We’ve all been told to sit or stand up straight at some point in our lives! It’s something we know we’re supposed to do, though we likely don’t really understand why. Being told to sit up straight usually just elicits annoyance.
For most of us, good posture is seen as important for avoiding back and neck pain, but little else. If we aren’t experiencing any discomfort, we likely don’t give it a second thought.
But what if how we sit or stand is more significant than that? What if it can impact not just our bodies, but our minds too?
Body awareness and energy
Spiritual practices like yoga and meditation often emphasize keeping the spine straight. For meditation, this is important because it allows us to be alert and focused. It’s often said that straightening the spine allows energy to flow more freely. Intuitively, this makes sense; it’s hard to imagine being in a meditative state of mind whilst slumped over.
Body awareness and emotions
If we think about the connection between posture and mental state at all, we likely think the former causes the latter. But in reality, the process is two-way and self-reinforcing.
You may have experienced the feeling of getting some bad news and feeling like you’ve been punched in the stomach. When this happens, you’ll likely slump over. But what if you were instead to make a conscious effort to stand up straight and take some deep breaths? Chances are, you’d feel a little better.
If you continue to slump, on the other hand, it sends the message to your brain that you are unhappy, which reinforces those emotions. So you’ll likely feel worse, and find it difficult to break out of the cycle.
This makes sense, because emotions are physical as well as mental. When we’re anxious, our hearts race and our stomachs tighten; anger makes us tense up, and joy can make us tear up or bound around. Once we become tense or start crying, it has a tendency to lead to more tears or tension.
This isn’t to say we should suppress our emotions, but body awareness can help us to deal with them better.
Body awareness and confidence
Posture can be particularly significant in situations where we’re under pressure to do our best. Anxiety induces us to make ourselves feel small. We slouch, cross our arms, and look down, maybe at our phones or our laps.
In a situation like a job interview, this sends a clear message to the interviewer that we’re nervous and lacking in confidence. This doesn’t make a great impression. Some research even suggests it can affect hiring decisions more than qualifications or experience.
People who are confident aren’t afraid to take up space. In casual settings, they may sprawl on a sofa, put their feet up on a coffee table, or rest an ankle on the opposite thigh. In more formal settings, they may sit or stand upright, make eye contact and perhaps adopt a wider stance than the average person. So if we’re in a situation where we really need to make a good impression, it can really help if we’re not shy about taking up space – as long as we don’t come across as overly dominant. And it’s not just about how we come across to others; it’s how we come across to ourselves too. Even when no-one is watching, paying attention to our posture can help us deal with the more minor anxieties in life. Amy Cuddy’s book Presence has much more information about this.
The Alexander Technique
These ideas tie in well with the Alexander Technique, which is essentially about using our bodies in a way that doesn’t create strain and tension. It has been found to help all sorts of physical issues, but more surprisingly, it has helped many people with mental and emotional issues too. It’s been used to treat stress, anxiety, depression and more.
The truth is, the mind and the body are inextricably connected. It’s virtually impossible to affect one without affecting the other. So if we want to become calm, collected and present, maybe it’s time to take a look at what our bodies are doing.