How Long is Your Neck?

A giraffe in South Africa

The other morning I was taking a walk with my one year old daughter strapped to my chest. She was facing me and I had my hands around her low back.

When she is not fast asleep she likes to look around to check out what’s going on in the hood. One of the things I have noticed about babies is that a huge percentage of their movements in the first year involve nothing more than just turning left and right to scan the horizon and take in visual information. I would guess that this type of rotational movement is a big part of their early movement education.

So, being the movement nerd that I am, as I walked I was feeling my daughter’s spine and ribs to sense the movement there as she turned. What I found was so interesting that I thought about it for a few minutes, forgot it for a week, and then remembered it and decided to write a blog post about it this morning. Here’s what I noticed.

As she turned from side to side, the vertebrae in her spine all the way down to her low back and pelvis were very active in making rotational movements. I found this very interesting because she can probably turn from side to side quite easily by moving just the vertebrae in her neck without any involvement from the lower parts of her spine. (I can do this and you probably can too.) But instead, the movement involved her whole spine, and even the pelvis. This reminded me of a central principle of the Feldenkrais Method, which is that optimal movements are often distributed over as many joints as possible.

Movement is a very much a team game, and the more body parts that participate in a movement, the less work each part has to do in getting the job done. For example, in a well organized spine, a rotation of the head will start with movement of the neck vertebrae, but will quickly recruit lower parts of the spine for assistance. So the whole back helps the neck, making the neck effectively as long as the spine.

For some reason, many people seem to lose mobility in their chest as they age. This makes it very hard to recruit any vertebrae lower than the neck in moving the head. Try turning your head left and right a few times and sense how far down the spine the movement travels. Don’t do the movement with a certain outcome in mind, just do it in way that allows you to discover how you would do this move habitually, as you actually do it every day without thinking about it. You can put one hand on your back to help sense what parts of the spine participate and which don’t.

If the rotational movement of the head stops at your neck and doesn't really reach the chest, then the movement in the neck will probably feel a little stiff, limited and awkward. But if the movement naturally flows down the spine to the pelvis, the movement will probably feel integrated, smooth and easy. In other words, you will be taking full advantage of the fact that you actually have a very long and powerful neck. Just like my daughter.

By the way, if you want to lengthen your neck, I have a free audio lesson based on the Feldenkrais Method which is designed to improve spinal rotation.