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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#reverb10 – Day 13 – Intelligent Action

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Action, and its partner, Inertia, have been cornerstones in my life.  And so, today’s #reverb10 prompt from author Scott Belsky got me thinking:

Prompt: Action. When it comes to aspirations, its not about ideas. It’s about making ideas happen. What’s your next step?

I used to live with these two words, Action and Inertia, as if I were in a violent ping-pong match — bouncing between the two to the point of exhaustion or otherwise “going out of bounds.”  Pun alert — “To a fault,” one might say. Perhaps because I’m a older now, and perhaps because of my practice of the Feldenkrais Method, I now see Action and Inertia as part of a spectrum.

There are times in life that require full-out, balls-to-the-wall, action — strength — force.  These are the do-or-die moments, as you would face on the battlefield, I imagine, or lifting a car off of your child.  That is one extreme.  The other extreme, on the Inertia side, is “Deathly Still.”  Or actual death, deadness.  My sense is that we fear deadness so much that we react in an extreme way, and flee maniacally to behave at the the other end of the spectrum — even if it kills us.  I also believe that we get stuck in Inertia Mode when the idea of “the next step” gets over-loaded with importance, and the crippling demands of perfectionism.

Most people don’t realize that the extremes of any spectrum are neither useful nor sustainable. The idea that there are infinite points on this spectrum of action and inaction was a revolutionary one for me.  I now embrace stillness, whenever I can find it, because I no longer equate it with death.  I’ve learned how to be quiet every once in awhile so that I can rest, restore, and recover.  This rest and recovery phase is essential for us to be healthy, and it is the domain of our parasympathetic nervous system.  If you feel cognitively fuzzy, or physically below par, it could be that you’ve spent all your “action resources” for the moment, and need to rest.

So this balance between action and inertia is not one and only one idealized point, to be vigilantly maintained. Rather, we can slide along the spectrum in each moment, depending on our assessment of what is actually needed and appropriate.  Short rests, and small actions, are valid contributions of progress toward any goal.  In this way, we can be effective and intelligent in our actions, rather than squandering ourselves and our energies mindlessly.

I’ve also learned to remind myself, in a humorous way, that sometimes action is overrated.  You’re probably familiar with the expression, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”  That looks like a lot of action, but in fact, it’s a whole lot of nothing.  In other words, mere action for its own sake is worthless. I’ve learned that taking action — the “WHAT to do” part, is just one part of a larger process.  The “HOW to do it” part, often neglected,  is where things get interesting, or juicy, or glorious, or most effective — or not.

My tendency toward the smart-ass comment is almost irrepressible (I’ve learned to moderate that, too!), so I’ll say that my next step is to finish my coffee, and this post,  before I prepare for the day ahead.  As far as “next steps” toward creating the year to come, soon I will make an idea map of all the wonderful possibilities before me.  I’ll choose the WHAT part based on a realistic schedule, and which ideas seem to offer the most potential for fun,  connection, and growth —  as well as being income producing or otherwise “purposeful.”  I will take some time with this.  Then, I’ll spend some time considering, for each one, HOW to put my unique spin on it.  The “next available action,” as Moshe Feldenkrais would say, will flow from my interest, curiosity, and enjoyment in that action.  The best thing is — each action doesn’t have to be “perfect.”  I can re-calibrate my efforts at any time to refine and improve.  Intelligent action depends upon regular reflection, course corrections, and adaptability to current conditions.

By staying in the present, not getting too far ahead of myself, and paying attention to the details,  I transcend the mere WHAT and can move to HOW. These are the conditions that create intelligent action.

[I’m blogging every day, inspired by #reverb10.  Read more posts in the series here.]

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