How to Retrain Your Proprioception and Posture
As our nervous system learns to keep certain muscles tight—in response to repetitive activities, stress, injuries, and athletic training—we lose full voluntary control of the muscles. But this loss of control is only one reason why it’s so hard to release muscle tension, get out of pain, and change our posture.
As our muscles gradually get tighter over the years, we also lose sensation. Not being able to sense how tight our muscles are and not having an accurate sense of our body position can make it very difficult to retrain our posture.
This loss of sensation is called sensory adaptation, and it occurs with nearly all of our sensory systems (taste, smell, touch, etc.). In general, activity in sensory systems is highest during and immediately after a new stimulus is presented. Within a short period of time, our sensory receptors return to their normal resting state, even if the stimulus is still present.
An example of sensory adaptation is how it feels when you go swimming in cool ocean water. When you first dip your toes into the water, it feels quite chilly. If you stand there for a minute, letting the waves lap over your feet, you get used to the temperature and it begins to feel comfortable. Wading in deeper, you experience this phenomenon each time the water comes into contact with a new part of your body. Soon you are fully submerged, your thermoreceptors (sensory receptors which sense temperature) have returned to their resting state, and the water actually feels warm.
When it comes to posture, we’re concerned with the adaptation of our vestibular system and our proprioceptive system.
Our vestibular system adapts when we’re in motion at the same speed for longer than a few moments. So when we’re flying in an airplane at 600 miles per hour, we feel like we’re sitting still. Likewise, if we tip our head slightly forward or to the side, soon the tilted position begins to feel normal. (This adaptation is a function of both the vestibular and proprioceptive systems.)
Our proprioceptive system senses our body’s position in space. Proprioceptors are sensory receptors located in our muscles and joints.
The proprioceptors in our joints detect changes in the angle, direction, and speed of movement in our joints. These proprioceptors adapt quickly; they are very good at sensing changes in our joint position as we move, but they give us very little information about the resting position of our joints. This adaptability is helpful when we’re in motion, but allows us to get comfortable in unnatural resting positions—like slouched forward at a computer.
The proprioceptors located within our muscles also allow us to get comfortable in unnatural positions. These proprioceptors, which sense changes in muscle length, are called muscle spindles. When a muscle is chronically contracted, our proprioception adjusts so that we feel that the muscle is not as short or tight as it actually is. So, the increased level of contraction in our muscles actually begins to feel normal.
As we sit at our computer day after day, our brain learns to keep us in a slouched posture by keeping our abdominal and pectoral muscles contracted, and our proprioceptive and vestibular systems allow us to get more and more comfortable in this unnatural position. Slouching forward begins to feel normal and even good, and sitting up straight takes effort and feels unnatural. We typically remain blissfully unaware of this subconscious adaptation until, one day, it finally causes us pain.
Three steps to retraining your posture and proprioception
Muscles that are tight all the time pull the spine and pelvis out of alignment, leading to postural distortions. The first step in retraining your posture is to release these chronically tight muscles with pandiculation. At the end of this article, I give short series of exercises from the Level One & Two Courses to address the most common postural issues:
- Hyperlordosis (arched lower back)
- Postural kyphosis (rounded upper back and shoulders) and forward head posture
- Functional leg length discrepancy (one hip hiked up higher than the other)
- Idiopathic scoliosis (a C-curve or S-curve in the spine)
But—have you noticed that even when you do an amazing job releasing your muscles with Clinical Somatics exercises, you still tend to revert to your old, habitual posture when you stand up? This is because your proprioceptive and vestibular systems are so accustomed to bringing you into that posture when you’re vertical in the field of gravity. (This is why Somatics exercises are practiced on the floor: to take gravity out of the equation and make it easier to release your muscles!)
Because of this adaptation of your proprioceptive and vestibular systems, you need to actively retrain your posture and proprioception when you’re sitting and standing up. This brings us to the second and thirds steps in retraining your posture.
Second: You need to get an objective, third-person view of your posture. This can be either a mirror or photos, or both. In the Level Two Course, you learn four Proprioceptive Exercises that are practiced in front of a full-length mirror (one sitting, three standing). If you want to use photos to get your third-person view, prop up your phone, set the timer, and take photos of yourself from the front, back, and both sides.
Photos can be helpful for a wake-up call—“Wow, this is what my posture really looks like?” They can also be helpful for seeing changes in your posture over time. Using a mirror is typically an easier way to actively retrain your proprioception on a daily basis and get immediate feedback about how correct and incorrect posture feels.
The purpose of using the third-person view of your posture is so that you can match up what you’re feeling in your body to what your posture actually looks like. When you start this process, your habitual posture will feel right, and correct posture will feel wrong and unbalanced.
To start changing this incorrect proprioception, you need to shift yourself into correct posture while sitting or standing in front of the mirror and remember what it feels like internally. Even if it feels weird or wrong, you need to remember that internal sensation and teach yourself that this how correct posture feels.
A very important note: Don’t force yourself into correct posture by contracting and holding muscles. This creates unnecessary muscle tension, and doesn’t solve the problem! You need to allow yourself to shift into correct posture by releasing the chronically tight muscles that are pulling you out of alignment.
This is why you need to start by practicing pandiculation exercises: you need to first learn how to release your tight muscles while lying on the floor, without gravity interfering. Then you will be better able to keep those muscles relaxed while sitting and standing up. I give specific examples of this in the last section of this post in the exercises section.
The third step in retraining your posture and proprioception is repetition. Retraining posture and proprioception takes a lot of repetition. You’ve been repeating your habitual postural patterns for many years, strengthening the neural pathways that control them as you sit and stand all day, every day. As you may have already experienced, getting out of pain typically happens much faster than making lasting changes in posture.
Every few minutes throughout your day, check in with your posture. If you’ve internalized the sensations of what correct and incorrect posture feel like, you should be able to voluntarily relax the tight muscles that are pulling you out of alignment and let yourself shift into correct alignment. Then, see how long you can keep those muscles relaxed and maintain that correct posture.
Folks, this takes time, patience, and lots of repetition—but you can do it! Improvements will happen faster if you can stay relaxed and avoid forcing your body and nervous system to change before they’re ready. If you feel like you might be forcing things, read How to Allow Change to Happen Instead of Forcing It.
A simple exercise to build awareness
As you are reading these words, your head is likely tilted downward. Bring your eyes up and look straight ahead, so that your head sits straight up and down on top of your spine. Notice how this position feels different than tilting your head downward. Also notice how quickly you return to the head tilted downward position.
Which position feels more comfortable or natural? Can you feel certain muscles that are contracted or released in each position?
Now that you’ve taken the time to focus your conscious attention on the difference between what these two positions feel like, you will likely start to notice your head position more often. In fact, once you’ve noticed or learned something new it can be difficult to not notice it.
This is the process of building awareness. You can think of attention as being focused and active, while awareness is broad and relaxed. If you begin to pay attention to your proprioceptive sensations, you will become more aware of them; so with practice, you won’t need to work so hard at noticing your body position and movement. It’s like staying tuned in to a certain radio station so you can always hear it in the background.
Short exercise series to address common postural patterns
Hyperlordosis occurs when the natural curvature of the lumbar spine becomes more pronounced. Tight lower back muscles and a tight iliopsoas bring the lumbar spine into this exaggerated curve. Tight gluteal muscles are often part of this pattern as well.
A short series of exercises (all from Level One) you can practice to release the tight muscles that cause hyperlordosis is:
- Arch & Flatten
- Back Lift
- Arch & Curl
- lliopsoas Release
When you stand up after doing this series, you should feel that your lower back is long and released. It might feel strange; it might feel as though you’re tucking your pelvis under. But take the time to look at yourself from the side in a mirror, and you’ll see that your pelvis is now more straight up and down, rather than tilted forward.
To address hyperlordosis, you should also practice Proprioceptive Exercise 1 (from Level Two). This teaches you how to correct hyperlordosis while sitting. You can feel free to experiment and do a version of this exercise while standing as well.
Postural kyphosis occurs when the natural curvature of the thoracic spine becomes more pronounced. Tight abdominal and chest muscles round the upper spine, bringing the head forward and the rib cage and shoulders down. Internally rotated arms are typically part of this postural pattern.
Forward head posture occurs when tight neck muscles pull the head forward. This often, but not always, occurs with postural kyphosis.
A short series of exercises to release the tight muscles that cause postural kyphosis and forward head posture is:
- Arch & Flatten (Level One)
- Arch & Curl (Level One)
- Head Lifts (Level Two)
- Flowering Arch & Curl (Level Two)
- Scapula Scoops Part 2 (Level Two)
When you stand up after doing this series, you should feel that your chest and stomach are open and your head is sitting on top of your spine. This might feel strange; it might even feel as though you’re falling backward. It can be helpful to have someone take a photo of you from the side before and after doing this series of exercises, as kyphosis and forward head posture can be more difficult to see in the mirror when you’re turning your head to the side.
To address postural kyphosis and forward head posture, you should practice Proprioceptive Exercise 1 (from Level Two). You can also practice this simple exercise:
While sitting or standing, slowly shift your head forward, sticking it out ahead of you. Notice where you feel the contraction: the muscles on the front of your neck. Then, very slowly release those muscles to let your head slowly slide back to a neutral position. You may notice that your chest and abdominals were helping your head come forward as well. As you slide back to a neutral position, see if you can allow yourself to come to rest in a better aligned position than you started.
Functional leg length discrepancy (FLLD) occurs when tight muscles hike one hip up higher than the other. The obliques, lower back muscles, and iliopsoas are the main muscle groups that cause this lateral tilting of the pelvis. Hip rotators can also be involved. You can learn more in this article.
Before you start using Clinical Somatics exercises to address your FLLD, please read this article: How to Even out the Imbalances in Your Body.
Here is a short series of exercises (all from Level One) you can practice to release the tight muscles that cause functional leg length discrepancy. Your “working side” is the side on which your hip is higher.
- Back Lift (turn your head away from your working side, so that you’re lifting up the leg of the working side)
- Side Curl (you should be curling up with your working side)
- One-sided Arch & Curl (lift up the knee of your working side)
- Hip Rotation (use the working side)
- Iliopsoas Release (lift and lower the leg of your working side)
When you stand up after doing this series, you should feel as though the hip that was higher before is now lower! That side of your waist should feel long, and you might feel as though you’re standing with more weight on that foot. Take the time to look at yourself from the front in a mirror, and see that your hips are now more even.
To address functional leg length discrepancy, you should also practice Proprioceptive Exercise 2 (from Level Two).
Idiopathic scoliosis occurs when tight muscles pull the spine into a C-curve or S-curve. Tight obliques and back muscles are always involved. The iliopsoas is also a contributor to lumbar curvature. Some degree of rotation of the spine nearly always occurs in scoliosis, and you may tend toward hyperlordosis or postural kyphosis as well. The muscular patterns involved in idiopathic scoliosis are typically complex, and as such they take a longer time to release and more patience and commitment than when working with a simpler postural issue.
As you start learning Clinical Somatics exercises, you should watch this video and read these two articles so that you can understand how to use the exercises to address your curvature:
How Muscles Contract in Scoliosis C Curve (watch this even if you have an S-curve!)
The Cause of Idiopathic Scoliosis: Involuntary Muscle Contraction
How to Even out the Imbalances in Your Body
Here is a short series of exercises you can practice to start releasing the tight muscles that cause idiopathic scoliosis. Use the advice in the Imbalances article to guide you on how to practice the exercises more with one side than the other.
- Arch & Flatten (Level One)
- Back Lift (Level One)
- Side Curl (Level One)
- Diagonal Curl (Level Two)
- Iliopsoas Release (Level One)
When you stand up after practicing the exercises, you will feel off-balance in some way. You may feel as though you’re leaning to one side. You may feel that one hip is now lower than it was before, or that one side of your waist or lower back is longer and more released. You may feel that your shoulders are at different heights. You may feel that your weight has shifted more into one foot. You may feel that your hips or rib cage are rotated in an unnatural way. Releasing the muscular patterns that cause scoliosis takes time and patience, and you will likely feel off-balance for quite a while as you go through the process of retraining your posture and proprioception.
To address idiopathic scoliosis, you should practice Proprioceptive Exercises 2, 3, and 4 (all from Level Two).
The Pain Relief Secret: How to Retrain Your Nervous System, Heal Your Body, and Overcome Chronic Pain by Sarah Warren, CSE
Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health by Thomas Hanna