Chairs are a funny little paradox: when we see them, we want to sit in them, and when we sit in them, we can't wait to get out. They never seem that comfortable, despite spending the majority of our waking hours sitting in them. How often do we shift positions, cross our legs, sway, rock, lean forward, lean back, arch our backs, slouch, put a cushion under us, behind us…hoping to find that spot that feels just right, only to have it flee just as quickly as it came?
Let us take a moment to think about something pretty rudimentary to give us some perspective: Are our bodies designed to sit for long periods of time? By the looks of the size of our sitting bones, that would be a no.
Back in the days when we had to survive through hunting and gathering, we didn’t need to rely on our sitting bones so heavily. But as our species progressed and evolved, our lifestyles became more sedentary. Today, we provide food for ourselves and our families through an income earned in a job that often requires a lot of sitting. But...we adapted and survived, so what’s the problem here?
It’s true, we adapted and survived. But at what price? What does our quality of life look like? Sitting in a chair for 7-10 hours a day? Sure, we might feel more sophisticated than our hunter and gatherer counterparts, but I doubt they dealt with obesity and a plethora of other illnesses resulting from sedentary lifestyles. To be fair, they had their own adversaries, but as much as we’ve evolved in many aspects of life, we’ve also devolved plenty.
How is it possible to sit for about 7-10 hours a day, anyway? Easily. By not doing it well. We make it ‘easier’ for ourselves to sit in our chairs. We slouch, or round our backs, thinking that we’re just 'relaxing' in our chair. Sometimes we catch ourselves, or someone else might notice, and we quickly try to ‘sit up straight’ by over-correcting and arching. Not a good idea, as both put undue pressure on the spine and cause it to constrict. This also leads to back, shoulder and neck pain.
As an Alexander Technique teacher, I encounter many people who suffer from chronic pain. The common denominator among them is excessive sitting. Most of us are guilty of this, so it's not really an epiphany. So....what's the bottom line here? Have we become so enslaved to our chairs that we don't even realize what we are doing to our bodies as we sit? Well, yes, pretty much. But that doesn't mean that the chair can't become our friend, either.
Is food our friend? Well that depends on who you ask. Someone desperately trying to lose weight is battling every day with what and how much to eat, trying to find some kind of moderation. They might view food as something they can’t control, or their 'enemy'. Yet another person who doesn’t share that struggle, might not give food that much thought. They eat when they’re hungry and stop when they're full. They might eat healthy, they might not, but they aren’t forced to think about their weight because their body isn't alerting them that anything is wrong...yet.
It would be easy to surmise that the person who struggles with weight is more at risk, but actually, they are the ones who are learning to be more mindful. The person who doesn’t share that struggle might be living on potato chips and coke and one day find themselves with high cholesterol and/or diabetes. The former is forced to be more mindful because their body is alerting them with signs such as 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 we see a chair, we think of sitting; when we smell something cooking, we think of eating), but how we feel in our chair tells us a lot about our mindfulness. For example, if we feel uncomfortable sitting in our chair, and we shift positions constantly trying to find that 'comfortable spot' our body is signaling to us that what we are doing isn't working for our body. In contrast, someone who is completely out of tune with their body can sit hunched over in front of their screen for hours, and not feel a thing. They might never even notice that 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 aware of their discomfort and hence, are searching for a solution. The latter, completely unaware, has no alerts, and consequently, is more at risk.
The chair is emblematic of much more than sitting. It is a metaphor for how we live our lives. We only think about sitting in the chair or getting out of it. But what happens to our bodies as we get in and out of the chair can tell us a lot about our health. That process, what happens somewhere in between getting in and out of the chair, is what I call, 'the journey'. I love the line from the song, “Amazing” by Aerosmith, where Steven Tyler sings, “Life’s a journey, not a destination…” At the end of the day, isn't that what life is supposed to be about? What we do in the process. Sure we ultimately want to get in, or get out of the chair, just like we want to achieve many other goals in life, but what happens in between? How did we get there?
Let’s really think about this: if our goal is to be comfortable, then why not be mindful from the very first time we get into that chair? What are we doing with our bodies? Are we using our knees to help us get in the chair, or do we just plop down mindlessly to sit? Try extending your knees out next time you sit in your chair and you’ll see how much easier it is to get in it. Also think about your head being lifted up to the ceiling and your feet being rooted into the ground. These directions actually help take a lot of pressure off of our backs and help alleviate pain as well as prevent us from slouching.
The bottom line: I believe that the chair is indeed our friend. We’ve evolved to rely on it and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The real issue here isn’t the chair itself, for the chair is just a symbol. The real issue is what we do in that chair. For example, is food a friend or foe? Well that depends on who you ask. Someone who has a balanced relationship with food is going to say it’s a friend; it helps them survive. Someone who is off-balance in their relationship with food is going to see food as their enemy-- something that controls them. It’s similar with the chair. We can learn how to use the chair in a way that lifts us up, and grow and improve our health as a result, or we can become enslaved to the chair by blindly collapsing into it everyday, and consequently, hating it. The choice is always ours. How we find that choice is both the beauty of life, and its greatest enigma.
To learn more about how to improve health and posture with the Alexander Technique click here.