Posture is the upright organisation of the body in gravity. It is how we hold ourselves when we are not actively thinking about it. Therefore posture is a subconscious process. Hence why telling someone to ‘Stand up straight!’ is an exercise in futility.
Working in the realm of Hanna Somatic Education, we look for signs of the Three Reflexes in clients’ posture. Green Light Reflex (Spinal Extension), Red Light Reflex (Spinal Flexion) and Trauma Reflex (Lateral Spinal Flexion/Extension, Spinal Rotation). These Reflexes are brain events, that is to say they are automatic motor responses originating in the brain, effecting skeletal musculature, instructing that musculature to contract/tighten into an observable pattern.
Posture indicates what the Nervous System is doing at the involuntary/subconscious level. When we assess posture we are assessing subconscious brain activity. Posture is a finger pointing to the moon (or brain in this case!).
“It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory” Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon
For example, consider a very stooped posture, with rounded shoulders and head forward, flat lower back and pelvis tucked under. This would be indicative of Red Light Reflex (Spinal flexion). I do not think the person has ‘bad’ posture or that they need to strengthen their muscles of extension. I merely note that their nervous system at the subconscious level, is drawing them into the pattern of flexion. If this is the most prominent pattern of contraction of their posture or process, it gives me a starting point from which to work.
Once we begin to see posture not as a result of biomechanical structure but as a result of continuous subconscious brain output, we can change our approach. The focus shifts upstream to the brain, not down stream to the muscles and/or bones. Now the goal will be to change subconscious nervous system output. New problem, new solution.
So how do we change this continuous subconscious brain output? The answer is surprisingly simple. The client must voluntarily go into the subconscious pattern of contraction. Make the involuntary, voluntary. Make the unconscious, conscious.
By choosing to contract into the pattern of tension on purpose the client regains cortical control of all the musculature involved. Patterns of muscular contraction are primary, as this is how the brain reflexes are expressed. Groups of muscles, contracting into general, observable and consistent full body patterns. These voluntary muscular contractions, into the full body pattern, send new sensory information all the way to the sensorimotor cortex, the learning part of the brain. Once the client has cortical control of the musculature involved in the pattern, they can sense it, ‘feel’ it contracting, they now have three options available to them;
1. Increase the level of contraction in the musculature, going further into the pattern
2. Maintain the level of contraction in the musculature, holding the pattern
3. Reduce the level of contraction in the musculature, relaxing out of the pattern
In this instance, the best choice is to select option 3, to reduce the level of contraction and relax back to rest. This act of voluntary contraction, followed by slow voluntary relaxation and then a moment of complete rest, is called a pandiculation. You can find a detailed description of pandiculation here.
By pandiculating several times, the client can quickly learn to become proficient at contracting AND relaxing these muscles that unconsciously have drawn them into a full body pattern of contraction (flexion in this example). This act of pandiculating changes nervous system output at the brain level, reducing motor output to the muscles involved in the pattern. When the nervous system activity changes, the muscles involved in the pattern relax and the posture follows along.
The goal is not to change the posture, the goal is to change the habitual/unconscious motor output of the nervous system. The posture shifts or changes as a result of reducing unnecessary nervous system motor output. Postural changes are a by product of Hanna Somatic Education rather than a goal.