Symbolism of posture

I’ve known for a while that there’s something wrong with my posture, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve resorted to learning basic functional anatomy to troubleshoot the problems for myself.

I’ve been learning about extension and flexion of the various joints, bony landmarks, specific muscles and their antagonists, as well as common postural deficiencies like forward head posture, excessive lordosis of the lumbar spine, kyphosis of the thoracic spine, pelvic tilt, rib flare, and so on.

There are lots of variables to examine and many of them are inter-dependent. For example: I started with the issue of rounded shoulders, which is really about protraction of the scapulae. I worked on trying to fix that for a while, but with limited success. Eventually I realised I was flaring out my ribs too much, which is really an issue of excessive extension at the thoraco-lumbar spine – the middle of the spine.

To correct the rib flare requires engaging abdominal muscles to pull the ribs down, but this in turn is not feasible unless the pelvis is correctly aligned. Anterior pelvic tilt tends to weaken the abdominals and the gluteals, while shortening the lower back muscles and the hip flexors.

By the time I’d worked all this out I’d forgotten about the shoulder protraction issue, so it’s come full-circle again.

Beyond anatomy

I think there’s also a symbolic or psychological aspect to these postural issues.

Posture is directly linked to the psyche in two main ways: first, we use posture to communicate with others. Defensive and submissive postures indicate to others that we wish to avoid confrontation. Hunching or rounding the shoulders, dropping the head, collapsing the chest all communicate submission by making us appear physically smaller and weaker.

Second, bad posture feels awful. It makes us irritable and stressed, takes more energy to maintain, and discourages us from the physical exertion required to accomplish daily activities and meaningful projects.

Forward head posture

So let’s take forward head posture as an example.

There’s a simple behavioural component, in that we spend a lot of time sitting at computers or staring at mobile phones or tablets. These activities tend to encourage forward movement of the head.

But moving your head forward to stare at the computer screen isn’t necessary. Perhaps it’s a by-product of intense focus, or maybe it’s a result of the conflict between a sedentary seating position combined with active visual attention.

Even before I began looking into posture I knew I had problems with my neck. It feels incredibly stiff at times, and occasionally it would ache from the tension. Symbolically, I used to relate this tension to my analytical and overly-intellectual approach to life.

I think a lot. I think about everything, all the time. 80-90% of my waking hours involve thinking about something, and this hasn’t changed in over a decade.

I’ve tried a lot of things to let go of this excessive intellection, but I’ve never found a simple solution. The complex solution has been to keep thinking about it, or at least try to improve the efficiency of my thinking in hopes that I’d eventually find the answer.

Trying to think of a solution to excessive thinking may sound counter-intuitive. As Maslow wrote:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

But if the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s not too outrageous to prioritise all your hammering tasks…maybe see how far hammering alone will get you.

Nonetheless, I can’t ignore the symbolism of forward head posture as a psychosomatic effort to lead with one’s head – putting one’s mind out in front.

And compared to what?

Well if I try to correct my head position, I immediately feel that my throat, chest, and whole torso are more open and exposed. That’s why dropping the head is a defensive position: better to get hit in the chin than in the throat.

If the head is associated with thinking, the chest or the heart is associated with feeling. Perhaps the symbolism of forward head posture is an attempt to use thinking, intellect, and analysis, to get out in front of feeling?

Melancholics are, after all, feeling-oriented. The effort to analyse life rather than feeling it directly is an established trope or cliche, and it makes sense that a feeling-oriented person would compromise their posture through such an effort. Feeling can be a confusing and seemingly ineffectual function. It gives long, slow answers when what we might prefer are short, convenient, and maybe conventional solutions. Feeling often points a direction with no hint as to the final destination.

We can easily blame behaviour for bad posture, and it certainly plays a role. But our psychology also makes us more susceptible to particular behaviours. Maintaining a postural deficiency takes constant effort, and trying to explain it as merely the outcome of certain behaviours like staring at a computer screen is question-begging. Why, after all, am I spending so much time happily staring at a computer screen if it is damaging my posture?

Looking at a postural problem in the broader context of one’s behaviours, psychology, and temperament can reveal symbolic relationships and even solutions.

Not that I found the solution by examining the symbolism, mind you. It’s eight to ten years since I first thought my neck trouble might be linked to my intellectual outlook, but the more I hammered away at that question, the more ingrained my intellectual efforts became.

It’s taken life experience, grudging and sometimes grueling lessons to reveal the real meaning and importance of feeling in my life, and how this mysterious function is to be embraced.

So now my old speculations about the symbolism of posture have come to mind, more like a memory or a realisation than a solution. The solution has happened on a deeper level, and now the recognition of it comes like an afterword, tying up loose ends when the real story is done.


Exercise your demons

A while ago Matthew asked if I had any thoughts on exercise in the same vein as my posts on dieting.

To be honest, I don’t really. Exercise has always been a bit of an enigma to me.

But in recent years I’ve come to realise this is not a moral failing but a physical one. My body hasn’t been moving efficiently or easily, and this makes physical activity inherently more demanding.

In the past I would say my only strength was in wearily persisting at some low-demand, monotonous exercise like walking or riding. Anything more demanding was simply beyond my capabilities.

Running? Surely you jest.

My subjective experience of exercise was like that stage you arrive at when assembling a very large tent, and you have to hold onto it carefully at several different points to prevent the whole thing collapsing in on itself. It’s the feeling of parts that want to go in different directions, but shouldn’t, like watching a group exercise descend into chaos for want of a leader.

Looking into muscle anatomy in recent weeks has helped immensely, and I only wish I’d done it sooner. Ironically, I used to pride myself on my persistence. But 17 years in a martial art with an achingly poor rate of progression should have tipped me off sooner. A less stubborn person might have caved in much sooner, realised there was something fundamentally wrong, and sought help for it.

Or maybe not…maybe they would have just given up and stuck to casual walking and other less challenging activities?

I can’t claim to have really pulled myself up by my bootstraps, but I can at least stand a little taller (literally) knowing where my shoulders are supposed to be, how my joints are supposed to work, and why every ancillary exercise I’ve tried has just seemed somehow awfully off.

So my view of exercise is changing: I used to wonder why people would, for example, run a lot. Was it so they could eat more? In that case I’d rather eat less. Was it simply in order to increase their stamina? What’s the point, if you only use that stamina to run more?

But if you don’t feel like a jumble of broken parts being thrown around inside a box, then even running has a certain pleasure to it. It actually feels good to move the body efficiently at speed. It’s hard work, true; but there’s just no comparison between working the body hard in the right way, with efficiency, and working the body in the wrong way altogether.

I’m beginning (very slowly) to use exercise more now as a diagnostic and remedial tool: stretching, strengthening, and learning better ways to move.