Dynamic Sitting: a Feldenkrais® look at posture

One of the most frequent requests I get in my private Functional Integration® lessons is for help with sitting. My students tell me they have trouble finding a comfortable position to sit in, or that they can't make it through a work day or meditation session without discomfort. They have lower back pain or RSI, hand pain, tight neck and shoulders... you get the idea. We all sit a lot, and we all face these challenges.
"I know I have terrible posture," they often say. Or else "I try to sit up straight, but I get tired," or "I keep reminding myself to sit up, but the next time I check, I'm slouching again." Often their idea of "good posture" is to stiffly pull the shoulders back and tighten their belly, which is usually counter-productive. They are coming to me to help them find a better way.
While private FI lessons are well-suited to addressing this sort of question, I thought it would be useful to spend some time exploring the topic of sitting in my classes and workshops. I'm sure it will come as no surprise to you that we will be looking for solutions to the problem that have to do with movement and awareness, rather than the usual approaches of proper alignment, ergonomics, and core strength.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so for this blog post I am going to make my case with the help of google Images.
We’re all pretty familiar with this problem:
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Or, put another way:
evolution-man-computer

We certainly did not evolve to be sitting creatures, especially not sitting in chairs and staring at a computer screen. Yet so many of us spend so much of our time doing just that, and most of us know that we don’t do it in an optimal way. We don’t need a physical therapist or a mom to tell us that our posture is all wrong, we can feel it in our aching backs and sore shoulders and necks. (That said, we may need a professional to point out to us that our so-called repetitive strain injuries are also linked to the way we work at our computers).


So, is this the solution?

Ergonomics and posture-5

I’m not about to say that there’s anything wrong with investing in an ergonomic workstation (or, better yet, getting your employer to make the investment), or that common descriptions of good posture are necessarily inaccurate. But can you imagine getting anything done sitting like that? An ergonomic set-up won’t help much if you hold your breath when you work, and neither will trying to sit with your hips and elbows at 90º.

Here’s what Moshe Feldenkrais had to say about the effort to achieve proper posture:

If you watch a child or an adult who has been told to sit or stand straight, it is evident that he agrees that there is something wrong with the way he is managing his body, and he will quickly try to straighten his back or raise his head. He will do this thinking that he has thereby achieved the proper posture; but he cannot maintain this “correct” position without a continuous effort. As soon as his attention shifts to some activity that is either necessary, urgent, or interesting, he will slump back to his original posture.

Awareness Through Movement, p.66


So what should we do? Let’s look at some more pictures.

I think we can all agree this guy has pretty good posture. What’s the difference between these pictures and the ones above?

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The key to Yoyo Ma’s excellent posture is that he figured it out in order to play his instrument. In other words, his is an active posture, learned in the pursuit of excellence in action, not a position studied and held as ‘correct’. You can see in these still photos that he is in living motion as he sits.


Another common approach to posture (whether sitting or otherwise) is that one should have strong core muscles. Here’s my counter-argument:

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As a student of mine once observed, if core strength were necessary to avoid back injury, all babies would be in pain. (By the way, notice the action involved: Noam’s whole being is focused on whatever it is that he is doing with his right hand!)


Here’s another guy with pretty good sitting posture. We’ve heard from him a bit already:
Moshe Feldenkrais

Moshe Feldenkrais was reputedly fond of saying: “posture is for posts!” and proposed that a better term might be “acture,” to direct our attention not at position, but at the way we organize ourselves for action. In his book Awareness Through Movement,in the chapter “What is Good Posture,” Feldenkrais stated that

… any posture is acceptable in itself as long as it does not conflict with the law of nature, which is that the skeletal structure should counteract the pull of gravity, leaving the muscles free for movement.

Awareness Through Movement, p.68


His emphasis is neither on the position and alignment of the body, nor on the action and strength of the muscles, but rather on what one does with one’s bones and muscles.


Hopefully I’ve made the case that ultimately, the solution to the challenge of our over-sedentary lifestyle lies not in ergonomics, not in ‘proper alignment, not in core strength, but rather in
how we do whatever it is we are doing as we sit. The question still remains: if we will not be helped by buying an ergonomic set-up, sitting up straight, or strengthening our core, what can we do to change how we move and act? I believe the answer to that question is: become aware of what we’re doing. And for that, thankfully, we have Awareness Though Movement®