Like everyone else, I sit at a desk all day. You can start the day with the most noble and upright of intentions: Today I’m going to do it. I’m going to sit at this desk with a beautiful straight back and lifted chin. It usually goes out the window within 10 minutes. As soon as you open your email or start thinking about something other than the fact that you’re sitting up straight, your shoulders seem to want to touch in front of your chest. If you’re reading this in your office, sitting at your desk, look around at your colleagues and see if there’s even a single person who doesn’t appear hunched. Rodin’s “Le Penseur” is leaning forward onto his knees, slight curve in his spine. Rodin said: “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” Is it possible to get anything done with a straight back?
I am 5'9' with an unusually long neck, and posture has been a problem for me since I was a teenager. Every now and then, when I catch sight of myself in my peripheral vision in the window of a café or shop and see my shoulders pulled inward and my neck stuck out at a ridiculous angle, I’m forced to consider the way my silhouette resembles Igor in Young Frankenstein.
Posture is a habit, which means it can be developed (it’s also probably the answer to that back pain that is ruling your life). As Loretta Young once said, “Unless some misfortune has made it impossible, everyone can have good posture.” That thing about ballet dancers that everyone always says—that they look like ballet dancers no matter what they’re wearing or doing—is because of the elegance of their carriage. I have done every one of the recent avalanche of ballet workouts in New York City. Ballet Beautiful, FitBallet, FlyBarre, the Joffrey Ballet School—a few months ago I found my favorite one: Everyday Ballet in Tribeca by Tiekka Tellier, an incredibly elegant and graceful retired principal dancer at the Houston Ballet. The series aims to incorporate balletic principles into everyday life. It’s also done to amazing music—after having resigned myself to hearing non-stop minimal techno and Katy Perry in exercise classes, it was a joyful relief to hear music like Swan Lake and Carmen.
After leaving a session with her, I feel more elegant just because I’m standing up straight and moving differently. It’s a completely different feeling from a workout like Bikram yoga or lap swimming (my other favorites). At the heart of the workout is the ability to hold your core still and upright while being able to do things like move your arms and legs with control—I want to train myself to apply this control when I type, walk, or stand with a drink in my hand.
Here are two of Tiekka’s basic exercises for posture. The movements themselves are minimal and controlled. Think of them as exercises from the inside-out. You can do these in the middle of the day without messing up your hair.
Relevés, or Rises
The reason relevés (or, lifting your heels so you're balancing on your toes) are so instructive for posture is that the exercise teaches you how to hold the integrity of your position while moving up and down in space. Often people “collapse,” or lose postural integrity, as they lower themselves back down onto their full foot. Relevés require keeping that gentle lift and correct alignment of the pelvis, back, and head throughout the entire movement because posture is never a static event. It's always about movement and energy, even if that's just an internal feeling. So, for the exercise:
Stand holding a wall or a barre while doing the standard ballet first position. The posture is “built' from deep inside the lower core, which is always lightly drawn in-and-up so that the “outer body' (shoulders, legs, arms) can be free to move with fluidity and ease.
Hold the arm that is not holding the bar in porte de bras position—slightly curved, shoulder down, kind of like leaving a little bit of air in your armpit. Your weight should be distributed evenly across the feet with an awareness that the big toe mound, the pinky toe mound, and the heel equally contact the floor.
Tucking your tailbone slightly, and keeping your chin lifted, bend your legs only at the knees into a plié, and then lift onto the balls of your feet into a relevé while straightening your knees. The crown of the head should actively ascend in conjunction with—and as a reflection of—the work of the core. Feeling a gentle lift up the backs of the ears is helpful for aligning the head.
Repeat, moving your arms through the five positions of ballet, and then change sides. The position of the pelvis is crucial to facilitating posture and the work of the core. Tailbone should be neutral, releasing gently down between the heels (neither arching back nor tucked forward). The fronts of the hip bones should feel like they are wide and moving apart from one another. This will make space for the lower core to lightly draw in and up.
Port De Bras, or Carriage Of The Arms
- Swan Arms: Feet in first position, arms down in preparation position by your sides (still slightly rounded). Lift wrists and eyes all the way up, sweeping the arms toward your ears like wings and keeping the shoulders down, pelvis neutral and core active (wrists may or may not touch). Bring the elbows and eyes down, wrists will naturally follow. Feel as if you have wings coming from your back the entire length of your spine. Repeat the entire movement (up, down) eight times, slowly.
- Follow with the “Circle Sternum Stretch”: Feet in first position, arms in first position. Turn your palms down, and extend the fingers out and around as if tracing a large circle around yourself. Keep the front ribs knitting together as the fingertips drift behind the shoulders until you can't go further. Then, reverse the circle until you arms return to first position. Shoulders remain down, crown of the head ascends, and the pelvis remains neutral as the lower core lifts in and up throughout. Repeat eight times.
Anna Heyward is a journalist and reporter in New York. Loulou Robert photographed by Emily Weiss.