“Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right.” -F.M. Alexander.
Most people I know would like to have better posture and be able to move through their day with less tension, aches, and pains. Yet very often, the ideas they are using in order to do this are not particularly helpful. When I work with clients, the early stages of helping them improve their movement quality and comfort often involve discussing and exploring their current ideas about how they should sit, stand, and move around in general. Here are my thoughts on a few of the most common misunderstandings and traps that people fall into that are in most cases neither true nor useful.
1. Trying to be ‘straight.’ Most of us have been told this by parents, teachers, or even doctors and other practitioners at some point in our life. It’s well-intentioned advice, but anyone who has ever tried using it probably knows that in practice it isn’t very sustainable. You may feel better for a few moments, but if you check in on yourself 10 minutes later, chances are you will be back to whatever coordination you were in before you tried to be straight. Or you may find you fatigue quickly, so you give up after a few minutes.
This isn’t surprising, since we humans are not straight. Our spine has several large curves in it that need to be there in order for us to be functioning well, so already this idea of straight is working against the reality of your architecture. What people usually do when they try to sit or stand up straight actually exaggerates some of these curves and flattens others, and involves a lot of stiffening and excess tension that comes from trying to hold yourself in a certain position. The general goal of this idea is usually to counteract the tendency that many of us have to slump and slouch. But there other ways of preventing this tendency that don’t involve going too far in the opposite direction, bracing ourselves with rigid positions.
Try putting aside the idea of straight for a while and replacing it with thoughts and ideas of lengthening up from the ground or chair, or expanding up into your full stature, being poised and ready to move, or meeting the world at eye level with your gaze. These changes in language and thinking may seem trivial, but the words and ideas we use to direct our coordination profoundly effect the conditions present in our body. Or do they? Try it yourself for a while and find out.
2. Trying to relax. This is kind of the opposite of the straight idea, and for most people their attempts at having more comfort and better posture go back and forth between these two extremes. Rarely do people find the happy medium of a balanced, poised relationship with gravity. The idea of relaxation can be a bit misleading because it makes it sound as if tension is the enemy, and that we need to get rid of all the tension in our bodies. But if you totally relaxed right now, you would end up in a heap on the ground. We need tension, the question is how is it distributed throughout your body as you move around during your day.
The main problem with the idea of relaxation is that usually when people do what they think of as relaxing, they collapse down and compress themselves. It may give a feeling of relief in certain areas where you do hold excess tension, but usually the overall effect on a person’s posture is not a constructive one. Because the idea of relaxation has no direction attached to it, the default direction your body goes will be dictated by gravity, and you will go down. This is not what you want, since our movement system has evolved over millions of years to lengthen up as we move, not shorten and collapse down. When you combine this downward pull of gravity with the fact that we have a very large, heavy head precariously balanced on top of a delicate spine, this is not a good combination. The head and shoulders become dead weights and start dragging you further down.
Try reframing this idea of relaxation and think of relaxing up instead, from your feet or chair all the way up your back to the top of your head. The ‘up’ component here is crucial. This way you can undo some of that excess tension that most of us carry, but without shortening your spine and collapsing in on yourself. You can learn to practice the easy upright posture that our body is capable of, but without all the stiffness that usually comes when people try to sit or stand up straight or hold a certain position.
3. Holding your shoulders back. This is a complex one, since your shoulder girdle is a pretty complex area. This idea is often used to counteract the common tendency of slumping forward or ’rounded shoulders.’ It seems like a good idea because it breaks this pattern of slumping forward, and gives a feeling and look of openness across the front of the chest. But is this a good thing?
This organization that seem like space or openness is usually overstretch, where the muscles on the front of the chest are held beyond their optimum resting length. The only way for them to be held there is by tightening and holding muscles on the back of your torso. So this idea of keeping your shoulders back or back and down often goes way too far in the opposite direction. If you look at yourself in a mirror when you do this you might like what you see, but what effect is this idea having on the opposite side?
Generally we are much less aware of our back than our front for a lot of reasons. We usually don’t see our back in mirrors, and due to the shape of our ribcage and the way clothing hangs on it, we get a lot more tactile feedback from our clothing across the the front of our torso. This makes it possible for people to notice and like this apparent openness on the front, while not being aware of the flip side of this which is almost always a lot of unnecessary tightening and holding in your neck and upper back.
We want to find a more neutral place for our shoulder girdle, where they aren’t rolled way forward, but aren’t pulled too far back in the opposite direction. Where they are gently floating on the ribcage, and suspended from above by your head. This is a tricky balance to figure out without guidance, but I wouldn’t worry too much about whether or not your shoulders are in the right place. Why not? This leads me into the next common mistake:
4. Focusing on parts. This was an absolute game changer for me personally – the idea that my shoulder and elbow pain might be related to things beyond my shoulder and elbow. Beginning to expand my focus to what was going on in the rest of my body was the main thing that allowed me to solve years of chronic pain issues.
Let’s take the example of a wrist problem, but the principle here could be applied to any area. The assumption is usually that it hurts in the wrist, so the problem must be in the wrist. So people do things like wrist stretches, strengthening exercises, wear arms bands, have surgery, or other things generally focused on the area where the symptoms are. When people take this approach of working directly with the area that has pain or discomfort, they usually do this to the exclusion of everything else. Their attention is narrowed to the problem area, and they are usually less aware of what is going on in the rest of their body.
The idea that how you distribute your weight on your feet or how your head balances on top of your spine might have something to do with a wrist problem sometimes isn’t obvious. But the wrist is not an island, nor is any joint or body part. It is the tip of the iceberg of a much larger movement system, and how it functions is entirely dependent on and related to every inch of your body. Whether you have back pain, a stiff neck, shoulder issues, or knee problems, you will likely get the best results by working with your total pattern of coordination from head to toe. It’s all connected.
Having said that, there is great value in learning about how your individual joints work, and it is something I often do when teaching. But it is import to explore these details in relation to your total patterns of movement, and to recognize that no parts function in isolation. If you are playing around with specific parts and areas, be curious about how these changes in individual joints affect other nearby areas as well as your total coordination from head to toe. It can seem counterintuitive, but when people start to expand their attention to their whole organization, pain and discomfort in specific areas often disappears as a result of this expanded field of attention.
5. Trying to hold the right position. This one comes up quite often in private lessons. After a little while I usually manage to help guide people into a more free, integrated organization. Once they get an experience of that, they often stiffen and brace as if they can just hold this new posture forever and everything will be fine. When I point this out to them and suggest that they don’t need to try and hold any positions, quite often their whole system unlocks and they end up in a much more free organization than when they were trying to hold onto a proper position.
The perfect posture is a moving posture. Or as Alexander put it, there are no right positions, only right directions. If you can learn how to move in a way so that you are tending towards lengthening, widening, and expanding as opposed to shortening, collapsing, and pulling in on yourself, you will be able to take this principle into absolutely any activity you do. Once you start to understand and work with this principle as opposed to finding and holding proper positions, you can become your own teacher and bridge these ideas into any activity in your life.
It is impossible to give one size fits all posture and movement advice, since we are not all one size and shape. We all have different starting points, injury histories, limitations, challenges, and goals. But these 5 ideas seem to be pretty widely used and accepted as common knowledge, so I thought I would explore them and hopefully get you to examine and rethink them. In my experience they are generally not helpful if your goal is to live a life with less pain, tension, and stress and more ease, balance, and freedom in movement.
So, do you currently use any of these ideas in your life? Are you constantly going back and forth between sitting up straight and relaxing, but never really feeling comfortable doing either? Play around for a while with letting go of these ideas and replacing them with my suggestions, or with nothing at all. If you find this makes sense or piques your curiosity, there’s a lot more we could do to address your unique habits, problem areas, tension patterns, and daily challenges much more accurately and quickly than through a generalized blog post. Come try a lesson sometime and find out if I am a quack to be avoided, or one of the only people on this island who can actually help you get to the root of your problem. I solved my own chronic pain and injury issues using the principles of the Alexander Technique, when everything else I tried failed me. Perhaps I can help you do the same? To find out, get in touch and tell me about your situation.