“Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.” Helen Keller
Maintaining good posture affects how you see the world and how the world sees you. When you stand up straight with your shoulders back, you feel confident, self-assured, energetic. You’re literally taller. People see you as strong, athletic and attractive. You catch their eye. They assume you mean business. Good posture is a clear signal of physical and mental health. Of youth, fitness and vitality.
True your wheels
On a physiological level, good posture allows for the optimal health of your joints and internal organs. Like the wheels on your car, when all four are perfectly aligned, your car runs smoothly and efficiently. But as soon as one is slightly off, not only does your car move jerkily, it also leads to a loss of fuel and damage to the vehicle itself.
Your body works in a similar way. It is strongest and most efficient when all your bones and muscles are correctly aligned. If one part is out of alignment for a significant period of time, the adjacent muscles will feel the strain. So if you slouch at your desk, rounding your upper back and allowing your head to poke forward, you’re likely to experience upper back and neck pain as these muscles struggle to support your head against the forces of gravity. Poor posture leads to uneven wear and tear on the body, damage to the intervertebral discs, compression of the internal organs and compromised breathing.
Striving to maintain good posture is one of the foundations of a healthy lifestyle. You can exercise six days a week, eat a whole-food diet and maintain a flawless sleep regimen but if you slip into poor posture, you’re likely to be undoing a lot of that hard work.
How did we get here?
“Watch your habits for they become your posture.” Katy Bowman
Unfortunately, the typical modern environment is not designed to encourage good posture. We sit too much, minimise movement variety in the pursuits of convenience and specialisation, and spend more and more time looking down at our phones and computer screens rather than out at the horizon as we would have done on the savannah. Even though our living environment has changed dramatically from that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our bodies have not, and if we’re not careful, they will start to fall apart.
What is good posture?
In yoga we have a pose—Mountain pose—that might as well be called “Good Posture” pose. It embodies the three key elements of good posture—correct alignment, equilibrium and appropriate muscular engagement.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead.
Be careful not to lock your knees back into hyperextension.
Align your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and ears.
Find a neutral spine. Your spine naturally has three curves: a slight inward curve at the lower back, a gentle outward curve at the mid/upper back, and a slight inward curve at the back of the neck.
Lift your chest, broaden across your collarbones and allow your shoulder blades to move back and down.
Draw your chin in slightly and allow the weight of your head to balance on top of your spinal column.
Distribute your weight evenly between the centres of your heels, the balls of your big toes and the balls of your little toes.
Shift your weight from side to side and front to back to find your balance point.
Root down through your feet and lengthen up through your spine, all the way to the top of your head.
Gently engage your abs by contracting the muscles that support the base of your spine—front, back and sides.
Activate the muscles that support your shoulder blades by drawing them towards each other slightly.
Relax your jaw and the muscles in your face.
Keep it up
In every yoga session, as you move through the poses, here are three things to keep in mind:
Check that your feet are facing forwards. This will protect your knees and hips.
Gently engage your core to protect your lower back.
Draw your shoulder blades together, in upright standing and seated poses, to stop your shoulders from rounding forward.
When you have successfully embodied these three cues on the mat, try to remind yourself of them as you sit, stand and walk throughout the day. Check that your feet point straight ahead, engage your core and gently draw your shoulder blades towards each other. This will go a long way in preventing posture-related pain in the neck, in between the shoulder blades and at the lower back.
“A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind.” Morihei Ueshiba
Improving your posture can be a slow process. It involves changing your habits, strengthening weak muscles and stretching those that have shrink-wrapped to the positions you spend the most time in. Unfortunately, your body is going to work against you. We slip into poor postural habits, even though it is causing long term damage because it gives us temporary relief from pain and because we’re forced into those positions due to lack of mobility or stability in some area of the body.
It takes patience and a concerted effort to fine-tune your posture but the rewards are well worth the hard work.