Returning with a Rant About Posture

Recently, I taught a workshop at the Houston NiaMoves Studio, called “Dynamic, Beautiful Posture.”  Lots of my clients express the desire for improved posture, so it’s a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Every time I teach this workshop, I am still astonished by the level of psychological pain, self-loathing, perfectionism, and defeatism that students express.  My rant:  how did we, as a culture,create such a huge cohort of disempowered people?

At the beginning of the workshop, I asked the students (all women, this time, of all sizes, shapes, and ages) to simply walk around the room a few times.  You can try this for yourself:  as you walk, is there a voice inside your head, coaching and directing you in the “right way” to walk?  For most people, the answer is “YES.”

When asked what thoughts went through their minds as they walked, a flood of comments burst forth.  “Stand up straight.”  (What does that even MEAN?) “Hold in your stomach.” “Suck it in!” “Keep that ass from flapping in the breeze!”  All agreed that they were following old directions from a past authority figure while walking — not in the present moment at all.  I asked them how that voice made them feel.

“Not good enough.”

“Unattractive.”

“Anxious.”

“Afraid I’ll do something wrong.”

You get the idea.  There’s a definite pattern here.  This group of women was not unique.  The same responses come up, time and again, and from men as well as women, whenever I work with people and their posture.

So with the stage set, here comes my rant about posture.  If you want to skip the rant (although I think it will be entertaining and enlightening), the take-away is:  Get off your own case.  Stop criticizing yourself, about posture or anything else.  For all the years of criticism, has anything REALLY changed?  No.  Oh yeah — stop criticizing other people, too — especially about their posture.

Take a few moments to sit with these statements:  “I’m not good enough.  I’m unattractive.  I’m anxious.  I feel fearful.”  What do you notice?  Give it some time, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, you will begin to EMBODY these statements.  A feeling of sadness will begin to emerge.  Your gaze is downcast, your head bends forward, along with your shoulders curving forward. Your back slumps.  Your stomach, or your head, may begin to ache a little.  Your flexor muscles contract, pulling you along in a trajectory toward fetal position, the only safe place. Notice:  all your energy, vitality, and joy are drained out of you.  You may feel hopeless:  “What’s the point?  I might as well go back to bed.”  The point is this:  every bodily position, every habitual pattern of muscular contraction, has an underlying emotional tone and thought process — even if unconscious.  If you feel this crummy about yourself, your posture is, in a way, a reflection of your emotional state and self-image.  In this condition, it is impossible to “stand up straight.”  And if you do get close, it will be with such effort and artificiality as to be uncomfortable and unsustainable.

Critiques of posture start young, and continue throughout our formative years.  They come from people who mean well and want the best for us.  However, the Law of Unintended Consequences can be clearly seen.  We fight against ourselves, even years later, to win the approval of that authority figure still in our heads.  A child internalizes the message:  “There is something about you, about your fundamental essence, that is so displeasing and offensive to me, that I cannot accept it, or you.  Unless you can meet my standard of perfection, I will not love you.” And thus begins a life-long, unproductive battle, with the self and one’s environment.  Our only defense to make us feel better about ourselves is to find someone else to correct relentlessly.

Clearly, this is a fruitless and futile path.  And yet we’ve all trod it.  There is a better way.  (It’s coming soon, my solution.  But I’m kind of on a roll with this rant, so permit me. . .)

Our notion of “good posture” arises from a cultural aesthetic preference.  Great works of art, and artistic pursuits such as ballet and yoga reflect this aesthetic preference for the ideals of symmetry and elongation.   The real-world realization is that “Ideal” means “does not actually occur in real life.”  Ideals are meant to be beacons toward which we move.  Ideals are meant to inspire healthy striving and accomplishment (H/T to Dr. Brene Brown for expressing this wonderful distinction.) The closer we get to the ideal, we find the goal posts move.  Achieve the ideal, and you’ve become a butterfly specimen in a display case:  dead, wings pinned to a board, no longer capable of flight, growth, or continued inspiration. Rather straining to achieve an ideal, embrace a metaphor:  The Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is teeming with life, wonder, and beauty.

Face it:  nobody ever died from bad posture.  The problem is not in any particular position — the problem comes from getting stuck there.

Moshe Feldenkrais, iconoclastic thinker and movement educator from the last century, said that “posture” is a static state, like a post. (Post/posture, get it?)  That is fine for photographs and statues, but people’s lives are not static.  We’ve gotta move, and do, and be, and love, and work, and play.  We can’t do that in one, “correct,” static position.  So he coined a word, “acture,” to describe a dynamic state of curiosity about the world, poised for comfort and grace in movement without wasted energy.

You don’t teach that kind of fabulous, engaged “attitude” toward life by shaming, coercing, nagging, or making people walk with a book on their head.   Comfortable “acture,” along with the happy side-effect of looking aesthetically pleasing, has to be experienced and FELT.  Classes in the Feldenkrais Method seek to create the conditions where this dynamic internal spark can be re-ignited.  With deeper experiences of the felt sense of springiness, grace, ease, and length comes a changed emotional tone, changed thinking patterns and self-talk, and the ability to be one’s own authority in matters of comfort, effectiveness, and self.

The workshop participants made a beginning at trading in their perfectionism in favor of resilience, adaptability, and a sense of their own capacity for skill, grace, and comfort in efficient and beautiful movement.  They began to experience the old adage, “What you think of me is none of my business.”  When new possibilities open up, the potential for improvement is LIMITLESS.

Where is perfectionism blocking you?  How does perfectionism affect your relationships with others?

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5 thoughts on “Returning with a Rant About Posture

  1. MaryBeth thank you for this wonderfully challenging inquiry. Recently I’m reflecting in the same space with some writing and speaking from Cheri Huber. She has a lot to say about those voices we carry around and how we can learn to shift our focus in a way that helps us find more ease, grace and joy. Have you met her virtually or in person? Here is a link and a quote:

    http://www.livingcompassion.org/about-practice-everywhere

    … The only thing you will ever get from life is what you are doing in the moment. What you do is what you get.

    Our lives are the result of what we give our attention to. If you practice “overwhelmed with work” or “I should be different” or “I’ll never be good at this,” that’s the life experience you will have. If we want our lives to be different, we must practice the difference we want.

    The greatest challenge of awareness practice is developing the ability to direct attention and pay attention…..

  2. Thank YOU, Bob, for the link to “Practice Everywhere” and the inspiring quote. I’ve bookmarked it and look forward to spending some time there. Looks like a great resource for anyone who is interested in awareness.

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