The decline of Western posture

My partner’s job involves hours looking down a microscope. Thus, her management is hot on ergonomic setups that enable such sustained work. The microscope, the desk, the chair, the computer monitor; all of it has to be just right.

The company I work for has a health and safety officer and an external occupational health assessor that visits regularly. So when you walk through the offices you see raised computer screens, lumbar supports, footrests and wrist-pads added onto keyboards.

When I used to do personal training I worked with the director of a non-profit who experienced regular back and neck pain. He gave the company an ultimatum: shell out several hundred quid for a decent chair or have a director who is absent from work due to chronic injury.

A friend of mine is a strength and conditioning coach. Last year, he brought a new mattress. Four figure expenditure—and, he said, the best money he’s ever spent. Bruce Sterling advised a similar strategy in a talk he gave a while back:

“Whatever is in your time most, what’s taking up most of your time, or in your space most. The stuff that’s closest to your skin, on your skin, inside your skin, in intimate areas. Space and time. That’s what’s going on, that’s where it’s at. That’s where it’s happening.

Common everyday objects. You need to have the best possible common everyday objects.

Number one, a bed. You’re spending a third of your life in the thing. You never take it seriously. Rich people have great beds. You should go out and get the best bed you can get. Money is no object. On a per hour rental basis, beds, super important. The sheets, the pillows, pretty high up there too.

Every morning when you wake up you will thank me for this.

I know you’re resisting it. It’s like: “Why? Why am I buying a fancy bed? It’s bad for me, I’m being taken outside of my comfort zone.”

You live in the thing! Get rid of the wedding china! Get rid of the tuxedos! The exercise equipment you never use! The things you never touch! The heaps of things, the heaps of material objects in your closet and, God help you, your storage locker. Sell them all, buy a bed. Get a real bed.

Get a chair.

I shouldn’t have to tell people who work with computers to get a chair. No, they’d rather whine about their wrists blowing out, their spines blowing out. They wouldn’t come up with a chair that would cost them maybe fifteen cents an hour over the first amortizable period. The world is full of beautifully designed ergonomic chairs. Get a real damn chair!

Sell the other chairs, the fancy chairs, the couch, the over-stuffed thing, your grandmother’s chair. Get rid of your grandmother’s chair, it was never properly built to begin with.

Get rid of it. Get rid of it, if you don’t use it! If you haven’t touched it in a year, get rid of it immediately. Sell it, buy real things you really use.

Now, you’re going to have a lot fewer things, but the actual quality of your life will skyrocket! If you have real shoes. Real underwear. Women, if you use actual cosmetics instead of shoplifting cheap cosmetics, because you’re deeply conflicted about your impulses. Go ahead, it’s on your lips, it’s on your eyelids, get real cosmetics.”

Myself? I’m currently sitting in an Ikea chair (with lumbar support), looking at a screen elevated to match my eyeline, typing on a bluetooth keyboard, opening and closing windows with a vertical mouse. I’m a sucker for ergonomics too, it seems.

But a hundred years ago, “ergonomics” wasn’t even a thing—it came about in the 1950s, I believe. Now it is central to workplace and workspace design—the entirety of our everyday life, in fact. Just how central is illustrated when you consider the average day for the average modern person:

Wake up in bed to a chirping alarm clock. Silence it. Swing legs out of the nest of warmth and onto the carpet. Head to the en-suite bathroom—do the business. Then, don slippers and a dressing gown, go out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen. Put bread in the toaster and pull out a plate from the cupboard and butter from the fridge. Butter the toast and amble, zombie like, to the dining table and take a seat. Eat. Rise and go back upstairs. Shed slippers and dressing gown. Locate outfit for work. Dress. Back downstairs. Grab keys, phone, coat and maybe a banana. Lock the door, unlock the car, and commence the drive to work. Arrive at work and step out the car. Lock it. Head indoors, up in the elevator and dump bag and coat at desk. Head off in search of coffee. Ritual morning small talk with colleagues. Back to desk. Power up computer, begin work. Coffee break. More work. Lunch time. Down in the elevator, outside and to the deli down the road. Sit on a park bench and scoff sandwich. Lunchtime is over. Back inside, up the elevator, to desk. More work. Another break. More work. Home time. Power down. Outside, into car, drive home. Unlock front door, ditch coat and bag. Head upstairs and get changed into gym gear. Back out the door, into the car and down the road. Arrive at gym, go inside and do thirty minutes on the bike and thirty minutes of half-hearted dumbbell exercises. Exercise done. Back home. Shower, slob clothes on, sit on the sofa and watch TV. Maybe a beer with the curry. Back upstairs, set the alarm clock, climb into bed. Sleep.

Question: how many times in that imaginary day did our person undertake an activity that required he go below knee level and above head height? No more than a few times, if we’re being generous. Which is the problem. Modernity is engineered to take place at a narrow and uniform level. Beds; chairs; cars; desks; computers; stairs; handles. It’s all at the most convenient of heights.

extremes and uniformity

Another take: did you know that a high percentage of injuries as people age result from falls? More anecdotally, did you know that most people, as they age, find it difficult to get down on the ground and get back up again, and they find it hard to function for a long time doing tasks involving overhead activity? It’s got something (but not much) to do with the biological degradation of various bodily tissues; it’s cultural. In the West, we have spurned both earth and sky. And as a consequence we’ve given up our postural self-reliance.


I’m a novice when it comes to vipassana, but one thing I do understand is that when the posture of the body is properly aligned we can sit for hours in a state of mental awareness with no external support. The structure of our hips, spine and upper body are enough to support such prolonged sitting. They are, after all, an efficient anatomical load-bearing structure that has evolved over millions of years. But get the average person to try and sit for an hour on the floor with no support, and what happens? Aches, pains, discomfort. If you don’t believe me, try this simple test: sit on the floor, both legs together and straightened out in front of you, for as long as possible. Illustrated:

sit test result solution

We need chairs to sustain a good posture; we need devices that keep everything at the perfect level; we need four-figure mattresses to support us while we sleep; we need high-tech shoes, tailored insoles and visits to a chiropodist to be able to walk without pain upon the artificially smooth pathways that blanket our villages, towns and cities. Isn’t that absurd? But fortunately it doesn’t have to stay that way.


We can counteract the inevitable decline of western posture by taking an Eastern approach. If you google, “traditional Japanese home”, what you will see is nearly-bare rooms outfitted with tatami mats. That’s because traditional Japanese culture is floor-based, with many customs and rituals associated heavily with the ground. For example:

– The Japanese tea ceremony.
– The practice of zazen.
– The use of futons and chabudais in everyday life.
– The art of jujitsu.

All take place on, or make strong use of, the ground. But the ground is only one part of the equation.

Consider humanity’s transition from a wild environment, to what I term a “natural” environment (one that is mostly suited to our physiological structures), to a modern environment. A wild environment contains unbounded variation in landscape and a vast range of capacities in order to live amongst it; a natural environment contains moderately bounded variations in landscape a mild range of capacities in order to live amongst it; a modern environment contains extremely bounded variations and a minimal range of capacities in order to live amongst it. Or, to phrase it more succinctly, the difference between the wild, the natural and the modern is akin to the difference between a raging river, a coastal area complete with life- and coastguards, and an indoor swimming pool.

So, in order to reverse the decline I suggest that we try to expand the range of postures we utilise in everyday life, that we get back to the wild. A typical modern life involves uniform heights and postures, by design. But we can fight back. We can make an effort to sit on the floor. We can make an effort to squat, kneel, crawl, roll and lie, all for random periods. We can incorporate passive and active hanging each day, and get back to our ape-ish heritage. We can forego an increasing dependence on ergonomics and instead invest in the effort to regain postural self-reliance.

Or consider it another way. Most will agree that the tyranny of political correctness is bad for the human mind and society’s soul. But there’s another “PC” which could be just as damaging—postural correctness, the determination of modern life to limit the breadth and depth of physiological states that we can exist in.