In my massage and Bowen Therapy practice many of the problems I see are due to faulty or unbalanced posture. As a therapist my first priority always is to treat symptoms but it is often important that postural issues are addressed as well to achieve long term relief.
Take the typical case where a person has what is commonly called "round shoulders". What is usually meant by this is that the head doesn't sit squarely over the shoulders but instead juts forward. The chest is somewhat closed in on itself and the shoulder blades are drawn around away from the spine towards the front of the body. Often the tops of the shoulders are elevated towards the ears.
Such a person (and there are many) will often experience pain, tension and stiffness in their neck and shoulders and may also suffer from headaches. This is largely because the strain of holding the weight of the head against the downward pull of gravity severely taxes the muscles of the upper back and neck.
Bringing the head and shoulders into a more balanced relationship with gravity is what we can call posture improvement. It's not so much changing a "bad" posture but developing a posture that works better. What I aim to do is help my clients to hold their body in a way which allows them to move freely and without pain.
For example, going back to our case of people with so-called rounded shoulders, even though pain is felt at the back of the neck and shoulders, the real problem usually lies in the front of the body, specifically in the muscles of the chest. In most cases it is these muscles which are pulling the shoulders and neck forward.
In these situations I will need to ease the pain and stiffness of the upper back muscles and work on the front of the body as well. To provide lasting relief I will have to soften and lengthen the muscles of the chest - stretch them out in other words. You don't need to use bodywork therapies to do this but any type of stretching will be much easier and more effective if the muscles of the upper torso are first relaxed and any adhesions in associated connective tissue are broken up.
Once the chest is able to open and lift, it may then be necessary to retrain the muscles of the back to not only draw the shoulders back but also down. This is important. If you try to correct a round shouldered posture by simply pulling your shoulders back you will find that your shoulders will also go up. Try this yourself. And if your shoulders go up, then you head will not be able to come back and you will soon tire and slump forward again.
A competent therapist has to be able to help their client locate, engage and strengthen the right muscles to correct a round shouldered posture.
Finally, for the new posture to hold it will need to be integrated into the way you use your body. Posture is not so much a position as a process because we are not static creatures. Ultimately, good posture is about how we move.
In summary, I see my job as identifying the need for posture improvement and applying my bodywork skills to free up and retrain the soft tissues of the body to achieve a more balanced pattern.
Randy Barber is a massage and Bowen Therapist working in Nottingham England. Canadian by birth he lived and worked in Australia for many years before moving to the UK in 2003.
In addition to his clinical practice Randy acts as Europe instructor for an Australian bodywork academy and holds post graduate qualifications in vocational education and training. He has a particular interest in structural balance in his work and the connections between this and posture.