Mind & Body

How Mind Shapes Posture

Our image of ourselves and how we hold ourselves are intimately linked
TIMEDecember 25, 2021

I walked by a shop window, and when I realized that the reflection in the glass was me, I was stunned. I had to do a double-take. Who was that woman with rounded shoulders?

I spend hours at my computer, constantly bending forward to read or write something. I have done extensive study, through the Harkness Ballet of New York, about imagery and alignment, and I realized that somewhere along the way, my posture—and how I see myself—had gone astray.

Once the feeling of a posture has been firmly established in our brains, we only have to recall the sensation and our body will automatically respond by reproducing the posture. The firmer the image or memory of this posture, the more mental pathways we have to improve our alignment. This is how postural image, that is, a picture of ourselves in a certain posture and the memory of that posture, is intimately linked with our actual posture.

Where Do We Get the Image of Our Posture?

The formation of our postural image comes from both inside and outside influences and how we choose to react to them. Our many thoughts and emotions affect how we see ourselves, and this is reflected in our posture, too.

Our posture is fluid rather than static. Every day is different, depending on what we did the day before, how we slept, what we think and feel, and what shapes we’ve held ourselves in for what lengths of time. As a result of those varying factors, we need to make subtle adjustments to our posture every day. Daily posture habits accumulate and become more visible as we age. That’s why we should think of posture as an ongoing effort and always seek to make improvements.

What Do We Do All Day?

As a dancer, I know that body awareness comes first. While it’s true that our posture comes from genetic and social heritage, our accumulated mental and physical habits enforce it. For example, my posture was quite good when I was an athlete: My alignment was constantly growing toward correctness. Then my life changed to one that involved sitting at a computer for hours every day.

Babies naturally sit up straight. That big head balances perfectly over their shoulders because of their exceptionally straight spine and the way the building blocks of their bodies are stacked one on top of the other. However, we can all grow into bad postural habits over time. Sometimes it’s a result of seeing siblings and parents exhibit poor alignment. Sometimes it’s a result of emotional or physical tendencies.

In cultures where everyday tasks involve a lot of movement, we’re likely to find that the people have good posture. Sitting on floors, carrying baskets on their heads, and running all support good posture. Meanwhile, the sedentary lives, excessive screen time, and plush furniture that we have in the United States do the opposite.

Our comfortable chairs, lounges, and sofas promote bad alignment by encouraging us to lie around with lax muscles. Hanging out on this “comfortable” furniture reduces the body tone necessary to have our body support itself well and ensure proper alignment. All of that sitting causes the hip joints to lose flexibility, which forces other body parts to strain to compensate for it.

To fix this problem, it helps to understand that just as our posture can change how we see ourselves, how we see ourselves can affect our posture. Having a thought or holding a picture in our mind sends a message through the nervous system because thoughts and the nervous system are connected. When we attempt a new physical task, our brains create new neural pathways to figure out how to accomplish this unique feat. Like how a dancer or athlete will imagine themselves performing a physical feat to improve their execution, we can do the same with how well our spine aligns with our head, neck, and hips.

What Do We Need to Do to Create Correct Postural Alignment?

Going back to the shocking image I saw in the window glass of the woman with rounded shoulders, I realized that my posture needed drastic correction. It required something far beyond just a physical change. As a professional ballet dancer and fitness instructor, I knew that two essential ingredients were necessary to correct my alignment.

First, I had to physically correct my alignment by pulling my belly button in and up, putting my shoulder blades down and back, and lifting my chin so that my head was directly over my shoulders.

Second, I had to visualize my correct alignment. My body responded, and my brain learned. Because our bodies like to find the easy way out and revert to familiar patterns, I used a picture of myself when I was athletically in top shape to help my self-image. (You can use any image of yourself or someone else that looks like you want to look.) I put it on my bathroom mirror where I would see it every morning, first thing.

That woman with the rounded shoulders has since vanished. May my experience give you a fresh perspective on how mental imagery works to create great posture that can support whatever adventure life has in store for you.

Formerly a professional dancer with the Harkness Ballet of New York, and faculty member at Butler University, Indianapolis, IN, Donna was Director of Fitness Arts at LivRite Fitness. There, she taught Ballet, Barre, Pilates, Stretch and Conditioning, Personal Training and provided fitness consultations to members. She created Raise the Barre at LivRite, trained, qualified, and managed its instructors, and wrote its training manual. She is the author of “When God Says Drop It” and “Why the Dance,” available wherever books are sold.