If you say the word “posture” to an audience, its very utterance will provoke some actual fiddling and straightening up. But these reactions are no more functional or authentic than the response from a child when an adult with a camera says, “smile!” Posture is too often a behavior we extort from outside ourselves, instead of training it to be spontaneously available from within.
When you watch the practitioners of zen archery, called Kyudo, it evokes the proverb that says, “the error of an inch, is the error of 1000 miles.” Oddly, in Kyudo, the archers are not trying to hit the bullseye.
Instead they are engaged in a spiritual discipline to clarify the posture, the internal aim, from which the arrow flies.
In that sense, posture is a martial art.
I once met a colleague, a former sniper, who was trained by some of the top marksmen in the U.S. Marines. Over a kitchen counter and a few beers, he told me the story of how he was trained to hit a target a thousand yards away.
As it turns out, the Marines do not try to overcome or contradict human physiology. They work with it.
Imagine lying on your stomach, propped up on your elbows, looking through the scope of your rifle at the target. You might try to become perfectly still.
But, the Marines take a different approach.
The human frame is so amenable to movement, so evolved for the biological advantage of instability, that being perfectly still is impossible. Scientists call it “postural sway”.
You can try it.
Stand straight and tall as they do in the military.
Gradually, try to make yourself motionless.
You’ll find out that you can’t.
Because of our unique upright orientation—our weight raised up high over a comparably small base—the feet—we are constantly in motion, constantly losing and regaining our balance over our base of support, like an inverted pendulum.
The unavoidable conclusion: balance is not a thing you can “keep”.
Balance is actually the capacity to regain balance at each moment.
This is as true when you’re prone with a rifle trying to hit a target 1,000 feet away, as it is when your standing on your feet. All your micro movements are magnified by the enormous multiplier of yardage over which the bullet flies. And so, given a long enough distance, if that barrel moves off center just a hair, the bullet will miss the target by 1,000 miles.
To become aware of these internal waverings demands a special form of training.
My colleague told me that, as a sniper, he was trained not to keep himself still.
Through breathing techniques, he would quiet himself until he could perceive the unique sway of his rifle’s crosshairs to and fro over the target.
His goal was not to hold the crosshairs still, but to study his unique pattern of sway.
To watch it dispassionately.
To sit inside of it, like a surfer patiently bobbing in the waves, waiting for the one to ride.
At some point he would sync up with the pattern.
From within this connection, as the cross hairs would make their turn and begin another pass over the target, he would, like a musician placing a note at the end of a phrase, exhale and pull the trigger.
Now, most of us don’t think of a sniper as having “good posture”.
We’re used to thinking about posture in the sitting and standing positions. Most of us are stuck in a superficial interpretation of how posture looks, when we should be concerned with how it works and what it provides.
Surely a sniper has to organize his body so he can become sensitive enough to have a chance of hitting what he was aiming at.
His posture is fundamental to his function.
Unfortunately, the word posture contains the word “post”, like the columns that hold up a fence.
If set properly in the ground, a post is stable and supports the weight that rests upon it.
A good post doesn’t move.
But we are not posts.
Ours is a moving posture.
In scientific terms, a person maintains an unstable equilibrium.
A chair maintains stable equilibrium.
And here you have to parse the words carefully, because it’s easy to get into the weeds.
It would be easy to define equilibrium as “stability”.
But then humans would have “unstable stability”.
So that doesn’t work.
Equilibrium here means the capacity to restore balance. And the “unstable” refers to the mechanisms for restoring balance, and whether those mechanisms are fixed or dynamic. A chair has a fixed mechanism. If you lean a chair back far enough, it will tip over. It has no mechanism in that moment for self correction.
It has no choice.
Because it’s mechanisms for maintaining stability are fixed, they are tied to a very specific position—the one that allows you to sit on the chair.
Since a human being has a lot of complexity in movement—a lot of ways for it to go wrong—we have a lot of backup systems and muscular compensations we can enact as we move. Our mechanisms are very changeable and dynamic.
We have a lot of choice.
And our habits—especially those that cause pain and discomfort—tend to flow from making the same choices over and over.
Our mechanisms work best once you’ve learned to recognize earlier and earlier when you’re in need of restoring balance, before the correction is too expensive or painful or damaging.
In a car, your driving improves as you get better at sensing precisely when the car is drifting out of the center of the lane. A bad driver has to scrape against the guardrail, or knock over trash cans before correcting the steering. These are expensive and dangerous errors from which to recover. A good driver is in a continuous, emergent relationship with the center of the road, and makes smaller, more refined corrections: unstable equilibrium.
So, since we can’t keep balance, and can only restore it, what is it that allows us to recognize at an earlier and earlier moment the condition of our balance?
Well, awareness….and training.
There are details and sensations that under normal circumstances pass completely under your radar. They are hidden in your muscular habits.
And since you cannot manage or influence or correct something about which you are not aware, or about which you have faulty ideas, your best bet is to create an investigation, a practice, where you can discover those details. Because until then, you are left simply reacting too late to factors about which you know too little.
This is the illusion of choice.
Awareness Through Movement is the best tool I know of to restore the dignity of choice. The strategies built into the lessons—the pace, the timing, the variations, the questions and constraints—are explicitly crafted to help you see into this mysterious layer of human behavior. Because good posture is both the condition you seek, and the ability to measure that condition.
Awareness through movement will take you into the space where posture can not only improve, but be understood in the context of gravity, sensation and movement. You’re really building a new kind of intelligence.
Hopefully, by now, you’ve done a few ATM lessons and have experienced how the mere act of paying attention to yourself as you move, opens up a whole new possibility in the way you experience yourself, both physically and mentally. As we go, day by day, you’ll be refining your skill over the next 1,000 yards and the next.
Remember: just as the archer creates the environment from which the arrow flies, your posture creates the environment from which your movement emerges and the experience of your self unfolds.