Where's Your Head?
The class members all lowered their heads and began to walk around the room. "Depressed," stated one. "Near-sighted," announced another. "Not very healthy," averred a third. "Reminds me of my childhood," said Al. When we were seated, he continued, "When I was young, I always looked down at the floor. My father was always yelling, 'Straighten up! Pick up your head!' but I couldn't." Al now walks with his head jutting forward, his chest sunk deeply down, with a little shuffle. I asked Al if he remembers what it was like to straighten up at his father's commands. "I couldn't do it, I would try, but I just couldn't."
"You mean your spine was fused or something?"
"No. I couldn't see where I was going."
"Were you near-sighted?"
"Yes, but that's not it. It, it just didn't feel safe. If I looked up, there was too much to see."
In theater, the head's position often defines a character. Thrust forward it signifies aggression. When forward and slightly down, a quality of shyness or weariness creeps into the portrayal. In just these two examples, you can see how the physiological and psychological begin to relate. The head thrust forward takes the spine out of balance. You must keep moving forward or you'll just fall down. To compensate, you have to hunch and engage your shoulders, grip the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles (those rope like things on the side of the neck), and sometimes even tense your jaw. With that level of tension, no wonder a person feels aggressive! With the head forward and little down, the person's skeleton is losing the battle with gravity. The aggression has been thwarted. The upper spine needs to round a bit to keep the head from falling further and compromising balance. The eyes need to peer upward. Like with hunched shoulders, it is difficult to turn the head quickly from side to side, making the person vulnerable to things coming from the side. And with the spine all rounded, there isn't enough freedom for a quick directional change. This is a very insecure feeling. Not to mention extremely tiring. Thus, the person is physically as well as psychologically insecure and weary.
The stress of holding the head up in these orientations ultimately affects the health in many ways: the tension in the neck muscles often leads to severe headaches. Sometimes when the head is held forward, the jaw muscles become engaged, leading to TMJ (tempomandibular joint disorder): a common syndrome where the jaw is so tense people have been known to break their teeth. A lifetime of carrying the head forward creates many compensatory habits that can ultimately lead to dowager’s hump – a kind of humped rounding at the vertebrae on the top of the shoulder girdle. Vision problems are also created by the straining and narrow focus.
Play for a while with different positions of the head. See what it feels like to walk with your head back, forward, or up slightly. An important thing to notice is how it affects the rest of you. Nothing happens in isolation. One person will bring the head back and suddenly the chest puffs out, giving an impression of self importance. Another will bring the head back and suddenly the eyes widen in an expression of terror. By doing this simple movement of the head, you may discover that you have a preferred repertoire of emotions. Or you may discover that you have no idea at all what your body conveys. Both of these are important observations and the first steps to being more aware of your habits.

Author's Bio: 

has authored two books: What Are You Afraid Of? A Body/Mind Guide to Courageous Living, and Walking Your Talk: Changing Your Life Through the Magic of Body Language. She teaches the Feldenkrais Method in NC, where she is the director of Asheville Movement Center. Lavinia conducts workshops internationally and works with many organizations on body/mind and communication topics. www.laviniaplonka.com