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The power of posture: how our perceptions shape us

Our parents tell us to sit up straight. Good posture—back straight, head balanced over the shoulders, chest up—shows people that you’re confident, healthy, professional, and full of energy. What we don’t often think about is how the reason why we think good posture means those things is because how you stand in space actually does reflect your pattern of perceiving.

The Obsession with Fixed Shapes

It’s interesting how society gets obsessed with certain fixed shapes and images that we consider “beautiful,” even though what we find beautiful is actually not the form, but the function. What we are actually admiring is movement and a way of being and seeing the world that creates that particular shape. When we try to express a form that we find beautiful, we sometimes try to get that form without actually having the perceptions and movements behind what makes that form. We see this in the popularity of plastic surgery aimed at achieving a specific look, without the movement and vitality that created that shape in the first place.

Fashion and Posture

Fashion not only magnifies our postures but also offers a window into our attitudes and identities. High heels, for example, force an arching of the lower back, a thrusting forward of the chest, and a confident, assertive stance. This posture reflects an attitude of elegance, sophistication, and sexual allure. Conversely, the low-hanging pants of rap fans, with a thrust-forward pelvis and slouched upper body, convey a sense of rebellion, nonchalance, and a laid-back attitude.

Fixed Images vs. Dynamic Movement

This obsession with fixed shapes can be problematic. We desire the end result—the sculpted body, the perfect silhouette—but without engaging in the movements and practices that create and sustain these forms. The result is often a static image, devoid of the life and adaptability that come from genuine movement.

To truly appreciate and embody these forms, we must connect to the movements that generate them. This involves understanding our orientation to space and experiencing our weight as support. It’s about feeling the initiation of movements that are only possible when we are connected to our environment.

Contrasting New Possibilities with Habitual Patterns

Learning to distinguish between new possibilities and our habitual patterns of movement is essential. The way we stand in space is shaped by our patterns of perception. By becoming aware of these patterns, we can begin to explore new ways of moving and being.

Thomas Hanna’s Reflexive Body Postures

Thomas Hanna, an influential educator and bodyworker, identified three primary reflexive body postures that he termed the “red light,” “green light,” and “trauma” reflexes. These reflexes are automatic muscular responses to stress and stimuli, which can become chronic patterns affecting posture and movement.

  1. Red Light Reflex

    • Description: Also known as the startle reflex, this is the body’s natural response to danger, fear, or sudden stress.
    • Body Posture: A defensive, protective stance involving a forward and inward contraction of the body:
      • Shoulders hunching forward
      • Head and neck jutting forward
      • Chest collapsing inward
      • Abdominal muscles tightening
      • Overall posture becoming stooped or slouched
  2. Green Light Reflex

    • Description: Also known as the Landau reflex, this is the body’s response to the need for action and readiness, often triggered by the demands of daily activities.
    • Body Posture: Involves an arching and tightening of the back muscles:
      • Shoulders pulling back
      • Chest thrusting forward
      • Lower back arching
      • Neck and head lifting upwards
      • Overall posture becoming upright and tense
  3. Trauma Reflex

    • Description: Occurs in response to injuries, repetitive stress, or unilateral activities that create imbalances in the body. It causes the body to twist or rotate as a protective mechanism.
    • Body Posture: Involves asymmetrical patterns of muscular tension:
      • One shoulder higher than the other
      • The torso twisted, often resulting in a compensatory curve in the spine
      • Pelvic rotation or tilting to one side
      • One hip higher or more forward than the other

Impact on the Body

When these reflexes become habitual due to chronic stress or repeated stimuli, they can lead to persistent muscular tension and postural imbalances. Over time, this can result in discomfort, pain, and reduced mobility.

Conclusion

Ideally, we want to identify the patterns that are dominating our posture—whether it’s an outward influence like that of fashion, or formed of an internal reflex to outer circumstances that’s crystallized into habit. Understanding that how we stand is directly connected to the way we move and perceive the world allows us to embrace dynamic movement, connect with our environment, and let our posture be a true reflection of our vibrant, adaptive selves.

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