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What are Habits?

Our skeletal, muscular and nervous systems remember everything that we do and how we do it. If I carry my purse on my right shoulder for years, not only will I lean more on my right side, but my shoulders will eventually become uneven. If Stella walks with an arched back while wearing heels because she thinks it makes her look more attractive and taller, her body will remember her movements and become accustomed to her walking with an arched back when she wears heels. She might feel pain, she might not (yet). But the harm that she is causing her body by repeating those activities will become evident in her posture.

What about Tom, who just goes to work? Is he at risk too? Well, if Tom is sitting at his desk and reading an email, while listening in on a conference call, periodically checking his phone, writing on a notepad, drinking his coffee and talking to his co-worker, he's responding to a lot of stimuli at the same time. Most of us can relate to what Tom is doing. Even though we are multi-tasking, and just 'sitting down', we are still causing excessive tension to our musculoskeletal systems, by simply having to react to each of those activities. A seemingly simple scenario like that can throw our nervous system into disarray through constant stimulation-- and the need to react to it. Continuously engaging in this type of lifestyle, will cause our body to malfunction in the same way that a computer will malfunction if we open up too many windows or programs at the same time. In most cases, the computer will just freeze up and stop working altogether. Our bodies behave in similar ways.

I remember one of the first times I was made aware of my habits during an Alexander Technique lesson. I didn’t understand how I could separate my habits from myself. Wasn’t I just the sum of all of my habits? Who would I be without them? My wonderful teacher, Manoli, helped me understand that habits were just layers of unnecessary things that I was repeating that had nothing to do with me. Thus, began the journey of discovering how I was using my body in ways that literally brought me down. I slowly learned that I had acquired a whole plethora of unnecessary habits. One example was walking around with an arched back. I didn't need to do that to look upright, I could just think up, as if my head was a hot air balloon lifting up towards the sky. Another habit I had was collapsing into a chair or couch when I wanted to sit down. Instead of directing myself into the chair, I would just plop into it. This prevented me from getting into and out of a chair with balance and direction, and instead had a negative impact on my back and posture. In addition, I was constantly leaning on the back of my chair for support while sitting in it. Why couldn’t I sit upright comfortably in the chair without needing back support?

When we are young, our bodies are very active and agile, but with time, we begin accumulating new habits that start interfering with our body’s use and consequently slow us down. For instance, as toddlers, we don’t need to sit in chairs, we can easily sit or squat on the floor. But as we start school, we begin the habit of sitting in chairs, often for hours. We then get accustomed to using

these chairs and sitting on the floor becomes uncomfortable. When we were toddlers, our bodies were free of habits because they hadn’t learned to depend on cushions or the backs of chairs--they functioned effortlessly. With time, we learn to become dependent on things to lean on for support, thus creating a false sense of comfort. As a result, we use our muscles less and less and subsequently weaken our bodies.

Western Lifestyle

In addition to the constant stimulation of seemingly mundane tasks, think about all the extra weight and pressure we put on our organs, joints, and spine throughout the day as we sit behind our screens and collapse into our chairs. Sedentary lifestyle (or sitting for long periods of time) is the most challenging activity for the human spine, and it is how many of us spend our days. A US study found that children and adults spend at least 55% of their waking hours or 7.7 hours a day in sedentary behaviors and children between the ages of 5 and 16 are likely to spend about 15,000 hours sitting down. Screen time (i.e. computer usage, watching television, playing video games) has increased dramatically over then the past 20 years. In 2003 nearly 6 in 10 working adults used a computer in school (kindergarten through grade 12). Between 1989 and 2009, the number of households with a computer and Internet access increased from 15% to 69%. In Western cultures where technology is so pervasive, the musculoskeletal system is often seriously aggravated as a result.

Does that mean that most people are susceptible to poor posture? That's a loaded question, but in short, yes. If you want to look for models of good posture, look at toddlers. Observe how they play while in a full squat position. Watch how they sit as they are playing on the floor with a lovely lengthened back, without leaning against anything for support. When was the last time we carried out an activity in a squatting position? When was the last time we sat on the floor for more than five minutes with an upright back (without leaning against anything for support)? ​

Recognizing harmful habits is the first and most important step towards improving one's posture. Learning about our habits and patterns, and then choosing not to engage in them, is empowering and makes way for better choices. The Alexander Technique is an educational tool used to improve posture and overall health. The technique helps us become more aware of how we are using our body and then learn to make choices that improve our bodies and lifestyle.

Additional Reading:

Back Care. “Your Back in the Future” (2014)

Matthews, Charles E., Kong Y. Chen, Patty S. Freedson, Maciej S. Buchowski, Bettina M. Beech, Russell R. Pate, and Richard P. Troiano. "Amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors in the United States, 2003–2004." American journal of epidemiology 167, no. 7 (2008): 875-881.

Owen, Neville, Phillip B. Sparling, Geneviève N. Healy, David W. Dunstan, and Charles E. Matthews. "Sedentary behavior: emerging evidence for a new health risk." In Mayo Clinic Proceedings, vol. 85, no. 12, pp. 1138-1141. Elsevier, 2010.

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