Recently, an Alexander technique student of mine complained to me that sitting up straight required more energy than his usual slouch. “Does it hurt?” I asked? No, he said, it was just more tiring. “Good! You are starting to get it,” I said to his surprise.
We tend to think sitting as resting. As soon as the bum hits the chair we slouch forward, “hanging” from our back muscles and ligaments. Apparently this makes us feel like we can devote full attention to the computer or whatever else we are doing – as if we become a kind of hanging brain, computing the information in front of us with the body limply providing nutrients. After 8 hours or so of this, we reactivate the body and head back into the real world.
As you might guess, this kind of sitting causes some problems. “Resting” into a slouch does not rest your spinal discs. The intervertebral pressure is much higher in a slouch than in vertical alignment, no matter how relaxed your muscles might feel. As you tip off of vertical, the muscles and ligaments exert larger forces to keep things from collapsing. Also, in a slouch the surfaces of the discs form a wedge, which tends to squeeze the disk back toward the spinal cord. Finally, a slouch creates an uneven distribution of muscle tone, in some parts the spine hanging from the ligaments, and in other parts, such as the neck, the muscles working extra hard to hold up the protruding head.
Does this mean that sitting up straight is just stacking up the spine with no effort? Not quite. The center of mass of the trunk and head are on average in front of the spine. In addition, small movements of the spine require stabilizing forces. These two biomechanical facts mean that a vertical spine requires an active back – i.e. energetic sitting.
a slouch creates an uneven distribution of muscle tone, in some parts the spine hanging from the ligaments, and in other parts, such as the neck, the muscles working extra hard to hold up the protruding head.
Unlike slouching the muscle tone in energetic sitting is more evenly distributed. Rather than hanging limply your trunk is actively supported by muscle tone that spans the whole back. And of course the vertical spine means less pressure on the discs.
Energetic sitting affects the way you work. Instead of “settling in” to drop down into your work, you energizing up to attack your projects with vigor. Yes it takes a little more energy. Yes it is unusual for many people. Yes you might need some help figuring out how to do it well. But once you get used to it, it becomes a perfectly natural way to work. Both your mind and your body are energized. Makes more sense, doesn’t it?
Another benefit of energetic sitting has to do with stress and deadlines. Stress gets the adrenaline pumping, your mind working faster, and raises your anxiety level. Your muscle activity also increases, as the body gets “ready for action”.
A slouched body doesn’t quite know how to handle this increase in activity. The extra stress generates localized pockets of muscle tension in the neck, shoulders and lower back rather than distributing the energy evenly. This extra localized tension in turn distorts the spine even more and we enter a downward spiral of localized tension, fixation, and misuse. Stress should lead to action, but in a collapsed sit, it just generates more fixation.
In contrast, a nice and long and active back accepts stress more naturally. The back is already slightly toned along the whole spine and is not fixed. Stress actually feeds the erect attitude positively. The increased muscle tone and energy are evenly distributed across the back. You feel ready to act – not just to finish the project or meet the deadline, but you actually sit taller and feel ready to move.
So we now we return to my student’s original complaint. Does energetic sitting tire you out? Yes, eventually, of course. But you should feel tired after a long day of sitting. Your day has demanded alot of energy – both mental and physical and you’ve distributed that energy well. This is good fatigue. It is closer to the kind of fatigue you feel after exercise. You don’t feel disconnected, malcoordinated, heavy, or stiff as you do after a day of slouching. You just feel tired all over and ready to take it easy – ready for a good lie down or a walk.