Good posture is a cornerstone for physical well-being. It also communicates a healthy attitude and confidence. Conventional wisdom often attributes it to muscular strength and skeletal alignment. However, there's an intriguing connection between good posture and Einstein's theory of General Relativity. This connection sheds light on the subtleties of body mechanics. It also reveals our environmental place in the world.
The benefits of good posture are surprisingly varied highlighting just how holistic your functional health is. Here is a typical list of benefits:
- Boosts your mood and energy
- A healthy spine with less back pain
- Increased lung capacity and easier breathing
- Reduced strain on joints
- Less neck and shoulder tension
- Fewer headaches
- Improved circulation and digestion
- Increased self confidence
- Reduced risk of injury.
The Science Bit
Einstein's theory shows that gravity isn't a force pulling objects down, as Isaac Newton first proposed, a view which is still commonly, and erroneously, held. It is, rather, a curvature in the fabric of spacetime (the universe) caused by mass. Don't worry, I'm not going to take a deep dive into the physics at play, but simply put, the larger the mass, the greater the curvature and the more readily you'll slide down it's gradient, AKA falling. I'm not going to get into it here, but it's even less intuitive than that as it's the time component of spacetime being affected by massive objects (like stars and planets) that cause objects to fall towards them, but let's not concern ourselves with that here. Our reality is really quite magical, wondrous and frankly baffling.
An interesting byproduct of this cosmic dance is that we experience a counter and measurable acceleration of 9.8ms² of up thrust from the earth due to these gravitational effects. This upward force is a direct consequence of the Earth's mass as it repulses the bending of spacetime around it. As counter-intuitive as that is, it's a well tested phenomenon with implications such that Satellite Navigation systems simply wouldn't work without taking them into consideration, because curving spacetime also affects time and that needs be factored in by engineers or their accuracy would drift by about 11km a day, a remarkable figure.
If you find this hard to process or accept, consider an accelerometer, which measures acceleration. When placed on the ground it measures 9.8ms² of acceleration coming up under it, or 1G as it's more commonly known (1 Earth gravity). If you were to throw the accelerometer in the air it would read zero acceleration as it would no longer be in contact with an accelerating surface. It's directly measurable.
In physics your weight is the relationship between your mass (how much there is of you), and the amount of acceleration pushing into you, the basic formula being Weight = Mass x Acceleration. So whenever you jump up in the air you become weightless, as is shown by throwing an accelerometer in the air. Your smartphone has accelerometers in it so it knows which way is up in order to flip the screen from portrait to landscape. This function doesn't work whenever the phone is in free fall (yes, I've even tested this for myself!). What's more, there are accelerometer apps you can download for your phone. On the right is the read out from the app as I held it upright in my hand, roughly 9.8ms² (9.776) of acceleration up along the Y axis (I muted the other to axis in the app to avoid confusion, and the axis refers to the direction of the internal 3 accelerometers, not the graph on the display output)
You've personally experienced being, and feeling, heavier in a instant each time an elevator first accelerates as it goes up. You return to your usual weight the moment the elevator reaches a steady speed. I've noticed some modern elevators accelerate more slowly so this effect is less pronounced, but you'll be familiar with the experience. It's the experience of adding the elevators acceleration to that of the Earths. You feel heavier because you experience greater gravitational effects through acceleration.
Here's a thought experiment, if you were in a rocket ship in interstellar space and you set it to accelerate at 9.8ms², you would not be floating around due to lack of gravity, you would be able stand normally with the experience being indistinguishable from that you experience daily here on Earth. Only when the rocket ship stops accelerating would you float about weightless.
Enter The Alexander Technique
So, how does this gravitational dance relate to maintaining good posture? Enter the Alexander Technique (AT), a method that emphasizes the integration of mind and body to improve overall coordination. At its core, the Technique encourages you to become aware of your habits that may be interfering with your natural functioning, and consciously redirect them for optimal functioning.
AT teachers engage you in simple yet profound movements, retraining balance and coordination to use this upward force. It's not about forceful correction but rather a gentle redirection – a harmonious collaboration with the natural forces at play.
Your posture only exists because you're being pushed up by the Earth, all you have to do is let it. There's a classic AT mantra "LET your neck be free, to LET head go forward and up". I capitlised "let" to make it clear it's not something you do, but something you allow. The "forward" is the rotation of the skull over the atlanto-occipital joint (where the spine meets the skull) because it's slightly to the rear of the skull, the upwards thrust therefore tips your head forward as well as sending it up.
The skill in posture is in innate subtle movements to keep redirecting this upwards line of support that maintains mobility, not in rigidity or holding a position. It's an act of dynamic balancing and if you placed an accelerometer on top of your head it would register your head pushing/accelerating up into it without you have to do a thing. Good coordination in movement entails creatively and constructively re-routing this upwards support in what we generally call Mechanical Advantage in the Alexander Technique.
It was a great observation by F.M.Alexander, the originator of the Technique, if only he'd understood why we had evolved this way, to take advantage of our environment. He was alive in Einstein's time, I consider it a shame he missed out on this realisation, but his observation still stands as an element of good coordination in relation to our environment. It's interesting to note that the Alexander Technique wasn't born out of theory, but observation, which is why it has stood the test of time for well over a century.
Functioning = Self-Environment Unity
We use the ground like a fish uses water, it buoys us up, not exactly analogous, but I'm sure you get the point, we're an evolutionary byproduct of our environment. A common mistake in various "bodywork" modalities, in my opinion, is the attempts to find functioning/use from within, when functionality is provided by the environment. It's like snatching a fish out of water and turning it over in your hands wondering why you can't see it's ability to swim. Functioning is a unity of the Self and the environment.
In short, good posture transcends traditional ideas of muscle strength and bone alignment. It is also effortless. It integrates principles from General Relativity. It acknowledges the upward acceleration in our daily existence. The marriage of this scientific insight with the wisdom of the Alexander Technique offers a nuanced understanding. It explains how we can stand tall in harmony with the forces shaping our lives, not against gravity. This allows us to attain poise over mere posture.
"There is only one way of saying what the work is and what we are doing. We are giving Nature her opportunity. This is a definition allowing for change and growth" - FM Alexander