I come from a long curvy line of slouchers. My mom is round shouldered. My dad was too. Sitting up straight in a chair with no back, for even short periods of time was out of the question for as long as I could remember.
The physical, social and psychological implications of slouching are numerous. Our shoulders close in around hearts, perhaps to protect them from loss, disappointment, sadness. Our arms fold into a defensive posture to keep ourselves from receiving anything disagreeable. When we curl inward, our upper chest is not open enough for full deep breaths, so our breathing can be shallow and less productive. Shallow breathing can cause our bodies to believe that they are in distress, bringing on anxiety, panic attacks, even disease.
One of the reasons I started doing yoga was because I though it might improve my posture. I remember the first time I sat on my mat, with my legs crossed in a class. Three minutes of sitting and breathing with my eyes closed and my back straight felt like three torturous hours. I was thinking, if I can’t even sit up straight for a few minutes, how can I possibly do yoga?
But then, I learned about my ischial tuberosities, my Sitting Bones, or “Sits Bones” as some yogis call them. These are the two points at the end of your spine that you should be sitting on. They are probably easy to feel if you have a very thin frame, but if you have a little extra padding, you may not even know they are in there.
A teacher once instructed me to sit down, raise one butt-cheek up off the mat, take my hand, and pull the flesh out to the side so I could feel that bone pushing in to the ground. Hey! There’s a bone in there! I then proceeded to do it on the other side; shamelessly grabbing hold of the junk in my trunk, (what the skinny women behind me must have thought!) moving it out to the side, and then sitting firmly, grounding down into those two bones.
When I did this, I really had no choice but to sit up straighter. It felt right, and it felt natural. After a few classes, I found it much easier to sit up straight, for longer and longer stretches of time. And now I could probably sit up straight for hours.
This is, after all, what yoga is really about; The practice of yoga postures gets our bodies in proper shape and alignment, and gets us ready to sit for long periods of time. Practicing prepares us to sit in meditation without feeling uncomfortable and without being distracted by any discomfort of our bodies.
The other night I was at a football game, watching my daughter cheer. I was sitting in the bleachers on a hard metal surface with no back support. I was mindful of my Sits Bones against the hard metal and, I guess, my back was straight. A mom that I know was sitting behind me, and she said “You have such good posture. It must be all the yoga.”
I said “Thanks” and we talked a little bit about it. But I don’t think she knew how big a compliment this really was for me, a former sloucher. I could never have sat like this a few years ago. And now, here I was, sitting straight-spined for the entire hour, with my feet planted flat on the step in front of me. With no discomfort!
That compliment is not just about good posture for me. It means that progress has been made, and a goal has been achieved. It means that, even at a football game, I am breathing more fully and deeply. It means that I have opened up my heart. I am no longer caved in around myself. I am open and ready to receive the things that come my way, agreeable or disagreeable.
Look Ma, I’m not a sloucher anymore.