What IS Posture Anyway?

We all know that ‘good posture’ is important. It helps us move through the world with confidence. It helps us have presence in performance or public speaking. It’s the foundation of singing. We feel and look better with it.

But if you ask people what good posture is, you’re likely to hear something like the following:

“Well, I know I should use it, but I don’t.”

“Standing as straight as possible like my head is being pulled up to the ceiling with a string.”

“When I was a kid, I was told to pull my shoulders back and lift my chest. But my back hurts after I do this for a while.”

If you ask a group of people to show you “good posture,” and then you are attentive to what each person is doing, you’re likely to notice that everyone has a different idea, and that often, our conception of posture involves a lot of effort and pulling. (If you’re a choral conductor or music educator, be extra attentive to the words you use to talk to your choirs and students about posture over the next few weeks. See what you notice!)

When I was a young singer, I was told I had “great posture,” but that posture didn’t help me sing with ease. I might have looked like I had poise and balance, but the way I was standing was actively getting in the way of free singing.

WHY?

Because what’s we’re often looking for in “posture” is a correct outer form, but what gives us ease and balance is our inner coordination. It’s not about what we look like, but about how all of us works together.

I teach a course at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music called “Postural Alignment for the Musician.” While I didn’t pick the title, it has been great to work with these concepts because EVERYONE has an idea about what posture is and isn’t.

What is Posture? What is Alignment? Alexander Technique gives us some clues.

On the first day of class we start by sharing thoughts about what “posture” and “alignment” mean to each of the students. They have great ideas! Then I offer one of my favorite definitions of posture:

“Your posture is the ongoing perceptual process by which you orient yourself to gravity and to your relationship with the people, objects, and events in your world.”

  • Mary Bond, The New Rules of Posture, p. 12

Here are some reasons I love this definition.

  1. Posture involves PERCEPTION. It’s not about a fixed, correct position, but about our response to the world around us.
  2. It’s about our orientation to GRAVITY. Our bipedal stance requires both the downward force of gravity and the upward energizing force of our deep postural muscles.
  3. Posture is DYNAMIC, and is influenced by our thoughts (about those people, objects, and events), our goals, and our habits.

We also do a fun brainstorming activity where we compare and contrast two models of posture:

This guy (a posable wooden art model):

Wooden Art Model of a Human

and this, a “Skwish” baby toy (which is also a tensegrity model):Tensegrity Model of Posture

I ask the students to brainstorm ideas in favor of each as a model of posture, and against each as a model of posture. They usually create a list like this:

In favor of the art model: 

  1. It looks more like a human 
  2. It has movable parts 

Against the art model:

  1. It’s rigid
  2. Its joints aren’t really like our joints
  3. If you drop it, it doesn’t bounce

In favor of the tensegrity model:

  1. When you move one part, all the other parts are affected
  2. When you drop it, it bounces. When you squish it, it pops back up.
  3. You could imagine the dowels as our bones, and the elastic as our muscles and connective tissue (see definition of tensegrity here)
  4. In short, it’s springy, dynamic, and resilient

Against the tensegrity model:

  1. It doesn’t really look like a person:

When you look at these lists, what you realize is that the only benefit of the art model is that it fits the outer form of what we think a person’s posture should be. It shows us the “what.” But it doesn’t address how we should get there.

Alexander Technique teachers typically don’t talk about posture for this very reason. We’re not interested in a correct outer form, but in the way that a person organizes themselves. F.M. Alexander called this Use. Your Use is your own, individual way of being in your body, in your thinking, and in your responses to the world around you.

My colleague Hilary King states it nicely in her Alexander Technique glossary:

Use refers to the habitual and characteristic manner in which a person moves and uses their body, all the time, whatever they are doing. Our use is influenced by our thinking and by our emotions and to bring about changes in our use, we need to allow changes to take place in our thinking and in our reactions to things.

“The way we use ourselves affects the functioning of the whole body, our whole psychophysical being. As F M Alexander put it:

‘Talk about a man’s individuality and character: it’s the way he uses himself’ 

So the next time you’re giving someone instruction in how to stand or sit for singing, playing piano, or anything else, remember not to go for a correct outer form. Give them guides for a kind of balance and ease that begins on the inside, rather than things to “do” with different sets of muscles.

Here are some phrases that help me. These are all based in solid biomechanics, and draw on the Alexander Technique in that they start with our thinking and our goals, not a plan for a “correct position.”

“I don’t have to be right.”

“My feet (and if sitting, my sitting bones) are supported by the earth/the surface I’m resting on, and I’m allowing myself to be supported.”

“I let my hip sockets release in the front, my knees release in the back, and allow my back to widen”

“I let my head rest to balance freely on top of my spine (way up between the ears)”

“I let my shoulders release to either side from the center of the chest”

One of my favorite aphorisms from F.M. Alexander is:

“There is no such thing as a right position, but there is a right direction.”

If you’re a teacher, play with these ideas in your next lesson or rehearsal, and see what you and your students discover! I’d love to hear from you!

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