Galen Cranz in her excellent book The Chair tells the following story.
In 1852 an English colonialist working in India voiced his complaint about the local workmen. He was particularly indignant that blacksmiths, carpenters and masons squatted to work, complaining indignantly “All work with their knees nearly on a level with their chin” He noted that this posture suggested “indolence and inefficiency…especially irritating to an Englishman” but even more so to one who hires and pays such workmen.
As the workmen ignored his orders to cease working in this way he bolted their anvils to a table, but within a day or two his workers had taken to squatting on stools in order to reach their anvils. At this point the colonialist gave us reasoning that he could not get them to stand because of “a deficiency of muscular power in the lower limbs” which he attributed to their not using chairs. (1)
The hip joint, or acetabulofemoral joint, is a ball and socket joint between the head of the femur (the ball) and acetabulum (the socket) of the pelvis. A major function is to support the weight of the body both statically and in movement. The weight of the trunk is connected through the pelvis to the femur, legs and feet via this joint, and there is an optimum balance of the angle of the pelvis that transmits this weight in line with the design of this joint (and indeed all of the weight-bearing joints of the body).
It is also the major joint for flexing the body. As I indicated in my article on the paschimottanasana, if we fail to use this joint through its appropriate range of movement when forward bending, we will be putting inappropriate flexion through the spine and stressing the sacroiliac joint, and in fact this is what most people do in the numerous day to day activities which involve bending forwards.
For most people, the terms hip and hip joint are rather vaguely understood. If we ask a group of people where their hip joints are we will get a range of different responses. A number will point to the top of their iliac crests, others to their greater trochanters, and others in the general direction of the pelvis. As a result, when yoga or movement teachers ask people to bend from their hip joints, different people will interpret this instruction in different ways. Therefore, it is important for people to have a clear idea of exactly where their hip joints are.
This joint is not palpable through the muscle and connective tissue. The closest we can get to its location is if we put the hand over the public symphysis as it spans the distance between the two joints (see Fig 1). As we can see in Figs 1 & 2 it is a very deep joint.
The most common movement (at least for the bulk of human history) that works the hip joint through the major part of its range of movement is squatting. However, after a lifetime of sitting in chairs and using sit-upon toilets, most Westerners have lost the ability to squat with any degree of comfort or coordination. Yet this is a posture that human beings have used since the dawn of time. Even now as we see children beginning to walk they are constantly moving from standing to squatting (Fig 3), but their familiarity with this posture is quickly lost.
By contrast, if we look at people who have been brought up in cultures where squatting is the norm, we will see that they are able to squat with their heels planted firmly on the ground, the arches of their feet activated, their knees abducted from the mid-line, and the torso and spine lengthening. We also know that in cultures in which squatting is part of daily activities (Fig 4), there is much less osteoarthritis of the hip joint and back problems than there is in Western countries.
What is the effect, then, on people living in a culture where they never exercise a major part of their flexibility which has been used on a daily basis by human beings and their ancestors over millions of years? I believe that the ill effects on posture, movement and wellbeing are both profound and widespread. In chair sitting, the most common tendency is to fall into a slump through the whole torso either by poking the head forward and rounding the upper back or by tilting the pelvis so that they are sitting on their sacrum, or a compensatory movement called “sitting up straight” where the extensor muscles are overused to maintain uprightness. At the same time legs are commonly held tightly, often being adducted (pulled towards each other) and contracted into the hip joints, or one leg (always the same one) is crossed tightly over the other.
This distortion of the body puts pressure through most of the joints, muscles and organs of the body which predispose towards a whole range of symptoms ranging from back and neck pain, headaches, RSI, knee pain and hip problems, not to mention the concomitant restriction of the breath and the pressure put on the internal organs.
In this article I will focus on the subject of squatting. In the classical yoga texts there is no asana which incorporates squatting as it was so much a part of daily life that there was no reason to either practice it or to develop the ability to squat.
Restoring our ability to squat
We want to move towards the ability to squat with our heels on the floor and with a slight but lengthening curve through the spine, ease in the neck, back and shoulders and the knees angling out over the feet in such a way that the feet maintain a full healthy arch (Fig 5 & 6).
What we often see as people attempt this posture is that many cannot keep their heels to the floor, or if they can, their legs collapse inwards, collapsing the arches of the feet (Fig 7). In addition, most who may be able to maintain their heels in contact with the floor will find that their back will round strongly forwards as this is the only way they can avoid falling backwards in the pose.
There is not just one muscle or group of muscles that have to be worked on to regain the ability to squat. Some people will notice a marked restriction in their ankle joints, others in their calf muscles or hip flexors, but in fact it is a whole body restriction. Some people who are quite flexible find that they can’t squat as far or as comfortably as others with stiffer muscle tone. The problem is how to coordinate the whole body in this movement. It doesn’t require great flexibility, just properly coordinated flexibility, and this coordinated flexibility can gradually be developed.
Here is a series of movements that I use in my Alexander yoga classes to develop squatting. They are based on a practice developed by F.M.
Alexander and used by many Alexander teachers in their lessons. Alexander developed a way of working in a semi-squat which he described as a “position of mechanical advantage” and which is know more colloquially as “the monkey” (Fig 8).
Going into the monkey involves the student firstly coming into overall coordination by giving him or herself a series of verbal instructions to activate the upward and expansive forces within the body, sending the head forward and up with the whole body following as the torso bends forwards from the hip joint and the knees release forward in such a way that as he or she lowers in space, the weight distribution through to the feet continues through the ankle joint, thus maintaining the overall “up” from the arches of the feet.
When done accurately and precisely, this activates a pattern of mutually balanced antagonistic pulls through the musculature and connective tissue of the body. In this position it is possible to take the torso out of its habitual contraction and/or collapse so that we can activate a widening of the back, a freeing of the floating ribs, and an opening of the breathing. Care must be taken to ensure that the weight is being supported directly through the feet so that there is no excess gripping through the lower back, buttocks or legs, all of which need to be doing the precise minimum of work required in maintaining this posture.
Finding a balance with this posture is not easy for many people and it may take a significant amount one-on-one work with an Alexander Technique teacher to achieve this.
Procedure for developing the squat
Come into “the monkey” standing behind a chair. Place both hands on the back of the chair, making sure that you don’t collapse your torso or tighten your legs to do this. Then push the chair forwards maintaining the same position through the torso until your arms are fully extended. Then allowing the head to lead the movement, hinge the whole torso forwards until you are at a right angle at your hip joints and your torso is parallel with the floor. Your back should be neither rounded in nor out, but rather lengthening through the natural curves of the spine, which in this position will be less curved than when you are standing upright.
However, some people will find that as they hinge forwards their pelvis doesn’t continue to rotate and instead they round forwards through the torso (Fig 9). This will be for one of two reasons. Firstly, although the physical flexibility exists, the person does not have a mental movement pathway for this to happen. For many people it appears that the knees bending forwards and the pelvis rotating forwards simultaneously are contradictory movements, and in such cases people will automatically straighten their legs as the pelvis rotates forwards or will rotate the pelvis backwards when they bend their knees. The second reason is that they are tight through their hamstrings, and even though the knees are bent the pull of the hamstring prevents the pelvis from rotating further forwards.
In the first case, a teacher can manually and verbally guide the student through the movement. In the case where no teacher is present, then the practitioner may use a mirror, visualise the movement she requires and begin to experiment as to how she could achieve it. In this case great care should be taken to make sure that she is continuing to keep her neck free throughout this process.
In the second case, the practitioner should just go as far forwards as possible, not going into a full right angle from the torso. This provides a gentle but wonderful hamstring stretch for these students who should then learn how to apply this movement in their daily activities that involve bending forwards.
In both cases, once the student reaches the point of maximum length, expansion and opening in the posture, they can stay there simply projecting the Alexander directions without attempting to do them.
The next stage from here, with the hands still on the chair but perhaps coming down lower on the chair as they move, is to continue to lengthen the torso as they come towards a full squat with heels on the floor and the knees pointing out over the centre of the feet.
WARNING: you should never ever feel strain or pain in your knees in this or any other yoga posture. If it feels like you will strain your knees then go only as far as is comfortable. You may find over time that you will be able to move further.
Once your legs are fully bent, then, if you have the flexibility, you can move your pelvis towards the floor coming towards a more upright squat, but if you have to round your back to do this then stay further forwards – more flexibility will come slowly but surely.
And for those for whom this is quite impossible you can put some support under your heels rather than fall over or completely distort the whole body in an attempt to do this.
Another way of working with squatting is to do supported squats - holding onto another person, a door handle or heavy object such as a table when squatting in order to prevent oneself from falling backwards (Fig 10).
Gradually, while working from the monkey to squatting, the whole body will begin to open up. The tendency to either collapse and/or over-contract the back will gradually reduce as the muscles of the back become both released and toned. As the back lengthens and widens, the quality of its tissue and musculature changes, allowing the ribs to move with the breath. The diaphragm, which has previously been restricted by the lack of movement of the floating ribs, is able to move easily in response to the demands of breathing, and pressure will be taken off the organs of the abdomen.
Also in squatting, the hip joints are exercised through their full range of movement and for most people it is easier to work the feet in a way that encourages the maintenance of their natural arches. The movement of the knee joints are in accordance with the joint’s design, and muscle imbalances which predispose incorrect tracking of the knee and collapse or over-contraction of the feet will be corrected in the hip rotators and leg muscles.
Incorporating squatting into our everyday life
Of course, we can always simply incorporate the squatting position into our daily life. How? We could replace the old toilet with a squat toilet. Or, if that might be too much for visitors and you are a one-toilet household, you can squat on the seat or purchase a platform that can be placed over the toilet. For more information on this topic, go to: http://www.relfe.com/toilet_seat_constipation.html.
“…our ordinary everyday activities can be made a constant means of psychophysical development in its fullest sense” F.M. Alexander (2)
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