Transforming Posture

I slouch. I’ve slouched through life, like the rough beast toward Bethlehem. I can’t say when it started, and I can’t blame my parents for failing to say, “stand up straight,” because I’m sure they did. But then, I think I had no idea what they were talking about. I couldn’t see myself; how much straighter could I get?

I was not an active child (surprise), and those few sports I went for likely only made the problem worse. It is, for instance, very hard to keep one’s posture on a bicycle, especially if one is always straining to keep up with T., whose fitter, stronger legs propelled him ever farther ahead of me through the suburbs, in an adolescent quest for escape. “I’m never following you ever again!” was my refrain whenever T. lured me into some new territory, down to some river valley tributary or across some unfamiliar bridge. But I always would (follow him), and at the end of my trek, my legs and back would always ache.

Or else we’d stay in the backyard and double-bounce each other on the trampoline—another back-unfriendly pastime. Most often, we’d hole up in the basement, hunched over Yamaha keyboards or Amiga computers. Or I’d be by myself, writing short stories or drawing D&D maps with a ten-colour pen. In all cases, I can now picture myself clearly: gangly adolescent, all thick hair and thick glasses and thick acne, trapped in a permanent slouch, the visceral outward expression of my need to withdraw and hide inside my mind.

In high school, a stab at acting taught me that posture can matter. I was rehearsing a scene from Hamlet—Act 3, Scene 4, the “closet” scene where the Prince mansplains all his Oedipal neuroses to his Mom—and my Grade 11 English teacher was sitting in, to offer tips. This was Robin Carson, one of the trio of pedagogues who were highly respected in my peer group, so mch so in his case that we sometimes just referred to Mr. Carson as “God.”

I was expecting God to give me some insight into Shakespearean pronunciation or rhythm, but after Rebecca and I finished rehearsing the scene, he had only one piece of advice: “Straighten up, Scott. The Prince of Denmark does not slouch.”

Word of God. And so it came to pass. I trained myself to square my shoulders before I went onstage for any role that carried status. But strangely, I didn’t think to apply that rule to life. Maybe I assumed that, on the all-the-world’s-a-stage stage, Scott already had enough status, and didn’t need that extra inch. Or maybe it was just too hard, and I was too lazy, to use those muscles all the time. After all, in Bio class I’d learned that human spines are naturally curved. Why fight nature?

My next posture lesson came at the National Theatre School, but despite its austere source, I still couldn’t bring myself to apply it across the board. At NTS, I practiced tai chi, and I also learned a bit about the Alexander Technique, a posture-based approach to performance invented by an Australian actor who, having found no experts able to diagnose a mysterious loss of vocal control, developed his own cure by observing his posture in multiple mirrors, then adjusting his stance until he freed his vocal cords and could sing “Waltzing Matilda” again, at last.

The Alexander Technique is over a century old, and over the years it has acquired an aura of weird prestige, billing itself as a rigorous scientific approach even while its practitioners labour to keep its miraculous tricks under wraps. I find it fascinating, mostly because it’s fun to study actors who’ve applied the Technique to their own craft. The prime example is Patrick Stewart, whose performance as Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation only started to click around Season Three, the year they modified the Starfleet uniforms in a way that allowed him to tug his shirt down slightly when standing up. Fans laughingly call this “the Picard maneuver,” but they’re more right than they know; the habit was Steward reminding himself to adopt a posture befitting a starship captain. It helped him “click” into his role, mentally and physically.

I enjoy these sorts of “tells,” and while I never studied Alexander formally, I’ve cultivated similar tricks on the rare occasions I find myself onstage. When I teach acting, I remind my students that posture is one of their greatest physical resources, since it not only defines status but also affects voice, body language, and range of motion. Consequently, I think I’ve trained myself to maintain better posture while I’m teaching; as an instructor, I may not be the Prince of Denmark or the Captain of the Enterprise, but I’d like to retain a modicum of status. Squaring my shoulders and lifting my head opens up my diaphragm and larynx, so I can be heard and understood. It’s part of my job, so I have a good reason to remember it.

But in my other jobs—writing, directing, parenting—I remain parenthetical in stature. When practicing sitting meditation, Pema Chödron recommends a five-point physical check-in that includes the back and hips. I run through it mentally a hundred times whenever I meditate, but every damn time, I find my spine has shrivelled; my chin has tucked itself way out, like an awning above my Adam’s Apple; and my shoulders have folded in like a bat’s wings at noon. The Buddha relinquished all worldly status, yet you never see him slouch. What’s holding me “back”?

I hate the thought of subjecting my son, via modelling behaviour, to a lifetime of baseline back pain. So I keep striving for mindfulness, whenever I climb stairs or cross a threshold or stand up to pee. Someday, I think, good habits will help me transcend human nature. Until then, I remain a slouchy monkey most of the time.

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3 thoughts on “Transforming Posture

  1. Dawne says:

    I have to tell you, Scott, it’s hereditary. It comes from the Sharplin side of the family (along with the infamous chin). I once bought a spine-straightening-reminder-contraption to help me unslouch. It lasted for about two hours before I threw the bloody thing away. Slouching is indicative of mental prowess and deep thought and one must embrace one’s slouchiness.

  2. Mary-Jean says:

    Funny you write this post. Because you’re the one who has helped me the most with my posture, through acting class and when we did all my day jobs.

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