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How Posture Makes Us Human (nautil.us)
82 points by dnetesn on May 12, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments

The most interesting modern theory of posture (imo) is that of FM Alexander, The Alexander Technique[1] (a system that has influenced other systems, such as those of Feldenkrais). The Alexander Technique is notable for avoiding the approach of standing by force of will and rather standing naturally once one has retrained a faulty idea of one's position in space. Proper posture thus becomes "effortless" rather than being a matter of force, effort or will (Alexander's writings on how modern society miscalibrates basic human balance reflexes are worth a look also).

It is interesting to read the long heritage of the idea of standing by will - especially the similarities of the idea of Alexander and Hegel passage quoted in the article.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Technique

I'm really interested in Alexander but haven't found great resources about it online. Can you link to anything publicly available that you found interesting? Where does he talk about modern society miscalibrating human balance?

Also, how does it compare to Feldenkrais?

Alexander teaching is almost always one-on-one with gentle hands-on guidance. The best comparison is probably private music lessons. Feldenkrais includes two types of work, Awareness Through Movement which is a series of thought-provoking movements taught in group classes, and Functional Integration which is a one on one manipulative technique. Note that ATMs were designed for broadcast dissemination - at times Feldenkrais would teach classes by playing tapes of himself reading the lessons.

Teachers vary widely, but as a rule Alexander teaching emphasizes the role of conscious intention as a way to defeat old movement patterns. Feldenkrais work leans towards reeducating the unconscious through exploration.

Alexander's writings are impenetrable, wordy, and arrogant. Feldenkrais's books are considerably clearer. Alexander was a voice actor, while Feldenkrais had a doctorate in engineering.

If you are going to learn online, get Feldenkrais's book _Awareness Through Movement_, find some recordings of the instructions, and spend hours doing them. Any Alexander Teacher who offers instruction online is a charlatan, but if you have the opportunity to take a few private lessons with an AmSAT or Affiliated Societies certified Alexander teacher, you may notice things that would take a lot of individual study.

Source: I am trained as an Alexander Teacher and would happily take a Feldenkrais teacher training if I had time.

Moshé Feldenkrais is a pretty fascinating individual. An engineer and physicist, I believe he was one of the first Europeans to earn Black belt in Judo.


I can't remember where I read it, but I recently read something along the lines of: "no posture is perfect; the body is not a static entity, we are constantly moving and adjusting to our environment". Moving a lot and in different ways seems like it's better than sitting/standing still in the same position all day long.

The two don't really have that much to do with each other.

Posture can be good or bad, both while still or in movement.

Yes, of course movement is healthy and good, but moving more doesn't necessarily mean your posture will improve, or that your movement will be performed with good posture.

And the idea that "no posture is perfect" feels misleading -- when your body is in healthy balance without excess tension, then yes your posture is perfect, again regardless of whether you're in motion or not.

The body is technically always moving, but your perception of what your body is doing can be made calm.

Once this happens, your posture adjustments are more like manipulating a single point in space (your center of gravity) than adjusting limbs and muscles. It feels effortless, or like you are always floating.

Everyone I know with good posture are physically fit, none of whom have “retrained a faulty idea of one’s position in space”. The sense we have that someone is fit generally comes from their posture.

Does this idea-retraining work as well as the gym? Do you know examples of unfit people with great posture through idea-retraining?

Of course we all know unfit people who are always straining to “sit up straight” and so forth, which always seems unnatural. Perhaps these people are the target market for this idea-retraining?

Because good posture is effortless and our body is built for balance, it doesn't require anything but a minimal level of fitness. And actually, physical strength can sometimes exacerbate posture issues rather than solve them, as it introduces additional muscle tightness or tightness imbalances (e.g. bench presses leading to tight pecs leading to hunched shoulders, or running leading to tight hamstrings leading to exaggerated spinal curve).

For me personally, the gym made my posture worse, and it was only through extensive body awareness practice (like AT), stretching, and relaxation techniques that I was able to solve posture problems.

You know how they say abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym? Same thing with posture -- made through awareness, not the gym.

Is it really honest to say "gym made my posture worse", when actually it stemmed from overtraining certain muscle groups over-proportionately?

What do you think of the thesis that the right gym exercises might tune your muscle's "normal state" to more closely resemble "healthy" posture?

It wasn't over-training at all, it was simply the fact I hadn't incorporated extensive stretching. Once I stretched and my muscles had their full range of motion, that fixed it. (If I was unclear, that was the balance I was referring to above -- of tightness, not of strength.)

I started going to the gym because of that thesis, and then I discovered it didn't work. From what I understand, our muscles are in balance with each other not according to their strength (except in cases of extreme imbalance), but according to the amount of tension our brain signals for them to maintain. This signaling arises from our mental image of the position our body should be in.

For me personally, for example, I was sitting, standing and walking, always leaning slightly back, which my body compensated for with an overly curved lower spine and overly tight abdominal muscles. Standing straight literally felt like I would topple forwards, because I had an incorrect sensation of body positioning. Once I learned to become aware of that, it took me a couple of weeks to actually stand straight, and learn that as the new normal. And this took care of the other problems.

It had nothing to do with the balance of muscle strengths, and everything to do with my perceptions. (Extensive hamstring stretching was also necessary, but not sufficient, to make standing straight possible.)

I'm not saying don't go to the gym -- I love the gym! -- what I'm saying is, if you want to fix your posture, you have to change how use you your body. Stretching can be necessary to unlock tight areas, but lack of or imbalanced strength is not the issue in an otherwise healthy adult.

100% this. I’ve been physically active for my entire life, but I’ve also suffered from postural issues for the past 5 or so years, which I ascribe to a combination of: - extended sitting due to long days at the office - a weights routine that compounded the problem with muscular imbalances.

I was stretching regularly too - but that doesn’t help if you’ve “lost” the feeling of what’s normal, and what muscles should be used during certain movements.

I’ve regained most of it now, but that’s after years of experimentation to rediscover what muscles weren’t working. Retraining is definitely necessary if you’ve lost it.

Yes, there are obese people with excellent posture, just as there are athletes who have terrible posture as soon as they walk off the playing field.

The stuff about tight muscles or weak muscles is nonsense: good posture is usually well within the center of your range of motion. You can't analyze human motion using statics.

The fact is that not only is your body an incredibly complex tensegrity structure, it is also hooked to earth's most impressive control system via millions of inputs and outputs. Posture is an aspect of the control system, not the physical structure.

Source: I am trained as an Alexander Teacher.

I wouldn't be so brash as to just dismiss the substantial amount of research into muscles and posture. Especially without presenting any actual evidence yourself.

After reading most comments here, it seems Alexander is an alternative approach to thinking of posture. Not sure how you could prove it is the "correct" one.

I think you'll find that the "strengthening" theory of posture is mostly spread by personal trainers rather than researchers into neuromuscular control. I would expect any sort of mindful physical activity to improve posture to some extent, but the muscles that manage posture are not under voluntary control. Exercises designed for the large superficial muscles only strengthen the postural muscles incidentally.

I wouldn't assert that AT is the "correct" way to think about anything: there are a huge number of different disciplines trying to get at the same effect with different dogmas. All these disciplines struggle with a mixture of dogma and genuine insight.

Empirically, studies on AT have shown small but measurable effects across a variety of metrics including lung function, back pain, and dynamic balance. It has also been shown to reduce effort as measured by electromyography and force platforms. All these studies are complicated by the lack of a "standardized AT teacher".

Most of the current research is funded by the British NHS, which recommends AT as a more cost-effective back pain intervention than surgery.

I'm not sure AT dismisses any research at all.

What scientific research would you present that leads to people adopting better posture?

There's a tremendous amount of work on biomechanics, of course, but from what I know that tends to be descriptive rather than normative, or look at parts in isolation and not really be helpful at all for an otherwise healthy human being looking to improve their posture.

If you say AT is "alternative", what are you proposing is the evidence-based practice it is alternative to? Because unfortunately I'm not aware of any.

Have any videos of obese people with excellent posture? Especially while walking or performing ordinary tasks?

How much do you charge for this idea-retraining? Why are you hiding behind a throwaway?

That crosses into personal attack and breaks the site guidelines, which ask you to assume good faith. Could you please (re-)read https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and follow them when posting here?

You’re right, thanks

I’m a non-fit person with poor posture myself, and I definitely worded that badly

Other people on the thread seem to see a distinction between fitness and posture. If you can't see it, video probably won't convince you.

HN has become a very uncivil place, don't you think? I don't even remember the name of my old account, it's been so long since I posted here.

I can only presume that most of these obese people with excellent posture were at some point (probably in their youth) physically very active. I remember my grandpa walking as straight as an arrow, although he was old (over 80) and fairly obese by that time. But that's because he was very athletic as younger, and still had kept a significant muscle mass although he was fat and out of shape on the first look. Proper posture simply requires that you have enough muscles that are not just strong, but also balanced in strength and length and flexibility in all directions.

>The sense we have that someone is fit generally comes from their posture.

Exceptions I've noted are joggers with hunched shoulders, splayed feet, leaping too high off the ground, and so on. By no means uncommon.

>Does this idea-retraining work as well as the gym?

Not a gym user but I gained a cm in height within a week of encountering the Alexander Technique (AT). My guess is that the best gym users have good posture too, if only for safety's sake.

It's not so much about fitness and muscular bulk but about whether you are receptive to the proprioceptive feedback from those muscles and joints. AT has a unique way of pointing you towards these sensations but it relies on personal contact with a teacher.

Much of this is stronger than average back muscles helping to straighten the spine and pull the shoulders into a more correct position. More general core strength then helps stabilize the body as a whole, increasing your awareness of their physicality and posture. Rowers, for example, tend to be almost physically incapable of standing with poor posture because of the excess back and shoulder strength they develop.

That's what I've found - the degree of "computer-nerd stoop" that I have directly relates to how much upper body work (and specifically back-work) I've been doing. A few dozen reps of seated row / horizontal row a week, or a lengthy motorcycle commute for a few weeks, completely 'fixes' my posture.

As someone who commutes by motorcycle daily, how foes that fix anything? You're always hunched over on the bike

Well, it depends on your exact bike and commute. A large-bore naked bike plus several places on the commute which allow spirited up to highway speeds combine to a pretty good back workout. I guess a slow commute in purely suburban / urban traffic on a supersports or a scooter wouldn't be as useful though.

On a scooter your choices are hunched over, or sitting up straight going under 25mph or getting knocked over by wind.

Yeah, I don't think a scooter qualifies.

Seratonin improves posture in crustaceans [1]. I think it probably does in humans as well.

Anecdotally, when I exercise regularly, good posture comes naturally to me.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11800033

Over stretched and weak back muscles plus over tense chest muscle contribute greatly to poor posture. How does that figure into the idea of retraining positional perception?

Perhaps those people perceive their back to be straight when it has been curved for years. Their sense of normal is warped and they dont have the feedback system to correct it without first adjusting their proprioception of where they are in relation to their body (and how parts of their body are in relation to each other).

What's the difference between "standing by will" and Alexander's "standing by will until you've retrained muscle memory"?

Correcting posture requires not only a strengthening and lengthing of the correct muscles, but literally a new perception of what your body is doing. Bring strong and flexible is sufficient to walk.

I sometimes indicate how hard this is as “learning to walk again”. Retraining your posture is on the order of difficulty of learning to walk for the first time. Imagine how much effort and attention you put into that the first time around.

Normal human beings put 0 effort and attention into walking. They stumble about until it works. A toddler learns to walk before they have most of their conscious brain development.

None of what you just said made sense.

Have you compared it to any other modern theories of posture or is this just the one you’re familiar with?

FWIW, Alexander Technique is standard in virtually every college-level acting program and classical voice program.

It really is the standard, with Feldenkrais at a kind of distant second.

Not sure how this relates to it being provenly effective for "correct" posture.

Unfortunately, the area of posture is very much like the area of nutrition -- very little scientific evidence, lots of wildly different competing theories.

In nutrition it's count your calories, no actually don't eat carbs, or avoid saturated fats, or animal fats are fine, just trust your instinct, instinct is what makes everyone fat, etc.

The world of posture seems awfully similar -- everybody thinks they know what good posture is (which is often overexaggerated and incorrect), but few people can really define it, and different coaches have wildly different definitions for it (tilt the pelvis forwards! no, never tilt the pelvis forwards!).

But at the end of the day, the people who most depend on their posture to make a living -- actors, singers, and dancers -- overwhelmingly use AT. So, scientifically proven? Not at all. But it seems to be the best we've got.

Check out:


This concept is... exceedingly philosophically problematic, and one of those things that might be cute on paper if you don't think about it too much, but rather horrific if you do.

We should keep in mind the positions many of these philosophers were in. They often come from aristocracy classes and look down on commoners. They had access to better resources and were not ailed with problems, and therefore had no trouble defining people who are weaker, sicker, lower, smaller, uglier, etc., as "lesser". It's not a coincidence that many philosophers were not even able to register women as people. The downtrodden person is easy to look down upon as they have been damaged.

No room for complexity or messiness that's inherent in the lives of most people. These philosophers liked living by ideals, but human life is not ideal, and creating these ideals simply gates away most humans. If anything, the concept is non-human, but in its nature, Luciferous, as it separates off a "worthy" elite and throws away the rest. Most normal people do not survive the judgment of a philosopher.

A hunching person is human. A person with damaged limbs is a human. An older person who cannot stand upright is human. If you assign value to posture, then you have forgotten these people and flagged them as unworthy, and that makes you not human more than anything discussed in this article. It is that thought which is immoral, it is that thought which makes the slave, and not at all the posture of the slave. The excuse that comes after, not the origin of the evil.

I agree. :)

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