The Vault

Design For Good Use

By Robin Simmons

 

Alexander states somewhere that it is more or less a waste of time to try and correct people's bad use by getting them to employ 'better' chairs etc implying that the only way to improve anyone's use is by giving them proper lessons. Although I understand the point that by themselves 'good' chairs cannot fundamentally improve anyone's use and that lessons are of primary importance in achieving any significant and lasting changes in the use people make of themselves, I still believe there is a place for the 'good' chair.

In my twenty-two years teaching I've repeatedly come across people who are actively interfering with their best use by sitting for long periods on harmful chairs. Even with the best will in the world to improve their use, until such people reach a fairly high level of consistent competence in the Technique, they are going to fall prey to the effects of whatever chair they sit on. For example a low, soft and spongy chair with a deep and backward sloping surface will tend to encourage even someone with normally quite good use to collapse and slump. While people are having lessons they can benefit from any help going so why deny them the benefit of a chair that might to some extent discourage them from slumping and might even occasionally help to remind them to 'go up'? Why leave them sitting on a chair that is obviously compromising their use of themselves? Naturally it must be pointed out to them that making any changes in the furniture is merely an adjunct to, and a reminder of, the central work of consciously applying the Technique. Fancy furniture, I repeat, will never be any substitute for the Alexander Technique.

So what are my recommendations about chairs? Here are a list of five characteristics that in my view are to be avoided, and a list of five contrasting characteristics that I have found tend to help people avoid slumping, and remind themselves instead to lengthen while sitting.

For simplicity of illustration I shall assume the circumstances of sitting are where a chair is being used at a desk—for this purpose my ten points to watch are:

Avoid a chair that is:

1) low; and
2) very soft; and
3) deep front to back—depending upon lower and upper leg lengths;
4) one with a backrest that only supports the back at the lumbar area; and
5) one that tends to slope backwards.

Instead use a chair that is:

1) relatively high—depending on the user's lower leg length;
2) firm—bony framework has something supportive to come up from;
3) with a back support that can alter the depth of the seat—i.e. go forwards and back—this will account for the person's lower and upper leg lengths;
4) with a backrest that can adjust to support the user at the sacral area rather than the lumbar area—which will send them 'up' instead of 'breaking them in the middle' and fixing their lower and floating ribs;
5) one that has the capability to be fixed at a variety of angles including varieties of forward tilt—this will again tend to send the person 'up' as they sit and will discourage slumping.

In giving lessons that include points about how to sit while at work, I advise people to have one foot forwards and one back. In this way the forward leg will tend to help send the person's back more back and the foot placed more underneath the sitter will tend to encourage them to go up—so this foot position encourages people to go 'back and up', which is what we want. It also provides the possibility for varieties of leg arrangements. Conventionally people are told that they must have both feet solidly flat on the floor and placed parallel and level to create a right-angle between the upper legs and the back This is all very well in theory, in practice however, this sitting style leads people to collapse their back backwards and down as they bend over to view their work so that they slump. This so-called 'correct' upright body attitude with these supposed right angles depends for its 'success' on the owner of the body having excellent use and a pretty strong back. This might in time come with lessons. Meanwhile, in my experience, getting people to have one foot back and one forward give them a better chance to avoid habitual misuses.

It is not necessary to purchase an expensive fancy chair to give yourself or your pupil the best chair set-up for working at a desk or table. Any ordinary wooden seat can be made to fit a person by cutting or raising the legs. If a forward slope is required it is quite easy to obtain a seat 'wedge' that gives an adequate slope, or the rear legs of the chair can be simply raised up a margin higher than the front legs—for example, by fixing a round rubber doorstop under each back leg of the chair.

In this short summary of my talk at Brighton I have omitted any mention of what seating I would advise for car driving, watching television or several other situations. The forward sloping seat arrangement I have advocated for desk work would not necessarily apply to these other situations. In fact each circumstance has be evaluated in terms of the specific requirements of the person sitting and their unique physical dimensions. Their expertise in using themselves will need to be taken into account as well. I have also not mentioned additional gadgetry like writing slopes, copy holders and VDU. supports etc., all of which I approve of and advocate. There are other gadgets I'd not advocate. But enough. With the outline points I've mentioned above anyone with a little common sense will see their way to giving good advice if they want to give it.

Finally, it always amazes me how important and necessary it is for us to actually give advice and talk to people about these matters. So often I have found otherwise intelligent top professional people who come for lessons alarmingly short of simple common sense about them. Tell them—they'll be grateful, they might even come for more lessons.

FOOTNOTE

The basis of the ideas in this summary come from the book by Dr A.C. Mandal Homo Sedens. This book together with information about chairs, wedges and other equipment can be obtained from John Gorman, Oaklands, New Mill Lane, Eversley, Hants RG27 ORA England Tel: 0734 732365.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Robin Simmons has been teaching since 1971, having trained with Walter Carrington from 1969 to 1971. He runs a teaching practice and, with Jean Clark, co-directs a Teacher Training school in Hampstead, London. In response to enquires from his private pupils he began investigating chairs and furniture that help prevent misuse in 1980.

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