There are varying opinions about what "perfect" posture is, and many people who come to me explain their muscle pain, saying that they've always had terrible posture. Posture isn't something you're born with - it's something that develops in response to your movement habits and responses to stress. Here are a few myths about "good" posture:
Myth #1 - As long as your neck is straight, and your spine is aligned, you won't have back pain.
Many dancers with beautiful, long necks and straight spines have terrible back pain! A long neck and straight spine can be caused by strongly contracted back muscles and postural conditioning that says "pull your chin in, pull your shoulders back, and all will be well." What happens with this posture is that the straight neck is met with an opposite arch in the lower back - an arch that is often exaggerated and causes back pain.
Myth #2 - As long as your posture is "correct," your movement will be effortless and efficient.
No doubt about it - aligned posture results in more efficient movement. However, if the aligned posture is one that you've put ON your body, as opposed to one that you've DEVELOPED from within your own sensory awareness and movement, you just might be using muscles less efficiently. Some standing postures, like "tadasana" (mountain pose) in yoga, are great for doing yoga poses, but very fussy and inefficient for all around daily movement.
Here's a good example and one I use all the time when teaching my clients how to walk:
Nearly half of the construction workers in India are women; they balance rocks and other heavy things on their heads. They don't take posture lessons to learn how to do this. They learn by doing - meaning they have to figure out what to do in the center of their bodies that will allow them to carry weight on their head (the periphery). They let their pelvis move when they walk, they take smaller steps, and they keep their torsos long and lifted out of their hips. Their posture develops from their daily functional movement.
Myth #3 - There is one, "perfect" posture that fits everyone.
The one thing I found while researching the "perfect" posture is how many different opinions there are about what it means to "stand up straight" or stand in "alignment." One posture expert says that we should allow our pelvis to be anteverted:
"Proper posture is standing with your tailbone back and ribcage forward, shoulders slightly behind the body. Your pelvis is tipped forward and sacrum angled back. The lower border of your rib cage is flush with the abdominal contour."
Another fitness expert teaches people with back pain to drop the tailbone, tuck in the lower abdominal muscles and relax the shoulders to neutral.
The most common advice for back pain sufferers in regards to posture is to tuck the pelvis forward (retroverting) in order to lengthen the back muscles and take the load off the muscles. What this actually does, while momentarily relieving muscle pain, is to cause the front of the body to contract and round forward. This is not a good strategy for efficient, pain-free movement.
How do I find "perfect" posture?
Here's a simple exercise to help you figure it out:
- Stand in your normal posture, whatever that is for you. Notice where your discomfort is - in the lower back, hamstrings, neck, shoulders or hips. Walk around the room for a minute, paying attention to the way in which your feet meet the floor (do you heel strike? Roll out? Roll in?).
- Stop and put something light on your head, like a pillow, as in the photo.
- Hold it gently on both sides with your elbows out and up. Notice how your ribs have to lift in order to allow your hands to reach up to the pillow. Breath into your ribs and let them expand gently. Notice how the abdominal muscles lengthen, yet contract to support the spine and the center of your body.
- Walk slowly, letting your hips sway gently. Imagine that your pillow is a load that must not fall off your head. Breathe deeply as you walk.
- Now take the pillow off of your head, bring your arms to neutral, and just stand. Relax your buttocks and breathe easily.
How centered does your posture feel now? Do you feel "straighter?" Taller? Is it easier to stand up and feel supported in the center of your body? This movement exploration is like the old fashioned exercise of putting a book on your head in order to achieve good posture!