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What is posture?

This is an excerpt from Postural Assessment.

What Is Posture?

Ask anyone to demonstrate poor posture, and it's a fair bet that most will adopt a slouched or hunched position, protracting their shoulders and rounding their backs to exaggerate the kyphotic curve in the thoracic spine. Ask for a demonstration of good posture, and most people automatically straighten up, raise their chins, and retract and depress their shoulders in a military-type attitude. Clearly, for most people, the term posture describes an overall body position, the way we hold ourselves or position our bodies, intentionally or unintentionally. Used in an artistic context, it might describe a pose, or a position held deliberately for aesthetic effect.

Good posture requires a person to maintain the alignment of certain body parts; poor posture is often acknowledged as a cause of musculoskeletal pain, joint restriction or general discomfort. When used in the context of therapy—physiotherapy, massage therapy, osteopathy or chiropractic, for example—the term posture more precisely describes the relationships among various parts of the body, their anatomical arrangement and how well they do or do not fit together. Bodyworkers have become familiar with postural terms such as scoliosis and genu valgum, which are used to describe a congenital, inherited position, plus used to describe a position assumed through habit, such as increased thoracic kyphosis resulting from prolonged sitting in a hunched position.

Of course, the postures we assume provide clues to not only the condition of our bodies—traumas and injuries old and new, and mild or more serious pathologies—but also how we feel about ourselves—our confidence (or lack of it), how much energy we have (or are lacking), how enthusiastic (or unenthusiastic) we feel, or whether we feel certain and relaxed (or anxious and tense). Intriguingly, we all almost always adopt the same postures in response to the same emotions.

Observe 10 people feeling confident, motivated, and optimistic, and you will notice that most are standing tall, with their chests out and heads up, and that most have adopted a wide stance, giving themselves a wide base of support. They may be smiling or have a countenance that reflects their positive feelings. By contrast, observe 10 people feeling anxious, demotivated and pessimistic, and you may notice that they have shifted their weight to one leg, reducing their base of support (making them less stable), and that they stoop or flex at the waist, looking to the floor rather than up and ahead. They may touch the chin with one hand the way we sometimes do when we are thinking, and may even cross one or both arms against the chest in a protective manner.

If you are a teacher, you can demonstrate emotional postures to your class. Select one negative emotion and one positive emotion. Ask your class to act as if they were feeling extremely worried (or fearful or anxious or angry). It is important that all class members act out the same emotion. Observe what they do and what postures they adopt for a minute or so. Next, ask them to act as if they had just received a piece of fantastically good news. Again, observe what happens. Be sure to select the positive emotion as the second scenario to avoid students' retaining any sense of negative emotion. Also, suggesting that students carry out this exercise with their eyes closed prevents them copying one another. It is striking to observe how the majority of people adopt the same postures in response to the same emotions.

Although this book focuses on helping you to analyse the physical aspects of clients' postures, it is worth remembering that the postures we adopt reveal more than just the simple alignment of body parts. Our supposedly non-tangible, emotional states are inherently linked to our tangible, physical forms.

Read more from Postural Assessment by Jane Johnson.