Thoughts about posture

Pull your shoulders back! Tuck your bum under! Pull yourself up straight! Hold your palms forward! Bend your knees a little! Activate your stomach muscles!  

I’m always surprised and a little concerned at how many new pupils who come through my door have at one time or another been given a lengthy list of instructions about how they should be holding themselves in order to have ‘good posture’. Whether it is from their doctor or physiotherapist, pilates or yoga teacher or some other practitioner, many people have a lot of very strong beliefs about different ways they need to tense their muscles in order to take care of themselves and prevent or cure back-pain and other musculo-skeletal complaints. The irony is that in spite of trying very hard to put these beliefs into practice—sometimes over many years—they often turn up completely out of alignment and in considerable pain! 

I have nothing against pilates or yoga which if taught well can be wonderful, but I do question the things that a lot of people are being taught about what good posture is and how they can acquire it. I question whether the advice that is being given for people to 'hold' themselves in a certain way using muscular tension as they go about their lives is really in their best interest.

Put simply, we have two types of muscles which enable us to move while maintaining ourselves upright against gravity—the postural muscles which support us against gravity, and the phasic muscles which we use for activity. Postural muscles are deeper and react more slowly than phasic muscles, but they don’t get tired. Because the phasic muscles are for movement and activity they are the ones which are most directly under our conscious control, and which tend to react when we think of ‘doing’ something. When someone follows an instruction to “pull their shoulders back” or “tuck their pelvis under”, it is primarily the phasic muscles which will respond. What the person is actually doing is using their phasic muscles to do the job of the postural muscles! They are literally holding themselves together and supporting themselves against gravity using the gross motor-muscles which are designed for movement. As a result these muscles end up permanently tensed and rigid rather than being free and ready for action. We lose spontaneity and freedom in activity, and the whole organism becomes contracted putting it under a great deal of stress, because muscles do work by shortening. Also, as we have seen, our phasic muscles quickly get tired, so often people find they are getting worn out by their attempts to sit or stand in the way they have been told. The result it that they alternate between periods of tense and unnatural ‘posture’ held together by excessive muscular tension followed by periods of collapse once they are no longer able to keep this effort up. Neither of these extremes is good for us!

This all sounds quite exhausting and it is not sensible. No other creature seems to need to be doing all this ‘stuff’ in order to enjoy good posture and co-ordination. A cat does not need to be told to go around thinking about holding it’s back or paws in a certain way, and yet it can leap with a skill and grace that is way beyond what most humans ever achieve. What we need in our everyday life is to be is more like the freedom loving cat than the over-controlling pilates student! Rather than seeking to hold ourselves in a certain way we need to learn to let go of our tendency to hold ourselves together and upright with our phasic muscles so that the deeper postural muscles together with the system of reflexes which controls them are free to do their job.  We then find we are not supporting ourselves: rather we are supported. Everything flows.

In this state the word ‘posture’ becomes redundant. It's a word that has come to imply a fixed held position that is ‘right’, but is that really how we are supposed to be? Is there really one ‘right’, rigid position for sitting and standing? I suggest that there is not. When everything is working as it should we are dynamic beings and our alignment and position in space is ever changing. We are not locked into place but instead—whether we are acting or at rest—there is a continual and subtle shifting going on as our reflex balance mechanism adjusts perfectly to where we are, how gravity is affecting is, and our intentions for action. Posture then becomes a journey. Instead of focussing on positions we focus on how we arrive in positions and how we move out of them. When we move well and in balance we can’t help but arrive in a co-ordinated, balanced, and dynamic place when we come to rest. There is no 'right way'. There is only the way that is appropriate in each moment. Alexander Technique lessons are a place where we can find out how to move towards this place of freedom, balance and poise.