As a teacher of the Alexander Technique*, I am frequently asked about chairs by my students, and about which designs are best. Some have been given very expensive, ergonomically-designed chairs at work and wonder if they are actually any better than ordinary ones. Others complain about their car seats, or about the curved plastic chairs often found in waiting rooms and in many airport lounges.
It is certainly true that some chairs are a lot more comfortable than others, and that some chairs make it easier to have a healthier upright posture. But even if you could find the “perfect chair”, you could hardly carry it around with you all day long. Sooner or later, you would be confronted with a choice between standing or sitting in a less than desirable chair.
From an Alexander Technique perspective, looking for the “perfect chair” is an exercise in futility. It is our body that sits in a chair, and if we want to improve our comfort and health, our primary attention must be directed at improving our own functioning – that is, what we do with our own body when we sit.
It’s a sort of “bad news, good news” situation: The bad news is that we can’t blame our aches and pains on our furniture. As the cartoon character Pogo once remarked, “We have met the enemy and they is us!” The good news is that we have it within our power to change the way we sit and, in fact, we can learn how to sit well in virtually any situation that presents itself to us.
But what about those expensive ergonomically-designed chairs? Won’t they insure good seating posture at least during the time you’re using them?
I’m afraid the answer is “no”. It’s entirely possible to slouch, or distort your body in other ways while using these chairs. An ergonomist colleague of mine tells me that offices around the country are littered with unused very expensive chairs (and other furniture items) because they haven’t been heplpful.
In fact, some ergonomic designs are positively harmful. When I lived in England, training to become an Alexander Technique teacher, I often had occasion to use the British Rail system. I soon noticed three distinct types of seats: older, very basic, seats with padded flat bottoms and backs; somewhat newer seats (from the 1950’s and 60’s) that had a forward bend in the seat backs; and some quite new seats that combined an exaggerated bend with a forward-protruding head rest.
I noticed that the newer chairs made it very difficult for the average rider to sit without having his or her head pushed so far forward that a slouch was almost inevitable. These new seats were among the most challenging I’ve ever encountered. The older chairs were far better because their neutral design didn’t force unnatural body contortions.
I learned that the new seats were designed by ergonomists and that the way they went about their design was to match the chair to posture of the average rider. But the average rider has pretty poor sitting posture to begin with, so these chairs were simply reinforcing that prevailing pattern.
So, what advice can I give regarding chairs? First, don’t look to a chair as the primary solution to poor posture – remember it’s your posture and so it’s you that has to learn how to change it. But if you have a choice, I recommend very simple, basic designs – fairly flat, reasonably firm bottoms and backs that do not force your torso into any particular shape.
In addition, there’s a lot to be said for having your knees at a lower height that your hips. This tends to encourage the natural “double C” curvature of your spine that provides easy upright support for your body. The simplest way to do this is to use a stool whose base is higher than the typical chair when you can. My students are often skeptical when I recommend this (“There’s no backrest!) but most of those who try it for a few days report feeling far more comfortable once they get used to the added height.
*The Alexander Technique is a century-old method of learning how to release harmful tension from your body. It can teach you ways to direct your body so that you can have an easy upright posture in virtually any sitting situation you find yourself in. The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique is a comprehensive information source.
Nowhere is the interplay of ergonomic and Alexander Technique concepts better illustrated than in the design of the chair, and the ways in which we use them. The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design provides a wonderfully fresh look at an object so common in our society that most of us pay little or no attention to it. Galen Cranz, a professor of architecture at the University of California Berkeley and a teacher of the Alexander Technique, has written what is probably the definitive work on this topic. Everybody who sits on chairs can learn a great deal from this very readable book. You can order this, and a great many other books and DVDs at the Alexander Technique Bookstore
Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique in Lincoln, Nebraska and Toronto Canada.