Posture Commands: Why They Don’t Work

by Robert Rickover

It is as reasonable to expect a fire to go out when it is ordered to stop burning as to suppose that a man can stand straight in consequence of a direct action of thought and desire. - Professor John Dewey

John Dewey is best known for the school of philosophy he founded - pragmatism - and for his profound influence on public education in the United States. Indeed, he is often called the “father of American education”.

Why on earth was he writing about posture, of all things? Philosophers, we usually assume, are concerned with ideas, not physical training.

And just why can’t you stand straight by a “direct action of thought and desire”? Isn’t that what your parents and teachers - especially your physical education teachers - told you over and over when you were growing up? And isn’t that what countless advice articles advise to prevent back pain, for example when using a computer?

What other way is there?

In order to answer these questions, we need to look at a remarkable association between Dewey and another great twentieth century thinker- F. Matthias Alexander. Alexander was an Australian who developed an educational method that today is called “The Alexander Technique” and is widely used by people wanting to learn how to release harmful tension from their bodies.

The two men met in New York during World War I when Dewey had a series of lessons with Alexander. These lessons had a profound impact on him. They showed him how to stop and think before acting. He also credited them with enabling him to hold a philosophical position calmly, or to change it if new evidence was presented to him.

They also helped him improve his own posture, coordination, breathing and eyesight. It’s fair to say that Dewey’s experiences with Alexander opened new ways for him to look at the world, at himself and his approach to philosophy and the world of ideas.

Their association lasted until Alexander’s death in 1955. Dewey wrote the introductions to three of Alexander’s books and he referred to Alexander many times in his writings. In a chapter titled “Habits of Will” in Human Nature and Conduct, published a few years after his first lessons with Alexander, he explained in detail why direct approaches to achieving good posture - admonitions to “stand up straight” and the like - are doomed to failure.

Dewey tended to be a little on the wordy side, so I’ve lightly edited his writing to make it more accessible. Here is part of what he wrote:

“A man who has a bad habitual posture tells himself, or is told, to stand up straight. If he is interested and responds, he braces himself, goes through certain movements, and it is assumed that the desired result is substantially attained; and that the position is retained at least as long as the man keeps the idea or order in mind.

“Consider the assumptions which are here made. It is implied that the means ...(to do so)... exist independently of established habit and even that they may be set in motion in opposition to habit...

“Now in fact a man who can stand properly does so, and only a man who can does. In the former case, fiats of will are unnecessary, and in the latter useless. A man who does not stand properly forms a habit of standing improperly, a positive, forceful habit.

“The common implication that his mistake is merely negative, that he is simply failing to do the right thing, and that the failure can be made good by an order of will is absurd. One might just as well suppose that the man who is a slave of whiskey-drinking is merely one who fails to drink water.

“Conditions have been formed for producing a bad result, and the bad result will occur as long as those conditions exist. They can no more be dismissed by a direct effort of will than the conditions which create drought can be dispelled by whistling for wind. It is as reasonable to expect a fire to go out when it is ordered to stop burning as to suppose that a man can stand straight in consequence of a direct action of thought and desire. The fire can be put out only by changing objective conditions; it is the same with rectification of bad posture.

“Of course, something happens when a man acts upon his idea of standing straight. For a little while, he stands differently, but only a different kind of badly. He then takes the unaccustomed feeling which accompanies his unusual stance as evidence that he is now standing straight. But there are many ways of standing badly, and he has simply shifted his usual way to a compensatory bad way at some opposite extreme.”

From Dewey’s experience, the solution was to be found in Alexander’s indirect approach. It does not rely on the student simply wanting to have better posture. His method was to carefully identify the underlying causes of a student’s poor posture, and then show the student how to release them.

If, for example, a student is a typical “slumper” or “sloucher”, pulling his or her shoulders forward and down into the chest, Alexander (and, today, teachers of the Alexander Technique) would show the student how to stop producing those downward and inward pulls so that their body expands to its full size.

Students learn how to “get out of the way” of what happens naturally. An Alexander Technique teacher will never ask you to “straighten up” as that produces the useless re-arrangement of tensions Dewey so well described.

This approach has proved itself over the years and today the Technique is regarded by many as the most effective way to improve posture - and the overall quality of physical functioning.

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A comprehensive collection to Dewey/Alexander material can be found at the John Dewey and F. M. Alexander Homepage at

Alexander’s books, and a great many other books, videos, DVDs and audio books can be found at the Alexander Technique Bookstore at

A good source of information about John Dewey can be found at

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Robert Rickover teachers the Alexander Technique in Lincoln, Nebraska and in Toronto, Canada.

For more information about the Alexander Technique, click here:

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique