Posture Habits You Must Learn to Break

My friend Peter seems to be collapsing inward as he ages — with every year, his ribs inch closer and closer to his pelvic bones. He believes that he is taking weight off his arthritic hips when he stands this way — but in fact, what he ends up doing is bringing the bones closer together… and “bone on bone” are the exact words used to describe the agonizing pain of arthritis.

I’m telling you about Peter because he provides an excellent illustration of how standing the wrong way can worsen such conditions as osteoporosis, arthritis, lower back pain and neck and shoulder pain. Conversely, when you hold your body correctly it extends your spine — not only does this do wonders for back pain, it also gives ample support and space to the internal organs and nerves and enhances circulation. Just reading those words feels good, doesn’t it?

Correcting “Corrections”

Though our moms used to “correct” our posture when we were growing up, it turns out that many of the rules we learned were wrong. We knew naturally how to hold our bodies as young children, when we learned how to sit and then stand and walk. Kathleen Porter, author of Ageless Spine, Lasting Health, works to undo much of what we’ve learned about posture at her Center for Natural Alignment in Portland, Oregon. She told me that her techniques are based on her observations and studies of people in other cultures, whose lifestyle has enabled them to continue to move in this very natural way. In particular, Porter told me she had been impressed and influenced by witnessing the ease with which small, slightly built women could carry heavy loads upon their heads.

Instead of standing straight, with our chests high and stomach and butts held in, Porter suggested picturing a plumb line that falls from your shoulder and ends at your ankle. “If the line runs straight through your shoulder, hip, knee and ankle, your alignment is correct,” Porter said, noting that the position is not stiff or rigid, but rather is “the relaxed alignment that toddlers and young children find naturally.”

Three Rules To Unlearn

Porter identified three common postural rules she believes we should all work to unlearn. She said that correcting these particular behaviors will go far toward making many of us feel a whole lot better.

Posture myth #1: Tuck your butt. A common instruction when standing up straight is to “tuck your butt” (or your tailbone) under.

Problems it causes: Remember my friend Peter who is caving in as he ages? By tucking his butt, Peter misses having the foundational support of a fully extended spine. “Tucking your butt takes your leg bones out from under you,” explains Porter. Your legs should be like vertical posts to properly support your weight. Otherwise, the muscles in your back, shoulders and/or neck must work harder.

Posture myth #2: Hold your chest high. Many people think the proper stance is to squeeze back the shoulder blades, angling the breast bone (sternum) slightly up and toward the sky. It’s the way that soldiers and athletes typically stand — and don’t they look like great role models for good posture?

How this hurts: Porter points out that lifting the chest displaces the rib cage, tightens neck muscles, compresses the spine and works many muscles — when the goal is to keep them tension-free. “You’ll often hear people say that they love to stretch, but that’s really an indication of stored-up tension caused by unnatural posture,” said Porter. “A body in correct alignment has no tight muscles that need relief!”

Posture myth #3: Suck in your belly. Give it a try — hold those stomach muscles tight. Are you breathing? Are you more relaxed?

Why it’s wrong: Tensing the belly tightens the diaphragm, putting pressure on the lungs and making it harder to breathe fully — plus it triggers the motion of tilting and tucking the pelvis toward the back, flattening your bottom. This tilted pelvis shifts the pelvic floor muscles out of place, making it harder for them to support the organs in the lower abdomen and putting excessive tension in the lower back. Also, a tight belly interferes with the work of certain muscle groups — the oblique and transversus abdominis. These are the deepest abdominal muscles — they wrap around the torso, running from the ribs to the pelvis, and are crucial to proper alignment and supporting the core of the body, Porter explained.

The right way to stand: Start by looking down at your feet, with your shoulders back (keeping the plumb line in mind). Hold your sternum perpendicular to the floor and lift your ribs by pulling up from the lower ribs in the back. It does sound strange, so Porter offered a mental image that can help…

Picture yourself as a marionette with strings attached to the back of your lower ribs and just inside the back of each of your armpits. Now imagine the strings being gently drawn up behind you. Roll each shoulder in a circular motion forward, around, up and back — letting the shoulder come to rest right on top of the rib cage. Lift your face just enough to see comfortably in front of you as you imagine that a string at the base of your skull pulls just a bit of length into the back of your neck. Relax your belly muscles as well. Take a minute and breathe… nice, isn’t it?

Collapsed posture Overcorrected posture Aligned posture

No Quick Fix

Porter points out that returning to proper alignment is not a quick fix, and it almost always feels awkward at first. As many times a day as you can remember, she suggests, visualize yourself as a skeleton. This will help you focus on what is happening with your bones, muscles and joints as well as on the corrections you need to make.

This is just one of the numerous methods and programs that help people learn to achieve proper alignment — you may recall that one I particularly like is Jeff Zimmerman’s Optimotion, which will help you learn and practice proper alignment. I’m sending that story and this one, too, to my friend Peter, and I hope he’s open to making these changes. I know I instantly feel better whenever I have a few seconds to remind myself to stand in a relaxed and natural way.