Natural Female Posture is Whole Woman™ Posture

by Christine Kent on January 3, 2011

It is a true marvel for women of our time to have lived to see the rise and fall of pelvic reconstructive surgery for the common conditions of prolapse and incontinence. While the fall is nowhere near complete, it is clear that old institutions are slowly crumbling under the new paradigm of wholeness and the stability of natural female design.

Taking the place of the traditionally male role of surgical “correction” of prolapse and incontinence are postural systems created exclusively by women. Several women have developed an understanding of the critical relationship between pelvic organ support and spinal alignment, and are pioneering a conscious return to more natural human posture.

While these researchers herald a new age in the treatment of chronic pelvic and back disorders, there remains the unresolved issue of what exactly constitutes natural human posture. I would like to illustrate why I believe Whole Woman™ posture is the only truly natural human posture yet described. Clarifying this distinction is essential as we move ever closer to a worldwide teachable field of postural health for women with disorders of pelvic organ support.

We must begin by understanding that the fundamental problem of universal design or evolutionary purpose has always been about how land animals regulate the forces of intra-abdominal pressure. Arguments about pelvic organ support have always revolved around this elemental dynamic since Paramore1 and Keith2 first described the evolution of the pelvis.

From primitive fish on, animals devised more and more complex strategies for coping with internal pressures created by their external environments. Air-breathing bodies had to be arranged in ways that allowed for release of excrement, eggs and offspring, yet prevented extrusion of internal organs. Early amphibians aided the intra-abdominal vacuum necessary for breathing by simply sitting on their perineal orifices.

The term “intra-abdominal pressure” is commonly used to describe the dynamics inside the abdomen and pelvis. However, I challenge the widely held belief that static pressure is significantly increased or decreased inside these cavities. While a true pressure gradient exists between intrapulmonary and atmospheric pressure, allowing us to breathe, such pressure changes inside the body can only be very slight. This is due to the fact that internal organs and structures are largely composed of water, and water cannot be compressed.

I propose the new term, intra-abdominopelvic displacement to describe the dynamic movement that occurs during breathing and muscular activity. This more accurate description provides a useful impression of what actually happens when we take a breath or pull in the abdominal wall. Abdominal and pelvic contents are not placed under greater pressure, but rather dis-placed to other locations. An elastic abdominal wall allows for this movement.

Each time we breathe in, or inspire, the respiratory diaphragm expands downward, displacing abdominal and pelvic contents down and forward. The results of this movement are pelvic organs that bend ninety degrees from their channels to become positioned against the lower abdominal wall.

Esther Gokhale (the Gokhale Method℠) states that, “The chest and spine move the most during breathing at rest.”3 However, the accuracy of this statement is dependent upon bodily posture. When the abdominal wall is pulled in, even slightly, internal pressures cannot displace the organs fully forward. Therefore, the chest is displaced upward instead. When the lumbar curve is fully in place and the abdominal muscles lengthened, belly breathing predominates and chest breathing is minimal.

We have only to observe the bodies of children to comprehend what constitutes natural human posture. The upper abdomen is puffed out and the lower abdomen follows in a gentle arc from breastbone to pubic bones.

The only reason this posture is not carried forward into adulthood is because artificial posture is imposed upon us from the outside by the cultures we live in. There are no other reasons we should ever lose our natural posture. Yet today, virtually every system of postural and exercise therapy is taking us further away from our intrinsic design.

At the core of contrived human posture is an abdominal wall that is “engaged”, “active”, or otherwise contracted. Gokhale promotes the concept of an “inner corset” that is essential for postural and spinal health. She states that, “When an African or Indian village woman carries a heavy weight on her head, she is not passive under that weight, which would cause her discs to compress. Rather, she actively engages her inner corset; her torso becomes more slender and her spine becomes longer. In this way she protects her discs from the weight she carries.”4

Clearly, this statement is refuted by a world of women who still carry loads in this way, including those illustrated in Gokhale’s book. The upper abdominal wall is puffed out and the lumbar curve strongly in place. Any level of “engaging” the abdominals or “anchoring” the rib cage compromises the human posture developed from early childhood.

Studies show the same dynamics that create pelvic organ support are only increased when additional pressure is added from above. The same dynamics in a standing body at rest are maximized under further pressure. This is most evident in advanced pregnancy when contracting abdominal muscles has no bearing on postural or spinal health. Chronically pulling in the abdominal wall opposes the innate mechanics of human posture and displaces pelvic organs to the back of the body.

The human torso developed a level of both rigidity and flexibility unseen in the rest of the animal kingdom. These qualities allowed full use of the voice box and arms while seated upright. If you lift the front legs of a seated cat, she will likely lose her balance because she has not developed a shape that can easily stabilize in this position.

Organ displacement while breathing under the forces of gravity developed the structure of the human torso. The stiffness of fully lengthened abdominal muscles, and their connecting fascia, provide the primary function of the abdominal wall – to contain the abdominal and pelvic contents under dynamic pressure. Contracting the musculature affords secondary functions such as bending, twisting, coughing, sneezing, defecating, vomiting, pulling, and heavy lifting.

Any discussion of human posture must take into consideration the differences between the male and female spine. To accommodate birth, the female pelvis is wider and her lumbosacral angle more acute. The shape of her lower vertebrae are genetically female, all of which give her a more pronounced lumbar curvature than men.

These differences result in a straighter and more cylindrical male torso. The Dinka tribe of southern Sudan best illustrate these natural differences. Male tribesmen wear tightly beaded corsets that accentuate the straightness of their figure. These men are not in danger of pelvic organ prolapse because the front triangle of their pelvic floor is closed. The “genital hiatus”, or opening in the pelvic floor musculature, is strictly a female anatomical feature. Female Dinka wear beaded attire as well, but theirs are fashioned as long, loose necklaces, allowing for the natural curvature of the abdominal wall.

Pulling in the abdominal wall is a classically male objective. Yoga, Pilates, calisthenics, and physical therapy have all been deeply influenced by an anatomical model that is essentially male. Male laborers and fitness devotees easily obtain a flattened abdominal wall. High levels of testosterone also factor into this area of male anatomy. A flat, rippled abdomen is much more difficult for women to achieve, particularly those with a history of full-term pregnancy. This does not mean the female abdominal wall is weak. Natural exercise combined with innate posture build musculature that is strong, flexible and elongated.

Practitioners like Katy Bowman (Alignment Matters™) understand that the pelvic floor is only wholly functional when stretched to its full dimensions. However, this same understanding is not extended to the other major body wall, the abdomen, when in fact the very same dynamics apply.

We share with primitive fish abdominal muscles that wrap around a transverse pelvic bar (pubic bone) and continue on to the pelvic outlet and “tail”. We also share oblique muscle fibers on our “ventral” side, which fish use to lay copious amounts of eggs. We have much greater need for muscle contraction and therefore possess more highly developed musculature than fish. However, the primary function remains the same.

Abdominal wall strength is a result of breathing and moving with lengthened musculature. Forcing the body to live in a contracted state is compromising a very old evolutionary design.

Next month we will discuss the importance of the feet in human posture and how contracted abdominals lead to another common misalignment – placing most of the weight on the heels.


Notes:

1 Paramore RH The evolution of the pelvic floor in nonmammalian vertebrates and pronograde mammals. Lancet 1(98): 1393-1399. 1910

2 Keith A Certain phases in the evolution of man. British Medical Journal 88: 788-790. 1912

3 Gokhale E Adams S 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. Pendo Press 2008 p. 23

4 Ibid pp. 112-113

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

admin April 5, 2011 at 7:44 am

Hi Evelyn,

If all goes well, it should be ready by the end of next week! There will be lots of fanfare, so you will be sure to hear as soon as it is hot off the press!
:) Christine

Evelyn Roanhorse April 4, 2011 at 9:10 pm

When will your DVD on the whole woman yoga be available for purchase. Thank you for all the information you share with us – they are extremely helpful and prevents me from being scared of my prolapsed uterus…

admin February 7, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Here are the two major points of radical departure between WW and Gokhale posture:

(1)“Note that a lumbo-sacral angle is different from a sway back. The lumbo-sacral angle is a natural curve very low in the spine (between L5 and S1); a sway is an unhealthy curve higher up in the lumbar spine.” (Gokhale)

This belief is simply wrong and the only conclusion I can come to about a person with Gokhale’s level of education harboring such a misconception is that her own spinal fusion has prevented her from experiencing natural human posture.

What Gokhale is describing are the iliacus muscles pulling the pelvis toward the thighs. Because of “corseting” higher in the torso, her psoas muscles are prevented from realizing their full range of motion. Weak psoas and tight iliacus muscles are a HUGE setup for sacroiliac joint dysfunction. When the shoulder girdle is lifted out of the “corset” the lumbar curve is expanded to include the whole lumbar spine. This is not swayback! A curve very low in the back, accompanied by a pot-belly and rounded shoulders is the classic “swayback” illustrated in ortho and PT texts. It most certainly is a major cause of back pain, but amazingly, has never been differentiated from the full lumbar curve of natural human posture.

(2) “When we evolved from being quadrupedal to bipedal, the heel became reinforced to bear most of the weight of our upright structure. By comparison, the bones in the front of the foot are delicate” (Gokhale)

It is the weight-on-heels posture that causes the iliacus muscles to contract toward the thighs, resulting in the unnatural and unhealthy swayback Gokhale promotes. I cannot fathom how she came to the conclusion that the bones of the hindfoot bear most weight, when investigators going back to Leonardo da Vinci have described longitudinal arches in the human foot spreading forces between three points – below the big toe, below the little toe, and in the center of the heel.

I cannot argue with your success. However, from my perspective, the Gokhale posture is contrived and presents significant risks to the lower back and pelvic structures. It is destabilizing to try to curve the lower back in this way.

Christine

Laure February 5, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I’m so glad you mentioned Esther Gokhale in this piece, and that I had the opportunity to pick up a copy of her book at a local used bookstore.

Your quote from her book was a little bit misleading, as she had an illustration depicting the effect of posture on belly, chest and spine movement.

That little picture was a huge turning point for me.

I found that MOST seated (and with fully relaxed abs) postures, whether leaning forward in an acute angle or leaning back in an obtuse angle led to belly breathing.

On the other hand, I found a sweet spot just centimeters wide, in which a totally relaxed, seated posture led to a balanced belly/chest/spine movement during breathing.

My pelvis was anteverted in imitation of her illustrations, and my spine was in a relaxed, vertical position above that curve; when I inhaled in a relaxed, unforced way, I felt like my breathing literally massaged and nourished my entire torso, including my entire spine. My belly and chest expanded easily and fully, and my spine got a little longer.

I spent hours last night and this morning, finding that “sweet spot” of posture over and over again, and practiced her stacksitting, stretchsitting and standing.

Then you could have bowled me over with a feather when I found that, for the first time in YEARS, I could walk with fluid motion, go up and down stairs easily and without much discomfort, and – drum roll, please – I could balance on one foot for a looooong time. Both sides. No more holding on to a wall in order to put on socks or panties or trousers! Woo hoo!

In her “inner corset” section, she specifically emphasizes that the engagement of the core muscles comes from and supports the upward stretching of the spine. She is on the same page as you are when it comes to the idea that many traditional ab exercises are harmful. In her inner corset workout, the emphasis is on having a properly aligned pelvis and lumbar curve as you elongate your spine…and only in that position are you to notice and isolate key muscles like the obliques and transverse abs FROM the r. abdominis muscles. These are not crunches or hard contractions that alter proper alignment. It is an engaging of supportive muscles that work together for proper spinal alignment so that it becomes natural, not so much of an effort.

As for the pix. they are shot at different angles so it is hard to say what is happening in every single one of them. I see the classic EG lumbar curve with a straighter front in some. I see more of a pooch in front of others, but the pooch encompassed her front from below the breast all the way down, and she had a straight back except for that lumbar curve at the back. In others, clothing hid the details. The one that had the most prominent lumbar curve, the woman was in the act of lifting a laundry basket onto her head, which may not have been the posture she used while actually walking with the basket ON her head.

I’d like to see more exploration of the finer points that you perceive between your approach and EG’s. You may not be as far apart as you think, and you may both benefit from collaboration on this.

I really like EG’s skillful explanations and instructions, and how they resulted in such positive changes in such a short time. I did not experience dramatic changes using your instructions. I realize that your focus is POP, but if protecting myself from POP means I won’t be as functional in everyday life because the posture you advocate is truly different from EG’s, that presents a dilemma.

If EG’s clients improved their POP using her methods, (as she claims) how far off can she be from your approach?

Looking forward to more…

Oceanblue January 4, 2011 at 4:21 pm

“Natural Female Posture ….” is a great read, thank you very much Christine.

“The only reason this posture is not carried forward into adulthood is because artificial posture is imposed upon us from the outside by the cultures we live in.”
How very true!

All women please note this as well:
“Also of importance is the difference between the male and female spine.”
This point is of particular concern to me, as I know someone that does exactly the same hard labour that her partner does as well, and someday it this someone will realize … that there is a difference between male and female spines!

Thank you,

Oceanblue

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