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Release Your Upper Neck by Changing Your Perception

Release Your Upper Neck by Changing Your Perception

Most of us have the proverbial pain in the neck on occasion and changing the way we perceive the world through our senses can often give relief. A lot of the movement of the neck happens in the top two vertebrae and a lot of neck tension happens because of what’s happening above it. I’m going to start with a few basic assumptions about the relationships between the neck and head and I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they’re true for you. So here are my assumptions:

  • Your top vertebra, C1 (the atlas), is balancing the tension of your brow (if furrowed), your sense of sight, and your inner ear.

  • Your 2nd vertebra, C2, (the axis) is balancing the tension in your nose and your sense of smell.

  • Your 3rd vertebra, C3, is balancing the tension in your jaw, temples and outer ear, or your sense of hearing.

It goes without saying, upper neck tension can be caused by a lot of things, but these are some of the big culprits and in my experience they go hand in hand with a flat neck. When you try the following exercise, consider it a success if you are able to produce even a small change. Developing a richer awareness takes time and commitment to changing the way you relate to your world through your senses.

Start by lying on your back. Try moving your head side to side to see how well your neck moves before starting. Begin by tilting your head back slightly, allowing for a slight curve in your neck, letting your chin lift. As you gently tilt your head back, you should begin to feel a curve forming in your neck as the neck vertebrae shift forward.

C3 and Hearing… Gently place your fingers on either side of C3 (just below the vertebra at the top of your neck that sticks out). The C3 vertebra should feel tighter on the side that your jaw is tighter. Bring your attention to your jaw and imagine all the tension melting away into the floor. Try making the sound “ahhhhhh” and allow your back teeth to float apart. Finally open up your ears. What do you hear? see if you can allow your ears to expand out to meet the sounds. Often in New York we are so overwhelmed with loud noises, it’s easy to develop tension around the temples and ears. Let this go and you should feel your jaw letting go. Check C3, did it soften at all? If not, you may need some more help getting your jaw to release.

The Axis and Smell… To work with C2 find the vertebra that sticks out just below your skull when you let your jaw go slack it will shift forward, but lets see if we can release it with your mouth loosely closed. If you flatten your neck and tuck your chin, you’ll notice that most of the air goes through the bottom of your nose. Now try breathing in through the top of your nose. To do this you might have to tilt your head back a little and relax the bridge of your nose. The upper passage of the nose is where the olfactory nerve allows us to smell. It is no coincidence that the posture of reckless abandon or ecstasy is with the head back. When we are most enjoying ourselves, our heads goes back to take in our environment through our noses. I find that it helps to close your eyes and imagine smelling a beautiful flower to really get the feel for opening this part of your nose. Alternately, flattening the neck and tucking the chin is the posture of disgust (when we don’t want to smell something) or more generally the posture of withdrawal, something we have a lot of opportunities for in New York with summer garbage smells. If you play with breathing through the bottom and top of your nose, you’ll begin to notice a difference in the way things smell, but it is the ecstatic posture of really taking it all in, that allows the 2nd vertebra to lift and open up. You might experiment with some smells you really like-a rose, an incense or fragrance- to see if it helps you to open your upper nose. When it begins to open you will feel a lift and softening in the vertebra with your fingers. Breathing through this part of the nose also facilitates a deeper breath as the breath is directed more forcefully into the bottom of the lungs.

Seeing, Balance and the Atlas… C1, the Atlas, named for Atlas who holds up the globe, is harder to find from the back of the spine because of all the muscles around it. The musculature around the Atlasboth holds up the head and also helps us to know where we are in space. It sits between the skull and the 2nd vertebra. For this exercise feel for the muscles between the 2nd vertebra and the back of the skull. To soften these often overworked muscles, imagine your temples softening and floating away like a balloon, let go of any tension in your brow by first furrowing and then letting go of your brow. This is the proverbial third eye, so you might also imagine an eye in between your eyebrows.  Allow the eye to open and see how it feels.  Allow your regular eyes to relax back into their sockets. If your eyes are open, imagine that the world is coming towards you rather than your eyes having to go out and get the images. When we try to grab what we see with our eyes it throws the head forward and forces the upper neck muscles to tense. Instead, let the world come to you. The inner ear is where we find our relationship to gravity and if we’ve lost touch with our inner ear we instinctively tense our upper neck to brace for a fall.  One way to help jump start the inner ear is to hold your hand in front of one eye (on the tense side) and move your hand back and forth. Notice how the hand blurs? Keep the hand steady and move your head back and forth. Notice how the hand doesn’t blur? That’s because your vestibular system is talking to your eyes and telling them where you are in relation to your environment.  If your neck releases from holding your gaze on your hand and moving your head, it’s likely that the tension in your upper neck is from your vestibular system.  Now check your neck. Did the muscles at the top of your neck soften?

Finish by rotating your head back and forth. Did you gain any range of motion? If your neck is moving more easily, build up to doing this exercise standing and in different environments. Does it change when you’re with certain people or in certain places? If you allow yourself to breath through the top of your nose, soften your eyes, or let the sounds come in, does your experience change? Often it is our relationships to our environment and the people around us that determine whether we are able to stay free in our neck. Did you notice anything else change when you changed your perception? Let me know by sending me an email.

Sitting May Be Bad For Your Health

You probably didn’t need me to tell you this, but now there’s scientific evidence to support the idea that sitting for long periods changes your metabolism in negative ways. If you still aren’t convinced, check out the recent NY times article. We might be a long way off from a Surgeon General Warning on sitting, but one thing is certain, sitting with poor posture has a negative effect on wakefulness and for most people leads to poor posture. For more on how to sit in a relaxed way with balanced posture, check out my earlier blog.

How Your Company Can Benefit from Structural Integration

Structural Integration has been proven to reduce job site stress and injury. Just ask Starkey Labs, if you’re not convinced (video below). They’ve saved over 1.2 Million a year in workman’s comp claims.

If you think your workplace could benefit from Structural Integration, let’s talk more. I would be happy to put together a team of Board Certified Structural Integration Practitioners to address work related stress and injury on-site. Besides Structural Integration, we can teach skills to improve alignment and alertness, and decrease pain. We would be happy to develop a corporate wellness program designed to work around your companies schedule, keep your employees pain free, productive and happy. On-site services can include Structural Integration, Movement Education, Yoga, and Acupuncture. 


The Trouble With Shoes

With snow forecast for New York this week, you might think of it as your big opportunity to walk the way your body was meant to-over your center.  All that slipping and sliding really forces us to be over the center of gravity, something that most shoes with heels discourage us from doing. Wearing shoes with heels, even most sneakers, tilt us forward as if we’re standing on a hill.  To keep from falling forward and tumbling down the hill inside our shoe, our natural tendency is for the hips to go forward, and chest to go back.  This helps us to balance.  It also creates a kind of collapse, since our hips aren’t under us and the chest is behind us.  It’s the All American posture and you won’t see it in anyone who walks around barefoot or in flat shoes.  Go to any Caribbean beach town where flip-flops and barefoot walking prevails if you need an example.

What this does…
Heels also tend to shorten the connective tissue of the calves and as a result the hip flexors, and when you’re standing with your hips shifted forward the upper hamstrings shorten which makes sitting difficult.  When the hamstrings are tight they pull the sitbones under which makes an upright posture while sitting impossible without strain.

Gentle exercises to try…
Full body arching and curling is a fantastic exercise to find a balance stance, especially the arching part.  Standing, try arching back, your tail back and up as if you have a 6 foot squirrel tail and you’re trying to touch the back of your head.  Really exagerate it.  When your head goes back shift your weight into your toes, this helps the sitbones to lift.  With your tail back, weight in the toes, breath deeply, spiraling the arms back to open the upper ribcage.  Inhaling is important because it opens the upper ribcage and supports the shoulders to rest more on the back.  When you exhale, let your body spring back to neutral leaving your hips back, tail lifted.  You should naturally find a less collapsed posture.

You can also go back and forth following the inhale with an exhale into the heels, rounding the shoulders, but make sure you end by inhaling and letting your body come back to neutral.

Another one…
Calf stretches are good with the knee bent and the hips back..  straiten and bend the knees with the hips back, to work different parts of the calves.  Be sure to put even pressure in the ball of the big toe as much as the pinky toe ball so your feet dont twist.   This will help the hips rest more back over the center of the feet.

Flip Flops…

If this article finds you escaping the New York winter someplace tropical heels probably aren’t your biggest worry right now, but flip-flops might be.

For many people flip-flops or thongs force the wearer to lift their toes or scrunch them up (which is kind of like pushing your toes down while you lift them) to keep the sandal on.   Walk down any street in New York in the Summer and you’ll see someone struggling to both hold their cell phone to their ear andbalance while they shuffle along in this year’s flip-flops.  Holding that floppy footwear on is tough work and it’s kind of like multitasking for the feet.

Your toes were designed to respond to the ground, and they have a much easier time doing so if they aren’t having to wrestle with your footwear at the same time.  Lifting your toes is something that most yoga teachers will ask you to do to find your arch.  This is a great thing in yoga because it aligns thebones of the foot.  If you tend to pronate, you probably have a little trouble finding the ball of your big toe and lifting your toes really helps to find that part of your foot without loosing the alignment of your ankle.

Unfortunately, all that toe lifting makes our ankles and arches stiff, and makes for a hard landing on the heel when we walk.  When we are walking we want the arch to flex like a spring.  The spring of the arch provides shock absorbsion for our bodies, but it can only happen when the foot is relaxed.  If this is you, try this.. Standing, try placing the outside of your heel down first, then the outside of your toes,then the big toe ball and then the inside of the heel.  When you press your toes down, you might notice that it’s easier to lengthen them out as you press down.  This is the action you’re looking for in flip flops, instead of scrunching, pressing down as you lengthen through the toes.

Easier walking…
This exercise can help whether you’re in shoes, barefoot or in sandals.  When you’re walking, try starting by standing over the center of your foot (all four corners with equal pressure) with your knees strait but soft, feet relaxed.  Once you’ve found this posture standing, begin to walk.   If you try this barefoot on a hardwood floor your walk should go from loud and pounding to almost silent.  This is because you are landing closer to the center of your foot, instead of the back of the heel.  How you start your walk will essentially determine how you end up moving.  If you start over your center, you’ll end up walking over your center.

While flip-flops aren’t the best for your feet, if you wear them, you’ll want to find ones with a tighter strap across the top of the foot for a snugger fit, or one that allows you to press your toes down to hold the sandal on.  Your toes shouldn’t have to do anything more than respond to the ground, don’t make them hold your sandals on too.

I hope this helps,


Balancing the Bandhas Through the Breath

In my last article about the breath, I wrote about the importance of contacting our inherent impulse to breath, and allowing ourselves to be breathed, rather than following an external or mental cue.  This exercise is no different, but it takes a little bit more refined focus and it builds off of the last exercise.

The Bandhas in Yoga, or “locks” (as in locks in a river) refer to the horizontal membranes of the body that provide containment and regulate the pressure of the different cavities of our bodies (our guts, lungs, heart and brains).

Where are they? 
The major diaphragms of the body are the respiratory diaphragm, the pelvic floor (muscles between your tailbone and pubic bone), the base of the throat, the base of the skull -at the level of the ear lobes (including the roof of the mouth and base of the eyes), the top of the head, and also the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.  The joints of the body are also diaphragms.

Why the Bandhas are important… 
When we are having trouble breathing, or our limbs are stiff or weak, it is often reflected by in how our breath moves through our bodies.  For example, if you puff up your chest you will notice that the base of your throat and your respiratory diaphragm have to tighten to retain the pressure in your ribs that allows you to puff up. These pressure regulators also have a dramatic effect on blood pressure, oxygen delivery to the cells, stress on the heart and overall health.  If they are too tight oxygenated blood isn’t able to reach the tissue and if they aren’t toned at all, there isn’t enough pressure to squeeze the blood back to the heart and we tend to feel sluggish. Balanced tone in the diaphragms leads to longer more balanced breathing and a lot less stress on the heart. When we are feeling our best, our diaphragms are gently pulsating between contraction and release to allow a smooth flow of energy through our bodies.

Ready to feel amazing? 
Lie on your back and notice your breath.  Allow your breath to come and go, without changing anything about it.  As you tune in, you may start to notice that when you inhale, all of the diaphragms naturally contract, and on the exhale, they all tend to release. Without changing anything about your breath, see if you can tune into the softening quality of the exhale.  As you begin to inhale see if you can continue to soften your diaphragms.  Since they all move together, you won’t actually have to focus on all of them to receive the benefits of this exercise.

At first see if you can bring your attention to just one or two at a time or try checking in with different diaphragms as you breath.  With practice, you will be able to open your attention to all of the diaphragms at once.  Just be sure you aren’t forcing your breath, either breathing harder or speeding your breath up or slowing it down.  Just let it flow naturally in response to the effects of your attention on the bandhas.

The overall effect of this exercise is that it will begin to feel as if your whole body is breathing, as if your lungs extend all the way from your fingers, to your toes and out to the top of your head, every cell expanding and contracting.  If this is easy, try the exercise sitting or standing. I hope you enjoy the experience.

A word of caution.
Big emotions can often come up when working with the breath.  If you begin to feel overwhelmed or even just light headed, take a break, this exercise should ideally make you feel more connected to yourself and more at ease.

Footwear Alters Normal Foot Function

According to a study conducted by researchers from Belgium and the UK, your shoes have probably shaped your feet to work differently than their original design.  They found that people who go through life unshod tend to have a wider forefoot, better weight distribution through the foot and they speculate, produce less impact as a result.

For a hit of how this might happen, try walking around on a hard floor without your shoes on and listen for the sound. More than likely, your heels are making a lot of noise when they hit the ground. This is often the result of wearing shoes with heel support. We tend to put our weight where we get the softest impact. But when we take our shoes off the padding is gone. When we’re barefoot, the impact of our bodies on our feet becomes our teacher. If you pick up your heel and poke it with your finger, you’ll notice that most of the padding is on the middle of the heel, not the back where you’re probably used to landing if you wear shoes (and who doesn’t!). Try walking letting the soft pad on the bottom of your heel land first. This isn’t easy if you’re used to it and the first thing you’ll probably notice is that you’re walking slower. Don’t worry though this is just the beginning of learning a gentler way to walk. The speed comes from the pushing off, but more about that later. For now, listen and feel if your walk is a little quieter or a little less hard on the rest of your body.

Scientific Research Into Structural Integration

There is a growing amount of mainstream scientific research documenting the effectiveness of Structural Integration (SI), the therapy originated by Ida Rolf for reshaping the body’s connective tissue matrix. There has also been significant interest in SI at the newly formed International Fascia Research Congress, as knowledge and understanding of how important connective tissue is to the body’s freedom of movement becomes more apparent.

One researcher reported that muscle contractions only account for roughly 20% of human movement and that after an action is initiated, the fascia does the other 80%, pointing to the possibility that connective tissue, the tissue we work on in SI work, is more important than muscles in determining how well a person moves.

In 1992 a presentation was made to the National Center of Medical Rehabilitation Research on the effectiveness of Structural Integration used in the treatment of degenerative joint disease.

A 1997 article in The Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy reported that Structural Integration can provide effective and sustained pain relief from lower back problems.

A 1988 study in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association indicated that Structural Integration greatly influenced the parasympathetic nervous system, which can dramatically influence the healing processes of the body.

In conjunction with the California Department of Mental Hygiene, The Department of Movement Behavior at UCLA has also shown that Structural Integration creates a more efficient use of muscles, allows the body to conserve energy, and creates economical and refined patterns of movement.

Other recent studies have shown a significant increase in hight after an 11 session series of Structural Integration. While there are volumes of research to be done to understand exactly how and why Structural Integration is so effective, to feel the effects it only takes the first session.

Does Hellerwork Structural Integration Last?

I recently received this email from someone interested in the Hellerwork series. I often hear questions about whether Hellerwork can change the body in a lasting way, so it seemed worthwhile to post my response. If you’ve considered the Hellerwork series, but aren’t sure if the series will make a lasting difference in your body, this is for you.

Dear David -
I am considering seeking Hellerwork therapy but have couple of questions: How lasting are the effects from the 11 session Hellerwork protocol? I understand the concept of reshaping the muscle tissue and fascia – but isn’t my body essentially the by-product of my gentics? Meaning what I see is what I get – right? I have a hard time believing that any of the changes can be truly lasting without utilizing Hellerwork therapy through a practioner continually for the rest of my life – Yes call me pessimistic (many people do) but I do not want to set blind expectations on the 11 session protocol as a cure all.

Can the effects be maintained through specific exercises that I can employ after completing the 11 week therapy?


It’s a great question you’re asking, so I’m going to give you the long answer. A lot of people coming to me for the series have the same questions.

So to your question…
Yes, to some extent your body is a result of your genetics. Your genes determine what is possible for you to become. My feeling is that DNA is given far too much responsibility for shaping the human experience in our culture. One way to think of it is that the DNA in your cells is the book collection of your bodies library. It determines what information is available to be read, while you, and the forces acting on you as the library patron determine what gets read in the language of the body.

Here’s another example you might relate to: when you have an injury to your left ankle lets say, and you start to favor your opposite leg, your fascia is rearranged over a short period of time, weeks or months, and successive layers of tissue build up around that adaption. We call that a limp. It is no more difficult to rearrange the tissue, over weeks or months (11 weeks in the Hellerwork series) to undo that adaption and balance your weight over both legs. The Hellerwork series is a systematic process designed to undo the majority of those injuries and your compensations for them in a short period of time. After the series, many things can happen that change your body both to create possibilities for greater movement or to make movement more difficult. But whatever happens in your life after your series, the balance created by your Hellerwork experience will help you to have a greater capacity to deal with whatever comes your way. It’s like setting back the clock. Will it last forever? Of course not, and neither will you. Life happens to us and through us. We respond to our experience in ways that shape us daily. Can it change your life? Most definitely.

I’m sure you have some postural habits you’d like to undo but that feel hopelessly ingrained. There are plenty of kids in my neighborhood who adopt a limp to look tough and to some extent we all change our posture to express ourselves in a certain way. Hellerwork is primarily an educational experience. I can’t take your postural habits away from you, but what I can do is give you options for how to move with more ease, realign your connective tissue to support more ease and help you to become more aware of how the way you carry yourself effects how you feel and even think.

After that, the choice is yours about what you do with this opening. It’s like having a new set of tools for your body and having to chose between a new craftsman or that old rusty wrench with the threads stripped off. You might be used to using the old wrench out of habit, but then there’s that unfamiliar, but silky smooth new socket set you could try out too. I like to think the movement exercises we’ll work on are kind of like that new socket set.

This will sound even stranger, but the real magic often happens after the series is over. Ida Rolf often said, “The body continues to Rolf itself.” I’ve seen many of my clients continue to grow towards better alignment after the series is over. They had no further input other than the changes they made in their lives as a result of the series and it’s as if their bodies are taking a cue from the work and continuing to reshape themselves. If you are open to Hellerwork creating change in your body and in your experience, it will improve your life in ways that will far surpass your expectations, but that is up to you.

Ultimately, all of this is meaningless as a mental exercise. The only way to know whether this work will benefit you or not is to experience a session. I hope that answered your questions and let me know when you’re ready to take the first step.



Thank You!

Gratitude is something I think about a lot. Lately I’ve been thinking about it less as something I feel like I should do and more as a solution to whatever is going poorly in my life. Often when I start to feel upset, if I look at the situation I’ll realize that the cause of my negative feeling, thought or sensation is a tunnel like focus on something negative. When I’m able to broaden my focus to what I’m grateful for, new opportunities always begin to appear in the periphery.

This isn’t always easy if your attention is easily drawn to negative thoughts, feelings, or sensations, so sometimes it’s better to take a break from the negative subject all together rather than to try and re-spin the negativity as positive. After spending some time focusing on what I have to be grateful for, when I return to the subject that’s vexing me, I’ll often feel better about it.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I received this email about Gratitude from a stranger, Dave Faagau. I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I’m reposting it here. I hope you enjoy it.

Happy Thanksgiving. I hope your holiday season brings you much to be thankful for.

Here’s his email:

Most people do no realize the many health benefits of gratitude. Studies indicate that thankfulness is directly linked to physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Compared to people who do not live a lifestyle of thankfulness, research shows that grateful people

1. Experience higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination optimism and energy
2. Experience less depression
3. Better manage stress
4. Are more likely to help others
5. Exercise more regularly
6. Make more progress towards their personal goals
7. Have stronger immune systems
8. Have fewer symptoms of physical illness

Those are some impressive benefits that can be yours without even increasing your physical activity or changing your nutrition plan. All that is required is a grateful heart. Are you a thankful person? If you are unsure, then it may be in your best interest to consider the following questions:

Are you the type of person who dwells on the good or on the bad things that happen to you?

Do you tell others about the blessings in your life as much as you tell them when things go wrong?

Are you considerate of the people closest to you or do you often take them for granted?

Are you thankful only when things are going well or do you look for blessings even when bad things happen?

Is there someone you admire who is a thankful person? What other attributes do you admire about them?

Are you leaving a legacy of thankfulness that others will remember you by?

There is nothing complicated about gratitude. Quite simply, thankfulness is a choice. To say we fell grateful is not to say that everything in our life is great. It just means that in spite of all we see that is worthy of complaint, there is far more we can choose to focus on that is worthy of thankfulness.

Why not choose to extend the tradition of giving thanks through the entire year, instead of limiting it to the Holiday Season? You're physical, emotional, and spiritual health will all reap the benefits of a thankful heart. The choice is yours.

By Dave Faagau, a Fitness Specialist and owner of Total Body Training

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Great Posture In Four Easy Steps

A friend of mine who is a writer asked for advice to prevent the aches and pains of sitting at a desk for long hours. Often times those knots we get in our backs are related to posture. Here’s a little experiment you can try while sitting at a desk, without the stress of trying to sit up straight. Most people think of posture as something you have to strain to do, but if you have to work to sit up, as soon as you think about something else, you’re likely to start slouching again. For this reason, good posture has to be relaxed for it to last.

1. Sit forward on your chair with the weight on the flesh in front of your sit bones with your feet on the ground. Leave your arms by your sides for the rest of this exercise. Your legs are about 1/3 of your body weight, so don’t let all that weight go into your seat, let it rest on your feet. See if you can get your knees lower than your hips with your feet still on the floor. You may need to raise your chair or use a cushion.

If you can’t do that and still sit at your desk comfortably, try bringing one leg back, so that one foot is in front of the other. You’ll notice that it’s immediately easier to sit more forward over your sit bones.

2. Now see if you can let your lower back and belly relax. Try rocking forward and back with one hand on your back and the other on your belly to find the most relaxed position. If this is difficult, most likely your knees aren’t low enough. This is especially true if you have tight hamstrings.

3. Let your head fall back so that you’re looking up and breath into the top of your ribs and throat. You should start to feel your upper ribs lift and open a little. Keep the back bend happening in your upper chest and not your lower back. Notice your breath expanding upwards.

4. Finally, leaving your jaw and neck relaxed, let your head float back up on top of your spine. Take a deep breath in your new posture and try looking around the room.

Notice how this new way of sitting feels. It’s okay to feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, but you shouldn’t feel muscle tension. If your back or hips feel tight, again try raising your seat, or try the back bend again and be sure not to use your muscles to pull yourself into balance. Good posture should be relaxed. If you feel vulnerable, try practicing somewhere you feel safe. If you feel upright and balanced, congratulations, you’re doing something right. Also don’t expect to be able to maintain this balance for long periods at first. Think of it as akin to restarting your computer. Things just work better if you do it now and again.