The Harmonious Body: A Postural Manifesto
“The soul pauses not. In its world is incessant movement. Genius has no retrospect. Virtue has no memory. And that is the law for man. Live without interval: if you rest on your oars, if you stop, you fall. He only is wise who thinks now; who reproduces all his experience for the present exigency; as a man stands on his feet only by a perpetual play and adjustment of the muscles. A dead body or a statue cannot be set up in the upright posture without support. You must live even to stand.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Posture is a strange and contentious topic. This article aims to begin to unpack what posture is from a number of angles. Why it is an essential concept and finally (and most importantly) what we need to know in order to do something about it.
As we will see posture is pivotal in how we are perceived by others and how we experience the world.
‘Define your terms, Gentlemen’
As a descriptive word ‘posture’ is far from perfect. Posture signifies that a thing is held static in motion. Other terms that are synonymous are: structure, attitude and stance. Then there are more archaic terms such as ‘deportment’ and ‘carriage’ – that connote more to emotion, impression and locomotion. They are still only facets of the thing being described, yet come much closer to the quality desired. Alas, they have largely fallen out of the common vernacular.
The point here is that these older terms clearly describe a dynamic quality of a well adapted and proficient body. Perhaps ‘dynamic posture’ will have to do for this age.
Movement pioneer Moshe Feldenkreis addressed this issue by differentiating between ‘posture’ and ‘acture’. That is to say, the static shape our form has in standing and then the shapes the body goes through in motion are related but not the same.
A brief history of posture
So where did it all begin and where the hell are we going? The pre-history of posture is understudied (and to a large extent ‘unstudiable’). There is, however, enough to suggest that certain contemporary beliefs on posture warrant deeper examination.
There has been endless discussions on what it is that makes human beings human.
Our upright posture is one of the chief contenders. Continually having the spine upright in the gravitational field has vastly different mechanics from a spine that is horizontal and supported from both shoulders and pelvis. Here it is useful to remember that though the human form in some ways is unique, the common origin displays itself in our structure and its movement repertoire.
Bipedalism aside, the movement patterns of our oldest ancestors are still with us.
But what was the reason that we ‘stood up’ in the first place? Some theories suggest that it in doing so we could spot both predators and pray more easily. This would have been immensely helpful for the hominids on the grasslands of Africa. Following on from this is the idea that it would have aided in foraging for food (hands are freed for doing a variety of tasks). It enabled too enabled wielding tools. The gradual move to an upright stance also allowed for the development of human gait. Which is often seen as an adaptation that lead to persistence hunting. (1)
Another view is that standing up had a more aggressive genesis: a comparative advantage in power generation is gained. This is highly useful if you are going to punch/slap/crush/bludgeon the bejesus out of your opponent. (2)
In any case we did begin stand up some ~4.4 million years ago (3). Our upright posture remains in large part a defining feature of our species. In being truly human we have to continually contend with standing up and balance ourselves against gravity’s downward pull.
Lucy and Victoria
Posture is the living, continual relationship between the human structure and its response to gravity. The problem in studying the history of posture lies precisely in the word living.
Posture is best understood in vivo.
In examining into pre-history we can in some ways only know the ‘hard tissue’ of history – bones, arrowheads and monuments. We don’t know the soft tissues; the cultural technologies and ceremonies that allowed tribes to continue for 10s of 1000s of years, for instance. They could have had far more evolved practices for ritual, gestural and postural cuing that allowed other forms of communication and we would be none the wiser now. Say if we take a bardic poem – likely it induced felt emotional states and communicated emotional knowledge and lessons is visceral-symbolic form. (4)
(10,000 year old bone, from Denmark, these prehistoric stick figures seems to be well oriented in space)
Of course, we still do need to consider what the boney record might have to tell us. But in the absence of strong surviving evidence it is impossible to ascertain a great deal about the postures of our oldest ancestors. Even if we have some remains they can hardly be taken to be an average of what humans at that time were like. One way to get around this particular problem would be to do extensive studies on non-western populations, particularly focusing on their posture.
Postures have probably always had some element of geographical variation. In one anthropological study more than 1000 (!) postures was described across cultures. Sitting with legs crossed in front was found much more frequently in the Indian subcontinent. Meanwhile certain American Indian tribes were found to sit with legs straight out in front more often. ( 5 )
In the realm of folk dancing an even more curious divide is in place. The folk dances of the North largely keep the pelvis and torso in alignment (line dancing is a good example). Below this geographical line, from the Mediterranean all the way across Asia to the Pacific, the folk dances tend to have the torso and pelvis move independently of each other. Belly dance, the dances of Thailand, Brazillian Samba and of course Polynesian Hula all display this exquisite pelvic control. Maybe this is the genesis of “white boy hips”?
A study of the relative incidence of spinal pathology in a Indian rural population with a western group as controls. The thing to note here is the bottom part of the graph. There is virtually no disc narrowing in the Indian population, while it is very prevalent in the Western group. As such, there is some evidence that suggests that spinal degeneration exists to a much lesser degree in some cultures. A proviso: I am emphatically not saying that spinal degeneration = pain, simply that spinal degeneration equals wear.
This does raise the question how cultural practices shape our bodies over time.
As we go further, let us consider what the written history might tell us.
(Egyptians liked straight things)
The Egyptian culture, which antedates that of Greece by at least a few thousand years, certainly had an understanding of human form and what ‘up’ is. Egyptian Medicine is also one of the first places we begin to see well defined methods of working with the body. The ‘Ramesseum Medical Papyrii’ from 1800BC discusses the structure of the body, and a text believed to be from 3400 BC touches on bone setting. (6)
Not all was well and good in Egypt though; the famous Tutankhamun was no shining beacon of health or great posture: “Picture instead a frail, weak boy who had a bit of a club foot and who needed a cane to walk.” (7) Chair-sitting and multigenerational incest had a price.
Posture was certainly a topic of both philosophy and art in ancient Greece:
“Plato’s definition of “Man” is subject to interpretation, but one famous anecdote gives an explicit (if satirical) Platonic definition. Based on the Dialogues, animals were classified into quadrupeds and bipeds, and then divided among those with feathers (birds) and those without. Plato (and possibly Socrates) commented that Man stood upright on two legs without feathers, making him distinct from other animals; this definition was rebuffed by Diogenes of Sinope, who brought Plato a plucked chicken as an example of “Plato’s Man.” After consideration, Plato amended the definition to include “broad, flat nails,” differentiating from a plucked chicken’s talons. His definition, then, is that “Man is an upright, featherless biped with broad, flat nails.” (8)
Philosophical differences aside, the Greeks had a highly accurate understanding of posture.
Some of the older statues from Greece (the archaic period 500-600BC) show a remarkable composition with great balance in the structure. Later statues from the neoclassical (Farnese Hercules is dated 216 AD) does not show quite the same structural elegance. Some of these differences can be put down to the position depicted.
The Farnese Hercules is leaning against a support, suggestive that he is resting after work, while the Archaic figures have postures that indicates rest and readiness. The difference in style aside both indicate that humans knew what good posture was. Good posture was en vogue some 2,500 years ago. While Hercules may lack the poise of the Archaic statues, his forearms and obliques largely make up for it. In point of fact you’d have to be a bodyworker to see the far right image as being dysfunctional. As one colleague remarked: if this Heracles was around today he would simply and swiftly club to death anyone who mentioned his dysfunctional ‘spiral lines.’
(Archaic statues on the left, neo-classical Farnese Hercules on the right).
Moving forward more than a thousand years to The Renaissance.
For our inquiry into posture two men’s work stand out. Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Michelangelo’s David being one of the finest achievements in the history of art. In a certain way trying to explain David is an absolute exercise in futility (like explaining a zen koan), but let us just consider the structure for a moment: The body proportions are perfectly balanced against each other. He is weighted on one leg – just about to move perhaps – he remains balanced on his supporting leg, also not having any of the rigidity seen in later periods.
Da Vinci’s anatomical work fleshes things out more than Michelangelo. With The Vitruvian man we have an exercise in seeing balance and symmetry in the human form – it takes on a quality of perfect geometry. The dissections of the human being yielded further insights. Compare the spinal sketches of Da Vinci with modern anatomy texts and the normal spine appears to have changed shape. Da Vinci and even early 19th century medical texts show a spine that is more shallow, while the modern medical texts show a more pronounced S-shape as the norm. While not a proof onto itself, it is suggesting that the recent history of human isn’t one of progress as far as structure is concerned.
(compare spinal from 1500’s with a modern representation, the modern spine shows a more pronounced S-curve).
In thinking about ‘the history of posture’ the first image that comes to mind is often that of an extremely erect person from the Victorian Era (1837-1901).
The Victorian era’s concern with posture were as much a cultural and a behavioral phenomenon as a bodily one.
The posture and general uprightness was all about being an upstanding ideal citizen. In seeing the imagery now one can almost hear the thinking ‘ I must not let the earthly desires take root, I must not let the earthly desires take root, … must not … ’ . These prudish concerns birthed a culture of ‘uptightness’ – the ‘stiff upper lip’ was born. Today these notions seem quaint, but their echoes are still felt.
If anything it is a good example of how culture and body are interdependent.
Further, if there is one lesson here, it is not all ways to get to a straighter structure are created equal. If this gain in straightness comes at the expense of all non-kosher desires and emotions then better pass on the whole thing. Of course this approach served a definite societal and cultural purpose at the time.
From the Victorian age and onwards rigidity gradually gave way to more fluid and relaxed bodily ideals. The ‘heresy-orthodoxy pendulum’ started shifting. The counterculture of the 1960es and 1970es was a particular rejection of norms around bodily culture; however the opposite of a bad idea is most often just another bad idea.
Postural Consumerism [the body of the body]
Continuing the theme of bad ideas. It seems to be a particular feature of the western psyche to want to solve problems related to the body by way of techno-fixes.
Why do the work required to change the relationship with the body?! You can buy a gizmo that will do it for you (and it’s only $79.95!)- and ‘proven by Science’, too.
(A modern example of a posture product. The pastel colored tees are not included in the price)
“Any culture that decides to sit on chairs must come to terms with a challenging reality: human posture. The first person to recognize the connection between sitting and posture was the eighteenth-century French physician Nicolas Andry de Boisregard. Andry was a pioneer in the field of orthopedics—he coined the term—and in his 1741 treatise he described the connection between healthy sitting posture and chairs. “When one sits with the body bended backwards, the back must necessarily be crooked inwards,” he wrote, “and when one sits upon a hollow seat, the effort which one naturally makes, and without any design, to bring the body to an equilibrium, must of necessity make the back still more crooked.” The hollow seat referred to the concave woven rush seats of ordinary chairs, which tended to sag over time. To improve posture, Andry proposed adding an adjustable screw that would push up on the seat from beneath, keeping it flat.” (9)
‘Inward crookedness’ has not exactly declined since 1741. Recently sitting has been labeled the new smoking and while this is hyperbole, it is not like there isn’t a problem here.
Part of the issue is a poor understanding of human anatomy; sitting upright for an extended period is only possible if sitting on the sits bones (which in the current view on things is a slightly anteverted pelvis). This can be achieved if the seat is flat or slightly tilted forward. Many modern chairs are practically impossible to sit in with using proper mechanics. The irony is that many of these chairs are expensive ‘ergonomically’ designed.
Some Ergonomic ideas are coming from the perspective that the human body is inherently flawed, and must be corrected by way of technology. The same can be found in shoe design. Because of supposed shortcomings of human anatomy features like arch-support, cushioning and heel lift found their way into shoes (largely in the last 50 years). For the non-infirm the trouble is that these advanced design features means that the human structure does not get a sufficiently stimulated.
“This is why, for example, clothing – what Erasmus of Rotterdam called “the body of the body” is a controversial issue in nearly every society, and why departure from the norm (e.g., hippies, beatniks, punks) generates such a storm. Any public shift to the kinesthetic threatens to blow the whistle on the agreedupon visual game, which a somatically alienated culture both longs for and fears. (Ever wonder why corporate executives make money and mime performers do not?)”
– Coming to Our Senses – Morris Berman
Clothing and furniture says much about a culture. Departing from the culturally permitted attire is taboo precisely because it is ‘the body of the body’. It has many subclinical connotations. Only socially sanctioned artistic geniuses have social permission to break the clothing taboo. Following from this: ‘Vibram 5 fingers’ provoked a taboo response when they first came out but are now part and parcel of the dreary religion of ‘barefooting’, squatty potties and evolutionary psychology. Now just as disenchanted as any office dweller their heresy was meant to cure.
(At the time this was a technologically advanced way of achieving a beautiful posture)
Standing work stations have gone through the same evolution. Now they are mainstream solutions to the ‘sitting epidemic’. This line of inquiry can be boiled down to something like “Posture for increased worker productivity.” And while they may offer relief in some cases there is more than a little irony in trying to solve a technological problems with further technological fixes.
It harkens to the deeper problem: If you do not put in the energy to change (do an appropriate amount of physical work) do you deserve the results?
Maybe just maybe it is time to walk away from the desk and lift something heavy … or will you let OH&S stickers and guidelines keep your life comfortably mediocre ?
Heat or Why Effort Is Necessary.
Posture and strength are interrelated. They can be worked as seemingly independent qualities, but the truth they influence each other profoundly. As I have talked about elsewhere for physical work in general lifting heavy objects is mandatory for human beings who are not in some way incapacitated. It is baked into the cake of living a human life.
Posture concerns itself with the human body and its relationship with gravity. In this perspective strength work really is normal ‘every day’ gravity cubed. A weighted squat is getting up from the ground against more than normal gravity. Over time, we expose ourselves to more and more resistance – akin to gradually visiting planets with a stronger and stronger gravitational pull. For bodyweight variations of strength work the principle is the same, although the logic works a little bit different because we then have to manipulate leverage instead. But again it all comes back to how much we can do under the pernicious influence of gravity.
As a teacher of mine pointed out ‘the average humans of today are just too god damn weak’ . On average we are likely to be the weakest humans ever historically speaking. If we do not possess much physiological headroom then arguably all other attempts at postural work is not going to work out as great as they could. If we have the strength to contend with 2G then we will be much better off than if 1,1G is a struggle.
Within strength work itself posture can be roughly translated to form: How well do you execute a particular movement pattern? Obviously good form is better than bad form. That one needs to use correct form to utilise the correct musculature is well established. Recent movement culture ‘every position loading’ complexity and anti-fragility aside (which is more just spicing than fundamentally changing the nature of physical training.)
With these considerations out of the way, let us not fall victim to ‘perfect form’ to the point of never progressing in intensity (resistance). We can call this ‘the pilates paradox’. In the grand scheme of things we want to focus on compound movements that work the whole body. Making sure that – especially the legs and large muscles of the back – are worked thoroughly.
It is grand to have a big bench but it is not going to do much to improve our structure. It is reasonably common to see various specialists in strength work with serious postural distortions; climbers and bench pressers being good examples.
(you may lift, bro, but it is highly unlikely that you have pythonic erectors like Kolotov)
Strength work that is prescribed to work upon posture often focuses only the particular areas that are seen as being weak and consequently causing the bad posture. Weak short neck flexors, rhomboids and so forth. Now, there is nothing wrong with working on these areas. Isolation exercises have their place for sure. However, no one is going to MacKenzie-chin-tuck their way to a good weighted squat. Even if you succeed in strengthening these areas you are still left with a weak structure in general. Not a good situation, no matter how good the intentions. This is shirking the intensity of life: Do some nice pilates to ‘tone things up’, ‘feel a little burn’ and ‘get a light sweat’. For the love of Brodin: ‘Train with the intensity of life and death’.
Engaging in sanely planned whole body general strength work will strengthen almost everything. Even structures that are not seen to be worked will strengthen, possibly from systemic hormonal and neural influences.
This is skillful application of training economy.
Yanking on a light theraband for endless reps will not change body structure – and for Baals sake put down those wretched pink dumbbells!
It is a shame not to be working on this particular aspect of our bodies. Strength work remains a multiplier in a number of fields. And so if our overarching goal with training at some point in time is the improvement in posture, strength work will be a major aspect.
Strength work is not the only active physical work one can undertake. Flexibility work affects posture, too.
In at least two ways posture relates to flexibility.
The ability to move about fluidly depends on having ample bodily flexibility. It is still all too common to hear that flexibility cannot really be changed (this viewpoint is still legion, even among the well informed).
The statement goes something like this: at best you will get a temporary improvement before the body reverts to its old pattern. It is simply not possible to change flexibility in the adult human. Granted it may well be true for what most people understand as stretching (try and reach for your toes passively for 30 seconds).
(if this is the thing you call stretching, yes, then it probably does not work.)
This however does not mean that other types of stretching cannot and does not yield permanent changes in the adult human. It is not just the ‘what’ that is important, how it is done is much more important (and the ‘how long’ of the how.) None of this ‘i tried it for a few months, it didn’t work. First you need to learn to work – then apply regularly over time, like weight training/progressive overload but with different mechanisms and qualities. .
As far as stretching is concerned, if the method is sound and the effort is sustained over a long period these changes can be quite dramatic. How quickly results come about vary from person to person. Some stretching methods work better for some phenotypes. Training history and other factors also come into play. All this is to say that there is an art/science to this type of training, not just ‘stretch for 30 seconds’ or ‘contract for a count of ‘5’ – ‘5,4,3,2,1’ – exhale’ (robotic passive stretching and robotic contract-relax stretching’.)
This is not one or two isolated cases either, while it is impossible to quantify with exactitude the counter-examples likely number in the millions. Having someone become more flexible does not prove that the particular method always works for everyone. But even if it only happens once it falsifies the notion that stretching “does not work”.
In practice stretching works just fine (and likely has for thousands of years). Are there a lot of studies to prove this? No – not huge amounts. But this merely points to exactly how science almost by necessity will trail behind practical ‘in the trenches’ methods. In this particular instance science has not caught up with reality. The point here is not to dismiss scientific inquiry – it is simply that in training pragmatism rules supreme. In fact the presentation of the practical results and their study IS real science, in its older sense. It is a nice comforting statement to say that your training is ‘evidence-based’ – the thing is this does nothing in terms of quality of evidence or quality of human assessing said evidence. Study who is over-using ‘evidence-based’ and you get an interesting type of meta-information, which itself is a higher form of empiricism.
A deeper point here is that all science that concerns itself with the body and the experiences of the body cannot have the researcher simply be an impartial observer. The degree to which the person has worked on themselves – physically, mentally, emotionally – becomes the critical factor. If the researcher cannot feel and work with their own body to any significant degree, or perceive qualities in the body that only come from long, practical training – then they are unlikely to be able to find any such thing in their research (confirmation bias). And all this before taking into account the fact the researcher may have many subconscious scripts running that want not to find certain things in their research.
A survey of therapies
There are a number of contemporary body therapies that – at least in part – aim to improve posture. Here we will consider the ‘Big 3’ of manual medicine: physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy. There are other therapies that are more ‘pure’ posture methods: Rolfing/structural integration, Alexander Technique , Feldenkreis, Dance Medicine and so forth, but they are relatively small fish in comparison. The Big 3 are more often than not the therapies we seek out to get help. Within The Big 3 posture is a topic of increasing controversy. Particularly within physiotherapy, the pendulum is swinging more in the direction of pain science and away from structural work.
It should be made clear that all of these therapies tend to vary according to geography. Physical therapists’ education for instance vary all the way from little formal education to doctoral studies. Osteopathy is a part of allopathic medicine in the US, but is considered alternative medicine in other places.
Physiotherapy is the primary mainstream rehabilitative therapy in most modern Western cultures – it is considered an allied health profession (as opposed to alternative). “Physical therapy attempts to address the illnesses, or injuries that limit a person’s abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives.” (10). Postural analysis is an aspect of an overall physical assessment. The treatments of physical therapy include: Kinesiology, electrotherapy, shockwaves, joint mobilization and exercise prescriptions. The emphasis on exercise prescriptions is one of the main differentiating factors from other types of therapy. Thus postural distortions that are giving rise to symptoms are likely to be treated with specific exercises rehabilitative exercises.
While a physiotherapist might not necessarily focus overly on posture, a chiropractor is more likely to view postural analysis as an essential part of the assessment.
The central tenet of chiropractic medicine is that good spinal function is instrumental to proper function of the musculoskeletal and neurological system. To this end the treatment focuses on proper alignment of the spine, this is primarily achieved through a series of adjustments. In a small circle of chiropractors there is also a belief that many pathologies and chronic illnesses, not related to the musculoskeletal system, can be treated with spinal manipulation alone.
A consultation focused on posture is also likely to include reeducation of how to perform everyday activities (sitting, standing and sleeping) and exercises to do at home.
Chiropractic medicine is focused on manipulation of bones especially the spinal column. Whereas chiropractic is somewhat ‘boney tissue over soft tissue’, osteopathic medicine is more ‘soft tissues over boney tissues’. Differences aside Osteopathic Medicine, too, at its root, focuses on the relationship between the musculoskeletal system and overall health:
“ The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) state that the four major principles of osteopathic medicine are the following:
The body is an integrated unit of mind, body, and spirit.
The body possesses self-regulatory mechanisms, having the inherent capacity to defend, repair, and remodel itself.
Structure and function are reciprocally interrelated.
Rational therapy is based on consideration of the first three principles.”
Osteopaths’ see structure (posture?) and the functioning of the human organism as inherently interlinked.
The osteopathic treatment tend to focus on soft tissue manipulation as the primary method of treatment (or at least utilised before boney adjustment); typical techniques include myofascial release, counterstrain and muscle energy. But can also include bony adjustment. The work is often of a more global in nature than the chiropractic treatment.
Physiotherapy is viewed as the only non-alternative body therapy in many countries.
If you look up the Wikipedia entry for Chiropractic Medicine (or Osteopathy) you will find it in the group of ‘alternative and pseudo-medicine’. Here they join ranks with the likes of scientific racism, urine therapy, vaginal steaming and coffee enemas (!)
This war of words has more to do with allopathic medicine being the arbiter of medical reality in our culture than anything else. Physiotherapy is the allopathic body therapy, sanctioned by the ‘church’. Other therapies are attacked in a knee-jerk reactionary fashion. Notwithstanding that many alternative therapies are indeed bogus and of dubious efficacy. There is a near total blindness to the fact that techniques and insights from chiropractic and osteopathy have made their way into physiotherapy. To use a religious metaphor, it is blessed with holy water, has seen the light and now serve the-one-true-way.
“Evidence-based practices are more often than not based upon the wrong evidence.”
Unbeknownst to some, I have actually completed full medical training in Denmark. It is fine training to be sure – a grand understanding of anatomy, physiology and pathology are all highly useful when working with the body. That being said, I chose not to activate the training, but to do something else instead. Readers may interpret what I am saying here to be a rejection of allopathic medicine. This is emphatically not the case, and again points to the knee-jerk binary reactions all too common in this age. I am making a case for pragmatism and embodied cognition and perception when training and researching the body.
So, returning to the “big 3” – they are indeed recognized as well defined independent entities. The trouble is that they often merge with each other in the world of clinical practice. I have had the pleasure of meeting very high level practitioners from all three and other related fields.
They did not fit neatly into any of these proverbial boxes. It should also be clear from the foregoing that all of the modalities are covering much of the same territory, you may well receive some kind of soft-tissue work, bony adjustment and exercise prescription regardless of who you visit. Much of the ‘clash of three titans’ boils down to issues of professional jealousy, ‘tribal warfare’ and the politics of experience.
Let’s move from the specifics of therapeutics to broader cultural implications of posture.
To fully appreciate posture we have to examine the notion of posture as a cultural concept . Humans are cultural beings after all. We do not act solely from strict animalistic physical necessity. It is an intriguing line of inquiry – much can be learned from considering the consequences of culture.
That is to say that cultural practices and traditions have real physical correlates, the zeitgeist gets written into the bodies of the time. It is my contention that the makeup of the body fundamentally affects how we experience and perceive the world, in very strong and yet paradoxically subliminal ways. After all the body is the only instrument we have for engaging with the world.
This article does in no way aim to give an exhaustive account of all the manifestations and implications of cultural posture (this has already been considered at great length elsewhere) (11). So at present a few highlights of the more recent cultural history of posture in the west will have to suffice.
The military was in many ways the breeding ground for postural ideas in the West.
Bodily prowess has always been of high importance for humans. In the military it is a matter of nothing less than life and death. From the 17th century onwards military writings began to focus on posture as a central quality when learning how to fight (drill manuals). Jacob de Gheyn’s ‘The Exercise of Armes’ from 1607 is the first clear example of this type of manual. The interest in this field is obvious: Of course you want any advantage you can get when fighting with halberds. What these instructions brought forth was that an upright posture was an indispensable quality for fighting and marching (whether this is true is another matter). The good military man was a ‘straight military man’. Military posture was born. To this day military parades today still holds displays rigid posturing.
(from the Exercise of Armes, a very upright fellow with a pointy weapon)
Military posture was closely tied in with a nations ‘posture’ and character. Perhaps the best example of this movement instigated by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (early 1800’s Prussia, present day Germany) :
“Brooding upon what he saw as the humiliation of his native land by Napoleon, Jahn conceived the idea of restoring the spirits of his countrymen by the development of their physical and moral powers through the practice of gymnastics.” (12)
The whole spirit of a nation is to be rectified through proper physical work.
A century later, at the end of the 19th century the position of Jews in European societies was under pressure. There was a struggle for basic civic rights but equally a struggle for identity. In the eyes of many the Jewish body was weak and crooked. Max Nordau an early force in the Zionist movement offered a solution to the whole conundrum. It was encapsulated in the phrase Muskeljudentum (Muscular Judaism). The development of body as a way of making social reform.
The linking of social, political and religious reform with the body found across the globe at the time. In the English speaking countries we find the ‘Muscular Christianity’ movement. On the Indian subcontinent schools of yoga (and bodybuilding) were vital for fostering new and better Indians. The self-image of India desperately needed revitalization after the long period of colonization – Indian physical culture was something to be proud of. In some cases schools of yoga acting as front; concealing insurgent activities from the British colonial powers. (13)
Posture encompass a moral and ethical quality – at least it did for figures such as Jahn and Nordau. Ida Rolf had her ‘moral physiology’ idea: that anything that broke the structural-physiological code was not moral at a deeper, non-cultural human level.
The way in which we describe moral character harkens back to our bodily structure. To consider whether a person is telling the truth, is to consider whether he is talking ’straight’. To be ‘an upstanding’ citizen is someone who is dependable and trustworthy. To be ‘crooked’ or a ‘crook’ (criminal) is also a postural metaphor.
It has been argued that the development of dance from the 17th century until the 1940’s largely was a mirror image of the development of the development of the military posture. Dance posture became straighter when military posture became more rigid. Classical ballet is perhaps the best example of this. Contemporary dance is the recent major development that rejects the straight body posture altogether.
Cultural ideas about posture has – indeed – had an impact in many areas: medicine, literature, philosophy, politics, art and of course in the military. Is it so strange? We cannot remove our physical selves from inquiry. The body is a primary metaphor for making sense of culture. And the more harmonious the body operates the more sense can be made. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that any discussion of posture that attempts to treat it only as a body or only as cultural phenomenon misses the mark.
Yes, of course, we are cultural beings and we may never have a discussion of the body entirely devoid of cultural factors. It is also true that the notions of good and bad postures are designations that we would be better served to get rid of especially when they come with moralistic and political undertones (at least non-physiological moralism).
We are left with the idea that the cultural body is of primary concern. To paraphrase, ‘As the culture changes, so does the bodies’. Turnvater Jahn’s insight was that it also works in reverse: Change body and you change the culture. Analyzing the body from an exclusively cultural perspective is much too myopic and yields nothing new. We must change the body first.
The body can and should be considered as a microcosm itself. It is not “all relative”. There are postural practices that are more adaptable and respectful of human physiology.
The opposite viewpoint – cultural absolutism – is simply post-modernistic nonsense veiling itself in obscure discourse. Disembodied mentation is not a worthy undertaking. Posture is a contentious issue that the mentation-only researcher can only see a sliver of. It leads to thinking about changing posture – and for all the wrong reasons. In fact, THINKING about changing posture IS one of the key problems.
You need to be bodying and emoting about posture – not just mentating. Academic discourse, being hyper-cephalic, lacks embodied cognition. Sure, it has its place – but from this standpoint you cannot ever unify posture with a third of the information.
Just look at the TED talks on posture and body language by academics!
“It is necessary to dwell upon this because the intellectualism of contemporary education
imbues people with a propensity and a tendency to look for logical definitions and for
logical arguments against everything they hear and, without noticing it, people
unconsciously fetter themselves with their desire, as it were, for exactitude in those spheres
where exact definitions, by their nature, imply inexactitude in meaning.”
G.I. Gurdjieff as quoted in In Search of the Miraculous
There are many fragments of posture – some well researched, others nearly completely lacking – but no unified whole.
To bring it together we need to return to the body.
Posture in Bodywork
A chief aim in bodywork has long been the improvement of the human structure.
The tools and cosmologies of these modalities differ but many of the underlying aims are the same. There has been many childish squabbles over the superiority of different tool sets. Recently, in a ‘postural heresy’ pain science has claimed much of the over the bio-mechanical model. [More on this later on]
As already mentioned, posture is not static. Even so, an examination of the fundamental human resting positions are a necessary part of evaluating posture. How we sit, stand and sleep matters and contains critical information. Of course we need to go further and include dynamic elements too. Which is to say that a postural analysis necessarily contains within it an analysis of the human in locomotion. That is gait analysis. Even better still is to get a feel for how the movement quality is in a more general sense.
In viewing posture from a bodywork perspective we have to consider certain common postural patterns. Discussing all possible postural distortions and their causes belongs in the realm of textbooks. Instead let us review a few different ways to look at general postural distortions.
A fundamental idea in bodywork surrounding posture is the stacking of the human structure. Ear, shoulder, hips, knees and ankle falling in a straight line. Displacement of any body part away from this line creates a strain that has to be countered by adaptions in soft-tissues and bony structures. Simple enough – but how often do we bring this to fully to life? The woeful movement patterns of many bodyworkers, for instance. And the silenced sensations of most ‘movers’. Unity eludes us.
There is a predictable pattern to these tissue adaptations. The antagonistic relationship between chest and back, hips and hamstrings and so forth. Much of this based on the principle of inhibition. The insights of Janda’s work and patterns is mainly in the seeing of the patterning of inhibition and facilitation being mapped to the human form in sagittal plane. This is often described as the upper cross and lower cross syndromes, the double cross (see figure below). ‘Facilitated’ means tissues that tends towards being overactive and ‘tight’. While ‘inhibited’ signifies tissues tissues on the opposite end of the spectrum: lacking tone while not being tight. Both can contain properties with the propensity of creating sensori-motor amnesia in the body.
The human body responds to stress with a flexion response.
This is a pattern we see in most of the bodies that make up modern civilization. That is to say that personal history, build, training history and traumatic incidents lock the body into flexion patterns – often overruling motion potential and giving rise to other noxious manifestations in the system. The work of Rolf and Myers added much in the way of ‘mapping the complexity’ in terms of spiral patterns and global inhibitory patterns, to the pioneering work of Janda.
A big word for a relatively simple concept. It is the amnesia (forgetting) of the ability to accurately feel the sensations of the body and of the capacity to execute certain motor patterns. The reversal of this conundrum means paying attention to the sensations of the body, retraining basic movement patterns and learning to use new patterns of posture, gesture and motion.
“Head and Holmes figured out that, like touch information, signals from your body’s musculoskeletal system are carried into your brain to determine your posture and the position of your limbs. According to Head, we build up internal postural models of ourselves in conjunction with models of the surface of our bodies. He dubbed this the body schemata (now just called body schema), defined as “organized models of ourselves.”
– S.Blakeslee – The Body Has A Mind of Its Own
Another way to think of this phenomenon is that the meta-maps that we carry around about ourselves are not as accurate as they could be.
It is hardly an overstatement to say that the somatic education of today’s culture has missed the mark [has sinned]. There is funding and encouragement for competitive sports, but the baseline understanding of the body in this much more fundamental way in sorely lacking.
Which is to say that physical education and physical culture in the West is in very poor shape, indeed.
Anyone engaged in physical training of adults will have some basis of understanding this issue. “Third world” countries are often better off in this regard.
Distribution of strain.
Our understanding of the human body up until this point has basically been the application of basic Newtonian physics to the human structure. Block upon block. Levers and pulleys. Muscles acting upon bones through joints. This muscle contracts concentrically to flex that joint. This other muscle is working eccentrically on the opposite side of the joint. Contractions measured are Newtons. Everything adding up. If only we could quantify all of these forces we should be able to understand what is going on within the human structure. The robot made in flesh. It is certainly a compelling idea for the mechanically inclined humanoid.
It is a good enough metaphor for reaching a certain level of understanding. Unfortunately the human body does not quite work that way. As one researcher puts it:
“If we accept the precepts of most present day biomechanical engineers a 100 kg weight lifted by your average competitive weight lifter will tear his erector spinae muscle, rupture his discs, crush his vertebra and burst his blood vessels (Gracovetsky, 1988).“ – Tensegrity: The New Biomechanics – S.M. Levin, MD. (14)
Buckminster Fuller demonstrating a certain ‘something else’
That ‘something else’ : Muscles, connective tissues, fascia and ligaments (often described as the myofascia) distributes strain in a tensional network. The old adage about everything being connected has a large degree of truth to it. This idea in its purest form can be traced to Buckminster Fuller, who’s tensegrity structures is kept standing from an intricate pattern of tension forces rather than compression.
Taking this idea to the human body Ida Rolf was one of the pioneers in understanding myofascia and how to work with it. Tom Myers has done much to work for this tradition furthering the collective understanding. In Anatomy Trains he points out particular the pathways that these ‘trains’ of connective tissue follows. That is to say that strain is distributed along tracks that flow across the whole body from head to toe. [he is also currently working on ‘plastination’ of the fascial system]
“The harmonious structure of the world depends upon opposite tension like that of the bow and lyre.“
Here in lies one particular salient part of the problem with much of what makes up popular posture-fix-programs. Forward head posture is often treated only with neck exercises only. Neck training is great – but it denies the body the neck is attached to. To get out of this way of thinking a sensible practitioners will often go with a local/global/local approach. Identify what the problem might be on a local level – try to see what is going on with the whole body and work that out – before returning to the local problem. As long as the whole body is considered in conjunction much can be learned from seemingly local issues.
“There are schools of chiropractic that work only in the neck. What they are implying is that any imbalance in the lower part of the body will manifest as imbalance up above. That far, they’re absolutely right. So they say, let’s get the imbalance out of the neck; that far, they are right too. But they’re not getting to the underpinning – for me, balance in the neck is inextricably tied up with balance in the whole body. To get balance in the neck, you must bring harmony to the rest of the body first.”
– Ida Rolf in Ida Rolf Talks
Going further still, the human body is layered when it comes to its soft tissues. And there are mechanisms of inhibition and facilitation related to the communication between these layers. The extrinsic (muscles) are largely concerned with the generation of large amount of power and tend to be more superficial, but lacks fine motor skills. Think about the prime movers, the large gluteal muscles are an example of this system. The intrinsic muscles are largely concerned fine motor control and gestural actions, but are not capable of much power generation. The deep para-vertebral muscles are an example of this system.
For full expression of the human form these two systems need to be in balance. Coming back to the local/ global – idea now: think about ‘keystone structures’ – like the arch in architecture. Some muscles have far more influence than others. If they are off the whole structure is functioning at a lower capacity.
Potentially they are ‘strange attractors’ to use chaos theory speech.
So, we have the ‘armour’ and power producing prime movers. Then the intrinsic fine motor control and gestural intrinsics. Then we have a special class of (usually) intrinsic muscles that have emergent properties [keystone]. When they work well they enhance both intrinsic and extrinsic expression. When they are fucked, they close down huge aspects of the sensory and motor system and lead to ‘pain’ – and also likely to some health problems.
The feet – have long been the most beleaguered and generally underappreciated body part. This is unfortunate seeing as it is also one of the most important.
Thankfully this trend has seen a reversal in recent years. Interest in running with bare feet or very minimalistic shoes has exploded following popular books such as Born to Run. The primal/paleo health/fitness/lifestyle movements brought it even more into the mainstream conversation. New therapies that focus heavily on improving foot function have been birthed in this period too.
(Very few feet of modern westerners that can match this level of toe spread)
Feet are (obviously) hugely important from a postural perspective. From the Earth to the Sky. The feet are considered very important in modern science and more ancient systems. The cortical representation of the body, often called the homunculus, has abnormally large hands and feet. Which is to say that there is a very large number of nerve endings in the feet, which carry information about the environment and then conversely carries the responses to this input (afferent and efferent pathways respectively.) Eastern energetic models of the body also puts a large emphasis on the feet.
In any case, gross distortions here will have to be buffered elsewhere. For all intents and purposes the feet are the foundation of human structure. The partial reversal of the shoe trend is particular promising: there is a tremendous amount of nerve endings in the soles of the feet; they respond to minute changes in pressure and sensation.
Very cushioned shoes desensitizes us to this input from the environment. An excessively elevated heel artificially throws our weight forward, putting more pressure on the forefoot and changes overall body mechanics.
In the extreme example (like wearing high heels for years) it leads to a mechanical shortening of the Achilles tendon – which makes it difficult to return to a normal gait pattern. That is to say that not everything in human structure can be explained or reversed only by working with the feet or wearing a particular type of shoe. But again, please do not make minimalist shoes and barefooting into a civil religion.
Moving from one end of the body to the other. The relative position of the head itself on the other hand has received its fair share of attention. Forward head posture affects overall body posture. If the head comes forward the ligaments and muscles in the thoracic and beyond has to compensate.
The connection between mouth, facial posture and general body posture was an obscure area of research, until recently. As the area is grossly understudied we are still waiting for the final word. There is nonetheless good reason to consider this particular areas contribution to the general body posture.
A bit of background here: The anatomy of the face is exceedingly intricate and the tongue is certainly not an exception. What is worth considering here is that the tongue attaches itself indirectly to the base of the skull (through the stylohyoid muscle). When the mouth is open and the tongue sits passively in the bottom of the oral cavity the effect is somewhat nefarious. The weight of the tongue and its suspension apparatus exerts a forward and downward directed force. Conversely if the tongue is actively pressed against the hard palate it exerts an upwards going force.
(The tongue consists of a number of muscles with a complex anatomy .)
The relative balance between the tongue and the chewing-muscles plays an essential role in facial development. Genetics plays a part in what we look like, of course – but the role of the muscles in the development of facial of form has largely been overlooked. Bones respond to the stress put upon them (Wolff’s law). A face which doesn’t receive sufficient stress (think soft modern foods) will be an underdeveloped face. The well developed face will have a significant horizontal growth element, think wide cheekbones. The underdeveloped face will have had a downward direction of growth, which leaves less space for the teeth (crooked teeth) and the airway [fish-face]. The jaw will tend to be receding. There is likely a connection to declining ability to do nose breathing too. The tentative descriptor for this phenomenon is ‘craniofacial dystrophy’.
A video that highlights some of these issues can be seen here: Wise Traditions.
“Sit up straight. Shut your mouth. Chew your food properly. And have good body posture and deportment. Stand straight. Grow straight. “
– Mike Mew
The seminal work of Weston A Price did much to suggest that this might be the case. His work highlighted how traditional diets were superior as far as facial development and oral health was concerned (and likely general health, too).
People subsisting on traditional diets had virtually no tooth decay and little in the way of crooked teeth. The wholesale introduction of processed foods in the early 1900’s did much to. From a nutritional standpoint there would have been a drop in terms of micro-nutrient density. As far as oral posture is concerned, there was a steep decline in oral exercise (chewing foods thoroughly).
Chewing on ancient cereals for hours on end is likely far more ‘paleo’ than any high calorie “paleo” dessert you care to think of. It is exceedingly curious that the clusterfuck that is the contemporary paleo diet has foods such as cacao-honey-coconut-oil fudge yet vilifies sourdough bread or potatoes.
Hips don’t lie
Perhaps the keyest of keystone structures in the human body is the pelvis. It is the support of the spine, and the anchor of the legs. Essential soft tissue structures such as the pelvic floor muscles and the psoas relate to it. To expound on the pelvis in depth is well beyond the scope of this piece. Instead suffice it to say that as far as stretching (and body work goes) the deep muscles of the hip (for some reason or other) are particularly charged with emotional energy.
There is a relationship between chronically (over)tensioning certain physical structures and past emotional events.
Wilhelm Reich was the spearhead for this line of inquiry. He labelled the phenomenon “character armour”. He posited that experiences of an emotionally traumatic nature are held in the body after the fact. It is a guarding response against a threat (that is no longer present). As we age these tensions accumulate and give rise to an armouring for the character. By way of massage or other physical work this physical armouring could be removed. This was a departure from talk centered psychotherapy (the classic example being Freudian therapy).
Many bodyworkers will have experienced that physical work – even when there is no emotional intent – often leads gives rise to the dissolution of past emotional events.
People will argue that Wilhelm Reich was a nut job; he certainly was a contentious figure. His later works were strongly strongly at odds with the mainstream – orgone accumulators, anyone? His exceeding lack of diplomacy and pragmatism did not help the cause either. Nonetheless, these ad hominem attacks do not address the thing that he pointed at in his original insights. Even if he was only partially right, particularly later on, there is still something deep to be learned on how past events sit in the body and create armouring. Good hip flexors stretching does not necessarily make for dissolution of past trauma, other factors likely come into play, intention of both therapist and patient being one obvious factor. Degree of unification in the body of the practitioner being another. A final comment on Reich: you gotta be doing something right to get your books burned by both the Nazis and the FBI.
Speaking of books that needs to be Fahrenheit 451’d …
Posture Beyond Pain
Much of the current discourse on posture centers around whether or not posture is associated with pain – with many voices suggesting nowadays that it does not. A nuanced understanding of the connection (or lack thereof) between posture and pain is certainly a help for the treatment of pain. All well and good.
The posture/pain connection is actually the one aspect of posture and human structure that interests me the least. And while, I will maintain that certain types of pain are associated with postural habits, it is emphatically not the point. At this point in our exploration it should be abundantly clear that posture goes well beyond pain. Anyone possessing above larval body awareness already knows this.
The trouble is that the absence of pain by itself is metric without much meaning. Quantifiable scientific metrics are by their nature circumscribed, at least as far as the experience of being human is concerned.
“You do need a basic knowledge of what’s going on. That knowledge is partially intuitive. You have a sense of your own body. You have your sense into other people, and what they are feeling. And that is really good. That is a valid way of knowing. The Intuitive way of knowing is a valid way of knowing ( … ) But Science is a particular way of sharing ( …. ) Science is a very particular way of sharing. That means that was is being shared is really quite reliable. But it also has to be circumscribed, in order to reliable (…) And the trouble is our work is not circumscribed in that way. We do not work with statistics, we work with individual people. “
– Tom Myers, talking about Spatial Medicine
That a body doesn’t hurt tells us little in regards to the adaptability of its configuration (posture).
Plenty of people have backs, hips and knees with severe arthritic changes, yet, does not manifest pain.
(‘I have become numb … comfortably numb’)
To arrive at reproducible and reliable data it has to have well defined limits. That is the only way we can arrive at the neat binary yes/no. Hopefully it yields ‘significant p-values’.
Complex, comprehensive,cogent – and yet something is still left out. That which matters most.
My point here is that the underlying assumption of this line of inquiry here is that ‘the chiefiest good’ -the best possible scenario – is an existence without pain.
And that this usually entails returning to the status quo: to work in a life wasting job; to relationships that are unharmonious; to existential dread; to fully feeling you are an incarnate being that will die; but hey at least it doesn’t hurt … to the possible ‘holy grail’ of becoming a pain scientist, oneself.
It would not be inaccurate to say many feel pain in the physical body to avoid feel the pain of their mediocre and rudderless lives.
Instead let us see what we might learn about posture from more diverse fields.
(The thinker, a study in ‘posture’)
‘It is the artist who tells the truth and photography that lies. For in reality, time does not stand still. And if the artist succeeds in producing the impression of a gesture that is executed in several instants, his work is certainly much less conventional than the scientific image where time is abruptly suspended.’
– August Rodin
‘By means of yoga practices such as visualisation, breath-restraint, hathayogic seals, mantras and so on, the vital air (prana) is forced out of its habitual location in the principle collateral channels (Ida and Pingala) and into the central channel. When this occurs, Kundalini – who resides at the entrance to the central channel (susumna), which in later sources is located at the base of the spine, but in earlier texts is sometimes said to be in the cakras of the heart or the navel, or in the kanda, a ‘bulb’ located somewhere below the navel – awakens, straightens and rises up through the central axis of the body, passing through the various cakras or piercing the ‘knots’ (granthis) which lie along it (e.g. yogabija 93-9 [5.4.4]). This process gives rise to special powers (siddhis) and, ultimately – when Kundalini reaches the seat of the diety in the head, or twelve fingers beyond the head (the dvadasanta) – to liberation (moksa) or immortality.’
– Roots of Yoga – James Mallinson & Mark Singleton
Posture in a traditional hatha yogic and tantrik तन्त्र context, as we see from the quote above, has more to do with models related to the raising of spiritual energies up the spinal column and its related ‘channels’ for the purpose of attaining siddhis सिद्धि [special powers] and/or [moksa] मोक्ष enlightenment.
The positioning spine in seated asana is usually related to the optimal positioning for the rising of energies up the spine and the dissolving of psycho-spiritual ‘knots’ [gnathi] blocking rising force; the virtuous application of hermetic ‘locks’ [bandhas] that direct these physico-energetic currents up the spine and into the skull and brain – to mix and metabolise with substances and energetic centres there. In some variations on the model, this also prevents ambrosiac fluid generated in the bindu-brain dripping down into the digestive fires and being used up unalchemically.
The seated asana and their postural component were mostly practiced for their ‘giving a stable base’ to the practice of meditation and pranayama – breath practice – which was seen as the activating agent and catalyst to the rising of latent forces within the physical body.
Much of the analysis of the corpus of these techniques in the modern, technological civilisation has been about marking these descriptions as ‘primitive medical models of the nervous systems and its plexi’ – and indeed, many yogi’s sought to do this for political and pride reasons. Nevertheless, some of the traditions of the medieval yogis are still in existence today and, although many incorporate modern neuroanatomy, maintain that both models have their truths – each their time and place. To mix them haphazardly (particularly by the scholar and non-practitioner) does a disservice to both practice and research.
The properties under discourse in this context arise only in an order of knowledge that requires the emergent practical results combined with scholarly study of the source material (usually in sanskrit, Persian or other dialect of the subcontinent in archaic form) to discourse upon. Purely scholarly or scientific discourse alone does naught but confuse the point and bring up bias in terms of categories of knowledge.
The full brunt of ‘embodied scholarship’ being a prerequisite to the complete study of certain realms of human endeavor – particularly related to incarnate existence, like posture – has yet to be felt in the research communities because it holds a number of unpleasant truths and will invalidate a large amount of data.
Further complicating the matter is the practical methods need to be done and to have worked – plenty have done ‘30 years of yoga/meditation’ without much but tedious dinner party conversations and bookshelf aesthetic to show for it.