It seems obvious that breathing is vitally important. But what’s obvious often commands little attention, and so it was with breathing before the onslaught of covid-19. Most of us didn’t really focus on our breathing before the pandemic — we “just breathed.” As the crisis unfolded, however, we all learned that shortness of breath is a major symptom of the disease. This growing awareness spurred great interest in breathing efficiency and in exercises alleged to enhance it. Despite this heightened interest, however, the critical connection between breathing and posture has been largely ignored. Let’s examine this connection because now, more than ever, our well being depends heavily upon it.
What is “Posture?”
Before examining the link between breathing and posture, we need to better define the phenomenon we call “posture.” One very simplified definition might be: posture is the shape a person assumes in motion, or at rest. The word “assumes” is important here because, over the course of our lives, each of us assumes a characteristic shape that is habitual and unconscious. The shape most of us assume tends toward increased compression and rigidity as we grow older — a tendency evident in the series of photographs below. This postural tendency is so common among us that we have a well-known expression for it. We say the man depicted below is “bent with age,” as though his posture were the inevitable consequence of his aging process.
But the manifestation we call “poor posture” is by no means foreordained. At any time during our lives, we can learn to make constructive postural choices that expand our functional capacity. The Alexander Technique exists to teach us how to make those choices.
Alternatively, we could say that posture is the way a person habitually organizes her body to support herself in motion, and at rest. This definition offers greater clarity, since the way someone organizes and supports her structure determines the outward shape of that structure.
To explore these definitions of posture more concretely, let’s analyze a recent photograph of Trump employees William Barr and Robert O’Brien. Barr and O’Brien exhibit common postural distortions and, by examining their distortions, we can enhance our understanding of “posture.”
Profiles in Postural Misuse
The adjacent photograph shows Barr and O’Brien posing in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. We can see that both men are holding their right shoulders substantially higher than their left. This postural distortion is habitual, and it’s unlikely that either man has any awareness of it.
The hiked right shoulders suggest a pattern of right dominance that both men also express by pushing forward the right side of their torsos. This right-sided push originates in the pelvic region. The pelvic push rotates their torsos toward the left, with the awkward result that their legs point one way while their torsos point another. This needless misalignment of the torso and the legs is not an efficient arrangement for breathing, standing or walking.
Barr also raises his left shoulder, albeit to a lesser extent than the right. Thanks largely to Barr’s chronic shoulder misuse, we can barely see his neck.
Meanwhile, Barr’s balance is compromised, as evidenced by the 45 degree turnout of his feet. This turnout compensates for Barr’s habit of locking his knees and pulling the knees toward one another. Meanwhile, O’Brien sinks down into his left leg for support, leaning on it more heavily than his right leg. These habits have negative implications for O’Brien’s breathing and mobility.
The present discussion would be incomplete without touching on the two men’s facial expressions. Barr looks almost terrified, while O’Brien looks almost anesthetized. Their expressions embody two of the three classic fear responses. Barr’s response is flight, while O’Brien’s response is freeze. The third response to fear — fight — is not depicted here but was doubtless being expressed by other members of President Trump’s administration.
What has breathing got to do with posture?
The torso accounts for roughly 55% of total body weight, on average, and it contains the airway, lungs and rib cage. Postural distortions like those noted above negatively impact the torso and reduce our breathing efficiency. To understand why this is true, let’s pause to discuss how breathing actually works.
In simplified terms, breathing consists of two concurrent processes. First, the diaphragm rises with each exhalation, and it descends with each inhalation. As the diaphragm rises and descends, it moves air out of and into the lungs, and the greater its range of movement during ordinary breathing, the better. Second, the rib cage contracts with each exhalation, and expands with each inhalation. Breathing efficiency is reduced if the volume of the torso is reduced, or if the musculature surrounding the ribs is stiffened such that the ribs fail to move freely in concert with the diaphragm throughout its excursion.
In the case of Messrs. Barr and O’Brien, one or both shoulders are being unconsciously held up, and this needless distortion feels “normal” to them. But what feels “normal” is not always beneficial, and the men’s shoulder habit stiffens the upper torso, crowds the neck and curbs air flow into and out of the lungs. If you want to verify this through your own experience, try holding your shoulders in an elevated position for a minute or two. As you push and hold your shoulders up, pay close attention to the quality of your breathing. You will probably notice that your breathing is more labored, and that the volume of air flowing into and out of your lungs is reduced. The turning of the torso away from the midline by these men is further reducing their breathing efficiency. Again, you can verify this for yourself.
Presidential Postural Distortions
Any postural misuse that interferes with easy, balanced and symmetrical support of the torso or that hinders movement will waste energy and reduce breathing efficiency. There are many different examples of postural misuse that can produce these negative effects.
The adjacent photo shows President Trump greeting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Here, we can see Trump’s unconscious postural habit of leaning far forward. Tipping forward at such a steep angle shifts Trump’s weight well ahead of the support offered by his feet. The angle of Trump’s body here is so extreme that one can imagine him falling flat on his face were Trudeau not there, propping him up.
When we move weight away from its support, as here, the displacement causes instability and inefficiency. This inefficiency takes the form of muscular energy being needlessly used to brace and support the body. The bracing and supporting invariably stiffens the torso and impairs breathing.
If you want proof of this, try it for yourself. First, stand normally — whatever that means for you — and then lean well forward at the ankles onto your toes. Notice what leaning forward does to the musculature in your legs and torso. Sense the discomfort and awkwardness of this posture. Experience the effect this posture has on your breathing. Ask yourself whether this level of postural distortion could support a balanced or stable personality.
Let’s watch a video showing how posture influences breathing
The imbalance shown by Trump in the photograph above is not a one-time affair; as with Barr and O’Brien, it is habitual. The impact on breathing efficiency is negative, and Trump’s breathing difficulties are not just a matter of my own commentary here. They have been noticed when he speaks publicly in quieter environments. This includes not only the 2016 debate video offered here, but all of Trump’s “formal” oval-office addresses to the nation.
The sniffing in this video is caused by Trump gasping for air while speaking. This gasping probably has two primary causes. First, Trump is not taking sufficient time while speaking. Whether because he fears interruption or because he dislikes pauses in his speech, the candidate rushes breathlessly from one phrase to the next. Second, Trump is tipping forward at the same precarious angle as he did when meeting Justin Trudeau. We can see this quite plainly in the debate photo below; lacking Trudeau as a support, Trump uses the lectern. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is also leaning rather precariously away from her center of balance — and away from Trump.
Leaving aside the health implications, it is striking that someone as image-conscious as Trump would allow his breathing efficiency to remain so noticeably impaired. Of course, poor postural habits are difficult to change, and in this respect we are all in the same boat as Trump. I recommend that the President take a long course of Alexander Technique lessons, and would be most interested to see the result of his studies.
The way we support ourselves and move our bodies through space is fundamentally important. The shape of our support — our posture — plays a leading role in determining our energy consumption and our respiratory efficiency. With the world battling a virus that attacks breathing and that depletes the energy of its victims, we ignore our posture problems at our peril.
The Alexander Technique has helped countless people to improve their posture, breathing and energy balance. Now that you’ve learned what’s at stake, you might want to experience the AT’s benefits for yourself. Virtual lessons are currently available, and I hope to resume in-person instruction over the months ahead. Feel free to click here to book your first lesson, or here to schedule a free consultation.