Sitting is, perhaps, the posture of modernity. And the chair is its main prop. No wonder then that lower back pain is such a common modern complaint. There are people who believe that our chairs are responsible for the terrible condition of the white collar back the world over. Part of the problem is that 20th century design has tended to work with a simplistic understanding of the relationship between things such as chairs and the human body. Some years ago, Galen Cranz, professor of architecture at the University of California, was moved enough by the chair (and the back problems it caused her) to write a book about it, called (guess what?) The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design.
How we buy chairs
We entrust our body’s future to our chairs. And yet, we are remarkably thoughtless when it comes to buying them. Whether it is for the home or the office, perhaps the two most important things we look at are looks and price. Will it look good with the dining table? Will the staff using it find it elegant enough? The more sensible among us might walk across and sit in different chairs for a minute (or less), but that is it.
Of course, it is difficult to tell how comfortable a chair is from its looks. Even sitting is sometimes not enough because many crucial muscles or ligaments that are subtly affected may not be able to detect what a good or bad chair is doing to them in a few minutes. In spite of these difficulties, it is surprising to note that the more the users involved (such as a large office interior fit-out), the less the attention to comfort. In many office design projects, architects and administrators routinely select chairs from catalogues, carefully considering looks and cost but leaving physical comfort to faith.
Body and chair
Why is that so bad? Sitting isn’t as simple as it looks. For instance, in her book, Cranz suggests that pressure on the spinal discs is 30% higher when we are seated as compared to when we stand. When we sit on a chair, its back may encourage us to slouch and the spine to curve out of its normal profile. This can put lopsided pressure on the soft discs between the vertebrae and make them slip out of line, which can pinch a nerve, causing intense pain or worse. There’s more. When we sit, other bodily functions can also be affected. If the edge of the seat is not curved, it can cut into our flesh and interfere with blood circulation down the leg. The same can happen if the chair is too high and our feet don’t sit flat on the ground. If the chair is too low, the natural curve of the spine is reversed. In addition, the internal organs of the body might be pushed against each other, causing discomfort. After a good lunch, such a chair is perhaps a good way to invite reflux.
In answer, there are modifications of the chair idea. There is the backless kneeling chair for office work, which has a seat that slopes down forward, so you half-kneel and your thighs make an obtuse angle with your back. A supporting pad for a shin that is part of the chair makes this design extremely comfortable and helps the spine retain its normal erect curve. Another option is the exercise ball chair. You sit on a large ball, which makes minor movements and keeps your muscles active, even as the ball disallows slouching.
But Cranz would ideally prefer we went back full circle. She is critical of what the chair, especially the usual one with a backrest, has done to Western posture. Her suggestions are interesting, particularly to Indians. She believes that the West has conditioned itself to believe that the back needs support. She points to Eastern traditions of sitting upright on the floor without back support for extended periods and urges the West to at least reconsider the ordinary bench to begin with. Going a step further, she even advocates sitting on the ground, maintaining a good posture as long as possible. Which is not as strange as it sounds. An architect friend of mine has for years had a dining table designed for those who prefer sitting on the ground. Time to go back to good old vajrasana then?
The author is a Goa-based architect and writer. Write to him at email@example.com