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Keys To Good Posture
We are living in the ‘speed age’ where we are surrounded by a vast range of inventions that have been designed to save us time. These include the car, the computer, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, the telephone, electric heaters, electric tools… the list is a long one. In fact, during the 1950s in the USA people were getting very concerned about what they were going to do to with all their spare time, now that they had so many time-saving devices! The only problem is that here we are, a few decades later, and a great many people feel that they have less time than before. Posture and time are very much connected, as can be seen in common expressions such as being ‘pressed for time’, ‘pushed for time’ ‘under pressure of time’, or ‘moving at breakneck speed’. This feeling that we have too little time causes harmful tension throughout the body. The old adage that ‘there is never enough time to do a job properly, but there is always time to go back and correct the mistakes’ makes the point that there really was enough time in the first place. Lack of time is more of a feeling or a thought than a reality. As young children we felt we had all the time in the world, and we were firmly rooted in the present moment. The summer months seemed endless, as did the time from one Christmas to another. Having little or no concept of time, young children do not run because they feel late – they run because they enjoy running. This lack of awareness of time is reflected in graceful posture and movements. As we get older, however, time restraints put on us by school or work commitments cause us to become more and more concerned about the consequences of being late, and we are encouraged to develop over-concern for the future, thus being less and less engaged in the present moment. Our lives as adults are commonly filled with appointments for specific times, and if we are late we feel that there may be trouble, even if we are simply meeting a friend for coffee.
Life is not an emergency
Jean Liedloff, an American psychologist who spent two and a half years in the South American jungle with South American Indians, saw that they had little or no concept of time. In her book The Continuum Concept she relates that she saw that the indigenous people were in no rush to finish one task so that they could get on to the next thing. They were happy in the present moment focusing on whatever tasks they were doing, and they were not thinking ahead to the future or having regrets about their past actions. As a result, she noticed, they were far happier and more contented than people in developed countries. They laughed rather than cursed when things went wrong, and were far more alert, aware and connected to the things around them. Liedloff’s experience challenged radically her Western preconceptions of how we should live and led her to a very different view of human nature.
We are generally taught, implicitly or explicitly, that doing things quickly is far better than doing things well. Many of us feel that every job we undertake has to be done quickly, and yet this takes the enjoyment out of the work. One consequence of this is that many people stop enjoying their work, and this only makes matters worse, because it encourages them to rush it even more to get the task over with. Alexander believed that the human race was becoming increasingly goal-oriented, and that this affects our posture in a detrimental way; in fact, in The Use of the Self he says that when we are living a life dominated by speed, we are on ‘the royal road to the physical and mental derangement of mankind’. Have a look outside any school after the morning bell has rung, or an office after work begins. You will see children, parents and workers rushing to get to their destination. Typically their shoulders will be hunched up and forward, their heads will be pulled back and down onto their spines and their backs will be arched. If this is repeated every day, these postural deformities become habits and eventually become fixed within the body. Ram Dass (aka Dr Richard Alpert), an American spiritual teacher who spent a great deal of time in India, often said that one of the most important things people in the West need to learn is that ‘life is not an emergency’. Another thought-provoking saying is: ‘Man says: “Quickly, quickly, hurry up. Time is passing away”, but Time says: “It is not me that passes away, it is man!” If you spend some time thinking about it, it may change your perspective on life.
So a vital step in improving posture is to begin to give ourselves more time in everything we do. Realizing that life is not one long emergency really helps to improve posture. This may sound simple but it is difficult to practise when we have lifelong habits of rushing around. When I first moved to Ireland in the mid- 1990s, to make conversation I used to ask people what they did for a living. I nearly always got the same answer – ‘As little as possible!’ – and you could see this in the way they took their time and enjoyed their various tasks. To me this is actually what the Alexander Technique sets out to achieve: going about our activities with as little tension as needed. In the late 1990s, Ireland enjoyed a period of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity (the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’), and people weren’t giving the same answer any more, as everyone started to do as much as they possibly could. The relaxed way of life soon became a thing of the past as Ireland quickly caught up with the ways of other modern developed countries.
How Stress Affects Our Posture
The habit of rushing from one thing to the next is a problem that affects us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It can cause anxiety, which in extreme cases may permeate our whole existence until life feels hardly worth living. It affects us physically in such a way that our whole system is constantly on ‘red alert’, ageing us before our time. It may even cause or exacerbate stress-related illnesses such as hypertension, strokes and heart problems, which are life-threatening.
Feeling that we do not have enough time affects us mentally by over-stimulating the mind, eventually causing mental blocks, an over-active mind, which gives us little or no control over persistent unwanted thoughts, and endless worry for no reason. It affects us emotionally because it can cause us to lose control of our anger and react irrationally, which eventually can damage relationships with family or friends. It can affect us spiritually, because it prevents us from being in contact with the peace and tranquility that should be the very essence and foundation of our life. Stress prevents us from ‘being human’ in the truest sense of the word and turns us into ‘doing machines’, which in time will start to break us down.
At first, we may actively enjoy the buzz of the adrenaline as it rushes around the body when we take on an exciting new challenge, but sustained over the long term stress can rob us of everything that is important. It can take away our good health and replace it with an aching head or back, or one of a wide range of other stress-related disorders. We can forget how to relax. It can destroy our personal relationships and, as a result, cause extreme emotional anguish. How often do we really pause for even a moment to see whether the path we have taken in life is actually making us more satisfied, fulfilled and contented? Since happiness is the natural antidote to stress, maybe we first need to take a good hard look at the ways in which we try to become happy and find out why it is that, in our endeavour to achieve this goal, we can end up feeling more stressed than ever. We could then perhaps find new ways that may be more successful that involve taking our time.
The first thing to do is to notice how you feel when you are in a hurry. Notice the position of your head and shoulders. See if you can feel tension in other parts of your body, for example your back, legs, arms and even your jaw. Ask yourself how important is it that you get to your destination as quickly as possible. You may realize that there is actually no hurry and that you are rushing out of habit. It is important to differentiate between doing things quickly and rushing our movements; there is nothing wrong about doing things quickly, it is constant hurrying that harms us.
Give yourself time
Your life takes place only in the here and now. When rushing towards some future task, we are missing life completely. Have you ever wondered why, when you were a child, the summer days seemed endless, yet now time passes so quickly? The reason is that we are no longer in the present: we are too busy thinking of the past and future. But nothing ever happens in the future or the past, everything happens in the present moment. The Alexander Technique is a practical way of helping to keep our consciousness in the here and now. If you find it hard not to be overly concerned about the future, it might be helpful to realize that the way we live our lives in the present moment is actually what shapes our future. Giving ourselves time is the best present we can give ourselves, yet in reality we are really only claiming what is rightfully ours in the first place.
Some time ago, a woman came to see me suffering from stress. She felt that her whole life was one big rush, and she used to come to nearly every lesson with her head retracted backwards and her shoulders nearly touching her ears. After each lesson she felt much more relaxed and her posture had greatly improved, yet when she came back the following week, the effects of the Alexander lesson has almost completely worn off. At the beginning of most lessons, she would practically run into the room, out of breath, and would then spend half of the time recovering from her rushing habit. After several lessons she came in one day a completely different person. She walked up the stairs with her shoulders relaxed and her head balanced freely on the spine. I remarked on the difference and asked her why she thought this dramatic change had happened at that time. She told me that she had just celebrated her birthday, and her family had become so exasperated with her stressed behaviour that they had brought her a new watch – a special one. On this watch there was no minute hand, and instead of the usual numbers printed around the clock face, each hour was marked ‘one-ish’, ‘two-ish’, ‘three-ish’ and so on. So she no longer knew the precise time, and therefore never knew when she was late or when she was early, and this had had a profound effect on her life (I should point out that she was never very late!).
So, the key to good posture is really to take your time as you go about your daily activities, and pause for a moment and consider how to perform a certain task even if that task is simply sitting down or standing up. Just try it for a day and you will find that this would go a long way to not only improving your posture, but also revolutionizing the way you live.