Let's start off by saying that as of a month ago, everything I knew about good posture was straight up wrong. After years of half-heartedly sitting stick-straight in my chair and dealing with unbearable knots in my back, I decided to tackle my bad posture once and for all — only to discover that pulling your shoulders back, forcing your chest up, and pinning your legs together is not the right way to stand, sit, or even lay down. Oops. "If you have good posture, you’re actually breathing well, you feel more relaxed, and you feel more present," Lindsay Newitter, of New York's Posture Police, told me. "It shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. The trap that a lot of people get into is that they think it's a way they have to hold themselves, or something that takes a lot of effort." A typical work environment, however, isn't exactly the most conducive to improving posture — especially when most office jobs require sitting at a desk for eight hours a day (talk about uncomfortable!). In fact, there's so much research showing just how bad remaining sedentary is that Time called sitting "the new smoking." The Washington Post has pinpointed nearly every issue that crops up with sitting all day, from disc damage to a bad back, strained neck, and sore shoulders. So I took it upon myself to figure out how to sit properly at work — without killing my shoulders and neck — and called upon Newitter to teach me the basics of the Alexander Technique. This 125-year-old practice, which avoids the overly arched backs of model poses, focuses on how I naturally hold myself and move around, hopefully banishing all my bad habits for good.
How To Sit The biggest issue with sitting at work isn't really the sitting, Newitter told me. It's the environment. Since I spend my days looking at a computer, I was first tasked with bringing my monitor to eye-level by stacking some books underneath. "The computer is going to be a magnet for your eyes, your head, and then your neck," Newitter says. "You see people squashing everything down, leaning towards the screen...the chin juts forward and the head tilts back." Moving the monitor up and close enough to read comfortably is key. The chair matters, too. Most chairs are too big to actually be ergonomic, Newitter notes, especially if you can't reach the back of your chair with your feet flat on the ground. "People tend to either slump forward or brace themselves at attention," she says. But simple fixes can be incredibly helpful, like using a footstool if your feet don't touch the ground; I grabbed a pillow to place behind my back for extra support.
Once I had everything in place, only then did I start learning how to actually sit. "Ideally, you want to be on your sit bones, the two knobby spots on the base of your pelvis," Newitter instructed me. "Keep your feet flat on the floor to help get tension out of your thighs." One of the biggest problems I had was spreading my legs apart for balance — partly because I'm so accustomed to crossing them, but also because I tend to wear skirts instead of pants. "Keeping legs together creates a lot of tension in the legs and back," Newitter warned — so a wardrobe change would be necessary for me to feel comfortable in meetings and on the train.
When it came to my back, however, the instructions were a bit more nuanced. "We do a lot of initial work on undoing the habits like pulling your shoulder blades back, because that causes a lot more problems," Newitter said. "It's essentially slouching backwards. You want to think about evenness and releasing outwards and upwards." To work on my posture, Newitter had me think of a string going upwards from my head — my spine should extend upwards to the top of my head and my shoulders outwards, like wings. To counteract the draw of the computer, she suggested listening to sounds around the office to draw attention away from the screen (Goodbye, headphones!) and tapping the top of my head and sides of my shoulders from time to time, reminding myself of how much space my body actually takes up. Surprisingly, these little reminders helped. By the end of the training, I was feeling loose and fluid, realizing just how much tension I was holding in my shoulders.
How To Stand Whereas I tend to slump at my desk while sitting, the opposite happens when standing — I end up leaning backwards against walls. But the same mentality of balance lends to standing, where the weight should be in the center of your feet — not your heels or the balls of your feet. "Most people are walking around leaning backwards, and that makes it worse," Newitter says. The best way to avoid leaning back is to just think upwards, and imagine your arms moving out of your shoulders, evenly balanced between your front and back. Standing against a wall helps. "If you stand against the wall, it might just be the top of your butt and your shoulder blades touching the wall. Use that as a reminder of where you back and balance is," she says.
The Challenge After going through the training in these basic positions, Newitter set up a 10-day challenge for work hours, setting aside a few minutes a day to think about my posture. I grabbed a Post-It, wrote "POSTURE" in all caps, and stuck it to my monitor. The challenge began with just one minute on the first day, where I was tasked with monitoring my breathing and the natural alignment of my spine at my desk. Gradually, the number of check-ins increased (I set alarm reminders on my phone), allowing me to monitor how I was sitting throughout the day. I'm not going to lie, I did end up crossing my legs far too much. By the end of the two weeks, I began to realize just how tense I tended to be at work — and slowly started to work out of those problem spots.
In addition to setting awareness check-ins, Newitter highly recommended a third exercise: Constructive rest. This isn't something I could do at work, it's a practice to implement at home. Newitter had me lay down on a flat pad (you can do this on the floor or on a mat) with my feet flat on the floor and knees bent. To even out my head and spine, she placed a few books underneath and had me lay there for 10 to 15 minutes, all while actively thinking about how my back felt. There is an audio guide on Newitter's website to talk you through the process. The focus: Relaxing my back into the ground, finding the natural alignment of my body, and gradually releasing the tension in my legs, back, neck, and arms. "[This position] really helps get the back to spread out," Newitter says. "More than stretch your body, it lets things decompress, and it lets the shoulders relax out." By the end of the challenge, I had become hyper aware of the tensions in my body I previously had no idea existed — thinking more about my back made me think about my body in general. I was most surprised, however, that I didn't have any lower back pain after the two weeks — unlike when I opted for the "shoulders back, chest up" routine. Good posture, it turns out, shouldn't be painful — it should be supportive. In the words of Newitter: "It shouldn’t be an effort to hold yourself up."