Paul Linden – Posture and The Politics of Chairs

The third extract from somatic master Paul Linden’s new book…Are you sitting comfortably?



You wouldn’t think that something as common and solid as a chair would have a political dimension, would you? Well, every human construction comes out of our beliefs and values, and perhaps the most powerful political values are the ones that are so normal and so pervasive that they are invisible.

There are so many varieties of chair—from stools, to easy chairs, to thrones — but we can focus on the simple kind of chair that you often find in libraries, dining rooms, cafeterias, offices and so on. Take a look at the first photographs here. What do you notice? Probably nothing strikes you as being out of the ordinary, and you would be right. It is an ordinary chair and an ordinary way of sitting. However, let’s analyze some angles. Notice that the chair back leans rearward. Because of that, the torso from the hip sockets to the shoulders leans to the rear. But the head does not. The head is upright, perpendicular to the ground, so that the eyes will point forward instead of upward toward the ceiling. That means that the head is held forward of the spine rather than supported directly on top of it. On this chair, the seatpan (the part of the chair you sit on) slopes only slightly to the rear. Many chairs have a more pronounced slant to the seat pan. In any case, any rearward slant increases the rearward tilt of the body.

SITTING: Try finding a chair with a pronounced rearward slant of the seatpan. What do you feel when you sit in it? What do you feel in the muscles of the head/neck? Try slowly moving your
head even more forward. What does bringing your head forward do to your chest and ribs, and to your breathing? Most people will feel that when their head is forward, the weight of the head creates a constant, fatiguing strain. And most people will feel that when their head is forward, their ribs are compressed and breathing takes more effort.

Why would chairs be constructed to increase strain and fatigue? It has to do with the concept of support. With the seat pan and seat back tipped to the rear, the chair forms a bowl into which the body is “poured.” The rearward slant creates a semi-reclined posture. The body’s weight is moved to the rear and the seat pan and chair back both function in supporting the body’s weight. The idea is that when the chair takes the body’s weight, the body doesn’t have to work as hard. However, notice the contradiction. When the chair takes the body’s weight (by tipping the body to the rear), more work and more strain are created. For contrast, examine the second photograph. By sitting forward on the flat, level front edge of the chair, a truly upright posture becomes possible. The head is supported from underneath by the spinal column, and the breathing is free. When the body supports its own weight in a more natural sitting posture, less strain is experienced. This is how infants sit, with an easy uprightness. Many adults, though, need personal instruction to rediscover this natural sitting posture. This where the political dimension comes in. Every time you sit in a chair, you are given the subliminal message that the human being is too weak to depend on him/herself and must be supported by outside structure. This is even has a spiritual element to it. Chairs offer a systematic training in dependence and loss of self. By learning to sit in a more structurally balanced fashion, you are really practicing
finding and remembering your core. Sitting at lunch or sitting in front of your computer can encompass a meditative dimension of self-remembering and selfbalancing.

For an in-depth consideration of sitting, see my book Comfort at Your Computer.