(This is Part 3 of the Repetitive Strain Series)
In the last post, I talked about three habits that make you vulnerable to repetitive strain injuries (RSI). In this post, I’ll delve deeper into posture, the first of these habits.
What Is Good Posture?
As you experienced when you lifted your phone (experiment in previous post), how you sit can make a big difference in the comfort of your arms, shoulders and back. You’ve likely heard teachers, fitness professionals and health practitioners say things like sit up “straight”, “open your chest”, “pull your shoulders down and back”, etc. These common instructions not only take a narrow view of posture, but they are also fundamentally flawed.
First, your spine isn’t meant to be straight. The natural curves in your spine have a functional purpose. The inward curve in your low back creates a base of support from your body’s center of mass, similar to a stone arch way. The outward curve in your mid and upper back balances the curve of your lumbar, as well as provides space for your lungs and other internal organs. The inward curve in your neck balances the upper back curve and supports the weight of your head. These curves in your spine work harmoniously to give you flexibility, strength and ease in being upright.
Second, you are not static. As a living being, you’re moving all the time. Even when you’re sitting or standing quietly, there’s still movement, such as your torso changing shape as you breathe, your eyes moving or changing focus and continuous micro-movements (known as postural sway) to maintain your balance being upright.
Finally, consciously arranging yourself into the idea of what the “correct” position is, is a recipe for failure. Being designed for movement, there is no one correct position—certainly not one you want to stay in all the time. Besides, you are not a car made from various parts; you are one, whole organism. Imagine if you were building a house and thought it would be aesthetically pleasing to shift the second floor 20 feet to the right of the first floor. Without any structural support, the second floor would fall, and in the process, damage other parts of the house.
When you fragment yourself into parts and try to achieve a particular alignment, you sever the organic relationships between the parts of your body. Not only does an imposed posture require muscular effort to hold that position, but it can also cause mechanical strain, pain and injury.
But “Good” Posture Requires Effort, Right?
Our culture values working hard. If you’re not exerting yourself (physically, mentally or emotionally), you may feel unproductive or that you’re not doing it “right”.
This thinking even permeates into ideas about posture. If people don’t feel their muscles working, they often think they’re not doing something they should be. For many, actively engaging muscles to “stand up straight” feels satisfying and correct.
But evolutionarily, sitting, standing and walking is meant to be as effortless as possible so as not to interfere with your breathing and to have the strength and energy to use them powerfully in activities that require them (such as lifting, pushing, running, climbing, etc.).
Exercise: Moving Your Head and Shoulders into a “Correct” Position
Here are two short experiments to feel what happens when you intentionally move body parts into a position thought of as being good posture.
Head and Neck Alignment
Move your head backward (i.e. pull your chin in) so your ears are in line with your shoulders (as you’ve likely seen on diagrams of proper posture). Note what happens in your throat, shoulders, neck and back. Do the muscles in these places work more or less? Are you able to breathe more or less easily? Rest then repeat a few times. How much effort does it take to have your head in this position? How comfortable would your neck and shoulders be after 10 minutes of holding this?
Pull your shoulders down and back into the position people often tout as “good” posture. As you do this, observe what happens in your neck, upper and lower back. Does tension increase or decrease in these places? Let your shoulders return to their original place, pause for a breath, then repeat the movement. Again, feeling the effects in your neck and back, as well as your breathing. If you needed to hold this for 2 hours—or just 10 minutes—how would you feel?
An Alternative Approach to Good Posture
Now, I’m not saying posture isn’t incredibly important—just that the best and most sustainable alignment is developed organically through your whole self. The most effective way I know to do this is the Feldenkrais Method®. By paying attention, reducing unnecessary effort, doing movement explorations and noticing differences, relationships between various parts of you are revived and changes are stimulated at a neurological level. The result is almost always “better” posture.
Next month I’ll lead you in ways to improve your sitting. As being upright becomes clearer, your neck, shoulders and back will be more at ease and available for movement—movement that will support your hands and arms to prevent or recover from repetitive strain injuries!
Go Easy on Yourself
In the meantime, I give you permission to stop trying to make yourself sit or stand with “good posture” (or feel badly when you’re not making efforts to do this!). Even if you managed to assume one position every time you sat, no matter how perfect, you’d end up stiff and tired. This is because the human body is designed for movement. Allowing yourself to have variety in how you sit is the best way to stay comfortable. And yes, even your favorite slumped position can be one of the options!