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As an overall concept, posture is not easy to define. It can refer to the alignment of the body’s parts, the average orientation of body parts over time, a particular position of the body, or the angular relations of the body parts. One definition considers “good posture” to be the place where there is a compromise between minimizing stress on the joints while also minimizing the work done by the muscles. What is missing in all these definitions is the reality of time and motion.
We rarely hold the body still for very long, so posture needs to include a dynamic dimension. However, in our yoga practice, we often maintain one posture for a minute or more before releasing and moving into another static position. For each pose there is a prescribed position, but defining the ideal posture for each pose is not possible. There is no static ideal that fits every body.
The Tadasana Posture
Consider someone standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) as seen from the back. Notice the symmetry of the left and right sides; this is the supposedly ideal posture, which would include a neutral, erect spine, equal lengths for the left and right legs and for the left and right arms, and equal heights for each hip and each shoulder. The line of gravity, which is the line where there is an equal amount of weight on either side, falls from the center of the back of the head, along the spine and between the legs and feet, dividing the body into two equal, symmetric halves. In a frontal view, the line of gravity runs from between the eyes, the middle of the nose and chin, through the xiphoid process, the belly button and between the two feet. No one is perfectly symmetric, and many people have a side-to-side curve to their spine, a condition called scoliosis.
While standing in Mountain Pose would appear to present the “perfect posture,” when the posture is rigid, as in a military “at attention” posture, 30 percent more muscular energy is expended than when we are standing erect but relaxed.
From this we can question the value of mimicking in our yoga practice a strict, martial position of the body. In any case, individual variations in weight distribution throughout the body will require variations away from this idealized standard Mountain Pose posture; if the hips are heavier, if the breasts are larger, if the belly is bigger, if the head has a constant thrust forward, if the knees have painful arthritis, if the center of the ankles is forward of the heels, or for any of many other variations, the rest of the body will have to move away from the idealized line of gravity to maintain balance. The line of gravity has to shift to accommodate the reality of the body. All this is made even more complicated if the body is moving—and everyone sways a little or a lot when they stand, so the line of gravity is constantly moving and our nervous system and muscles are constantly adapting.
Common sense tells us that perfect posture will lead to healthier bodies, less pain, and ease of movement. Certainly if your posture is extremely different than the idealized version, pathology and problems can arise, but in general there is no proven link between the degree to which your posture fits the ideal posture and musculoskeletal disorders. This is worth saying another way: There is no such thing as perfect posture! Seek a posture that works, not one that is aesthetically pleasing.
To be sure, while there is no one posture that works for every body, or for one body all the time, there are many postures that can cause problems! In cases where a “bad” posture negatively affects function, it is often because the posture was statically held for many hours day after day, usually in a work-related environment. Changing habitual posture is very difficult, requiring a lot of training and time. If the cause of poor posture is muscular, it may be correctable with training. If the cause is skeletal, changes are very rare; yoga and other manual and physical therapies will not change the shapes of our bones. This is not to imply that no one can benefit from improving their posture—it simply acknowledges that to do so is difficult and rarely reduces pain.
Rather than compare our posture to an aesthetic ideal, it is better to work toward a functional posture, which varies moment to moment and movement by movement. Posture, like alignment, should be in the service of movement, not the other way around. We don’t move to get into the perfect posture; the posture or alignment we seek should be the one that allows us to move with minimal effort.
I have attempted to define good posture. Now let me define poor posture: any habitual pattern of holding the body that places it under constant and unnecessary stress. (Unnecessary stress is any stress that over time becomes unhealthy.) In other words, any position that is awkward and uncomfortable is probably poor posture. Change it. But don’t seek an ideal posture, because if held for a long time, any posture becomes unhealthy.
The myth of “the static ideal”
The “ideal” Mountain Pose alignment is sought by many yoga students and prescribed by many yoga teachers—and it is a phantasm. Mountain Pose is a brief but static posture, one we pass through on the way to another posture, not a pose to be held for several minutes on end. In armed forces training, soldiers are drilled to stand on guard in this position for many hours, not because this is a healthy posture to maintain, but to build discipline, endurance, and subservience. Those are not the goals of most 21st-century yogis.
The body is designed to move. Motion is the lotion of life! To pretend that there is one, and only one, correct posture that should or could be maintained for long periods is simply wrong. Paul Grilley termed this “the myth of the static ideal.” Imagine having to walk around all day maintaining a firm, erect Mountain Pose posture: the chest always lifted, the arms glued to your side, shoulders drawn down and back, your gaze constantly horizontal, your head immobilized. This would be neither comfortable nor efficient. The head is designed to move, the arms to swing, the spine to flex. The body is dynamic, changing—and our postures should also be dynamic.
There is no predetermined, ideal form for Mountain Pose or any other yoga asana. There may be postures that definitely do not work for you; poor posture may have consequences. But what is poor posture for you may not be a problem for someone else. There may be a posture that will work best for you, given your unique biology and biography, and given the time of day, what else you have been doing that day, what your intentions are, and how long you need to remain in the position. But whatever this ideal posture is, it will not be your optimal position for very long. We need to move. Even when we sleep, we move around.
There is a flaw in many ergonomic designs that focus solely on comfort, and in the idea that we must have “proper posture” to remain healthy: these designs and ideas ignore the reality that people need to move. For example, searching for a chair design that is comfortable for every body and for all time is a fool’s quest; human shapes are far too varied for one chair design to suit everyone. Even more problematic is that most chairs are designed to restrict movement, especially movement we consider improper. Slouching is verboten, and chairs can be designed to discourage it. We can be very comfortable in a nice, expensive, ergonomic chair for five minutes, maybe 10, but after 20 minutes in even the world’s best chair, we will be aching to move. If that expensive chair does not allow movement, suffering ensues.
Fidgeting is Fine
In meditation classes, moving is called fidgeting. Fidgeting is frowned upon in schools, in the workplace, and in yoga studios. This attitude ignores the body’s need to move. This does not mean that sitting still for a period cannot be valuable; from a mindfulness, mediation, or discipline-building perspective, there may well be good intentions that require stillness, but these intentions will not include optimizing physical comfort. It is perfectly okay to challenge yourself to stay in an uncomfortable posture for five minutes or even longer in order to develop awareness and presence (as long as the discomfort doesn’t devolve into pain), but don’t claim that the chosen position is the ideal posture. The posture is simply a tool to achieve your intention. Indeed, the style of yoga known as yin yoga requires that the postures be maintained for many minutes. The practice deliberately takes the student outside her comfort zone, but the postures are not idealized as being perfect—they are simply tools to generate a healthy stress in the body’s tissues.
An ideal sitting position is not one with the spine ramrod straight, nor is it related to a precise amount of lumbar curve, or the height of the seat above the floor, or the position of the feet on the floor. The ideal sitting position is dynamic. For a while, we may sit up tall with the lumbar in slight extension, feet flat on the floor, but after five minutes, the ideal position may be to slouch for a little while, allowing some flexion to the spine, and then change again, perhaps to sitting cross-legged. (Slouching for hours at a time may not be healthy for most people, but slouching for a few minutes may be very healthy, depending upon the previous stresses on the spine.) Whether you’re standing, sitting or in any other orientation, your ideal posture is always changing.
This article is excerpted from Your Spine, Your Yoga—Developing Stability and Mobility for your Spine by Bernie Clark.