A young boy in Delhi, India looks pretty comfortable in this posture. Photo by Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee.
Sentences that start with the phrase “A guru once told me…” are, more often than not, eye-roll-inducing. But recently, while resting in malasana, or a deep squat, in an East London yoga class, I was struck by the second half of the instructor’s sentence: “A guru once told me that the problem with the West is they don’t squat.”
This is plainly true. In much of the developed world, resting is synonymous with sitting. We sit in desk chairs, eat from dining chairs, commute seated in cars or on trains, and then come home to watch Netflix from comfy couches. With brief respites for walking from one chair to another, or short intervals for frenzied exercise, we spend our days mostly sitting. This devotion to placing our backsides in chairs makes us an outlier, both globally and historically. In the past half century, epidemiologists have been forced to shift how they study movement patterns. In modern times, the sheer amount of sitting we do is a separate problem from the amount of exercise we get.
Our failure to squat has biomechanical and physiological implications, but it also points to something bigger. In a world where we spend so much time in our heads, in the cloud, on our phones, the absence of squatting leaves us bereft of the grounding force that the posture has provided since our hominid ancestors first got up off the floor. In other words: If what we want is to be well, it might be time for us to get low.
To be clear, squatting isn’t just an artifact of our evolutionary history. A large swath of the planet’s population still does it on a daily basis, whether to rest, to pray, to cook, to share a meal, or to use the toilet. (Squat-style toilets are the norm in Asia, and pit latrines in rural areas all over the world require squatting.) As they learn to walk, toddlers from New Jersey to Papua New Guinea squat—and stand up from a squat—with grace and ease. In countries where hospitals are not widespread, squatting is also a position associated with that most fundamental part of life: birth.
It’s not specifically the West that no longer squats; it’s the rich and middle classes all over the world. My Quartz colleague, Akshat Rathi, originally from India, remarked that the guru’s observation would be “as true among the rich in Indian cities as it is in the West.”
But in Western countries, entire populations—rich and poor—have abandoned the posture. On the whole, squatting is seen as an undignified and uncomfortable posture—one we avoid entirely. At best, we might undertake it during Crossfit, pilates or while lifting at the gym, but only partially and often with weights (a repetitive maneuver that’s hard to imagine being useful 2.5 million years ago). This ignores the fact that deep squatting as a form of active rest is built in to both our evolutionary and developmental past: It’s not that you can’t comfortably sit in a deep squat, it’s just that you’ve forgotten how.
“The game started with squatting,” says author and osteopath Phillip Beach. Beach is known for pioneering the idea of “archetypal postures.” These positions—which, in addition to a deep passive squat with the feet flat on the floor, include sitting cross legged and kneeling on one’s knees and heels—are not just good for us, but “deeply embedded into the way our bodies are built.”
“You really don’t understand human bodies until you realize how important these postures are,” Beach, who is based in Wellington, New Zealand, tells me. “Here in New Zealand, it’s cold and wet and muddy. Without modern trousers, I wouldn’t want to put my backside in the cold wet mud, so [in absence of a chair] I would spend a lot of time squatting. The same thing with going to the toilet. The whole way your physiology is built is around these postures.”
So why is squatting so good for us? And why did so many of us stop doing it?
It comes down to a simple matter of “use it or lose it,” says Dr. Bahram Jam, a physical therapist and founder of the Advanced Physical Therapy Education Institute (APTEI) in Ontario, Canada.
“Every joint in our body has synovial fluid in it. This is the oil in our body that provides nutrition to the cartilage,” Jam says. “Two things are required to produce that fluid: movement and compression. So if a joint doesn’t go through its full range—if the hips and knees never go past 90 degrees—the body says ‘I’m not being used’ and starts to degenerate and stops the production of synovial fluid.”
A healthy musculoskeletal system doesn’t just make us feel lithe and juicy, it also has implications for our wider health. A 2014 study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that test subjects who showed difficulty getting up off the floor without support of hands, or an elbow, or leg (what’s called the “sitting-rising test”) resulted in a three-year-shorter life expectancy than subjects who got up with ease.
In the West, the reason people stopped squatting regularly has a lot to do with our toilet design. Holes in the ground, outhouses and chamber pots all required the squat position, and studies show that greater hip flexion in this pose is correlated with less strain when relieving oneself. Seated toilets are by no means a British invention—the first simple toilets date back to Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium B.C., while the ancient Minoans on the island of Crete are said to have first pioneered the flush—but they were first adopted in Britain by the Tudors, who enlisted “grooms of the stool” to help them relieve themselves in ornate, throne-like loos in the 16th century.
The next couple hundred years saw slow, uneven toilet innovation, but in 1775 a watchmaker named Alexander Cummings developed an S-shape pipe which sat below a raised cistern, a crucial development. It wasn’t until after the mid-to-late-1800s, when London finally built a functioning sewer system after persistent cholera outbreaks and the horrific-sounding “great stink” of 1858, that fully flushable, seated toilets started to commonly appear in people’s homes.
Today, the flushable squat-style toilets found across Asia are, of course, no less sanitary than Western counterparts. But Jam says Europe’s shift to the seated throne design robbed most Westerners of the need (and therefore the daily practice) of squatting. Indeed the realization that squatting leads to better bowel movements has fueled the cult-like popularity of the Lillipad and the Squatty Potty, raised platforms that turn a Western-style toilet into a squatting one—and allow the user to sit in a flexed position that mimics a squat.
“The reason squatting is so uncomfortable because we don’t do it,” Jam says. “But if you go to the restroom once or twice a day for a bowel movement and five times a day for bladder function, that’s five or six times a day you’ve squatted.”
While this physical discomfort may be the main reason we don’t squat more, the West’s aversion to the squat is cultural, too. While squatting or sitting cross legged in an office chair would be great for the hip joint, the modern worker’s wardrobe—not to mention formal office etiquette—generally makes this kind of posture unfeasible. The only time we might expect a Western leader or elected official to hover close to the ground is for a photo-op with cute kindergarteners. Indeed, the people we see squatting on the sidewalk in a city like New York or London tend to be the types of people we blow past in self-important rush.
“It’s considered primitive and of low social status to squat somewhere,” says Jam. “When we think of squatting we think of a peasant in India, or an African village tribesman, or an unhygienic city floor. We think we’ve evolved past that—but really we’ve devolved away from it.”
Avni Trivedi, a doula and osteopath based in London (disclosure: I have visited her in the past for my own sitting-induced aches) says the same is true of squatting as a birthing position, which is still prominent in many developing parts of the world and is increasingly advocated by holistic birthing movements in the West.
“In a squatting birthing position, the muscles relax and you’re allowing the sacrum to have free movement so the baby can push down, with gravity playing a role too,” Trivedi says. “But the perception that this position was primitive is why women went from this active position to being on the bed, where they are less embodied and have less agency in the birthing process.”
Children in the West squat with ease. Why can’t their parents? Photo by Reuters/Carlos Barria.
So should we replace sitting with squatting and say goodbye to our office chairs forever? Beach points out that “any posture held for too long causes problems” and there are studies to suggest that populations that spend excessive time in a deep squat (hours per day), do have a higher incidence of knee and osteoarthritis issues.
But for those of us who have largely abandoned squatting, Beach says, “you can’t really overdo this stuff.” Beyond this kind of movement improving our joint health and flexibility, Trivedi points out that a growing interest in yoga worldwide is perhaps in part a recognition that “being on the ground helps you physically be grounded in yourself”—something that’s largely missing from our screen-dominated, hyper-intellectualized lives.
Beach agrees that this is not a trend, but an evolutionary impulse. Modern wellness movements are starting to acknowledge that “floor life” is key. He argues that the physical act of grounding ourselves has been nothing short of instrumental to our species’ becoming.
In a sense, squatting is where humans—every single one of us—came from, so it behooves us to revisit it as often as we can.