Adjusting or upgrading our chair can really make a difference to our comfort and pain levels. The same goes for the desk, bicycle or backpack we use. In this post, I explain what Alexander Technique teachers say about our chairs. But first, here’s a short story to illustrate that great equipment is only part of the solution - how we use it is equally, if not more, important.
How my friend sits over a meal
I have just had lunch with a 65 year old, who I haven’t seen for a long time. As we met, this tall man walked towards me with a distinct stoop, his head forward but craned up. 20 years ago, he stood proud.
Over our meal, he chose to sit on a soft cushiony bench seat, instead of an upright chair. He slumped appallingly, saying this was his preferred type of seat. His lower back was strained, his chest compressed, and his neck pulled back tightly. He sat like this for nearly an hour as we ate. (I didn’t know him well enough to gently tell him!)
Can you picture how he sat? It is his mental picture of himself that is most at fault here.
What is wrong with his thinking?
He feels most comfortable when his spine is constantly in tension, and is in fact shortening. He has no intuitive sense of lengthening and broadening his whole torso, so that the limbs move freely and the head is balanced on top of the spine
His body map is telling him “instinctively” that the right places to bend are in the lower back and base of the neck. If only he understood that the hip joints are much lower, and that the spine meets the head very high up – as I explain in earlier blogposts. The most critical point to understand here is about alignment of mental image and body mechanics. If your mental picture of how your body works is wrong, it will continually struggle to obey this faulty picture.
The pose adopted by the ‘thinker’ pictured to the right shows us graphically how our body and mind are a unity.
Does the chair, table height or back pack matter?
Yes, they do. We’re not all the same. There is a huge variation in body height and length of our limbs. Furthermore, habits vary from one person to the next. Uniformly designed furniture does not suit all our needs.
Our patterns of chair use build up over many years. Alexander teacher Richard Brennan has campaigned for years to ban backward-sloping chairs from schools in Ireland – see http://www.alexander.ie/chairscampaign.html. He points out that the National Back Pain Association in Britain reported that such school chairs are a major cause of back pain in adults.
Michael Stenning and Leonie Johns, two Alexander teachers based in Canberra, Australia have even designed their own chair, and they give a concise picture of what can go wrong with our sitting. See http://freedominaction.com.au/resources/sitting-without-strain-2/
Professor Galen Cranz is both a design expert and an Alexander Teacher. She has written a book about the chair in human culture. In a short powerful article available on-line (Cranz 2000), Prof Cranz uses illustrations to highlight the effect on our bodies of different sitting positions and chair design. She shows how efforts by chair designers to solve one problem affecting the head, pelvis, hips and spine have only led to others. She makes impressive statements about ‘the inherent instability of the seated posture’ but balances this by criticising a cultural assumption that it is ‘too tiring to sit upright without support’.
Prof Cranz emphasises five principles from Alexander Technique and relates these to problems with the chair and how we sit – the statement I like best under the first principle is : ‘disorganisation at the head-neck joint will ricochet throughout the body’. The next four principles cover : recognising the force of habit; acknowledging the subjective nature of what feels good; the power of simple thoughts (based on a scientific understanding) to guide our movement; and finally saying no to our old habits.
Her arguments are also summarised and well-illustrated in a 2008 article - http://bodyconsciousdesign.com/uploads/interview_galen_cranz_portland.pdf.
How you use the equipment around you is critical. Helping people address their ingrained habits is the key contribution of Alexander Technique to our well-being. Not everyone can tilt their chair forwards, adjust their desk height, or buy a new backpack. But getting the right gear is also important.
Galen Cranz (2000) The Alexander Technique in the world of design: posture and the common chair Part I: the chair as health hazard. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Vol 4; Part 2, pp.90-98. (available http://alexandertechnique.com/resources/JBMT-alex.pdf).
Galen Cranz (2008) The Chair: It is time to rethink ergonomics. Portland Spaces. Oct-Nov 2008, pp.103-108. (available http://bodyconsciousdesign.com/uploads/interview_galen_cranz_portland.pdf).