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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 72 – January 2002
“Are you fit for work?” asked one of the headlines adorning the front page of a fairly recent newspaper. To illustrate this vital question was a photo of a woman bent forwards, knees straight, and (just) touching her toes with the tips of her fingers. Toe touching has for a long time been the symbol and criterion of physical fitness. But does this posture or movement deserve to be so rated?
If we are solely concerned with the end result of the exercise – touching the toes – regardless of the means employed and the shape that the body takes to get there, then it is a very poor and unreliable test to judge fitness. For there are many harmful muscular short cuts one can take to reach the faraway toes. The French have an expression: ‘la terre est basse’ (the ground is low), which is used when one feels stiff and has difficulty in bending forwards. The shorter our posterior muscles, the lower will be the ground. But don’t blame the ground! The ground is obviously always at the same distance, right under our feet. It’s the lack of elasticity in the muscles running along the rear part of our body that makes the ground seem low. Most of us don’t have fingertip feet.
Some people can, with their knees straight, not only touch their toes, but put their hands flat on the ground, without any apparent difficulty. Should we conclude that these people are physically fit? Not necessarily. Some of the stiffest people I know can just do that but you would certainly agree with me that stiffness does not equate with fitness. How do they do it? They use tricks, although they are totally unaware of doing so. Far from displaying an awesome degree of flexibility, they reveal to the trained eye an impressive range of distortions and compensations. Far from stretching their posterior muscles and doing themselves good, they contort and twist their bodies and further shorten their tight muscles. In order to discover these sleights of body it is necessary to avert one’s gaze from the hands proudly touching the floor or toes and to observe carefully the rest of the body.
In the photo I mentioned at the start of this article, some distortions are clearly visible. Her knees are braced backwards and turned inwards, and her head is thrown back producing an alarming cervical and upper back lordosis.
But since you cannot see the photo I invite you to experiment on yourself. Get up and take your favourite magazine – Positive Health – with you. Now stand up with your feet together with, if possible, a mirror at your side. Put the magazine on the floor, a few inches away from your feet and read on. Keep your knees straight and begin your forward motion. Start with the head, and flex the spine, vertebra after vertebra from top to bottom. Now it’s time to bend at the hip joint. Let your arms hang freely. Go slowly, gently. Do not use force. Forget the floor. Don’t try, for example, the common trick of dragging your shoulders round and down to reach the floor as if your arms were pulling the rest of the body. Keep your hip joints above your ankle bones; in other words, don’t let your legs and pelvis move backwards. Is your head still hanging down freely with the top of the skull ‘looking’ at the floor? If it is, then you cannot read me any more so we have a problem. Come back to an upright stance, have a breather and finish reading this piece, memorize it and experiment again with bending forwards.
Depending on how supple you are, there is a stage where, with the head and arms hanging down freely, you will start to feel some pulling and tightness along the back of the body. Instead of forcing, bend your knees just enough to enable you to put your hands on the floor, shoulders’ width apart. Don’t aim for the toes; on the contrary, try to put your hands a fair amount away from your feet. Balance the weight of your body between your feet and hands. You are now in a quadrupedal position – on all fours. Can you see your knees? If you can’t, it’s certainly because you have ‘ostrich-ized’ yourself by burying your head into your shoulders. In that case, your head is thrown backwards, the muscles at the nape of the neck are contracted and your neck and upper back are seriously curved in. Don’t stay like this, you could give yourself a headache. Notice how the pulling and tugging in your posterior muscles is stronger when you truly let your head hang down.
Have a look at your legs and feet. The latter should still be together from toes to heels. Are your toes cramped together as if they were in pointed shoes? Look closely at the big and little toes. Try to spread and flatten them. Are your ankle bones telescoping? Then the arches of your feet have collapsed. Your knees should also be in contact. Maybe they are well apart. If it is the case, try to bring them together and see how difficult it is. On the other hand they might be squashed together, looking ‘cross-eyed’. Turn them outwards. And your heels? Are they still on the floor? Look, if you can, at your tummy. Is it protruding, pressing on your thighs? If your head, neck and back were properly aligned, your abdominal muscles would be contracted and your abdominal wall would be flat.
Try to see your back in the mirror without giving yourself a wryneck. Your spine should present a long, uniform curve. Good for you if you see this harmonious shape in the mirror. Most of you are more likely to see a rounded lower back and hollow neck and upper back.
But maybe it is a flat or concave lower back. Or a mixture of hollows and bumps.
Come back cautiously to the upright position. Sit down if you feel dizzy and then meditate on the excess strength and tone most, if not all, of us harbour in our bodies.