Pull your shoulders back! Tuck your bum under! Pull yourself up straight! Bend your knees a little! Activate your stomach muscles!
What a lot of ideas we have about what good posture is and how to ‘get it’! Most of us want to feel and look good, we don’t want to be slouchers. But as we age we may find we are stooping more and more and get increasingly worried about it. The answer (reinforced by countless well meaning parents, teachers and physiotherapists) seems obvious. If we are slumping we need to stand up straight!
But who wants to spend their whole life pulling themselves into shape, applying all this effort simply to stay upright? No other creature needs to carry on like that just to support themselves! It sounds like hard work and it is hard work. Also it doesn’t work! Read on to find out why — and to discover a smarter approach to attaining effortless good posture and poise …
The Postural System and the Movement System
Science tells us that (to simplify a little) we have a movement system and a postural system, and that they work on rather different lines. We experience our movement system whenever we do something — reach out for a cup, sit stand walk or run, we are using our movement system. It tends to make use of large muscles that are close to the surface, and it is under our conscious control. Using the movement system feels like we are taking a conscious action.
We also have a postural system which is designed to keep us upright against gravity. It tends to make use of deep muscles around the spine, pelvis and head/neck to stabilise our rather precarious structure and keep us poised and vertical. These muscles are designed for the job of postural support and don’t get tired in the way the larger movement muscles do. The postural system is generally more neurologically ‘low-level’ than the movement system. Rather like breathing or digestion, much of its function is automatic.
Here’s what goes wrong
For various reasons, as we meet the pressures of modern life we gradually start to use our movement system rather than our postural system to hold ourselves upright. We are the only creature that can do this, and it’s one area where our highly developed brains, with their ability to reason, think, and interfere with things are a liability rather than an asset! Instead of letting our postural system support us as we did as young children, we start to hold ourselves up with the muscles and responses designed for movement. Whenever we try to ‘sit up straight’ or ‘pull our shoulders back’ as we believe we should, we are engaging our movement system, not our postural system! We are using the wrong system and the wrong muscles to get the results we want.
Real good posture, doesn’t mean doing more and holding ourselves rigidly in position. It means doing less. It means letting go of unnecessary muscular holding and effort so that our exquisite postural system can do its job.
As an Alexander Technique teacher my job is not to persuade people to hold themselves correctly, but to show them how to let go — to release into the delicious, relaxed, effortless support which is available to us all the time as soon as we know how to access it.
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