Friday, July 11, 2008

Chair Sitting 102

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".

Over the years, I was told (or I told myself) countless times to sit up straight, and then relax. But, the relax part never really happened (because I had not been mentored in how to stay erect in sitting without tensing certain muscles of the back and chest); somewhere deep inside my spine and chest, I was stiffening.  I have found that this is true for almost every single person I encounter in life, and certainly it has been true for every single client I have ever seen. Very very few people know how to sit in a chair properly! No amount of preaching, or requesting them to sit up straight, "then relax" will accomplish anything. What is needed is practical instruction as to how to sit up straight, with easy balance, fully relaxed. That takes some skill, some real understanding of human movement, anatomy, balance, and posture. Not many people have any education along those lines - although many people pretend they are qualified to teach others about how to sit (parents, for example, when teaching their children not to slump).   

This little-known 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 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 steps. Perhaps there is more to sitting that 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. Most every person who tries to meditate does some variation of that. It took a Feldenkrais Training to rescue me from this dilemma.

During my years of attending a 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, I can often create a situation 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.

Then I'll ask a question: "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 there 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. A crucial thing is where is your starting point? 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 human posture or cognition) is what occupies at least 95% or more of the brain's activity. Human movement involves balance, support, environmental mapping, counter-balance, keeping movement options open enough so security is not compromised, coordination, reciprocal inhibition of opposing muscle groups, vision, and much more. It is vastly complex if you study it, as movement scientists do.

Sitting in a chair or on the floor is a movement activity. 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 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 very desired state is through movement education, not brute-force stiffening, or often-repeated commands to sit up straight, then relax! 

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 to every joint, every 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 the side. Your body has a vast collection of such balance-counterbalance behaviors; it is like a very elegant and intricate software program in our brains.  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 and refine our ability to speak that language: the language of movement and balance. 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.

By now it should be obvious: we need to learn something about movement, and how it relates to sitting. When you start on that path, you get permanent, and magical results. The results probably won't be as quick as you like, but they are permanent and entirely beneficial. Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM), particularly chair sitting lessons, is the preferred method. But failing that, I am going to give you here some important points, and hints and movements that you can quickly learn and from which you can derive many benefits. 

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 even better blood supply to the brain. As well, there is probably less anxiety, since in standing and sitting, for many of us, fear of falling is never too far away, and that is a very primal, inborn fear. You may think that would not affect you, but you might be surprised. I think, once you get more or less comfortable on the floor, you'll do better work, you think more clearly, you'll digest your food better. To encourage this, buy some low tables that can be used for eating or reading while sitting on the floor. Have softer and thicker rugs to sit on, and have plenty of pillow available, different sizes and densities. These strategies will encourage constant variety - a healthy thing, since our brains and bodies are basically learning and adapting machines. We're not meant to stagnate.

For more on this line of thinking, and for the specific details about what need to happen in functional chair sitting, please see my post titled "A better way to sit up straight in a chair."

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