What posture is really about

Postural alignment is one of the most interesting and complex subjects in the physical realm. When you start to research it, you will find that:

  • The body is the mind: Our physical posture determines our mental attitude, and viceversa. As the mind is born out of the brain, and in it there is a mix of emotions, senses, hormones and everything in between, posture is a gateway the non-separated world of the mind.
  • The mind/body is memory: The mind/body is set in a certain pattern because of the things it has lived and adapted to. This can be taken with a narrow perspective, as what are our daily movement patterns, or with a perspective as broad as how was our upbringing like (and beyond).
  • Nature doesn’t like luxuries: Everything in your body is set up for a reason. If you want to change the effect, you must change the cause, and in the body they tend to go together.
  • Posture is the foundation of strength and the cure for many illnesses: Every imbalance in the physical, physiology or a psychological realm can be traced down to a postural expression. If we better the part, we better the whole.

Now, being such a complex topic, it is very easy to get lost in details and loose the wider perspective about what posture is actually about. From here we confuse things and start measuring stuff with sticks and say “just stretch your psoas and everything will be fine”. We don’t have even one straight line in our bodies, nor a muscle that works in isolation.

So in this post I want to lay a foundation for understanding what posture is really about.

First, posture is about balance. Humans, as bipedal creatures, are in the particular situation of always being in a state of falling. Of course quadrupedal animals must also compensate for the effects of gravity on their bodies, but in humans this is specially relevant because we stand tall.

This means that a first definition of posture is the physical form that requires your body for balance.

Let’s talk a little bit about balance. If you stand tall and close your eyes, you will feel how your body compensates the shift of balance to the front by pressing the tip of the toes on the ground, then moving the hips back with the arms to the front and finally taking a step forward. On the contrary, if it senses that the balance is going to the back, it will push the heel of the foot into the ground, then move the hips to the front with the arms to the back and finally take a step backwards. When we stand with two feet the balance tends to be forwards and backwards, but if you stand on only one feet (as we usually do when walking) you will feel how balance is actually in 360º.

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Balance strategies. From the book Assessment and Treatment of Muscular Imbalances by Vladimir Janda

If you paid attention to the last paragraph, you will notice that balance corrections in the body occur primarily at the feet, hips and shoulders. From here you may understand that, for example, if your toes have a flexed form, it may mean that your body is constantly pushing them to the ground to avoid falling forwards. But, what are we exactly trying to balance?

There is a point below our umbilicus, which is called the lower dantian in martial arts or hara in some yogic traditions, normally related to the psoas in western anatomy. This is our Center of gravity. If there is something as “the core” it is this point, as it is recognized as the root of strength and stability. Are you now seeing why your posture might determine your strength and performance?

So, the body’s primarily function with posture is to keep the feet (center of support) and the “lower dantian” (center of gravity) in alignment. Any change in the extremes (feet and neck) will affect the positioning of the center, and with it the whole body.  A bad posture occurs when the surrounding musculature is not strong or flexible enough to adapt to this necessity, as the body will compensate with anything to keep this alignment. When you’re trying to correct your posture, always build yourself from the center out: “core”, feet and neck.

Why is this alignment so important? Because the second definition of posture is the physical form that permits the least amount of energy expenditure while standing. An straight stick is much better transmitting force to the ground than a curved one. When everything is properly set up, the resistance should be on the joints stacked on top of each other, not on the muscles. As said before, nature doesn’t like luxuries, so our bodies do not want to spend unnecessary energy keeping our skeleton in a non-optimal position.

So, does this means that the best posture is stiff as a board? This would depend on the first and second definition, but most specially on the third one: posture is the physical form that permits deep breathing. The fact is that an objective factor like alignment would be incomplete without a more subjective one like the depth of the breathing. Our posture should permit us to breath from our nose to our feet. Besides our physical form, posture is the arrangement that allows the free flow of energy (breath) inside our bodies.

So, next time that you want to understand posture’s function, compensatory patterns or importance, start (but don’t finish!) with balance, energy economy and breathing.

If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Ida Rolf and Lee Parore


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