For many people sitting and driving — two of our most common activities — are frequently challenging, or even painful. As a Feldenkrais® teacher I’ve noticed that most of my students who find sitting uncomfortable have the idea that if they could just find the “right” chair and the “right” way to sit in that chair they would be able to engage in sedentary activities for hours without moving.
I’ve been there, too. As a college student I was studying to become a concert pianist. My planned career required me to sit on a piano bench for 3-5 hours a day. I was rarely comfortable, but I hunkered down in the one position I knew, accepted the pain, and got my practice hours in.
Many Feldenkrais students have come to me with versions of the same problem: the mortgage broker who drove between properties for hours each day, always experiencing hip and lumbar pain while driving. The office manager who tried half a dozen expensive desk chairs and still suffered back pain through her work days. The hobbyist model builder who loved his hours of painting figurines, but struggled with neck pain. Like me as a young pianist, each of these people had prioritized the completion of their seated tasks and responsibilities – even leisure activities – over how they sat and how they felt while doing them.
This is the case for almost everyone. Unless we’ve encountered Feldenkrais or other movement education, our “training” for sitting is usually an unconscious trial and error process. Often it’s based simply on the chairs we happen to have in our lives, and the activities we do. Perhaps an even bigger factor is how our educational system and many professions reward us for sitting still, looking at one thing, and excelling in small, repetitive movements of our eyes and bodies (reading, writing, typing, mousing, etc.). Since we didn’t evolve to be still for hours at a time we naturally develop stiffness and pain, which limit our perceived sitting options even more. The cycle deepens and we soon begin to choose only the least painful sitting options that have the stability we need to complete our tasks.
When each of these students came to me their bodies, habits, and ideas were stuck. They all believed they should sit in an unmoving way and maximize the supportive contact of their chairs. The mortgage broker leaned his carseat and body way back, and pressed his left foot hard into the floorboard of the car because that somewhat relieved the pain in his hips and lower back. The office manager cycled through her chairs incessantly, trying to find the one that minimized pain by best matching the curves of her spine, then settled into it as passively as she could for hours at a time. The hobbyist stabilized his painting hand by leaning his ribs and elbow into his armrest. With his body off to the side, his head was supported mostly by the efforts of his neck muscles, instead of his spine.
Each of these ways of sitting offers stability, but note that each creates static stability, where the person sits very still with the help of muscular effort, skeletal leaning, or a combination of the two.
As for me, back in my piano years I was stuck too: body, habits, and ideas. I envisioned myself only as hands, eyes, and an abundance of late-adolescent angst that needed to make music at all costs! I slumped over the keyboard, too focused on the sheet music and the complexities of practicing to notice I was barely supporting myself.
Eventually these sitting habits took their toll. Over my years at the piano my inefficient way of sitting led to pain and stiffness which began to interfere with the speed and freedom of my fingers as I played. I developed a painful repetitive strain injury in my shoulder that traditional medical approaches couldn’t relieve.
Luckily, I discovered the Feldenkrais Method®, which helped as soon as I began learning how to support myself far more dynamically. I started thinking about myself more as a whole. I began to sense and understand the difference between my muscles and my bones, and how to “dance” with gravity.
And the best part?
I discovered I could simultaneously focus on the music and enjoy sustainable, pleasant sitting while playing piano.
A quality of awareness rose out of my Feldenkrais studies that now makes this kind of dual presence effortless, and deeply satisfying. To get here took a lot of practice with my attention, which I’ve done mostly by studying Awareness Through Movement® lessons.
Note the difference between attention and awareness. Attention is arguably our most valuable currency. We pay attention to things we care about and things we want to learn. As we do so, we literally change our brains, rewiring them to guide our bodies and minds to move and sense ourselves more and more spontaneously in a new way.
Awareness, by contrast, costs nothing, and takes no time. It’s what we’ve bought with our attention, up until this moment, and it can include multiple things at once. There’s no limit to how much awareness we can develop. Expanding our awareness and range of choices for how we sit, even when we’re focused on our tasks, is how Feldenkrais study improves sitting skills.
So what kind of attention practice leads to the awareness and options required for healthier, more comfortable, more sustainable sitting?
In my 20-plus years of Feldenkrais I’ve studied and taught many lessons about dynamic sitting. Dynamic sitting means that our relationship with gravity and our chairs is an ongoing moment-to-moment process. It’s a give-and-take playful interaction, not a static one.
To help my students learn to sit more dynamically I lead them through individual hands-on Functional Integration lessons, and for homework I assign free recordings of my Awareness Through Movement lessons. (Below I’ve linked some of these lessons from my website, The Feldenkrais Project.)
These lessons help students discover a dynamic, upright, skeletally self-supported, and pleasurable seated “home” position. From this position they can move easily and breathe freely, shifting and returning as frequently as needed to complete their tasks. To enjoy dynamic sitting students must become aware of the support of their sitbones, and the wonderful dynamic relationship sitbones can have with the chair they’re on. Students also discover there’s a constant dynamic relationship between the head, spine, and pelvis in all planes of movement whenever we’re sitting upright in gravity. Finally, anyone discovering dynamic sitting must learn to sense and relax unnecessary muscular habits that compete with it. This whole movement and learning process can – and should – be very pleasurable. Change is faster and more permanent when we’re enjoying ourselves!
I led each of these three students to their new sitting state many times, and in many different ways, so their bodies and minds could sense its details, how they got there, and how to easily come out of it and back into it. This allowed them to begin to find this body organization more spontaneously in regular life.
As students experience dynamic sitting I also like to talk about the physics and anatomy of what is changing, to help them understand what they’re moving and feeling. I do this because students’ mental images of sitting have to change if they want the improvements to last.
As Moshe Feldenkrais wrote “We act within our self-image.” While sensory-motor learning is always the most potent self-image training, as a teacher I’ve also come to see the value of supporting this kind of learning with intellectual understanding. In addition to experiencing change in their bodies, their understanding of the ideas and options of dynamic sitting helps students take what they learn back into their regular lives with a kind of investigative curiosity about the way they sit and the chairs they sit on.
In the spirit of intellectual understanding, I have a page of dynamic sitting principles on my website that gets deeply into its physics and anatomy (also linked at the bottom of this article). But from the point of view of learning – the Feldenkrais point of view! – starting with an intellectual description is putting the cart before the horse. I encourage you to try out the free lessons, then read more about the underlying principles.
Sustainable change is usually gradual. As my three students encountered dynamic sitting, each of them went through a transition period where they would sometimes find themselves “stuck” again in ways of sitting closely tied to their old habits, and other times the new options would be easily accessible. One one level this is simply the messiness of life and learning, but for most people there is also a kind of “fitness” training required. We may need frequent rests as we discover and get used to some previously underused postural support muscles being called into action.
It’s important to remember that becoming a skillful “dynamic sitter” isn’t an all-or-nothing, or all-at-once change. Even now when I need to or want to, I’m happy to rest back on my chair, to yield fully to my car’s bucket seat, or to curl up on a soft couch and let it envelop me.
But when I want to think and move clearly and comfortably while seated I now prefer firm, level surfaces to perch my sit bones on. On these surfaces I’m free to shift and move to suit my comfort and activities at any time. I’m constantly dancing on my sit bones when I’m on my favorite seats: a simple wooden stool, a firm and level dining room chair, or a yoga block for seated meditation.
For the mortgage broker, we found that he was much more comfortable sitting upright and closer to the steering wheel, and letting his knees be more bent and wider apart. It was also useful to “un-bucket” his car seat with a small rolled towel placed horizontally behind his lower chest. In this position he was much freer to shift his pelvis and ribs, to “dance” in his seat as he turned his head and eyes to drive, and to breathe freely. His pain disappeared! (Several of the lessons linked below explore dynamic sitting in a driving position.)
It’s worth noting that bucket car seats are among the worst offenders for forcing us into static, rounded sitting. This position is a travesty for our comfort, awareness, and safety on the road. When we can’t move easily our spatial awareness shrinks! Carefully placed folded or rolled towels work well to counter the bucket shape, but there are products you can buy for a more permanent solution. I’m a fan of the Yogaback, available from yogaback.com (no affiliation). My wife says I look like a Fisher Price figure when I drive: I’m almost comically upright, and closer to the wheel than most people.
The office manager found new options in a different way. She experimented with chairs and stools designed to give her clear but mobile support mostly for her pelvis, instead of fully resting her spine. When she needed more mobility she sometimes sat on a wobble disk, or even a wobble stool. When she fatigued from these new games she went back to her old chairs for a few minutes, then returned to more dynamic sitting when she felt rested. Gradually her pain subsided and she found herself able to sit self-supported and comfortable for longer periods of time.
The hobbyist also found his own path to more comfortable sitting. We realized his glasses prescription required him to be so close to his work that he had to hunch down to it. This had been going on for years. With a more powerful vision prescription, and lots of Awareness Through Movement® practice in his own chair at home, he learned how to sit without leaning his ribs on his arm rest. His neck relaxed and he gradually found he could be much more at ease while sitting dynamically. Eventually he could even support both of his hands steadily enough to paint his figurines. He learned to bring his work closer to his eyes when he needed to, instead of the other way around.
In the end each of my students discovered dynamic sitting through a learning process focused on expanding their awareness and options. They transitioned out of old, static, painful relationships with their chairs or car seats by experimenting their way into lasting changes in their sitting habits, and even their thinking about sitting. These changes made dynamic sitting not only possible but pleasurable, and it’s that pleasure that sustains healthier habits.
My website, The Feldenkrais Project, offers free resources to train your dynamic sitting skills (donations welcome). For a brief intro or refresher try the lesson called Dynamic Sitting and Chair Clock (25-minutes). To dive deeper check out the collection called Essential Lessons for Easier Sitting, which includes lessons for regular chair-sitting as well as driving. After you’ve enjoyed some Awareness Through Movement experiences of dynamic sitting you can check out my page of dynamic sitting principles.
Nick Strauss-Klein has studied and taught the Feldenkrais Method since 2000 in New York City, Baltimore, Minnesota, and Israel.
His website, The Feldenkrais Project, offers free study to thousands of monthly listeners in the form of live class recordings, edited with the home user in mind.
He has led thousands of hours of classes and workshops at premier health clubs and fitness centers in Manhattan and the Twin Cities, Minnesota.Since 2009 he has been the director of Twin Cities Feldenkrais, LLC in MN, USA.