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Seven Tips for Better Posture
— for the thinking person
© Copyright 2010
These tips form the basis for seven short Awareness Through Movement lessons, made on behalf of the Feldenkrais Guild UK for Feldenkrais Awareness Week, 22 - 28 May 2010; you can listen to or download the lessons here.
Some years ago, I saw an article in a major newspaper called Seven Tips for Better Posture
and read it with a sinking heart. It was essentially seven different ways of saying that we should strengthen our abdominals. I have nothing against strong abdominals, or strength in any other muscle group — it's just that I know, from twenty years of experience, how abysmally little difference that makes to our basic habits of movement and action.
Shakespeare wrote “What a piece of worke is a man! ... in forme and moving how expresse and admirable!” The mechanism that produces such express and admirable action is complex, intricate; and this is no less true of the neural hierarchy that controls muscle and bone. To make real change, real improvement in our posture and action, we must respect the subtlety and cunning of that system, and our strategies must rise to that standard.
We need strategies that will allow us to reach beyond the intellectual, into the intuitive and instinctive parts of our brains — the parts that are actually in control of movement. We need strategies that encompass the wholeness of movement — not just one joint moving at a time, which never happens in ordinary life. We need strategies that can approach the spiralling multidimensional movements that give force to the footballer's kick and precision to the dancer's jump.
So here are my suggestions for a way to start, a set of basic ideas that may span a space wide enough to embrace the complexity of human movement. I hope they might inspire or provoke an imaginative response. How creatively might we apply them? How much could our understanding enlarge in response to them? Can we live up to the poet's challenge?
1 Come to your senses!
Most suggestions for better posture take the form of a set of rules, instructions for the intellect, which might be fine except they don't penetrate beyond the intellect. The big problem with conscious thinking is that it isn't actually in charge. Sure, it can make temporary changes, often dramatic or even crude, but the part of us that is in charge of posture and action 99.9% of the time is neither intellectual nor even conscious. That's the part of ourselves that we have to convince in order to make any real change. The first step is talk its language — not words, but sensation. By paying attention to sensation we enter to the domain where posture is really determined, the kind of posture and action that take place instinctively and intuitively.
2 It's not a position
This is also about the way we think: we tend to describe and prescribe positions rather than movement. Positions are easier to talk about and to comprehend — they have shapes, they're visual, they stay still. The trouble is, they have nothing to do with life; they are essentially dead, unyielding, impotent. Flux and change are real — positions that stay still are intellectual constructs that have little to do with reality. So how can we notice the flux of movement as it flows through the body? What kind of attention does that require?
3 Bones can do it better
Most exercise suggestions talk about what you should do with your muscles, but muscles are simply too low in the hierarchy to be worth our attention: talking to muscles, we get bogged down with unnecessary details. By directing your skeleton clearly, the muscles will take care of themselves, and in the most efficient manner possible. Hand in hand with this is the fact that bones hold us up, not muscles. The push of force downward, through our legs and into the floor — it goes through bone. The matching upward force that keeps the head aloft — through bone. Of course this is a simplification, but when we are close to balance, we are close to zero use of muscle. Which brings us to the next point ...
4 Balance = neutral = rest
Most of our active lives we spend upright — sitting standing, walking. For all of these, balance is necessary; or to say it another way, falling down would be pretty inconvenient! But balance is a very quiet thing to try to notice, because it's neutral: it isn't forward or backward, not left or right, but something in between. Looking for neutral, looking for balance, means noticing something very quiet. By making smaller and slower movements, we can bring a finer discrimination into play, navigate more and more around the beacon of balance, rely more and more on our skeleton and less on tension. And from this also comes the real possibility of rest, even in the midst of activity.
We require many kinds of nourishment from the world around us — food, love, excitement - but breathing is the most urgent of these: we run out of breath before we run out of any of the rest. So whatever action we're doing, it must permit breathing at the same time. The way we breathe must also be very versatile, accommodating itself to any action, any posture and change of shape. Breathing also occupies a funny position with regard to our will: most breathing is completely automatic, but at the same time, it's very easy to change it for a moment just by deciding to — though it quickly and naturally falls back into unconscious control. So breathing makes a terrific doorway between the conscious and the unconscious.
6 Move from your centre ... what's that?
Almost everything we do in life involves manipulating objects — moving things, reaching for things, touching. Hands are great for anything from the finest and most delicate of movements to the biggest and most powerful. But hands can't do anything without support, without a connection to our source of power: our centre. We may have an intellectual idea of ‘the centre’ but we need a clear, intuitive, immediate sense of it.
7 Every movement is an action of the whole person
We use our hands to type, but hands are moved by arms, supported by a torso with the aid of legs and feet, guided by eyes and ears, motivated by the ideas and emotions of a human being. Whenever we are upright, in sitting or standing, we are balancing, and that balance is a property that only pertains to the whole — parts don't balance. Every action we do requires accommodation and participation from the other parts of ourselves. Isn't it curious that we don't sense that? How could we enlarge our attention, to actually feel
the way that movement flows through the whole of our self?