When it comes to squatting, we westerners stink. We don’t squat, can’t squat, and hardly know what squatting means.
When we want to rest, we use chairs or sofas. This terrible habit has left us with unnaturally short calf, hamstring, and lower back muscles and stiff ankle, knee, and hip joints. Psychologically, we are now so far removed from the concept of natural squatting that most of us think that squatting is “that thing weightlifters do for their quads” or “that very difficult yoga exercise”.
In fact squatting is a natural position of rest that our bodies were designed to do all day long, just like standing, walking, running, jumping, or lying down. Squatting is fundamental. And, like most fundamental activities, kids do it well as do members of less chair-addicted cultures.
So how do you regain that lost natural mobility? There are two options. The first option is to start doing various stretches for the individual joints and muscles. Or maybe to add squatting to your exercise routine. This is the option most commonly chosen. This option takes a long, long time and a lot of focus and dedication. In fact, studies show that to get any results in range of motion from stretching requires several months of stretching more than once per day. For most people this is logistically impossible, or just too hard to remember to do, and they give up before they can achieve the necessary mobility. Furthermore, with 40 hours or more per week of sitting and just a few hours per week of stretching in the yoga class, the sitting habits ultimately win out and we give up.
The second option is to “just squat”. This option is obvious, simple, fun, and effective. I am not talking about “doing squatting exercises”. I am talking about squatting in your daily life. Squat to eat. Squat to read. Squat at the computer. Squat to rest. In this way you will be working on your mobility throughout the day, without really thinking about it. You will integrate the activity into your life, so your body will want to maintain and improve the necessary mobility. It will add a new dimension to your day, so it will be fun and you will want to keep doing it. So you will.
But there is still a problem here. Most westerners can’t just squat. A lifetime of chair sitting has made it too difficult to squat.
Actually there a two barriers for us to squatting. The first is that we might feel silly or unusual squatting in a world full of chairs, desks and tables. This is not a problem. Just get over these feelings and/or do it when noone is around. That will already give plenty of times to practice. Start by sprinkling it into your daily routines. Once you get good at it, you probably won’t mind doing it in front of other people. The second problem is that we may not have the mobility to squat fully. This is also no problem. Start with the “semi-squat” positions listed below:
The most challenging squat for the typical westerner is the free squat on the left. This is what we are working towards eventually. So start simply with a low support like a bucket or stack of books under the bum at a comfortable height. When you get used to this, take out a few books and work your way down. Using a wall for support is also an easy solution. At the computer (right now in fact) you can squat on the chair and use the back rest to keep you balanced. Other options include squatting on your toes with or without one foot forward. This is a bit much to hold long without the toes getting tired, but a nice solution for short activites.
Speaking of activities – a few come to mind. How about folding the laundry in a squat, eating an apple, reading a book, waiting for a train (there is usually a wall in the station you can use easily and inconspicuously). I have a friend who swears that putting his feet up while he is on the toilet (see the diagram above) helps in numerous ways with his bowel movements. (There is even a product for this: www.squattypotty.com and apparently some research). Of course squatting while doing computer work is esssential for back and leg health, giving a nice stretch and energizing the whole body.
Try it. It feels great. It is one of those rare stretches that “does itself”. This is because it is not a stretch, it is a rest position. You will feel your back opening up, your achilles and calves lengthening, and your hip joints opening. When it gets uncomfortable, stop. Don’t get too ambitious about it. You’ve got plenty of time to adapt. Just find a semi-squat position that feels comfortable and start using it on a daily basis. When you are ready, go for a slightly deeper squat.
For lower back pain sufferers, take it slowly. Start with a low support and work your way down slowly. Don’t try to stretch your back – don’t push into the stretch. This is dangerous. Instead just think of lengthening right out the bottom of the bum and relaxing the back as you get more comfortable with the position. Rest into the position without forcing it. If it feels unsafe at all, you’ve gone way too far.
And that’s it. You are on your way to regaining your natural mobility by relearning a rest position that is natural, great for your joints and lower back, fun, portable and healthy.
Let me leave you with a few more radical thoughts. What if lots of people were squatting? Picture the streets – people squatting outside cafes, or just squatting to have a chat. How about people squatting on overfull trains or buses instead of just standing in the aisles or squatting in a cue at a theater. Instead of finding 20 chairs for a party, you could just assume that a large number of people would squat. Or imagine your workplace – people standing, squatting, sitting in different ways at different levels. Might not the atmosphere be a little different?
What if kids were allowed or even encouraged to squat in school? They are already great at squatting anyway. Might this not go a large way towards solving problems of posture and attention? Wouldn’t you feel a bit better about sending your kids to a place where they could explore different possibilities for sitting? What if kids never lost the ability to squat and just kept doing it, through high school and university classes, at bars and parties, and finally in meetings at their first job as if it was the most natural thing in the world?
Once you start thinking about squatting, you realize we have lost something fundamental and important. The good news is that the road back to squatting is pretty simple. We need to just start doing it.
Update: Sept 2015 – A colleague tells me that Slavs squat all the time. Apparently this may be true! link