By Dr. Angela Lee Chen, LAc, DACM
Poor posture is becoming more and more common as people spend ever greater amounts of time sitting at their computers, reading their smartphones, watching TV, or commuting to work. Common problems regularly encountered in the clinic range from mild stiffness all the way to severe pinched nerves, with sensations down the arms or legs. Numerous studies from the past year or so also show more serious posture-related health effects. Not a surprise to most of us; posture can influence mood: Nam (2017) demonstrated an increased risk of major depressive disorder in South Koreans who sit too much.
Sitting for long periods is also correlated with diabetes and high cholesterol. Grace (2017) showed a correlation between binge-watching television and an increase in diabetes and mortality from inflammatory disease. Diaz-Jimenez (2017) also studied self-reported sitting time, reporting its positive correlation to diabetes Type 2 in Chile. Penning (2017) showed that reducing sitting time in an adolescent’s school day resulted in significant improvements total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol/HDL ratio. Cognitive function results also show improved effective mental-attentional capacity. Ekelund (2016) finds that over an hour a day of moderate physical activity seems to eliminate the increased risk of a lot of sitting time – but does not eliminate the risks associated with high television viewing time.
These cited studies are only the tip of the iceberg: research shows definitively that sitting for long periods is a serious health hazard. With the many ways in which the modern lifestyle encourages more screen time, poor posture is an epidemic. Ironically, however, the solution is ancients: taiji.
A tall 43-year-old man, bent over in the thoracic spine like an old man, started taiji lessons with my teacher. It was remarkable: after just 6 months of practice, he was standing upright! It seemed miraculous, and his is the most dramatic case I have witnessed of improved posture.
An 85-year-old woman came into my clinic with neck pain (upper trapezius area). She had been to every doctor she was referred to for over a year. One surgeon performed Intradiscal Electrothermal Annuloplasty (IDET): cauterizing the nerve endings within the disc wall to block pain signals using electrothermal catheters. Not only did the first procedure not work, but it was performed again–to no avail. When she came in to see me, she could not hold her head upright from the pain. I treated with acupuncture, but I especially focused on her posture. With daily practice of simple stretches, her pain level was significantly reduced. In contrast to all the complex modern medicine she was subjected to, the time-honored and straightforward solution was the best one.
The two taiji principles I describe below are simple… but simple is often the most profound. The easiest way to start practice is standing up, with feet about shoulder width apart and toes pointing straight ahead, knees bent, hips loose, shoulders relaxed. I recommend imagining some air under the forearms, to give the hands a feeling of gentle energy. Once you have practiced standing like this, applying the principles below, you can extrapolate the feeling to sitting as well.
The first principle is to “suspend from heaven”. The idea is to imagine a fishing line attached to the top of the head actually suspending you from above. The line attaches directly above the point where the spine attaches to the skull. You can imagine it as the feeling experienced by one of those plastic spine models that show the cranium and spine hanging from a single point of suspension. The idea is to feel gentle traction on the neck and back without straining any muscles to do so. After a period of practice, the stretch no longer feels imaginary; you feel like you really are hanging from above!
The second principle is to “sink into earth.” This means, all physical tension should be released and allowed to sink into gravity–down our body, into our feet, then through our feet into the earth. Mind and body being one, mental or emotional tension will follow the physical into the earth. Releasing tension has a grounding effect. Normally we carry tension in our head (mind) or shoulders; if allowed to stay there, it will dominate our vision. To function in this world, we need to bear in mind our responsibilities and duties, but we need them to ground us, not overwhelm us. Sinking the tension, we gain better perspective and therefore more easily prioritize and make better choices.
Between suspending from heaven and sinking into earth, we exist as human, energetically aligned with the universe. For the moment, our problems seem smaller, our need for distraction less… and our posture so much better! Better posture leads to better health, in every aspect. The profound benefits of these simple principles manifest with practice. The more time and energy you put into your practice, the more you will get out of it.
Dr Angela Lee Chen, LAc, DACM has been teaching taiji for 25 years and practicing as an acupuncturist for almost as long, currently located in Myrtle Beach, SC. She teaches the material offered in this article as CEUs to various health practitioners.
Díaz-Martínez, X., Steell, L., Martinez, M. A., Leiva, A. M., Salas-Bravo, C., Labraña, A. M., … Celis-Morales, C. A. (2017). Higher levels of self-reported sitting time is associated with higher risk of type 2 diabetes independent of physical activity in Chile. Journal of Public Health, 1-7. doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdx091
Ekelund, U., Steene-Johannessen, J., Brown, W. J., Fagerland, M. W., Owen, N., Powell, K. E., … Lee, I. (2016). Does physical activity attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality? A harmonised meta-analysis of data from more than 1 million men and women. The Lancet, 388(10051), 1302-1310. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(16)30370-1
GRACE, M. S., DILLON, F., BARR, E. L., KEADLE, S. K., OWEN, N., & DUNSTAN, D. W. (2017). Television viewing time and inflammatory-related mortality. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 49(10), 2040-2047. doi:10.1249/mss.0000000000001317
Nam, J. Y., Kim, J., Cho, K. H., Choi, J., Shin, J., & Park, E. (2017). The impact of sitting time and physical activity on major depressive disorder in South Korean adults: a cross-sectional study. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1). doi:10.1186/s12888-017-1439-3
Penning, A., Okely, A. D., Trost, S. G., Salmon, J., Cliff, D. P., Batterham, M., … Parrish, A. (2017). Acute effects of reducing sitting time in adolescents: a randomized cross-over study. BMC Public Health, 17(1). doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4660-6