Posture: Getting it Straight, Part 2

A Feldenkrais perspective…

In Part 1, I presented the idea of straightening out our thinking about posture–from a model of static, effortful straightness to one that allows for free and effortless movement and responsiveness.   The key words here are thinking and model (as in a conceptual model).

So let’s try an experiment: stand up straight, pull your shoulders back, pull your belly in, lift your chest and chin toward chest (please don’t hurt yourself doing this!).  OK, now maintain this position for the next 10 minutes.  In the meantime, move around the house or office as if you were doing everyday things, playing tennis, practicing your golf swing, or any type of familiar activity for you.

What did you notice about how long you were able to maintain this position while doing other activities?  If you are like most, you slipped back into your normal, habitual posture pretty quickly.

And what about the quality of your movement? If you maintained that position as instructed, you probably noticed that your movement wasn’t very comfortable or fluid; it probably wasn’t very efficient either—lots more effort involved than actually required.

From a Feldenkrais perspective, “good” posture is first and foremost, dynamic—it is not a fixed stance or position.  Rather, it is the ability to respond to the ever-changing environment, needs and opportunities that we face daily as human beings, with flexibility, efficiency, and ease—and with a level of effort that is appropriate to the situation.   But how do we achieve “good” posture?

Earlier, I stated that posture has something to do with thinking, with the mental models that we each hold about how we should stand, sit, move, and so forth. Perhaps you were given images or instructions by your parents, or by a role model, or your peers growing up.  We can pick up these images anywhere.

If you are a parent, you might remember marveling at the naturally perfect posture that your young child spontaneously developed, without any instructions.  Infants haven’t yet been given mental models or external ideals to achieve.  No instructions about how to crawl, stand, sit and walk.  As infants we learn to do these things through direct experience and experimentation with gravity and with objects in the world.

As we grow older, the external models or instructions accumulate, often undercutting our nervous system’s natural ability to learn and adapt.  Instead of a dynamic, responsive state of uprightness, we force ourselves, often unconsciously, into rigid positions that over time become our habitual “posture.”

From a Feldenkrais perspective, the key to improving posture is to cut through our habitual (i.e., unconscious) patterns with awareness.  Through slow and gentle movement sequences taught either in classes or in one-on-one sessions accompanied by a gentle touch, we become much more aware of our movements, the level of effort that we exert, and subsequently, to the external models that we have been operating from that actually form our posture and movement repertoire.  Feldenkrais practitioners don’t provide external models or show someone how to stand, sit or walk.  Instead, they help individuals to unlearn and relearn what it really means to move easily and without effort.

As this new awareness seeps in (called learning), our habitual patterns begin to dissolve—along with many of the byproducts of these patterns, such as reduced mobility, chronic pain, and overuse/repetitive stress symptoms, and our body naturally begins to align and balance itself in new ways.  “Good” posture emerges as a byproduct of this fluid awareness in movement, rather than something to be achieved through effortful striving toward external ideals.

Posture: Getting it Straight, Part 1

A Feldenkrais perspective…

How many times have you been told to stand up straight?  Don’t slouch.  Pull in your gut.  Lift your chin.   Most of us have grown up hearing some version of these instructions.

Although we have an idea that good posture has something to do with standing (or sitting) up straight, very few people actually understand what good posture is from a functional perspective.   What does “good” posture allow us to do—or to do better than “bad” posture, and what actually is “good” posture?

This two part blog is devoted to getting straight our beliefs and assumptions about good posture, and how to “do it.”

Let’s start with a brief retrospective: The Riddle of the Sphinx dates back to about 2,500 years ago.  It is said that the Sphinx guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes, and would only grant entry to one who correctly answered the riddle, “Which creature in the morning goes upon four legs, at mid-day upon two, and in the evening upon three?”   The correct answer (given by Oedipus, the story goes) was “Man—who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult, and then walks with a cane in old age.”

This riddle describes the postural changes of man.  It suggests that to grow old is to become crippled.   Many today also associate growing older with a long list of physical ailments including stiffness, tightness, difficulty moving, and chronic pain.  This is a long-held assumption to be sure, but one that isn’t necessarily true.

And then there is the Brace Position, the classic posture long promoted by the military, characterized by a ramrod straight spine, pulling back the shoulders, sticking out the chest, sucking in the gut, arms held by the sides.  Although it was abandoned some 40 years or so ago by the military, this ramrod straight stance still remains for many the most enduring model of “good” posture.

As the military research showed (and Feldenkrais practitioners see every day), a ramrod straight posture is actually the culprit of all sorts of chronic and painful conditions. This flattened, straight and rigidly held spine creates tension and pain in the neck, jaw, upper and lower back, as it goes against the natural curvature of the spine which is so fundamental to good function and musculoskeletal health.

When we are not “fighting with gravity,” our skeleton is able to support us effortlessly, we have full range of motion, our breathing can be full and deep, and our overall health and well-being is naturally supported.

So with all of these benefits, why is it that good posture is so elusive for so many? In the next part of this blog, we’ll explore some of the common pitfalls that hinder our attempts at good posture. We’ll also look at some specific actions that we can take to achieve a truly functional and dynamic posture.

Kathy James is a Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner, in private practice in Petaluma.

This post originally appeared in under Alternative Health.