From the time I was little, I was taught to stand up straight and sit up straight.
Even in my little girl ballet classes, when we folded forward, we had to hold the fold so straight that even the teacher’s lipstick case would not roll off our backs.
Summers would find me at camp, seated with my bunkmates on benches instead of on chairs at each meal. I remember part way through one summer, the counselor looking at all of us hunched there and exclaiming, You all started out sitting up so straight, and now look at you! We rose to better attention and, for the rest of the summer, made a conscious effort to sit up straight.
And, yes, a la Marcia and Jan Brady, I even spent several months with my sister going to what was called Charm School, where we walked around balancing a book on our heads.
Today, there are studies about the positive effects of a positive posture. Posture can be what it takes to fake it ‘til you make it on any given day because how we carry ourselves is how we care for ourselves.
After all, what’s being lifted when we hold ourselves up is our hearts, so there’s really no better reason to not be slouching around.
So now, with ballet and camp and charm school in the past, I turn to yoga to straighten up.
At yoga, there’s lots of talk about the heart and, before we even start, we are called to the top of our mats and told to stand up straight. We pull in our bellies and push down our shoulders. We reach up, lift up, and look up.
And it’s no matter how hunched over I might have been before or for how long because the practice gives me the chance to stand up straight again and again, and that only feels good.
It’s taken me a long time to fall in love with any of the heart opening poses, where we lift or puff out our chests. But, now, I even like leaning back, so my heart flows up and over and almost overboard.
I’ve taken some classes where this intuitive link between movement and the heart is emphasized. For me, these classes seem to help close the gap between the young girl who knew to always sit up straight and the older one who, at times, can forget to walk tall.
In these classes, it’s slow going and hard working. We reach and stretch and pull ourselves into postures, and we are reminded to have our hearts like Sphinx, the pose where, even low to the ground, the shoulders are back and the chest is lifted.
Round and round we go, following our hearts to the front of the mat and then to the back, stopping each time to open and lift to one side or the other.
And more recently, we’ve done something called Toppling Tree, where we go through a series of balances on one foot only to wind up with the other high in the air behind us, our bodies in a nose dive with our chests lifted and leading the way to the mat.
And, surprisingly, it’s there in that nose dive that all my caution disappears. I come to stillness while soaring towards the mat as my arms and shoulders pull back and my chest presses forward in this one big tilt led by the heart.
By the time we get to the part where we put our hands on our hips and turn out our toes to lean back, I find I can lift my heart high enough and lean back far enough to get a full on look at the wall behind me. And, I wonder if I’m overboard enough to put my hands down for Wheel, or if my heart is just telling me I can.
And when it’s time for the ending backbends, mine come easily and without any usual stiffness.
If movement and the heart are linked, then I guess I can liken caring for my heart the way I would walking with a cupful of coffee and no cover. I’d have to tread lightly so as not to spill.
And that’s a pretty daunting analogy, because I’ve always been a big spiller.
Regardless, in this class, it’s like I’m filled to the brim but able to move without a lid. I think that’s how I wound up so happy in the nose dive.
At the end of class, we are asked to sit up straight with our hands at our hearts. And without further ado or the usual closing, the instructor says only: You all will have sweet dreams tonight.
And this simple announcement actually comes true. That night, I close my eyes to a dream where I’m practicing the same circular motions in the same roundabout flow, my heart lifted by the movements for another chance to stand up straight again and again, even in my sleep.