what is good posture, anyway?
Updated: Apr 21
and can we breathe well in that shape?
Many of us learned how to hold our bodies from family or authority figures at a young age. "Pull your shoulders back!" "Don't slouch!," we were told. And so, we learned to stand, and sit, with our ribcage forward, and our shoulders "back." In the gym, we might sometimes hear "proud chest" as a cue not to slouch forward.
We tend to think of this as "standing up straight," or having "good posture." But if we take a look at this image of a woman sitting in meditation, we can see that there's quite a bit of spinal extension going on-- she's in a seated backbend. It's tough to see in this picture, but this is often paired with a forward movement of the ribcage (Katy Bowman covers this well here).
If you're a yoga person, it's likely you've been further indoctrinated into this school of thinking. While modern postural yoga is full of hip flexion (think forward folds like paschimottanasana or baddha konasana), it has an interesting bias against spinal flexion (that is, rounding your spine).
For years, I was taught to "flatten my back." Teachers cautioned classes not to let the spine round forward (which it will naturally do-- especially the thoracic spine) in any seated forward fold. When I became a teacher myself, I continued to pass on this advice. In fact, one of my primary cues for ardha uttanasana, the "halfway-lift" position that comes after the first forward fold in a sun salutation. "Inhale, flat back!" I said, over and over again.
What I didn't realize at the time was that "flattening" my back was actually making it more difficult to breathe well. We need an appropriate amount of flexion in our mid back in order to be able to expand our lungs posteriorly. This is one of the core concepts of Postural Restoration, which I use to work with clients who are stuck in these predictable human patterns (hint-- that's all of us!).
Let's take another look at our meditator from earlier.
Ideally, when we breathe in, we should feel expansion in the front ribs, side ribs, and in the back of the ribcage as well. We should also experience a sense of expansion through the belly, side waist, and even into the lower back. (If you just tried this and couldn't make it happen, don't panic-- this is something you can work on!).