In the first part of this series, we discussed upper crossed syndrome and how weakness and tension can be perpetuated by allowing our bodies to take the “path of least resistance.” Remember the kinetic chain and how our bodies are connected? This kinetic chain is the idea that a connection exists between all joints and muscle groups in the body and that during movement, these joints and segments have an effect on neighboring areas of the body. For example, if you hurt your knee, your ankle and hip joints will adjust accordingly. In this section, we will observe how this “crossed” concept is present in other areas of the body. When our upper body posture/balance is compromised, the lower body can suffer the effects, and vice versa. In other words, there is a trickle-down effect along the entire body.
When gravity pulls us down and forward, the abdominal muscles let go, creating a tilt in the pelvis. When this happens in a seated position, the pelvis usually (not always) tilts back (posterior pelvic tilt with the sit bones rolling forward), and when standing, the pelvis often (but not always) tilts forward (anterior pelvic tilt with the sit bones lifting up). Either way the pelvis tilts, this causes the upper body to sink, putting more pressure on the lower back muscles that extend and resist flexion of the spine (erector spinae), which in turn creates more tension in the hip flexor muscles. With this posture, especially if seated, we are not adequately recruiting any of our glute muscles, and our psoas/hip flexors are passively shortening. This contributes to chronically weak glute and abdominal muscles and tight hip flexor and lower back muscles. If you look at somebody from the side and draw an imaginary “X” over the hip joint, one line will be associated with weakness and the other with tension. Sound familiar to upper crossed syndrome, which presents the same issues in the upper body? This is called, you guessed it, lower crossed syndrome (sometimes written as “lower cross syndrome”).
The hips are the base of support for the spine. When there’s a limitation of motion or strength through the hip joints and the surrounding musculature, there is increased load (weight) on the lumbar spine. No wonder so many of us have low back pain! In this case, the lower back muscles and the hip flexor muscles are being the “heroes,” taking on more than their fair share of the work. Now imagine what happens when we sit back into utkatasana (chair pose), for example, without first correcting this posture. All the imbalances are magnified; the glutes and abdominals are underutilized while the hip flexors and low back do even more work.
Do you see the pattern? Anything that happens along the kinetic chain influences neighboring joints and segments. Weakness or lack of engagement leads to tension or overengagement of the muscles above and below that joint—compensation! We could apply this viewpoint to any joint. Take the knees and ankles: many of us have tight quadriceps and calves paired with weak hamstrings and shins (anterior tibialis), creating yet another “X” and alternating between weakness and tension down the body. Many times, pain in a joint or specific segment of the body can be attributed to lack of mobility in the joints/areas above and below the painful area. Pain in the low back? Maybe it’s picking up the slack for tight hips and/or a tight mid back. Pain in the knees? Maybe they’re compensating for lack of mobility in the hips and/or the ankles. This is a gross oversimplification; however, it can be a great place to start to view our bodies as one connected, functional unit or “kinetic chain.”
Our bodies are masters of compensation and efficiency. So how do we start to overcome these imbalances, especially if they’re subconscious? First, start with mindfulness. How are you sitting in your car or at your desk? How’s your posture while standing in line at the grocery store? How do you feel in tadasana (mountain pose) or a seated posture during yoga class? How about right now? Are you sitting or standing as you read this article? What’s going on in your neck, shoulders, low back, and hips? Do you feel symmetrical? Are you asking too much of certain parts of your body by neglecting others? Where could you benefit from more stability or strength (sthira), and where could you benefit from more mobility or softness (sukha)?
To begin to correct these lower crossed imbalances, start with hip flexor opening movements like lunge variations with the back knee down and lower back opening—movements such as pavanamuktasana (knee-to-chest pose). Also include abdominal strengthening poses or movements like plank and gluteal strengthening poses like utkatasana.
Treat your yoga practice as an opportunity to get to know your body and your tendencies. Once the knowledge is attained, you can use it to strike a balance between steadiness and ease, making your practice more balanced, enjoyable, pain-free, and beneficial to your body. Then, perhaps, that balance will spill over into the other aspects of your life.
(Stay tuned for exercises to help correct upper and lower crossed tendencies and therefore improve your entire kinetic chain!)