3,000-Year-Old Posture Advice

I want to share with you some ideas about posture which have stood the test of time in a serious way. There is a longstanding tradition from China of standing for prolonged periods of time as a health exercise. And these postural principles, which have been refined over thousands of years, are radically different from the predominant posture advice of our age. 

Standing in various postures is one of the oldest forms of qigong, and it is regarded as a potent way to improve health and energy. It is considered essential training in some forms of traditional Chinese martial arts, where it is used to develop power. 

The standing posture that is used in qigong and tai chi is based on a sophisticated understanding of not only the physical body, but also the qi, or life force energy that animates all living things. Relaxation is a key element of good posture because your qi can flow more easily when your body and mind are relaxed. 

Because of this emphasis on relaxation and flow, at Toward Harmony we call this approach to posture the “naturally fluid” model of the body. As you’ll see, it is quite different from the predominant model of good posture today, which generally involves pulling the shoulders back and lifting the chest, with the chin up and the legs straight. 

Two overarching principles in qigong are relaxation and balance. By balancing the body through natural alignment, we can use a minimum of muscular tension to stand upright. The alignment principles I will discuss below are based on how we naturally stand and move as very young children. As we grow up, we generally develop less natural postural habits. So in qigong, rather than learning a new way to stand, we aim to peel away the layers of accumulated habits and return to our natural posture. 

Another key principle is the 70% principle. It is important to acknowledge that it will take time and practice to change long-standing habits. Your body may have physically changed to accommodate these habits, and it will take time to reshape the tissues as well. So be gentle as you work toward these alignments. Do not force your body into them, instead only work to 70% of your capacity at any time. This way you avoid training tension into your posture. 

Here are some basic qigong standing alignments for you to try. You can use them in your daily life if they feel helpful to you. We start with the feet, because they provide your foundation. In the video below, Bill explains the alignments as he adjusts my posture to give you a visual.

Feet roughly hip-width apart. Stand with your feet about hip or shoulder width apart, meaning that your feet are underneath your hips or your shoulders. The purpose of this alignment is to allow the bones of your legs to stack up so your weight drops through them to the ground and your muscles can relax as much as possible. If you try standing in a wider stance, you will likely be able to feel that your muscles are working harder. 

Feet Parallel. Align your feet as close to parallel as you comfortably can. If you are used to standing with your feet turned out or in, it may take time to gradually find your way into and adjust to this new position. It’s important that you don’t rush the process by forcing your feet into a position that causes pain or strain. Doing so could damage your knees, hips or other parts of your body. 

Slightly bend your knees. Just enough so that they are not locked. You should be able to gently bounce your body up and down and feel a sense of springiness inside your knee joints. If you bend too much, and let your knees collapse forward, you'll feel feel a lot OF muscular holding in the muscles of your legs. If you lock your knees back, they will not feel springy.  

Lengthen your spine. Gently raise the top of your head to elongate your neck and spine. To help you do this, you can imagine that you are being gently lifted by your ears. You can also try putting your fingertips at the base of your skull just below your ears and gently lifting from there. Either way, the key word here is gentle. If you work too hard at this you may become tense, and relaxation is one of our guiding principles. 

Let your chin sink a little as you lift your head. While lifting your chin may feel like it is making you taller, it shortens the back of your neck, causing an exaggerated curve of your cervical spine. We want to lengthen the back of the neck and lessen the curve of the spine.

Relax and broaden your shoulders. Rather than pulling the shoulders back, allow them to broaden outward. First, relax them as much as you can and let them sink with gravity. Then gently try to get broader, from your spine and your sternum to the tips of your shoulders.

Notice that if you follow the natural shape of your shoulder girdle, this broadening will happen in a slightly concave fashion, rather than a straight line. In looking for that length, follow the natural curves of your body. This is not the same as rounding your shoulders into a collapsed position is you often see in people who have been working at a computer all day. 

Empty your chest. There is a phrase from the classic texts on tai chi that says "The spine lifts and the chest empties into the belly." Rather than lifting your chest and sticking it out, allow it to soften and sink a little. Again, don't collapse, this should feel very light. 

We do this for several reasons. Most importantly, relaxing your chest allows chi to circulate down the front of your body. From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a major symptom of stress and cause of anxiety is energy rising up the front of the body and getting stuck in the head and chest. Additionally, by broadening the shoulders and sinking the chest, you allow more space for the back of your lungs to move when you breathe. 

Let go of your pelvis. Finally, allow the big heavy bones of your pelvis to sink with gravity. This is not about the position of your pelvis, so much as it is about letting go of the muscles holding it in position. Rather than tucking or tilting, letting go will, over time, allow it to find its way into a neutral position. 

Keep in mind that it may take some practice before you can maintain all of these alignments simultaneously - especially while feeling relaxed. It will also take time for your body to adjust, so be patient with yourself. 

If you're intrigued by these basic alignments and would like to learn more, I advise seeking out a good tai chi or qigong teacher. There are many finer points of alignment that are difficult to learn without some in-person instruction. 

Please let us know how this went for you in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Note: Please consult with a doctor before beginning a new exercise program, especially if you have specific health concerns. This content is not a substitute for professional medical care.