What the Heck is “Good Posture,” Anyway? (Probably not what you think!)

Have you ever noticed how rigid and stiff what we call “good posture” often looks, resembling a soldier standing at “Attention!”—or the way some yoga students stand in tadasana?

Chest up! Shoulders back! We can almost hear the sound of a bugle as we picture this. The mere mention of the word “posture” can stir up not-so-pleasant memories of our mothers nagging us to stand “up straight,” and of our muscles straining from the effort. To this day, many of us are left with a sense of pervasive guilt that, in the end, we gave into a life of “bad” posture.

Others of us took a different approach. We spent hours at the gym, strengthening muscles that “hold” our chests and our chins up high in a perpetual state of “Attention!”

Or we became dependent on daily stretching routines, as I did for many years, in order to relieve tension from tight muscles and stiff joints. In my case, I developed a sort of faux flexibility that diminished rapidly whenever I dared to stop stretching. Either way, whether through strengthening or stretching our muscles (or both) many of us worked hard to conform to a socially prescribed ideal of what it means to be an “upstanding” citizen in a culture obsessed with “fitness” and physical attractiveness.

It’s no wonder that “posture” is a dirty word to many people. We seem to be stuck with just two impossible options: Either be a slouch or “hold” yourself together with muscle tension.

Luckily, the truth is far better than this; in fact, it couldn’t be better! This is because there’s a yet unknown third option, a well-hidden secret of sorts that is finally coming to light and solves the either/or problem.

Most people today have no idea that the human body comes with a very specific naturally prescribed design for enjoying solid strength, easy flexibility, and freedom from pain that is basically available to anyone. I’m referring to the natural alignment (natural posture) that all well-developing babies throughout the world discover all on their own. Who knew that these sweet little beings happen to be the gurus for how to inhabit our adult bodies with solid strength and comfortable ease in any and all situations?

Babies, it turns out, figure out, through an unrelenting process of trial and error, how to organize their skeletons around the vertical axis of gravity in order to sit up on their own—and later, how to stand, bend, walk, run, jump, skip, leap . . . The key to their success is an anteverted position of the pelvis that, quite literally, supports a naturally elongated spine atop the sacral platform.

Like “happy dogs,” well-developing children’s imaginary tails wag behind them. As they graduate to standing on two legs and then begin to walk, the same position of the pelvis / rib cage relationship remains and satisfies the mandate set for humans by the most basic laws of physics.

Unfortunately, many children spend far too much time today with their weight on the back of the pelvis, disrupting the angle of the sacral platform and causing the spine to round and collapse. This contributes to many children losing their healthy alignment before they ever enter school. You could compare them to “sad dogs” that tuck their tails between their legs.

To make matters worse, problems can start in early infancy for some babies, with the overuse of sitting devices — strollers, car seats, and various carriers that limit neurodevelopmental movements that are required to help build a full-functioning nervous system, along with core muscle strength they will soon be needing to help stabilize an upright spine.

You could say that the babies pictured here are slouchers in training, with their tails tucked under like sad dogs. While these positions are impossible to avoid completely, confining babies in various devices too much of the time causes the primary hip flexor muscles—the psoas—along with other muscles relating to the pelvis, hips, and abdominal core, to miss out on the opportunity to establish natural movement patterns. In many cases, unhelpful patterns become set for a lifetime, unless there is some sort of intervention at some point in the future.

We see startling examples of this when we see how children sat and stood a few generations ago compared to the dramatic collapse of bones designed to serve as the underlying framework of support for the entire body.

The widespread structural collapse seen in children today appears to be related to a perfect storm of converging factors that include 1) a growing reliance on carriers and sitting devices of all sorts that rob many babies of essential movement activity ; 2) “back sleeping” guidelines meant to reduce the incidence of SIDS; 3) babies spending far less time lying prone and engaging in belly-to-earth developmental movements even when awake (as a result of fears many parents have developed as a result of the SIDS guidelines); and 4) the ever-growing use of televisions, computers, and other sedentary-promoting technology, along with greater use of soft, cushy furniture.

We, as adults, often struggle ourselves to know how to be solidly and comfortably upright, whether we’re sitting on a chair or running a race, making it easy to remain oblivious to what’s happening with our children. We’re a bit like those proverbial frogs in a gradually heating pot of water, unaware that our children might be headed for trouble. Is it just a coincidence that on a developmental spectrum, babies’ motor development today is delayed from what it was a few generations ago? (Please refer to citations related to this entire paragraph at end of this article). Dyspraxia is now a “thing” that doctor’s classify as a “dis-order,” which is characterized by three main symptoms: postural collapse, low muscle tone, and difficulty with balance and coordination. Once quite rare (and referred to as “clumsy child syndrome”) dyspraxia has received a lot of attention of late because its incidence has grown rapidly in recent years. Further, dyspraxic symptoms are frequently co-morbid (jointly co-existing with other disorders) with autism, ADHD, learning disorders, anxiety disorders, anti-social behavior, and motor-control dysfunction. Pediatric occupational therapists are working overtime to help children and families cope with a lengthy list of burgeoning health problems, both minor and severe, that, more often than not, include the “big three” dyspraxic symptoms. The medical specialty of pediatric orthopedic surgery, once comprised of a handful of doctors in the 1980s, has grown to include thousands of these doctors who now attend to the most serious cases among the 3.5 million children who experience sports injuries each year. As parents, teachers, coaches, and health professionals, we have to be willing to ask ourselves what role structural collapse might play in all of this?

Our understanding of the human body’s natural alignment continues to be overlooked because naturally healthy models are all but missing in technologically advanced cultures such as ours. But take a trip to certain rural locations in the world, and you’ll see examples of naturally aligned people everywhere. Children in some of these places regularly carry siblings on their backs or fetch water from the river or a well, often as part of a group activity with other happy children. Some of the buckets of water on top of their heads appear to weigh as much as they do, and yet they move with fluidity and ease, free from struggle—and as you can see, often smiling and laughing.

Women also carry water, as well as food, rocks, bricks, firewood, and laundry. I’ve spoken with some of these women, through translators, and I learned, albeit anecdotally, that many of them do this day in and day out for decades without developing spinal or pain problems. They report that carrying heavy loads on the head is not difficult to do, and the ease with which they stroll about with astonishingly heavy loads on their heads, appears to confirm this, and a trained eye reveals that they all share the identical skeletal alignment.

Just to be clear: I’m not advocating that anyone should be carrying heavy loads on the head. Certainly some people who do this suffer terribly, almost always caused by structural misalignment. In addition, some people who carry heavy loads on the head are grossly underpaid, overworked, and otherwise exploited and victimized. Our focus here, though, is on those people who are happily engaged in performing what is, to them, simple tasks of daily living — washing clothes in the river, bringing water from the well, collecting firewood, or helping to build a brick wall—something their families and neighbors have been doing for generations.

The men in the video below demonstrate how carrying a heavy load of bricks on the head is less about muscle strength (except for the essential dynamic core) and more about aligned bones which are able to distribute the weight of the bricks along the vertical axis. In this scenario, muscles perform their primary role as pulleys to bony levers, in an exquisite interplay of aligned bones and elastic muscles, and the weight is not only born down through the bones, but rise back upward, propelled by energetic forces generated by the body’s engagement with/against the earth. Notice how freely these men move and how, as they walk down the narrow plank, the pelvis gently shimmies from side to side, allowing the spine to move (shock absorption) and release upward under the weight of these hard-to-believe loads of bricks on the head. This prevents spinal compression. Were these men to have muscles that are over-developed because of structural imbalance or artificial exercises, the forces would all be downward, interfering with their ability to move freely and safely.

Copyright by Stef Hoffer

How are so many men, women and children able to successfully do this without injuring themselves? What is their secret? These are important questions we need to be asking. Remember, we’re talking about people who are the same species as all the rest of us, with a biomechanical design identical to yours and mine. What can we learn from them? What relevance does this have to the epidemic of pain problems and joint replacement surgeries in our society, as well as other health issues?

In order to begin to make sense of this, we have to first acknowledge that humans are creatures of Nature, who, along with all other vertebrates, are governed by natural laws of physics . These are the same non-negotiable laws that govern everything in our world. The skeleton, as the underlying framework of support for the body, functions much like the framing behind the walls of an architectural structure, organizing around the vertical axis of gravity and requiring the weight-bearing joints stack up along this “plumb line.”

People are not buildings, of course; we are alive and dynamic. We breathe and walk and run, we bend and jump and dance. Our natural alignment forms the basis of the biomechanical integrity of a uniquely human and upright musculoskeletal system that combines the action of pulleys and levers with ingenious weight-bearing joints that, in tandem, allow for strength coupled with fluidity, flexibility with stability, and a quality of rooted engagement by way of ground reaction force, out from which the body energetically responds.

When we closely examine the skeletal alignment of the three very different groups of people pictured below — 1) well-developing babies and toddlers who rarely stop moving; 2) people who easily and successfully carry heavy loads on their heads; and 3) “oldsters” who age into their 70s, 80s and beyond with elongated spines, flexible joints, and enduring vitality — we see that every one of them shares the identical structural alignment and movement patterns in any and all activities—how they sit, how they stand and walk, how they bend . . . each in keeping with the natural human design.

Each person in the grand parade above has an anteverted “happy dog” pelvis that serves as the foundation for all that is above it, with a rib cage that rests in a quiet, peaceful “neutral” position. This is true for the people pictured below, as well, who are running, dancing, playing tennis, and leaping in the air, while their chests remain tethered in place by a solid muscular core. Their joints are free from restriction, and their heads ride atop enlivened, resilient spines that “lift” the skull upwards from below. Such aligned athleticism reveals the body to be a graceful, glorious masterpiece of design.

While it may be typical for someone in our culture to slouch regularly, what is normal for that person is not the same as what is natural. This was the case with me in the late 1970s, when structural collapse was my default position (left). Back then, my bones were seriously out of alignment, so it was no surprise that I struggled with a host of pain problems that included chronic joint stiffness. I took “Jazzercise” and aerobics classes at the time, but I was constantly hurting myself while doing this.

Ten years later, lots had changed. I was now a mother of three young children, and I was teaching yoga. My slouched stature had been replaced with a whole new version of me that conformed to our society’s definition of “good” posture. I didn’t understand yet that the way I had been taught yoga required that I use continuous muscle tension to hold my chest up and my shoulders back. Even though I generally felt better, I still managed to injure myself with some regularity. Eventually, I developed chronic hip pain that sometimes kept me awake at night. While continuing to teach yoga, I also began to study Alexander Technique, responding to the idea of a natural way of inhabiting the body for greater comfort and freedom of movement.

It wasn’t until I met Jean Couch, however, who taught an approach she called “Balance” (based on what she had learned from Noelle Perez from France), that I felt struck between the eyes by an irrefutable, fundamental truth: alignment of our bones along the vertical axis is essential to being optimally healthy and pain-free. As a consequence, my body and my life were turned upside down in the most wonderful ways. While some pain was alleviated almost immediately, it took a bit of time for me to learn to inhabit my body like a toddler once again.

I was now almost fifty years old, and I was finally free of all pain. I also ended up being more genuinely, sustainably flexible than I had been before. This was an odd, unexpected development, since I had stopped stretching altogether. I hadn’t planned to stop stretching; it just happened because I simply lost all urges to stretch. This was due to the fact that muscles that had been chronically contracted because they were attached (via tendons) to mis-placed bones, were now attached to aligned bones and were thus naturally elastic and free of unnecessary tension.

I became obsessed with a wish to share this information with anyone who would listen, to help them discover the same innate qualities of vitality, comfort and peacefulness within their own skin. I watched bodies in movement over and over again, and in my mind’s eye I saw wheels turning and puppet strings being pulled.

Twenty years later, I’m still at it, more enthusiastic than ever. However, something about having recently turned 70 is causing me to want to speak out a bit more boldly now. This stuff really works, people!

Children, by the way, love learning this. They’re curious about how their bodies work, and they appreciate being given permission to tune inward and feel what is going on inside their skin. It’s astounding how many children in a classroom will raise their hands when asked if they regularly experience pain, or feel stiff, or have difficulty sitting still or concentrating in class—even difficulty sleeping at night. Their teachers love these lessons, too. They tell me that when their students “park” their pelvis in order to support a relaxed, upright spine, that they’re more calm and focused, and much more ready to learn. Maybe it has something to do with all that oxygenated blood reaching their brains!

Conveniently, nothing could be a more perfect with the practice of mindfulness than natural alignment. Such integration of body and mind develops a capacity to focus attention, manage emotions, enhance learning, build confidence—even cultivate compassion. Now that mindfulness is being incorporated into many classrooms across the country, the benefits are greatly multiplied when children also know how to sit upright with ease, supported by aligned bones.

Hardly anything is more satisfying than watching someone learn how to rid themselves of pain. Over the years, I’ve watched this happen more times than I can count. Even so, this information has not been altogether easy to share. Many people, for a variety of reasons, are unable to recognize or accept the simple truth of this or do not possess the patience and self-reflection to commit this into practice. The negative connotations and misunderstandings around the meaning of the word “posture” certainly don’t help. Remarkably, the great majority of doctors and other health professionals have zero awareness of the body’s natural structural design. This is especially disheartening when considering what a game changer this would be for many of their patients. For all the stunning advances and life-saving skills developed by modern medicine, the innate human alignment that babies the world over discover on their own is completely overlooked in all the anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics textbooks that medical students are required to read. How unfortunate! Until the human body is accurately understood to be an organism that relies on a naturally prescribed design in order to function well and fully thrive, far too many people will continue to suffer pain and poor health.

Imagine the number of back surgeries that could be avoided and the pain medication prescriptions that would go unwritten if patients were provided tools for knowing how to establish the natural pelvic/rib cage relationship that, in a number of cases, can relieve pressure on spinal nerve roots and reverse herniated discs. I confess this is not always as simple as I may make it sound, and while this doesn’t work for everyone, it does work for most people. Eventually, when the right kind of evidence-based research is finally conducted, which focuses on the healthiest, most pain-free models among us (instead of studying dysfunctional anomalies), it will become crystal clear that most of the chronic pain experienced by millions of people turns out to have a structural cause that many people can repair themselves.

We’re still far away from reaching this point. As ludicrous as it may sound, some health workers believe that posture, however you choose to define it, has little or no relevance to one’s health. One is left wondering what the rationale for such a view could possibly be when you consider that we rely on our one skeleton to provide the framework of support for all the myriad 3-dimensional working parts involved in organ and nervous system functions that include circulation, respiration, digestion, elimination, including nerve roots, tiny “hoses,” and valves that can be so easily impinged upon and distorted by structural collapse. The integrated whole of the body is much like a 3-D puzzle, with “a place for everything and everything in its place” arrangement of puzzle pieces that fit together, not entirely unlike your car engine or other “precision instruments.” How well would such engines be able to function, if at all, when interrelated parts are misaligned and “dis-ordered?”

One skeleton to support all these systems and their working parts

The way someone inhabits his or her own body can reveal a lot about their own overall understanding of how the body works. This is especially helpful when choosing to work with a doctor, a physical therapist, a yoga teacher or fitness trainer, etc. Does this person embody the principles described here that contribute to vibrant, relaxed uprightness and flowing ease of movement that demonstrates personal, experiential knowledge of the body’s biomechanical details? Or is this person’s “knowledge” based on intellectual constructs gained through faulty training and beliefs that have overlooked the natural human design?

Like so many worthwhile things in life, learning how to inhabit your body according to Nature’s design is simple, but not easy. This is not a quick fix, although it’s a foundational “home base” that can serve a whole lifetime. The details are not difficult to understand. My book, Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment (Healing Arts Press, 2013; originally published in 2006) is a good place to start. Working directly with someone who can help guide you is not only helpful, but necessary in some cases, and contact information for some of these teachers is listed on page 286. More information is availabe at my website: https://naturalposturesolutions.com

Once you understand the most basic alignment details, applying them to the ways you live and move every day takes practice — LOTS of practice. You’ll be undoing longstanding habitual patterns of movement and replacing them with new, more efficient ones. No one else can do this for you, and in order to succeed at this, you have to be willing to be mindful. Luckily, mindfulness begets more mindfulness. I sometimes tell people that there is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that you will have to be mindful. And the good news is you will have to be mindful!

If you understand the irony of this, you’re likely to be a good candidate for taking up the wonderful practice of mindful alignment. I can pretty reliably predict that you won’t be sorry.

Iwant to wrap this up by touching briefly on the idea that how we inhabit our bodies goes far beyond just the physical aspects of having a body, and spills over into the territory of being one. This relates to myriad approaches to meditation and ancient systems of medicine such as Yoga or Ayurveda, where the concept of spinal integrity is nothing new. In a mind/body world where the root meaning of the word “sacrum” is the same as the root meaning of the word “sacred,” one might ask which of the spinal cords of the above-pictured Buddhas (where 500+ million neurons are estimated to reside) would be best suited to serve as a conduit or open channel for the unimpeded flow of spiritual energy and awakening consciousness?

Every aspect of natural alignment can be endlessly fascinating—and we are only at the beginning of exploring these new perspectives on the human body’s actual alignment! The more our understanding of these principles grows, the more new doors open, waiting to be explored. My vote is for calling this information natural alignment, because that’s simply what this is. No capitalization. No trademark symbol, no attaching anyone’s name to it or calling it a “method” or a technique. Just a description of the elements that explain the original design that allows us to enjoy solid strength, easy flexibility, enduring vitality, and freedom from pain.

What could be more useful and valuable than aligning ourselves, in every possible way, with the truth of who we are as human citizens of this miraculous world?

(Citations included below)

The following are references related to the above discussion about children’s health issues.

1. “Dyspraxia Awareness,” Dyspraxia Foundation, www.dyspraxiausa.org/resources/dyspraxia-awareness-sheet (accessed November 11, 2016).

2. Christopher Gillberg and Bjorn Kadesjo, “Why Bother about Clumsiness? The Implications of Having Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD),” Neural Plasticity 10, no. 1–2 (2003): 59–68.

3. Annette Majnemer and Ronald Barr, “Association between Sleep Position and Early Motor Development,” The Journal of Pediatrics 149, no. 5 (November 2006) 623–29.

4. “Lack of ‘Tummy Time’ Leads to Motor Delays, PTs Say,” American Physical Therapy Association, August 6, 2008, www.apta.org/Media/Releases/Consumer/2008/8/6/.

5. Beth Ellen Davis, Rachel Y. Moon, Hari C. Sachs, and Mary C. Ottolini, “Effects of Sleep Position on Infant Motor Development,” Pediatrics 102, no. 5 (November 1998): 1135.

6. Kimberly Marselas, “Losing Our Grip: More Students Entering School Without Fine Motor Skills,” Lancaster Online http://lancasteronline.com/features/trending/losing-our-grip-more-students-entering-school-without-fine-motor/article_c0f235d0-7ba2-11e5-bf0d-5745f74f9717.html (accessed November 11, 2016).

7. Martin Pfeiffer, Rainer Kotz, Thomas Ledl, Gertrude Hauser, and Maria Sluga, “Prevalence of Flat Foot in Preschool-Aged Children,” Pediatrics 118, no. 2 (August 2006).

8. Jennifer L. Junnila and Victoria Cartwright, “Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain in Children: Part I. Initial Evaluation,” American Family Physician 74, no. 1 (July 2006): 115–22.

9. “Sports Injury Statistics,” Stanford Children’s Health, www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=sports-injury-statistics-90-P02787 (accessed November 11, 2016).

10. C. Aris, T. P. Stevens, C. LeMura, B. Lipke, S. McMullen, D. Côté-Arsenault, and L. Consenstein, “NICU Nurses’ Knowledge and Discharge Teaching Related to Infant Sleep Position and Risk of SIDS,” Advances in Neonatal Care 6, no. 5 (Oct. 2006): 281–94. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17045948 (accessed November 27, 2016).

11. Yukuo Konishi, Masanori Kuriyama, Haruki Mikawa, and Junko Suzuki, “Effect of Body Positioning on Later Postural and Functional Lateralities of Preterm Infants,” Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology 29, no.6 (December 1987) 751–56. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3691975 (accessed November 27, 2016); Jane Sweeney and Teresa Gutierrez, “Musculoskeletal Implications of Preterm Infant Positioning in the NICU,” The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing 16, no. 1 (2002): 58–70.

12. Nils Bergman, “Proposal for Mechanisms of Protection of Supine Sleep against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: An Integrated Mechanism Review,” Pediatric Research 77, no. 1, (October 2014) 10–19.

13. Nils Bergman, “Hypothesis on Supine Sleep, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Reduction and Association with Increasing Autism Incidence,” World Journal of Clinical Pediatrics, 5, no.3 (August 2016) 330–42.