Poise, Not Posture - Don't Try To Stand Up Straight!

We're being inundated with articles these days on the benefits of correct posture and how to achieve it, but nothing makes you tense up more than trying to adopt a “correct” posture and trying to be "right". Throw away the idea of an idealised posture that you need to maintain, it's not the solution for avoiding or overcoming your aches and pains. Natural posture is a loose and dynamic activity. It has been said that your best posture is your next posture, so don't hold on to it. In fact, do away with the word posture altogether and replace it with the word poise, it will get you in a better frame of mind to find the quality you’re after. Posture is a shape, poise is a quality, a state of mind.


After millions of years of evolution you can rest assured that your postural reflexes work well enough if you don’t interfere with them. You could say good posture is simply a lack of bad posture. Although good and bad are such judgemental words. You either have poise or you don’t.


The skeleton is an inherently unstable structure, our bones are not like a block of bricks stacked one atop another that hold us up. Left on it's own the skeleton simply collapses, it's our postural muscles that keep us up, not the skeleton. It's a bit like a tent (bare with me), it's not the tent poles that keep the tent up but the guy ropes. Well, they work together obviously but you get the point. And if you fancy having a deeper academic look into that idea have a look at tensegrity (a portmanteau of 'tension + integrity' created by renowned inventor Buckminster Fuller), which NASA are now studying to help with robotics.


Standing is basically a balancing act, and anything that’s balancing needs to be able to readjust, to move. So standing is a movement activity. As is sitting for that matter. If there's no movement it's at rest rather than being balanced, and this is only possible when lying, reclining or collapsing. Standing is no less dynamic than walking, running or jumping, it's just more subtle. When going from standing to walking, for example, you go from movement to movement.


Alexander Technique and poise, not posture
You can have poise standing on one leg!

Image used with permission by Depositphotos

Ironically we gain our stability through our inherent instability, which probably sounds counter-intuitive. In what a client of mine called an unstable equilibrium, our ability to keep readjusting in gravity is like a willow tree bending in the wind. A problem I see regularly with older clients is that their fear of falling increases their chance of falling as they tighten up to erroneously find stability. It's like trying to stand a pencil on its end. And I think one factor that makes sitting harder for many is the reduction in instability as the legs are taken out of the equation.


One of the most common images in articles discussing posture shows someone standing side on with a plumb line added connecting the ear, shoulder, hip and ankle. The problem arises in thinking that you're supposed to achieve that plumb line, you're not, and it encourages rigidity. In reality that plumb line is the average of all the points you've wobbled about. Yes, it's possible to do it skillfully enough in adulthood that it's imperceptible to an observer, but it's always subtly there. Young children are less adept at this you'll notice, the finer coordination and skill has yet to be learnt.


So what interferes with your postural reflexes? Lifestyle and habit. We have an organism that’s evolved for an environment that most of us in the West haven’t seen for centuries. We slap ourselves on our collective backs for being so clever in creating this modern environment but we never got round to learning how to deal with it. I’m not saying for a moment we need to give that up, but we do need to be more mindful of how we interact with it and recognise the power that our habituated responses to it may lead us astray. There's no strength training required, it's about coordination and awareness. Understanding how the head balances on the spine is a good place to start which I've written about previously. As is improving your spacial awareness and being mentally out and engaged with your environment, and not narrowing your attention.


A common suggestion, and a real bugbear of mine, is to imagine a thread or balloon attached to your head, and I have one thing to say about that, just don't! It tends to cause you to "try" and "do" which always implies additional effort. If you're really wedded to the use imagery a sense of renewed up flow such as a fountain of water buoying your head in a light and lively manner is closer to the quality of poise. A marshalling of your energies upwards along your spine. But ultimately any use of imagery is an affectation, artificial and not the real deal. 

This is, in my opinion, why wearable tech, despite being popularly crowd funded , doesn't work. They don't aim to improve poise, only posture. And from the real life reviews I've seen people find this unhelpful and distracting.



You may have noticed that I haven't provided a picture of correct posture, that's on purpose so as not to encourage you to maintain it. Lose the idea of a correct posture, it's too rigid and encourages stiffness. If you want to work on your posture, don't strengthen your muscles, strengthen the agility of your thinking in activity. Be all poise, no pose.

"Poise the Soul and the whole muscular system is in action to poise the body"

Moses True Brown, 1886

Please feel free to contact me for a no obligation chat to see how the Alexander Technique can help you too.

Write a comment

Comments: 8
  • #1

    Imogen Ragone (Tuesday, 21 June 2016 17:07)

    I couldn't agree more. I constantly aim to redefine posture for my clients. Poise is indeed the perfect word to capture what we're after. Great post, Adrian.

  • #2

    Priscilla Brown (Tuesday, 21 June 2016 23:05)

    Poise says it all. I appreciate your idea of hands on knees to come to standing for those who like to use hands to stand.

  • #3

    Laurel Leaf Networking (Friday, 12 August 2016 13:17)

    Great article Adrian, you always present such interesting concepts when talking about posture, poise and really get to the heart of issues.

  • #4

    Gail Hugman (Friday, 19 August 2016 14:58)

    Interesting, thought provoking article, Adrian, I like the replacement of the balloon with a fountain!

  • #5

    Stacey Landau (Friday, 19 August 2016 16:25)

    Thank you for sharing and reminding me ! We need these constant reminders.

  • #6

    Norma Lewis (Friday, 19 August 2016 20:10)

    Interesting article - never previously thought of standing as a movement, but makes so much sense. I "wobble" all the time!

  • #7

    Kelly Martin (Sunday, 26 January 2020 12:02)

    So how do we develop poise and not posture? Can't see the 'how' here

  • #8

    Adrian Farrell MSTAT (Sunday, 26 January 2020 12:50)

    Hi Kelly,

    Good question. By changing your thinking. I've discussed it further in this YouTube video: https://youtu.be/IBuXSV6si1g