Sit up straight! Who didn’t hear that once or twice during their childhood? I know I did. Did you honestly think your mother was the first person on earth to be concerned about posture? In fact, it turns out that posture has a long and colorful history.
There is abundant evidence that a concern for one’s posture makes sense. There are numerous studies suggesting a correlation between posture and mood. Individuals with good posture are also perceived as being more confident and competent than those who slouch. For this reason, interview skill workshops devote time to making a positive first impression using techniques related to body language and posture. In terms of health, posture is believed to play a significant role in physical medicine and rehabilitation. If you walk into a massage, physical therapy, or chiropractic clinic to get yourself treated for any number of symptoms, you will likely walk out with some homework in the form of posture re- education exercises.
When did the notions of “good” and “bad” posture arise? Let’s look into the rear-view mirror of history to discover how the phrases “stop slouching” and “sit up straight” became commonplace.
Although many people associate yoga with posture, in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, author Mark Singleton explains that “the primacy of asana (posture) performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times.” He goes on to say that English translations of certain older hatha yoga texts defined our present-day understanding of hatha yoga and served to “create the conditions whereby medicalized hatha yoga could begin to emerge from the 1920s onward as a legitimate mode of practice.” The 1920s?!? Despite what some yogis might believe, it seems that our obsession with perfect posture didn’t begin in ancient India after all.
UPRIGHT IS UPPER–CLASS?
The popularization of posture correction appears to have begun at the turn of the 18th century. In contrast to current perspectives, the subject of posture three hundred years ago had little to do with health and wellness and everything to do with appearance. Victorian era society deemed “correct posture” a necessity in public gatherings and “bad posture” was blamed for everything from unclean thoughts to distasteful behaviour. The public’s obsession with proper posture likely came from military influences. During those times posture was heavily associated with strength of character, exemplified within the army, and was held in such high regard that posture improvement devices such as neck swings and braces were commonplace. Corsets were worn by almost all Victorian women to not only decrease waist size but also to make slouching nearly impossible. Posture training was an essential component of the curriculum in etiquette schools; it was common practice to balance a teacup on the head, as shown in the movie My Fair Lady.
American public schools began to introduce the idea of posture in the early twentieth century. In 1914 the American Posture League was established. They lectured in schools about the benefits of good posture, postural evaluation and corrective therapies. Teachers were encouraged to check their students’ posture monthly using a 20-minute evaluation called the “Triple Test”. Children were encouraged to improve upon their scores in subsequent tests and exercises were given to the low scoring students in an effort to solve their postural errors before they became habitually ingrained. It was taught that good posture was linked to proper functioning of various bodily systems, including the respiratory, cardiovascular and digestive systems, as well as contributing to a sense of general well- being. Despite these efforts (and maybe in part because of them), the early 20th century spawned a generation of rebellious youngsters who flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior, including “good posture”. By the middle of the 20th century the postural correction movement in schools had mostly fizzled.
THE NECK BONE’S CONNECTED TO THE BACK BONE
Physical therapy became popular during the 19th century. Massage techniques, corrective exercises, and other modalities started to be used widely to help patients deal with painful conditions. The pioneers of physical therapy are credited with promoting the importance of exercise and movement in regards to posture correction. Contrary to Victorian-era corrective techniques, however, physical therapy focused on health promotion and pain management as opposed to aesthetics. Specific exercise methods were invented by a few notable practitioners. Katarina Schroth treated her own scoliosis with her own postural correction method, known as the Schroth Method. Her original system as well as modern variations of it are still being used today. Joseph Pilates, a notable physical trainer in the 19th century, created Pilates: a strength training system designed to solve back problems by developing core strength and improving posture. Clearly, his method has stood the test of time in terms of popularity. Moshé Feldenkrais was an Israeli engineer and judo champion who invented the Feldenkrais Method. He advocated using subtle manipulations of the body to improve body awareness, posture and overall health. A protégé of Feldenkrais, Thomas Hanna, developed a slightly different version of Feldenkrais’ work that he called “Somatics”, one of many personal favorites. More recently in 1971, Pete Egoscue invented the Egoscue Method which is a system based on simple floor exercises designed to improve posture. This technique focuses on the use of an exercise prescription to restore the body’s natural alignment and is most closely related to my own system. My creation, the Alignment First Protocol© is also a floor exercise-based system designed to minimize malalignment in the body. Consisting of ten exercise progressions, each person’s routine is self-customized as the body improves in alignment and function due to daily practice.
All these practices have received their fair share of criticism, most of which arguably stems from the fact that these methods typically do not produce immediate results; poor posture takes time to become ingrained and therefore takes time to correct. Nevertheless, there is overwhelming empirical evidence that all these systems can be used successfully to improve posture when used in appropriate situations and followed diligently.
OH, MY ACHING TEXT–NECK
Modern technology has unfortunately contributed to an apparent worsening of problems related to posture. Office workers spend hours in front of their desks looking at computer screens and smartphones force us to stare downwards. Health practitioners can testify to the increased number of patients needing treatment for back pain, neck pain and headaches due to extensive use of technology. There’s even a new orthopaedic diagnosis called “text neck”!
While technology has proven to be challenging to posture, so has it helped. It’s hard to correct what you can’t see clearly; recent technological advancements in imaging such as surface topography scanning have given us quick and easy ways to assess posture with a degree of accuracy unimaginable only a few years ago. This imaging also allows us to measure the efficacy of treatment techniques and make necessary changes without needing expensive, time consuming, and irradiating imaging such as x-rays.
It appears that posture has been a subject of concern for at least 300 years. As time has passed, have we really gotten better at solving postural problems? I believe that the short answer is “yes”. As we continue to gain a more profound understanding of the multi-faceted nature of human physiology and biomechanics, assisted in many ways via technological advancements, we are slowly but surely improving how we care for posture as well. The “catch” is that nobody can fix your posture for you. I can coach you and point you in the right direction but at the end of the day, you have to make the decision to make the effort or not. It often comes down to this question: “Have you suffered enough?”
Posture IS about more than appearance and improving YOUR posture is a great way to improve your quality of life. If you have any posture-related questions, please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yours in health,
Geoff Dakin BPE RMT
Calgary Registered Massage Therapist