How to Sit

"Chair-sitting is a learned skill, and without the right knowledge we get into pain and trouble." - SH

Chair-Sitting: The Dangers We Didn't Know

Is chair sitting really dangerous? After all, you just sit down and relax, right?  And if you want good posture, you just sit up straight. Also, no need to sweat standing up and moving around your office – find a good swivel chair with wheels, lumbar support and adjustable arm and headrests, and now you can sit down all day long!  What could be easier?  If you are experiencing pain, you spend a little extra money and get an ergonomic chair.  Chairs, chairs, there is a chair for everyone that will solve their problems. Ah! If it were only that simple!

Chairs are an essential part of our “practical” society. Isn’t it so?  However, there is often a cost to pay for practicality (like the convenience of the internal combustion engine leading to the possibility of oil spills, as has happened in the Gulf of Mexico.) Our excessive love for practicality is dangerous. 

The modern age has given us soft sofas, office swivel chairs, ergonomic bucket car seats and chairs to suit the taste for everyone.  This is so much better than what our ancestors used to sit upon – wooden planks, hard stools, the floor, a modest blanket or a pillow. However, has the body had enough time to adapt to this revolution? The latest research on the subject is showing distressing results. 

Many years ago, I too believed that these sitting comforts were necessary and healthy. It was part of an unconscious cultural agreement that simply was not questioned. However, science is not particularly polite with traditions and false assumptions (unless it has lost its commitment to truth because is being manipulated by an industry, as in the case of pharmaceuticals.)  Thus, new research, un-polite and politically incorrect, is showing us that seating in chairs can create illness and premature aging. You can be sure, as well, that the multi-billion dollar chair industry will do its very best to minimize or trivialize what good science is discovering.  

As a Feldenkrais® Practitioner for the past 20 years – helping people (that often were in pain for years) with neck and back pain, carpal tunnel and many other troubles - I came to strongly believe that chairs are not our friends. A hard, flat, wooden stool is the most intelligent choice – I have been telling my clients that for many years. For younger persons, I recommend living their “at home life" on the floor. Eat, play and work, study and watch TV – while sitting on the floor. Use cushions as needed.  Scientific research on this subject has validated my advice to clients, and fortunately is helping everyone to gain better insight.

A recent article in the April 30, 2010 issue of Business Week Magazine titled Your Office Chair Is Killing You might give us pause. The article cites university research and medical evidence that office chairs literally produce a host of physical illness that eventually lead to death.  Main culprits are the following: 

Modern chairs minimize effort to sustain the erect position.  As a direct result of this, we do not recruit the stronger postural muscles in the back that burn fat. 

These muscles when active produce valuable energy enzymes.  Living in a natural environment these strong muscles in our back were engaged most of our waking hours. Modern chairs however, “help” us to keep these muscles relaxed - immobile - most of the day, and we simply do not produce these crucial enzymes.

The two above factors combined are a time bomb ready to explode: weight gain, hypertension, obesity, high blood triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and high blood sugar for starters. 

As a curious note, most of the University researchers who study chairs do not own an office chair. Why? Because the conclusion from a scientific point of view is the following: 

"The longer people sit in chairs, the more trouble they get. The trouble cannot be corrected by any kind of exercise."  Do you see how troubling this is? 

"Short of sitting on a spike, you can't do much worse than a standard office chair," says Galen Cranz, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Business Week article also suggests that our conceptions about what makes a good chair has been given to us by the chair industry (sound familiar?). Bucket seats - total immobility of the pelvis and torso - were their creation and swivel chairs with wheels were their creation. Let the chair do the work, so our body can remain immobile! What we think about ergonomics may have more to do with marketing than good research. If the past is any guide, we can predict what will happen now. As the chair industry becomes aware of these issues, their marketing departments will get increased funding to counteract any negative effect on sales. Money will change hands between them and university and medical researchers. All of a sudden, we will start to see “university research” and “medical evidence” that "chairs, after all, are very helpful to stay in good health and live a long life."  Any contrary evidence will be portrayed as exaggerated and the result of bad research.  "Buy our latest model office chair that will fix all these problems!  Buy the latest model.  Be a good citizen; support the industry.”

I hope that when that happens you will think for yourself and trust your intuition and body. Try out the ideas suggested here, and see if you benefit.  Once you trust your body and intuition to inform you what is true, no industrial interest can manipulate you, not only in regard to chairs, but also in relation to dangerous pharmaceuticals, unnecessary surgeries, cancer producing scans and X rays, deadly pollution and chemicals like fluoride, etc. 

However, I know that most people will not give up their expensive chairs and too-comfortable sofas.  This is why in my Back and Neck Pain Relief workshops I teach how to sit in a chair to avoid damage, pain and other troubles. There is a way to mobilize your deep postural muscles even while sitting in a desk chair. It takes time to learn, however. Although our ancestors were right – hard stools, squatting or floor sitting is best -- when these somatic skills are learned, most chairs can be used safely. 

Here is the catch: it is a surprise to most of my workshop attendees how challenging this subject can be.  But it is worth the effort to learn since getting sick is not an option – not a rational one at least. 

To avoid damage from sitting in chairs we need to know quite a few things: how to avoid lifting the chin and compressing the back of the neck, how to properly support the sitting bones – while still using some cushioning on the buttocks - while keeping the tailbone free, how to correct the head-forward posture, how to sit up straight without stiffening the spine and chest (knees apart and the hips slightly higher than the knees are keys here), how to adjust the posture from the foundation upwards, and more

In my Workshop, I go through a handout that has 26 items to learn for functional chair sitting. These are all valuable precautions and hints to avoid the many damages resulting from sitting in chairs, and that now researchers are confirming.  Here I share with you five valuable ones. 


1- Chin Level - fundamental! 

This issue is too crucial to leave it to chance – get someone to check you. If the chin is too high (even 1/8 of an inch can cause neck damage), it means the entire weight of your head is inappropriately compressing the back of your spine.

Learn how to keep the chin level without tensing the front of the neck. This means let the chin drop with gravity, slowly, gracefully, by simply relaxing the neck and most especially the back of the neck. Relaxation of the neck will cause the chin to drop – it happens whenever you fall asleep in a chair.

Excellent corrective exercise: several times during the day, look up strongly while keeping the chin in. Please do it right now, it is simple but healing.  The true and permanent correction for chin-too-high or too low – and its serious consequences -- comes from strengthening the eyes to look up or down with ease. We may even spend most of our day like that without moving the head. The lazy-to-look up eyes are a prime source of neck and back pain, headache, spinal compression, and more: that's because we tilt the head up (chin too high) to let the eyes keep looking down. 

Surprisingly, one preventive approach for this is going to movies. Sit in the front row or so, keep your chin in and down slightly and look up strongly. This is an excellent exercise to regain eyeballs mobility. Let your head bobble in response to the eyeball movement, but don’t jerk it around to see the big screen.  Little kids intuitively love to do this. The older you get, the more you want to sit further towards the back. 

The eyes of little children move more freely than ours do, and their head turns only after their eyes turn, provided they go outside and play more often than they stay inside playing video-games and watching TV.  We adults, and kids who spend too much time in front of a screen - do exactly the opposite; we tend to jerk our head first, and then look. That is because our eyes have lost their natural mobility – essential to our survival.  Thus we sacrifice our quiet, dignified head carriage to perpetuate the immobility of our lazy eyes; this is a natural result of decades of downwards staring at TVs and computer screens, and reading books and magazines. Summary: habitual chin too high is caused by eyes being too lazy to look up, and jerking the head around is caused primarily by the vision being "constrained" into a "box" the size of a book or computer monitor.

Typical functional mistakes:  When we are about to stand up, we look around by lifting the chin; we could easily do this by simply moving our eyeballs.  If our computer screen is too high, we lift the chin instead of looking a little bit upward with our eyes only.  This last one is a horrible mistake! In time it creates chronic neck pain and even nerve damage.  And when we look down, we drop the head, instead of letting the eyes do most of the work of looking down. This creates stooped posture, in time.  If you can understand all of this, congratulations! It took me 15 years to get it.


2- Shoulder-Pull

(Occasionally Bring Your Shoulders Back - one at a time - and Pull Slightly Down Diagonally Towards the Opposite Hip)

Only a gentle tug. Please do it now. It takes a second and you will learn a skill that will serve you well for a lifetime.


As you do the exercise, notice the healthy spiral torsion of your upper body. The upper half of your spine is built for that movement. When you are slightly leaning forward and want to go back to a relaxed, erect posture – shoulders lined up over the hips -- this spiraling movement is the healthiest correction you can ever do.  It will never hurt you.  This exercise, as a matter of postural vigilance, is a very helpful practice. It communicates body-intelligence, grace and poise.

So, if you think you are slumping, and feel the need to sit up straighter – first bring the torso back by performing the spiraling movement recommended here. First with one shoulder then the next to get back to a better position. Never stiffen the back and lift the chest to straighten up – do this instead!

Why pull the shoulders back diagonally, one at a time?  Ours is an artificially flat culture – with flat floors, square rooms, flat walls, flat TV and computer screens, and so on.  Nature is three-dimensional and flat objects are rare.  This is influencing our self-image and the way we move -- moving, thinking, imagining and even breathing as if we were two dimensional, flat beings!

It is my opinion, and that of many mind-body practitioners, that because of this “flat mindset” we are abandoning our ancestral heritage of how to be athletic, happy, functional, and powerful. 

A swivel desk chair, on the other hand,  panders to our lazy inability to turn and twist our spine – so as years pass, our spine becomes like hardened concrete. Muscles we don’t use or move will tighten down, eventually becoming as hard as rock. 

We are not built “flat;” we are built in a spiral fashion, from the DNA of the cell, to every fiber, muscle, gland and tissue. The simple but powerful technique I am sharing here with you is based on this fundamental truth.  We all need to include spiraling movements in our lives or suffer the consequences during our “golden years” – which can easily turn into “grey years” by believing blindly what the industry wants us to belief.

Sitting in a chair is a forward-oriented posture. It encourages an over-identification with the frontal visual field and reaching forward only.  In fact, it is obvious, the only possible movement sitting in a chair is "go forward." Sitting on the floor is however, is tridimensional. Floor sitting supports all kinds of healthy spiral movements. This is one of the main advantage of floor sitting.


3- Keep Your Shoulders Down

 In the previous exercise, avoid lifting your shoulders up first. We're better off never doing that, except as an occasional exercise - such as shoulder rolls. Practice reaching with heavy elbows and grounded shoulders. Lifted shoulders mean the fragile neck muscles are taking the full weight of the shoulder girdle and arms – as years go by we may pay a high price for our unconscious habit. If you were to sit on the floor many hours a day – like our ancestors – you’d be reaching down often, and your shoulders would not be lifted. You'd have the habit of grounding the shoulders down as you reach, instead of slightly lifting them, as most people today in fact are doing. If you were to start eating on the floor, from today, your shoulder pain might go away. So again, chairs encourage a damaging habit. Who knew?  Most of us, sitting at a table to eat, are lifting our shoulders with every spoonful of food. Shrugging shoulders up is body language for “I give up” and our subconscious mind gets the message. We don’t want to practice such body language, right?

Become more mindful about not lifting shoulders unnecessarily. There are three secrets to doing this: first, use the elbows in such a way as to allow the shoulders to remain restfully grounded - think of "heavy" elbows and allow the elbows to find the right trajectory to keep shoulders down, while reaching. Second, think of quiet hands, relaxed hands. If your hands are over-tensing, your shoulders will always tend to lift. Finally, correct your head forward posture (as I teach in the workshop). Head forward posture will continually cause the shoulders to be lifted because of how the muscles attach. 

Don’t try to be ever-vigilant keeping your shoulders down. That would be neurotic. Plus, it won’t work – I have never seen it happen.  You need to learn strategies that - if you practice them a few times a day - will naturally encourage the shoulders to stay down. You won’t find that information in the popular culture, but you can get it in my handouts.  Give me a call or visit my website and blog --  -- I will be happy to share them with you. 


4- Free the Tailbone from Unnecessary Pressure. 

We have spent a lifetime compressing the tailbone, by sitting in so-called “ergonomic” bucket seats, soft chairs and sofas. Also, we may feel it is socially “illegal” to sense or move that area in sitting.  Believe me, we pay a high price for our compliance with such irrational conditioning: chronic back and leg pain, sexual dysfunctions, a “whimpy” or cowardly self-image, and much more. The reason we like to slump in a soft soft is to relieve pressure on the tailbone. Siting on a flat bench, the sitting bones naturally suspend the tailbone. Who knew? Again, the ancients were smarter than we are. We need a tailbone that is free, if we are to fully inherit our native ability to be creative, athletic, powerful and spiritual. 

It can take weeks to develop the ability to sense whether the tailbone is compressed or comfortably uncompressed. We have abused it for so many years! Experiment sensing and moving the pelvis “from” the tailbone, and you will eventually realize the need to even adjust the tension of your clothing in that area -- in order to release the tailbone. The tailbone wants only a feather touch. When the tailbone is free to move, the posture is properly adjusted and supported from the pelvis floor – what Nature intended.  We’d be better off wearing looser clothing like the ancients, so the tailbone would not always be touching clothing. 

Looser clothing will also allow the testicles to hang free in the case of men. When the undergarment is too tight, not only is the tailbone compressed slightly, but also a message of immobility is given to the entire area, by continually pressing the testicles up into the body. This is just as bad as pressure on the tailbone. Plus, there is medical evidence that lack of sexual potency in men is related to the testicles not hanging freely. They need to be slightly cooler than body temperature to function normally – that is why they hang down naturally.

Did you know the brain must do constant work to inhibit the sensation of clothing on skin, of clothing on tailbone? Such inhibition – not sensing skin or body parts – means that we do not have the full ability to sense and move that area as Nature intended.  Instead we are literally numbed down. We get body part amnesia.

When we encounter pain or difficulty in chair sitting, most of us make adjustments to the upper parts of the body first, instead of dealing immediately and directly with the foundation. Freeing the tailbone is often the most powerful adjustment we can do to get out of pain.  Paradoxically, we “correct” kids when they squirm in a chair, doing exactly that.  

There are many possible adjustments you can do at this level. And again, I encouraged you here to contact me and get my handouts.   This area is the foundation of sitting; adjustments at this foundation level are 100 times more effective than pulling shoulders back, lifting chest, etc.  Foundational!  We need to get intuitive and comfortable to move and sense this area.

Of course, soft chairs or sofas, bucket seats and most desk chairs tend to prevent such sensing and movement. However, once you mentor yourself to do it, it can be done even then. 

5- Powerful imagination exercises

Some people like the idea of thinking of an imaginary string tied to the ceiling, pulling the crown of the head up. Yes, this has value, but it ignores the foundation, the tailbone.  There are many such ideas, and all of them ignore the tailbone. When we take our tailbone “out of prison” a whole new world opens up, posture improves, breathing is easier, our life takes on a more hopeful and beautiful aspect. What are some ways to create good posture while using the tailbone? 

Gently imagine a beam of light coming up from the base of the pelvis to the tailbone and leaving the body through the top of your head. Alternatively, imagine the light being gathered at the point between the eyebrows (the spiritual eye).

Another exercise consists of chanting OM mentally while having the attention in the spine – from the base of the pelvis and up to the spiritual eye or the top of the head.

When we sense the entire spine as “one thing” in this way, postural adjustments come intuitively and at the correct moment. 

These exercises are powerful.  When practiced successfully they produce immediate, positive physiological responses in the body. The chin becomes level, excessive frontal visual orientation is immediately reduced, and you become taller! It is likely also that they have significant value for spiritual developmental purposes. 

Do not forget to include the tailbone in your self-image. We want to be able to sense it at will whenever we sit or walk or stand or even while doing the simplest movement. When you can think of the tailbone and the top of your head at the same instant (the image of a beam of light helps this) that means you can actually sense your spine as one piece, not as disconnected pieces - as is so common. Watch yourself closely as you do this. Is there even a 1/2 second gap between your awareness of the tailbone and the top of the head or is it exactly simultaneous? No right or wrong here, just notice, experiment, find out what works best for you. 


Do you want a little overly simplistic advice? Dump your chair; work standing up and use hard flat wooden stools when you must sit. Dump your Western toilet, get a squatting toilet (they do exist). Eat and work and relax while sitting on the floor. These changes, while drastic, will give immediate improvements to your health and well-being, and prolong your youth. Such changes, as well, can help cure and prevent numerous conditions such as carpal tunnel, back pain, neck pain, breathing troubles, hip pain and more.

For an elaborated chair-sitting practice, click here.

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin