Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Sitting Cross-Legged on the Floor: A Personal Health Experiment

When my grandpa was around 80 years old, he went into have a physical checkup. He had lived a long and productive life as a farmer in Western Nebraska. He was a physical man. Everyday he awoke early to tend his crops and herds. Even at that age, he still harvested several fields on his own.

After going through a few tests, the doctor asked him to stand up and try to touch his toes. With a bit of a grunt he stood up, bent forward and touched his toes. His body of over eight decades was still flexible enough to touch his toes without a hesitation or second thought.

My body isn’t half way to my grandpa’s age, and yet I can’t touch my toes.

Admittedly, I’ve never been very flexible. In my early teens, I recall pained struggles reaching to touch my toes and accepting failure as I touched towards my shins.

As a kid and even today, I can’t sit cross-legged comfortably on the floor.

Humans have been sitting on the ground in various postures for thousands of years. And yet in the last century or so, we’ve lost many of our capabilities. We sit in chairs, couches or beds. We take cars or other modes of transportation. We are no longer endowed with able bodies.

Over the past several months, I’ve been building my body. I’ve been exploring various exercises in order to better understand and reconstruct a capable body. I’m not aiming to win any Olympic Golds nor break any records. I merely want to be capable of running, jumping, lifting and pushing.

Through running and bodyweight training, I’ve come to realize that the body (and the mind!) can be trained to be bigger, better and faster.

For example, a couple months ago I could barely run for a few minutes without pained breathing. Now, through persistence and practice, I can run for a couple miles nonstop. Good habits and persistence go far.

So, I decided that a typical, healthy, human (myself included!) should be able to sit comfortably on the ground. Our ancestors had been doing it for ages. So should I.

Paradise Lost to Modern Ease

Humans are bodied beings. As children we explore the world through our physical apparatus. Through sports and other training, we cognitively stretch our bodies and our minds. We learn to shoot basketballs, to dance, to do a karate kick, or to let our fingers sing across the piano key.

We become skilled practitioners of our bodies. From music to typing we are embodied minds dealing with challenges and expressing our moods.

Unfortunately the modern situation has made us less physically prepared for life’s challenges. We are less flexible, less strong and have less endurance.

I wanted to change at least one part of this; I wanted to be able to sit on the floor.

The Daily Habit of Sitting Cross-Legged on the Floor

My initial “floor” sessions were quite painful and, after a few minutes, aching sensations would pulse up my legs. It hurt. Like angry ants in steel-heeled boots, my nerves and thighs called out.

First, focusing on measurable goals, I committed to at least 10 minutes a day to sitting cross-legged on the floor. No pain, no gain. I stuck to it and improvements came gradually.

Second, I tracked that I did this goal daily. I wanted to make sure I completed this minimal requirement each and every day. I was building momentum, and each session counted.

Third, like most obsessive, quantified self-trackers, I made the goal measurable. I tracked how long I sat to gauge my progress. The objective is to improve.

Conclusion: 1 Month Later

The last 100 or so years have seen a change in how we move and live. We’ve become less able, as Walt Whitman writes, “to sing the body electric.”

We move less well, if at all.

In the case of running, we used to run as a normal behavior. Now running has become a specific activity we train for. We run for a reason and not merely to get somewhere faster.

Personally the past couple months have shown me that we can train ourselves to run. I can claim to have regained some of my basic skills of movement and endurance.

Sitting on the floor may not seem like the greatest physical challenge that humans can obtain, yet it should be a core skill all humans can do. We should be able to sit on the floor comfortably and stand up comfortably without using our hands.

In fact, research has shown that the how you stand up from a seated position on the floor can determine your mortality. People who stand up with the aid of their hands die sooner than those who stand up unaided by their arms and hands.

A month later and through regular sessions, my body has become more malleable. I’m by no means some twisted yogi. But I can sit reasonably cross-legged on the floor.

Just now I sat for over 20 minutes doing some meditation and reading. While there are still some initial aches when I get into my position, I was amazed at the end that 20 minutes had already passed. I could sit without noticing.

I still have a long ways to go. I’m committed to continue this “sitting on the floor” habit. Humans have been sitting and sleeping on the ground since the dawn of man. It’s only in the last couple centuries we came to have chairs in most homes and sitting meant sitting on a chair.

Don’t lose your ancestral skills. Learn to be able to sit anywhere.

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