Updated: Nov 15, 2019
We all know that we shouldn’t sit for too long at a desk – prehistoric man didn’t sit at all, and you rarely see our relatives the chimpanzees arranging themselves for long seated style.
It’s not all bad news – unlike the chimps, we did evolve to sit, but we didn’t evolve to stay seated FOR LONG AMOUNTS OF TIME Yet while humankind is brilliant and skilled, and creative and inventive, we don’t find it easy to do what is good for us.
If you do a desk based job the chances are you are sitting at least 6 hours a day and probably more. You’re doing it, it’s happening and it's happening many days of the year. If you happened to see 'Emma, the office worker of the future' in the news a few weeks ago you should now be more aware of some of the pitfalls related to this way of life.
If you ever develop acute back pain (like I did) or happen upon the health guidance that is out there you will get told to get up every 20 minutes from your desk and take a 5 minute break. Sound advice – and like a lot of advice, unlikely in many cases to happen. Whether it's office culture, deadlines, or self-inflicted pressure it all drives us to stay sitting down in that chair.
Ok so seeing as you are seated, here is a practical set of tips that will help you to sit better.
I recommend you work through each stage of the 5 points as you read them and take a few breaths in between. This should feel like a calming process.
1) First of all, find your sitting bones. These are your good friends. Move the fleshy bit of your bum out the way (with your hands if you need to) and really find them. They feel like two solid entities and you can rock backwards and forwards easily if you are really sitting on them. These are your very cool inbuilt rocking chairs, and if you sit on them, you will instantly be sitting better. For a lot of people sitting on them will feel like moving forward.
2) Now send some attention to your feet. Where are they?
Wrapped around the chair, crossed over, on tip toes? Your feet are there to help you balance whatever position you are in, so get your toes and the front of your feet onto the floor. Your heels too if you can but if they refuse it's fine, let them be.
If your feet are really struggling to touch the floor either move the height of your chair, or if you can’t or the desk is too tall, then put a flat item (old phone directory, pile of discarded metros) under you feet as a foot rest. You want your feet to be making contact with a steady and solid surface.
Be sure to move any stuff out of the way under your desk too (your gym kit, the files, your outfit for later) and enough away so they cannot be kicked by you and you are not touching them.
3) Now notice where your thighs make contact with your chair. Do you feel like they are 'holding' onto the chair at all? Keeping your feet on the ground, see if your legs are nice and free to move around by waggling your knees out to either side. Do they feel happy to do that or are they locked at all? A lot of people use up extra energy by holding their legs when they sit down and do one or both of these things.
Now you’ve got your sitting bones and feet taken care of you can definitely afford to relax in your legs. Take a breath, and a moment to particularly notice your groin area followed by your shins and ankles. Where can you let go of tension? To do this you don't need to 'do' anything in terms of a movement, just notice if you feel like you're holding on anywhere in your muscles, just ask your body to release the extra tension. Trust that your body can take care of this - it can!
4) Now take your attention up to the top of your head. The crown of your head should be headed towards the ceiling. You do not want to pull your body up to make your head reach higher. This is a common misconception when people learn The Alexander Technique. Instead you want to use the solid base you have created in your sitting bones, feet and legs to give you a good foundation. From your dear old sitting bones up to the top of your head is one super strong unit which incorporates your head, neck and back. Imagine your head poised lightly on the top of your neck. Think about this, take a few deep breaths and think about having more width and length and more freedom in your torso. Don’t force anything, just allow your breath and the power of stability of your bum, feet and legs to allow you to stop holding on in your torso and on your breath. Give yourself a chance to enjoy this feeling.
5) Now it's time to think about your keyboard and how you are going to get to it.
Leaving the rest of your torso and back where it is, you want to feel as if you are floating your hands towards the keyboard. You can lift your arms lightly by having bent arms and allowing your elbows to point out sideways away from the rest of your body. This will allow your elbows and wrists to share the weight of your hands. Let your fingers rest very lightly on your keyboard and when you do type think about using the minimum force necessary to make that letter appear on your screen.
Now you're ready to work, avoid the temptation to lean forward to look at your screen. If you can’t see it clearly from where you are then it's time to make an appointment with an optician. Straining at a keyboard all day is going to damage you in lots of ways.
If you can see it, remember it’s actually your brain that sees and all your eyes need to do is remain open and interested to receive the information in front of you. Tensing your eyes up is really common but you don't need to do it.
Well done, you did it! This will have been a 5 minute and maybe longer job today with all the extra thinking, but do it regularly and this preparation will become easy and much quicker. This type of thinking in movement is just one of the ways that Alexander teachers and pupils learn to get the best from their bodies without causing themselves harm or slipping into bad habits. As you practice this type of thinking movement becomes stronger and more comfortable.
Wherever you work, you can improve how you sit. And if you're thinking that laptop screens don't offer you great alignment for your head and neck you'd be right. If you're working for long periods on a laptop I would definitely recommend getting a mobile keyboard and raising the laptop higher so the screen is closer to your eyeline. Maybe this is a future post...
Image: Thank you to Christian Lambert via Unsplash.