Tuesday, May 20, 2008

About Chairs

Of course, it would be better to sit on the floor, as they do in other cultures, and make that a regular habit, to eat, or meditate, watch TV etc. Prolonged chair sitting, as practiced today, can lead to many troubles. We'll benefit by learning more about how to optimally use chairs. 

In The Feldenkrais Work we believe - and experience confirms - that the central issue is not that chairs are a problem, but that we have not learned how to sit! The problem is our lack of learning, not chairs.  A sage in ancient India named Patanjali has written about the 8 steps to follow on the upward spiritual path. Each of these steps requires dedication, understanding and long practice. The third step is called asana - and it means learning to sit comfortably in meditation posture for a long time. Does that mean just stiffening to be erect, doing yoga stretches, or using a back rest and lumbar support?  Those "short-cuts" are actually dead ends. Would Patanjali have listed it as the third step if it were so simple? It can take years of learning and exploring, to arrive at comfortable - no stiffening or tight back muscles - erect sitting in a chair. There is a lot to learn. 

In standing our feet are the contact points between us and the earth. In chair sitting, that job is given over to the sitting bones. When we can clearly feel the sitting bones, and they are free to move (meaning, the chair has a hard, flat surface with not too much cushioning, it is not too soft or like a bucket seat, which immobilizes the pelvis) we have a chance to learn how to sit erect without tensing the back muscles.

Any physical therapist, MD or chiropractor can tell you that when you keep your arm in a sling too long, you are prone to get "frozen shoulder" meaning the immobile shoulder muscles will tend to tighten up. Later, it can take a lot of work to rehabilitate the shoulder. The arms and shoulders are built for movement; when held immobile the body automatically tenses everything related to that, because to the body, artificial immobility means muscle-lock-down.

What we fail to realize is that chairs with bucket seats create a sling for the pelvis. Car bucket seats create a hammock for the pelvis - more fixity. Soft sofas create compression and immobility of the pelvis - how can the pelvis move when there is not any solid support from which to create movement? Too soft bed mattresses likewise create fixity. We take this fixity into our daily lives - everybody does this. It has reached epidemic levels. If I see a person with a mobile, intelligent, responsive pelvis, I am shocked. It is almost not permitted nowadays. It has nothing to do with sexuality or being attractive or anything like that. It has to do with good movement, it has to do with being able to initiate movement from the pelvis, not always consigning the pelvis to being the "slow responder" or the "disabled child" or the "retarded child" of the body. That is the way the pelvis is, for most adults today.

Yoga, stretching, exercise, sports, working out at the gym - none of these will address the problem. What is needed is somatic movement work - slow, conscious exploratory movement lessons relating to sitting particularly. Also, mentoring is definitely needed to take that learning  into standing and walking.  Most people walk with the legs swinging from the pelvis, and the pelvis is like a stiff board, and the hip joints are like fixed hinges. It should not be this way. The pelvic bones, internal bones of the pelvis, can  articulate to assist walking and standing. 

When your pelvis has been held in a sling for your whole life, imagine the tension! Imagine the compression of the hip joint! And then people wonder why God created the body so that the hip joints wear out, and we need to get hip replacements!   

Because we have spent so long sitting with an immobile pelvis, sitting up straight and stiff,  or collapsing into a backrest, it can be a difficult learning curve to even come to accept the premise that our pelvis is "dead to movement, to balance and dynamic support" and that to rehabilitate it, can take a lot of work. Again, it is called The Feldenkrais Method. If it were as simple as telling people to
a) Take a belly-dancing class
b) Start doing Tai Chi
c) Learn martial arts
d) Do Qi Gung or Yoga

then I would be telling people those things. I've tried telling clients those things, it never works. One issue is, somatic learning is context specific. To learn to sit easily erect on a hard, flat wooden stool or bench with no backrest, comfortably (as I encourage all my clients to do - starting small, just do it 20 minutes a day at first) takes hours or practicing and learning about how to do that while sitting in a chair. 

Even before that, lots of work is needed to sense and move "more or less independently" the pelvis. Independent, intelligent pelvis movement must first be learned "out of gravity" on the back or face down, doing movements any healthy baby is doing much of the time. The Feldenkrais Work is very clear on this point - which is a missing piece in many other kinds of healing or rehabilitation work: filling in missing developmental pieces. 

Because most of us think of posture as some fixed position, we cannot think clearly about chair sitting. To sit without a backrest, comfortably erect, there obviously must be dynamic, independent, automatic (not consciously controlled) continual minor adjustments and movements of the pelvis relative to the chair. It is a dynamic process, not static, even in immobile sitting (of course cross legged or lotus pose is a great advantage since stability and lumbar support is provided automatically). If we have spent years teaching our pelvis lazy immobility in chair sitting, we can almost certainly expect to encounter lots of internal resistance when we start to do the important work. It will seems like we are just not built to sit in a chair. 

Sitting in a chair, motionless for hours during meditation - we want finely attuned balance with minimal muscular effort. Rigid holding will not work, long term. 

Also, without clear connection to the tailbone, the pelvis is unwieldily, unresponsive, and a source of hip pain, back pain and other troubles. We can immediately sense our right thumb. Just a thought, instantly there is full awareness of that thumb. We should be able to do the same with the tailbone - at any moment of the day or night that we think of it, there ought to be full awareness. The problem is, of course, that many of us have unfortunately associated our pelvis with negative thoughts, emotions or ideas of uncleanness.  

What is your predominant thought or emotion when you think of your own pelvis? I would suggest you start to move in the direction of more tailbone awareness. This definitely takes practice and mentoring, long term, since most of us have injured our tailbones at some time, and soft chairs - for too many years - have compressed and deadened our tailbones, freezing it into immobility. If you've trained your pelvis and tailbone to be like that for 30 years or more, it might take some patience, and the learning curve may be a little steep at first. When you sit on a hard, flat wooden stool, the sitting bones lift the tailbone above the level of the chair, so it is free to move. When I sit in a soft chair, nowadays, at first I relish the comfortable feeling. But within a few minutes I get restless, like a caged animal. It is not natural to immobilize the pelvis. 

Also needed is an ability to roll the pelvis forward in sitting with a somewhat relaxed belly - creating a lumbar arch - without also tensing the back and stiffening the chest. Almost everyone does this. 

Also needed is an understanding that the brain, the body and nervous system is build for adaptation and challenge - not for unrelenting immobility, comfort and security. There has to be a balance. Any chair that is perfectly molded to your body - like an expensive, custom made "Orthopedic Surgeon Designed Chair" - is actually like prison to the body. Such a chair will feel good in the beginning, but later old troubles will re-emerge, with a vengeance. I often tell my clients "a swivel office chair is a total disaster, somatically speaking. Just look! You plant your feet on the floor, you go spinning. You can't get grounded and stable. There is no incentive to turn the head, turn the eyes, or do anything with the pelvis. You are like a blob sitting there. Any kind of work you do sitting like that, will be of poor quality, compared to what you could do if most of your nervous system was not preoccupied with "surrender to immobility and comfort, do as little as possible, don't worry about being adaptable, just be lazy, sit here and do nothing. Let the chair do all the work.  That is the message a swivel chair gives to your body".  "The Body is the Brain" is a popular Feldenkrais saying, which seems pertinent here. 

While using a hard, flat wooden stool may seem a bit primitive or not civilized, It's not. It is extremely intelligent,  it makes good sense.  One of my clients, about 2 years ago, came for a session carrying her wooden stool - so enthusiastic! Telling me: 'Steve, I can do it! It feels SO GOOD. I can sit on this and - like you promised me - it feels MUCH BETTER than any other kind of chair I have ever used." She had been working at it for about 3 years. 

With mentoring, with a little time each day sitting on a hard flat chair-no backrest (with perhaps an inch of foam), and regular Feldenkrais sitting Awareness Through Movement lessons (or private sessions), within a year or two - such is my experience - your sitting will be totally transformed. Back and neck pain due to sitting will be just a bad memory. You'll even be able to create comfort in a chair that is poorly designed or too soft. You'll know how to create support using cushions, wedges, and rolled towels. Of course, the first few weeks, that stool will feel pokey and painful and your body will balk. 

I tell my clients who drive a lot, "get a car board - plywood to fit in your car seat. That way, your sitting bones have a 'hard landing" and while it may seem pokey/uncomfortable, you'll drive for many more hours without your usual fatigue or back pain. Fatigue in driving is mostly due to the bucket seat, that compresses the tailbone  and immobilizes the pelvis. Then sitting erect and steering is a muscular act without clearly perceived skeletal support. That is guaranteed to create undue fatigue."

No comments: