On Posture

There is good posture and bad posture; the former being that state in which all of the bones and muscles in your spine are in proper alignment, the latter being that in which they are out of joint. For a very long time I have had bad posture, the result of too often working 12- to 14- to 16-hour days hunched over a computer keyboard. The result: for the past eight months or so, I’ve had intense pain just below my right shoulder, under my shoulder blade. There is a spot there that feels like a knot in a thick old rope, the kind you see holding abandoned, weather-beaten old boats to the sides of dessicated docks. It feels all rough and gnarled, like someone ploughed gravel deep into the muscle fiber. I imagine it must look like a contorted tree root that years ago encountered some obstacle to its growth and twisted itself around it. I’ve been trying to straighten it out.

That’s not easy, though. Posture is more than anything else determined by force of habit. You acquire bad posture by repeatedly taking the wrong stance. Do anything long enough and you become it, or it becomes you. That’s equally true of emotions and thoughts, which is why the word posture can also apply to psychological states. You can adopt a defensive posture toward the world; an attitude of confidence, comraderie or cynicism may be just a posture, that is, an assumed position rather than one that comes naturally. Repeat it long enough and your thoughts and feelings begin to take the shape you have imposed on them.Correcting that is very difficult since habits are very hard to break. And if you’ve been in the habit for a long time, there can be a long way to go to get back to your natural state. My first step toward regaining good posture was to be aware that I didn’t have it. Right now, I’m sitting up very straight, with my shoulders back and my thighs level with the floor. Unfortunately, this really hurts, because my bad posture has so completely taken over the way I sit and inflicts pain every time I try to change it. Eventually, though, if I persist, good posture will prevail. As that knot in my back slowly unravels, the boat will slip quietly out to sea.

In one of his typically paradoxical aphorisms, the Taoist sage Lao Tzu wrote:

To remain whole, be twisted. To become straight, let yourself be bent. To become full, be hollow. Be tattered, that you may be renewed.

I bet Lao Tzu had pretty damn near perfect posture. But I’ve been bent out of shape for too long, twisted into too many knots. I have to say, though, that I’m grateful for the pain. Otherwise, I would never have known anything was wrong, that there was a different, better posture to take. You only really discover the strength of your spine when your back is against the wall.