Posture and poise

What do we mean by "good posture"?

Certainly not the rigid stance of the sergeant-major - head up, shoulders back - but rather a dynamic condition in which we are poised to use our bodies efficiently, whether we are sitting, standing or carrying out some activity. F.M. Alexander, the inventor of the technique, did not often use the word posture, preferring to speak of "use (or misuse) of self".

Why is good posture important?

Good posture naturally reduces the wear and tear on our joints and bones, making them less subject to disorders such as arthritis in later life, and helps to prevent back pain. But it also affects other parts of the body. It is not generally appreciated that all our abdominal organs are supported by the deep fascia in the neck, which is connected to the cervical spine. The fascia is attached to the pericardium and thereby to the central tendon of the diaphragm, to which the stomach, liver and intestines are attached in their turn. This means that faulty carriage of the neck and shoulders can have repercussions on any of the internal organs.

"Only when the dorsal and cervical portions of the spine are fully extended are the viscera raised to the best functional level." (Sweet, 1938).

Bad posture can also have psychological effects. An adolescent may begin slumping at a time of particular weakness, following an illness or a period of rapid growth, but if slouching persists for any length of time, it is likely to result in a lethargic, uncooperative outlook on life. Likewise, a clerk who is unsure of himself may adopt a cowed, submissive stance, which can have the effect of making him feel still more insecure, thus setting up a vicious circle.

As Eric de Peyer once said, "If we habitually adopt a depressed posture, we are already depression-prone."

What causes bad posture?

Shouldn't we instinctively know how to use our bodies properly? There are two main reasons for the frequency of bad postural habits today. The first is that modern civilization obliges us to function in an environment that is radically different from the one for which our bodies have evolved over the last five million years or so: our skeleton is not designed for the sedentary life that most of us lead. The second is that our "instincts", or genetically transmitted behaviour, need to be supplemented by behaviour patterns that are acquired or learnt; but learning depends on accurate feedback, and our sensory mechanisms are liable to be deadened by habit (see Kinaesthesia).

How widespread is "misuse of self"?

In the 1950s, a doctor called Wilfrid Barlow studied postural defects in "normal" people. He made detailed observations on a group of 112 healthy female PE students, and subsequently carried out a similar study on 126 drama students (45 male and 81 female).

Barlow once defined posture as: "A person's willingness and ability to maintain that relationship of the different parts of his body which ensures their most efficient behavioural function and physiological functioning both now and in the future."

The following faults were identified:

  • Head: Poked, Retracted, Tilted, Pulled down
  • Shoulders: Raised, Dropped, Rotated, Pulled together
  • Pelvis: Tilt, Rotation, Forward carriage, Gluteal asymmetry
  • Spine: Scoliosis, Kyphosis, Lateral curvature or thorax displacement, Lordosis
  • Stance: Hyperextended knees, Internal rotation of knees, Forward inclination, Symmetry
  • Tension: Specific, General

Where a fault was observed, the degree of severity was rated 1, 2 or 3. The score thus attributed to each student determined his or her overall ranking as to postural correctness or otherwise.

The results of the study indicated that over three-quarters of healthy individuals have moderate to severe defects in the way they carry themselves.

What evidence is there that the Alexander Technique improves posture?

Dr. Wilfrid Barlow went on to study the effects of the Alexander Technique. In 1956, he worked with a group of 50 students from the Royal College of Music, London. First he photographed them from the front, side and back against a grid, which provided him with an objective frame of reference by which to evaluate their posture. The students were then divided into two groups: one received lessons in the Alexander Technique, while the other was taught to do exercises of a more traditional kind aimed at improving posture. They were then photographed again. In the Alexander group, both male and female students showed a significant reduction in the number of postural faults following AT lessons, while in the other group there was no significant change. (Incidentally, all but one of the Alexander group were observed to have increased in height, by up to one and three quarter inches.)

Further research was carried out in 1965 by Frank Pierce Jones, of Tufts University, U.S.A., who reached the conclusion that "postural habits can be profoundly affected by the Alexander Technique". (Method for Changing Stereotyped Response Patterns by the Inhibition of Certain Postural Sets, Frank Pierce Jones, Institute for Psychological Research, Tufts University, published in Alexander Technique Psychological Review, 72, (3):196-214, 1965.)