“Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.” – Helen Keller
The little boy was on tiptoes and stretching his head as far upward as he could. “See how tall I am?” he asked. He was working so hard to be oh so tall. I laughed as I watched him, thinking of how we used to talk about the baby — he’s SO big. That was a long time ago, but the spine continues to grow and support the rest of the body, and that little boy will hopefully grow to be a tall man one day if only he’ll stand up straight now. I can almost hear Keller telling him, telling all of us, Hold your head high, look the world in the eye.
I sat at one end of our kitchen table, to the right of my father. His arm could easily reach around me when necessary, which meant my back was not difficult for his index finger to find as a target. “Sit up straight,” he would say as that index finger pushed into my spine. I would pop upright from my slumped, relaxed state. He warned me if I kept slumping, I’d get stuck that way. Of course, he also told me that drinking coffee would put hair on my chest, but that didn’t seem so likely — I love a strong cup of coffee still today, but I sit and stand with very good posture.
Keeping a straight spine doesn’t just look nicer, it feels better. When we straighten up, we give everything in our abdominal area more room to move around. When you’ve had a big meal (think Thanksgiving), is there anything that feels as good as stretching your back a bit to allow your stomach a little more room to not be squished? This is the truth of sitting and standing with a straight spine — things don’t feel as mushed together. (You’re welcome for my use of such descriptive words as squished and mushed) Additionally, if you want to appear a bit thinner, sitting or standing up straight takes the spare tire around your waste and spreads it just a little, which can help your appearance a lot. Looking nicer is great, but there’s another side to our having good posture, and it can be the difference in being viewed as a leader or a loafer, by others and by ourselves.
How we present ourselves actually affects our thinking and how we feel about ourselves. Our posture can draw another person in, put them at ease, and leave us more accepted. But how?
When we present ourselves with a smile, by nodding when we are listening to someone else speak, or by leaning in to better hear the person speaking, we realize that posture is more than a straight spine — it is about presentation.
Equally important as what we should do is what we should try not to do if we want positive results from our posture.
Don’t slouch. Don’t stand too close to the other person. Don’t be in such a hurry. In fact, where people who walk in a slouch tend to be more likely to succumb to depression, those who pull out of the slump tend to be more positive in their attitudes. What do you have to lose?
I practice a type of yoga that teaches that the flexibility of the spine is the key to staying young — a flexible spine means less stiffness, less risk of injury, etc. There is an entire spinal flex series designed to help an individual stay as healthy and flexible as possible. Joseph Pilates developed the Pilates exercise regimen based on the belief that a healthy spine was key to physical and emotional health. Look for very long, and you’ll see how many places the health of the spine is treated as the most important thing in our body.
But I return to Keller’s words and find one of the most important keys to a better life — hold your head high and look people in the eye. Think about it, if you are slumped over, it is very difficult to make eye contact with someone. Looking someone in the eye is a great way to gain trust, and it’s a better way to show respect. He has been gone a long time, but I have not forgotten my friend, Bill, who had a disease that forced his spine to stop supporting him, and the kindest thing I could ever do for him was to squat down so he could see my eyes. He mattered to me, and so should everyone we meet.
Relaxing feels good occasionally, it’s true, but whatever is pushing you at this moment to draw your stomach in, pull your shoulders up, level your chin with the ground, and look the world in the eye, I think you’ll be glad you did it. Feel better physically and mentally about yourself, and show the world that you are no slouch. Hold your head high, look the world in the eye.