my green vermont

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Posture Gurus

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Recess is over. My fellow first-graders and I line up in preparation for returning to the classroom, but our teacher holds up her hand, “Wait! I see in front of me not a line of girls, but a line of sacks of…of… Kartoffeln!” (She’s German, so we forgive her when she can’t remember the Spanish word for potatoes.) “You must,” she continues, flinging back her black veil and squaring her shoulders, “always stand up straight, like little soldiers of lead.”

Military ideals notwithstanding, the nuns’ desire to control how we held our wriggling bodies was nothing compared to my mother’s fixation on posture, which intensified as I approached puberty. Those were slouchy years for me. I slouched at the table; I slouched while I played the violin; worst of all, I slouched in church. Every Sunday my posture at mass—sitting on the pew with my feet on the kneeler, the missal on my knees, and my nose an inch from the page—used to drive my mother to despair. She thought that God, let alone the congregation, deserved an alert, dignified demeanor—one that would make me look both intelligent and attractive.

Posa’t dreta! (stand up straight!) became the leitmotif of those ungraceful years. When I heard it, I would jerk up and fling my shoulders back, but in a moment, gravity would triumph and I would slump again. No mater how I tried to obey my mother’s reminders to straighten my spine, they didn’t translate into a way of being in my body. Living as I did, deep in the recesses of my skull, my body seemed like a kind of appendage of which, except when lamenting its appearance while standing before a full-length mirror, I was mostly unaware.

Nevertheless, my posture did improve over the years. When it became obvious even to me that clothes hang better on an upright frame, I took over the posa’t dreta! reminders. And I also intuited that in situations that benefited from an assertive demeanor, such as facing a class of college students, standing like a little lead soldier was better than sagging like a sack of potatoes.

But my real postural transformation happened in my fifties, when I went to my first yoga class. What yoga did for me went much deeper than improving my posture: it gave me body awareness. It started with my toes, which I had always viewed, except when painting their nails, as mere protuberances at the end of my feet. Now I was being told to spread them out and scrunch them up. To grab the floor with them. To put down my big toe and raise the others, then do the same with the little toe. And then to put down the big and the little toes and raise the ones in between (try this if you’re ever in the mood to drive yourself crazy).

After the feet came the knees, which when flexed in warrior pose were supposed to align with the second toe. There was the lower back, with its desperate need for support from the ever lazy core. I won’t even go into the shoulder teachings—never hunched, trapezius muscles relaxed, shoulder blades resting lightly on the back of the ribcage. And finally, the crowning touch: the top of the head hanging from an invisible golden chain, from which flowed a cascade of beneficial alignments—chin tucked in, back of neck extended, spine elongated, lungs free to expand….

Thirty years of yoga have finally made a dent in my body awareness. I no longer reside exclusively in my skull, but occasionally take my attention on rambles around my body, adjusting things as I go—lengthening the back of my neck and pulling in my abdomen so that my belly button almost touches my spine (ha!), restoring my shoulder blades to their proper resting place, scrunching and spreading my toes.

We are fortunate that the Western embrace of yoga coincided with the advent of the digital era. If, after forty years of sitting in front of a computer, my profile doesn’t quite resemble that of a Galapagos tortoise, it is thanks to notions such as that mystical golden chain. And thanks also to my mother’s youthful voice, eternally whispering in my ear, posa’t dreta!



3 Responses

  1. Ah, yes – the eternal maintenance by our mothers and teachers of our potential on the marriage market – what man would want to marry a slumper?

    I had terrible posture when reading, half the time – because no one made sure I had a supportive environment to read in, and I was often reading when Mother wanted me to do something else. Their fault, not ours, if we had to hide our reading.

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