Someone asked Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute, why he stood so straight and tall. He answered, “So I don’t have the diseases that you people have!” He also consistently reinforced the need to align the head, neck, and trunk before meditation, so the body is “still, steady, relaxed, and comfortable” and the breath is diaphragmatic. “Because the spine is straight and the nervous system relaxed,” he said, “the pranic energy flows freely upward along the spinal column toward the head.” Thus good posture promotes the flow of energy that supports health as well as the mental clarity needed to meditate.
Dr. Roger W. Sperry, neuropsychologist, neurobiologist, and a 1981 Nobel laureate for his research on the brain, had this to say:
Better than 90 percent of the energy output of the brain is used in relating the physical body in its gravitational field. The more mechanically distorted a person is, the less energy available for thinking, metabolism, and healing.
Though from radically different perspectives, both agree that posture matters: it affects our energy, health, and mind. But as a culture, our posture is distorted by how we conduct our life—sitting long hours at the computer and in the car, and slumping as we stare at our phones. Without awareness of posture, these activities shorten and weaken the body’s tissues, distorting our alignment so that we are unable to stand tall without strain. So while it is easy to say “align your head and neck over your trunk,” it is not easy to do.
Not surprisingly, our posture is also related to how we feel about ourselves: our beliefs, fears, degree of self-love and empowerment, and how comfortable we are in our environment. Mary Burmeister, who brought the healing art called Jin Shin Jyutsu from Japan to America in the 1960s, said that the current state of our body reflects what we were thinking 10 years ago.
I am a case in point. I grew up with a forward head and collapsed chest, a posture of self-protection. As a result, I had a lot of back pain, even as a teen. Luckily, I discovered the study of dance as a young adult, which gave me a greater awareness of my posture, but no tools to address the underlying cause—my thoughts and feelings. Since then, I have been refining my knowledge of alignment by studying and receiving bodywork as well as practicing asana. But to address the underlying cause of my misalignment, I found the process of meditation the most healing of all. (More on this in a later post!)
Many studies have looked at the relationship of posture and the mind. One study concluded:
Adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases rate of speech and reduces self-focus. Sitting upright may be a simple behavioral strategy to help build resilience to stress.
So even though our mental landscape influences our posture, this study suggests that the reverse is also true: we can influence our mind by changing our posture.
While contemplation and meditation clear the cultural and familial mindsets that modify posture, we need good posture to meditate. So in this series I will share strategies I have used to improve my alignment, thus reducing back pain, increasing my self-confidence, and contributing to a stable and comfortable meditation pose. We will start by looking at the role of the core in posture, and then at the upper back, neck, and head. Next we will look at standing posture, sitting posture, and finally the role of posture as it relates to the mind in meditation. In each case I will outline a path of exercise and awareness that, if practiced, will eventually lead to greater comfort and stability in many aspects of your life.