Americans tend to have poor posture. At least, that’s been my observation. And there are so many different resources out there on what makes good posture, which types of postures are correct, and various new trends. There are even new scientific studies that are removing older information about posture. Right now, this article about indigenous cultures and posture is my favorite for being somewhat confusing, because it speaks against the “normal” S-shaped posture most modern Western cultures are familiar with.
My posture is terrible. I blame this on a few things. To start with, I have always been heavy, including my breasts, and that led to poor posture as I was growing up. It’s difficult for growing bones to support large breasts and I, personally, had a C cup by aged 10. Secondly, I have always been terrified of showing the fact that I was female; that means I hid my breasts with a slouch and my butt with a tucked pelvis. Both of these habits have dramatically altered my posture, making my back hurt quite a bit throughout my thirty-one years.
Recently, I saw something on Facebook which caught my attention. It was a seven week “trial” of sorts for yoga by Carla Wainwright. At first, I just saved the link, thinking I might look into it later, like I do with a lot of things that I never get around to. Before long though, I thought about just how much that really is and for FREE! I normally avoid exercise classes, because they make every agoraphobic inch of me scream, but this would be all online. So, I looked at it again. It took me several seconds of staring at the box on the screen before I typed out my email address and several more before I finally clicked submit. There – I had decided to try this out, but I didn’t have the highest of hopes.
Realistically, as an American Buddhist, I know a reasonable amount of Buddhism as a novice, but I have to keep reminding myself that He was not Chinese… The man that become Buddha was from India, as is much of the foundation of the teachings He left to us. This means that yoga embodies some of the practices of peace, some of the same language, and some of the same principles as Buddhism. I hesitate to say “much of” or, worse, “all of”, because I genuinely do not know. So, when I looked at Wainwright’s yoga offering, I was also looking at another way to help myself transition into a life of patience, calm, and peace, all of which I desperately need. Yoga is not unknown to me, though I have never been terribly serious about using it as a method to health. Honestly, yoga is NOT a way to get healthy, but you will gain your health in practicing yoga. Yoga is meant to be a way of life through spirituality, a practice of patience, compassion, and non-violence.
I got the first video for this course I had set myself on. I stared at the email for a couple days before I actually did something about it… When I finally looked at the video, I felt like things were going to be too slow and too hokey for me. I’m pretty down to earth and being Buddhist in faith is still a very new concept to me. I have never really had faith in my life, because none of it made sense. But like Buddhism, yoga teaches that you must listen to your own intuition; test a teaching or posture and listen to your spirit or body, respectively, to understand if this is something you are ready for. More than once, I have stepped back from a teaching of Buddha or delved more deeply into it, because it either spoke to me or did not. In the former, I did not feel ready to sort through the feeling that came over me. With the latter, whatever it was that I had encountered touched me on a deeper level and I knew it to be something I needed or wanted to better understand. So it is with yoga; some postures are not ones that I am ready to work with and others are perfect for me to push my limits with.
I knew that this yoga thing would be a challenge for me, not just physically. Trying to get myself to do anything consistently for more than a few days has always been difficult, particularly if I don’t have an external reason to pursue the goal in question. Thankfully, my boyfriend has been kind enough to give me almost daily reminders, which has helped immensely, but the effort must still come from me. I discovered early on, then, the first thing I was going to have to delve more deeply into in order to really come to grips with my budding yoga practice. My posture.
In a formal sense, we all know that one must sit with back straight in an upright fashion in order to have “good posture”. What that really means, however, can be a bit confusing. The spine’s natural curvature is not technically straight and trying to force it to be so is just painful. The S-shape I was taught tends to have me leaning forward, as I have stronger abdominal muscles than I do back muscles. So, I started looking into the J-shape posture that was mentioned in the indigenous cultures article that I linked above. While that also causes me a certain amount of pain, it is much more a soreness than an actual painfulness. The J-shape also allows me to come more to a balance point in my sitting posture, though I’m still perfecting this.
In Buddhist and yogic meditation, when one is in a sitting posture, the only real physical effort one is meant to be exerting is to stay balanced upright. Americans, at least, tend to lean forward when sitting, which would lend well to the S-shape. Thus, as I have been working through the yoga postures, I have to be more conscious of my back and pelvis, how they line up. In my day-to-day life, as well, I have to really spend effort to remember to sit and stand up straight, where my shoulders are back, my chin down slightly, and my abdominal muscles somewhat relaxed (too many years of tensing my abs to semi-hide my stomach work against me now). It’s always a challenge to find the sweet spot where my back is straight and my posture is upright.
In the same vein, I have to acknowledge just how much this is influenced and influencing my self-image. I learned about my tendency to hide the obvious identifiers of my gender (breasts, hips, and buttocks) only in the past couple of years. My self-esteem has never been terribly good and has always been tied to my physical appearance; I made better headway in dealing with people as a boy-type person and so that is what I tried to emulate. This is difficult as a woman who has always been heavy and so therefore large of bust. So, learning to improve my posture also requires that confront my instinctual desire to downplay my chest and butt. For the first time in a long time, I have had to confront my body image in a much more blunt, daily fashion.
Having a boyfriend that honestly accepts and loves my body exactly how it is has helped a lot. In many ways, I almost wish he didn’t love me so, but I know better. In other ways, having that push to acknowledge and express my femininity has been crucial to my development, both in my faith and in my day-to-day secular existence (I hope to one day completely unite these two aspects, but I am not ready for that yet). He buys me frilly undergarments, lets me flaunt myself when I feel comfortable, and stands by me to protect me when I feel vulnerable (which is pretty much any time that I am wearing a lot of women’s clothing). At the same time, however, he encourages me to seek the strength in myself and strengthen my comfort with my image of me.
Last, but certainly not least, I want to talk about something that I experienced the first time I followed that first yoga video. At the end, Carla Wainwright, the instructor, spoke of compassion, love, and peace, acknowledging the divine element in ME with the word ‘namaste’. While, technically, she was not speaking to me, realistically she totally was speaking to ME, because she was speaking to the divine spark in each soul her teachings can touch. I cried. When it happened, I almost immediately clamped down on the expression, because I thought ‘yoga should not make me cry’. Upon a moment’s thought, however, I realized that I was wrong. If I needed to cry, for whatever reason, then that is what was going to happen. As Wainwright put it when I mentioned it to her (she answered my comment in less than an hour!), yoga has a way of releasing the “issues in the tissues” and I believe it. In this way, I have come to acknowledge the spirituality of this practice. Oddly, I look forward to more as I venture further on my journey toward better posture, better physical and mental health, and deeper spirituality.