Originally published on Corpsonore.
As a musician, you know posture is important. Maintaining good posture while playing has probably been drilled into you since your very first lesson with whatever instrument you play. You’re taught to keep your spine straight, stomach sucked in, chest high, and shoulders back. I, myself, struggled with chronic viola-related injuries for years. I knew that addressing my posture was a major component of my healing. What I didn’t realize was that most everything I had been taught about posture up to that point was actually making my pain worse.
In my journey out of pain, I searched everywhere for ways to improve my posture. I did yoga and pilates. I swam. I tried several different posture-correcting braces. I saw chiropractors. I did my PT exercises and wore Kinesio tape. I experimented with different ergonomic shoulder rests and chin rests. I lifted weights. I needed to know more about posture, so I attended different movement certifications. I literally became a Certified Posture Specialist through an organization called the National Posture Institute. Even after all of this, “good” posture just didn’t feel sustainable. I had chronically tight hip flexors, pecs, back, and neck muscles. I felt like I was fighting a losing, yet never-ending battle. Like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill, but with terrible posture. I would try my utmost to stay in good alignment, but it would leave me feeling anxious, tired, and in more pain. When I found myself out of alignment, I would berate myself for it. Thoughts of my posture consumed me. I worried about it night and day. I grew jealous of people with good posture and became judgemental of people with bad posture.
This is the dark side of how posture is taught. Think of all those parts of good posture that I mentioned above. They are all derived from an aesthetic perspective. Setting a person up in good alignment might look great to the teacher, but as we all know, looks can be deceiving. The commonly taught ideas about posture enforce the feeling that posture should be static, and that above all, you need to look good to everyone around you regardless of how it makes you feel. This old school way of thinking completely dismisses the facts that 1) we are beings who are dynamic, 2) our posture is a reflection of our mental and emotional state, and 3) we have internal processes (like breathing, swallowing, digesting, and so forth) that are deeply affected by our posture. Optimal posture cannot be successfully defined in terms of appearance alone. Sure you might look at someone who moves optimally and think “Wow! They have great posture.” But what you are seeing is determined by their self-awareness and internal sensing.
I felt like I was fighting a losing, yet never-ending battle. Like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill, but with terrible posture.
The seeds of change were planted for me when I was at one of those certification classes. I had remarked about my bad posture while introducing myself in the program. “Hi. My name is Rachel and I’m here because I have terrible posture.” Another participant in the program turned to me and whispered, “You have beautiful posture.” I was flabbergasted. It stunned me how she could have such a starkly different view of me than… well… me. How could there be such a chasm between what I felt as my posture and what I was presenting to the world?
Change blossomed for me when I began my Feldenkrais Training program. If you’re unfamiliar with this movement method, that’s okay. It’s got a strange name. When it’s pronounced, many hear “Felden-CHRIST.” Fearing cult indoctrination, they back away slowly and then run away quickly. But, it’s pronounced Fel-den-krise and is named for it orginator: Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, who was an engineer, master-level judoka (judo person), and consummate observer of all things human. Its basis is in helping its students discover how movement feels in their own bodies. Unlike other methods—yoga, dance, strength training, etc.—the lessons of the Feldenkrais Method do not provide visual representations for students to imitate. It is taught either hands-on with a practitioner or through verbally-guided lessons.
I fell in love with this method when I read Moshe Feldenkrais’ writings on posture. His book Awareness Through Movement actually has a chapter called “What Is Good Posture?” When I first read it, I remember thinking, “Where have you been all my life?” He reimagined “posture” and coined the term “acture” as posture in action. Acture is being able to move in any direction at a moment’s notice, using a minimal amount of effort to do any given task, whether it’s playing an instrument, golfing, swimming, yoga, walking, standing, cooking, whatever! So in this way, posture becomes about how you are using yourself and feeling that you can use the least amount of effort to stand or sit.
I began to adopt the Feldenkrais Method’s ideas of self-observation and awareness. I learned how to use my skeleton to support my movement instead of worrying about what muscles were activating when. I learned how to observe my emotions, thoughts, senses, and movement. I learned that many of those previous tries to help my posture (yoga, pilates, swimming, etc.) hadn’t worked for me because I had placed too much emphasis on what the activity was and hadn’t considered at all how I was doing them. I learned to use myself in a better way so that I could support and enhance my viola playing. I was no longer in pain, and best of all, if my pain did start to creep back, I could use my newfound awareness superpowers to help it go away.
If you’re someone who is struggling to apply the old posture ideas with little to no success, here are the basic steps I took to reimagine my posture.
1. Notice your breathing: Your breath is your indicator of the amount of unnecessary effort, be it mental or physical, that you might be using. When you are breathing easily, you are not recruiting unnecessary effort. If you are holding your breath, then your effort is being misdirected. Good posture requires little effort. Start to monitor your breathing to get a sense of how much effort you are using while doing activities. You might be surprised how you hold your breath during even the simplest activities: playing a scale, writing an email, brushing your teeth, etc.
2. Notice your emotions: If you feel sad, mad, depressed, anxious, fearful, etc, your posture will reflect this. On the flip side, if you feel happy, powerful, excited, thoughtful, loving, exuberant, etc., your posture will also reflect this. Once you understand how your posture is tied to your emotions, then working on good posture becomes a process that involves understanding how you’re thinking and feeling in the moment, not just what your body is doing. I’m not saying that you should force yourself to be in a positive emotional state all the time. On the contrary, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge what you are feeling. Don’t try to wrench your body in the opposite direction of your feelings. This only leads to pain and suffering.
3. Notice your judgements: As you begin to notice your emotions and your breathing, notice any judgements that come with them. For instance, you find yourself holding your breath. Do you criticize yourself for it? Judgement creates bias, and biases are very hard to change. Observation gives you information from which you can create meaningful change. Find yourself anxious? Your mood can improve just by acknowledging that you’re anxious, and then by acknowledging it you can start to develop tools that will help you improve even more.
These three things seem simple, right? They are the foundations of establishing a comfortable, easy, pain-free posture, and they take practice. I highly recommend seeking out your friendly, neighborhood (Guild Certified) Feldenkrais Practitioner to get guidance on your own journey.