On my first trip to Bali, I found myself talking to two young men eating lunch by a magnificent waterfall. Beyond the scenery and the ongoing discussion, what really caught my attention was that both of these Balinese men were squatting with ease the whole time they were eating their lunch. I asked them how they could squat for so long with such grace and ease. They shrugged their shoulders like it was a stupid question, but I immediately knew the answer. They could squat with ease because squatting is built into their culture and they’ve been doing it their whole lives.
About two thirds of the planet squats routinely – whether to rest, eat, pray, give birth, or evacuate their bowels. In the West, squatting evolved into something seen as undignified and uncomfortable, and sitting in chairs eventually became the norm. When the British created toilets, they made them to resemble a throne. What they gained in perceived dignity, they lost in intestinal prowess. Studies now show that greater hip flexion is correlated with less bowel strain – a big selling factor for the manufacturers of the Squatty Potty.
The only reason it’s so difficult for our culture to squat is because we just don’t do it, and this is to our detriment. Prolonged sitting in chairs leads to higher stress on the back and lower spine. When we sit at a 90-degree angle in a chair, we shorten the psoas muscle, which pushes the lumbar spine out of alignment. It also reduces the production of synovial fluid in the joints, depriving cartilage of essential nutrition. Movement and compression are required to produce this oil. If our hips and knees never go past 90 degree flexion, joint degeneration sets in, and we wonder why we have chronic pain in the low back, hips, and knees.
In asana practice, we learn how to squat correctly in malasana (garland pose). It opens the hips, stretches the hamstrings and ankles, and naturally elongates the spine. Malasana also helps strengthen the glutes, calf muscles and core muscles, toning the abdominals and aiding in digestion.If you think you are too far gone to start trying to squat, have faith – there are many accessible variations. You could choose to work with your back supported by a wall and your heels on a folded blanket. Or hold on to a counter as you come into a squat. Or sit on a block. Whatever variation gives you a reasonable amount of effort without causing pain is the perfect place to start.
So should we toss our office chairs and squat all day? Well, no – any posture held for too long will cause issues. But standing desks, balance balls, and other alternative work stations are a great start, and those of us still stuck in a chair would benefit immensely from squatting several times a day.