Saturday, June 14, 2008

Chair Sitting 101

Your life will become SO much easier when you learn how to sit in a chair. In my case, for at least 35 years I was sitting to study or meditate by tensing the back and spine, to ENSURE that I never slumped, which I was warned against strongly. My mental dialogue went like this: If I slumped, I would be "like a bum" or "the energy will not flow in the spine" or "slumping posture creates depression and lethargy" or "only irresponsible lazy people, and teenagers, slump - never do it!". I was persuaded by all these arguments. I've now learned that those arguments do not tell the whole story. There is some truth there, but the other side of the coin has merit, as well. So, like most everyone else, I was stiffening to sit. And, that was especially true if I had fear of any kind: such as somebody watching me who had authority over me (like a boss or parent or teacher), or if I was facing a deadline and I had to "concentrate hard".

This little-know information will absolutely change your life. At first, though, you may be confused by it, since much of what is here will contradict what you think is true about sitting posture.

In ancient India a sage named Patanjali described the spiritual yoga path as consisting of 8 graded steps, each of which needs to be mastered before moving to the next step. His first two steps involve moral living. His third step is called asana which can be interpreted as learning to sit comfortably erect. I've known that for at least 40 years, but it was not until about 15 years ago that it finally dawned on me that perhaps there was something for me to learn there, before trying to move on to the next step. Perhaps there is more to sitting than stiffening the spine, lifting the chest, pulling the shoulders back, keeping the chin level, and then trying to relax (which I could never do very well). I would always collapse into a slump unless I tensed my back or used a back rest. It took a Feldenkrais Training to rescue me from this dilemma.

During my Feldenkrais training (1990-1994), and subsequent years working with various mentors, and later my own clients (who actually mentor me more ways than I know) - I learned that my habitual way of sitting was one of the most damaging habits I had created in this life. I would never have believed it, if I had not experienced it in my own body. I gradually learned how to sit - in a chair particularly - with minimal or zero chronic tension in the back and along the spine. And, what I learned allows me to find long-term comfort even if the chair is poorly designed. It is not something a person can learn from one day to the next. I have never witnessed this. However, in the course of an hour, a situation can be created where a person is sitting in a chair without back tension - fully erect and without a back rest. But the client cannot reproduce this on their own. Old habits are stronger.

Test yourself: Sit as you normally do long periods of time - to study or meditate or whatever. Place your hand along your low back. Press or poke hard there - how soft are those muscles? Is it painful? Do that all up and down the spine - you'll need a back-scratcher or some other tool to do this. Or ask a friend to help you. If those muscles are painful to touch, rock hard, or like hard rubber or wood, then you know you have many things to learn. When I do that now to myself, the muscles are buttery soft, and there is no pain with hard poking. If you were my client I would tell you - "your life has been too much of a struggle up to this point, in my opinion. Life can be much more pleasant than you know. Do you work like this? Do you meditate like this? To meditate that way is like spending years telling yourself to relax your hands, while strongly clenching your fists. It is crazy making. It tends to create depression, rebellion, fatigue, and progress in meditation is likely to be very minimal.

Sitting stiffly is body language for stress and worry - even panic. It's what you'd do if suddenly a threat to your physical well-being presented itself. When you create that type of body language, and with great persistence continue in that way for many years - it is almost inevitable that you'll sooner-than-later attract to yourself unpleasant circumstances: abusive supervisors or bosses, abusive coworkers, negative environments of various sorts, chronic anxiety or worry, depression, exhaustion. Your body language can absolutely draw those things to you, no matter how hard to you try, by positive thinking, meditation, etc to avoid them. You may think it is your fate, or your karma, or that they are necessary learning situations for your personal evolution. That may be true; However one of the "karmic lessons", for sure,  that needs to be learned is how to sit more sensibly, learning to use a little intelligence and common sense.

Chair sitting is not a simple thing. It is a deep study. For instance, consider this: If  you find a person who always has a soft, pliable chest and upper back (even if their habitual posture is a bit stooped, like Mother Theresa) and practically never stiffens their chest, for any reason, for anybody - that person is either:
  • Highly trained in somatic work and emotionally integrated.
  • An extraordinarily exalted being, a saint, an angel-in-the-body (Like Mother Theresa) who is always filled with tender and open-hearted practical compassion, wisdom and a power beyond our understanding - who never needs to resort to direct force. 
  • Insane or continually drunk or on drugs or lots of muscle relaxants or psychiatric drugs.
If a group - or organization - of people all have the unwritten contract to vigilantly self-enforce good posture by stiffening unconsciously (I know such organizations), that organization, I'd predict, would not be a comfortable or relaxed  place in which to work or live, not for long (I have heard many stories to confirm this).  Unreasonable rules, pressure, worry, fear-motivated thinking and even abuse and nonsensical management practices would continually mysteriously surface. Tension and friction - under the surface, would be high. If everyone is constantly affirming a non-sense situation internally, it has to manifest outwardly.  It is sad that the only choice appears to be rigid stiffening or apparently despicable slumping. There is another way!

It is hard to describe how deep this habit runs in many people. One could say it has been their habitual way of thinking and being for many many past lives (if you believe in reincarnation). The very idea that it does not have to be that way challenges who they are, their very identity is shaken. Although this new and better way of sitting is very simple, to implement it takes great courage, skill, patience and persistence. 

Again, I'll share my lament that we don't all sit on the floor more often, cross legged, or Japanese style. If you sit cross legged - for one thing, the pelvis naturally goes into more extension, because the knees are separated by a wide distance. If you keep the knees together, as women in particular do in chair sitting, this creates a skeletal geometry to force the pelvis into flexion=slumping. I hope as America as a culture matures, chairs will be used less and less.  
When somatic education is undertaken, even minimally, many other choices appear, and the scenario internally and externally softens significantly - amazingly quickly. The most popular Feldenkrais book on is Awareness Heals by Steven Shafarman; it has a couple lessons on chair sitting - these are wonderfully effective in creating major positive shifts in a short time. If I ran an organization, I'd make it required reading.  

One problem is that most people who stiffen to sit, do not know they are doing it. It has become such a deep habit! It is as if somewhere deep inside their chest and upper back, there is steel-reinforced concrete, covered up by layers of unconsciousness.  It often takes years of working with a client before the rib cage will soften and ribs can differentiate and move somewhat! During that time their personality undergoes a positive transformation, gradually. 

It takes clever strategy, lots of repetition and variety and skill and months of intensive work and willing cooperation to bring such a person to understand and embody the idea that not only can they fully relax their torso at will, but also that they can learn how to sit, stand and walk with minimal tension there. That's why it is necessary to find a good somatic teacher, or take regular ATM (Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement) classes to keep you on the right track. You cannot correct what you don't even know you are doing.  

When I see clients sitting stiffly while meditating, I'll ask them: "Patanjali's idea of asana, which he says must be mastered, what is your understanding of it?" Most clients say either Hatha Yoga, or learning to sit to meditate in a comfortable posture. Then I ask - have you ever spent any time scientifically studying, or taking classes, or even seriously thinking about chair sitting, what is involved and how to do it? The answer is almost always "No." 

"Would you be willing to learn how to sit comfortably erect without back tension?" Of course they all say "yes". I point out that it is highly unlikely that Patanjali would have included asana as one of his 8 steps if there was nothing to learn except "stiffen the spine and sit up straight. Or if it only involved "find the right chair."

Chair sitting takes times to learn. It needs to be understood and approached scientifically. It boils down to some very simple things, but that does not mean easy or quick. Yes, of course, the right height chair is the best starting point. But there is lots more. A crucial thing is: what kind of attitude and understanding to you bring to chair sitting? The purpose of this post is to upgrade that. If you approach sitting with the idea that there is some fixed, ideal posture, or there exists an ideal chair that will solve all problems - you'll hit a dead end, sooner or later. The truth is, as any neurologist will confirm (and any healthy child will demonstrate) - the brain and the body is built for learning, and human movement (not static posture - which actually never can exist) is what occupies at least 95% or more of the brain's electrical activity. 

Human movement involves appropriate response to any possible change in present circumstances.  It is always ongoing, except during complete unconsciousness. Specifically it involves: balance, support, environmental mapping, memory, counter-balance, keeping movement options open enough so security is not compromised, coordination, reciprocal inhibition of opposing muscle groups, vision, hearing, carriage of the head, and much more. It is vastly complex if you study it, as movement scientists do. A lot of behind-the-scenes brain work is going on in that arena, and the only way to quiet it down, so to speak, is to learn strategies for better balance, clear support, properly arranging the body, and not doing crazy things like stiffening (which actually makes elegant easy balance more difficult). 

Correct posture must come from within; it comes from playful exploration and making mistakes,  while gradually becoming more competent. This comes from movement exploration. It cannot be imposed. Good posture comes from good movement. Period! Movement lessons, somatic work - it the best way to go about it. If you want good alignment, correct sitting posture, no slumping - then start taking Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons. External guidelines and vigilant self-enforcement of good posture are dead-end shortcuts.

You may have been told to line up your shoulders and hips, or to hold in your abdomen. Do you really think that is a natural way to go through life? Feldenkrais teachers will never, ever give such advice. Yet, they get wonderful results. How?  

Sitting in a chair or on the floor is best conceived as frozen movement, or very slow-motion movement. The body is always engaged, as long as it is upright and awake, in weight bearing, balance and counter-balance, proprioception, etc. You may think you can so stabilize or fix your sitting posture that no work is required to stay there, but you are wrong. We are not made of concrete - we are made of many cells, filled with fluid - and there are no joints in the body that fit together like stacked bricks - not one joint. Do you think no intelligent, ongoing work is required to balance erectly an unstable collection of little water balloons (called cells)? The human body is an unstable machine, built for movement, not static posture. All this is not to say that you cannot sit quietly, apparently perfectly motionless, fully erect without a backrest, almost fully relaxed, while concentrating or meditating. But the angle of approach to achieve this desired state is through movement education, not brute-force stiffening. Please, if you can learn just that one thing, just believe it for now, and act on it, it will change your life. 

Scientists who study movement have very sensitive machines that can detect nerve impulses to muscles, and even the slightest muscle activity. In the early part of the 20th century, they believed that the human body had "static" since there was always a little "buzz" or "noise" in the nervous system, which had apparently no functional purpose. Later, as their listening devices became more sensitive, it became obvious that this "buzz" was actually intelligent ongoing activity: The brain was sending messages - four times a second - to every joint and proprioceptor, asking "where are you" and "in what direction are you moving" and "where is the support". Calculations were then made as to what movements were needed to remain erect in weight bearing. All this is so automatic we are rarely aware it is happening.

You can actually demonstrate this for yourself. Sit in a chair. Reach one arm directly out to your side. Notice, you did not fall over even though your arm was held out to your side. Why not? Because your body automatically did some counter-balancing activity, shifting some weight in the opposite direction. Try it again, but this time freeze your body so that no counter-balancing can happen, as you were a bronze statue, frozen in good posture. As you extend your arm out to the side, you'll tend to fall over to that side. Your body has a vast collection of such automatic behaviors; it is almost like a software program. This program is going to be running whether you want it to or not - for billions of years, our nervous system has evolved in gravity, in weight bearing, to be functional and cope (meaning: to fall over is not allowed, you'll soon die) so it is best to cooperate with it and learn to speak that language: the language of stability, movement and balance. Particularly this requires a pelvis that can instinctively, dynamically support the torso in real time. You are not going to correct this situation overnight! Sadly, most of us have trained our pelvis to be like a dead weight down there, cradled immobile in a soft or rounded bottom chair. Then, and only then, does sitting in a chair make sense, and eventually become easy and elegant. Paradoxically, by working with movement, we more quickly and effectively learn to sit motionless, relaxed and erect - apparently in "static" posture.

While it should be obvious that we need to learn - and embody - something about movement, for optimal sitting - the unfortunate truth is that most of what is found in every culture - and what most people believe -  about sitting ignores movement. It's all about correct posture. You'll find things like: "pull your shoulders back....keep your shoulders in line with your hips....don't protrude your head......don't slump...keep your chin level and in....lift your chest.....and relax! (which is completely impossible doing all those things).  Often such advice will be packaged with certain exercises to stretch or strengthen muscles optimally for sitting. Yes, such an approach can give beneficial results, but they do not compare to somatic results, from what I have seen. 

For sure, the static, approach absolutely requires personal supervision from an experienced teacher who understands the essential dynamic nature of erect weight bearing - for there to be any real benefit. Otherwise human nature dictates that a person will just take the "easy-but-disastrous-long-term" approach of stiffening, alternating with full-on slumping to rest from all that hard work. It is best to completely abandon the idea of fixed, rigid sitting and begin to patiently work with movement; then you'll get permanent, and magical results, from the inside out - not imposed upon you. The results probably won't be as quick as you like, but they are permanent and entirely beneficial.

But it is also true that if our modern age gave us better mentoring about movement and posture such advice would be more palatable and useful. Instead of growing up playfully, climbing trees, running and playing games, today our children sit in front of a TV frozen motionless. We have jobs that require we sit and stare at a computer monitor. Postural fixity is the curse of the age. We need to take positive action to undo the damage that we have taken upon ourselves. 

Would you like to do a movement lesson, right now? Google "The Open ATM Project" and click on a movement lesson that appeals to you - preferably one sitting in a chair.  This will give you an idea of what we are talking about when we speak of working patiently with movement. Doing one such lesson a week, or even one per month, in time will remake your whole life. 

So again, in the long term, you cannot sit comfortably erect if you do it by stiffening the spine and tightening the belly. For starters that creates compression of the spine, restricted breathing, and compromised balance - to say nothing about the constantly tight muscles that are sooner or later going to get fatigued or sore. Neither can you be comfortable, long term, by depending on a special kind of chair or back rest. The body and the brain are not build to depend on things; we thrive on challenge, acquiring independence, learning to adapt, variety, diversity - rigid fixity in sitting is like a form of death, there is no life there. There has to be a way to sit comfortably, calmly, motionless in a chair with a relaxed body and without depending on a back rest, a lumbar support or some special kind of chair. Certainly, the answers has to be within us, not outside of us. .

Of course it is much better to sit on the floor in loose clothing, in whatever style fits you at the moment: cross legged, Japanese style, legs flopped to the sides, legs in front, using pillows creatively, etc. This ensures open hip joints, good skeletal support. and constant variety - a healthy thing, since our brains and bodies are basically learning and adapting machines. We're not meant to stagnate.

For specific details about what has to happen in functional sitting, please see my post titled "If You Constantly Pull Your Shoulders Back..." dated June 8, 2008.

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