Chairs Have Become Our Greatest Foes and Best Companions
How to make the relationship with your sitting chum a healthy one.
Chairs create an interesting conundrum: when you see one, you want to sit in it, but once you’re sitting, you can’t wait to get out. No matter how fancy or cozy they claim to be — even those luxe or ergonomic chairs that cost a fortune — after 1, 2, 3…or 8 hours in them, you can’t take the actual sitting part out of the equation.
Why is it no matter how often you shift positions, cross your legs, sway, rock, lean forward, lean back, arch your back, slouch, use a cushion under, to the side, behind..…just hoping to find the perfect spot that feels just right, that comfy sensation flees just as quickly as it came?
Take a moment to think about something pretty rudimentary to offer some perspective: is the body designed to sit for long periods of time? By the looks of the size of our ischial tuberosity (sitting bones), that would be a no.
Back in the days when survival depended upon hunting and gathering, humans didn’t need to rely on their sitz bones so heavily. But as the foragers advanced and lifestyles changed, the waking hours became increasingly more sedentary.
Today, most mortals don’t risk their lives or even break a sweat to gather food for their families. Many jobs (especially these days) are done from home — while sitting. What would our predecessors have said?
Homo sapiens adapted and survived, so what’s the problem here?
Yes, the human race adapted and survived. But at what price? What does quality of life look like currently? Sitting in a chair for 7–10 hours a day? Sure, it might seem more sophisticated than the lives led by our hunter-gatherer counterparts, but it’s unlikely the latter dealt with obesity and a plethora of other illnesses resulting from sedentary lifestyles.
To be fair, they had their own adversaries, but as mankind has evolved, there’s been substantial devolving as well.
For starters, how is it possible to sit for about 7–10 hours a day, anyway? Easily. By not doing it well. Seeking comfort in a chair often ends up looking like slouching or rounding the back in an attempt to relax. That’s just the body’s way of saying, “Hey, I’ve been sitting for too long, I need a break.”
Another well-meaning effort comes in the form of a self-correcting method of “sitting up straight” to ward off “bad posture”. This is achieved by arching and straining the back into a soldier pose. However, it’s impossible to sit up straight because the back has a natural curvature. The myth of a straight back must be dispelled, but I digress…
Both rounding and arching the back put undue tension on the spine and cause it to constrict. This also leads to back, shoulder and neck pain. Something frequent and long-term sitters are all too familiar with.
As an Alexander Technique teacher, I encounter a multitude of individuals who suffer from chronic pain. A common denominator among them all is excessive sitting. Since the bulk of Western culture spends the majority of their day sitting down, associating back pain with sedentary lifestyles isn’t exactly an epiphany.
Despite acknowledging you probably shouldn’t be sitting that much — you still do. It’s a habit which has become a way of life for people of all ages, all walks of life and from every corner of the world.
While sitting in a chair for hours can trigger undesired sitting habits, such as unknowingly rounding the back or leaning into a screen, the issue isn’t about the chair but rather realizing what you are doing with your body as you sit in it. Therefore, the blame shouldn’t rest entirely on this unassuming sitting companion.
It might make more sense to look at a person’s relationship with food to better understand the role of habits as opposed to the object at hand. For example, how would one define food? Is it a friend or foe? That, of course, depends on whom you ask. Someone desperately trying to lose weight might view it as an old nemesis, out to tantalize and torment with temptation. Perhaps in their view, food is something they can’t and won’t ever be able to control.
Yet another person who doesn’t struggle with weight, might not give food much thought. They eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. They can choose to eat healthy, or choose not to, but they aren’t forced to think about caloric intake because their body isn’t alerting them anything is wrong…yet.
It would be easy to surmise the person who struggles with weight is at a greater risk, but they’re more aware now because of their experience. The person who doesn’t share the same struggle might be living on potato chips and soft drinks and one day find themselves with high cholesterol and/or diabetes.
The former is forced to be more mindful because their body is visibly signaling them with weight gain or other health issues. The latter doesn’t give a second thought to what they eat, no awareness in what they do, because they might look thin. It’s a similar scenario with the chair.
Not only do chairs trigger a response in our brain akin to food (when you see a chair, you think of sitting; when you smell something cooking, you think of eating), but what you sense while sitting in your chair speaks volumes about your level of mindfulness.
When I find myself uncomfortable after sitting in a chair for a lengthy period of time, I know it’s time to get up and take a break. If I don’t have time to walk around just then, I take note of what’s happening with the way I’m using my whole body — which includes my thoughts — at that moment.
If you find yourself shifting positions constantly by trying to find a ‘comfortable spot’, you are being alerted through awareness that what you are doing isn’t working. In contrast, someone who is completely unaware of how they manage their mind-body relationship can sit hunched over in front of their screen for hours, and not sense anything is off balance.
Perhaps they’ve never even noticed their back hurts, but then suddenly feel a shooting pain or sciatic nerve and end up in the ER, completely baffled by what could possibly have brought on this pain. While the former is uncomfortable in their chair, they are mindful of their discomfort and hence, are searching for a solution. The latter — who is unobservant, has no alerts, and consequently, is more at risk.
The chair is emblematic of much more than sitting. It is a metaphor for how one might live their life. If the only awareness you have toward your chair is wanting to get in or out of it, ask yourself what else you might be missing.
What transpires within your body as you lean to sit down or move up out of the chair can speak volumes about your mindfulness. The process of sitting occurs somewhere in between getting in and out of the chair; it is often misunderstood or disregarded.
Just as Steven Tyler so poignantly sang, “Life’s a journey, not a destination…” at the end of the day, isn’t that what life is supposed to be about? What happens in the process. Yes, you might need to sit for several hours a day. You likely want to get up, but can’t because you have a lot of work left to do. Yet, how are you managing your body while sitting down? What does your process look like?
Imagine this: if your goal is to be comfortable, then why not be mindful from the very first time you get into the chair? What are you doing with your whole being? Are you aware your knees can also be used to help you get in the chair, or do you just plop down mindlessly to sit?
The next time you go to sit in your chair, try bending your knees to their full extent as you descend towards it, but rather than brace yourself for the chair, imagine you’re going to squat all the way to the ground instead. This way, the chair meets you along your way to the ground. While you don’t actually have to squat to the ground (though you could) extending the knees to avoid collapsing into a chair offsets excessive pressure on the spine and permits fluidity and ease.
You can also think about your head floating up to the ceiling while your feet are rooted in the ground. When these directions are implemented, they can take a significant amount of pressure off your back and help alleviate pain as well as prevent slouching.
The chair can persist as a trusted companion if we use it as a tool it was designed for rather than the crutch it has become. Instead of eliciting the response of wanting to mindlessly plop into it, the chair can serve as a stimulus for us to support ourselves by remaining upright as it sustains us from below.
Humans have evolved to rely on the chair and I don’t anticipate a shift anytime soon. The problem isn’t the chair itself, for the chair is just a symbol — a prop. The bigger issue is what we do with it. Remember, is food a friend or foe? Someone who has a balanced relationship with food might say a friend; it helps keep them alive. Another who feels like food controls their life might view it as their enemy.
The chair functions in a similar way — it is an object that can help or hinder. One can learn to use the chair in a way which lifts them up — and be mindful of efficient muscles to employ as they sit, and subsequently improve their health, or, they can become enslaved to their chair by blindly collapsing into it everyday, and consequently, what unfolds thereafter.
The choice to change a habit is always your own. How you acknowledge that choice is yet another conundrum: change bears the key to the ease with which you can live your life, or, it can serve as a your greatest challenge, the incessant reminder you are getting in your own way.
I write and teach about the mind-body connection and its relationship to health and well-being.