What is Habitual Posture?
By Alissa Mayer – Originally published December 09, 2015
In Hanna Somatic Education® and Equine Hanna Somatics®, we talk about posture and habitual posture quite a bit. While most of us can recognize good posture, and even get our bodies to do it with some effort, understanding what shapes our posture is important if we are going to change it.
Habitual Posture is simply the most comfortable position for a body to rest in, and is based on the cumulative tension or relaxation present in the skeletal muscles of the body while at rest, at any given moment. A body, be it human or horse shaped, will have “perfect posture” when all of the skeletal muscles are resting with a neutral tonus – this means only using the minimum muscular activity to maintain an upright yet relaxed position, with no extra muscular effort being wasted on holding unnecessary muscular contractions. Muscle contractions are unnecessary when they are not performing a function like holding the trunk or neck upright, or acting on the skeletal structure to move the body or a part of the body.
Skeletal muscles are one of three types of muscle in the body, and make up the majority of muscle tissue that we can see and feel. Skeletal muscles are attached to bones (mostly) by tendons, and produce all the movements of a body’s parts in relation to one another by pulling on the bones when the muscles contract. Skeletal muscle can contract rapidly, but cannot remain contracted – the muscle fibers must relax before the next contraction can occur. This means that a muscle that is in a state of chronic contraction is actually being contracted over and over again – which is why these muscles are frequently sore and tired, and even painful to the touch. Unlike smooth muscle or cardiac muscle, skeletal muscles are voluntary in nature – meaning they only contract when told to do so by the somatic nervous system. Being voluntarily controlled by the somatic nervous system does not, however, mean that all of your skeletal muscles are necessarily under YOUR voluntary control. YOU, (the mind you think of as yourself), do not actually know how to drive your extremely complicated body around.
Try This: For example, reach for your right ear. Now, make a list of all the muscles you had to contract to do that movement, in the correct sequence and intensity of contraction… for even an expert anatomist, that would be difficult – for the rest of us, impossible!
THE GOOD NEWS: Each body comes pre-programmed with an autopilot system that includes all the basic movement patterns necessary to life. That autopilot system lives largely in the cerebellum of the vertebrate brain. The autopilot system is a learning system, and continues to add new movement patterns throughout the life of the organism. Any pattern of muscular contraction that is repeated due to sport, training, practice or involuntary reflexes will become part of the “program” we often describe as “muscle memory” or “habit” or “mannerisms” or “posture.” In horses, we might say “push-button” or “robotic” or “head-set” or “high-headed.”
THE BAD NEWS: The brains of highly developed vertebrates like humans and horses are also extremely adaptable, which lends them to accumulating chronic muscle contractions due to dulled or numbed areas of body awareness, depending on the stresses and activities engaged in. This condition is what Dr. Thomas Hanna calls Sensory-Motor Amnesia, which he describes in his book Somatics thus:
An industrial society is fueled by the energy of the Green Light reflex, which is triggered incessantly. This relentless repetition guarantees that the muscular contraction of the reflex will be constant and habitual. The action response is so steady that, eventually, we cease to notice it. It becomes automatic, fading into oblivion. This is sensory-motor amnesia, and once it takes over we can no longer control the Green Light reflex. All we feel is fatigue, soreness, and pain – in the back of our heads, in our necks, our shoulders, upper back, lower back, and buttocks. (66)
The Green Light reflex is an involuntary reaction to stress, commonly recognizable as the fight or flight response. Among other things, it causes the muscles along the back of the body to contract, and when these contractions become habitual, they pull an organisms otherwise “perfect posture” out of balance. When the Green Light reflex has been repeated enough to influence the habitual posture of a human, the result is a hollow lower back, protruding belly, tight shoulders, and shortened back of the neck, which often causes tension headaches. In a horse, the Green Light reflex causes a tight and hollow back, stiff upside-down neck, high head carriage, and also causes them to be “strung out behind” with the hind legs unable to reach freely forward under the body. I’ll talk more about the Green Light reflex, the Red Light reflex, and the Trauma reflex in a future post.
Stand up (or remain seated if you like) and perform your best posture – don’t strain yourself, but straighten up like your mother always told you to. Hold this “good posture” for a minute or so, and take note of the muscular effort it is requiring. Now, relax. Whew! This is your habitual posture – where your skeletal muscles pull you when you aren’t trying to do anything in particular. Note the difference between your habitual posture and your “perfect” posture.
The more effort it took for you to get into and hold the “perfect” posture, the more your muscles are experiencing unnecessary contractions, and the more Sensory Motor Amnesia you have accumulated. But don’t worry! It’s not your fault – it’s just a glitch in the vertebrate system that has been exacerbated by our modern industrial society. And thanks to Hanna Somatic Education, now we know what to do about it!
EVEN BETTER – with EQUINE HANNA SOMATICS, we can help our horses to get free of the habitual posture that is causing pain and interfering with easy athletic performance, giving them the well-being necessary for enjoying good quality of life. I love to hear your feedback, so please post your comments and questions below!
PS – Questions or comments? Post them below and I’ll get back to you asap with an answer!
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