of trying to find the balance point.

1st you raise the crown of your head away from the center of the earth as we previously discussed. Then you systematically completely relax the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and upper back. Complete relaxation will take some of you longer than others to master. I try to teach some of my patients to relax (if I sense they have difficulty doing so) by having them let me hold their arm up. I drop the arm without warning. If it remains suspended in the air then they were using their muscles to help me hold it up and they weren’t relaxed. If it drops like a wet noodle then I congratulate them on such excellent relaxation abilities and give them a lollipop (a metaphorical one, real lollipops are not a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine).

For now you can practice relaxation that way, by having someone hold your arm up and ask them to drop it without warning. Once you’ve mastered this try relaxing your neck muscles while seated. If your head starts to fall in one direction or another, then adjust the balance point until it remains upright even when relaxed. Continue this method down the entire spine until all areas are balanced.

People that fall asleep while sitting up are often identified when their head suddenly drops down and they catch themselves and waken. When you meditate in the balanced position and you drift off into the land between sleepiness and wakefulness your head and back remain upright and no one will be the wiser.

When you do this correctly it is as light and comforting as finally lying on a comfortable bed after a long day of work. You will feel at peace with the world and confident to handle anything that comes when your back is aligned. This is the final way to assess your posture.