Posture! When we see that word, a lot of us spring to attention: lift our chests, through our shoulder blades back, our shoulders up, tighten our necks, suck in our bellies and raise our heads while attempting to “straighten our spines”. Proper posture, we think, is not-slouching; it’s also, apparently, waiting for a punch in the gut.
I’d argue that it isn’t even one universal thing. Posture, like fitness, is activity-specific. The posture that works for an activity depends on what matters most:
• what’s visually appealing
• what generates the most power or action
• what requires least extra effort to do, or is most efficient
• what’s least painful
• what’s most natural, and most sustainable
As a performer, I’ve learned a slightly different language to talk about the shape of the body: posture is a form we put on (perhaps a physical character, perhaps just a neutral, ready state); alignment is a practice of removing impediments to movement. Posture, then, is about presentation, the first half of that list. Alignment is about health, the second half. I find this differentiation handy in my own understanding of dance training.
Dancers spend a great deal of time adopting posture, and rarely train in alignment. Your body needs both to be your best possible performance vehicle. You can force dance posture and maaaaaybe get it right without first attending to your own alignment issues, but you’ll never have a truly neutral body to start with.
How to get aligned in three easy intentions
There are tons of techniques and practices that get you into good alignment – chiropractic and Rolfing try to bring you there from the outside, yoga and tai chi spend attention on this, many martial & modern dance traditions do, too – but there are a few schools of body work almost exclusively focused on you finding your own perfect alignment.
My favorite practice for understanding alignment is the Alexander Technique. You can read and try some exercises online [Try this list of self-study tools.], but these are the lessons in finding an easy, neutral, healthy alignment that I’ve taken from Alexander into dance. [Please note that I am not an Alexander instructor. I’m just a posture nerd and a performer. I recommend taking a class in this stuff so you can experience it firsthand.]
Part one. Your head. Alexander teachers tend to start with this litany. With a teacher, you’d intend these things mentally & then get gentle physical hints from their hands, but you can do this in your head, too.
1. My shoulders are free
2. So my head floats up and forward
3. And my neck follows
Alexander starts with the head in part because human development, at least of the spinal curve, starts with the head. [If you want to be super-nerdy, it’s the “cephalocaudal trend”, cousin to the “proximodistal trend”. We develop from the head down and from the spine out. Alexander also loved spines, and bones.]
Try it. Imagine your head is unbelievably light, a balloon on a string. Float it around on your neck a bit. My current Alexander teacher likes to remind us that our spines continue well up underneath our skulls – not in the back, mind you; we’ve got our heads on a nice little hingey floaty thing at the top of our necks.
Do as little as possible with your shoulders. Don’t hold your shoulders in any place – don’t shift your shoulder blades back, don’t push your shoulder socket down, just try to feel a sense that your shoulders are wide, deep, and released. Try letting your arms just hang at your sides; looking at yourself sideways in a mirror, they want to fall about halfway between your front & back.
And then check out your neck. Lots of us like to lift our chins crazy high and crunch the poor backs of our necks. Pretty hard to float our heads that way, though – and man, heads are heavy. You want to keep your giant head balanced on something nice and springy like your spine, not try to hold it up with the sheer strength of your neck and shoulder muscles.
One thing I love about Alexander is how gentle the practice is. It really inverts western conventional wisdom about posture, not just in the position of the body, but the way you arrive at those positions. Alexander is about gentleness, attending to what’s happening in the body and intending to release and align. No drill sergeants, no snaps to attention – just doing what you’re built to do. You needn’t even do this rigorously. Every time you draw your attention to the position of your spine with these intentions, you get a little more comfortable.
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Cross-posted from i'd like four tacos, please.