Update [5 June 2015]: I have now recorded a follow along tutorial that helps develops the capacity I talk about in the article below, which you can see right here:
I have been thinking recently about what constitutes a minimum level of health before we start to classify ourselves as handicapped. After thinking through and dismissing all of the usual health tests (pushups, planks, beep test, etc etc…meh), the question occurred to me: “what would I expect a healthy 80 year old to be able to do?” Well, some basic strength might be alright, the ability to climb stairs, maybe support the upper body somehow with the arms, and perhaps some capacity to hang from the hands as well. Then I thought of some people I’ve seen, who potentially are capable of performing these activities to some degree, but who I wouldn’t classify as healthy, and that they were missing something even more fundamentally basic. What was it?
In 2004 and again in 2011 I travelled to China, and on both occasions I was blown away by the appearance of health in the elderly population. These people weren’t doing anything outrageous (well, some were), mainly just walking, dancing, or playing a game like badminton. Still, they seemed more spry, more nimble than their western counterparts, and indeed more nimble that a great majority of the western youth.
After some reflection, it occurred to me… That fundamental trait they had was an ability to rest in and move between several postures, even in to old age. I figured I would come up with a basic list to help you understand what I mean. Obviously there are infinite varieties of these, and combinations of several positions that you can use, but as best I can tell, our basic resting positions are:
I will note now that when I refer to these positions, I’m referring to variations that do not require outside support. This is the difference between lying on a hard ground like concrete, and lying in a cushy soft bed. Most people find it extremely uncomfortable to lie on concrete simply because they are unable to rest in that position, and as such, require a bed that will mould to the shape of their back and therefore support it. The same can be said for sitting. We can all sit on chairs ok, remove the back rest and it gets harder, remove the elevation so the legs have to fold and its nearly impossible for most. Kneeling and squatting barely even need to be addressed as most people cannot do either comfortably, and squatting is often treated as a work position (thanks to modern fitness trends!). The amount of people that are capable of standing in the same position comfortably without moving are also few and far between. Let me also now emphasise the fact that these are meant to be rest positions, as in positions of zero effort that you would adopt if you needed a break from exertion, and not positions you would adopt to practice exertion. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, even an hour of squatting should be no more difficult than an hour of lying down on your bed.
Keep in mind that in Asian cultures, the ability to relax into these positions is not a trained ability. It is simply the result of a different lifestyle that is the direct result of not using one simple invention: the chair. Western society’s love for the chair, and other objects at chair height, has crippled our hips. We rarely sit on the ground and as a result we no longer have to get up off the ground. Our beds are at the most convenient height so we have to use the least effort to get out of them. Even our toilets are at this same height. It is so ingrained in our culture, that it is normal for the elderly not to be able to get themselves down to the ground and back up.
This inability is not, however, a quality of age. It is only a quality of poisonous cultural practices. Visit any culture where sitting on chairs is not prevalent, like the elderly population of China, and it is common to find 70 – 80 year olds hanging about in a squat waiting for buses for 40 minutes or more, who then effortlessly get up and walk onto the bus once it has arrived. Let me also be clear that this is not a matter of genetics, Caucasian cultures who adopt similar lifestyle practices (damn hippies!) enjoy similar benefits, as do tribal cultures from around the world. And the younger generation of Asian children are losing, or in many cases have already lost, the ability to rest in these positions due to their adoption of western cultural practices.
For those of you interested in regaining these basic human abilities, and moving out of the category of physically handicapped, there is no special training technique. You simply need to adjust your lifestyle so that you use these positions in your daily life more regularly. If you work in an office, the first thing you can do is get yourself a standing desk. Most workplaces are adopting these now, although in my workplace you need to have an existing injury and a note from a doctor saying you need one (prevention isn’t allowed – stupid). Around home you can do yourself some favours by sitting on the floor (without back support) while watching movies or working on your laptop. In fact as we speak I am typing this as I sit at my coffee table, which also doubles as my dining table. If you want to get the most benefit, you can make yourself a squatty potty, change to a Korean/Japanese style dining table and bed, and squat whenever you are on the phone or waiting for something.
What this will mean is that every single day you will be regularly moving from some sort of position on the ground to standing, which is already great work. It will also mean you are spending many minutes/hours of the day training your mobility, a practice we should not be engaging in during our formal sessions as there are plenty more important things to develop then. It will also give you the ability to be able to sit and rest anywhere, rather than only where there is a convenient chair.
Once the basic resting positions are mastered, you will also open up more avenues to be able to practice our super duper ultra spiral rotations™:
Get to it people!