By Mary Bond
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2007.
As the holistic paradigm joins the mainstream, most of us are increasingly aware that everything is connected to everything else. Within this vision we acknowledge correspondence between body and mind, but most of us haven’t yet regarded our posture through a holistic mirror. The usual idea of good posture is an ideal positioning of the chest, shoulders, and neck. This idealized picture is so common that the mere mention of posture in public provokes sheepish adjustments of spines and shoulders.
However, in our hearts, we know that posture reflects how we feel at any given moment. If we are down in the dumps, our bodies sag; when our spirits lift, so do our bodies. We experience our posture holistically. We know unconsciously, however, that posture includes the ways in which we move and breathe, digest and think, feel and perceive. Surely it is time to revise our definition of posture to reflect what we actually know within ourselves.
The key to a new understanding of posture can be found in the most essential function of our lives—our breathing. Healthy breathing habits and healthy posture go hand in hand. Yet people who have breathing problems are seldom led to correct a related postural fault, and people who complain of poor posture seldom realize that their faulty breathing is involved. Let’s take a look at how these two aspects of our bodies correspond.
The Movements Of Breathing
Breath is so essential to life that it’s easy to overlook the fact that breathing involves movement. Like all other movements, breathing can be done gracefully and efficiently or poorly and painfully. Breathing can be shallow or full, labored or free.
The basic movements of breathing are the successive expansion and contraction of the rib cage. The expanding movement, or inhalation, creates a vacuum within the lungs that draws the air inside. During inhalation the spine subtly extends, lifting the trunk and helping to raise the ribs. Exhalation occurs when the spine and ribs reverse their motion, compressing the interior space of the lungs and forcing air out.
Numerous muscles contribute to these movements, expanding the rib cage to a greater or lesser degree depending on the current need for oxygen. More physical activity requires more oxygen and therefore greater rib cage expansion. If your muscles are tense around the rib cage or along the spine, you won’t be able to inhale fully. This explains why, when you’re on the receiving end of a great massage, you may find yourself breathing more freely than at any other time during your week. And, the more freely your ribs and spine are moving when you breathe, the more erect and open your posture can be when you get up from the massage table.
Posture As Perception
I believe that good posture is not an idealized stance, but is rather the expression of our response to living. Posture is a holistic activity of perceiving and orienting ourselves relative to situations that occur in our lives.
While the details of what we perceive are as various as life itself, the perceptions by which we orient ourselves fall into two basic categories. First, we locate ourselves through our relationship with gravity by sensing our bodies in relation to the ground. We know where we are in reference to where down is. Second, we orient ourselves to our surroundings by knowing where we are in relation to the people, objects, and events in our environment. Environment in this sense includes both physical location and the overlapping personal, social, and energetic spaces that envelop us. In general, our posture is how we locate ourselves through our perceptions of ground and space.
Perceiving Spaciousness And Weight
To understand what I mean about perceiving ground and space, try the following mental experiment. Recall what it feels like to swing on a swing. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself reliving the experience. As children, what was so pleasurable about swinging was the way our bodies’ changing relationship to gravity made us feel. On the downward plunge we felt weighted and solid. But when the swing’s momentum defied gravity and took us flying, we felt ourselves blended with the air and knew ourselves as creatures of sky and light, weightless and spacious.
These same perceptions, in subtle measure, organize our nervous systems to activate the muscles that produce and maintain upright posture. The perception of “down” lets us feel grounded, secure, and relaxed. When we are relaxed, our body parts are literally closer to the earth—they are down.
Our perceptions of the space around our bodies evoke alertness, curiosity, and the physical lift we need for reaching out into the world. Orienting ourselves in space takes place through our senses. We touch, see, hear, and smell our surroundings. The resulting sensations activate the postural muscles to raise the body and hold it away from the earth. There is a natural correspondence between spatial awareness and inhalation. When we inhale, we literally allow outside space inside our bodies. This is reflected in our metaphors for personal space—we commonly speak of “breathing room” or “breathing space.”
Just as our spirits and bodies can be held too far down, they can also soar too high. If we are caught up in ideas and intentions, frantically waiting for results, we barely feel our bodies. We are unable to come down, unable to relax. Our breathing becomes shallow and our movements are jerky and disconnected. We may be light on our feet, but we are without rest or rhythm.
When our orienting perceptions are balanced between ground and space—when we are neither too far down or too far up—our muscular tone is balanced and adaptable. This becomes the basis for the most efficient coordination of the body, the most graceful posture, and the freest breathing.
The Spaciousness And Weight Of Breathing
What do you sense in your own body as you look at the photo on the facing page? As you gaze at the woman in the desert scene, imagine yourself in a similar environment, surrounded by open space. Imagine allowing your arms to swing upward as if to embrace that space. It is almost certain that your gesture will be accompanied by inhalation. In fact, if you try making the same gesture while exhaling you will probably find that it feels awkward.
Now imagine resting into the earth like the woman on the beach. Or picture yourself relaxing on a chaise lounge by a pool at your favorite resort. Let your body yield into the support of chaise and earth. Notice that the more completely you can enter this image of relaxation, the slower, steadier, and lower in your lungs your breathing becomes.
While inhalation lifts and tones the body, exhalation settles it. Just as our perceptions of spaciousness and weight contribute to the optimal organization of the muscles of posture, these same perceptions contribute to healthy breathing.
In the pressured environment of the twenty-first century workplace, our perceptions may become so overwhelmed that the holistic postural responses described earlier cannot occur. Instead, bodies become habituated to a constant state of low-grade global tension. This is often accompanied by unconscious breath-holding that, in turn, perpetuates chronic tension.
Holding your breath creates pressure in the abdomen that makes your trunk feel stable. For many people, holding the breath serves as a way of gaining control over time. Without the regular ebb and flow of breathing, there is an illusion that time has stopped, prolonging the arrival of a deadline.
The following practice helps you balance the motions of breathing by attending to their spaciousness and weight. To do the exercise you need to be lying down or resting back in a chaise-like chair that supports openness through your rib cage (see illustration above).
As you inhale, allow the movement of your rib cage to expand your entire skin surface. Imagine your pores are also absorbing oxygen. Or picture yourself on a mountaintop, breathing in the pleasure of the scene. Tune in to your gratitude for each breath as you welcome the air inside your body. This deep breathing should be accomplished without strain in your natural rhythm. If you find that spacious inhalations become taxing, alternate them with one or two ordinary breathing cycles. Notice any tendency to pull or suck the air inside. Should you feel yourself doing that, forget about the inhalation practice for now and go on to the exhalation practice.
During your exhalations, shift your attention away from the expelling of air. Focus, instead, on surrendering your body to gravity. The weighted, yielding feeling of letting go is a feature of relaxation, and relaxation is essential to full exhalation. It will be helpful to sense your body’s weight in stages. During several exhalations, focus on yielding the weight of your legs. When your legs feel truly heavy, shift your attention to your arms, and then to your spine, belly, hands, or eyes. Scan your body for regions where you seem to be held up from the ground. Then allow that part to yield.
As you relax, you will find yourself automatically exhaling more slowly and deeply. You will also notice a pause occurring after each exhalation. If your breathing is habitually shallow and rapid, this pause may not occur. In such a case, do not force the breath to stop after exhalation. As you learn to relax your body, the pause will naturally emerge. The respiratory pause is a needed moment of rest for your hardworking breathing muscles. The pause also allows time for the breathing center in your brain to receive the signal that you need more oxygen. That way your next inhalation is automatic, so it feels effortless.
Practice this breathing exercise for at least five minutes every day. In time, your increasingly slower and longer exhalations will lead to increasingly effortless and expansive inhalations. End each breathing meditation session with a few moments’ awareness of your body’s length and openness. Picture yourself standing upright while sustaining your awareness of spaciousness and weight. Imagine yourself walking across the room that way. Finally, stand and experience an actual shift in your posture.
Besides having an effect on your posture, the breathing meditation can provide opportunity for self-study. Within your breathing cycle you embody your habits of receptivity and surrender—the ways in which you let experiences in and how you let them go. Notice whether you receive your inhalation with urgency, trepidation, or with a sense of gratitude. Notice whether you exhale with reluctance, relief, or surrender. Give yourself time to grow comfortable with the emptiness of your respiratory pause. Allow the truth within your breathing to holistically inform and transform the way you live your life.
Your best posture and freest breathing occur when you are in a relaxed good mood. In such moments your perceptions are open and adaptable. You are aware of the spaciousness of your world and at the same time you feel at ease on the planet, secure and grounded. At such moments, your spine and rib cage subtly rise and settle on the wave of your breathing. Breathing is easy and pleasurable—as the song says, “Easy like Sunday morning.”