Failure to Stand

I am thirty-two years old and I don’t know how to stand up.

No, really.

I’m not injured or invalid. To most eyes I appear to stand up, but it’s all a sham. My body has been deceiving me since my first wobbly ascent onto two legs. Why didn’t anyone tell me I was doing it all wrong? And why did we not have a class on standing up in school? I’m outraged by this lack of attention to our very foundation.

Sure my grandma used to chastise me for not standing up straight. I think this is the role of grandmothers across the world. Over the years I have stopped slouching, but slouching is only a minute visible aspect of this troubling phenomenon.

The problem begins at the root, in our feet, in our very bones. I have yet to hear anyone’s grandmother tell them to lift their arches (all three) or to root down evenly through the base of their big toe and their little toe.

Standing is a given. It’s something done without thought. Posture is a summation of little habits that make up who you are. If you are left-side dominant you might unconsciously stand with more weight in the left leg causing the right side of you pelvis to lift up slightly causing the right side of your spine to compress a little throwing everything off just a fraction until suddenly one day standing hurts. Then sitting hurts (because you cross your legs and exacerbate the imbalances). Then lying down hurts. And suddenly without any (seeming) provocation existence is pain.

I’m taking liberties of course, but the snowball effect is real. Why didn’t anyone mention this? Why in all of our years of “physical education” did no one start with our foundation? Granted I think it would be really difficult to get the point across to a herd of rowdy eight year olds, but necessary all the same.

In all of my gymnastics training I never heard that I didn’t stand properly. Of course as long as my toes were pointed and my back was arched it was all good. But, in my almost seven years of yoga practice the idea that I stand incorrectly has only recently been brought to my attention and it’s shaken me—literally.

Two weeks ago I attended a workshop on standing poses where I had the epiphany (or maybe had it thrust at me) that I didn’t know how to stand. Before that time I thought I stood rather well. I stood tall (as tall as is possible for someone who is 5’1″) with my shoulder blades down my back. I thought I engaged my thighs to support me. Perhaps that was the problem: I thought I was standing correctly. In truth I wasn’t using my muscles to do much at all. I let my knees thrust back too far, which tipped my pelvis forward and exaggerated the curve in my lumbar spine. Knowing is half of the battle—thank you G.I. Joe, but fixing it almost feels like a losing battle.

Ok, so to stand mindfully and with attention you press down equally between the ball of the big and little toe and the heel. Check. You lift up the arches in your feet by lifting the inner and outer ankles (I’m still not convinced I have muscles there). Semi-check. And to reign in that hyper-extending knee joint bend the knees slightly and then re-straighten by firmly engaging the quadricep muscles rather than just letting the knees fall where they may. (This starts to feel weird because my legs no longer feel straight to me, and really they aren’t. Bent is the new straight.) Check. All right, now we’re up to the pelvis that likes to spill forward. Tuck that tailbone between your legs. Even more. The teacher will come over and tuck it more anyway. All right, so tucked, taking the arch out of the back. Dear god, this requires stomach muscles! Check. And now the torso is free and buoyant and can reach up out of the waist with ease. Check. Pull those floating ribs back down. Now is not the time to poof them out (we’ll revisit that bad habit when it comes time for backbends). Roll the shoulder blades down the back without jamming. Check. Now the head can rest lightly atop the spine and ascend.

Take a deep breath to admire the marvel of engineering that is the human body and begin your practice having learned this fundamental action of standing evenly on both feet.

Then prepare for the moment of horror when realization dawns that the bad standing habits pervade your entire practice. The hyperextension emerges in everything from adho mukha svanasana to trikonasana to dandasana. The untucked pelvis (that you thought you had been tucking) lurks in adho mukha svanasana and virabhadrasana I and II. These habits perfuse everything you do and no one thought to mention them.

“Oh, by the way, you don’t even know how to stand up.” I would have laughed. But it’s so woefully true. And I have the rest of a lifetime to learn to stand with integrity since no one thought to mention it sooner.