Principles of Natural Posture for Health and Pain Relief

Story at-a-glance -

  • Chronic sitting is a risk factor for poor health, pain, and early death. But HOW you sit may have a significant impact on the risks of sitting
  • By sitting with feet planted on the floor, with your pelvis and spine properly stacked and aligned, you can take the stress and tension out of sitting and make sitting into a beneficial physical activity
  • Three simple exercises that help you engage your core and correct your posture are described

By Dr. Mercola

Most of our parents drilled into our heads the importance of proper posture; yet modern day life causes us to frequently ignore these great recommendations. What's worse, many of the posture-correcting strategies our parents taught us turn out to be wrong anyway.

Kathleen Porter, author of Natural Posture for Pain Free Living, is an expert in teaching the principles of posture, and she believes the majority of pain experienced in the world is posture related.

While working as a massage therapist and yoga teacher in 1994, she came across an article written by Jean Couch, in which she discussed and described the skeletal alignment in groups of indigenous people.

Intrigued, Kathleen began studying with Jean, and eventually traveled through Indonesia, Southeast Asia, South America, and northern Portugal, studying the posture of native peoples for herself.

"As I learned from studying them and from Jean, I started incorporating these principles more and more into my own life, and then started teaching this to others.

I've written a couple of books. It has just been absolutely transformational," she says.

"I gave up stretching. I haven't stretched in close to 20 years, yet I am more flexible and pain-free than when I was working so hard at trying to be that way."

Turning Sitting into a Physical Activity

Sitting is the new smoking. About 10,000 studies have now established that chronic sitting is an independent risk factor for poor health and early death. It can also be a significant factor in back, neck, and sciatic pain.

I personally suffered from back pain for many years. None of the treatments I tried made any significant difference — until I began to restrict my sitting to less than an hour per day. Then the pain suddenly disappeared.

Below are two videos I did for our 18th anniversary exercise update that show my solution to completely resolve my back pain, and I do mean 100 percent. My stand-up desk is the first video and my daily beach walks that help me log about 63 miles a week is the second.

How You Sit Makes a Difference

Although I now limit my sitting to under one hour a day when not on a plane, Kathleen believes HOW you sit can have a significant impact on the risks of sitting

"Believe it or not, there is a way to sit and make it into a physical activity," she says.

"I, sitting right now, have my feet planted on the floor. I'm sitting on an aligned pelvis. There's nothing stressful in the way that I'm sitting because my body is aligned.

Energy is flowing through my body. I'm not using muscles other than the most basic muscles I would use. It's mostly my core that's stabilizing my upright posture, but there's no effort or strain here.

Now, I would run into trouble immediately if I started to tuck my tailbone under. That's the problem with sitting."

Most people tend to either tuck their pelvis and collapse, or they try to counteract the tendency to slouch by lifting their chest and pulling their shoulders back, which results in tension.

"Often, if you have a sitting-kind of job, you're spending much of your day swinging back and forth from one to the other, not knowing that there is this beautiful, peaceful, and relaxed middle place.

If you know how to align your bones and let them support you, it's easy. There's no effort involved and it's not stressful," she says.

I believe avoiding sitting is an important aspect of health and can be key for reducing pain, but as Kathleen points out, standing up may not improve your pain unless you also stand correctly.

I could not agree more strongly with Kathleen and her book helped me learn how to stand properly. Most people don't know how to sit; nor do they know how to stand with correct posture. Kathleen's book illustrates proper posture quite well, providing many diagrams that make it easy to understand the principles behind good posture, both when sitting and standing.

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Basic Principles of Proper Posture

Relearning proper posture is an unfolding process that requires a commitment to learn the information and put it into practice.

"The word 'practice' is key, because you just have to keep practicing it over and over until it becomes more natural and more automatic," she says. "When I first learned this I was pretty upset, because this information was so opposite from what I had been trained to do and teach as a yoga teacher.

One of the real silver linings of learning this is the fact that it is a pathway. It's a touchstone to mindfulness, because it requires a willingness to be mindful in order to put it into practice. Mindfulness and alignment [go hand in hand]. You really need them both."

According to Kathleen, it all begins with the pelvis. It forms the foundation for everything above it. Your sacrum is located in the back between the two sides of your pelvis. At the top of the sacrum is the sacral platform that your spine sits upon.

If you change the position of your pelvis, you change the angle of that platform and the angle of your spine, and muscles go through a number of adjustments to compensate for the fact that your spine is no longer acting as a largely self-supporting structure.

"There is this quality, this natural phenomenon, [the] ground reaction force," Kathleen explains. "You can experience it right now if you're sitting or standing. Take your right foot and start pushing it down into the floor. As you push your foot a little harder, you'll notice that it generates this action and sensations in your leg.

If you push down hard enough, you'll feel there are sensations coming all the way up into your hip and beyond. 
This is ground reaction force. It relates to Newton's Third Law of Motion, which says that for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.

If you wanted to, say, jump, you wouldn't just jump, you'd crouch down, you'd generate this connection, and then you'd push off. If you wanted to jump higher, you'd crouch lower and push off harder. This is how our bodies are designed to work.

What has happened to modern people with much more sedentary lives and a disconnection from knowing how our bodies work naturally, we tend to just shuffle along on top of the surface of the earth. We haul ourselves up out of a chair. We drop ourselves down onto a chair.

We have this sort of cascading effect of embedding unhelpful, unnatural movement patterns, which degenerates our physical structure over time. That's why people, as they age, start to often look so collapsed. That's not an inevitable feature of aging."

'Sad Dog, Happy Dog' Postures

The descriptions for "sad dog" and "happy dog" came about as a result of working with children, who are easily embarrassed or amused by words like "pelvis" or "pubic bone." Similarly, many adults have trouble with more technical terms like anteverted or retroverted. Kids understand the "sad dog" posture though, because a sad dog will tuck its tail between its legs. As you "tuck your tail," i.e. tuck your pelvis forward, you'll notice your spine starts to collapse down into your pelvis. This stance also tends to trigger the reaction to pull your chest up and your shoulders back.

"This is somewhat militaristic, but it's also the way I was practicing and teaching yoga. It's what is taught in a lot of dance programs and in a lot of athletics. It's sort of the American way of opening up the front of the body, without realizing that when we do that, we close, narrow, and shorten the back," she says.

What you're aiming for is to have your front and back equally wide and equally extended, and it all begins with the position of your pelvis. If you rotate your pelvis toward the back, so your pubic bone is down and your sit bones are wide and behind you, it's sort of like you're wagging your tail. This is the "happy dog" posture.

"The pelvis comes into play in the same way in standing. In my book, I have illustrations of how to move the pelvis like a church bell so that it brings the legs into a vertical line, because that's where our legs need to be. From there, you want to start to learn how to isolate the movement of your rib cage, so you discover that your ribcage can actually move independent of your pelvis, and you can learn how to rotate your ribcage forward rather than lifting it. When you lift up your chest, you're actually tipping your ribcage back.

Kathleen notes that while collapsing in the front is known as slouching, lifting your chest and arching your back is actually slouching in the other direction, because it has the same effect on your spine. It's just a question of which side of the spine — the front or the back — is being compressed.

Simple Posture Exercises

Three helpful exercises that bring home this point and help engage your core are as follows:

  1. Pretend you're holding a shawl behind you and you're about to wrap the shawl around your shoulders, but just before the shawl comes into contact with your back, move your back into the shawl. In other words, your breastbone or your sternum slides backwards towards your back. As you do that, you will feel an action through your abdomen. These are your core muscles, primarily your transversus abdominis (TVA) muscle coming into action. This is your real core. The TVA is the deepest abdominal muscle, which acts like an internal corset.
  2. Next, wiggle the back of your armpits up towards the ceiling, and feel your spine lengthening. Also notice the position of your chin. By bringing you chin down, the back of your neck lengthens and the cervical spine that goes through in the middle of your neck opens up. When you lift your chin up, you shorten your cervical spine.

    "This is one of the most essential basic movements that helps retrain the body back to where it started," Kathleen says.

    Note that the fibers of the TVA are horizontal while most skeletal muscles are vertical or diagonal. As you work with this core muscle, you'll feel its contraction as a horizontal squeezing; as your sternum moves toward the back, you'll feel your waist narrowing as this muscle engages. 

    As noted by Kathleen:

    "[Y]ou want to engage this muscle all day long. You can do it in a car. You can do it when you're working at your computer. You can do it while having a conversation... As many times a day as you can, be mindful of your body as an aligned being. Not only are your bones aligned but you are aligning yourself with your true nature as a part of this earth. Let that be an awareness that is continuous and without interruption."

    Some find mindfulness reminders helpful. One app called Mindful Mynah will allow you to set a chime or bell to go off at regular intervals, reminding you to tune into your body and correct your posture.

    "Doing it cultivates your capacity for mindfulness," Kathleen says. "My own personal capacity for mindfulness has just exploded with this focusing on my bones as my basic support."

  3. A simplified version of that exercise is to simply imagine your sternum moving back towards your spine. As you do so, you will feel your core engage, stabilizing, and elongating your spine. When I do it, my chin also tends to fall into place automatically. When your spine is elongated in this way, it helps prevent and may even help reverse kyphosis, lordosis, and other distortions of your spine that occur as a result of a collapsed posture.
  4. A similar exercise is to bring your arms overhead but in front of your head, clasping your hands together. Avoid bringing your arms back behind your ears as that will cause your back to arch. Remember to rotate your pubic bone downward into "happy dog" pose. When your pubic bone is aiming down, your pelvis is naturally rotated forward. From there, put your arms out in front and lengthen your spine so you feel your ribcage lifting up out of your pelvis. Remember, the lengthening you seek is of the spine in your back, not along your front.

Bend Like a Baby

The best exercises focus on natural ways of moving, and toddlers are the "gurus" of proper movement. Bending is an excellent exercise, provided you do it correctly. If you observe a toddler, you'll notice they always bend by sticking their butt out behind them, with the knees bending outward toward the pinky toes. As Kathleen notes:

"[B]ending is not in the spine, either rounding the spine or arching the spine. The spine stays stable as the pelvis rotates over the heads of the femur bones in the thighs."

As you bend this way, not only does it protect your spine and tone your leg muscles, it also strengthens the arches in your feet. Many have foot problems that can contribute to pain, including pronated ankles and flat arches. Bending this way helps to strengthen the muscles that lift and hold your arches up, and engages the toes.

"For a lot of us, toes are just these appendages that we don't do anything with because they're in shoes all the time. But if you look at the toes of young children, their toes are grabbing at the ground. They help you balance. They're there to help you propel yourself forward and to help distribute the weight that doesn't come down through the heels," Kathleen explains.

When Bones Are Aligned, Your Muscles Become Elastic and Supple

The basic kettlebell swing is an excellent exercise that brings bending and strength training together. It's crucial to do them with correct posture though. Unless you already have good posture, you'd be better off focusing on learning how to move naturally — things like bending to pick something up or to tie your shoelace, getting up and down out of a chair, or lifting a laundry basket off the floor. Other daily activities that offer plenty of opportunity to practice natural movement posture include weeding your garden or cleaning your house.

As a general rule, it's important to remember that your musculoskeletal system involves both muscles and bones. So while many focus on building stronger core muscles in the hopes of improving posture, you also need to properly align your bones.

Kathleen used to have to do a lot of stretching to remain pain free and supple despite teaching yoga, and the tendency to have tight muscles is actually a side effect of poor skeletal alignment, she discovered. Once she addressed her posture, she didn't have to stretch anymore.

"One of the jobs of the skeleton is to provide the structural framework of support... Our organs are often smashed together, pulled, and distorted in various ways because our skeleton is misplaced. If I am strengthening some muscles too much, the tightness, contraction, and the shortening of the fibers of those muscles will pull and hold my bones out of alignment. By the same token, if I have muscles that are too weak and stretched out, they won't support the bones in that alignment," Kathleen explains.

"It helps to know that because the muscles attached to the bones, if you change the position of your bones, then certain muscles are going to be too tight and certain muscles are going to be too long and stretched out. [But] when your bones are aligned, muscles become elastic. All the muscles in your body take on their intended configuration."

More Information

To learn more, I highly recommend Kathleen's book, Natural Posture for Pain Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment, which goes into far greater depth and covers many other aspects of posture not covered in this interview. As the subtitle reveals, one of the keys of success is the integration of mindfulness and posture — to become aware of where your pelvis, spine, head, neck, and shoulders and all the rest of your body is positioned in any given moment. You may also find more information on her website,

In closing, Kathleen offers the following down-to-earth suggestion:

"Go to the playground; watch children and how they move... Start moving naturally, and bring this back into how you work out at the gym. There is a lot of stuff that people do that is just not a good idea, period. But we've just been so conditioned into believing that we're supposed to be exercising and working out instead of just simply climbing a ladder to clean the gutters, and doing it in such a way that reinforces the way we move. So much of the exercise that is done is done as a way to release the tension that we have in our bodies from the misalignment that we have in the first place."