As yogis, many of us already think of posture as multidimensional. We know optimal posture relies on both understanding what ideal posture is and having strength in the muscles necessary to maintain our healthy alignment. We know our posture can be shaped, for better or worse, by outside forces, such as what we do all day and the ergonomics of our lives. And our postures may be the outward expressions of our moods or personality traits. Often, those of us with an interest in optimal posture might view less-than-perfect posture as signalling something negative, associating a droop of the head with gloom, shoulders rolled inward with a desire to hide, a jut of the chin with hostility.
I propose that there is yet another factor at play in posture which makes some misalignments especially intractable, no matter how much we learn about alignment or how effectively we strengthen our stabilizing musculature. Despite how carefully we redesign our work spaces or work to improve our attitudes, some cases of poor posture may persist—because on some level we simply don’t want to stand up straight! Our postures may include a patchwork of misalignments we are attached to either because we like what a certain postural flaw conveys or dislike what an attribute of perfect posture conveys.
For example, in my yoga teacher training, one of my teachers explained that by lining up our ears over our shoulders, we made our postures regal. Instead of jutting our necks out to go toward the world, we could, by drawing our heads back, express our royal confidence that the world would come to us. I loved that sentiment and did my best to maintain my regal bearing. But again and again I lapsed—most often when I was in the company of others. Most often when I was having fun.
I realized then that forward-head posture says to me, I’m listening. I’m humble. I bow to you. I care.
Why on earth couldn’t I keep my head back? Habit was certainly a part of it, but I’d managed to break other habits with less difficulty. What was behind this one? One night, in a room full of new friends—a pocket of warmth in a city that had been otherwise cold—I watched everyone enjoying each other’s company. Their heads moved toward each other, as if magnetized by interest, and there was something beautiful about this. It was as if all these heads moving forward were attempting to bridge the distance between minds. I realized then that forward-head posture says to me, I’m listening. I’m humble. I bow to you. I care.
That was it; I was sure: I didn’t draw my head back that night because that posture didn’t match how I felt or what I wanted to convey. With friends, I didn’t want to be queenly! A queen, to me, views others as subjects and keeps them at arm’s length. People are afraid to approach her. She may hold the perpendicular, but she gives up the world.
In an attempt to motivate our upright posture, I’ve heard yoga teachers say, “Isn’t the person who’s standing well, who has grounded his feet and is lifting up through the crown of his head, the one everyone wants to talk to at the party?”
Maybe some people would want to go up to that person, attracted to his seeming self-assuredness. But I don’t. Why do I instead prefer the sloucher, the leaner, the guy standing contrapposto by the punch bowl? I suppose his posture says to me, I’m not sure of myself. I suspect he is not arrogant. Perhaps he isn’t sure that he wants to be here, to firmly plant himself in this place and among this crowd. It’s a hesitation of which I approve, as I find suspect too much enthusiasm for any one possibility (given all the possibilities in the world). And yet, to have adopted that unguarded and slightly precarious stance—with hips canted and one knee bent so the slightest breeze could knock him over—he must feel safe. I admire his ability to relax even in his uncertainty.
And if I’m light on my own feet, perhaps it’s because I’m not yet committing. I’m ready to be swept away, spirited to the next great adventure, carried off by the next big idea.
A few years ago, in graduate school, my left shoulder began to bother me, and I eventually traced the cause to a new but constant deviation from my usual shoulder alignment. This was long after I’d taken up the yoga gauntlet. I knew where my left shoulder belonged, and I had the strength and flexibility to get it there. It had been there. But now, suddenly, it wasn’t.
I couldn’t figure out why. Then, one day, at the beginning of a class on the art of teaching poetry, my professor mentioned that she’d just gone to the doctor to get a steroid shot in her left shoulder. Of course she needed a steroid shot, I thought with my yogic superiority (as I mention in this article, one of the cons of my alignment-focused practice has been a readiness to blame others for their own injuries). After all, when she spoke, her shoulders were more or less in the right place, but as soon as she began to listen to one of us, she rolled her left shoulder forward.
As I listened to my professor and wrote down her words, I realized that I had been rolling my left shoulder forward. Like her. So that was it. The rest of the class floated by somewhere over my head while I pondered the misguided attempt at emulation that must have led me to unconsciously adopt the postural habit of a woman I admired. On some level, I must have thought that adopting a “listening shoulder” would be a step on the way to becoming a great writer and a great writing teacher.
Staring down at the notes I was still taking absentmindedly, I realized that my handwriting was also a series of affectations, stolen from others I wanted to emulate. Years after consciously stealing some of adorable Heidi’s adorable round letters, I added some of my cool friend Chris’s spiky consonants, and then in college I fell under the persuasive influence of reasonable, no-nonsense block letters, landing me with this handwriting, which was now—mostly—unconscious.
The “listening shoulder” incident may have been an accident, but there are other postural habits I have picked up as intentionally as I did those block letters.
In a book I read as a sixth-grader, the protagonist was a serious girl described as being always hunched over her books. Adults listened to what she had to say, perhaps because that hunch symbolized her seriousness of purpose, her eschewal of vanity. By means of that hunch, she was made different from other children. I wanted to be like that girl; I wanted, at twelve, to have books for best friends and a hunchback! (It didn’t help that my teacher that year had an advanced case of thoracic kyphosis.) I checked out books based on their size and worked diligently at rounding my spine. My mother took me to an allergist because of the breathing problems I’d been having—which, now that I think of it, might have been related to my scholarly hunch—and he said, “Oh, dear. Look at her. Her shoulders have already rounded forward.” I’ll tell you what I thought: Success!
That wasn’t all. As a teenager, I went through a toe-first walking phase, thinking this method was far more elegant than letting my heels land first. I made sure to stand with my toes out because I wanted to be ballerina-ish. I let my little finger wander away from the handles of mugs because this was how, according to TV, Victorian ladies held their cups at high tea. (At this high-pretension stage of my life, I was interested in being mistaken for a dissipated aristocrat, perhaps of Russian descent, who maintained some habits of elegance even in her exile to the American Midwest.)
After a while, those habits of movement and posture became as automatic as my handwriting, and as my signature—which for many years I felt myself forging. I had foraged for that scrawl—observing the signatures of others, and taking what I liked from them—though now this crafted signature is as much mine as my spine. My signature slants, too; its letters lean forward as if to listen.
On the one hand, after decades of yoga, there are postural habits deviating from the yogic ideal posture that look plain painful to me: shoulders that are hiked high, chins tipped up so that the back of the neck creases, pelvises that are posteriorly tucked; ankles that droop toward each other.
On the other hand, a head forward, a tilt of the hips, an uncertainty about the feet—these still look inviting to me. The positive connotations these habits hold for me make it hard for me to stop enacting them, despite all the time I spend standing with my back against walls. I don’t yet want to give them up, at least not enough to shed them entirely.
For those of us who teach yoga, getting to the biases at the root of our own postural tendencies may allow us to have more understanding of our students. After all, we have to contend with their underlying assumptions in addition to their physical limitations and general dispositions: the tall man who thinks it would be inconsiderate to stand up straight and make others crane their necks to look at him, the woman who thinks allowing her hips to move as she walks would bespeak a forwardness or availability she does not wish to convey, the young woman who thinks lifting her chest would be a vain act of self-display, the young man who mistakenly thinks that lifting his chin up so high that the back of his neck shortens is what confidence looks like.
For those of us who teach yoga, getting to the biases at the root of our own postural tendencies may allow us to have more understanding of our students.
We may be able to get a student to learn to hold her head upright if the only reason for chronically tilting her head is the way she usually holds the phone. But if, on some level, she thinks that the rightward tilt of her head signals skepticism or curiosity—or any other trait she values, the challenge may be greater. Her desire to be a certain kind of person, and to show others that she is this kind of person, may overwhelm her desire to center her head and be pain-free.
We can certainly encourage these students to reconsider their assumptions, but they will only change when the students are ready—which, for some, may entail long processes of self-discovery.
For me, getting over the “hunching is attractive” stage of my life happened naturally in my adolescence, when I wanted to be someone who wasn’t so serious and who had friends who weren’t books.
Maybe I will be able to ground my feet when I’m a hundred percent sure I want to be where I am. Maybe I will be able to move my head back where it belongs when I’m ready to be queen. Or—and this is more likely—when I’m ready to believe that good posture isn’t, after all, just the province of queens. Or that queens, too, can listen and love.