Straight or Upright?
Have you ever told yourself to “stand up straight"? Or maybe you remember being told to stop slouching and stand up straight as a teenager? But what does “straight'' really mean when we are talking about the human body?
Human spine has evolved for upright walking to provide maximum shock absorption with each of its sections - sacral, cervical, thoracic and lumbar, forming an opposing curve. In fact, the lumbar curve only exists in humans and has developed specifically to support our upright posture.
Since our spine has multiple curves, why do we even talk about it being “straight”? This really is a misnomer, and a better way to think of our posture is “upright” rather than “straight.” In relation to posture upright usually means that, when looking at a standing person from the side, the heel, hip, shoulder and ear are all lined up directly over each other.
Maintaining upright posture is important because when the spinal curves, especially the thoracic (upper back) curve, become excessively exaggerated, we can end up with forward-head position and rounded shoulders, resulting in neck pain, shoulder pain, as well as restricted breathing, and even heartburn. Posture also affects our balance, since our body’s natural center of gravity can shift depending on our posture.
Effects of posture are not limited to influencing the physical body - our mood can also be affected. The way we sit, stand, or walk, affects how we feel. When we stoop, we are literally and figuratively “down”. And just like our posture (how we carry ourselves) affects our mood, how we feel can also affect our posture. Yoga offers an integrated approach to body, mind and spirit, and helps us understand how our posture is related to our emotional state.
It can require an effort or even feel uncomfortable to change our habitual way of carrying ourselves. But simple awareness can help us gradually create new movement patterns. When we develop mindful awareness, we can notice subtle messages from the mind that may affect our mood and our posture.
How do we know if we are “standing up straight”? It doesn’t really work to look at oneself in a mirror from the side! Yoga helps us find our internal alignment, so we can feel our posture from the inside out.
Here is a practice to help you figure out how standing upright feels, and how to find posture that feels both balanced and uplifting for you. Use it to experiment with finding your upright posture.
Stand with feet comfortable distance apart
Notice how the weight is distributed through the feet and balance it out between left and right foot, and the heel and ball of each foot, so the feet feel evenly grounded
Pause to notice your breath, with each exhale grounding the feet
Do you tend to lock your knees? Micro-bend the knees and notice how this affects the weight in your feet.
Bring your awareness to the lower belly and feel a gentle lift
Continue to lengthen up through the spine
Let the shoulders broaden away from each other, spreading both the collarbones and the shoulder blades.
Lengthen up through crown of the head
Observe your body, keep making small adjustments until your position feels steady, comfortable and balanced. Notice how it feels to stand in this position.