If you read between the lines, you probably sense that under the banner of “The New Rules of Posture,” I’m actually sharing a somatic practice--a physical path to self-knowledge. Here’s what I wrote in The New Rules: to improve your posture you need to 1) “create new sense memories for what feels balanced and stable…” and 2) view “your posture as an ongoing perceptual process by which you orient yourself to gravity and to your relationship with the people, objects and events in your world.” Not something you do once and forget about. It's a practice.
Optimal Posture in a Nutshell:
At any given moment it’s the best relationship between your reception of support from the earth and your awareness of your surroundings. Best relationship. Not all moments ask for the same relationship between ground and space. Some moments require firmly grounded presence (e.g. self-defense) while others necessitate projecting ourselves into a further or future location (e.g.escape).
Posture expresses our response to the present moment. Stress invites us to attempt to control the moment. When stress-laden present moments add up--programing our postural brain maps and stitching up our fascia--our postures, and we ourselves, become less and less adaptable to what’s going on around us.
Picture balanced perception of ground and space as activity that occurs along your body’s midline. When posture is balanced and responsive, that midline is a dynamic expression of aliveness; when stress responses have become habitual, the line turns into a bent and unyielding rod.
In The New Rules of Posture, I shared the idea of posture zones, specific places in your body, along the midline, where stress constrains postural responsiveness. The zones are located in what the bodywork community thinks of as the body’s “diaphragms.”
The diaphragm muscle is the main muscle of respiration. But the word diaphragm has a wider meaning. Its Greek root means “through a fence.” A diaphragm forms a partition; it can also be an aperture, able to widen and narrow like a camera lens. For my book, I simplified this concept to 6 “posture zones”: the feet, pelvic floor, respiratory diaphragm, hands, jaw and eyes—places that often tighten and close under stress. Here are several more diaphragmatic zones that harbor tension under stress: the interosseous membranes between the two lower leg bones, and between the bones in the forearm, the throat, the roof of the mouth, the upper shoulder girdle.
We respond to stress by stabilizing ourselves through one or more of these diaphragms. Perhaps we think that by immobilizing ourselves we are stopping the world as well.
The first step out of a habit is to notice that you have it. What follows is a suggestion for tracking your stress stabilization habits, so that in time you can replace them with better habits for responding to the moment.
Healing Posture Practice: Tracking Itinerant Stress Responses
First Step: acknowledge that you’re stressed. Stress can be something very minor—just fretting about your to-do list can affect your posture.
Second Step: pinpoint where in your body the stress is being expressed. Because you know the location of the diaphragms, you can take inventory: do you feel tension in your feet? Your throat? Your hands?
Third step: gradually (that’s important) soften the tension you’ve noticed. Exhaling is critical to letting go (see Chapter 4 of The New Rules). Try to sense the weight of your bones: your jaw, your forearm bones, your pelvis. In a while you may notice that your perception of your situation has shifted.
When we let go of a stress stabilizer, it’s common for one of the other diaphragms to jump in, like an understudy. For example, you might feel your toes begin to grip after you’ve softened your lower legs.
Stress at DIA
I did this process recently on the bus between the car rental facility and Denver International Airport. I had plenty of time to make my flight, but airport energy tends to entrain me into being in a hurry. I noticed the stress of that. Here’s a snippet from that body diary.
My right lower leg is tense, as if it’s trying to suck my foot up off the floor. I restore the weight of my foot bones and let my foot swell back out to fill its shoe. I soften and spread the space between my tibia and fibula. Now there’s a pinch in the right rear quadrant of my pelvic floor. My right buttock is light on the seat, hovering, ready for what? I take time to restore the weight of my pelvis, unkinking the crease of my groin.
Meanwhile my awareness has been wandering over all the undone tasks that await me at home. My mind has been hovering too. Busy and tense, it recruited my right leg as an assistant. Mercifully the bus driver cracks a joke, and the shared moment of laughter widens my skull.
I can sense the bus wheels on the asphalt now. The sensation hums in my feet and legs and up my spine. It took this long to finally settle onto the bus. As we turn into the airport, I catch a parting glimpse of the snow-crowned Rockies. Inhaling that far-off glory, I’m here and now--at least for this moment.
Mildly stressful moments are the perfect time to practice tracking your own itinerant stress responses. Give it a try next time you're waiting on hold, untangling a snarled necklace, or cleaning the stove. Let me know how it goes.
Thank you for reading.