How to Become Physically Graceful

Channel your inner swan by doing these simple exercises to improve your balance, alignment and flexibility

by Beth Levine
Photograph: Ratikova/Shutterstock.comswan

Do you remember how effortlessly you moved around when you were a kid? That ease tends to fade as we get older. Your body gets tight, your shoulders schlump and you navigate the world more timidly. Is it possible to recapture that gracefulness? Yes, says Caroline Kohles, a New York City teacher trainer of Nia, a form of movement that draws from martial arts, dance and healing arts. “Grace is a choice open to everyone,” she says. Below, the four components to work on.

BALANCE

“If you have poor balance, you tend to protect yourself by restricting your movements. With better balance, you can move with more confidence,” says Lindsay Newitter, an Alexander Technique teacher. This gentle technique is a great way to improve your body mechanics. Go to amsatonline.org to find a practitioner.

Test Yourself: Stand tall and lift one foot, holding for as long as you can without wiggling for up to 30 seconds. Then repeat on the other side. “If at any point you rock side to side, you need to work on your balance,” says Kohles.

How to Improve: Good balance calls for strong core muscles – the muscles around your trunk and pelvis. Crunches, planks and Pilates exercises are particularly good for this. And practice those one-legged stands daily.

ALIGNMENT

Correct posture means that muscles, bones and joints are stacked up properly whether you are moving or at rest. “Like any form of architecture, the body is designed to function in a certain way. If we sink on one side, the effect is the same as with a building that starts to settle. The frame can’t withstand that,” says Kohles. Poor alignment makes you appear awkward and also puts you at risk for joint injury.

Test Yourself: Look at yourself sideways in a mirror: Are your shoulders slumped? Are you leaning back? Is your tush pushed too far forward? Does your spine make an exaggerated “S” shape? Any “yes” answer means your alignment is off.

How to Improve: Most people try to stand up straight by throwing their shoulders back and lifting their chins, which makes them look as if they’ve enlisted in the National Guard. Instead, think of rising from the top of your head (touch it first so you can sense where it is). This will automatically pull the rest of your frame into alignment.

RANGE OF MOTION

“If you have limited flexibility, you may over-compensate by favoring your stronger muscles, which will affect other joints,” warns Patrice Winter, PT, DPT, who teaches rehabilitation science at George Mason University and is a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association.

Test Yourself: Try this upper-back and chest test. Lying on your back, with your legs out straight, raise your arms so they are perpendicular to the floor. Then lower your arms behind you, trying to touch the floor with your hands. If your hands don’t reach the floor, your flexibility needs work.

How to Improve: For a general all-over stretch, start by lying flat on your back. Lift your arms over your head toward the floor and extend your arms and legs from the body. Next, bring your knees to your chest, wrapping your arms around them. Circle your knees clockwise and then counterclockwise. Finally, do a spinal twist by moving your knees over to one side and at the same time move your head in the opposite direction. Hold for 15-30 seconds and reverse.

FLUIDITY

To move with grace means that when you go from point A to B, “you are smooth and confident, and you know where you are in every movement,” says Winter.

Test Yourself: You should be able to stop and hold at any part of a movement. Can you, for example, sit down and get up without using your hands or rocking to get momentum? “Grace is not plopping,” Winter says.

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