For most people our posture is something that is generally unconscious. It is something largely unfelt that operates autonomously behind the scenes of the commonly valued and perhaps more superficial physical attributes such as being thin or having pronounced muscular definition. As a result its role in our lives is greatly undervalued. It is usually only when we injure ourselves or experience chronic pain that we start to consider our posture and often this is carried out begrudgingly after the nagging advice of a doctor, body-worker or indeed Taiji instructor! When a buff athlete, bristling with muscle slips a disc she is suddenly rendered as weak as a kitten, for posture in fact, is like the keystone or foundation for how the body engages with movement of any kind. It is well worth paying attention to and augmenting as a primary port of call in any type of physical training long before problems develop, otherwise one’s training can a false economy. I’d like to suggest that improving our posture comprises a fundamental way to seriously enhance all aspects of our movement and physicality. The big question is ‘how’? A good down to earth understanding as to what the terms refers to is vital for long term, grass roots improvement. In the first instalment of this two part article I will talk about a more accurate, sustainable and holistic way of understanding posture that is at the heart of all good Taiji and internal martial arts training as opposed to the ‘quick fix’ approach common to other exercise systems. In the second part we will look at some fundamental training methods to get to grips with posture in a more visceral and less intellectual way.In our society it appears that the way we normally observe the human body is just at a superficial or ‘skin deep’ level, however this has very little to do with posture and how well a person moves in terms of function, enjoyment and sustainability. Many years ago I was given some tickets to see a performance of Swan Lake by a famous ballet company. I walked out after half an hour of torture. I found it unbearable to watch such highly trained unnatural movement. To me the dancers looked very tense, unhealthily thin and just generally uncomfortable. From my Taiji perspective their movement seemed extremely imbalanced, fundamentally rigid and injury inducing and yet upon my consultation of many others at the performance that night it depicted the absolute height of good posture in motion. It is worth remembering the difference between training the body so it looks a certain way and training sustainably for long-term usefulness and enjoyment:
External attractiveness has no relation to goodness or essential quality.[i]
External attractiveness is of course entirely subjective. The current vogue for being stick thin and having minimal body fat have little to do with being healthy, happy or the ability to move well:
When people see some things as beautiful, other things become ugly. When people see some things as good, other things become bad – Lao Tzu
Through my research I have found that the general approach toward posture widely purported throughout the health and fitness industry, and occasionally spewed out by the media, merely relates to achieving a certain superficial look rather than becoming aware of and facilitating optimum natural movement, which as we will see, is what posture is inherently bound up with. Furthermore, this is usually realised by rather futile attempts to hold and control the body in fixed positions in a very unnatural way. From my own teaching and personal experience this is something that actually significantly hinders movement and the subsequent development of posture. It is usually when you stop forcing and cease controlling the body that it approaches the natural balance and freedom of movement that allows a life time of health and enjoyable movement.
As to what actually constitutes ‘good posture’ depends greatly upon who you ask. From time to time I like to discuss posture with a various people including teachers and experts from other fields of movement or bodywork. It makes for good discussion and the answers are always interesting, especially so because there seems to be such little variation in what people understand posture, good or otherwise, and the training thereof to mean. The most common assumptions associated with improving posture can be summarised by the following: pulling one’s shoulders back, keeping a straight spine, tucking one’s chin in, holding one’s abdomen in or ‘using the core’ and keeping one’s tailbone tucked under. Think of the archetypal image of a soldier or indeed the hinge-like figure of the avid Yoga practitioner, all dysfunctional and unnatural angles. For me these assumptions illustrate a very poor understanding of posture and how the human body moves. If I try to control a so called problematic part of the body by holding it in fixed position it may look ‘better’ from the outside but actually I obstruct its ability to move, balance freely and integrate naturally with the rest of the body. If I constantly hold my abdomen in for example, then I can’t breathe properly let alone move freely. Interestingly, I’ve found that people with a background in arts that emphasise such control often really struggle to learn Taiji because they can’t get their head around the idea of moving their body without holding it tight, either deliberately or otherwise. For good posture is underpinned by a body that operates and moves naturally without interference and unnecessary control. Taiji focuses on process rather than quick results!
Take a room full of people and you can observe that each person exhibits their own personal tendencies in how they stand, sit and move around, especially if you know what to look for.[ii] No one is perfectly balanced nor flawlessly symmetrical. It is fascinating to observe just how many variations there are on a few simple themes in human posture. Next time you walk down the street, try it out for yourself and simply watch how people move – but without being creepy! See what themes you notice. By observing others you can learn a lot about yourself and vice-versa, for we all have the same tendencies to greater and lesser extents. To get a good sense of someone’s posture then you really have to look at how the whole body balances, relates and moves together rather than just focusing on one section alone. If you look closely you will notice that in almost everyone some parts are well aligned, some parts are not. Some parts are too tight, others too loose. Some sections move well, some are fixed and rigid. Some parts are very strong while others are weak and vulnerable. In spite of this however, somehow the whole body structure interacts as a unit, balancing and working together from head to toe for better or worse. It is quite incredible really, the natural process of integration and adaptation evident in the human body. We don’t have to actively control the plethora of minute processes, it is just natural. In fact, there is no way that I could control such an intricate and delicate balancing act and trying to do so would take a huge amount of effort.Generally speaking, whatever our posture is like it represents the habitual tensional balance that lies at the heart of our body structure. To a great extent this reflects how we have used our bodies most, for posture illustrates how our bodies have moulded and adapted to our habitual motions over long periods of time. For our posture to improve then, we need to become aware of and change our habits over a similar extended period in order for the body to recalibrate little by little.
Everything must change so that everything can stay the same[iii]
Posture simultaneously informs and is informed by how we use our bodies currently. It is in this sense then that one’s posture is not a mere static thing that can be quickly fixed by holding in or controlling certain parts of the body but instead comprises the current process of response to both a past and an ongoing relationship between our bodies, how we use them and our awareness. Movement is like food for the body; you are what you eat, or rather, you are how you move.
The restrictions and imbalances in posture that everyone develops from a young age are with us all the time, regardless of what we are doing and therefore greatly inform our quality of movement and health as a result. Another way of looking at it is that we could consider our posture as being like the default setting for how our body, in its entirety, deals with the constant pressure of gravity combined with our most often repeated day-to-day movements. If we can improve this default setting then we can potentially improve the quality of all of our movements and functions exponentially. To me this is one of the most important and primary aspects to be addressed in learning how to enjoy movement and pivotal in attaining excellent movement skills and robust health.
As I mentioned earlier, for most of us posture is something well beneath our awareness and therein lies the key to improvement. When I walk for example, somehow I can stay upright with hardly any conscious effort, it’s all taken care of. As I place one foot in front of the other my whole body continually adjusts and balances together with only the relatively small surface area of one foot at a time being in contact with the ground. It doesn’t seem like a big deal because we do it all the time, we take it for granted. Walking is like the most natural thing in the world but when you think about it, it really is amazing. Behind the scenes of this basic human movement every aspect of the body from head to toe and back again is occupied in a meticulous, information rich process that aims to keep me going in my intended direction in the most economical manner and without falling over. Next time you are out for a walk place your hands on your lower back and see if you are able to feel the myriad movements that occur through the body during this basic motion. If you pay attention you can feel some small extension, flexion and lateral motion of the spine as the body moves and stabilises all at the same time. When the body is in good condition our posture exhibits an optimum balance between stability and mobility. Restriction, which impedes the body’s ability to move freely, is reduced to a minimum. Holding the body, or various parts thereof, is very similar to having a restriction, it prevents the body from naturally adjusting and balancing with integrity. When I stand on one leg for example, I don’t try to hold myself still in order to stay balanced. This is futile. I only try to feel my balance, go with the flow and relax the parts that tense up.When we are young we learn to move around through unceasing experimentation and trial and error. Usually, small children exhibit the most balanced and excellent postures you are likely to see because their bodies are naturally pliable, mobile and stable and as yet generally restriction free. Like animals, children are much more aware of and ‘in’ their bodies than the majority of adults and at a stage before any strange movement and postural habits concretely set in. As we progress to school age we have to start moving much, much less in order that we can sit down all day, learn our lessons and focus our minds on retaining information. Our present moment body awareness has to take a distinct back seat:
Life is like riding a bicycle. To stay balanced you must keep moving
– Albert Einstein
Unfortunately, our bodies go downhill from here as mental dominance takes over and we train ourselves unknowingly to ignore the vast majority of our body sensation so that we can think more. This becomes our default setting. For example, as I sit here writing on my laptop it is very difficult to concentrate on what I’m writing and accurately sense my body at the same time. However, because I have spent a fair amount of time training Taiji and relearning how to sense my body I am generally aware of when I become uncomfortable and have inevitably ended up slouching like a banana in my chair whilst hunched across my desk. I do not ignore these sensations. Instead, I focus more on feeling my body and as a result it seems natural to reposition myself in a more balanced way but I certainly don’t force myself to sit bolt upright. Or as an alternative to this, I have a break, stand up and move around for a bit usually enjoying some simple Taiji movement. I deliberately sense the motion of the whole body until I am comfortably balanced once more and happy to carry on working in this recalibrated mode. However, before I started Taiji and was back at college, I didn’t notice how I was sitting at all. Only after a day or two sat awkwardly at the desk would I get up and feel a twinge in my back. Repeat that a few hundred times and our body adapts to fit the usage.
So despite notions of posture usually conceding to fall amongst the themes apparent in ‘alternative health’ which are often not taken all that seriously by people outside of the sphere, it does in fact play a constant and vital role in our overall ability to move and enjoy our physicality whether that be playing football, training Taiji, walking down the street or working at a desk. Even though Taiji often gets mistakenly lumped together with Yoga and Pilates in this realm of alternative exercise, it’s training approach couldn’t be more different. For me Taiji training can be summed up by one word: natural. However, it’s worth remembering though that in the world internal martial arts there is still much discrepancy as to what constitutes posture, good or otherwise. It’s just the way people are. It’s all valuable food for thought and despite what anybody says about it by far the best way to get to grips with posture is to be body intelligent and learn over time from your own experience and awareness, to learn progressively to feel how your body moves and operates naturally in its entirety:
I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think – Socrates
In the second half of this article I’ll be looking at some productive ways to get to grips with posture without excessively controlling the body. In the meantime there is one single thing that you can learn to do to vastly improve your posture and thus all of your movement and activities regardless of whether or not you do Tai Chi or any other martial art or sport. That single thing is this: pay attention to your body. For once you start to pay attention to your body you will begin to develop your own independent and increasingly accurate frame of reference regarding your personal architecture and how you use it. This may take a considerable amount of time so if you haven’t started already, you’d better start now!
First published in No. 48 edition of Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts magazine – the journal of the Tai Chi Union for Great Britain
[i]This maxim was first stated by Sir Thomas Overbury in his poem ‘A Wife’ (1613):”All the carnall beauty of my wife is but skin-deep.” ‘The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms’ Ammer, C. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2003
[ii] Like anything worth developing reading posture and movement takes practise – interestingly enough as one’s own felt experience of the body and movement improves so too does the ability to see it in others.
[iii] From ‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa