Chair Free Lifestyle:
A New Approach to Fitness and Health
by Patrick Clark
Note: This article is most useful for people who have some experience with natural sitting. If you want to learn how to get started, see The Art of Natural Sitting.
Natural sitting (a.k.a. Active Sitting) for most of us is a radical new way of doing things. There are many challenges to getting started, and most of them can be remedied with a little knowledge and perspective. The good news is, there are enough intrinsic rewards, despite the challenges, that make it satisfying even in the beginning. Here are some of the common issues that come up in the early stages of making a switch to natural sitting:
3—Circulation being cut off in feet and/or legs (numbness, tingling, legs and feet falling asleep.) Sciatica will be discussed here as well.
4—Arthritic type pain in knees, hips, and other joints. Aching, soreness. Inflammation.
When we say “active sitting” and “interacting with your environment:, we mean it. Alignment (symmetry), flexibility and tone are the main factors at play here. If you have been using a chair your whole life, your body is going to be out of alignment. Not only that, but you won’t even know what alignment feels like. Look at a tree on top of a wind-swept mountain. All the branches grow on one side—the leeward side. That tree has had to adapt to the extreme influence acting on it. That is similar to a human body that has sat in a chair for many years. The muscles of the chest, abdomen, back, and neck have had to pull mostly in one direction—frontward. Physical therapists call this “front loading”, and in extreme cases they think of it as a pathology. What they don’t acknowledg is that: 1) it is caused by chair sitting, and 2) most of us have it.
In front loading, the muscles become tighter on the front of the body than the back. This isn’t necessarily visible (as far as muscle tone), as most muscles involved in sitting are deep. Other things follow. The muscles pull the head and neck forward, creating “kyphosis”. The fascia, bones, tendons and muscles work together to hold the body in an imbalanced, out of alignment position. We get used to this. It feels normal. We have ADAPTED to the chair like the tree has adapted to the wind on the mountain.
So when we transition into natural sitting, it will be more difficult at first because we are needing to work with the body as it is–unadapted to the new–though natural–environment. The good news is, the human body is flexible, resilient, and responds to change. However front-loaded it is, it is still more suited to its primal nature than to the Western environment it has adapted to. By putting yourself in the natural sitting position, you will both balance and tone the muscles used in sitting.
However, like any new exercise program, a common sense sequence of activity and rest will be needed. Few people can jump into it 100% from the get go. Alternating natural sitting with chair sitting, gradually increasing the time spent in natural sitting, will eventually establish the desired combination of alignment, flexibility and tone needed to easily sustain natural sitting 100% of the time. It can take from days, to weeks, to months, depending on the factors with each individual.
Let me qualify what I mean by “100% of the time”. Upright sitting is only one activity out of many we perform during any given day. The human body was not designed to remain in any one static position for hours at a time, except perhaps during sleeping—but even that has its limits. Natural sitting should be combined with other positions: standing, reclining, walking, etc. When the back gets tired while sitting, for instance, shifting to another position sometimes solves the fatigue—by engaging a different set of muscles. Sometimes a little stretching or walking will help, other times reclining or simply resting the back a few minutes is what is needed.
It is possible and optimal to avoid chairs altogether if you have some form of lounge chair work station. This could be in the form of a standard lounge chair, Chaise Lounge, or something designed for a bed or couch like the Eco Backrest.
Part of health is muscle tone, and muscle tone develops when the muscles are engaged regularly. In other words, “use it or loose it.” Most of us have lost it. But we can get it back. And this has nothing to do with working out in the gym and building hard ‘abs’. Traditional calisthenics and exercise machines—even the popular Pilates system–work on the large outer muscles in an imbalanced way. This type of calisthenics usually has a contracting effect, making natural sitting even more difficult. The important muscles used in sitting are finer, deeper, actually connected to the bones. The principle muscle activated during sitting–the psoas–has very little sensory enervation. ‘Feeling’ the psoas directly will usually be more an act of imagination than of attention. Psoas function can be perceived indirectly: ‘widening the back,’ and ‘knees forward and apart’ are both clear descriptions of the effect of improved psoas activity.
There is often confusion between ‘contraction’ and ‘shortening.’ Muscles lose their resting length through atrophy. Attempts to stretch or ‘relax’ shortened muscles are often mistaken. Shortened muscles recover their length through use, not passive stretching or ‘releasing.” The more symmetry, balance, and alignment in the body, the less the muscles will need to work during natural sitting. Natural sitting in itself tones the muscles involved in sitting. Natural sitting integrates exercise with everyday activities. So what we are aiming for is symmetry (alignment), tone, and flexibility.
We will each be battling not only our own front-loaded bodies, but also social norms and the public environment which wants to keep us in chairs. Sitting in a chair makes us look busy and hard at work. However, the most productive position besides autonomous sitting is lying down. Lying down in either a flat position or reclining position rests the back so it will be ready for some more sitting. How can you lay down when you are working at a desk or computer? There are many creative ways to work in both standing and reclining positions. Many desk type activities can be accomplished just as easily in another position. See How To Turn Youre Office Into a Health Spa for more on this.
But until you evolve your own office set-up with chairless props and furniture, the only option is to alternate between autonomous sitting and chair sitting. The only problem with this—the chair sitting works against the efforts to re-educate and re-align the body. But still, it can be done, and gradually the natural sitting will become easier.
The meditation community has revived natural sitting at a cultural level. At least during meditation and dharma talks or satsang, the norm is autonomous sitting. There can be hours of sitting, and anyone who has experienced a meditation retreat will testify to the difficulty of sitting for so long. Walking goes hand in hand with sitting meditation, as many traditions have pilgrimages and walking meditations as integral to their practice.
However, these contemporary settings are not immune from their own social norms, where it is considered disrespectful to slump or recline. Many yoga and retreat centers have resorted to using a canvas covered back rest which mimics the chair–only at the level of the floor. This is not a solution, and from the standpoint of the New Ergonomics–is actually worse than most chairs. This backrest, rounds the back. It does not support the head and neck, which must therefore jut forward in an attempt to balance the body’s center of gravity that has gotten thrown off. Another quick fix is a type of harness or sling that straps around the lower back and attaches to the knees. This too is another way of mimicking the chair’s classic right-angled sitting position.
The best solution to sitting when the body is too tired to hold itself up without back support is true reclining. This means leaning back, as though you were in a chair, only your neck and head are supported. This position allows total rest for all the muscles, so they can recuperate from physical activity and be ready for more natural sitting. The “yoga lounge” which is a combination of bolsters and pillows borrowed from restorative yoga–could be used in many of these reclining activities. But even better is the new Eco Backrest™ which stays up better and has adjustable angles. When reclining isn’t an option, another solution is just leaning back lightly against a verticle surface such as a wall. This slight bit of support can do wonders to the comfort level. The Eco Backrest™ has a verticle setting for just this purpose. It can be used in conjunction with a zafu so back support is available when needed.
Since reclining is not acceptable in most yoga and meditation groups, the best solution is standing. When the sitting becomes too much, stand in place, right in front of where you were sitting. Then sit when you are ready again. Use the time in-between the formal meditations to lay down in your room and rest your back, or do restorative yoga poses.
BACK and NECK PAIN
You will be engaging some muscles that you haven’t used much. This can cause pain—from sore muscles. Also, the bones and ligaments are effected. Everything moves together. This way of sitting—and living—will start to wake up parts of the body that have been dormant or asleep. The body likes to stretch and bend, breath and move. You will feel tight spots, stuck places, cramps, tingling, numbness and other sensations. Congratulations! You are becoming aware of your body, tuning into its needs, reawakening its innate wisdom.
Reichian growthwork therapy, craniosacral therapy, somato-emotional release work and other healing modalities would even go so far as to say emotions are stored in the body (as “tissue memory” or “body armor”). These emotions can be released when the body is stimulated, loosened and re-aligned, thus freeing up energy also called ‘chi’, ‘prana’, ‘kundalini’ which leads to greater presence of being, flexibility and vitality.
Making changes towards natural sitting can have emotional repercussions. The patterns of thinking that have been ingrained in one’s consciousness since s/he was born are also ingrained in her/his body. Now these patterns are being challenged and threatened. Using the body differently may stir up resistance while one is overcoming the inertia of habit. It also may stir up other emotions the way bodywork therapies can. Sitting is a ‘loaded’ subject. Nobody wants to think the truths they have followed forever and taken as fact are flawed. It usually requires a person encounters some impending reason for change, such as physical pain or a desire for greater health or higher states of consciousness.
Activities and therapies like stretching, yoga, massage, Rolfing, chiropractic, craniosacral therapy, Reichi, walking, swimming, crawling, climbing, skateboarding, Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis–will help you get through the transition as well as become a regular part of your lifestyle. This is important to get the body initially into alignment so when you sit things are working together.
Sometimes pain people experience when they start natural sitting is pain they didn’t know they had because they didn’t try to put their body into alignment before. An asymmetrical body will not necessarily correct itself on its own. In fact, from the view of craniosacral therapy, people hold trauma in the body from birth to death if not corrected.
The first place most of us feel pain is the lower back. There are several yoga asanas to relieve this tightness. They are safe, simple and almost anyone can do them. Standing while bending toward the toes, standing while bending backwards arms over head, the whale (use a smile cushion or zafu), the cobra, hanging from a bar (decompresses the spine), twisting asanas, inversion therapy, massage.
Some pain can be remedied with simple stretching, but often some other remediation is needed. Natural sitting alone won’t correct all structural issues, but will work hand-in-hand with other therapies to get the body aligned faster and keep it there once alignment is achieved. Bodywork therapies can move us into alignment quickly and compliment our other work. And besides—it feels great.
For Active Sitting, the height and angle of your sitting surface should allow a 130-180 degree leg to spine angle. The lower the seat, the less the leg-to-spine angle. If the seat is too low and the leg-to-spine angle too small, for most people this will result in flattening the lower back (kyphosis–uneven pressure on vertebral disks) and too much effort from the muscles in front (or front loading). The neck will tend to jut forward as if chair sitting. If the seat is too tall, you will tend to slide off–or the front edge of the seat will run into the under side of your thigh–or there will be too much bend in the lower back (or all three). Look at the photos below to see examples of too low, too high, and just right. Any strain either front or back will usually result in some form of back/neck pain.
Besides having the right seat, one needs to also use it correctly. Even with the perfect seat at first we tend to hold the body in a position it is used to, with the neck jutting somewhat forward. Sit next to a mirror and see if your head, neck and back make one line together. Or just simply observe yourself, and how you feel. Also, ask a meditation or yoga teacher or someone else familiar with the somatic arts for advice. If you stand in Tadasana “standing like a mountain”—with legs slightly bent, feet shoulder distance apart, arms to the side loosely–use a wall to see how in alignment you are. Is the back of your head touching the wall, your buttocks, and your middle back? Now take this position and move into a seated position on a zafu, smile cushion, tilt seat, or Peace Bench. Can you keep the head-neck-back together as one unit, lined up together? Just for comparison, try to move from Tadasana to sitting on a regular chair. This is a very sensory way of feeling the benefits of natural sitting. You can use this technique as often as you like to see how your sitting is doing. Another useful exercise is to lie on a firm surface such as a rug or floor without a pillow. (Something under the neck is okay, but the back of the head should be on the same level as the back.) For most of us this will be impossible at first—to feel comfortable without a pillow—but this is the way it would feel if the head, neck, and back were in alignment.
LEGS/FEET FALLING ASLEEP/NUMBNESS/TINGING/CIRCULATION ISSUES
When a leg or foot “falls asleep” some combination of veins or nerves and/or capillaries have been pinched. Ironically, this can sometimes be caused by a seat that is too soft. You should be able to feel your ishials—or sit bones–on the seat surface. If not, the muscles get pushed into by the seat or cushion, which cuts into the nerves, capillaries and veins. If this is the case, you need a more firm cushion or bench and/or one with a wider and flatter surface. Play around with different seats to see what works. The wider and flatter the sitting surface the better. This spreads your weight over a broader area, so no one area is getting most of the pressure. Another factor which causes circulation impairment is a seat that digs into the bottom of your thigh, caused by a seat that is too tall.
Circulation issues can also be effected by factors other than the type of seat and sitting technique. One of those factors is the body’s ability to move blood and lymph to the extremities as well as clear wastes like lactic acid out. Katsuzo Nishi, an early health pioneer, developed a complete system for maintenance and recovery of good health based on a revolutionary theory about how circulation works. Nishi believed that the capillaries provided the true driving force of the circulatory system—not the heart and blood. And, in order to compensate for the obstruction of circulation in the four limbs resulting from the human species’ vertical posture, he proposed several exercises which stimulate capillary action—such as “Mokan Undo”, which involves lying on the back, raising the arms and legs and applying a slight vibrating motion, as well as a few others. Besides these exercises, Nishi also recommended methods making use of implements like a hard, half –cylinder pillow, design to keep the cerebral vertebrae in the ideal position from a structural standpoint and a flat sleeping platform (flat board) designed to do the same for the vertebrae of the spinal column. His ideas resonate with many of today’s practices in the somatic arts and New Ergonomics, reinforcing the fallacy of modern, overstuffed, over-built furniture, and how lack of movement leads to degenerative health. For instance, there are several “inversion therapy” devices on the market, including the Om Gym and the slant board. Many therapists recommend elevating the legs regularly—that means propping them on a pillow or chair while lying on the back. Restorative yoga uses many examples of inversion, including the one shown in the illustration to the right. And the buckwheat pillow—which has become popular in recent years–supports the contours of the head/neck without pushing the head out of alignment, similar to Nishi’s wooden half-cylindar pillow.
Sciatica is characterized by a shooting pain going up one or both legs. It is caused by some form of pinching of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica can be from mild to excruciating and has prevented many people from sitting. There are several approaches to dealing with sciatica.
1–Check your piriformis muscles. Bring knees to chest while
lying on your back and turn out one leg to rest your ankle over the knee
of your other bent leg and pull your knee to your chest. This stretches
the piriformis muscle.
2–Sitting cross legged (Indian Style) and leaning forward and to the left and right over each knee while leaning forward. Sometimes the Sciatica nerve splits the bundle of muscle we call the piriformis and if the piriformis is tight, your low back and sciatica will be sore.
3–Get someone to massage deep up along your inner pelvis muscles through your operator foramen (on either side of your anus area) and feel for tight inner pelvis muscles. Experiment by sitting in a chair and leaning to one side of the other from your center sitting position. Notice if you have a habit of tightening your inner pelvic muscles (butt muscles-sit bone area) to keep your self centered as you lean over. If you do, then relax your butt muscles and move or lean from your waist area, from your belly, with your belly relaxed.
4–If you keep your wallet in your back pocket, take it out and put it in your front pocket instead, or get a fanny pack, so you don’t displace your pelvis with the bulky wallet in the way of sitting centered.
ARTHRITIC TYPE PAIN/ACHING OR JOINTS
The most common area people have issues with this type of pain is in the hips, knees, feet and ankles. First make sure no added pressure is on these parts. In Burmese position, do not cross the legs, but make sure one foot—or ankle—is in front of the other. In kneeling position, place a rolled up sock or other small object under the ankles so the ankles have a bend, instead of having them flatten out. A seat which is too low can cause pressure on the hips.
When knee pain happens, it is sometimes because the hamstrings are tight. Some gentle, yoga type stretching of these muscles—on a regular basis–can often relieve knee pain. Also, sitting in a sky position or easy pose—on a taller seat–places less bend in the knee. This is often a great way to sit with persistent knee pain. This often helps with the hips as well.
When kneeling, to avoid pain in the ankles, place a rolled up sock between your ankle and the sitting surface. This will keep your ankles at the same angle as if you were standing, with no pressure from an extreme bend in the ankle. Also, hanging the feet off the back edge of the zabuton can work as well.
Arthritis can be caused by many factors: past injuries, heavy metal poisoning from dental amalgams and immunizations, and poor diet to name a few. This pain can prevent many people from natural sitting, and in this case will need to be handled from a nutritional and medical angle. Here is a great article on arthritis and what can be done to prevent and reverse the condition.
If mild pain arises while sitting, sometimes a shift of position is all that is needed, such as extending one or both legs out for a few minutes. See illustrations for examples of ways to alter your position without completely disrupting your sitting. Sitting on either a Tilt Seat™ or other similar chair–or on a zafu placed on a stool–is a great solution for people with limited flexibility and pain when getting up and down to the floor.
With natural sitting, the benefits of exercise and movement can be extended from the yoga mat and gym into everyday activities. to bring new possibilities in health and well being.
Here’s an excerpt pulled from a blog:
Correct posture: ear should line up with shoulder, hip, and ankle when standing comfortably. Common muscle aches (knots in the upper back) can be caused by walking with the head forward. The average human head weighs 8lbs when aligned with the spine, your body doesn’t really feel that 8lbs. When you start putting that head forward, it puts strain on certain muscles in your upper back that have to constantly carry around those extra 8 lbs. The head supporting muscles never get a break, they’re constantly working out, much more than other back muscles. This leads to the head-supporting muscles (HSM) becoming significantly stronger than other surrounding and supporting muscles.
Since the HSM are then constantly working out- they’re in almost constant contraction, stretching out the other surround and supporting muscles that are no longer strong enough to counter the HSM contractions. In order to prevent tearing, the other supporting muscles go into a super contraction (ie knot) that can be very painful. Rounded shoulders are another symptom of poor posture. If you work out your chest and glamor shoulders (the front part of the shoulders) without also working out the back and supporting shoulder, you get a similar problem to the knots in your back. Basically your chest/shoulder muscles become too strong for the muscles in your back and supporting shoulder to keep your shoulders aligned properly.
When laying flat on your back, with your right arm at your side, the distance between the ground and the point part of your shoulder (where the collar bones meet), should be 1 inch. The most common rounded shoulder weak muscle group are the ones that pull you shoulder blades together. Rounded shoulder posture leads to a lot of shoulder grinding problems (things aren’t aligned properly, your joint cartilage suffers). Carrying around a heavy backpack naturally leads to both of these problems. As kids and through puberty you begin to walk with your head forward and naturally round your shoulders, and start associate this with “natural.” Realize its a problem now, look in a mirror, and start walking correctly. It will feel weird (really weird) the first day. After 3 days you’ll still slouch and whatnot, but it shouldn’t feel weird to walk correctly. Within a week, I’ve started noticing I’m naturally correcting my back almost without thinking. Be ready though, my back was really tired for the first 3 days (I suppose using muscles that I rarely use will do that).
Long plateaus in lifting (for the weight lifters), is ALMOST ALWAYS as a result of weak stabilizing muscles. If your whole shoulder is in shape, you can lift more with any specific part of it compared to part of your shoulder being weak and trying to lift that same weight.