Shoulders Back, Tummy Tucked…

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The little cartoon drawings, photographs, and spinal-column diagrams strike a nerve. They show people slumping and slouching like I do, standing with their shoulders hunched forward and their necks out like a turtle’s. The body was made to stand and sit erect, “stacked” as the physical therapists say, one vertebra over another so we can be tall and stable, not crooked, discs grating on one another, ready to topple.

How my mother tried. Gentle fingers curved around my shoulders, pulling back. A hissed “stand up straight” before any event that mattered. But just about everything I loved—books, sketching, petting dogs—curved me forward. I admired Cinderella’s sisters, walking with books on their heads to practice elegance. I envied figure skaters spinning like a dervish; ballerinas arching backward; any woman who carried herself like a queen. “Suck your gut in,” our grade-school phys.ed. teacher used to yell. “Stick your boobs out,” a friend suggested. And still, I slumped.

I also knelt. For some reason, kneeling has always appealed to me. At work, back in the time of face-to-face, I knelt whenever no chair was handy. This seemed to bother people. Distressed, they rushed to find me a chair, perhaps afraid I was acting as a supplicant, abasing myself before them. In truth, I just found it comfortable. Kneeling is a relaxed, stable position that tries nothing fancy. You cannot fall if you are already kneeling.

In prayer, kneeling is a humbling, a bowing down of sorts. (The secular version is Deborah Kerr in The King and I, sinking into a puddle of rustling taffeta to keep her head lower than Yul Brynner’s.) But now that an astounding number of people are staying remote and Zooming their worship, are they kneeling at home? I somehow doubt it, though I hope so.

Posture, “the position or bearing of the body,” carries information. My slump is insecure, preoccupied, habitual. Kneeling at work was an eagerness for communion with my colleagues. Much as I roll my eyes over liturgical dance (when it is self-conscious and silly) or arms that are stagily lifted to the heavens, something does feel different—wide open and vulnerable—when your arms are lifted high, not crossed over your bosom in self-defense. Both Feldenkrais and the Alexander technique teach the body awareness and fluidity that ought to be instinctual but got squeezed and bent out of us. We now have to learn how to sit in a chair and rise from one; how to walk with only the requisite muscles; how to bend with no extra effort. When I took a class in Zen meditation, I snuck glances at the lucky ones who could sit in a full lotus position, backs naturally straight, breath flowing unobstructed. Balancing in yoga’s tree pose without wobbling seems like a kid’s trick—but it gives me a feeling of serenity.

Knowing where our bodies are in space—and how they work, how they are designed to move—also connects us to the world beneath and around us. Watching Muslims lower their foreheads to the ground or Taoists move with t’ai chi’s grace, knees bent, bringing the center of gravity low, I realize Earth is our substrate. When we lose that sense of solidity and eternal support, our language reveals us: we talk about drifting, feeling unmoored, not knowing where we stand, falling through the cracks, sinking into depression. All because we have forgotten how to be down to earth, how to leap and know the Earth will catch us.

Dr. Patty Van Cappellen directs the Belief, Affect & Behavior Laboratory at Duke University. She used a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the role bodily positions play in religious experience. Why has nobody done this until now? Bodies moving in unison, taking the same position, are bound to help forge a group into a community, just as marching bands and soldiers fall into step. Using your whole body opens you up, allowing emotion and sensation to color the experience richer and truer than the brain’s pale abstractions. And changes in posture often mean adopting a pose, the word taken from the Latin pausere, meaning to pause. You cannot reflect or pray without pausing.

Van Cappellen organized religious postures into three groups. The first sweeps upward: “You look up, you raise your hands, you open your body.” People using those postures reported more positive emotions, more excitement, and more worshipful feelings. The second group turns downward—eyes lowered, body kneeling, hands close to the chest and maybe folded—and is associated with prayer, reverence, confession, and repentance. The feeling there is one of humility, an examination of conscience, or a struggle with some difficulty. (The third group is neutral, perhaps sitting and listening to a sermon.)

Next, Van Cappellen manipulated people’s postures. She asked them to take the upward or downward poses, and she found that their body position changed their bodily state. Upward, they showed more “cardiac vagal reactivity,” meaning that their heart rate attuned itself to their breath, increasing with inhales and slowing with exhales. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s “rest, digest, and connect” mode. The ability to coordinate brain, heart, and breath, fine-tuning the heart’s response with sensitivity and precision, affects the heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygenation, and thereby your immune system, your digestion, your mood, and your ability to relax.

Whoa. This makes me wonder what standing up straight might have done for me. A quick search reveals that slouching makes it easier to think negative thoughts, while standing up straight makes you feel more confident and radiates more energy to others. Sorry, peeps, for all that energy I failed to radiate. Had I listened to my mother, I would have aimed higher and breathed more easily, and my neck vertebrae might not have rotted….

But back to the transcendent point. What happens when people “attend” religious services remotely, plopped on their sofa at home? “Probably meaning or faith at the cognitive level is the same,” Van Cappellen tells Templeton, “but at the social and emotional level, I think we’re missing synchrony in gestures and movements.” Synchrony helps us feel that we belong. It also bubbles into a collective effervescence, the joy of doing something meaningful in a group. The physicality of the experience intensifies the emotion. Lose that, she says, and “it could be problematic, I think, ultimately, for continued practice.”

The word “remote” should have been a clue. It happens across distance, and religion—like live theater, music, comedy, and dance—is about binding people close.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.