Lengthening through the Cervical Spine – Using the Push-Pull Strategy

A lot of times when we work with the hands behind the head, elbows bent and out to the side, we talk about “cradling” our head in our hands.  It’s time to get away from that, and I’ll tell you why.  First, it implies that the hands are going to do all the work and the head just lays limply like a newborn baby.  Second, it encourages the cervical spine to come into exaggerated flexion as we rely on the hands to do the “pulling.”

Both of these habits take away from the main objective in most flexion-centric Pilates exercises – maintaining or moving into and out of asmoothcurve of the spine.  Luckily, there’s an easy fix.  Remember the push-pull action that we’ve talked about a few times?  Today’s cue is a new application.

Photo by runnyrem on Unsplash

The pushing action comes from the head and neck, firmly pushing back against the hold of the hands. Give it a try. Just sitting in a chair create that classic, laid back image.  Lean back, clasp your hands behind your head, thumbs pointing down, elbows to the side. Adjust the placement of the hands so that the thumbs are resting just below the base of the occiput and press firmly into the muscular insertion there with your thumbs.  Finally, push the head back into the hands while firmly resisting (the “pull” of the push-pull in this scenario) the head with your hands.  Immediately, your cervical spine lengthens.

Recreating the reciprocal forces while lying supine is a bit more subtle, so if your clients struggle to find the cervical length here, sit them up and walk them through the seated, leaned back process.  Once they feel it in this more exaggerated scenario, they will have a better chance of utilizing the subtle push-pull to find the length while lying down.


Perfecting Posture – The Occipital Touch

So your client can get to a neutral spine no problem.  He or she has just the right amount of kyphosis in the thoracic curve, lordosis in the lumbar curve and the chin tucked back and in to create the optimal cervical curve to perfectly perch the head at the top of the vertical gravity line.  Whew!  Your client can do neutral.

But there’s more to posture than just a neutral spine.  This is where axial elongation is key.  Achieving this requires engagement all the way from the arches of the feet, up the inner thigh and pelvic floor to the front and back of the trunk.  But there’s more.  Try it.  What’s missing?  How can we cue the client to engage and elongate through the cervical spine?

One-on-one with a client, the occipital touch cue is magical and immediately effective.  To do this, put the pointer finger of your hand on the neck, behind the earlobe, just where the jaw bone comes in (this is where the occiput bone of the skull ends).  Put your thumb on the neck, just where it begins to spread out to connect to the shoulder.  Then spread these two fingers gently, maintaining contact with the client’s body (It helps to employ both hands so you can do this on both sides of the neck). The effect is direct and instantaneous.  The client’s neck will grow an inch in length and any slight inconsistencies with the posture lower down on the spine will be corrected.  Try it – on yourself, as you read this.

Source: modaoperandi.com

Unfortunately, as many of us teach in a larger class setting, there’s no way we can walk around and employ the magical occipital touch on all the students.  Here’s where the imagery cue comes in.  Imagine you are wearing long, dangly earrings.  They are so long that they just touch your shoulders.  Create enough length through your neck and cervical spine to lift the earrings off your shoulders so they can dangle freely.  Et voilà.

This is also a really effective cue (both the corrective touch and the imagery) for clients who tend to tense their shoulders and let them creep upwards.

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