'Taught me' series
Posted By Matthew

The Art of Standing (or Sitting) There

Martial artists tend to be uniquely attune to the foibles of their body. I, for example, have a finnicky lower back. If I’m not careful with my stretching and prep, I can pull it pretty easily. This isn’t a new problem, just a little piece of my genetic code that didn’t get it quite right.

This particular propensity toward back strain has made me acutely aware of an all too common problem in myself and others – posture neglect.

First let’s talk about me (whooooo), then let’s talk about you.

These days most of my work takes place on the computer. I do my writing for this blog online (clearly), and I work predominantly for online companies. That has resulted in a lot of sitting. In previous jobs during college and such I often had elements of manual labor that kept my body up and moving about. Not so much anymore.

A few months ago my sitting started to effect my training; even though I did proper stretching and warmups before class I was still experiencing back pain. I realized in short order that it wasn’t from any kicking drills or kata, but from how I operated through most of my day.

I pulled my instructor aside and had him run through my day with me mentally. I knew he had some back troubles in the past so I figured he would be able to help me spot  common problems and work out solutions. One of the major mistakes I was making was slouching like the man in the picture above. Not only did my body have a natural desire to sink down into that ‘relaxed’ posture, but I also had a chair that leaned back too easily. I was experiencing constant, mild strain on my lower back all day.

My instructor offered up some suggestions, which I’d like to pass on in case they might be helpful to you:

1. Get a better chair. If you’re sitting for long periods of time, there is no reason to tolerate a chair that promotes bad habits.

2. Use ice or heat if your back starts to act up.

3. Lie flat on your bed with your legs hanging off. This will create a slight pulling and straightening sensation.

I made all of these changes immediately, but didn’t stop there.

Esther Gokhale – Posture Expert

Regular readers of this site will notice that I link into the authors@google series frequently. I think it’s a great resource wherein some really sharp people share their experiences and knowledge.

Esther Gokhale was one of the visitors to Google and, as it turns out, has been studying posture for quite some time. She even authored a book entitled 8 Steps to A Pain Free Back.  Gokhale mixes western science with eastern yogic theory and has come up with a great system. Check out her speech here:

Gokhale provides immediately applicable ways of improving posture. I use her method of seated posture correction everyday. My body still tends to want to slouch, so I need to make routine corrections. It’s an ongoing effort.

One of Gokhale’s big theories is proper stacking. Consider this image:

During normal slouching postures, the spine and weight distribution is out of sync. This is a tricky problem because it doesn’t provide immediate negative feedback, like touching a hot stove. Instead it builds pressure over time and slowly wears away at the cartilage between the spinal discs. Although I’ve focused on sitting, these same principles apply to standing, especially for individuals who have a job that requires being up all day.

How This Applies To Your Martial Arts

The obvious way posture applies to your martial arts practice is good health. One of the biggest career killers is physical ailment. We have to try our best to stave off these injuries, and one way to do that is to be mindful of posture. The spine is a fickle thing, and if you don’t take care of it you will run into trouble.

Posture isn’t just a means of standing though; it’s also a way to convey your personal sense of presence and power.

In his book “Living The Martial Way”, Forrest Morgan dedicates a few pages to the concept of ‘developing a commanding posture’. He explains:

“Some say the eyes are windows to the soul. This may be true, but posture is most assuredly the reflection of one’s spirit. It tells a story, more eloquently than words ever could, of your strength, your resolve, and your confidence. Posture is an essential element of warrior bearing.”

In the dojo, especially if you are assuming a teaching role, it is critical to adopt the mantle of authority. Posture provides a subtle, subconscious hint to everyone in the room that you are worth listening to. A tall stance and keen look can go a long way in capturing the attention of students.

On the student side, proper posture indicates a willingness to commit to excellence. Slouching is a sign of inattentiveness and lack of resolve. Standing up straight suggests focus, which is the currency of the dojo.

Practicing good posture will also assist in natural body movement. The more you practice, the more you’ll realize the subtleties of body weight shifting. If you have to recenter your body every time you wish to move, you’ll be at an immediate timing disadvantage.

* * *

My goal is to be able to continue practicing martial arts deep into old age. If I abuse my body now, I’ll never have that chance. I personally need to take posture very seriously. Perhaps you can take a moment today and figure out if you need improvement, and use some of the information above to start on a modestly paced track for positive change.