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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 79 – August 2002
If you have never put anything on your head apart from the occasional hat, hood, helmet, cap, headscarf, headphone or even beret, you haven’t lived yet. Carrying any weight on your head heavier than these can greatly improve your well-being and the way you look.
Head carrying is therapeutic and it’s a shame we don’t commonly employ this free, simple and economical mode of carrying our loads.
So, if you think that head carrying is very old hat, just good for people living in far-away, exotic countries who haven’t yet invented the rucksack, the suitcase and the plastic bag, think again.
When the head is loaded with a substantial weight, the spine reacts in a vertical way to support it, the head pushing up against the load.
As a result, the spine lengthens and extends vertically. Head carrying gives you an instantaneous spinal lift! Roger Perrin, a physiotherapist, studied the mechanics of the body while it is supporting loads on the head and concluded that the spine acts like a jack.
To the classic vertebral movements (anterior, posterior and lateral flexions, rotation and gliding), another one ought to be recognized: the vertebral erection, a movement that lengthens the spine by reducing its three curvatures. By this definition, the spine should be considered a jack of all trades or, in this case, movements.
To obtain objective and precise results, Perrin built a simple frame designed to measure the depth of the lumbar and cervical curvatures and the length of the spine before and after being ‘head-loaded’. Here are some of his findings:
On average, when someone has to support 15kg (33 pounds) on the head, it takes one second for the spine to react in a jack-like manner, and the gain in length is in the order of 12mm. Although this gain is relatively small, the postural and morphological changes are impressive. Let’s not forget that the 12mm of lengthening is an average; in a very slouched individual we can reasonably expect even greater gain in height;
When someone has a load on the top of the head, there is a release of the front muscles and the superficial ones of the back;
Walking with head-supported loads significantly decreases the oscillatory movements of the spine in the three planes – the spine tends to move in a more parallel plane, relative to its long axis (from back to front), while preserving its vertical lengthening response to the load. This characteristic could be one of the clues to the head-carrying feats of the Luo women (see my last column);
The subjective findings are also meaningful. Hand-carrying a 15kg weight (for example a suitcase) differs greatly from carrying the same weight on the top of the head. To carry a suitcase by hand requires more effort than to support it on the head. The latter method brings two mechanical advantages: a single axis corresponding to the gravity line of the body, and a small displacement (0.6 to 0.8% of the porter’s height);
Once you have put your hand- carried suitcase down, your arm and shoulder muscles will still feel tired; by contrast, after having carried the same weight on the head, you will experience a sensation of lightness;
After carrying your suitcase by hand you are bound to feel shortened and tired; you will feel taller after carrying it on your head;
To carry a 15kg suitcase by hand for 200m is bound to leave you short of breath, while carrying the same weight for the same distance on your head will give you a feeling of respiratory freedom.
However, the most important effect, not mentioned by Perrin, relates in my opinion to the poise of the head. The key symptom of misuse is wrong carriage of the head, with tight neck muscles and a head chronically tilted back. This incorrect head poise is itself a source of many postural ills. The beauty of carrying on the head, and its therapeutic value, come from the fact that it is impossible to perform correctly without achieving an ideal head/neck alignment.
Don’t be shy, have a go. First, mind low ceilings, make sure you have plenty of headroom, especially if you want to carry high loads, otherwise you might get stuck. If you start with your chin up and the back of your neck concave – the common malposture of the head in people living in an urban-industrialized environment – you will be tempted to place your load too far forward. Although, in theory, a load on the head is a stimulus that encourages it to find its natural poise, don’t count too much on this response to happen automatically as the spinal jack mechanism is rather rusty in most of us owing to disuse. And carrying a heavy load on the top of an ill-poised head is akin to standing on the head (sirsasana in yoga) before knowing how to stand correctly – a reckless practice. To avoid this common mistake and to give yourself a good head start, drop your nose a little before loading your head. If you want head comfort and added stability, twist and roll a cloth to intercalate between your head and the object. Don’t experiment with a fragile object – your laptop for example – or on your head be it! By now, you’ll have noticed that you cannot rush headlong with a head load – a positive thing in this age when we all seem to be running like headless chickens.
Perrin found that the maximum bearable load for an average untrained adult male is about 30kg. I think that 20% of your body weight could be an optimum load to start with. Don’t be ‘headstrong’: you certainly don’t want to put on your head the legendary last straw that could break your neck.
Carry on carrying but do use your head!
1. Perrin Roger. Rééducation vertébrale, Principes Techniques. Librairie Le François. Paris. 1979