Is Posture a Choice?
We’ve all heard the old cues for posture and alignment: stand up straight, keep a flat back, shoulders down and back. But there’s a question to consider: is posture even a choice? Can we just choose a different posture? This article will show you a new way to think about creating integrated body alignment.
You and Gravity, Sitting in a Tree
Many trainers and therapists still hold to a notion of posture as a series of blocks stacked one on top of the other. The thought is that if we just put the bones one on top of the other, then logically we have good posture. And sure, sometimes those pesky muscles won’t cooperate. They’re too tight, so they just need to be foam rolled and stretched. Surely then we can just choose to stand up tall, right?
Your bones exist to manage compressive force, the ever-present downward pull of gravity. Without bones, you’d be a pile of meat on the floor. Your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are great, but they aren’t there to manage gravity. What they are there for is to produce force and move the bony bits relative to each other in space. Of course, the nervous system governs this leverage, which brings us back to the idea of “choosing” better posture.
Your relationship to gravity is just like any other: if you have to constantly think about it for fear of it falling apart, it’s not healthy. This is where postural autopilot comes in.
After a hard effort, does your postural autopilot take over?
When things are working smoothly, you don’t have to second-guess this relationship every second of the day. Your nervous system and musculoskeletal system have a constant dialogue that adjusts itself to new situations and contexts. The way it does this is largely under the surface. It’s built on reflexive patterns you’ve accumulated over decades of dancing with gravity.
By and large, this neural governance is habitual, not something we consciously think about. It's the summation of a lifetime of equilibrium responses, reactions to trauma (physical and emotional), environmental constraints, and the like. All of these factors influence the way our body organizes for posture.
Saying we can “choose” posture vastly oversimplifies the complex interactions between these various factors.
Posture and the Brain
If you want to own and improve your posture and alignment, you need to harness your nervous system. This can not only change your body’s function - it can change the body’s structure, as well.
Let's explore a broad application of the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) to make some sense of this. In general, we take our form from the forces acting upon us. Just like river beds erode as water flows past them, we gain or lose physiological adaptations based on our environment and behaviors.
Structure, as we know it in an anatomical sense, is the summation of past forces on our form at this present moment. If you add a force of significant intensity (for example, traumatic impact from a car accident) or duration (chronic tension, muscular or otherwise), then you will have a change in apparent structure.
So What Can We Do?
The natural question then is: if we can’t really choose a better posture, do we just give up?
Come on, now. I wouldn’t leave you hanging like that.
What we need to do is take an active role in the forces we put on the body. We can choose to avoid sitting for twelve hours a day. We can choose to spend time relieving stress, be it through time in nature, exploring natural movement in natural environments, or meditation, getting in touch with our bodies’ cues again. No matter the situation, we have a choice and a responsibility.
It’s also crucial to explore your habitual responses to familiar positions. Remember, a lot of posture goes on beneath the surface. When you stand or sit, how do you naturally organize? When you think of “good posture,” what is your body’s inherent response? Try this simple thought exercise to give your posture some new life:
Stand With Purpose
If the nervous system governs muscular tension over periods of months, years, and longer, it also contributes to musculoskeletal alignment, for better or for worse. This goes way deeper than simply choosing to stand up tall.
As we’ve talked about before, variety is crucial to healthy nervous system function, and therefore your posture. Put yourself in novel environments, or simply approach the mundane with a new perspective, and you’ll notice far more improvement in your posture than you would by simply stacking piles of bones one on top of the other.
More Points About Posture:
- Destroy Pain and Physical Limitation With Posture Alignment Therapy
- How to Unlock Your Athletic Potential Through Good Posture
- Straightening Up: Progressive Posture Alignment
- New on Breaking Muscle Right Now