May 22 2019

Archetypal Resting Positions: How Sitting Like Your Ancestors Could Save Your Health

By Mark Sisson
39 Comments

Tennis elbow, Achilles tendinitis, osteoarthritis, and other connective tissue injuries are on the rise. Athletes have always gotten them, but it’s only in the past few decades that regular folks are getting them too. For some connective tissue injuries, non-athletes outnumber athletes. That shouldn’t happen if the conventional wisdom—injuries to tendons, ligaments, and cartilage occur only because of overuse or overloading during intense physical activity—were true.

Now, of course the way we train affects the health and function of our connective tissue. Acute injuries absolutely occur. Overuse injuries absolutely develop. But that’s to be expected. Athletes put their bodies through a lot, and there is going to be fallout from that. Where those injuries shouldn’t be happening is in regular, everyday folks who don’t train for a living or engage in intense physical competition on a regular basis. And yet that’s exactly how it’s going down in the world today. In one recent study, the majority of patients with Achilles tendon injuries couldn’t attribute their condition to working out or playing sports. In other words, they just got it.

Part of the problem is our nutrition. We eat too many of the inflammatory foods which contribute to connective tissue degradation and deconditioning, like grains and refined seed oils and sugar, and too few of the nutritive building blocks our bodies use to buttress and repair damaged connective tissue, like collagen. For over a decade, I’ve sought to address these deficiencies in the modern diet by laying out the Primal eating plan and creating non-inflammatory versions of existing products (like mayo and salad dressings) and products that replace some of the foods we’ve been missing. This is why I started selling collagen powder—because it’s the greatest source of gelatin, provides the necessary building blocks for collagen construction and repair, and provides the glycine that balances out the methionine in our meat-heavy diets and makes them less inflammatory.

This is all standard stuff at this point. It’s no surprise to most of you. Eat healthy, exercise, sleep, and most other things fall into place, including the health of your connective tissues. But it can’t explain everything. There’s more to it.

I’ve been suspicious of stretching in the past, especially static stretching. You don’t see Hadza tribes people doing the downward dog, hitting the couch stretch, or doing toe touches every morning. They simply move around a lot and avoid sitting in chairs for ten hours a day, and it’s enough. Right?

But over the past few months, I’ve become acquainted with Matt Wallden, the Global Head of Education for the Chek Institute. Like me, he’s obsessed with taking lessons from human evolution and applying them to humans living today to help them thrive. We really hit it off, so much that we collaborated on a pair of papers that appear in the April edition of the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies that discuss the power of “Archetypal resting positions” (several positions depicted in the article) and the crisis (and solution) of “Modern disintegration and primal connectivity.”

In the papers, we posit that it’s not just our tendency to sit in chairs way too much that’s destroying our health, movement quality, and tissue quality. We’re also failing to utilize the archetypal resting positions that humans have been using for hundreds of thousands of years. Sitting in chairs isn’t ideal, but far worse is our neglect of the dozen or so permutations of ancestral floor positions.

  • The full squat, with heels down.
  • The high kneel.
  • The low kneel.
  • The side sit.
  • The long sit.
  • The cross-legged sit.
  • In each of these positions, some tissues are lengthened (stretched) while others are compressed.
  • The squat stretches the back, glutes, quads, and calves.
  • The high kneel stretches the quads, Achilles’ tendon, and foot fascia.
  • The low kneel stretches the feet and quads.
  • The long sit stretches the hamstrings and wrist flexors.
  • The cross-legged sit stretches the hip adductors and rotators.
  • The side sit stretches the external and internal rotators of the hip.

If you alternate between all the positions, every limb will receive the stretch/compression treatment that has been shown to improve tissue healing and maintain tissue viability and function.

Many of these positions also restrict blood flow to specific areas of the body, a practice that has been shown to enhance connective tissue healing. You restrict the blood flow and then restore it, and the tissue gets a “rebound” effect.

Now imagine doing this all the time, whenever you’re at rest. Imagine not having any chairs at all. Imagine how you’d feel—and move, and perform, and recover—if instead of spending 10 hours a day hunched over in a chair you spent 2 hours a day exposing your body to these archetypal stretch/compression positions.

Not only that, but sitting in these archetypal resting positions may even improve glucose tolerance.

We cite research showing that a gentle passive stretching program (10 different stretching positions, 4 30-second “reps” each for a total of 20 minutes) lowers blood sugar in diabetics. That’s a possibility, but I’ve always found dedicated stretching or mobility routines to be the hardest to maintain. And I’m not alone—pretty much everyone hates stretching. A more evolutionarily-congruent method would be to integrate these resting positions into your daily life.

Hanging around at home or at the park or beach? Sure, getting down into these positions on the floor is cinch. You could easily make that work. But what about at work? What if you work in front of a computer? I’m picturing a floor-based workstation that enables the archetypal resting position as you work, sort of a low-lying modular “desk” that can be manipulated into various shapes to adhere to your particular resting position. That would be very cool and very interesting. We haven’t done the research on the cognitive effects of chair sitting vs archetypal resting positioning, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they offered some performance-enhancing effects for knowledge workers.

In the next couple weeks, Matt and I will be releasing a podcast discussing the archetypal resting positions and other topics in full.

For now, why don’t you make it a point to spend the next month doing at least one hour of archetypal floor sitting every day? See if you notice any improvements to your tissue function, and report back. I’d love to hear your results.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

References:

De jonge S, Van den berg C, De vos RJ, et al. Incidence of midportion Achilles tendinopathy in the general population. Br J Sports Med. 2011;45(13):1026-8.

Wallden M, Sisson M. Modern disintegration and primal connectivity. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2019;23(2):359-365.

Wallden M, Sisson M. Biomechanical attractors – A paleolithic prescription for tendinopathy & glycemic control. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2019;23(2):366-371.

Taheri N, Mohammadi HK, Ardakani GJ, Heshmatipour M. The effects of passive stretching on the blood glucose levels of patients with type 2 diabetes. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2019;23(2):394-398.

TAGS:  Aging, mobility

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

39 thoughts on “Archetypal Resting Positions: How Sitting Like Your Ancestors Could Save Your Health”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. This sounds really interesting. Is there a place to see these positions? Not sure what some of them are. Thanks

    1. There is a link in the words “Archetypal resting positions” that shows some sitting positions.

    1. I clicked through to the site to post that same comment! If you aren’t familiar with biomechanist Katy Bowman’s work, she is a huge reference for incorporating these kinds of movements into your life, along with why moves like these are important and guidance on correcting specific issues that are caused by always sitting with hips and knees and ankles at 90 degrees (like in a chair).

  2. All that and you guys couldn’t find a model that could adequately portray a deep squat for your figures? Come on! Nice paper anyhow. But get that young lady some chiropractic and exercise therapy work to get that squat right ;).

    1. Hi Jay,
      Interestingly enough, that young lady is my daughter (I co-authored the paper with Mark) and her squat is exactly the same as mine; I’ve never been able to squat deep… whereas my son and wife have no issue squatting deep. Having attempted to correct this, and pondered it for many years, I think we probably both have “Celtic” hips, whereas my wife and son have more “Dalmatian” hips… ie Celtic = deeper, Dalmation = shallower. I thought illustrating someone who couldn’t do it is at least “real world” and to show a solution would be helpful… I love squatting on my sofa at night!
      All the best,
      Matt

      1. … Just to add to the above, it may be that evolution has played its role here too of course! The Celts may well have used chairs for long enough – or had other adaptive influences – that made them develop deeper hip sockets! Nevertheless, there are still plenty of good reasons why finding a way to rest in a squat posture are beneficial, for things like colon health and inverting the loads on the femoral neck / femoral head; hence the adapted version on the sofa!! 🙂

  3. “I’m picturing a floor-based workstation that enables the archetypal resting position as you work, sort of a low-lying modular “desk” that can be manipulated into various shapes to adhere to your particular resting position. ” What color is the sky in your world? Somehow I don’t see corporations buying off on this idea – well, maybe Google.

    1. “You may say I’m a dreamer
      But I’m not the only one
      I hope someday you’ll join us
      And the world will be as one”

  4. Very cool, I’m going to give the one hour sitting on the floor a go. Maybe the next big thing is sitting on the floor with a mat and a yoga block. Wouldn’t that be something!

  5. I have no problem going down to the floor. At my age, however, it’s getting back up that’s the hard part LOL. Kidding aside, this is a really important topic. I thought I was in decent shape, got accolades from friends, family and coworkers for being fit, but three decades of IT work started to do a real number on me and a series of hip, groin, spine, abdominal and even pelvic floor dysfunction started piling up, causing me to fall apart physically and emotionally. Obviously, I was not truly fit. I am now doing well, but have to do full body rehab exercises consistently to counteract the affects of my profession. So, I spend a fair bit of time on the floor, but I’m sure not nearly as much as would be optimal.

    1. I hear you HH!! I always was the “fitness freak” in my workgroups, but decades of desk work (tech writing) take their toll.I do what I can to counteract what is effectively most of my life… Sad.

  6. We promoted our big elderly dog to royalty and allowed him off the floor and access at will to the couch in our RV we full time in. He loves it and he’s not going back! Dogs are like people in that they seek comfort.

    As for myself, I like the idea of getting rid of chairs. RVs are the worst, other than the Captains chairs up front the seating is atrociously bad support and I feel it after two years of living in one. We really need to get better quality foam in the seating. Of course we do spend a lot of time outdoors hiking, biking, kiteboarding etc.

  7. You may like to chat with Simon Borg-Olivier from Australia! He is a physio and a yogi who has developed his style of yoga to specifically address the issues of what he calls “the modern body”

  8. Fabulous post! Katie Bowman is another great researcher educating the public about moving and resting in these ways. Thank you for your wonderful work!

  9. Love this. Most of the time during my downtime while I’m watching tv, I sit on the floor and do different stretching positions. It feels so good (much better than sitting in a chair or lying down!), and I know I’m getting more benefits from it. Win-win. I always search for ways to practice self-care when I’m doing something “lazy-ish.” 😉

  10. Great paper and post Mark! I have to say, this is the beauty of working from home for the most part: I am regularly sitting in these positions and change it up every 20 mins or so to get comfy. I rotate between using my furniture differently to set up different positions for my seat and computer or papers. I find it helps with my “sprints” of mental focus

  11. Is there thought to whether these positions might possibly help in the long run or further hinder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, hypermobility type? EDS is a connective tissue disorder; side sitting or cross-legged sitting, for example, can cause the joints to subluxate or dislocate. Thanks for any insight.

    1. Hi – I dont have Ehlers (but I’m high on Beighton/Brighton for hypermobility & have had problems as a violinist…) I also trained in Pilates… I think floor sitting in these postures would be beneficial as long as you don’t rest with joints at “end range” as we often do (eg I often would sleep with wrists bent fully to forearm!) I floor sit & can’t stand the sofa for down time now. Sometimes eg cross-legged I find I’d over extend hips UNLESS I prop with cushions. There is the work of Philip Beach, I found his tutorial on Pilates Anytime, “Archetypal Postures” & it’s fantastic, also has a book I think and diagrams of all the postures.

  12. I really enjoyed this article. Before I had babies I became very minimalist and slept on the floor and sat on the floor most of the time. But since having my 2nd baby, I hardly sit at all anymore. I probably don’t spend more than 30 minutes most days sitting. I am almost always standing up, and I know my standing posture is terrible, carrying babies has created a bad hip locking habit in me. This was a great reminder to sit down in different positions. I know standing in one spot for so long can’t be great either.

  13. Both Katy Bowman and Esther Gohkale are excellent resources for everyday ancestral movement, sitting and walking.

  14. Wow! This made instant sense to me! In my ongoing efforts to fully recover from plantar fasciitis, I recently realized that a full, flat-footed squat was going to stretch my legs and feet in ways that other stretches could not.
    I had a clear mental image of the wonderful bushman from the quirky little movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy!” driving the Jeep backwards, balanced in a nice, bouncy full squat on the vehicle’s hood!!! (If you have never seen this movie, you should…)
    It took me a week or so to get to a comfortable full squat, but now it is incredibly comfortable. I do a full squat for a good minute or so each day. Often, I use this pose while I am packing my lunch bag, half under my desk at the end of the day. No one has spotted me and commented yet! And sure enough, my feet are happier! I will try to work these other positions into my day as well…
    Thank you, Mark!

  15. Very cool! The first I heard of this concept was birth class, where they said your baby is more likely to flip around the right way and make birth easier if you squat and are in cat/cow position more–positions that come naturally when you garden or are living like a native, but that the modern world doesn’t often use. And interesting, too that kids naturally squat like that, ’till they’re told otherwise or given chairs to sit in (like at school). Or to “be a young lady”, which is ridiculous.

    I find myself squatting a lot to garden, clean the floor, etc. Having kids around gets you on the floor, sitting in many positions–natural floor workstation.

    Low kneel, hunh? And to think I tried to minimize it thinking it was bad for my knees. I’m apt to do it sitting at a table, as I’m short and my feet don’t reach the floor and the table comes up too high on me otherwise. It does put my legs to sleep and sometimes my knees are sore afterwards, but maybe it’s doing me good?

    I can see a cubicle person just putting their keyboard on the floor, ditching their chair, and working from there. Who’s gonna stop them? Then they can stand (which is good) to talk to people. Plus, the monitor is further away (angle it down), so they can use distance vision, which is better, too. But this idea will not catch on fully ’till someone comes up with something they can sell to people to make it happen. Why do something simply with no natural resources used or money spent these days?

  16. This post is very timely for me! I am not desk bound and don’t spend much time sitting, but two weeks ago, I had to do spend a long period of time over several days grading, so I sat cross legged on the floor, leaning forward, back straight, and shifted to other positions (legs out) with some light yoga in between, mostly slow stretching and deep squats. After the last day, my hip flexor on one side started spasming and aching. It’s been two weeks, and I am still I’m mild to moderate pain. I think I’m on the right track, but clearly I did something wrong to hurt myself so badly. I know I can’t sit in chairs for long periods of time without developing pain, but I had hoped this would have solves the problem. Would I need to alter my position to all of those positions to stay limber and pain- free?

  17. I’d be interested to hear your view on yin yoga, a lot of the postures you’ve mentioned are asanas in yin yoga and you hold them for long enough to restrict the blood flow and get the rebounding effect
    The only problem I have with trying to do these at work is the corporate clothing is far too restrictive to do some of these without splitting my pants!

  18. I also think this can apply to babies. In the past, babies would be worn and spend time on the ground. But now, so that more things can be sold, babies are laying 1/2 propped up in any number of baby seats. When they’re able to sit, they have to remain in some sort of containment system, instead of just sit on the floor. I can only imagine the damage done and loss of chance to build important muscles and connective tissue. Ashame, because they would naturally get into these positions if given the chance, because babies are born knowing what they need instinctively.

  19. This post has me super fired up! Like others in this comment section, I had to google some of these to find out what they are. I’ve been doing the low squat for months now and it’s so useful. I’m going to add the others. It strikes me that to learn these, just watch a kid! They do them all all the time.

  20. The pose where your subject is squatting in front of the laptop (top left) doesn’t look good Regardless, squatting is great and something I do routinely; it range from feet close together to far apart. No one believes that I am 63 (:

  21. Fantastic post. I’m lucky in that I can get into a deep squat. I do desk work mostly at home and have a regular table and bench, but work mostly in a low kneel occasionally switching to a squat. I find it increasingly difficult to stay in a standard sit position. I was worried if I was putting too much strain on my knees, but now I will kneel away, and try some of the other positions.
    On the subject of yoga, I’ve been doing it for about 9 months (hatha) and while I loved the flexibility I was gaining, I was developing lower back issues. Usually a physio will blame this on either poor stomach strength or tight hip flexors etc. Neither of which apply. It does make me wonder whether a couple of hours a week intense stretching isn’t good for us. I’m sure the yogis and the populations where these practices originated from would have used completely different postures to us today. Thanks Mark, great article.

  22. This is something I need to know. I struggle a lot sitting with chair. I think I should try archetypal positions. Waiting for the podcast.

  23. This is very interesting and extremely useful info, thanks for sharing!

    I would add that while engaging in these positions one should try to pay close attention to his or her spine. Esther Gokhale draws attention on this aspect of maintaining proper spine shape during sitting, standing or resting in a bed, so the spine keeps a proper shape and eliminates intra-vertebrae tension.

    She also posits that some ancestral positions / postures might not be attainable by modern people raised in industrialised cultures due to the impact caused by improper position / posture until reaching adulthood. I think Mark also said something about this in the article.

    Overall I still believe we should try to incorporate these postures into daily life as much as possible WHILE keeping focus on the shape of our spines.

  24. Where can I find the podcast of Matt and Mark discussing archetypal resting positions?