Chairs: The Seat of Wisdom

Is there a perfect chair?

A chair that encourages an easy upright posture, a minimum amount of harmful strain, and that is comfortable to sit in throughout the day?

Most Alexander Technique teachers would say “no” – that the harmful postures people exhibit when sitting are primarily a function of the way in which they sit, not the object they sit on.

F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Technique himself said – in this case about “correct” school furniture:  “…what we need to do is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, nor develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon.”

And just how can you (or your child) acquire that skill?

Simple: take a course of Alexander Technique lessons from a qualified teacher.

And, by the way, a portion of your lessons will consist of “chair work” – sitting in a chair, standing up, sitting down again.  A teaching procedure almost as old as the Technique itself.

There is certainly a lot to be said for taking Alexander Technique lessons in order to be able to sit more easily – especially these days when many of us are sitting for longer and longer portions of the day.

But of course the same sort of argument be made for – let’s say – coal miners working in a four-foot shaft.

With proper Alexander Technique training, they could spend their long and hard-working days in a “posture of mechanical advantage” – ankles, knees and hips easily bent, head releasing gently away from their unstressed torso.

I wonder how many Alexander Technique teachers would willingly sign up for this experiment!

I think we need to admit that there are some activities we humans just aren’t well adapted for – and that maybe sitting for long periods is one of them.

That’s the argument made by Galen Cranz, a Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley and a teacher of the Alexander Technique.  She is the author of The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design, a fascinating book on many levels, and one I highly recommend to anyone who uses a chair.  She also wrote an essay titled The Chair as a Health Hazard.

The title pretty much gives away her general take on chairs!

Galen makes a few specific suggestions for sitting – using a stool that’s about 1 1/2 times as high as a standard chair, “perching”, and using a lounge chair.

This latter idea will probably come as a shock to most Alexander Technique teachers and students, but like all of her suggestions it is deeply rooted in basic Alexander Technique concepts.

Galen challenges some long-held Alexander Technique beliefs, but her thinking is solidly based on basic Alexander Technique principles and I believe her ideas are worth serious consideration.

You can listen to an interview I did with her for the Alexander Technique Podcast here:

What are your views on this important subject? How important is it that we learn to sit well in any chair?  What do you do to look after yourself while sitting? Do you use a non-standard chair or sitting surface when you can?

Chair Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net  Recliner Image: Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Comments

Chairs: The Seat of Wisdom — 18 Comments

    • Hi Halvard,

      I think Galen expresses it pretty clearly in her article and interview – my summary would be she feels we’re not really designed for sitting for long periods on chairs and that while the Alexander Technique can help us do that better – and that’s a useful thing – we ought to be encouraging our students to use alternative arrangements – a stool, for example.

      • Hi Robert,
        We are not designed for sitting for long periods. We are designed to move. I think every AT teacher will agree to that. I’ve never come across any belief to the contrary.

        Regards,
        Halvard

  1. It delights me to know that a professor at my Alma Mater is also an Alexander technique teacher and author. Thanks for this, Robert!

    It is my belief that the chair is almost besides the point, really. I might be in the minority opinion here, but it’s not really about the chair. It’s about how the student reacts to the chair and about how the teacher reacts to the student reacting to the chair.

    At least, that more or less describes what goes through my mind when teaching. I make every attempt to suspend my intention to teach the student how to get in and out of the chair. The chair becomes a mnemonic for teaching the principles of the technique.

    • For a long time, Marj Barstow refused to help students stand up from a chair because it triggered all sorts of Alexander Technique-ish ideas of trying to do it “correctly” and she just didn’t want to deal with that. Later, she relented, but her approach was absolutely nothing like traditional chair work – she rarely used her hands and focused mainly of the student’s thinking.

      • I am glad about what you say about Marj Barstow’s chair work, Robert. It is pretty much the way I have come to do chair work – but to see that I am in good company gives me confidence!

  2. Robert,

    I think your post raises some great questions! I took a workshop with Galen last year and was really impressed by her work and her thoughts on the Technique. While I believe all of us should learn how to be comfortable in our bodies no matter where we are in space, I tend to agree with Galen’s notion that we were not designed to sit 8 to 10 hours a day, day in and day out — that we were not designed to stay static in ANY position or do ANY movement repetitively over a lifetime. I think this will cause us harm no matter how efficiently we learn to engage in those activities.

    The Alexander Technique is a unique tool that aids us in becoming as balanced, poised, and as efficient as possible in any activity (and changes the way we think about ourselves and how we relate to the world around us but this is besides the point) and I think we all agree on that. However, if there is a stool that allows us to better open our hip joints, or even a wrist-rest that helps us take a bit of the strain off our wrists and elbows, I am happy choose those tools for myself and my students PROVIDED they don’t RELY on those tools to take the place of good use.

  3. I have been studying Ms. Cranz book The Chair quite intensively and am convinced she is right about moving being our natural state, not staying too long in any one posture, and that most chairs, even the best chairs, make good use harder.

    As a result, I am making some radical changes in my life — I got rid of my easy chair of 30 years when I realized it was making me tired and causing damage to my good use.

    I now sit on an exercise ball and a stool, and I stand a lot more.

    The results of these changes (only 3 days ago!) have been remarkable — much more energy, much less time spent undoing bad use caused by chairs.

    I am 6ft 3in tall and am looking for a laptop/reading stand that I can use in various positions including standing up. It would have to be adjustable between maybe 3 and 5 feet or so. I’ve found nothing on the market will do this.

    Does anyone know of such a stand?

    • Hi Steve,

      That’s excellent – I’m glad to hear how much it’s helped you. I’m sure you’ll discover even more benefits over the coming weeks.

      You might want to check out what other Alexander teachers have to say about sitting well here: http://bodylearningcast.com/sitting/

      Regarding the stand, I don’t have any ideas? Does anyone else? You might want to post the question on the AT email discussion group.

      Robert

    • Maybe the kind of stand a conductor uses? Or musicians? That might be a possible source – on the other hand, googling for “lectern” might bring about a result.
      I am actually thinking along the same lines. A carpenter might be able to make one – with adjustable height – fairly easily. If I find anything suitable, I will come back to this blog and post it.

  4. “Level and firm” is what I say when asked. And then explain how the body can use that clear information to carry out and maintain the postural reflexes. And I very often teach the ‘educated slump’….working in the sofa with firming up the seat, using cushions of all shapes and density, being aware of the head being supported according to where you wish to look – is the guy in the photo really lying there with his head unsupported and poked forward to, I guess, watch TV?! 😮 AND remembering the flow from feet to head within the shape you are making. It’s been fascinating to work with this, and students are coming back with very positive feedback, including, “I tried everything, but for doing ‘x’, nothing worked and I found ‘level and firm’ in an ordinary chair preferable’. Great awareness! Great blog, thanks, Robert.

  5. Pingback: How to Improve Productivity, Project Confidence, and Be Comfortable with your Computer Posture Part 7: Workstation Set-Up – BodyIntelligence

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