Good posture is kind of like hot and cold running water in your home. When you have it, you forget about it; when you don’t, unfortunate things can start to happen pretty quickly. If you regularly do yoga, Tai Chi, or some other kind of whole body training, you already know the key elements of good posture. If you don’t, you probably know it when you see it, but aren’t yet able to break it down, or understand how important it is. Walking on two legs has lots of advantages: stalking prey, cell phones, signaling a waiter, eating ice-cream cones while strolling on the beach, but it hasn’t been the best thing for durable biomechanics. Here’s a simple crash course in postural basics. If these tips are new for you, try them; you’ll feel better, look better, and possibly prevent chronic problems.
I like to start with the shoulders. Shoulders should always be down, back, away from your ears. Imagine the bottoms of your shoulder blades being drawn downward and together. When you do this, your neck naturally lengthens, which is good. Imagine that there’s a cord attached to the top of your head, being pulled gently upward. The back of your neck will stretch slightly, and your chin will tuck in just a little bit. This puts your upper body into proper alignment, which is crucial for preventing certain types of headaches. It also opens your chest, which encourages deep breathing.
Pelvic posture is a bit more complicated. Our spines aren’t meant to be perfectly straight. There are two natural curves forward, toward the front of our bodies, one around waste level, and one at the back of the neck. A defining feature of poor posture is when one of these curves is too exaggerated, or too flat. Weak abdominal muscles or carrying a lot of belly fat are common ways in which the curve in the low back can become exadurated, an unfortunate occurrence that can lead in short order to nasty and chronic low back pain. Stand with your weight distributed evenly on both feet, being conscious of distributing your weight throughout your feet, feeling your toes, and the outer edges pressing evenly into the ground. This stance helps center your balance point, making it easier to feel if you’re carrying your pelvis too far forward. Experiment with gently contracting your abdominal muscles, not only pulling your belly button toward your spine, but possibly tilting your pelvis a bit by lengthening your lower back.
Stretching and strengthening exercises are an excellent way to begin to improve your posture. It’s also extremely valuable to have someone spot you. Any physical therapist or yoga instructor will be able to critique how you carry yourself, and suggest improvements. The key is retraining yourself. Check in with your self at least a dozen times a day: “Are my shoulders down and back? Is my core engaged?” Posture is largely a matter of habit, and it can absolutely be relearned. Hunching our shoulders may be a response to apprehension, but it doesn’t really protect us from anything. When we make a conscious choice about how to carry ourselves, we send a definite message to the world, and also to our own sense of ourselves. A confident, grounded stance causes a positive feedback loop, and can prevent lots of chronic, painful biomechanical conditions, that nobody wants.