The Posture of Well-Being

How to Re-Map Body & Mind

Physical Therapist and Wellness Expert Donna Morton

Why Posture Matters

Posture: Have you noticed it’s often in the news these days?

Our 21st century technology is one reason for this surge of interest in posture. Heavy use of computers, video games, and high-tech phones causes postural stress. Now that most of us spend an average of 8 hours a day reaching our heads forward to peer at a screen, health professionals are seeing greater numbers of people with chronically hunched shoulders and strained necks – even teens and kids. Unfortunately, this kind of poor posture is a major factor in neck, shoulder and back pain, as well joint strain throughout the body. It’s even associated with tension headaches. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4968495/

Interestingly, the importance of healthy posture goes beyond good body mechanics. Posture affects a person’s mind-state and the way others perceive us, as scientists have shown through recent research. For instance, social psychologist Amy Cuddy has researched “power posture,” which she discusses in her popular TED Talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are#t-1233165

Although the science of posture may seem new, many world cultures have studied posture and health across millennia. The Buddhist and yoga traditions of India and Tibet have investigated — with great precision — the power of posture to shape well-being. Masters of Tibetan Buddhism have long taught how posture influences the subtle-body energy system, and thereby the balance, health and functioning of mind, body and senses. (A good source on this topic is Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West, edited by Geoffrey Samuel and Jay Johnston.)

To experience the joy of relaxed, healthy posture, we benefit from learning both the western science of posture and the time-tested insights of ancient body-mind systems. That involves vast amounts of knowledge. Fortunately, there are accomplished health experts who have dedicated their lives to accumulating that knowledge.

Donna Morton is one of them. She has studied these varied dimensions of posture across a lifetime and created a special workshop, The Power of Posture to Shape Well-Being, taking place August 12 at Berkeley’s Nyingma Institute. Intended to help people gain skill and understanding in the ways that posture affects pain and performance, mood and memory, the workshop will draw from Morton’s remarkably expansive & diverse body of knowledge.

To join Morton at her upcoming August 12th workshop, The Power of Posture To Shape Well-Being, contact the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley at http://nyingmainstitute.com/wellness-weekends/ or (510) 809–1000. Participants can attend the one-day workshop or enjoy a weekend residential retreat at Nyingma’s breath-taking location overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

The Big View: Donna Morton’s Approach to Posture

A physical therapist with a diverse clientele, Morton is also a nutrition consultant and wellness coach. Along with her credentials in western science, she has studied eastern mind-body healing systems. She teaches Buddhist meditation and Tibetan yoga (called Kum Nye) at Berkeley’s Nyingma Institute. She also incorporates the Japanese Jin Shin Jyutsu healing system into her work.

Morton’s life-long quest to gather multiple healing modalities was partly motivated by her own personal experience. Born with a congenital deformity of the ribcage and sternum, Morton had a radical surgery at age 7, an attempt to repair the deformity. “I have been left with a rib cage that has limited room for lungs and heart. I’ve had to work with the constant discomfort, as well as the effects of this on my nervous system. All of the things I bring to the work with posture — Jin Shin Jyutsu, Kum Nye, nutrition, physical therapy — have been a huge part of my journey to stay functional and well and vibrant.”

Curiously, before Morton became an expert in the human body, she studied the earth’s body. She earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in geography, and in the 1980s, worked as a professional mapmaker. Her maps charted global earthquakes, which, on that scale, reveal the action of plate tectonics — the earth’s dynamic structural skeleton. Some of her maps tracked the migration routes of whales. Others documented political change. “I was working in Germany at a university in the geophysics department when the Berlin wall came down, and Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union broke-up, so I was literally remapping Eurasia. It was a fascinating time.”

What does map-making have to do with healthy posture? Morton explains: “When you make a map — at least back in the era of hand-drawn maps — you do everything in layers. You have layers that represent physical forms, hydrology, political boundaries, names, etc. All these layers represent interrelated systems that link to form a comprehensive picture of the whole. Well, people are like that, too. You can look at bodies as landscapes that have evolved over time, and are responsive to forces — physical, emotional, psychological.”

Photomontage of a hand-made map by Donna Morton with anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Copyright: Donna Morton, Pauline Yu, and Elizbeth Gand

Clients come to Morton because they are experiencing pain, tension and dis-ease. “A lot of us lack a variety of movement. People are sitting, and sitting, and sitting — resulting in repeated postural strain. Tissues start to adapt in ways that impede circulation, and almost solidify us into unhealthy patterns. Pain and tension are the common signals that communicate the need for change.”

With skilled training, the body is capable of amazing transformation. “The body form is constantly changing. Every few days the digestive system lining is new, bone is turning over constantly… When we get that perspective of constant transformation, there is potential for tremendous change.” (See Harvard University’s B10NUMB3R5 website, http://book.bionumbers.org/how-quickly-do-different-cells-in-the-body-replace-themselves/)

Just as the Berlin wall came down, it is never too late to re-map our postural habits to open new possibilities of well-being. This transformation happens, says Morton, when we work with the body and mind as a whole system. “People will say, ‘I have pain in the low back, the shoulder, the neck.’ If you have a problem in one place, it influences the whole. We have to look at your whole system, and not just the physical and biological, but the psycho-social as well.”

That’s why Morton incorporates such a diversity of resources: western science, nutrition, Kum Nye, meditation, Jin Shin Jyutsu. She understands that the human body is a layered and complex geography, with all parts interacting and affecting each other.

Healing Posture from Multiple Angles

“I usually start by looking at the lines of strain and tension, in the body tissues, and in the breath. We get really accustomed to tension, and believe that set of sensations represents who we are. We can start to release tension at the level of the breath, as a way to profoundly affect the nervous system, your entire state of being. Breath supports relaxation, circulation, energy, the health of the spine, and a calm and stable mind. Freedom of the breath and efficient posture go hand in hand.”

Morton’s whole system approach led her to study nutrition as a complement to her physical therapy practices, and she now teaches nutrition at Bauman College. “I was seeing in some patients that changing the diet was the most effective approach for relieving pain, especially in autoimmune conditions, arthritis. That angle is not addressed in physical therapy programs.”

Her quest to understand the body as a complex whole also brought her to Jin Shin Jyutsu. Traceable back to ancient Japan and revived in the early 1900s, this system uses safe, simple sequences of hands-on contact designed to harmonize body-mind energy. Morton uses this system because it is safe, gentle, and effective, and she knows that healthy posture is not just about outwardly adopting a particular form. It depends on the ability to sense the body’s form and energy — and skill in relaxing and supporting one’s self from the inside. “Jin Shin Jyutsu is fundamentally a self-healing art that can be applied to oneself daily to great benefit.”

An important component to Morton’s body-mind work is Tibetan yoga, or Kum Nye, a healing system that uses gentle movements, awareness, and breathing to stimulate sensation, and activate an inner ‘massage of feeling’. “Kum Nye is an important method for relaxing deeply-held tension in the body, mind and senses, and releasing restrictive patterns of conditioning. Through practice, our inner experience naturally becomes more spacious and accommodating, and that lightness is experienced in more open and expansive posture and movement. We begin to taste inner freedom.”

If you would like to experience the inner freedom of balanced, easeful posture, you can join Morton at her August 12th workshop at the Nyingma Institute, http://nyingmainstitute.com/wellness-weekends/ or (510) 809–1000. You can also contact her through the El Cerrito office of Physical Therapy Innovations, (510) 524–2177.