Rosie Spinks writes: Sentences that start with the phrase “A guru once told me…” are, more often than not, eye-roll-inducing. But recently, while resting in malasana, or a deep squat, in an East London yoga class, I was struck by the second half of the instructor’s sentence: “A guru once told me that the problem with the West is they don’t squat.”
This is plainly true. In much of the developed world, resting is synonymous with sitting. We sit in desk chairs, eat from dining chairs, commute seated in cars or on trains, and then come home to watch Netflix from comfy couches. With brief respites for walking from one chair to another, or short intervals for frenzied exercise, we spend our days mostly sitting. This devotion to placing our backsides in chairs makes us an outlier, both globally and historically. In the past half century, epidemiologists have been forced to shift how they study movement patterns. In modern times, the sheer amount of sitting we do is a separate problem from the amount of exercise we get.
Our failure to squat has biomechanical and physiological implications, but it also points to something bigger. In a world where we spend so much time in our heads, in the cloud, on our phones, the absence of squatting leaves us bereft of the grounding force that the posture has provided since our hominid ancestors first got up off the floor. In other words: If what we want is to be well, it might be time for us to get low.
To be clear, squatting isn’t just an artifact of our evolutionary history. A large swath of the planet’s population still does it on a daily basis, whether to rest, to pray, to cook, to share a meal, or to use the toilet. (Squat-style toilets are the norm in Asia, and pit latrines in rural areas all over the world require squatting.) As they learn to walk, toddlers from New Jersey to Papua New Guinea squat—and stand up from a squat—with grace and ease. In countries where hospitals are not widespread, squatting is also a position associated with that most fundamental part of life: birth.
It’s not specifically the West that no longer squats; it’s the rich and middle classes all over the world. My Quartz colleague, Akshat Rathi, originally from India, remarked that the guru’s observation would be “as true among the rich in Indian cities as it is in the West.”
But in Western countries, entire populations—rich and poor—have abandoned the posture. On the whole, squatting is seen as an undignified and uncomfortable posture—one we avoid entirely. At best, we might undertake it during Crossfit, pilates or while lifting at the gym, but only partially and often with weights (a repetitive maneuver that’s hard to imagine being useful 2.5 million years ago). This ignores the fact that deep squatting as a form of active rest is built in to both our evolutionary and developmental past: It’s not that you can’t comfortably sit in a deep squat, it’s just that you’ve forgotten how. [Continue reading…]