In modern society, it is ironic how many of us experience physical pain because of the influence of the Western culture. Modern lifestyles are designed for comfort, convenience, and even luxury—but often these come at a cost to our health. Believe it or not, the two primary culprits are sitting in chairs and wearing shoes!
We take chairs and shoes so much for granted, that most of the time we aren’t even aware of how much we use them in our day-to-day lives. Almost certainly, few of us are aware of the negative health effects of prolonged sitting, not to mention wearing shoes that squash or crimp our feet. In fact, these are now so strongly embedded in our everyday lives they have become items of fashion, designed for a better life.
But do we really have a “better life” if modern comforts affect out physical health? Issues such as back pain, hip pain, knee pain, neck and shoulder pain . . . disrupt the lives of more and more people. And here’s the surprise: Every one of those conditions can be traced to poor posture caused by sitting the wrong way, or for too long, and wearing shoes that isolate us from feeling the feedback of the earth beneath our feet.
Problem 1: Shoes Syndrome
Your feet are not designed to wear shoes. Let’s not even mention high-heels!Think about this: If you constantly wear shoes, why do you need ten toes? Your body is designed perfectly, and every part has a purpose, which it fulfills beautifully—until interfered with. Imagine wearing gloves that do not have openings for your fingers (skiers call them mittens). Imagine trying to tie your laces, or eat your dinner, or do a thousand other things you do everyday if your hands and fingers were tightly confined.
Well that’s what happens to our feet when we wear shoes . . . we force our toes into spaces that scrunch them together and prevent them from doing what they evolved to naturally do. Not only do shoes restrict functionality of our feet, they also affect the rest of the body.
The body holds its integrity through connective tissue, fluid systems, and energetic channels. If you cover your fingers, you will restrict your shoulders because the movements of your fingers are related to how you move your neck and shoulders. The old joke is true: “The knee-bone is connected to the thigh bone . . .” The parts of our body are dynamically related to other parts of our body. If you restrict your shoulders, you will restrict your neck, spine, back, hip, knee . . . basically your whole body.
Something similar happens with shoes. We wear them almost everyday for an average minimum of 8 to 9 hours per day (if you don’t wear them at home). This means that for almost one-third of your life, you cover and restrict your feet and toes. This alone can account for why so many people have hip or knee problems, experience low back pain and stiff necks.
Because your feet are blessed with sensitive receptors that function best when stimulated, you need to spend more time allowing your soles and toes to interact with the ground (preferably in nature, and not just on floors and carpets).
Bottom line: Give your feet room to breathe! Go ahead, try it. Feel the freedom of walking barefoot. Learn the secret of “happy feet.”
Problem 2: Chair Syndrome
People love chairs. Sofas and chairs are comfortable and give us welcome rest. We sit on the car seat when we drive; we sit on office chairs at work; we sit on other chairs in restaurants or at home when we eat dinner; we sit on a couch watching TV or surfing the Internet . . . Have you ever thought about how much of your life you spend sitting? You’d probably be shocked. But not only do we lack awareness of how much time we sit, we are even less aware of what it does to our bodies. Sitting in chairs usually keeps our hips at about 90 degrees—but this position locks the whole body. (Think of a chair as a kind of “shoe” for the whole body, forcing it into unnatural positions.)
When you sit on a chair, most of the force concentrates in your lower back, scrum region, and around the hip area—because your lower body doesn’t really support your upper-body weight. “Support” is a key word. Chairs encourage us to not to support the body as we sit because chairs are so comfortable. But this invites us to lounge in some of the worst postures—and the consequences are costly, often leading to excruciating back pain, or other body ailments.
Ironically, chairs are designed for a prime purpose: to allow us to rest with no effort. But because of this, we developed a habit of letting gravity take over our bodies. The way we relate to gravity, locking our hips at 90 degrees when we sit in chairs, creates posture problems our ancestors never had to deal with 100,000 years ago. And, again ironically, although we have infinitely superior medical technology today, our ancestors had better, healthier, more robust lower-backs thousands of years ago.
Solution: The Monkey Lifestyle
So what are we to do? Obviously, it makes little sense to suggest that people stop wearing shoes and sitting on chairs. That’s just not feasible for modern lifestyles. For example, as I write this, I am sitting on a chair wearing shoes! Nevertheless, I have an effective solution . . . something we can all incorporate into our lifestyles. Little by little, we can reverse the modern tendency of being too comfortable and lazy.
The solution? Use our feet like our hands and sit on the ground as much as our lifestyles allow us to. Bottom line: We need to learn from monkeys.
Monkeys are mobile, flexible, and strong because they spend almost all their time on the ground (when they’re not climbing trees). They use it so they retain it. By contrast, we modern humans stopped using the natural capacities of our feet and rumps (as well as our lower-back, spine, shoulders, neck, etc.) a long time ago—and our medical bills reveal the high cost of breaking our ancestral covenant with nature.
The irony continues: We assume that sitting on the ground is uncomfortable and “not good” because if we try it now, today, we will likely feel pain very soon. However, as a matter of fact, the pain arises because we stopped going to the ground.
The solution: we need to shift our mindset. As much as possible, let’s spend time barefoot and sitting on the ground. Try it. Explore sitting in a position that might be a little uncomfortable at first. You can always make it more comfortable by using a blanket or cushion. You can try crossing your legs or stretch your legs in front of you, or perhaps (if you do not have a severe hip, knee, or foot injury) try Japanese seiza where your sitting bones rest on your heels. It might be a little uncomfortable, but it needs to be in order to change old unhealthy habits. When you do this for five minutes a day, you will soon start feeling the difference in how your hips and back feel. They will feel more “open” and flexible.
Incorporate this “monkey lifestyle” daily, and you will be on the way to the healthy hips and back our simian ancestors had 100,000 years ago.