Why is the perfect posture in yoga a myth?

As a general concept, posture is not easy to define. It may refer to the alignment of body parts. One definition considers “good posture” as a posture where there is a trade-off between minimizing stress on the joints as well as minimizing muscle work. All these definitions lack the reality of time and movement.

We rarely hold the body still for very long, so the posture must include a dynamic dimension. However, in our yoga practice, we often hold one posture for a minute or more before releasing and moving into another static position. There is a prescribed position for every posture, but it is not possible to determine the ideal posture for each posture. There is no static ideal that fits every body.

mountain pose

Consider someone standing in Tadasana (mountain pose). Note the symmetry of the left and right sides – this is a supposedly ideal posture that includes a straight spine, equal length for the left and right legs and for the left and right arms, and equal height for each hip and each shoulder. The center of gravity, which is a line where there is an equal amount of weight on both sides, falls from the center of the back of the head, along the spine and between the legs and feet, dividing the body into two equal, symmetrical halves. Seen from the front, the center of gravity passes between the eyes, the middle of the nose and chin, through the xiphoid process, the navel, and between the two legs. No one is perfectly symmetrical, and many people have a curved spine, a condition called scoliosis.

Standing in a mountain pose and holding the “perfect posture” as in the military “at attention” posture, we expend 30% more muscle energy than when we stand straight, but relaxed. Knowing this, we can question the value of imitating a strict, combative body stance in our yoga practice. In any case, individual changes in the distribution of weight throughout the body will require deviations from this idealized standard mountain posture. If the hips are heavier, if the chest is larger, if the abdomen is larger, if the head is constantly tilted forward, if the knees are painfully arthritis, if the center of the ankles is in front of the heel, or for any of the many other options, the rest of the body will need to move away from the idealized center of gravity in order to keep your balance. The center of gravity must shift to match the reality of the body. All this is even more complicated if the body is moving. And we all sway a little or a lot when we stand, so the center of gravity is constantly moving, and our nervous system and muscles are constantly adapting.

Of course, while there isn’t one posture that works for every body or one body all the time, there are many postures that can cause problems! Where “bad” posture occurs, it is often because the posture has been statically held for many hours day after day, usually in a work environment. It is very difficult to change your habitual posture. It takes a lot of practice and time. If the cause of poor posture is in the muscles, it can be corrected with exercise. If the cause is in the skeleton, the changes are very rare. Yoga and other manual and physical therapies will not change the shape of our bones. This does not mean that no one can benefit from improving their posture – it means that it is difficult to do so.

Instead of comparing our posture to an aesthetic ideal, it is better to work on a functional posture that changes from moment to moment and from movement to movement. Posture, like alignment, should serve movement, not the other way around. We don’t move to get the perfect pose. The posture or alignment we are looking for should be one that allows us to move with as little effort as possible.

We have identified good posture. Now let’s define bad posture: any habitual body holding pattern that puts it under constant and unnecessary stress. In other words, any position that is uncomfortable is probably bad posture. Change it. But don’t look for perfect posture, because if you keep it for a long time, any posture becomes unhealthy.

The myth of the static ideal

Many yoga practitioners are looking for the “perfect” mountain pose and expect it from many yoga teachers – and this is an illusion. Mountain pose is a short but static pose that we pass on the way to another pose, not a pose that needs to be held for several minutes in a row. In the army, soldiers are taught to stand guard in this posture for many hours, not because it is a healthy posture to maintain, but to strengthen discipline, endurance, and submission. This is not in line with the goals of most yogis of the 21st century.

The body is meant to move. Movement is life! Pretending that there is only one correct posture that should or can be maintained for a long time is simply wrong. Paul Grilli called it “the myth of the static ideal”. Imagine having to walk around all day with a firm, upright posture like mountain pose: chest always up, arms glued to side, shoulders down and back, your gaze constantly horizontal, head still. This would be inconvenient and inefficient. The head is for movement, the arms are for swinging, the spine is for bending. The body is dynamic, it changes – and our postures must also be dynamic.

There is no predetermined, ideal form for mountain pose or any other yoga asana. There may be poses that definitely don’t work for you. But what is bad posture for you may not be a problem for someone else. There may be a position that will work best for you, given your unique biology and background, as well as the time of day, what else you did that day, what your intentions are, and how long you need to stay in that position. But whatever that ideal posture is, it won’t be your optimal position for very long. We need to move. Even when we sleep, we move.

There is a flaw in many ergonomic designs focused solely on comfort and the idea that we must have “correct posture” to stay healthy – these designs and ideas ignore the reality in which people must move. For example, looking for a chair design that is comfortable for every body and for all times is a stupid search. Human forms are too diverse for one chair design to suit everyone. Even more problematic is that most chairs are designed to restrict movement. We can be very comfortable in a good, expensive, ergonomic chair for 5 minutes, maybe 10, but after 20 minutes, even in the best chair in the world, it will hurt us to move. If this expensive chair does not allow movement, suffering arises.

The practice intentionally takes the student out of their comfort zone, but the postures are not idealized as perfect. It’s okay to fidget! In meditation practice, movement is called restlessness. In schools, the workplace, and yoga studios, anxiety is frowned upon. This attitude ignores the body’s need to move. This does not mean that sitting still for some time cannot be valuable. In terms of mindfulness or discipline, there may well be good intentions for silence, but those intentions will not include optimizing physical comfort. It’s perfectly fine to challenge yourself to stay in an uncomfortable position for five minutes or more to develop awareness and presence (until the discomfort turns into pain), but don’t claim that the chosen position is the ideal position. Posture is just a tool to achieve your intention. Indeed, the style of yoga known as Yin yoga requires the postures to be held for many minutes. The practice intentionally pushes the student out of their comfort zone, but the postures are not idealized as perfect – they are simply tools to create healthy stress in the tissues of the body.

The ideal sitting position is not one with a straight ramrod of the spine, and it is not related to the exact amount of lumbar curve, or the height of the seat above the floor, or the position of the feet on the floor. The ideal sitting position is dynamic. For a while, we can sit upright with a slight extension of the lower back, with our feet on the floor, but after five minutes, the ideal position may be to slouch, allowing a slight bend in the spine, and then change position again and, perhaps, sit cross-legged in the seat. Slouching for a few hours may be unhealthy for most people, but slouching for a few minutes can be very healthy, depending on previous spinal stress. Whether you’re standing, sitting, or in any other position, your ideal posture is always changing.

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