Why do we need to improve our posture Jane? You don’t. Here’s why!
An ex physiotherapy colleague, who I respect greatly, recently saw one of my Alexander Technique (AT) adverts. His response to what I had written was ‘Jane, why do we need to improve our posture?’ The short answer was ‘you don’t,’ but it got me thinking, and thinking…and thinking, about posture. It’s a commonly used word. A simple definition is “the position in which someone holds their body.” We kind-of understand what it means, or do we?
My machinations grew to me wanting to write a blog about posture and how it relates to the Alexander Technique.
I thought it would be useful to link it to a story from my past about posture and I came up short! Literally. As a child, I can’t remember anyone ever asking me to sit up straight or complaining about my posture. However, young kids don’t usually have a problem with their posture. They have an inherent way of doing things that seems to involve a great, easy, effortless way of being.
When I went through school, almost all my friends were taller than me. I guess at an unconscious level I wanted to be level with them. I wanted to be one of the gang and fit in. I know I wanted to be taller as they shot even further upwards. I suspect it was one of the reasons I didn’t adopt a slumped posture. I probably tried to stretch upwards. The reverse is true for many tall children who slump to meet their shorter friends. Of course it wasn’t really about posture but other things.
I loved dancing too! I remember teachers instructing us to lengthen through our legs and arms. Reach beyond the foot and the hand. If anything I am fairly sure I held myself tightly and upright so that I “looked” like, what I thought, a dancer should look like. Yes, I was definitely thinking about how I appeared as I danced, how I came across to an audience and how I wanted to be in the world. It wasn’t really about posture, yet tenuously it was.
The nearest I can come to having an actual conversation about posture was in my teens when my grandma criticised me for wiggling my hips when I walked, but, knowing me, I couldn’t get my head round that and I probably did it all the more.
The first time I heard about the Alexander Technique was via a dancer who said he had become taller through having AT lessons. However, my lessons didn’t start then. They eventually started as I was curious. I wanted to experience the benefits my friend described: he was able to do simple things in a magical way, without effort. Nothing to do with posture.
My training to be an Alexander Technique teacher did not involve posture lectures either. In fact many Alexander Technique teachers will tell you AT is not about posture, and it’s become a bit of a dirty word for some of them (1 & 2). Yet, I bet if you Google posture you will probably find Alexander Technique is somewhere in the results. Or if you ask someone what AT is about, they may well say it’s about posture.
Historians will tell you that posture is a “fashion” thing. Look back over the centuries and you will find standards for posture have changed. It is more dependent on when you are, where you are, who you are and what you do! (4)
Recently posture has become a problematic subject for many health professionals as the latest research shows that posture does not cause pain problems. That slouching is ok. Text neck doesn’t cause neck pain (5). Physiotherapists now cringe at the assessments and advice they used to give about posture. So do I, as it was so prescriptive. Postural advice can make people even more rigid and fearful of getting things wrong. The opposite of what it should be.
Even though AT is not directly about posture as a position, some of the early books on the topic have photographs of good and bad posture, and seemingly right way to do things and wrong ways. F. M. Alexander himself, in rare videos of him working, looks like he is sculpting his pupil’s body into a more upright position (3).
Many Alexander teachers do talk about posture in their advertising: even me. Magazine articles talk about good posture. Physiotherapists, the NHS and other health professionals still instruct us (their clients) on it (6 & 7).
Even though we are beginning to understand that the stereotypical idea of posture isn’t that important, it’s still in vogue to have “good posture”. I regularly see crazy products to strap those shoulders back. Slouching is not “fashionable.” People who slouch are often seen as lazy, even though that idea is based on the past, and when being ramrod straight was seen as a good thing as it implies having a back bone! Sadly therefore, slumping is still undesirable.
It’s no surprise then, that a lot of people come to me for Alexander Technique lessons wanting to improve their posture. Mostly it’s not about the posture. It’s usually because they are suffering in some way.
One thing we now know is “posture” can affect our mood (5). Or is it that our mood affects our posture? Probably the latter. When we are suffering we do tend to withdraw and shut off from the world. When we are in pain we try to minimise the pain and that often means we hold ourselves stiffly or start to curl up.
The suffering my clients experience comes about for many reasons. Maybe positions at work (that they have to be in for hours on end) seem to bring discomfort which over time then turns into pain. Maybe they just hate work? Perhaps an injury has made life very challenging. Pain, often lack of sleep, and possibly joint stiffness then makes things they love to do difficult too. Yoga class, once a joy, becomes uncomfortable. Playing their musical instrument for hours has to end. Crafting and TV watching becomes too painful and the crafting stops. Maybe they have relationship problems, bereavements, financial issues. Things spiral downward and life becomes limited and more like hard work.
Often alongside these changes my clients spot themselves in a mirror or shop window and see a stoop. Their partners tell them they are now slouching when once they did not. Maybe they can’t be bothered to change it. Sometimes they try to change it but it’s no longer comfortable to be upright, to sit up. It feels too effort-full so they give up. Friends, and family see they are suffering and may even suggest Alexander lessons because they have heard it helps with posture or they know someone, in a similar situation, who has had benefit from lessons. Their health professional may even suggest AT. They do an internet search and find someone like me. We gently explore AT and discover it is not really about posture as a position but about not stiffening and finding appropriate support (8) and they discover their posture improves as a side effect of lessons! So it’s not about posture and yet it is.
I am so glad that posture brings us together so I can share what I mean when I say posture improves as “a side effect” and together we can explore what the Alexander Technique can and does offer. It has such a profound effect for people. I love sharing the work and seeing the light return to my clients eyes, restoration of hope as they begin to move more fluidly, with ease and less pain, witnessing their joy in returning to the things they love, slowing down and being in the present moment, hearing about all the gifts those things bring for them (1), and somehow that comes across as good posture.
- Common posture mistakes and fixes – NHS
- “On the science side of things, the words posture and stiffening refer to totally different things. Postural support is what prevents collapse. Stiffening means increasing resistance to movement. Improving postural support without stiffening is one simple way of describing what we teach.
I think AT teachers can “reclaim” the word posture. We are the true postural support experts, who know that it doesn’t mean stiffening and know how to get the good stuff without the bad stuff. So why not tell the world and use it in our marketing? Anyway, if the word gets students in the door, just reeducated them on how rich a topic postural support really is!” Patrick Johnson (Alexander Technique Teacher, Facebook 5/11/2019)