HOW SETTLED ARE YOU in your seat? If you’re sitting on a chair of any sort, you may have already joined the ranks of the uncomfortably settled.
The health hazards of sitting are making news: A recent poster published by The Washington Post graphically depicts the disease, degeneration and correlating death that may result from too much cushion warming.
The Post’s tips suggest sitting up straight, away from the chair back, shoulders relaxed, arms bent at the elbows and close to the sides, relying on the body’s underpinnings,
A rarer option is abandoning the chair to come to the ground. Sitting on the floor gives new meaning to supporting oneself. And because most of us can’t sit on the floor for any great length of time, we move around more than we would when planted in a chair.
Sitting on the floor reconnects us with the earthiness of being alive. It can be easier to find one’s center of gravity without furniture’s encumbrances. Some consider the practice “grounding,” believing it calms and centers the mind while energizing the body.
“It’s a confidence builder,” says Sally Craig, who teaches gentle yoga at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in D.C. “Being aware of where your body is in space. Having that level of body awareness is critically important for avoiding falls or falling safely, with the least amount of damage.”
A relatively new fitness measurement known as the sitting-rising test (SRT) assigns points to the amount of effort required for a person to sit down on and rise from the floor. NBC News reports that in people of all ages, SRT results correspond with longevity.
“The simple act of sitting on the floor (and getting up again) can increase the strength and flexibility of your legs, hips and back,” writes Victoria Moran in Younger by the Day. “Excessive sitting on chairs, on the other hand — unless you are acutely conscious of your posture and the placement of your body in space — encourages relaxed abdominals and rounded shoulders.”
Yet, for many of us, sitting on the floor is not as easy as it was in the last century, when our limber little bodies were called to the carpet for kindergarten circle time.
“For some people, it’s very uncomfortable to sit cross-legged on the floor,” says Craig. “That’s actually an anatomical situation. It has a lot to do with how open people’s hips are, and the way that their hips are open.”
As an alternative, she’ll have students sit on the floor with legs extended.
“There’s nothing like having a room full of people your age or older down on the floor,” says Craig, who turns 72 next month. Her students range in age from 65 to 90.
Sitting on the floor can restore a sense of childlike aplomb, whether in a yoga class or at home.
On the ground, we play with pets, kids and grandkids. Being on the floor levels the playing field with family and friends; we leave the hierarchical arrangement of living room furniture to gather on a rug around a board game or warm up before a fireplace with a glass of wine or mug of cider.
If sitting on the floor is already natural for you, carry on, accepting changes along the way. We all need to keep at it.
“I’ve noticed it’s harder for me to get up and down off the floor,” Craig says. “To get up, I have to go from sitting to table pose to kneeling and then lift my hips up. I look for things to hold onto.”
If sitting on the floor is new for you, get cleared by your doctor and your common sense, then move slowly. Stay near a sturdy chair or bench. Consider engaging a yoga teacher or movement specialist for guidance. Be safe.
Once on the floor, shift your position every few minutes. As Craig points out, “There are all sorts of ways of being on the floor besides just sitting.”
Transition to the floor in stages. If you’re accustomed to an Aeron chair, try taking a phone call perched on a stool, engaging the muscles of front and back body to keep you upright.
If you’re propped on a sofa tapping at your laptop, slip down to the carpet, set the machine on a low table, and align the neck long and shoulders broad and strong.
To investigate a cross-legged seat, tuck feet beneath shins to support opposite thighs. Keep the level of the knees below the hips by propping the sitting bones on a folded blanket or cushion. Your bottom will be on the support, thighs on the floor.
Imagine, as Eric Franklin urges in Dynamic Alignment through Imagery, that you have sneakers on the sitting bones. Rise through the crown of the head and let shoulder blades slide down the back as you roll the pubic bone forward. When the pelvis feels neutral, draw the spine perpendicular to the floor. Get a sense of the ribbon of spine supporting torso, especially the lumbar curve at the spine’s base.
Tuck a support — rolled towels or small pillows — beneath the knees to alleviate strain. Be sure to alternate the cross of the legs. Check out Richard Rosen’s The Yoga of Breath, for supported sitting postures using blankets and other props.
Keep in mind that sitting, like standing, is about balance. Balance requires establishing a solid base (feet or sitting bones, depending) on which to arrange hips, shoulders and ears in vertical relationship.
The head is heavy — 10 to 12 pounds. So no matter where you are sitting — even in a chair — gently situate the skull so that it feels light, even suspended.
And know that, no matter where you are, altering the body’s position in space affects what the mind perceives.
Alexa Mergen teaches private lessons in yoga and meditation in Washington, D.C. and edits Yoga Stanza.