by Julie Loder
In the classes I teach, one of the most profound things I witness is the life-transforming benefits of improving our posture. By “improving posture” I am talking about strengthening the muscles that lengthen and decompress our spine against the downward pressure and force of gravity, not referring to a goal of achieving any particular spinal curvature or pelvic angle. The number of all-too-common aches and pains that derive from compromised posture and a compressed spine that is not adequately supported by the muscles of the core and lumbo-hip complex (among others), is extensive. When the spine is not supported it can result in generic low back pain, to sciatica, bulging and herniated discs, neck stiffness, pain down the shoulders and arms, limitations on range of movement to reach, bend, and twist the spine as part of movements in daily life, and on and on. Developing strength and coordination in the muscles that decompress our spine can be a major part of alleviating these kinds of pain.
One of the benefits of becoming more aware of our posture is actually tied to a different kind of pain and a different form of healing. Our posture is a huge part of our identity, our personal history, and our way of relating to the world. Our current default posture – the way we automatically tend to stand, sit, and generally hold ourselves upright — is a result of the sum total collection of many of our experiences that impacted our body. Our decisions we have made about how to physically show up in our own bodies, as we introduce ourselves to and navigate the world.
From beautiful, if physically taxing experiences such as pregnancy, having a child, and the years spent holding our baby on our hip/chest/back. Traumatic events that were beyond our control, like car accidents, surgeries, or other injuries we have sustained. The events themselves and the physical scarring can indelibly alter the shape of our spine and body, and the way we feel.
What about the actual deliberate decisions we have made about the way we would carry and present our body to the world? Decisions that were also not health promoting, self-affirming and resulted in compromised posture?
I hear so many examples of these stories from participants in my classes. A woman with pronounced rounding and severe atrophy of the muscles of the upper back, told the story of having such painful and embarrassing acne as a teenager that she spent years uncomfortably and antisocially hunched over to hide her face with her hair.
Another participant with similar physical symptoms expressed that she had been hunching her back since before adolescence as she was very tall and had a very developed chest at an early age. Being of a shy nature and not wanting to stick out, she hunched over during critical years of physical development and now, in her 40s, has really struggled to even regain the ability to feel or consciously activate the muscles of her upper back, which of course play a central role in our postural health.
What about other more seemingly innocuous decisions like regularly wearing high heels to achieve a certain look, despite the foot, knee, and back pain they cause?
These are decisions where we arguably betray our bodies and physical best interests as a result of personal shame and social pressure. Sometimes these betrayals started in our earliest and most physically and emotionally vulnerable decades of life. Over the years we pay a steep price both physically and emotionally, as the initial betrayal becomes embedded in our muscular patterning. It leaves a pronounced footprint in the form of aches and pains, and an outward self-presentation. It’s a non-verbal communication with the world – a posture — that is marked by this history of self-betrayal.
When we become aware of and seek to strengthen our default posture as an adult – for all the incredible physical benefits it can yield — one of the things we are doing is simply learning about our musculature. We are re-awakening muscles we do not regularly use, and inviting them to perform the work for which they are attached to our skeletal frame. This is a physically challenging and sometimes frustrating process, as the brain struggles to reacquaint itself with muscles and entire movement patterns. It can take a leap of faith to believe we can even begin to feel those muscles again. It takes a great deal of persistence, patience, mental discipline and mind-body connection practice to overcome that neurological impasse and to be able to access the muscles with the brain. This is the first step in strengthening them.
This is a physically challenging and sometimes frustrating process, as the brain struggles to reacquaint itself with muscles and entire movement patterns. It can take a leap of faith to believe we can even begin to feel those muscles again.-Julie Loder
At the same time, as we become aware of and do physical therapy on our default posture, and take the measures to rehabilitate it back to a healthier, more anatomically and mechanically friendly, health-supportive degree of strength, we very literally do immense emotional therapy for our spirit. As our body changes, we uncover those old sources of shame, and we reconcile them emotionally and physically. We stand taller. We empower our bodies to move and rest without pain. We can completely change the energy we project and the impression and impact we make, and for the better, since it will come from a healed, dignified self, not one beleaguered under old hurts.
As we embark on this important personal work and physical challenge of strengthening our posture, let us pair the patience needed to help our brains find our muscles with emotional openness and curiosity, compassion for, and love of self.