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Somatic Anatomy

Muscles and the

Postural Flute
B y


M a r y

A n n

F o s t e r

M A S S A G E & B O DY WO R K O C T O B E R / N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6

ost massage therapists

The Postural Flute
know the havoc poor posur postural muscles work
ture can wreak on the
together toward a single goal:
body. It bends and stresses the
to keep our bodies upright. Far less
joints, locks major muscles in
muscular effort is needed to supchronic contractions, restricts
port a vertical spine oriented along
movement and causes pain, and
gravitys pull than to maintain a
gradually wears the musculoskelehorizontal spine suspended
tal system down. Postural dysfuncbetween four legs. Because the postions can even result in injury,
tural muscles work together to supwhich occurs suddenly when the
port a single axis, the human stance
smallest turn or twist snaps the
is the most efficient of any animal.
weakest link. In addition to all this,
The drawback of this incredible
poor posture simply looks and feels
efficiency is that if any one muscle
along the chain of support fails to
On an emotional level, posture is
function, the economy of the whole
attitude. Postural patterns often
system declines in reverse proporbegin as protective cloaks we wear
tion. For example, a forward head
Figure 1. Muscles in the postural
to guard against emotional pain,
creates muscular compensations
which manifests both physically
(read: excessive contraction)
and psychologically. After all, it is
throughout the body.
Contract and Relax
hard to stand tall when youre feelOne can activate the postural
he first step in changing body
ing depressed, and its hard to feel
muscles like the notes on a flute;
patterns is awareness, or sensdown when youre standing tall.
harmony lies in the balance of tone
muscles as they work. A
On a mechanical level, posture is
among the notes (see Figure 1).
is limited to two funcmore than a position. It is the
The key to effective postural educations:
and relaxation.
dynamic balancing act of a group
tion is determining which muscles
unit of a
of postural muscles working
along the flute are not working,
together to keep our slightly swaythen activating them.
nerve plus all the muscle cells it
ing bodies upright. In this regard,
innervates. A single muscle has
posture is an inside job. Only you
anywhere from fifty to thousands
can change your posture because
of motor units; the muscles
only you can control your musresting tone is determined
cle patterns. And if you can
by the number of motor
feel these changes in yourunits firing when the
self, youll be better at
body is relaxed.
helping your clients do
Muscle relaxation
the same.
is a graded process.
Most of us have an
Total relaxation is
idea what good posimpossible. If all
ture is, but how to
your muscles were
achieve it is the
Contract and Relax
and the
to relax right now,
issue. A common yet
Axial Compression
your body would
misguided correction
collapse. Lucky for
is to straighten the
us, the skeletal musspine and hold it
cles work reflexively
there. Yet when the
(see Figure 2, page
muscles tire, the trunk
78). Some motor units
slowly sinks into an allare always working,
too-familiar, unsightly
even when we sleep.
slump. In this article well
When we are up, all of our
look at these dynamics, explorpostural muscles should be on
ing muscle function through the
to support us.
postural lens.







Client Education


Instability and Pain


O C T O B E R / N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6 M A S S A G E & B O DY WO R K


somatic anatomy

Figure 2. Muscle functions and fibers.

Exercise 1. Contract and Relax

The first step in training a postural muscle is being able to distinguish
between contraction and relaxation.
Begin sitting or standing in a
comfortable, upright position.
Place your hands on your lower
abdomen, right above your pubic
bone (see Exercise 1). Let your
abdominal muscles completely
relax and hang out.
Slowly contract the perineal
muscles between your sit bones,
as though you had to go to the
restroom and were holding it.
Did the tone change in your
lower abdomen? The muscles
should tighten right above the
pubic bone because the perineum co-contracts with the
transversus abdominis muscles.
Relax the perineum. Practice
slowly contracting and relaxing
until you can feel the difference.

Exercise 1


Adaptation and Habit

keletal muscles are highly
adaptable and can change in an
instant. They can melt under
skilled hands or seize up at a mere
hint of danger. Muscles are also
creatures of habit. Muscular
habits show up in an individuals
unique stance and style of movement. When we recognize a friend
at a distance by his distinct strut,
we are registering the familiar
shape of his habitual patterns.
Muscles quickly habituate to how
we use them because once neuromuscular pathways are established,
nerve impulses like to travel along
these familiar routes. Worn neuromuscular pathways are like ruts in
the road: unless we consciously
steer away from them, they are easy
to fall into. For example, after twenty-five years of driving a standard
car, I now drive an automatic. But
when Im tired or distracted, my
foot still pushes for the clutch as
though it had a mind of its own!
Intentional movement is the key to
breaking muscular habits.

Exercise 2.Transversus Abdominis

and Diaphragmatic Breathing
Intentional diaphragmatic breathing is crucial to balancing vertical
tone among the notes, or muscles,
of the postural flute.
The lateral expansion of the
lower ribs is the hallmark of
diaphragmatic breathing.To feel
this, place your hands over each
side of your lower ribs. Close
your eyes and breathe easy.

M A S S A G E & B O DY WO R K O C T O B E R / N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6

On each inhalation, expand your

lower ribs into your hands (see
Exercise 2). Continue to breathe
like this until it feels comfortable. If youre not a diaphragmatic breather, it will be difficult and
may take months of practice to
Now allow your abdominal muscles to relax and distend your
belly.Take several breaths,
expanding your lower ribs on
each inhalation. Distending the
belly usually restricts diaphragmatic breathing.
Relax. Next, put your hands on
each side of your lower abdominal
wall. Slowly and lightly contract the
transversus abdominis muscle,
drawing your lower abdominal
muscles back toward your sacrum.
Use minimal effort and hold.
As you lightly hold your lower
abdominals, return to breathing
into your lower ribs.This should
feel easier than the diaphragmatic breathing you did in step 3,
when your belly was distended.
Lightly contracting the transversus abdominis contains the viscera and keeps the diaphragm
from bottoming out, so expansion from inhaling spreads along
the length of the trunk rather
than just bulging the belly.

Exercise 2

somatic anatomy
Client Education
hildren are always learning
something newboth wisdom and bad habitsmodeled by
their parents. Like children, muscles learn whatever we train them
to do, whether or not the training
is deliberate. The athlete trains the
muscles for sport, the office worker trains for sitting, and the
assembly line worker for repetitive motion. If you are slouching
as you read this, you are training
your muscles to slump, which can
lead to championship slouching
and a world-class pain pattern.
Postural muscles work isometrically and can be trained in a
stationary posture using slow,
isometric contractions. A lot of
massage is oriented toward getting
our muscles to relax. All too often,
the client gets up after a session
feeling better, but leaves with the
same body pattern and returns to
the next session with the same old
pain pattern. For this reason, it is
important to teach clients intentional movements that organize
new neuromuscular pathways.
Having your client isometrically
contract postural muscles during
the massage benefits both of you.
Your client learns neuromuscular
pathways for optimal alignment,
and your work becomes easier
because once postural muscles
start working, prime movers stop

Relax. Slowly and gently draw

your lower abdominal muscle
above your pubic bone straight
back and hold. Use minimal
If you are doing this correctly,
youll be able to hold this tonic
contraction for a long time without tiring.This is the quality of
contraction used to train all postural muscles.

Tonic and Phasic Functions

here are several different types
of muscle fibers, the most
familiar two being slow and fast
fibers. Each fiber is defined by its
physiology and varies in its function (see Figure 3). Slow fibers
contract slowly and weakly, yet
are fatigue resistant. Fast fibers
contract quickly and strongly, yet
fatigue rapidly.
Although muscles have combinations of both fiber types, some muscles have more of one than the


Axial Compression
and Joint Stability
ostural muscles also stabilize
the joints by preventing excessive joint play as we move (see
Figure 4). They work like cargo
ties on a ship, securing cargo so
that when the ship takes off the
cargo moves with the ship rather
than flying around the deck. The
psoas major and multifidus muscles are local stabilizers that protect the lumbar spine by pulling
the lumbar vertebrae closer together, increasing axial compression in

Figure 3. Postural muscles support
the abdominal viscera, anchor the
scapulas, and stabilize the cervical

other. Muscles with predominantly

slow fibers are best suited for the
tonic (slow) contractions. Because
they are fatigue-resistant, these
antigravity muscles can work all
day without tiring. This means that
if you are using the right muscles,
you can easily sit and stand for
hours without pain.
The muscles that generate
movement (the prime movers)
generally have more fast fibers.
The prime movers are usually
large, extrinsic muscles that are
well suited for phasic (fast and
strong) contractions.
Exercise 3. Differentiating Tonic
and Phasic Contractions
For effective postural education, it is
important to feel the difference
between tonic and phasic contractions.
Sit in an upright position, on top
of your sit bones.
Contract your abdominal muscles hard and fast, then hold.This
strong phasic contraction will
flex your trunk and pull your ribs
down. How long can you hold
before your muscles tire? Notice
how it affects your breathing.

M A S S A G E & B O DY WO R K O C T O B E R / N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6

Figure 4.The deep postural muscles

stabilize the spine to prevent
excessive joint play.

an agonist/antagonist relationship
(see Figure 5). If the lumbar curve
is too flat, a person can activate
the psoas muscle to restore a natural lumbar lordosis. If the lumbar
curve is overly swayed, a person
can activate the multifidus muscle
to pull it back.

under your fingers. (If it is

already working, you will not feel
a change in tone.)
Keep this muscle contracted as
you lean back and return to
your original position. If your
multifidus is off, this sounds easier than it is.
When both psoas and multifidus
are gently contracted, you
should feel a long stable curve in
your lumbar spine.

Figure 5.The deep postural muscles pull the vertebrae into axial

Exercise 4. Activating Postural

Muscles in the Lumbar Spine
Sit upright, on top of your sit
Lightly contract your lower
abdominal wall as described in
Exercise 3.
Place your fingertips over your
psoas tendons to monitor them.
Keeping your spine straight, rock
backward over your sit bones
(see Exercise 3).
Keep the psoas contracted as
you lean forward and return to
your original position. If your
psoas is off, this sounds easier
than it is.
Next, place your fingertips along
your lumbar spine in the lamina
groove. Keeping your spine
straight, rock forward over your
sit bones (see Exercise 4). Feel
the multifidus contract and bulge

Joint Instability and Pain

oint instability is common in people with poor posture, particularly with collapsed or bent spines.
Each movement outside normal
joint range injures an unstable
joint, overstretching its ligaments,
causing muscle spasms, and
increasing mechanical stresses.
Joint instability creates a twofold
muscular dysfunction: one in the
postural system, the other with the
prime movers. Pain from joint
instability causes stabilizing muscles to turn off and the prime
movers to take over their job. Since
the prime movers span long distances and have strong lever arms
that bend joints, they work poorly
as stabilizers (see Figure 6). They
also fatigue rapidly and become
ischemic and fibrous, which causes
more pain, further inhibiting the
stabilizers and leading to more
pain and spasm, and so the cycle
escalates (see Figure 7, page 82).
The cycle can be broken with
a twofold intervention, using
bodywork to release overworked
prime movers coupled with intentional movement that activates
underworked stabilizers.

Exercise 3

Exercise 4

Figure 6.The prime movers bend

the joints as they contract, usually
generating joint motion.

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somatic anatomy
your postural muscles are
co-contracted. Use minimal
effort. If you tend to overwork, only visualize each
muscle contracting, which
will be enough to begin
waking them up.
Sit or lie in a comfortable position with your
Figure 7. A pain cycle showing dysfunction
spine in neutral (no
between the postural muscles and prime movers.
excessive curves or
Perineal muscles.
Control Versus Strength
Lightly and slowly pull
raditionally, the solution for coryour sit bones togethrecting faulty alignment includes
er and hold (see
strength training. The prime movers
Exercise 1).
respond to this type of training.
Transversus abdominis musPostural stabilizers, however, usually
cle. Next, slowly draw the musdo not need strengthening; instead,
cles above your pubic bone
we need to regain their capacity for
straight back toward your sacrum
control of alignment. Control means
(see Exercise 3).
contracting them at will, keeping
Psoas and multifidus musthem on, and coordinating their concles. Now increase tone along
tractions with the prime movers
the front and back of your lumduring movement.
bar spine (see Exercise 4).
Training postural muscles is
Diaphragm. Gently breathe into
quite easy once you learn to feel
your lower ribs, widening them as
them work, although their miniyou inhale (see Exercise 2).
mal contractions provide little
Lower trapezius. Imagine sandfeedback, making them difficult to
bags on the bottom of your
sense. In contrast, its easy to feel
scapulas, lightly drawing them
the large muscles contracting
down (see Figure 2).Allow the
strongly during a strength-training
front of your shoulders to lift and
workout. Another difficult part
widen. Stay wide and relaxed
about training them is the focus
between your shoulder blades.
and mental effort it takes to get an
Cervical intrinsics. Lightly lift
inert muscle working. The
the back of your head without
amount of effort is akin to trying
lowering your chin, which should
to get your limbs moving again
lengthen your neck (see Exercises
after they fall asleep.
5A and 5B).
The most difficult part of postur Playing each note. Breathe easal muscle training is avoiding overily while mentally reviewing each
work. Many people are oriented
note on your postural flute. Sense
toward working muscles hard,
your neck lengthening front and
strong, and fast in strength trainback; feel your scapulas sinking
ing. This training requires a quiand widening, breathe into the
eter, slower orientationit takes
width of your lower ribs; sense
patience and the ability to track
tone increasing along the front
subtle changes in tone.
and back of your lumbar spine;
feel your lower abdomen drawing
Exercise 5.The Postural Flute
back; and sense tone gathering
Lightly contract one note at a time.
between your sit bones.
Keep it contracted as you move to
Gently hold and breathe into your
the next note so that by the end, all
lower ribs, then completely relax.

Exercise 5A


M A S S A G E & B O DY WO R K O C T O B E R / N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6

Exercise 5B

Remember, posture is an inside

job. Your body is the instrument
and you are always in training.
Since the stabilizing muscles work
without movement, you can train
them anywhere, anytime. No one
can tell you are practicing subtle
isometrics, so contract your postural muscles whenever you can
while sitting or standing, during
massage, as you travel, and even
while reading this magazine. Play
your postural flute every day and
it will pay off! Youll look better,
feel better, and become adept at
therapeutic patterning skills your
clients are likely to want and
need. M B

Mary Ann Foster, author of Somatic

Patterning (EMS Press, 2004), has been a
massage therapist and movement educator
for twenty-five years. She teaches movement
classes at the Boulder College of Massage
Therapy in Colorado. Contact her at

1. There are many different ways to activate a postural
muscle. Because of space limitations, only a few are named
here. For more exercises, see Chapter 9 in my book, Somatic
Patterning (EMS Press, 2004).