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.


The melancholic posture


Melancholics are said to be prone to ailments, and Conrad Hock notes that “the gait of the melan­cholic is slow and heavy“. We no longer believe in the Greek medical theory from which the four temperaments originate, yet there are some physiological elements that correspond to the otherwise psychological descriptors of each temperament.

For the melancholic, introversion, fatigue,  anxiety, depression and fear of humiliation all contribute to postural problems that in turn exacerbate the psychological aspects in a kind of psychosomatic feedback loop.

Common defensive or submissive postural cues include internal rotation of the shoulders and forward head posture. Forward head posture is a common complaint, regardless of temperament, for people who spend a lot of time at computers. It puts strain on the upper back muscles, which must work harder to hold the head stable at such a distance from the body.

Fatigue in these muscles feels terrible. Yet for many of us these muscles are chronically fatigued and overburdened. In addition, such a posture subconsciously projects a lack of confidence, disengaging and suppressing the chest and the powerful muscles of the lower back and abdomen – the ‘core muscles’ that provide postural support and strength in everyday life and which are increasingly viewed as indispensable in good athletic performance.

Exacerbating this bad posture are the gut-related symptoms of anxiety. Stomach pain, bloating, and nausea discourage the activation of core muscles which would put pressure on the abdomen. At the same time, anxiety can cause abdominal muscle tension, albeit not the kind of tension that would contribute to effective use of the core muscles.

So while the upper body slumps and collapses defensively, the lower torso is disengaged and unable to provide support. The upper and lower limbs my function fine in isolation, but lack the appropriate grounding in a unified torso.

Correcting postural weaknesses

It can be extremely difficult to correct these problems without good hands-on guidance. Part of the problem is that there are multiple variables and it can be difficult to correct elements in isolation.  For example, the instruction “put your shoulders back” is based on a difference in appearance between a good posture and a bad one. But the instruction is misleading in many cases because the appropriate correction to internally rotated shoulders is scapular retraction. Simply pushing your shoulders back will fix nothing and may even increase muscular tension. “Retract your scapulae” is better advice, but it still needs to be specified that the scapulae are to be retracted by tightening of the muscles between and below them, with the understanding that habit has left these muscles lengthened and weakened, so it will take time and practice to strengthen them.

“Suck your stomach in” is another good example. Sucking in your stomach is a part of the process that tightens core abdominal muscles, but the instruction is easily misinterpreted, with people sucking “up” the abdomen and lifting the rib cage, or failing to tighten the abdomen with the kind of “pushing out” that really activates the bracing effect of the core muscles.

Making corrections like these is an ongoing process, requiring careful research.  We’re fortunate that a number of exercise disciplines have come online with professionals and enthusiastic amateurs offering a range of insights.  I’ve found, for example, useful material on tightening the core from powerlifters. If it works for someone lifting hundreds of kilograms then it can’t be too far wrong for daily life.  Do your research across a range of resources, be thorough, and of course be careful.  There might be only one “right” way to do it, but there are numerous ways to get it wrong, and the precise solution or correction may vary from person to person.  There’s also some flat-out contradictory advice out there.

Postural correction can also be frustrating to a melancholic because we love singular, all-encompassing solutions, and there are plenty of people willing to push an isolated exercise or postural element as the key to the whole puzzle of posture.  We’re also a bit afraid of hard work, and the idea of gradual improvement or slow retraining can frustrate us, especially when we’re not entirely sure that the instructions are adequate.

But the logic of posture does meet a kind of ideal in its own right, and the pleasure of stretching muscles that have, perhaps for decades, been locked in inefficient and exhausting positions makes this enterprise well worthwhile.  After all, we might never be completely free of worries, anxieties, and all-consuming existential despair, but breaking the physical side of the vicious cycle can provide a real sense of relief from the psychological side.  The term ‘body language’ is misleading in this sense: you can tell lies about how confident you feel, but a good posture feels ‘confident’ because it is strong, and a bad posture feels weak because it really is weak.