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Balanced Posture in West Africa: A story in photographs (Part 1)

BY LAURA ALBRECHT

All human bodies have a unique shape and therefore, unique positions of comfort. However, there is a general way to sit, stand, bend, move, etc. that encourages supporting the body's weight through the skeleton and deep postural muscles. It is easy to develop habits that contribute to poor posture and ultimately, muscle and joint pain. Fortunately, there are simple body awareness techniques and exercises you can do to reduce pain.

My brother recently returned from the West African nation of Burkina Faso. His photographs tell a story full of color, movement, joy, and also balance. People in Burkina Faso tend to have what one might consider "balanced" or "good" posture. I have access to his beautiful photos to help demonstrate this country's natural postural tendencies. With guidance from Jean Couch and her teachings at Balance Center in Palo Alto, I intend to examine some of my brother's photos from an anatomical perspective and suggest simple exercises that can help build awareness of postural habits.

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The first photograph of this series shows an approach to body posture while carrying weight. InBurkina Faso it is common to carry supplies and goods on one's head. How can this young woman carry her load without putting painful pressure on her neck and back? The answer lies in posture. She uses her skeleton and deep postural muscles to support the weight.

In particular, this photo shows the beauty of the chin tuck-an exercise that Dr. Smith purveys frequently. By keeping her chin down and back this young woman is able to achieve an evenly stacked cervical spine. She also accesses strength in the trapezeus-the large diamond shaped muscle that stretches from the neck to the mid back. When weight is applied to the top of the head, it is distributed evenly downward because of this skeletal and muscular support.

I have no doubt in saying that this young woman's neck is strong. One might argue that she lacks muscle definition. I would argue that she engages deep postural muscles to support weight as opposed to the more superficial muscles that tend to become tight and bulge. It is difficult to find body builder type muscles in Burkina Faso, but as this photo and future photos will show, evenly stacked spines and access to deep postural muscles is commonplace.

To practice a chin tuck, bring awareness to the back of your neck by gently drawing the chin down and back. It is a great exercise to practice throughout the day because it can be done in a variety of positions. An obvious time to practice is while working at a desk or a computer, as it will relieve the muscles that tighten due to jutting the neck forward. Chin tucks can also be practiced while lying in bed in order to relieve muscular tightness before falling asleep. I often find that when the body is in a position of stress, be it lifting a heavy object or sustaining a difficult yoga posture, the neck tends to jut forward. To review the mechanics of a chin tuck, visit the exercises tab on the home page of this website, select neck exercises, and then select chin tuck.

Body awareness is an extremely powerful tool in changing long-term habits. Rather than judge the way your body feels or moves now, try to simply notice. By bringing awareness to your posture throughout the day, you are on your way to more balanced and ultimately pain-free posture.

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Thanks to Jean Couch and her teacher Noelle Perez for their study of posture and culture and for sharing their observations with students like me. For more information about anthropological surveys of posture in developing countries, visit www.balancecenter.com.

Thanks to Christopher Albrecht for sharing his photographs for the purpose of this article.

*Laura Albrecht studies and teaches Classical Ashtanga Yoga in
Santa Cruz. Read her bio on this website or visit www.pleasurepointfdc.com for details on classes.