As the author of a book called The Ultimate Natural Beauty Book, I’m (er) naturally big on ‘green’ beauty. But I’m also big on anything that we can do to look better absolutely for free, and posture definitely comes into that category. Basically, wouldn’t we all love to drop three kilos instantly and look taller? (Yay!) Well, it doesn’t take surgery, or liposuction – because simply improving your posture does that for you. And let’s not forget: posture makes all the difference to how others see us. As Genevieve Antoine Dariaux got it right when she observed in her book Elegance (written in the early 60s): ‘When a woman is trying on clothes, she almost always holds herself beautifully erect in front of the dressing-room mirror. If afterwards she hollows her chest and lets her entire body slump, she should not be surprised to find that her new dress does not look as chic as it did when she tried it on in the shop…’ Hmm.
Nowadays, though, perfect posture isn’t about a stiff, straight back – which encourages an unnatural rigidity that looks and feels unnatural. It’s about ease: walking taller, more gracefully – and (Madame Dariaux would approve) with elegance. The trouble is, real life in the 21st Century doesn’t exactly encourage that. According to Susan Bergholz, Ph.D. (Formerly chief physical therapist at New York Hospital Cornell Medical Centre), ‘everything we do in life brings us forwards – working at a desk, reading, eating, talking to someone over a table.’ According to Dr. Bergholz, 80% of all back pain and 95% of pain between the shoulders is due to bad posture. As she points out, although our heads weigh about eight pounds, the joints in our neck are just the size of the tip of our little finger. ‘Imagine carrying around a four-kilo ham all day on the tip of your little finger,’ she says. ‘That’s what you’re doing to your neck, if you don’t hold your head properly.’
Achieving good posture isn’t something you can just decide to do, whereupon it happens like magic: most of us have to work on it. It truly starts with body consciousness, because by the time we’re adult, we’re very set in our physical ways. But first, it helps to know what perfect posture is. Some yoga teachers, for example, suggest to pupils that to achieve perfect posture, they simply remember how they felt when they heard particularly good news – then walk and stand like that, with chest lifted and head held high. As a posture-improving exercise at home, you could also try walking around with a one half-kilo bag of dried beans, from a health food store, on your head. (This moulds itself comfortably to your head, unlike a book, which requires you to keep an artificially straight back to keep it in place.) Never crane your neck: bring your reading matter, food or work to a position that lets you keep your eyes straight ahead, neck long and head high.
When you’re walking in the street and catch a sideways glance at yourself in a shop window, always consciously practice your new, tall stance – until it becomes second nature to walk that way all the time. And although so much of our time is spent on our derrières, we can make the best of sitting time, too: always sit with your bottom right at the back of the chair. Then take a break every 30 minutes to get up and move around; this helps discourage rigidity. (Buy yourself one of those beeping cooking timers, if you forget easily and time slips away with you.) When you’re parked in front of a computer, proper posture is actually crucial to preventing back pain. As Cindy Stewart, a muscle therapist at the Spence Centre for Women’s Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explains: ‘no matter how much you want to put your feet on the desk or curl up like a pretzel, you’ll avoid a lot of back problems if you simply sit up straight and plant your feet firmly on the floor.’
Most important, though, is breathing. The ideal, posture-friendliest way to breathe is to open the shoulders, widen the ribs – and literally make room for the heart. Then breathe deeply and rhythmically from the tummy, rather than the chest. Whenever you notice your breathing’s become shallow again, check yourself – and breathe deeply once more. Do it often enough, till it becomes a habit. Sometimes, though, a self-help programme just isn’t enough to eliminate poor posture.
Pilates, along with Yoga, can be near-miraculous for its effect on posture – and can even result in actual growth, too! (Up to three centimetres, in some cases.) I probably don’t need to tell you that Pilates is best taught one-on-one or in small groups using the specially-designed equipment, so that a teacher can ‘prescribe’ a programme of 30 or so exercises which work to correct an individual’s weaknesses.
As for yoga? Today, there’s a version to suit everyone – from Madonna’s favourite astanga, to gentle-but-effective hatha yoga (that’s the one for me) – and everything in between. For thousands of years, yoga’s been helping people to improve stamina, flexibility and strength – and the bonus is: it almost effortlessly enhances posture, too, as you become more conscious of your body and movement. The standing balancing asanas, in particular, are great posture-enhancers – but how yoga really helps is by increasing body awareness, so that we’re more conscious of how we stand, sit, walk.
Consider the alternative. Poor posture has an impact on overall health and wellbeing. If tension builds up in the muscles and connective tissue, the balance of your whole body is disrupted – leading to a sagging tummy, sluggish digestion, aching muscles and joints, poor circulation (which, like sluggish digestion, shows up on your complexion), plus indigestion, headaches and even cellulite (because the body’s detox systems aren’t flowing freely). Long-term wear-and-tear may even lead to osteoarthritis. Warns Karen Schneider, M.D., a New York City sports medicine specialist, ‘when the spine is out of balance, the rest of the body shifts to compensate. Some muscles tighten up and shorten; others become overstretched and weak. With the spine out of alignment, you’re working twice as hard to stabilise the body – and you’re more prone to pain and injury.’
Which sounds better: a life of back pain, injury, dodgy knees, sluggish digestion – or a body that moves freely, helps you feel ‘comfortable in your skin’, and looks better both clothed and naked…? I know which I choose. (Which is why you’ll find me on the Yoga mat at 8 a.m., three mornings a week. Maybe see you there…?)
Three fast posture fixes
• The slouch eliminator. Lift your head up and slightly back, stretching your neck until you feel your shoulders going back. Imagine that you’re a puppet on a string and that you’re being pulled up from the top of your head.
• The shrug. Tense shoulders are the enemy of great posture. Warm up the muscles by gently raising each shoulder towards the ears. Then use circular motions to shrug the shoulders forwards and backwards several times until they feel light and relaxed.
• The belly-button crunch. Deep breathing can work miracles to correct spinal alignment. Take several long, deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling as much air as possible. As you inhale, allow your diaphragm and ribcage to expand and inflate. As you do this, the tummy should pull up and your shoulders will naturally go back. As you exhale, squeeze your tummy in by pulling your navel towards your spine.