To look better, to have less muscular pain, to decrease headaches, to feel more energetic, to improve confidence, you name it… Posture seems to be an important piece to so many aspects of life.
But what does “a good posture” even mean?
The “familiarity” part
There is a tricky psychological phenomenon of “what feels familiar, feels right”. You can not afford to be continuously making decisions on every little detail of how you use your body, because that would simply consume too much energy.
For that reason, at a certain point of proficiency regular activities gain a status of learnt reflexes in our nervous system and are executed in a kind of “autopilot” mode. Unless special attention is made, there is not much of a conscious judgement other than “does it feel familiar?”. If it does, then it feels right because you’ve programmed yourself that this is the (usual/chosen/decided to be correct for you) way to do that particular thing.
This results in the fact that relying on the internal feeling of “right” is actually not going to lead to any improvement, but will just keep things going as they are.
The evolutionary aspect
What we feel is good for us and what in reality is good for us might be two different things.
Take the chronic (muscular) pain. When my lower back starts to seriously ache (or any other part for that matter), my first reaction is to move less. To lie down somewhere comfortable, grab some pillows and wrap myself in a blanket sort of little burrito to “let my body rest and heal”.
Historically, this might have been a reasonable approach because most kinds of pain were coming either from physical injuries, infections, or other consequences of life-and-death situations. The best cure was thus to provide the body time and a safe space to recover.
You can still see this kind of animal behaviour in the wild. This strategy has been saving us, humans, for thousands of years as well.
In the current times, however, most of muscular pain is related to lifestyle. Long hours of sitting office work, the evenings on sofas in front of the TV, hardly moving by foot, not even mentioning the scarce variety of movements.
The pain, in this case, comes not from an acute injury or infection as above, but from the misuse of the body. And out of all the structural tissues, muscles often suffer and manifest themselves first.
It is very common that the flexor muscles, designed for quick powerful movements (abdominal muscles, hip flexors, heck flexors, etc.), are overstrained by long periods of use when keeping the body erect (or not really) in all sorts of non-natural positions.
At the same time, extensors, which are in fact designed to stay active for long periods without fatiguing (like the muscles all along the spine intended to keep the body erect), are weakened because they are not used enough.
All of this creates quite a twisted organisation of the forces and tensions in the body. So even more effort has to be applied on a daily basis to compensate for the imbalance. In this situation, very little use can be achieved by simple rest. What is needed is the redistribution of the work and activation of the extensors.
When extensors (naturally good for a long time use under moderate intensity load like the body weight) take and carry their part, flexors can feel that somebody else is sharing the workload and actually slowly return to carrying out their main responsibilities (i.e. short powerful contractions upon request). This balance has however to be rebuilt gradually, so as not to overwhelm the weakened extensors and not cause any damage.
This is yet another aspect in which what feels right (read “familiar”, “usual”) might not be as accurate as it might seem.
Posture as non-movement
Due to the origins of the word, posture is often perceived as a static position of non-movement, which is not exactly true.
Just like in physics, while something might seem correct on a large scale (Newtonian physics), a completely different set of laws would apply on a much smaller scale (quantum physics). When on a big scale body seems to be fully immobilised, there is a whole myriad of tiny muscle movements taking place every second to keep the body stabilised in this position. So, when you zoom in, it is rather an active state.
At any moment, there are hundreds of antagonist and protagonist muscles pulling on the bones with certain power to keep the bones in that certain position. There is always an endless number of muscles actively engaged whether we are aware of that or not.
So posture is quite an active state of being.
The role of the skeleton
One of the fundamental ways of minimising parasitic strains of the muscles (unnecessary habitual tension of muscles that serve no purpose for the situation in question) is through the alignment and allocation of the majority of the weight to the skeleton.
Imagine that there were no muscles at all, and bones were connected one to another by ligaments only. Learning to organise oneself in such a way that at any given moment the skeleton would still stay erect with minimal effort would be a must. The more vertically the bones are stuck on top of each other, the less effort you’ll need to maintain and move the structure from there.
This is what moving and staying still in close cooperation with a force of gravity means.
The first thing in attempting to do so is to release the existing tensions of the soft tissue (including but not limited to muscles) so that they are no longer pulling in random directions and compensating one for another when there is no need for it. In the restful state, they would be ready to take on a load at any moment if desired.
The second step would be building awareness and sensations of the skeleton, learning to use and rely on it more.
This is what all those practitioners of somatic bodywork methods and martial art masters learn as a side (or main?) product of their practice. When you see a person like that, you will straight away notice exceptional fluidity and ease of movement. You could easily notice them out of a hundred people, especially amongst the population in their senior years. These are people I admire and aspire to.
Reclaiming good posture
Many of the somatic education techniques agree that good posture is that which allows to fulfil the basic need of the human being for survival: an easy movement in any direction at any moment. The one that requires a minimal muscular effort to maintain the body wherever it is, be that staying still or moving.
To get there, especially from the “chronic pain” state, one needs time, patience and desire to improve the ability to detect sensations in one’s body. This would allow us to recognise the existing patterns, evaluate them and introduce new, easier and smoother pathways for the performance of the same action.
With practice and persistence, chronically tensed muscles can be released and the use of weight and gravity for movement can be mastered.
This is what we facilitate during the Mindful Movement practice through the exploration of our own bodies in a safe environment.
And while such a fundamental improvement is a long process, it is absolutely worth it. 🧡
Wherever you are on this long journey, just about to start it or somewhere in the middle, I wish you plenty of curiosity on the way.