Empty posturing

March 15, 2010

It’s easy to assume there must be some benefit to holding ourselves upright in what we believe to be a straight position, and that this is the way to improve posture. Unfortunately it’s not quite so simple (how did you know I was going to say that?).

During movement, your posture – the relative position of different parts of your body – is changing all the time. So there isn’t a correct posture that will help you perform a dance move or take a free kick more effectively. These acts require a dynamic and fluid transition between hundreds of different postures.

Runners who want to improve their technique or reduce a tendency towards injury will often pick up on the idea that they need to hold their pelvis or their chin or some other part of the body in a particular position. Unfortunately this tends to restrict breathing and movement – and any position that has to be held in place is going to require extra muscular effort in the long run, leading to tiredness.

But it is possible to cultivate a naturally better posture, one that doesn’t have to be held in place and doesn’t require muscular effort. And this can have enormous knock-on benefits for your ability to perform skilful or strenuous activities for long periods with fewer injuries and less of a tendency to tire out.

Physiologists and anatomists have long recognised that there are muscular reflexes that naturally operate to keep us upright, in a way that uses involuntary musculature – deep, postural muscles that seem to operate well in children and well co-ordinated adults, but which most people are out of the habit of using.

You can encourage these muscular reflexes to operate by resting in a position such as semi-supine (see image below) for a few minutes every day. All you need is a few books under your head so it is elevated off the floor slightly. Feet should be flat on the floor (about hip width apart), thighs parallel and hands resting on your front. Try this out for 15 minutes a day for a week or so and see how it feels.

semi-supine position

The correct attitude is also helpful. It’s good if you can be calm and refrain from any tendency to grip or hold onto muscles, and to keep your eyes open and remain aware of your surroundings.

It’s easy to be sceptical of the idea that what looks like “doing nothing” will bring about any benefit. But lying in this position is an opportunity for our normal muscular reactions – which in most of us interfere with natural, healthy co-ordination of the body – to ease off so that we can allow the deeper, involuntary musculature a chance to come into play a bit more. Less is more, you might say, when it comes to using the body well and cultivating good co-ordination.

It’s a position used extensively when teaching the Alexander technique, a form of movement re-education that has been shown in clinical trials to be highly effective when used to treat back pain, for example (as this video explains).

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