You have permission to be comfortable. If that seems like a weird thing to get from a stranger on the internet, know that, whether you realize it or not, you let strangers deny you the very same thing every day.
Here’s just one of a long list of things you don’t have to feel bad about anymore.
Having “Bad” Posture
There’s no easy way to say this, but, your coach, your PT, your yoga instructor, your professor, your 1st grade teacher, and yes, even your mother are wrong about your posture. Your posture is potentially hurting you, yes—but not for any of the reasons you’ve been told.
In fairness, it’s not their fault. Conventional standards for “good” and “bad” posture are rooted in aesthetics, not mechanics, and have no basis whatsoever in science.
In fact, the behaviours that you believe demonstrate that you have bad posture actually demonstrate that you have a normal, healthy skeleton that responds exactly like it’s supposed to in the super-bonkers situations we put it through as part of our modern lives.
Why You Don’t Have to Feel Bad
When humans stand, our legs absorb and convert the acceleration of gravity into kinetic energy that we then transmit through torque to the spine. It’s a very cool system that we can talk more about another day; for now, just know that the spine’s preferred source of fuel is torque spiralling upward through the legs.
When you sit down, you diminish the capacity of the legs to effectively transmit forces to the spine. When you sit in a chair you shut it down completely.
Without the legs to generate stability, the spine is forced to get its stability from the local muscles of the back and torso. The problem is that most of those tissues already have another job: moving your head and arms.
Sitting in a chair is essentially asking the muscles of your upper body to do double duty, and they hate it. They can do it, sure, but they will work less efficiently, wear out faster, and be grumpy about it longer.
Now, picture someone sitting with “bad” posture. The image in your mind probably looks something like this:
Dear god! Look at his rounded spine! His slumpy shoulders! The pain! The horror! Most of us live in terror of being caught like this at our desks and dinner tables for fear of appearing lazy, or worse. Culturally, we don’t just consider this bad posture; we think of those who adopt it as bad people. In fact, the word “slouch” entered the English language as an epithet for a “lazy man.”
Here’s the thing: sitting in a chair isn’t, by itself, bad for you. Sitting in a chair for a long time is bad for you. How long is long? Well, that depends: The longer you sit, the less efficient, more worn out and grumpier your upper body is going to get, causing the skeleton to slowly settle into the safest, most comfortable position it can find. It’s a completely natural response to the double duty your upper body is doing to keep you safely in that chair.
The real kick in the pants is this: sitting this way is not what causes the neck and back pain associated with sitting for long periods: it is, in fact, trying to sit up straight that causes the pain.
But don’t take my word for it—try it! Here is a picture of conventional good posture. Try as best you can to emulate this posture: chin tucked in and down, shoulders back, chest up.
Now, start a timer. Stop it when:
A) you begin to fidget
B) Your neck gets too stiff to turn comfortably
C) Your shoulders get too tired to hold
D) Your hips start to ache and/or go numb
Did anyone make it past two minutes?
You couldn’t make it to the first commercial break on Dancing with the Stars in this position, much less write a paper, or eat a meal. And no, I don’t mean just you, I mean all of you. The posture pictured above is not how human skeletons work.
Instead of emulating Ms. Bolt Upright up there, try this: when sitting, allow the chest to soften and relax downward and the shoulders to ease into a heavy forward position. Over a long enough period, this would continue to slowly drag the weight of the skeleton forward until—in the case of sitting at a desk—you would eventually be resting on the desk like it’s kindergarten nap time. Some time between when that slow collapse begins and when you hit the table, you need to stand up. Staying put and trying to “sit up straight” simply forces your tired, grumpy, inflamed upper body muscles to compensate in increasingly damaging ways.
There is literally nothing you can do to make sitting in a chair biomechanically stable over the long term. No amount of snake oil gadgetry or magical core exercises can replace the torque lost when we sit in a chair. It’s not your fault, and it’s certainly not because you’re lazy. Feeling bad that a few hours at your desk makes you slouch is like feeling bad that a few hours under water makes you die.
Limitations are not the same as failures.
What You Can Do Instead of Feeling Bad
Slouching isn’t the problem; sitting is the problem. Standing is a solution, and striding is a better one. Resolve not to spend more than 45 minutes at a time sitting in a chair.
While you’re in that chair, try to have either A) the soles of the feet in full contact with the floor or B) the legs crossed. Both of these conditions allow you to tap into at least a little bit of that torque moving up through the legs. As you get tired and begin to settle forward—and you will, and that’s ok—just get up, don’t sit up.
2 Responses to “Stop Feeling Bad About Your Posture”
A way that helps me is putting a yoga block or pillow in between my legs/knees, coming to the edge of the chair and entry squeezing the block for a minute. Then hold the block there to engage the lower body. It really helps and works well. Got it from egoscue and I use it all the time.
Also, perhaps people can’t sit straight up past two minutes because there is a certain level of dysfunction. Meditators have no problem sitting with a straight spine for extended periods of time. That was the original reason for hatha yoga. To help students become physically able and functional to sit in meditation
I don’t buy the idea that dysfunction is to blame for not being able to sit with a straight back for long periods of time. Humans are not built for sitting in chairs any more than a dog is built to walk on two legs: they can do it, briefly, but beyond that there are consequences—and that’s not the result of dysfunction.
Furthermore, sitting in meditation, like sitting zazen, or in yogic meditation typically doesn’t happen in a chair. The joints of the lower body are placed into a force-productive state, allowing continued connection with the upper body. Chairs don’t do that. You’re right that the introduction of blocks and other props can help prolong the inevitable, but that’s still just adding tension to an ultimately unsustainable activity.
We need to destigmatize posture. It is the moralizing about how one “should” and “shouldn’t” sit that binds people into uncomfortable positions. People are generally very smart about doing what will make them more comfortable as long as they don’t feel that their options are restricted due to arbitrary social and moral rules about how they are supposed to hold themselves.