Posture is a concept most of us will have been aware of from as far back as our earliest memories. Whether through direct or implied social instruction, the inference that it matters how we hold and conduct ourselves is imbedded in the psyche of most of us. Widely described as the position in which someone holds their body when standing or sitting, the concept of posture extends beyond static alignment considerations, to include the carriage of the body during dynamic biomechanical processes during locomotion and functional movement tasks. Optimal postural form has been codified across a wide variety of societal settings including education, health and physical performance environments of military, sport, and dance. Despite this, approaches defining the biomechanical coordinates of optimal postural alignment are fraught with inconsistencies, due in part to the multifactorial and complex nature of their rationalisation1. In this article we consider the rationale of postural correctness in the context of movement teaching agendas focused on functional performance, health, and well-being.
Who we are and how we project ourselves begins with our DNA. Instincts drive our rudimentary responses to the interactions we have with the world around us. How we feel and what we think is quite literally written in our facial expressions and body language2,3. It is learned behaviour that enables us to control those initial involuntary physiological responses. Learning to control what we communicate and how we respond to those around us, is essential for establishing and maintaining physical and psychological well-being. Throughout our lives, protecting and nourishing ourselves is often contingent on us giving the right responses. Acquiescence to socially defined behavioural norms facilitates our endeavours within our social frameworks. It is little wonder that ideas of postural correctness and interpretations of postural traits have emerged across social frameworks and cultures over the centuries1.
The rationale and justification associated with specific postures are complex and driven by a variety of factors. Social, religious, and political agendas, alongside approaches for improved health, well-being and physical performance have all shaped opinions and expectations regarding posture1. Consequently, beliefs and behaviours related to posture have become entangled with mistruths designed to subjugate, manipulate, and control individuals and even entire populations. Most of us from a young age have been exposed to some form of conditioning that influences how we hold and carry ourselves within our day-to-day environments, especially in the presence of others. Therefore, when considering posture in a movement teaching setting, we must endeavour to pick apart and scrutinise our own reference system as well as those of our clients. We must look for the truth in what is important about alignment and carriage of structure for those we teach. We will find that truth within their aspirations along with their physiological and psychological potential to adapt.
When considering health, well-being, and physical performance, we might ponder the question, ‘is there an ideal alignment of skeletal structures in relation to one another and their orientation with the surrounding environment?’ Academic study has certainly proposed many such notions, giving us concepts like “neutral alignment”, and working definitions of postural types4. Consequently, attempting to define, attain and perfect an ‘ideal posture’ as a definitive alignment of structure is a common practice in many movement teaching disciplines, with concepts like neutral spine and pelvis being adopted verbatim and promoted generically regardless of spatial orientation, task mechanics, or the physiological capabilities of the individual performing it.
Given a specific physical task, it might seem reasonable to assume that there would indeed be an optimal alignment of structure for the effective and efficient performance of that specific task. However, the idea of a singular alignment like neutral spine, fails to acknowledge the fundamental nature of biological form. From the womb to the grave, our biology is in a constant state of motion dictated by the environment and our interaction with it. Even standing or sitting still, involves motion, the act of balancing and breathing alone will produce movement and changes to alignment. Dynamic refinement of alignment is constantly needed to maintain effective and efficient biomechanical responses to the challenges presented by the environments we occupy and the physical tasks we perform within them. This has been clearly explained and evidenced through biomechanical study5,6 and is fundamental to somatic approaches to movement education7-10. Psychosocial, biomechanical, and experiential perspectives on posture all support the same position; ‘Ideal posture’ is an illusion. While the concepts around symmetry and posture can be used effectively in the initial stages of learning novel movements and forms, chasing the acquisition of ‘the ideal’ will stifle efficiency and fluidity of motion.
If only it were as simple as pursuing optimal alignments for biomechanical efficiency within human movements. However, like it or not, there will often be aesthetic expectations to be aware of too. Deliberating concepts of posture in the context of codified (technically defined) movement practices like dance, aesthetic sports, and military drills, warrants additional consideration. Many of the physical forms and movements utilised within codified forms have been set out and defined in literature, educational syllabus, and the individual interpretations of teachers. This inevitably results in rules regarding definitive structural alignments being set. When these aesthetic expectations are not attainable but are none the less belligerently pursued, the consequences can be disastrous for mental and physical health. It is therefore imperative that a person-centred approach be adopted wherever possible and that within the constraints of defined forms, adaptations should be implemented to enable performance outcomes to be achieved within acceptable limits of the activity being performed.
Exercises are also by their very nature, codified forms of movement. Aside from person-centred adaptation, it is also important to consider the origins of exercises and their original purpose (check out the “The purpose of an exercise” tutorial in the professional membership area). Far too often, rules related to alignment and form are interchanged between exercises without consideration of context and relevance. The generic use of neutral alignment of the lumbopelvic region, regardless of spatial orientation or peripheral joint actions in exercise settings, is a case in point. The argument about ‘spinal imprint’ during exercises targeting the abdominal muscles has raged for decades across various exercise methodologies. Ironically, it barely matters if strength or endurance training (through overloading) the abdominal muscles is the objective! In contrast, dynamically maintaining a kinetically balanced alignment (balancing the forces) between the pelvis, thoracic cage and head during activities where spinal stability is required, makes perfect sense from a movement efficiency perspective. There is no getting away from it, alignment matters when performing exercises. However, of what, when, why and how, are all important questions to consider. Simplification into standardised alignment instructions derived from entangled concepts surrounding posture is a remiss approach at best. Concepts like neutral pelvis and spinal alignment, certainly warrant greater scrutiny and contextual understanding within the movement teaching community. So, this is a subject we will undoubtedly return to often.
So how should we approach this highly charged and emotive topic within our movement teaching practices? My advice would be to start by working through the following list of questions, the answers to which will guide you towards an objective and client-centred pathway:
Respect the influence you have on those you teach. You too are human, therefore fallible. Always remain mindful of this and approach your teaching with an open mind. Always encourage experimentation, exploration, and expression without bias or boundaries imposed by conflicted notions like ‘posture’.
INSPIRE - never impose
ENCOURAGE - avoid fear
SUPPORT - relinquish control