Sitting Without a Chair

On a ten day canoe trip in the Amazons (down the Napo river from Nuevo Rocafuerte, Ecuador to Masan, Peru) I met countless locals in dugout canoes and was struck by their horrible posture. Horrible, that is for the men, many of whom were so flexed in the spine as to appear like armadillos from a distance. But the women were as upright as tulip stalks. Both sit on seats about 4 inches from the bottom of the shallow canoe but the women sit cross legged and the men long sit.

These people paddles for hours a day while fishing up and down the river. In the few contacts we had, I forgot to ask them whether their back hurt (I am still trying to figure out how to say this clearly in Quechua). My guess is that their horrible posture doesn’t bother them, at least not while they are young or they would find another way to sit. This hypothesis, however, is a completely unfounded assumption; people in the Amazon don’t put much effort into making things comfortable and efficient as evidenced by a lack of running water, ergonomic work stations and stable docks. I need to develop a more rigorous interview method to get reliable information on pain.

I mentioned the trend in posture by gender, but I should note a trend (albiet less consistent) that I saw between age groups. The old men paddled with a much more upright posture than the younger men, using more of a ring sitting technique than their younger counterparts. It could be that there was historically a more upright posture among these people that is now being lost.

If you haven’t sat on the floor or on a seat this low in awhile, try it now. Some find it easy, others find it incrediblely uncomfortable. Babies (and a few adults) seem to have little difficult sitting on the ground with an upright spine and I attribute this to their amazingly flexible hip joints. You either need hip flexion to >;90 with the kneee straight (very flexible hamstrings) or >;70 of hip external rotation at 90 of hip flexion. For people such as myself with less flexible hips, sitting up straight on the ground is close to impossible.

In my own case, the association between sitting in spinal flexion and having back pain is a strong one. Since most of the Amazon region along the Napo has been devoid of chairs and tables, I have tried several solutions to the low seat challenge- how to sit on the ground without spinal flexion. I have not yet arrived at a position which is comfortable for more than five minutes that doesn’t require props. As I am writing this on my ipad I am sitting in various postures and recording the time (min:sec) until discomfort, here are the results:

Upright Deep Squat

1:55 feeling a mild stretch in my low back
4:12 Feeling some ischemic pain in shin and transient tingling in left toes
6:50 right foot starting to feel numb and somewhat painful, left foot feeling warm
8:26 both feet numb, tingling and warm
10:18 burning numbness and tingling in both feet, now distracting
11:03 abort posture
11:04 severe lightheadedness upon standing, nearly passed out and had to hold onto wall, feet tingling hard to walk
12:10 lightheadedness resolved, wave of pain in shins

Seiza (hard floor)

4:59 some pain in dorsum of feet, able to ignore easily
6:54 Left toes going numb at 6min 54 sec.
9:40 Right toes going numb, left toes feeling warm
14:00 Tingling pulsing warm feeling in toes and feet on both side, beginning to get uncomfortable
15:02 Pain in left foot that gets my attention, difficult to ignore.
15:04 abort posture
16:00 numbess and tingli in both feet upon rising, difficult to walk for a minute
17:00 cold feeling and pain shooting up shins, mild foot drop while trying to walk
19:00 some residual tingling, walking now normal

Pike-Straddle Long Sit

1:13 losing upright posture, difficult to correct.
2:42 low back to fatigued to keep upright posture
3:18 effort to stay upright now distracting from work
4:02 descending further into flexion, ischemic pain in low back
4:51 ishemic pain in hip flexors
5:00 abort posture

Prone Lying on Forearms

0:38 back feels great
3:43 tightness in middle of neck
19:15 pain in middle of neck and tightness in upper trapezius becoming distracting, pain in proximal forearm where weight bearing
20:52 abort posture
Leaning on One hand in sitting or lying
This opens up a variety of postures that improve circulation to my lower extremities, and keep my spine out of flexion.
The fatal flaw of these postures is that I only have one hand to use which rules out any complex manual tasks such as typig on ipad.

So whats the solution? Has anyone come up with a way of sitting on the floor that is comfortable?

Sorry about the quality and disorder of the photos, taking photos with the ipd while canoeing and uploading them with the wordpress app is a bit of a challenge.








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