Month: July 2013

Posture focus and ping pong is a win-win combination

An explosive sport with everyday applications

Many people in the US think of ping-pong as a somewhat lackadaisical sport, but it’s actually a very active game that requires a great deal of fine motor control, hand-eye coordination, and athleticism. It takes explosive power, in addition to strength and flexibility, to get to the ball in time. In fact, one of the benefits of playing table tennis is that it allows you to develop an explosive power that is helpful for building bones and strengthening muscles.

Professional table-tennis player Timo Boll, below left, illustrates these truths. His form is superb. Not only are his legs externally rotated, but he’s doing a perfect hip-hinge, his shoulders are back and low, and his left wrist is in good alignment. The pivot of his head on his neck, which enables him to look up without scrunching cervical vertebrae, also serves him well.

German table tennis players Timo Boll and Christian Suss are laser-focused on the ball

German table tennis players Timo Boll and Christian Suss are laser-focused on the ball

If, after studying this photo, you still have any doubts about ping pong being an exciting and athletic sport, take a look at at this video billed as “one of the best table tennis points ever.”

Clearly, table tennis isn’t just about standing close to the table and hitting one kind of shot. The game is all about swiftness, power, balance, coordination, precision, and stamina–and healthy posture is a driver for all of these things.

Posture and sustained use of healthy limbs

While our focus here is table-tennis readiness and using posture to improve play, ping-pong posture pointers can be extrapolated to everyday uses of the shoulders and arms—for example, when driving, typing, or washing dishes.

Woman_Pauses_At_Laptop_Kirill Kedrinski_Flickr_PhotoPSharing

While the precision and explosive power required to play table tennis are less relevant to most routine activities, underlying posture fundamentals apply, especially those pertaining to the healthy positioning of the shoulders and arms. This is because when the shoulders aren’t drawn into a hunch, when the nerves that arise in the thoracic spine are not impinged, when there’s no tightening of the pectoral muscles, and when natural movement in the opened-up chest is free to provide a natural massage, breathing and circulation are improved.


Ping pong and posture is not just a sports story. It’s a story about the sustained use and continued health of the limbs–enabling the limbs to  do their everyday thing long-term.

Table tennis is my game

Childhood play

When I was about eight, my Indian father taught me to play table tennis at one of the two tables at the Breach Candy swimming pool in Bombay. Ping pong was popular in India when I was growing up, and I played quite a lot, mostly at school. Over time, I developed what was thought to be a mean backhand, but I did this without developing any sort of forehand. While the standards for play weren’t as high as they were in East Asia or Sweden, I participated in tournaments of middling quality, and had some success.

Ping pong paddle with badminton shuttlecock in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I learned to play table tennis

Ping pong paddle with badminton shuttlecock in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I learned to play table tennis

Later, as a high-school-senior exchange-student in New Jersey, I won a local table tennis tournament in what, again, may have been a tournament of questionable competitive caliber.

Still, by local standards of that time, I had a pretty wicked backhand, together with a winning record. All this without having yet developed a good forehand.

A ping-pong courtship

I was a freshman at Harvard when I met my husband Brian over a ping pong table in Princeton’s “Debasement,” now called the D-Bar. I was visiting my then-boyfriend, a very discerning person, who shared my view that Brian was a very likable fellow.

What first struck Brian about me was that I was an authentic person. And what struck me about Brian was that he was beatable at table tennis! Actually, what struck me even more was that my handily beating him at ping pong didn’t bother him. Whereas some guys’ enthusiasm for playing would be dampened by regularly losing to a woman, Brian remained engaged, alert, and dedicated to improving his game. Accepting of pulling up from behind, he worked his way to the point where he handily beats me now, as he has for some time.

My husband and I met playing table tennis

My husband and I met playing table tennis

Stories abound about how Hillary met Bill

Stories abound about how Hillary met Bill

Ping pong courtships are dynamic!

Ping pong courtships are dynamic!

Table tennis hiatus, then a family of players

After Brian and I married and had kids, there was quite a long stretch where table tennis was no longer a part of our lives. Then, about 10 years ago, we purchased a table and ping pong became a family game.

The kids are mostly out of the house now, but Brian and I play frequently, sometimes as often as several times a day. This is in part because the table is usually parked right in the center of our living room. While this is somewhat unusual decor, it aligns with our priorities. And when the living room is required for other activities we either move the folded table to the side, or outside on the patio (it’s an outdoor table).

Plucking up paddles and playing a quick game of ping pong is one of the ways Brian and I take pick-me-up breaks. Because we talk when we play, it’s also an opportunity for us to visit together.

Voila!–a forehand!

When Brian and I first met and began to play in 1977 I was not yet focused on posture. But when, after about 20 years, we resumed play, I was very surprised to discover that in the complete absence of playing I had developed an effective forehand! I attribute this “gift” to my (at that time) 5-year commitment to healthy posture. My body may have been older, but its essential architecture was much healthier, which meant that more than ever I was poised to play a more complete game.

The posture-sport connection

Improving at ping pong in the absence of playing really interests me, in part because it prompts the impulse to connect the dots between posture improvement and improvement in sports–not just table tennis, but any number of athletic activities, whether this be fly fishing, cycling, tennis, or golf.

Poised to play

Because healthy posture provides mechanical, physiological, and even psychological advantage, focusing on posture while engaged in sport makes good sense. After all, the body is an intricate system involving not only the bones, the joints, and the muscles of the mechanical system–the “pulleys and levers”–but the complex physiology of circulation and innervation, together with sports psychology and sports performance anxiety. In table tennis–as with every sport–anatomy, physiology, psychology–and posture–are intricately entwined.

Anchoring strokes to posture points

When I play table tennis I put my “body-as-human-machine” at mechanical advantage by focusing on key elements of my posture. Doing so helps all aspects of my physical game, including my oft-used backhand, my ever-improving forehand, and my ability to rally. (Posture-focus also serves me psychologically and emotionally, but more about these aspects of play in just a bit.)

A ready position and a posture-focused state of mind

Before any game and between rallies (but not between strokes), I focus my attention on:
  • Lengthening my neck
  • Depressing and pulling back my shoulders
  • Anchoring my ribs
  • Hinging at my hip joints
  • Keeping my behind behind me
  • Externally rotating my legs and “kidney-bean”-shaping my feet
While visualizing and executing these posture points once required a conscious effort, focusing on them now has become a natural part of my game.
Neck and shoulders. The ping-pong posture habits most helpful to me may be super-correcting when pulling back and lowering my shoulders, and lengthening my neck with extra muscular force. I exaggerate simply because doing so makes my swings more effective. Optimally positioning my shoulders helps with my range of motion, my power, and precision. It also helps prevent injury of my shoulder joints, joints that have craggy, complex interfaces, and are vulnerable to inflammation and wear and tear.

Ribs and hips. When playing table tennis, I’m also aware of rib-anchoring and hip-hinging. Keep in mind that most of the posture-tracking I do happens between games, or between rallies. It’s too much to consciously focus on posture points during active play.

Buttocks, legs, and feet. Pouncing in ping pong is essential and fun. In order to do this well, I remind myself to keep my behind behind me. Neglect this posture point, and my ability to speedily reach the ball on less than a moment’s notice will be compromised. And, although the leg and buttock muscles do the bulk of the work in table tennis, having the feet turned out and shaped like kidney-beans also helps with speed and power.

Backhand, forehand, and rally


It is in the nature of the game to get more backhand than forehand practice, and this is especially true when I stay in one spot. When preparing for backhand strokes, I think about my shoulders staying down and and my neck going tall in a slightly exaggerated way.


Despite marked and continuing improvement, I still feel a bit disconnected from my forehand and am sometimes surprised when a shot that comes off my paddle actually lands on the table! But, because of the posture work I’ve done and because my shoulders are now “closer to home,” I now have a bigger range of motion and a more precise stroke. I suspect that shoulder positioning was at least part of the missing piece that prevented me from predictably hitting smooth forehand shots in days gone by.

Posture focus as an antidote to performance anxiety

If there’s any kind of emotional flutter when I play table tennis, focusing on posture takes the worries out of my head and places them into the act of play. A posture-point review offers sufficient material to displace anxiety; there is no longer any room for it.

Similarly, because table tennis is so quick and labile, so sensitive to little fluctuations in the psyche, it’s counterproductive to think, “Oh I’m really going to smash that ball!” To do so is to pretty much ensure that the ball goes flying off the table.

Bottom line? Focusing on posture is an instrument for greater mindfulness. By making myself fully available to the physical reality of a ball coming at me, sports-performance anxiety–all anxiety–is displaced. Anchoring posture habits to particular aspects of play helps both the physical and emotional components of my game.

Forrest Gump rallies

In the following video clip, Forrest Gump faces the (un)reality of an approaching ping pong ball…the “movie magic” that underlies actor Tom Hanks’ game is enlightening, but not so much his style of play. While it’s obvious Tom is a limber and athletic fellow, his ping-pong posture could be improved. Because he raises and pulls forward his shoulders with almost every stroke, his “pecs,” “traps,” and shoulder joints take a heavy toll.

Of course Forrest Gump is a character who would never complain of pain. But he does point to his shoulder and observe that play was exhausting. Here’s a suggestion, Forrest: One shoulder at a time – a little forward, a little up, and a lot back!

Brian and I rally

Finally, without the benefit of “movie magic,” my husband and I briefly rally to close out this post.

Of course our game is a work in progress–as are we! This is part of what makes applying posture points to a sport like table tennis so much fun.

Image Credits:
Timo Boll and Christian Suss, Creative Commons
Woman with Laptop, Kirill Kedrinkski, Flickr PhotoSharing
Brazilian Woman Washing Dishes, Christian De Vries, Flickr PhotoSharing
Mumbai Street Ping Pong, Roshan Pajwani, Flickr PhotoSharing
A Game At Which Both Win, 痞客邦 PIXNET 留言(0) 引用(0) 人氣
Bill and Hillary Clinton Play Ping Pong, Blazing Paddles, Larry Hodges
Ping Pong Courtships, JCC Youth Conference, 1947, Flickr PhotoSharing
Ping Pong Videos, Gokhale Method Institute


Pregnancy and back pain

I’m reaching out to pregnant women today, because I’ve been reflecting on a clinical study that captures the scope of the problem of lower back (lumbar) pain in expectant mothers and because I have all too vivid memories of how lower back and sciatic pain affected me when I was nine-months pregnant with my first child. This crippling pain continued for a year, at which point I had back surgery that provided only temporary relief. This painful chapter in my life is what started me on my path to understanding the causes and treatments for back pain.

Lower back pain and pregnancy–it’s a problem!

Jozsef_Rippi-Ronai_Female_Back_NudeIf you’re pregnant and have lower back pain, you’re not alone.

A 2004 study (Low back pain during pregnancy: prevalence, risk factors, and outcomes) published by Yale researchers in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology found that nearly 70% of the 645 pregnant women responding to a 36-question survey reported lower back pain during their current pregnancy.

The researchers also found that:

  • Pregnant women who have experienced lower back pain prior to their current pregnancy (e.g., during their periods, during a previous pregnancy, prior to ever becoming pregnant) are particularly susceptible to lower back pain
  • Lower back pain disturbed the sleep of 58% of study respondents
  • Lower back pain negatively impacted the daily lives of 57% of the women surveyed
  • Two-thirds of women surveyed in this study did not share back-pain problems with their pre-natal caregivers and–if and when they did–only one-quarter of  these caregivers recommended any kind of treatment

Because I know that lower back pain in pregnancy is a manageable and in most instances a preventable problem, it’s of course best if women who plan to become pregnant prepare their bodies for the dramatic physical, musculoskeletal, and hormonal changes that lie ahead. This, as the study confirms, is especially important for women with a history of back pain.

But because so many expectant mothers are–at this very minute!–experiencing lower back pain and, in many instances, not seeking or receiving help, this is the topic I’ll focus on now.

The lumbar spine is the region of the spine between the rib cage and the pelvis

The lumbar spine is the region of the spine between the rib cage and the pelvis

Body stressors during pregnancy

I’ll start by stating the obvious: During pregnancy a woman’s body undergoes a number of changes, many that are inherently stressful. These of course include:

  • Extra weight
  • A shift in the center of gravity
  • The impact of of the hormone relaxin on ligaments

If, as we consider the lumbar region of the body, we reference the very pregnant Mandy in the photo just below, we can begin to imagine why lower back pain can be a problem for some 7o% of expectant mothers.

Mandy at 39 weeks + 4 days

Mandy at 39 weeks + 4 days

By allowing the weight in her expanded belly to pull her lumbar spine into an exaggerated arch, Mandy is shifting her center of gravity forward, with the result that not only is there too much arch in her spine, there’s too much weight on the front of her feet. To counter the arching of her spine and to lengthen and flatten the lumbar region, Mandy would need to use her internal oblique muscles to rotate her ribcage forward. This action, which is vital to proper alignment of the spine and good posture, is what I call “anchoring” the ribs. (Rib anchoring is discussed in greater detail and demonstrated in the video, below.)

What’s healthy about Mandy’s posture is that she is anteverting, or tilting forward, her pelvis. An anteverted pelvis helps prevent lower back pain because it allows for a natural stacking of the vertebrae, as well as a healthy alignment of the spine over the legs.

Extra weight

Anatomy-of-Human-Gravid-Uterus-Exhibited-in-Figures-by-WilliamHunter01Where Does the Extra Weight Go During Pregnancy? (WebMD helpfully breaks this down.)

  • Baby: 8 pounds
  • Placenta: 2-3 pounds
  • Amniotic fluid: 2-3 pounds
  • Breast tissue: 2-3 pounds
  • Blood supply: 4 pounds
  • Larger uterus: 2-5 pounds
  • Stored fat for delivery and breastfeeding: 5-9 pounds

   Total: 25-35 pounds

Extra weight and foot structure. I’ve know for a long time that weight gain from pregnancy (in concert with the effects of the hormone relaxin) impact the feet and can increase a woman’s shoe size by half a size or more, so it was interesting to review results of a study published in the March 2013 issue of the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. The study, Pregnancy leads to lasting changes in foot structure, reports that for 60% to 70% of the 49 participants, their feet became longer and wider and, on average, the height and rigidity of their arches significantly decreased. Study authors also observed that the loss of arch height seems to be permanent, and that the first pregnancy may have the most significant impact on the feet.

Center of gravity

Ecuadorian_Figure_of_a_Pregnant_Woman_-_Walters_Art_MuseumWith pregnancy comes a shift in the center of gravity that can be compensated for with good movement patterns and by engaging the internal oblique muscles, which run along the side of the abdomen at about the level of the waist. These muscles can be used to flex the thorax forward and prevent the lower back from arching.  (The thorax is the part of the body between between the neck and the abdomen.)

By rotating the ribcage forward and, once again, lengthening and flattening the lower back to “anchor” the ribs, even women well advanced in their pregnancy can maintain a comfortable center of gravity.

Shifting the weight back solidly on the heels is also a good thing, because it counters distortion in alignment, while also offering the advantage of not overspreading the feet, which can result in loss of structure.


Pregnant women need to take especially good care of their ligaments because the hormone relaxin, which is produced by the ovaries and the placenta and which helps prepare the expectant mother’s pelvis for delivery, also works to remodel other soft tissues, cartilage, and ligaments in the body. As a result, pregnant women are at risk of losing structure–for example (and as described above), in the feet.

Gokhale Method teacher Janine hiphinges in Chicago

Gokhale Method teacher Janine hiphinges in Chicago

Lower back pain and pregnancy–some solutions!

Authors of the “Low back pain in pregnancy” study, cited above, also make the point that lower back pain can start at any point during pregnancy. This means that whether a woman is one-month pregnant or on the cusp of giving birth, she may be experiencing pain in her lower back pain–pain the Gokhale Method helps address.

The good news is that by making adjustments women at every stage of pregnancy can prevent lower back pain from occurring, or–if pain is already an issue–take real steps to manage this pain.

Six tips

  1. Anchor your ribs
  2. Engage your inner corset
  3. Hinge your hips when you bend
  4. Stack your weight over your heels
  5. Engage your gluteus medias muscles when you walk
  6. Stretchlie on your side with supportive pillow

While the suggestions I outline in this post can begin to make a difference, much more can be gained from enrolling in the Gokhale Method Foundations Course, watching the DVD Back Pain: The Primal Posture Solution, and reading (and repeatedly referencing) 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. (‘Where to learn more’ details are provided at the bottom of this post.)

1. Anchor your ribs

With regard to the rib anchor, it’s important to know that the ever-growing baby is potentially pulling the mother’s back into an arch. An expectant mother who gives in to this pull will be increasingly swaying her back, which can cause lower back pain and other problems.

Anchoring the ribs involves keeping the lower border of the rib cage flush with the abdomen. This lengthens the back and helps to frame and lengthen the . By engaging  as the baby gets bigger, the expectant mother not only reduces the risk for lower back pain, she also gets very valuable abdominal muscle exercise during pregnancy. This not only negates the problem of lower back pain, it makes pregnancy an opportunity to strengthen abdominal muscles, rather than a liability to lose muscle tone.

Keeping abdominal muscles nicely toned before during and after pregnancy perhaps even more ties in with engaging the inner corset, which is at the core of Tip Number 2.


2. Engage your inner corset 

Anchoring the ribs and periodically engaging the inner corset–that is, contracting the deep muscles in the abdomen and back to lengthen and support the spine–is the ticket to well-toned abdominal muscles before, during, and after pregnancy. No matter how pregnant a woman is, these muscles can be entirely engaged, which is especially beneficial, given that the usual abdominal exercises–for example, lying on the back and doing crunches–are not recommended.

© Gokhale Method

© Gokhale Method

Inner-corset muscles should not be engaged all the time, however. Instead, pregnant women (and everyone else!) will benefit from contracting deep back and abdominal muscles, off and on, over the course of the day.

3. Hinge your hips when you bend

Everybody needs to hip-hinge when they bend, but this is especially important for pregnant women. This is because lowering the body by bending with the knees and curving the back (as is so common in our culture) puts added stress on the spinal discs at a time when the discs are already being challenged by the additional weight of the pregnancy.  Keep in mind that the front of each disc in the curve being formed when the back is bent is compressed, pushing the contents of the discs backward, toward the spinal nerves. All authorities agree that this is a risky direction to distort the spine.

The features of hip-hinging especially important for pregnant women are to get the legs externally rotated and set apart in a wide stance, so that when they hinge forward, there’s room for the belly to settle between the legs. In other words, the legs have to be out of the way, so that the belly can settle between them. If the the knees are not externally rotated, but facing in, then the thighbones will interfere with the torso settling.

Gokhale Method teacher Janine hiphinges in Chicago

Gokhale Method teacher Janine hiphinges in Chicago

Because so much bending is involved in motherhood, a very good time to master hiphinging is before and during pregnancy. Doing so will prepare the expectant mother for all the bending that is to come.

4. Stack your weight over your heels

Positioning the pelvis so that it’s slightly tipped forward (anteverted) allows for a natural stacking of vertebrae without muscle strain. Vertebral stacking is important for everyone, but a for a pregnant woman carrying extra weight and with an altered center of gravity, it’s really essential.

Not only does healthy stacking yield good posture that leaves spinal discs decompressed, it also protects ligamental integrity. Ligaments already loosened by the hormone relaxin are less likely to be taxed when bones are correctly stacked. This will also help protect the feet, which–as noted above–are at risk of losing structure.

5. Engage your gluteus medias muscles when you walk

Engaging the gluteus medius, the muscle located in the upper, outer quadrant of each buttock, helps prevent lower back pain

Engaging the gluteus medius, the muscle located in the upper, outer quadrant of each buttock, helps prevent lower back pain

Our “glutes,” or buttocks, are made up of three major muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. Located in the upper, outer quadrant of the buttocks, the gluteus medius is the “middle” muscle, the one that moves the leg to the side and rotates the thigh.

Gluteus medius weakness–a study. Because engagement of the gluteus medius plays such an essential role in a healthy kind of walking I have dubbed ‘glidewalking,’ and because this muscle also plays an essential role in healthy, pain-free posture, I was very interested to learn that researchers at the University of Iowa Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation conducted a study that found a strong correlation between lower back pain in pregnant women and weakness of the gluteus medius.

Specifically their 2009 pilot study, Association between gluteus medias weakness and low back pain during pregnancy, found that “pregnant women with gluteus medius weakness were roughly 6 to 8 times more likely to have low back pain than those without weakness.” The findings confirm what I have long known from my own research and practice–that strengthening and regularly engaging the gluteus medius is really key.

6. Stretchlie on your side with supportive pillow

Stretchlying on the side–that is, lying with a lengthened back, anteverted pelvis, and knees slightly bent–represents an opportunity to restore healthy architecture during sleep and reinforce the neural pathways that will help create muscle memory for a healthy J-shaped spine (as opposed to a curved C-shaped spine or an over-arched S-shaped spine). Not only does stretchling on the side decompress discs and improve circulation when the expectant mother is at rest or asleep, it also helps create muscle memory for an anterverted pelvis and lengthened spine when she’s up and about. For women unaccustomed to what good posture feels like, healthy muscle memory can be hugely helpful.

Because the extra weight in the belly tends to pull the expectant mother’s spine out of alignment, tucking a soft pillow in under the belly will help her resist the pull of gravity and maintain a neutral position. During pregnancy, anything that spares pull on the skin, muscles, flesh, ligaments, and spine, is a very good thing.

When pregnant and stretchlying on the side, it's important to tuck a soft pill in under the belly

When pregnant and stretchlying on the side, it’s important to tuck a soft pill in under the belly

Model this!

Pregnant women experiencing lower back pain might help themselves by taking posture cues from this illustration:

This very pregnant figure models very nearly perfect posture

This very pregnant figure models very nearly perfect posture

The image above captures very nice pregnant posture. The woman’s back is not significantly arched, her spine is more or less J-shaped, and her shoulders are rolled back.

Where to learn more?

Maternity_Curves_Sean_McGrathThe six-session Gokhale Method Foundations Course helps people, including pregnant women, improve their structure and function as they engage in everyday activities. 

While my book,  8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, is most helpful when it’s read in its entirety, the following pages expand on the tips outlined in this post:

  • Rib Anchor: 39, 84, 140, 198
  • Inner Corset: 110,-127, 144, 153, 162-163, 190
  • Hiphinging: 150-167
  • Stack your weight over your heels:46-47, 138, 142
  • Engage gluteus medius muscles when you walk: 168-194
  • Stretchlie on your side with supportive pillow: 94-109

The DVD Back Pain: The Primal Posture Solution also features relevant training, including segments on:

  • Stretchsitting: Use the back of your chair to decompress your spinal discs and transform sitting into a healthy, therapeutic activity
  • Inner Corset: Learn to engage your deep back and abdominal muscles to protect your spine
  • Hip-hinging: Protect your spine and knees by learning to bend at the hips
  • Stacksitting: Learn how to sit anywhere without slouching, pain or tension
  • Tallstanding: Stack your bones well and prevent wear and tear
  • Stretchlying: Decompress your spinal discs and nerves while you sleep
  • Glidewalking: Learn to walk in a controlled series of forward propulsions that spares the joints

Image Credits:
The Happy Mother, Johann Anton de Peters, Wikimedia Commons
Lumbar Region of the Human Skeleton, Wikimedia Commons
Female Back Nude, Jozsef Rippi-Ronai, public domain
Mandy at 39 weeks + 4 days, Danielle deLeon, Wikimedia Commons
Janine hip hinging, Courtesy of Janine Farzan, Chicago
Equadorian figure of a pregnant woman, Wikimedia Commons
Pregnant woman seated on bench, Peter va der Sluijs, Wikimedia Commons
Gokhale Moment, Rib Anchor, © Gokhale Method
Gluteus Medius, Creative Commons
Model Maria Pesotskaya resting on her side, Anna Kosali, Wikimedia Commons
Pregnant Woman Facing Right, public domain