Charlie Brown was definitely a qigong master. He knew about the connection between posture, biochemistry, and energy.
His wisdom is forever immortalized in this old Peanuts cartoon:
There’s so much wisdom in this cartoon, but when I first saw it, I was a little offended.
“It’s a serious illness,” I thought to myself. “Depression isn’t caused by poor posture!”
I was right, of course. But Charlie Brown was also right.
The truth is that bad posture doesn’t cause depression, but it sure doesn’t help. And vice versa — fixing your posture won’t cure your depression, but it sure does help.
Maybe you battle depression, or maybe not. Either way, I think Charlie Brown was right. It’s important to pay attention to your posture. Here’s why…
Posture Affects your Biochemistry
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Jordan Peterson, the controversial bestselling author, says that you should stand up straight with your shoulders back. That’s rule #1 in his book, 12 Rules for Life.
Like him or not, that’s a good rule.
Peterson argues that body language is ancient — hundreds of millions of years ancient. Even lobsters display mood and hierarchy via body language.
For humans, standing up straight with your shoulders back tells your fellow humans that you are a high status individual in your tribe.
Maybe you’re not high status. Maybe you don’t have a tribe. Maybe you don’t even believe in hierarchies.
But there’s a problem. Our brains have remain unchanged for 50,000 years. This means that your biochemistry still believes in status.
Standing up straight doesn’t just send a signal to your fellow humans; it sends a signal to your cells.
Amy Cuddy, bestselling author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, backs this up with tons of research.
You can also watch her famous TED talk: Your body language may shape who you are.
The science is overwhelmingly clear: Your body language, including your facial expressions, affects your hormones, your mood, and your health.
Pro Tip: Whether you’re sitting or standing, roll your shoulders forward, up, and then back in one smooth movement. This resets the shoulders to a position that you can’t otherwise get them in to, and helps to create better posture (and thus better biochemistry).
The Victory Pose
Amy Cuddy talks about a power posture called the “victory pose” that seems to be universal across all cultures: Two fists held to the sky in a v-shape, chest open, excitement on the face.
Here’s a kid demonstrating the pose after, presumably, winning big at a video game.
Try it. Pretend you just won the NYC Marathon. Hold the posture for 30 seconds, and your biochemistry will change.
And then try an ancient power posture called Lifting The Sky.
Personally, I think that Lifting The Sky is more sophisticated and more powerful than the victory pose above. Maybe I’ll teach it to Amy one day!
Posture Affects Your Qi
The qigong masters have been saying something similar for millennia, albeit in slightly different terms.
They didn’t talk about biochemistry, but rather about qi, or your vital energy. The qigong masters taught us that specific postures affect your qi in specific ways.
For example, ancient texts on The 8 Brocades Qigong (Baduanjin, 八段錦) talk about the effects each posture has on various organs.
From those texts, we know that;
- Supporting the Heavens stimulates the Triple Warmer Meridian.
- Drawing a Bow stimulates the the Kidney and Spleen Meridians
- Raising One Hand stimulates the Spleen and Stomach Meridians
- Looking Backward eliminates the “five fatigues” and “seven Illnesses”
- Swing the Head eliminates “heart fire”
- Punching with Fiery Eyes builds internal strength
- Hold the Feet strengthens the Kidney Meridian and lower back
- Shaking the Back helps to boost the immune system
(Confused about the Meridian System? Click here to learn what qigong students need to know.)
On a side note, the above hypotheses be easily verified using the diagnostic methods of Chinese Medicine. For example, if a student with Stomach Fire practices “Raising One Hand”, we should see a change in the the tongue and pulse diagnostics.
And you know what? We DID see those changes! Because I was both a student and a teacher at my acupuncture college, and because I later worked directly with dozens of different acupuncturists, I got a behind-the-scenes look at how Flowing Zen Qigong affects patients. It was fascinating!
And don’t forget the tai chi masters! In fact, I could argue that ALL of the 10 Principles of Tai Chi Chuan are an attempt to affect the qi through proper posture:
- Head Upright, Spirit Rising
- Sink the Chest, Lengthen the Back
- Loosen the Waist
- Differentiate Between Empty and Solid
- Sink Shoulders, Drop Elbows
- Use Will, Not Strength
- Coordinate Top and Bottom
- Harmonize Internal and External
- Move with Continuity
- Seek Stillness in Movement
(Click here to read all about the 10 Principles of Tai Chi.)
Postures that Heal and Harm
Speaking of tai chi, most people think of it as a gentle form of self-healing. And this is absolutely true.
But inside the slow-motion postures is a hidden power — the power to save your life in self-defense.
For example, the Lu (Rollback, or Double Dragons Carry a Pearl) posture from Yang Tai Chi Chuan can be used to break the neck of someone attacking you.
It looks harmless (see below), but once you understand the martial application of the technique, you quickly realize that it is powerful.
Sadly, the vast majority of tai chi practitioners have no clue about the martial applications. They learn it as a form of qigong, not as a martial art.
I think this is a mistake. Even a cursory understanding of the martial applications helps to bring the postures to life. You don’t need to be a cage fighter to benefit from the hidden power of the tai chi postures.
On the other hand, many people obviously benefit from practicing tai chi even without an understanding of the martial applications — and I think Amy’s research helps explain this. There’s power in the posture, even if you don’t understand why.
And more research is being done. For example, check out this recent study: Can Tai Chi and Qigong Postures Shape Our Mood?
Power Corrupts…or Does it?
Having taught several different martial arts since 1994, I know that some people have an aversion to the word “power”.
In essence, they think that martial arts train you to be violent. The maxim, “power corrupts,” comes to mind.
But here’s the thing: According to Amy’s research, a LACK of power is at least as likely to corrupt!
Amy says that it’s important to distinguish between people with social power (i.e. rich people, celebrities, and politicians), and people with personal power (like me and Charlie Brown).
Personal power brings benefits rather than corruption, and this is exactly what we’re after with arts like qigong and tai chi.
Here are some examples of the benefits of personal power cultivated through qigong and tai chi:
- a clearer, calmer mind
- the ability to stay relaxed under stress (i.e. grace under pressure)
- more confidence
- greater clarity when making decisions
- a stronger, healthier body
And if you practice tai chi as a martial art, then you can add “self-defense” to the list.
What We Can Do
So by now, it’s clear that we need to improve our posture. But how do we do that?
Duh. Learn and practice qigong and/or tai chi! (Not sure which one to learn? Click here for a free video that will help you find an answer.)
If your posture is really bad, then I suggest that you focus on particular type of qigong that I call Aligning The Qi. (Other teachers may use other terminology, but the idea is the same.)
With the right techniques, anyone can improve their posture. I’ve watched 20-somethings with scoliosis and 80-somethings with kyphosis (excessive hunching of the upper spine) get amazing results by focusing on aligning the qi.
The truth is that many modern humans have poor posture because their bodies are no longer capable of good posture. Obviously, this gets worse with age, but it’s a problem that even affects teenagers now. So it’s not just an age issue.
The solution is to build strength (especially core strength), cultivate flexibility, and open up the energy channels. And that’s exactly what we do with exercises that align the qi.
(Aligning the Qi is one of the 4 main skills that I teach in my Qigong 101 program, which reopens this Fall. If you want to learn more, then make sure to get on the waiting list. Click the link for details.)
I’m also a big fan of Myofascial Release (MFR)
Many experts think that humans need to spend at least 10 minutes 3x per week on MFR in order to undo the negative effects of modern living (like sitting too much.)
Personally, I do at least 10 minutes a day, and I think it’s a great compliment to my qigong practice. The combination of qigong + MFR is synergistic. If the topic is of interest, then I’ll work on another blog post about why I think that qigong and MFR go together like milk and cookies.
- Posture matters, especially if you are battling depression.
- Posture affects our biochemistry, our mood, and our health.
- Qigong and tai chi are effective ways to improve posture
- Myofascial release is another way to improve posture
Experiment with power postures this week. In your daily life, and daily qigong and tai chi practice. Then share with us what you find. Questions? Comments? They are always welcome in the section below! From the heart, Sifu Anthony