Your Position in Life

If you’re interested in reading more on ideas presented in the article below, I suggest reading Don’t Just Sit There: Transitioning to a Standing and Dynamic Workstation for Whole-Body Health. If you’d like movement instruction via video, start with Alignment Snacks: Hips Don’t Lie, They Sit.

Good question in my Ask Katy today:

“Standing work stations are clearly a good idea and I have fashioned one for myself.  But what is too much standing? We all know that people whose jobs require constant standing like restaurant servers and factory workers are often plagued with varicose veins. Is there a balance to be struck here?”

This is a great question.

So, we’ve got a situation where sitting constantly is creating disease and standing constantly is creating disease.  Do you see the theme?  Although the research and media are going to probably miss the boat on this one, the problem isn’t the sitting (or the standing, for that matter), but the constant and continuous use of a single position.  Even this question smacks of someone from a North American and European perspective.  As if sitting is bad and standing is bad, the only option left must be lying down.  As if there is only three choices to how you position your body.  As if there isn’t about a thousand different ways you could position your body.

Believe it or not, the positions you are able to get your body in were learned via observation.  Our culture’s use of chairs and toilets, our beliefs in what our posture means to others (think of women who cross their legs and adjust their heads to demure or men who jut their chests and flex their elbows to communicate authority), and even our clothing (rigid shoes, narrow skirts for women, etc.) have all resulted in self-induced joint-rigidity.  All the movements you have never done are movements that would have toned muscle, keeps connective tissues moist and supple, and blood oxygen flowing evenly, to all areas of the body.  Instead, we have huge chunks of unused muscles, bones scraping together at the joints and increasing friction (causing osteoarthritis) and we are constantly medicating to make living possible in our physical agony.  This all sounds pretty depressing, I know, but the totally awesome, super-cool and exciting thing is it can be different whenever you’re ready.

Another awesome thing is, while I may seem like the only person saying this strange things, there are actually other people out there who have researched this for the last one hundred years.  The big difference between then and now was 1) there wasn’t the internet, which must have made it very difficult to share insights collectively, and 2) there is a wide breadth of subjects a “good education” covers.  Most of the people observing the very real phenomenon of cultural postural habits and habitual uses of the body (physical anthropologists) and the people in charge of health education and prescription (medical community) are two completely different sciences.  They don’t even talk to each other, even at parties.  But, I am hopeful my education in Biomechanics of Human Movement and Disease coupled with my awesome typing skills and Al Gore’s internet is going to help.   How is this information ever going to get to you, the people?  One blog at a time, I guess.

One extremely cool journal article from 1955 reported the findings of physical anthropology professor Gordon W. Hewes, World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits.  It is an amazing read, and if you’d like to have more than my take on it, you can get it here: http://www.jstor.org/pss/666393

As many anthropologists know, the way we move is mostly a result of our cultural inheritances and has very little to go with genetics.  Clothing, terrain, temperature, gender, class, and fear are only a few of the many factors that affect how we adjust our joints when sitting and standing.  Hewes reported on about 100 resting postures of the world, and I have posted this image from the study so you can see, perhaps, why our Western joint health and metabolism (which is dependent on muscle length) is the poorest in the world.

So, we need to think bigger.  There is more than just sitting and standing.  Create ten different options of each!  If you have a standing work station, stand a few different ways every hour.  When you sit, sit a few different ways every hour. Open your mind and open your joints!  When you get home, stay out of your chairs and try out a lot of these Worldly Options.  (Note:  If you don’t have a spear, a broom may work…)  Circle the ones you can’t maintain for longer than five minutes and make a note to practice that posture at the beginning and the end of an exercise session.  And, parents, don’t insist that kids sit in the same fashion as us stiffer folks and allow them to explore other options.  And, join them!  They can teach you something about natural movement.

Also, if you do spend a yoga/stretching class cycling through10 or so of these postures, know that while this cycle is a good thing, getting back into the sitting position the other 6-10 hours of the day reduces your health just the same.  Adjust the way you sit, as often as possible for a real, deep, and cellular change.

Hewes concludes his research:

Physiologists, anatomists, and orthopedists, to say nothing of specialists in physical education, have dealt exhaustively with a few “ideal” postures-principally the fairly rigid attention stance beloved of the drillmaster, and student’s or stenographer’s habits of sitting at desks. The English postural vocabulary is mediocre-a fact which in itself inhibits our thinking about posture. Quite the opposite is true of the languages of India, where the yoga system has developed an elaborate postural terminology and rationale, perhaps the world’s richest. In conclusion I should like to stress the deficiencies in our scientific concern with postural behavior, many of which arise simply from the all too common neglect (by nonanthropologists) of cross-cultural data.

I concur.

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27 thoughts on “Your Position in Life

  1. As a child who always had, restlessness, or the “schpilkes,” as my mother called it, I found yoga at age 11. A body’s innate intelligence does not want to be trapped in a boring school desk! Keep publishing Katy, we are listening and starting a revolution, some “regression” is good!

  2. Oh my goodness, there I am! Number 2 on the chart! I used to wash dishes with one leg hitched up on the other like that (no sword to lean on, though). I stood like that a lot for stationary taskst. I don’t anymore… wonder why… Ever heard of Esther Gokhale? She wrote an interesting book on posture and back pain relief from a physical anthropology sort of standpoint, with lots of photos. I found it fascinating.

  3. When I was in school, I ALWAYS sat cross legged at my desk, and the other kids thought I was a freak and made fun of me! Now, at 7 months pregnant, I frequently sit in a squat, cross legged, or with my feet together in front of me and knees on the floor (extreme butterfly stretch). I’ve had people say to me “how can you sit like that?!” But it’s the only way I’m comfortable! I also sleep in about a million different positions, from my side to my stomach (when not preggo), legs wrapped around stuff or straight down…The only thing I can’t stand is to lay on my back.

  4. Katy, I just found you and couldn’t be happier. In prenatal yoga class last night we did your series of squat preps you posted. Thank you! All our ClearSpring Yoga teachers have received a link to your blog.

    Personally, I do sit a lot at my other job. You have inspired me anew to change it up.

    Greetings from Chattanooga, TN

    Stephanie

  5. In your opinion, is sitting on the big exercise ball instead of an office chair helpful? I’m miserable (my lower back is) in the chair I have–it doesn’t have too many ergonomic adjustments. I used to sit on a ball (I work at home) but didn’t get it back in action when we moved. Interested to hear your take on the ball seat option.

  6. A lot of these positions seem to be impossible to get into without sitting on the sacrum, which I understand is NOT good. Any input? Am I missing something?

    1. Melissa,
      YOU may be too tight to get into the positions without sitting on the sacrum (our Western hips won’t open, so instead, we force the sacrum to the floor). These positions should be done with the Sitting Bones (ischial tuberosities) on the floor, not the sacrum. Tight Hamstrings need to be dealt with ASAP! – Katy

  7. Katy, I was wondering if you have any tips on how to encourage kids to keep their flexibility as they get older? I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old and I wish I could still get into the positions they do (but I’m working on that!).

    1. Gail: It sounds like you kids are already encouraged to be flexible. The will be encouraged by your constant work on your own flexibility (animals learn via observation, so anything you want to teach, just DO). I guarantee that the time you spend asking your kids “show me how you get into this position” will be rewarded with enthusiasm and they will keep that in their memory, always! – Katy

  8. Thanks so much for this! As a dancer and a mom and a childbirth educator I love all your uncommon common sense! I set this image as my wallpaper to remind me to keep moving, hope that’s okay. I always send my mom a link to your new posts in the hope that she’ll apply some of your advice to sort out her hip issues…

  9. Ever since I was quite young I’ve wondered why its so uncomfortable for me to sit with my legs stretched out straight in front of me and my back unsupported (figures 70-75). So what’s the reason behind that, and what muscles do I need to strengthen to fix that?

    THanks so much for the awesome blog!

    1. HI Bella,
      It’s your hamstrings, and psoas – see my most recent blog as well as the one on hamstrings (just use *hamstrings* as a search term!

  10. Thanks for the post. Will repost and share with my clients immediately. Most of us are just so interested in what is Good and what is Bad forgetting that there is a vast sea of possibilites in between. And that applies to life as well:)

  11. When I see images like this I realise how restricted my body really is by these socially imposed shackles: the pencil skirt and pantihose.
    I can just imagine what my colleagues would say if I started squatting at my desk- LOL!

  12. LOVE IT! My observations around this were confirmed when we had an exchange student from Kenya live with us. The difference in movement was phenomenal – hips did EVERYTHING. He wanted to be a fitness trainer so we talked movement all the time. Of course, he never sat in a chair at home…on the floor in a variety of positions. Only in school did he sit in a chair. No “formal” sports training, just playing soccer wherever and whenever, climbing, running with friends. He came to live with us in August and by November, he was stiffening up with resulting psoas spasms with sports. Thanks for putting info into an easy, digestable form!

  13. I was born with cerebral palsy and I was always told not to W sit.
    In doing so, I have become much stiffer and my body is quite tight.

  14. Hi, I like the sitting chart. Do you have a list of names to describe each sitting position?

    Thanks,
    Carla

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