Your Back Has a Front, And Other Truths About Your Body

Client: Is working on the front of my shoulders going to improve my posture? (voice: uncertain, questioning, confused)

Me: Is posture only in your shoulders?

It was eight in the morning when my answers are at their most terse and cryptic (pretty sure softness and compassion don’t boot for me until at least 10:30). But what I really wanted to say is, there are at least a hundred things wrong with that question.

Not that it’s the client’s fault, mind you. I suffer this inquisition nigh daily, fragmented across faces and ages and years. Because this isn’t a personal question walking into my office; it’s a cultural one.

The reason we, as people, refer to our bodies in such fragmented, discombobulated ways is that we’ve been conditioned to think about ourselves as a collection of parts, like Lego bricks. If one Lego is broken, just replace it with a new one and the whole construct will work again.

If one wall of your Lego house falls down, you don’t rebuild the opposite one. You fix the part that’s broken. Duh.

Bodies aren’t buildings. Thinking about them like staid structures — or even machines — leads people to mistakenly focus on their symptoms, often for years at a stretch, without ever uncovering the root of their problems.

It also affects how we talk about our bodies. My clients refer to issues they’re experiencing as “it.” Their intellect, of course, is floating above all that base nonsense of muscles and tissues and bones. “It” is misbehaving, completely apart from their highly intelligent brain.

My back is tight, why is it doing that?

My left foot turns out, why does it do that?

Let me just point out the obvious here: It is also you.

Of course, you are not your back or your foot, but your foot and back are parts of you. Part of a bigger whole, a synergistic organism.

In my client’s case, his complaints were largely in his back: bulging discs, pain from a motor vehicle accident many years before, aching shoulders, stiff spine, slouched posture.

These are such common complaints that I’m beginning to think we have a societal epidemic. And of course this person spent years addressing his “back” problems before coming to me where I promptly plunged my knuckles into the taught, wooden tissue of his chest and ribs.

Prompting his confusion.

Because if his back is where the pain is, we must fix his back. No?

No.

His back — and yours — has a front. That front, unlike the segmented wall of a Lego house, is not only connected to your back, but functions reciprocally with it.

There are actually two types of tight muscles: locked long and locked short (credit for this concept: Thomas Meyers, Anatomy Trains).

Locked long muscles are those that are stretched. When you bend forward to touch your toes, you feel a pull in your hamstrings. That’s your stretch reflex jumping in to protect your body from over-reaching and tearing a muscle. The tension you experience is your own nervous system contracting the muscle, holding on, keeping you safe.

This is most frequently what you’re feeling when your back and shoulders ache. The muscles are being stretched; they’re fatigued and sore and hurting and it feels so effing good when someone rubs the tension out.

But the sneaky culprit is really muscles that are locked short. Those little buggers never complain because they’re not being pulled on. Instead, they have a set point that’s quite short. Every muscle in your body has this set point. It’s a level of ongoing tension at which the muscle exists, constantly. If you didn’t have this, you’d be a puddle of bone soup on the ground. People under anesthesia are more or less in this soup state.

The problem is that after years of hunching forward over computers, away from stress, to hide from the world, to save yourself from overwhelm, that set point in your chest and ribs and diaphragm becomes constricted. It’s no longer helpful. In fact, it’s crunching you into the fetal position.

And your poor back bears the burden, hanging on for dear life, trying to keep you upright. Or close to upright.

The segmentation doesn’t stop within our bodies. It’s not just that we see our backs as separate from our fronts, that we talk about tight hamstrings but never correlate them to constricted cores, to locked up shoulders, to a clenched jaw.

No muscle exists in isolation in your body; a tight hamstring is not just a tight hamstring. It’s part of a larger stress pattern. That pattern might be related to physical habits, like poor ergonomics at work or slouching on the couch playing video games for too many hours.

But I’m honestly tired of the “fix your posture” mandate. People are being brainwashed to believe that if you just hold your body correctly, the pain will disappear (and also any impression of physical sensation along with it because, let’s face it, as a culture we’re panic-stricken by feelings).

There are two problems with this edict. The first is that holding your body in a pose requires tension. And tension zaps your energy. It drains your physical stamina. It perpetuates friction within your body. Working hard to get your body functioning properly is kind of an oxymoron. Because seriously, you think you’re smarter than thousands of years of evolution? Your body knows how to work right, if you would only strip away the barriers to it doing so. Like, tension.

Second, posture isn’t something you do. It’s an expression of who you are and what you’re experiencing.

To understand this, let’s look at horses for a second. (C’mon, are you surprised? I’ll take any chance I get to look at horses for a second. Or an hour. Or ten.)

People always say the same thing when they find out that I do bodywork on horses: That must be hard, horses can’t talk and tell you what hurts!

Can’t talk, eh? I’d beg to differ. Spend two minutes around a horse and I guarantee you’ll see that horse talk. They don’t use words, though; they use body language. The twitch of an ear, wrinkling a nostril. Lifting a head, bracing their hindquarters to run….you know when a horse is calm and happy or upset and scared.

The feeling shows up in the muscles.

I’m gonna say that one again: THE FEELING SHOWS UP IN THE MUSCLES.

You’re not so very different from that horse. Your feelings show up in your muscles, too.

So maybe it’s not so much that you’re sitting poorly at work that’s wreaking havoc on your back. Yes, those hunched and bunched shoulders are compounding tension into your neck and back. Yes, they’re shortening your pecs and locking out your traps. Yes, your scalenes are taught as a hanged man’s noose.

But. Is it the desk or the job?

You keep trying to fix your posture so your back feels better so you can go back to doing the same stressful, overly demanding work in a toxic environment that perpetuates your stress, tension and, ultimately, pain.

Or maybe it’s not the job. Maybe it’s a septic relationship, unwieldy financial burden, caring for an aging parent with dementia, the list does go on.

This, folks is the mechanization of humanity. This is the paradigm in which you are told, repeatedly, that you have to fix yourself. That if you’re breaking under the load, it’s you that’s to blame, not the load.

Fix, fix, fix. Better posture, better ergonomics. Studies say and standing desks. Examining bodies in segments. Did you know that spinal studies are done on human spines removed from cadavers and separated from their supportive structures?

They look at spines without their ribs and pelvis. They fail to examine the correlation between the femur and the neck. It’s akin to looking at a bicycle wheel without the tire or tube or spokes. Irrelevant.

Looking at your posture without looking at your life is the same thing: irrelevant.

Because your posture is an expression of your internal experience, and without taking that into account, you’re merely fixing surface symptoms, not identifying causes.

Your back has a front. And your body has a life.

No one part of the whole is whole unto itself, but they all contribute to the collective functioning of the entity.