The Third World Squat
Humans are biomechanically designed to squat, deadlift, and move through a full range of motion at the hips, knees, and ankle joints. The ability to flex and extend all three joints at one time is referred to as, “triple extension.” Squat exercises are similar to the finest aged whiskey; (1) a highly technical practice to perfect, (2) maturation and development of the end product is time and effort dependent, and (3) good to the last drop (of the hips below parallel).
Believe it or not, the Squat is the most natural position for our human body to be relaxed! This is how our bodies are designed to move and it is important that we maintain this range of movement. In a very relaxed squat, held over a period of time, the lower back may become rounded but ideally in an active squat, the back is flat. Because of our current epidemic in the West for sitting (and not squatting) we find it difficult to a) get down into a squat in the first place and b) do so with feet in a narrow parallell and with an active and straight back.
You have heard that sittingin soft chairs is worse that smoking for your health…. Why is that? As we age, in Western Culture particularly, the hinging movement from the hips becomes smaller and stiffer unless we are regularly practicing Yoga and in particular, the flat footed squats. In other cultures, being able to maintain this position for long periods of time is normal into very advanced years. For this reason, a squat with the feet flat on the floor is sometimes called “The Third World or Asian Squat” since you will regularly see this position in these countries. Because the position is maintained, it is very comfortable to use for rest. Here is a hilarious video which shows the difference between Asian and Western styles of squatting and the advantages of the former!
Why Hip Flexion is important for Squatting
Most movement happens from the middle of the body. We cannot bring the knee up or the chest down unless we are flexible in the hinge movement of the hip joint. There also needs to be a good range of movement in knee and ankle joints if you are to perform an Asian Squat. However, It is great to practice since the longer we can keep the hip flexion movement going, the more fit and limber we will stay and the younger we will feel as a result facilitating us to maintain our independance and health. Further to this, you are less prone to injury if there is smooth and free movement in all three of these important joints.
Stress Affects the Openness of our Hips
We also live in an epidemic of a very stressful environment where the fight or flight instinct is lit more often than we care to recognise. Have a look at this programme from the BBC “The Truth About Stress” that Diane from Friday Class told us about last week which shows how mindfulness can be used to counteracts the effects of stress. Everyday stresses are generally felt as tightness in the jaw and shoulders but if we have a habit of continually supressing strong negative emotions there is evidence for a correlation with tightness in the hip joint.
If we able to achieve a deep squat, we can also use this pose to take a bowel movement which is the more natural condition for the bowel. Sitting on the toilet is not the natural way – unless you jump on the toilet seat and squat down. Putting your feet on a foot stools will put you in the same position of course. Here is a quick video that explains why your stools will travel more easily along to the outside world if your knees are pulled into you at chest height. Whatever way you get into the optimum position, it will put your bowel in the correct tilt for emptying and is of course a top tip if you are contipated or have Irritiable Bowel in fact, anyone with a colon disability absolutely must adopt this posture for optimum bowel emptying and health.
Don’t Judge Your Squat
Naturally all our squats would look different since we all have different anatomy but it is very usueful to develop your squat within your own bodies unique style. Practicing every day will improve your squat which helps our walking in particular. You may even find after a few months that you can watch an entire TV programme in a squat position!
You can start off in a very wide sumo squat which is much easier and gradually progress the feet together. Some people can even take a deep squat with feet together like the woman in the picture above. It can be a sign of tight hip flexors if you can’t get the feet to face forwards.
Start Supported by walls, tables, door frames, blocks and wedges!
You can practice with the wall behind you at first then progress to being supported by a table top in front of you (or have your friend hold your arms out in front of you) or hold on to a door frame for balance and to help you lower down.
If we cannot bend the knees to lower the hips with the feet flat on the floor, there is some sort of issue with our mobility. For lots of us it is our ankles which can be compression in the joints rather than tight muscles, just because of skeletal differences so don’t tell yourself off if that is you!. You may do exercises to lengthen your muscles around the ankle joint but it is skeletal compression that is stopping your ability to get your heels down in Down Dog or Squat. You just need to support your feet with the heels elevated if this is you so pop a blanket or special yoga wedge under your heels to go down into a comfortable squat if this is you.
Knee Joint Stiffness
Knee issues often get in the way as we age and if that is the case for you, it can be beneficial to sit on your Yoga Brick. You still get the benefits of a squat and keep your hips open into older age but you are taking the weight out of your knees.
Ideally you need to lower into squat with the armpits on top of the knees (rather than rounding the shoulders and upper back by having your arms inside the knees) but your ability to do this might be hampered by the length of your back (if it is much shorter than the length of your femur (thigh bone)).
Tight hip flexors will pull your pelvis forward (anterior tilt) and gives you an exaggerated lumbar curve. This affects the way in which you are able to squat as it pulls the centre of gravity forward and stops you being able to curl the pelvis into the correct position for squat. You will often see people draw the toes far out to the side (a big turn out) in the squat position if the hip flexors are tight. Lunges, with knee down or up (or both) as well as Warrior 1 help you to release this tightness. You can also hang off the end of the bed with one leg as you draw the other knee into your chest and this will lengthen the front of the leg dandling down.
Good luck in your daily practice of squatting. So that you don’t forget to practice, you can always start a habit of squating on top of the toilet, Asian style and kill three birds with one stone since you will also get a flat tummy to boot!