The Dangers of “Good Posture"

If we truly understood the ramifications of our wrong postural ideas and habits we’d be quite surprised or even alarmed. And what most of us think as “good posture” is exactly the opposite. Most people think stiffening to sit or stand straight is the essence of good posture. And they think “bad posture” means to slump. No. actually, slumping can be very good – there is a time and a place for it. When the back muscles are over-worked for a lifetime – as in stiffening to be straight – the ONLY time they can lengthen and relax, is when we are in flexion, as in SLUMPING. All kids know this, but adults, who think they know better, soon train their children or students to NEVER SLUMP.  Here, I am going to share my private history along that line:

I had been taught as a child, like so many are, that good posture meant to stiffen my spine, and sit up straight. School teachers also drilled this into me. Later, on my own, I added my own wrong ideas, like be vigilant and never relent, and suck up my gut, lift my chest and push my chin back, pull my shoulders back more or less continually (and neurotically) while slightly lifting them, tuck my tail under while constantly grabbing up the pelvic floor, unconsciously, while at the same time my low ribs were being thrust forward.  I wanted to be the best person I could be, and I thought this was the way. Also, when I learned to meditate, I was told to be very straight, never slump – because if I did that would destroy my spiritual life. What I did not know then, was that the people giving out that information had no training in posture or movement, and often they were quoting and also misinterpreting the words of people who actually DO know what they are talking about. In any event, my collection of “good posture” habits, in retrospect, was a heavy burden for a growing young man. It is a very common story, and it’s a pity that the more a child wants to be good and obey parents and have good posture, the more he or she will disable his own personal power. You’ll understand that more if you read this entire website and continue to pursue The Feldenkrais® Method

As a Preacher’s kid, I tried my very best to be good, to have god posture, not realizing that the more I tried to do that, the worse I was making things for myself. I was tucking my tail under so as to use my knees when I bent down. I sat that way. So I had no conscious awareness of my own tailbone, and was practicing body language or cowardice. By stiffening and lifting my chest, I ensured I could never sense subtle feelings related to the heart. What a poison pill my parents and teachers gave me when they tried to teach me “good posture”!  Better that I had been left ALONE to find my own way of posturing and moving.  Little kids have 100 times better balance, movement and posture than almost any adult, and WE think we can teach THEM about posture? It’s pure adult ego, and wrong headed.  What I was taught (and other’s do this as well) was a pretty good likeness of British Military posture, which is probably where those ideas came from. Most people don’t have that full collection like I did, but just certain pieces of it. That’s bad enough. Adults teach this to kids, thinking that is the responsible thing to do. 

You should see photos of me while I was in the U.S. Army (I was drafted and went to Vietnam). I had head forward, and at the same time I was always trying to push my head back where it belonged (as so many do), my shoulders always were pulled back, a stiff back, and a tailbone always tucked under. And, I was working very hard, every waking moment, to do all that.  I was a mess. 

The problem is that this kind of postural vigilance is muscle-driven and relaxation, perceived skeletal support, and easy movement is not possible. By making my brain accept such old-fashioned and rigidly self-abusive ideas of posture, I cut my intelligence in half, I cut my intuition in half and I made it difficult for my brain to manifest a supple and quick intelligence. I destroyed most any chance I might have had to be really spiritual. It was an insult to my brain, what I was doing! It meant I could never really relax, not like a child. It meant I put a crimp on my life force and I could never tune into my own energy in a way that was peaceful and intuitive.

I took on (as do many others) certain predictable character defects when I tried so very hard to have good posture in this Victorian, British Military sense. Foremost amongst these was a sense of futility and perhaps some laziness to accompany that. I knew at some level inside those ideas were not working, yet I continued to practice them – that’s futility. I had accepted super-simplistic, immobilizing and disabling, even moronic, ideas about movement and posture, and since the brain is MOSTLY ABOUT movement and posture I made myself lazy, not being able ever to fully engage my whole brain intelligently since I had most of my brain  “on hold’ with stupid posture ideas.  The fact that I accepted and kept trying to embody (for SO many years –until age 44) such simplistic self-abusive ideas about “good posture” and that I choose to continue to embody such a preposterous collection of ideas did not bode well for my success in life during those years. Frankly, it meant I was neurotic, maybe borderline psychotic, obsessive and narcissistic and self-abusive and also tending to abuse others. Yes, other people gave me those poison-pill posture ideas, but I was the one who choose to perpetuate them.  Yes I was also narcissistic because I was doing those postural things partly while constantly worrying about what others think about me. I paid a very high price for my unthinking postural habits and ideas! They were not even my own ideas – they came from others! But I paid the full price! It does not seem fair, especially in retrospect. But life will punish us for our mistakes, even though other people do the same thing and even though we were the so-called passive recipients of such wrong ideas. I was really never able to feel or express real love or compassion, since I was so compulsively stiffening my chest – that was blocking out all natural heart feelings. I thought Nature made a mistake giving me a thoracic spinal curve (chest caved in slightly – Nature’s way of allowing the heart and lungs to be nicely suspended from this arc) and so I’d constantly stiffen and lift my chest.  Otherwise, you see (as I thought), I would be slumping and that for sure is “evil”. 

Those postural habits also meant I was constantly living in the past, and could never really “be” in the present moment, since my brain (remember MOST of the brain is about posture and movement) was preoccupied with carrying forward, from the past, such a heavy, kali-yuga stone age collection of burdensome, pain-inducing, ineffective ideas and practices about good posture. I could never know relaxed, rejuvenative breathing with a belly so tight. Cowardice and laziness was indeed like a second nature; I was always struggling against those two things (thinking that is the way life is) since I was always tucking my tail under, even while doing heavy lifting! (When the butt should stick out to counterbalance). I did not realize my body posturing was creating these troubles. Growing up as a basically happy child, I had no cowardice, on the contrary, few persons had more courage than did I. Cowardice was a thing I took on from tucking my tail habitually. 

I had a tendency to be a little simplistic and dogmatic in my academic understandings, in how I treated my friends and in how I understood my own Religion. That’s because I trained my brain to be that way; I now understand that most ALL of my brain (and yours too) is about posture and movement. When we train our own brain, to unquestioningly accept (as I did), for a lifetime (or at least 44 years in my case), unscientific, unproven, ineffective and repetitive habits of posture and movement, that attitude will definitely show up in every single other aspect of life as well. As one of my mentors put it: “The nervous system is the nervous system is the nervous system is the nervous system.”  It was her way of saying that the same nervous system will express its nature no matter what it is doing. Just because everyone is doing the same kind of thing, I see now, did not give me a free pass. 

My digestion was troubled, and my low-level anxiety was always there as well, since my belly was too tight, that’s body language for anxiety, and did not know how to coordinate with the antagonistic low back muscles (as Nature intended). My life would alternate between shameful guilt and failure feelings, and will power driven feelings of ego gratification and “success”. That’s because my posture was always in that same mode; no safe middle ground. I never knew a life of steady, balanced self-acceptance and all-around progress, because I had my own brain by a stranglehold. That was true no matter how many workshops, or how much therapy I got, how much Bikram yoga I did, how many running workouts I did, or how much meditation I did. I just did not realize, all those years, that I also had to work with HABITS of movement and posture! That concept is almost like a credo to the Feldenkrais® community. 

To make it even more ridiculous, I took these bad postural habits into chair-sitting meditation. Mixing British Military Posture with meditation is like mixing gunpowder with a healing lotion. A strange mix! And pretty caustic. I did not yet have the wisdom to understand that chair sitting requires skill (more than will), patience and practice to do it sensibly  - without stiffening the spine etc.  That would come many years later for me. I was clenching my back muscles to sit up straight in meditation; this was like clenching my fist, never letting go, while telling myself it is necessary to “find God” that way. That’s rather crazy making and I am surprised I survived all those years as well as I did. I now understand, and teach how to sit in meditation – fully erect, poised, but without stiffening and without rock hard muscles along the spine (as most people in fact do have when they sit to meditate – you can test yourself on this each time you sit for meditation.). 

And by-the-way, learning to sit poised, relaxed and perfectly erect in chair sitting meditation posture CAN be learned, and all you need is on this website, and also on my YouTube Channel. It does NOT mean you give up postural vigilance to sit up straight, it does NOT mean you slump, it just means you get a little bit smarter about how you go about chair sitting posture. Chair sitting is a rather modern invention, and all the ancient words and wisdom about meditation posture came from people who sat on hard benches and flat floors with no cushioning, they were athletically fit and working at least 4 hours a day, they were probably in fighting trim, and they were like this from an early age. Their words have little meaning to the average western adult who never sat cross-legged as a child, his bone structure down there is NOT configured to facilitate lotus posture floor sitting, and has a collection of all the wrong ideas about how to sit up straight. When you mix common cultural “wisdom” about posture with trying to sit erect in meditation, it is like being pulled apart by two horses, each pulling in the opposite direction. 

Finally, I was tending to become dependent on others – medical or alternative practitioners – for pain relief, for getting the bones back into alignment, for “corrective exercises” etc. That’s because I MYSELF gave up thinking intelligently about posture and movement decades ago. So now I had to take it for granted that others have to do such thinking for me. Ruthy Alon, a senior Feldenkrais Trainer and founder of Bones for Life once said (I heard this directly): “If I ever found myself lying on a table, passively depending on the skill and effort of another person to fix what is wrong me, while I just lie there doing nothing, I would get up immediately and RUN FOR MY LIFE.” And she was not joking, as I had thought at first. 

What happened to me, as I got involved in The Feldenkrais Method®, was I first stopped cracking my neck, by throwing the head violently to one side or the other. This was a lifetime practice for me, and it always felt so good, or so I thought. Likewise I’d twist my torso in a chair producing the loudest cracks you could imagine – so satisfying – yet of course it irritated everybody in my life. After some year or two, I no longer wanted to do those things. Sometime later, I realized I couldn’t do those things now even if I want to do so. Also I no longer need to go to the chiropractor, except in rare and extraordinary circumstances. It was not until many years later I realized that Feldenkrais was teaching me how to naturally decompress the body, including all the joints, so that they could self-adjust. While this is not as momentarily satisfying as those dramatic sounding “cracks” in the long term it was a much better situation. I have in fact taught many clients to go through this same process of decompression. A large part of the process is simply teaching them to discontinue useless and damaging postural ideas and habits. In fact, I got used to clients telling me that after a session with me, driving home, they’d have to adjust their rear-view mirror since they had grown slightly taller.  

I have seen that for the most part, these postural disabilities are present in a person, in exact proportion to the extent to which they have taken seriously wrong ideas of “good posture.” I had that entire collection of wrong ideas and habits up until age 44 when I entered my Feldenkrais Training. That is why I can speak with such passion and understanding; I have been there, done that, and now I have moved on. And I have had 25 years experience helping clients this way. Most people do not have the full collection of bad habits, as I did, but they still cling to certain cherished ideas of what good posture is – like keep pulling the shoulders up and back (never works, never has worked, instead we need to pull the shoulders down and back to engage the upper rib cage).

It is time to move away from these old fashioned British-Military, Victorian ideas about what is good posture! The best thing that can be said about that kind of posture is that it will make you a good soldier, ready and willing to kill people. Already that kind of posture is like torturing or killing ourselves in numerous ways, and it is no big jump to killing others. It is no accident that the British Military, about 70 years ago perhaps, prevented F.M. Alexander from teaching his brand of easy, tall, elegant and effortless posture to the troops. He actually tried to do this and was successful.  They found out that such troops did not want to fight! They all had a heart!

During my 44 years of poor posture I was always trying new diets, reading many self-help books, taking university courses, getting therapy, doing Yoga intensively, working out at the gym, meditating and attending worship services. What I did not know then was that I was ignoring the single most important thing, that would have helped me more than all the rest of that – just a little bit of somatic work in the realm of posture and movement. But alas, during those years, I had not a clue as to even what the word “somatic” meant.   

Our brain – according to neurologists – is mostly about movement, balancing in gravity, proprioception, breathing, and coordination, responding to a changing environment, etc. or in other words dynamic and adaptive, environmentally appropriate movement and posture is pretty much what the brain is designed for. The truth is, is that authentic human posture is meant to be spontaneous, super-adaptive, mostly automatic, in the moment, creative, supple, appropriate to each changing moment (never the same). There is always a healthy dose of self-confidence and joy, even exuberance, in human posture, which is authentic, not contrived. The eyes are free to look around and not be glued to looking down (as most folks do, the older they get, the more this is true).  In standing this begins with the feet and ankles, specifically the sub-talar joint. Shoes with arch supports or heel cushions will subvert this, and freeze your sub-talar joint (which has more proprioceptive nerve endings than the entire bottom of the foot). Even the Roman soldiers were smarter than us; they were taught to run, walk, march and fight IN FLAT SANDALS and from the sub-talar joint. If you don’t understand this, please read this entire website and also the book BORN TO RUN. Why have you never heard of this before?  You should ask that question. 

In chair sitting, which is actually a rather artificial environment (NOT natural we might say), functional posture begins with the right height chair, with a flat, firm bottom and minimal cushioning, and sensing the sitting bones, while “untucking” the tailbone, while keeping a sense of a dynamic tailbone/pelvis with coordination to the low back (meaning no lumbar support.  That is a description of an intelligent foundation for skillful chair sitting.  Such subtlety and adaptability is rarely to be seen, except in an innocent young child at play. Alas, that will soon be gone, as the adults in his/her life teach the child their adult ideas of good posture (sit up straight! And as Moshe Feldenkrais often said – there is NOTHING WORSE you could tell a growing child). When you do see functional posture and movement, you see a person who is extremely intelligent in other aspects of his life as well.  

Albert Einstein once said “I never put anything on paper unless I feel it in my body first.” There is a lot of common sense, and human and postural wisdom hidden in those words; I’d recommend you ponder that for a few weeks. Those words are still teaching me, even after many years. They contain many hints to manifesting genius, in my opinion.  I would surmise that most every Feldenkrais® practitioner would agree that Moshe Feldenkrais could easily have uttered the same exact words and with the same meaning. Those words raise penetrating somatic questions that most Feldenkrais practitioners have long pondered:

  • What kind of body sensations is he talking about?
  • Is he really thinking with his whole body or just his brain?
  • Are the feelings subtle or overt, or what?
  • How does he go about sensing his body – is there some trick?
  • How might the breathing be involved with this? What about the two physical eyes?
  • Could he actually do the same thing at night, asleep while dreaming, as he once claimed? 
  • What kind of posture might be involved with this kind of process?
  • Is he talking about sensing a relaxed immobile body, or a body in movement?
  • How much is he using his imagination to sense his body wisdom?
  • How would one sense the body while using the imagination?
  • Can it be true that the intellect can resonate with all the body cells?
  • Can every body cell think for itself? 
  • Can all the body cells think together as one thing?
  • Is there in intelligence that we can access, separate from the body, but which can be felt as a body sensation?

Practically any part of my website will give you many alternatives to the usual concept of posture. And such ideas are holographic, meaning when you play with one such idea, about 40 related helpful postural memories and ideas automatically come into play. We all have memories of good posture and movement, and not only from early childhood. We have a genetic or soul memory (perhaps) of being functional in our movements and posture. All our ancestors were survivors. They could NOT have survived if they had the same kind of nonsense posture ideas that we have. So we can tap into that genetic memory. 

The key concept that was missing for me, for those 44 years, was that I would have to have true grit (as they would say in the old western movies) and struggle and work and be independent and ignore popular culture ideas about posture to acquire sensible posture. I would have had to forget popular media, where most people have an over-tight belly, a drawn up pelvis floor and many other wrong ideas. 

Don’t expect anyone to teach you these things, unless you take a Feldenkrais® Training or find a very patient and experienced Feldenkrais® teacher with many years successful clinical practice (there are other folks, too, who are getting smarter about all this), and who is not interested in pandering to your bad habits (tight abs, stiff chest, ramrod spine etc.). It is a lot of work, and beyond the skill or time-constraints of most people, including MDs and PTs and chiropractors etc. It is not reasonable to expect those busy professionals to have time for such a daunting project! To re-educate the average modern western adult as to what is really good posture – it is more like a life calling; one has to be born to do that work. It is a trial and a blessing, and you’ll run into all kinds of resistances because people just don’t really want to change, for the most part. Yet they have pain and they will come to you for help. 

This website will give you many clues. It can take you most of the way, provided you are very persistent and work at it. The better way would be to do Awareness Through Movement®  (ATM) lessons where all such ideas, as I present here, are taught in group movement classes. The reason I have not packaged all my postural ideas in ATM format is a) no time  b) most people today are not willing to do ATM with their busy lives and c) there is virtue to just laying out many of the facts, the main things we have to learn, up front. That way, you can survey the playing field. Then a person might more readily make the wise choice to get involved in The Feldenkrais Method®, as I have been, for some many years. Or better yet, get involved as a lifestyle.  

I have built this website specifically as a resource for people who are waking up out of the “good posture” trance, where either you have it and feel good, or you don’t have it and feel guilty. There is a continual avalanche and mountains of wrong information dogmatically enforced and harmful advice out there from people and institutions who should know better about posture and movement, and tight abs, and sit up straight and expensive, immobilizing bucket-chair, keep your shoulders pulled back, with vigilant will power (instead of skill, as I teach here) and harmful bucket seats and lumbar supports etc. As well, there are so many professions and corporations and individuals that are making lots of money based on a culture with all these wrong ideas. As Moshe Feldenkrais often pointed out, when you teach kids to tuck their tail, stiffen to sit up straight, and tighten their chests, etc., it is a way to exert top-down control, and prevent the child from expressing his native personal power. You create a slave-like mentality and a personality fit only for working in a factory doing menial labor. It is sadly true that there are people in this world who prefer that most of us remain in a slave-like mental state. Wrong ideas of posture are a PRIMARY tool to accomplish that. This is, in truth, very revolutionary, as much so as any other kind of extreme political posturing – but SO FEW people understand this. A good many Feldenkrais Practitioners do, that is about it.  Moshe Feldenkrais said: “Western education takes away the pelvis.”  That is a way of saying that western education, by deign, takes away personal power from children. When you stiffen to sit up straight, while tucking under the sit bones and tailbone, you have no postural foundation, just stiff muscles that will soon be overworked.  

It is no accident that you have been taught to “lift while bending your knees; protect the back” which is not just inelegant but very harmful. That perpetuates tucking the tail under while you bend your knees to lift. They should tell you stick out the butt behind for counterbalance, keep the spine long, don’t tuck under the tailbone. YES, use the knees but also stick out the butt! Grab the buttocks and pull them back strongly! It is SO important. Give up your self-consciousness if you want to get rid of back pain.” They don’t tell you this because a) they don’t know it, b) women in western culture and men too, have come to accept that women must always be “modest” and not just keep knees together in sitting (destroying lumbar curve) but never stick out the butt while bending down (the natural thing to do, all native cultures do like that, and all cultures with long flowing clothing do like that also, and there is no sigma, just a square draped form). The price western women pay for short skirts and slacks and not wearing long flowing clothing: a life of cowardice where the tailbone is always tucked under, since to stick out the butt with the usual western dress looks too rude or suggestive. When you continually practice body language for cowardice, you become like that; people will treat you like an object or a victim, whether you like it or not. You are putting out that body language. 

The sad truth is that, still today, a large percentage of people in western culture would think that such ideas as I express here are too complicated, too extreme, too much work, and very strange. To my way of thinking, that just shows how far from Nature we have travelled in this modern world. But it is true that there is complication, and an overwhelming amount of information. It would not be that way if we had the correct ideas built into our understanding and our habits. But when we have a stupendous collection of dogmatically enforced unnatural ideas and habits, it takes real courage, deep understanding, humility, patience, a global perspective, wise mentors, and much study and gentle practice to return to what is natural. So yes, it will appear to be complicated. But take heart! The entire Feldenkrais® work is designed to keep you moving ahead on such a journey. I’d recommend that you get involved as soon as you can – take ATM classes, get regular private FI sessions etc. Yes, read books on Feldenkrais® too, but that won’t help you nearly as much as doing the work of ATM and getting private sessions. If you depend on this website, you’ll need to slow it down, and take just a few (even one at a time) ideas per week or so. 

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin