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Feeling lost? Here's a map for your body.

One of the recurring statements that I hear from clients is: "I just don't know why it hurts". What's often clear is the feeling of being lost that comes with those words. Other times people tell me that they cannot find a position that is comfortable...

Well, if you can't find something, maybe there's just one plan that helps you to find that place of comfort. Imagine we did have a way to navigate our body. Imagine we had a clear map that allowed us to guide ourselves and our body towards comfort. In this article I want to help you get started with that map of your body.

Imagine we did have a way to navigate our body. Imagine we had a clear map that allowed us to guide our body towards comfort.

And really, it's rather simple: If I asked you: Would you like to be able to bend your spine to the left or to the right? You might raise your eyebrows, think what a silly question that is, and say: "eh...depends?". Exactly! We want, and need, free movement across the spectrum from the left side to the right side - Not just one of them.

What you can see on the image below is that our joints on one side of the spine open, while the other side closes. The muscles on the opening side lengthen (green arrow opening), while the muscles on the closing side shorten (red arrows coming towards each other). The question now is: Can we access both 'shapes'? And if we can't, is that why we feel "stuck" and "cannot find a position that's comfortable"?

Spine movement

Do you experience problems on one side? Could it be that you have a bias that either excessively lengthens or shortens that side? Not sure? Perfect!! That's what we're here to find out!

By finding out, you start drawing your map. What people say is that once they have a map, they do not feel as lost anymore. Makes sense :)

Let's begin by finding out what 'should' be possible in our body, in this case I will focus on how the spine, the rib cage and pelvis can move. But you can apply this approach/structure to any bone and joint in your body.

Ultimately we want to be able to freely navigate our body across that whole map.

If you've been following me, you will know that this teaching comes from one of my teachers Gary Ward, founder of Anatomy in Motion. All credit to him and his ability to see simplicity within complexity.

Planes of motion

Our body moves in 3 planes of motions:

1. Sagittal plane

2. Frontal plane

3. Transverse plane

I will break down each one of them and explain what the pelvis and rib cage can do within each plane, and what that means for the motion in the spine. Having a structure like this is the framework from which we create your map. With structure comes clarity, with clarity we can begin to work.

I encourage you to try the movements in your own body, and to make notes of your findings.

1. Sagittal plane

The sagittal plane is any movement that happens in the plane that we can observe from the side. (the word sagittal starts with S, like "side"). The images below show a person from their side.

The pelvis and its influence on the spine

We can anteriorly tilt or posteriorly tilt the pelvis (the bowl shape on the image below). As you can see, the spine (the back) will then either arch or round/flatten. In an anterior tilt, the back arches and "closes", whereas in the posterior tilt that space opens, decompresses and lengthens.

pelvic tilt

The rib cage and its influence on the spine

In the rib cage itself, we also have these tilts available in the sagittal plane. Here we could describe the movement as a lifting of the chest or a dropping of the chest (as a reminder, the graphic below shows the body from the side). Here too, you can see how the spine either extends with the lift of the chest (the back arches, closes, compresses) or flexes with the drop of the chest (the back rounds, opens, lengthens)

spine movement

Question: What do those feel like when you try them? Try tilting your pelvis in both ways as shown above. Is one nice, one grumpy? One easy, one difficult?

How about the lifting of the chest and the dropping of the chest? Which one is more or less natural, respectively?

Some clever people reading this post will have noticed the similarity between the spinal shapes that those pelvis and rib cage movements create 🙂 And that's exactly what we want: we want them to be in harmony, to create the same outcome. Have another look at the images: Can you see how the pelvic anterior tilt corresponds with a lifting of the chest, in terms of leading to the same outcome in the spine? (and vice versa, the posterior tilt of the spine with the dropping of the chest).

2. Frontal plane

The frontal plane includes movements that we can see when we observe someone from the front.

The rib cage and its influence on the spine

Here we are looking at side-bends of the spine as described earlier. On the image below we are now looking at that person from the front. As you can see, the side-bend comes with a shoulder that drops while the other shoulder rises.

Question: do you stand with one shoulder higher? That could tell you something about the corresponding spinal shape...

dropped shoulder

The pelvis and its influence on the spine

The pelvis also plays into this, as the lumbar spine connects to the pelvis. In the pelvis we can hike and drop either side. Have a look at the spine's shape in response to each drop/hike: the pelvis motion leads to the same opening/closing outcomes that we can see above from the rib cage (i.e. side-bends):

hip hike

Question: What do those feel like? Is bending the spine one way easier, one more restricted? How about dropping/hiking the pelvis (in order to do this, stand with both feet on the floor and keep them there. Bend one knee whilst keeping the other straight. The pelvis will drop on the bending side and you are testing that drop/hike shown above).

As before: Is one easy, one more difficult? One odd, one normal? The question is: Can we reorganise them into the same shape? Or does one structure go one way while the other goes the opposite way? Kind of like being on the gas and brake pedal at the same time, which is never a good idea. Try reorganising it. Explore those movements.

3. Transverse plane

The third and last plane of motion is the transverse plane, or rotational plane. The word transverse starts with T, so we can remember this as a "Top"-down view from which we observe motion.

The rib cage and its influence on the spine

Here, we are looking at rib cage rotation to the left and right (think turning your chest in those directions).

Note: the light grey ellipse represents the pelvis here. The black rotating ellipse is the rib cage, which we are rotating now. As we turn our chest in one direction, our spine will create a movement similar to a spiral staircase.

spine rotation

If you try those motions yourself, can you feel how here, too, one side of the back closes while the other one opens but now in a rotational way?

The pelvis and its influence on the spine

The same outcome can be created from the pelvis below, if we rotate that to the left whilst leaving the rib cage forward. This is actually difficult to do for many people. For many people their pelvis and their chest move as one, and dissociating (turning one whilst keeping the other still) is difficult - which in itself says a lot about the movement in the spine that connects the pelvis and rib cage. Even more so when they can do it in one direction, but not the other.

Note: the black ellipse is now the pelvis. The rib cage is not shown.

pelvis rotation

Planes of motion summary

The above are the motions that we want free access to. Hopefully you did try them out and noticed that there are differences not just between the planes of motion, but also between the left and right side. Our goal would be to restore that spectrum evenly, because as you can hopefully see at this point, it would give our areas of discomfort the chance to move: to decompress and compress, to open and close, to lengthen and shorten. (To reiterate: with a view of the spine here).

We do need both sides of the spectrum...Just like we need sun and rain, we need opening and closing. Having only rain leads to floods. Having only sun leads to draughts.

So if I asked you again whether you wanted to be able to bend your spine to the left or to the right, your answer should be "Both!".

The question is: Can you?

And if you can't, what's the connection between the pelvis and the rib cage like? Remember the influence of each on the shape of the spine. Could it be that you cannot bend one way because either the pelvis or the rib cage is pre-determining that shape, so that when the other tries to create a shape change, it's unable to due to the other? This is the gas-and-brake-pedal scenario.

But is this then why you are unable to open what's closed, and close what's open? To lengthen what's short and shorten what's long?

What we want is a restoration of the "matching" couplings. To reduce the "tug of war" between the structures. You see the couplings above - put them into your body and see what that feels like.

Did you know about that before? If you did, cool. If you didn't, then that's probably because you didn't have a map that told you so :) The images show you what you can get started on. Explore those movements and put them together. I'd love to hear how that goes! Message me by clicking on the envelope on the side or bottom of this page 😊

Note: We can develop this map further. The question really is why has your body stopped those coupling? This is where it gets really fun!! For example, each one of the combinations that I talked about is influenced by the feet and legs and by the arms and shoulders. You can see, we can make the map a lot bigger. Just like we talked about the coupling between pelvis and rib cage, there are couplings between the pelvis and the feet, and so on. Any old injuries there?

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