Updated: Jan 30
It is practically impossible to live naturally in our modern society. We do what we can to make up for it, but without returning to our natural lifestyles, away from cities and sedentary civilizations, there's no way to mimic the stimulus that shaped us, as we no longer need to forage and hunt to survive, and the scope of how we move in day-to-day activities has become increasingly narrow.
Homosapiens haven't gone through much physiological evolutionary change in the 200,000-300,000 years since we first developed into our current form. That means our needs for movement, shaped by our environment, has not changed significantly since then. If we leave those movement patterns behind, our bodies struggle to maintain balance and health.
This article will break down how Sotai helps us restore natural alignment and body awareness, and what kinds of natural movements we need to include in our daily life. Including natural movements in the right proportions can help make up for the patterns that the conveniences of modern society have rendered unnecessary, but we need to engage in regularly from a biological standpoint.
By observing our ancestors, and the few human communities in the world that still live the way their ancestors did, we can get a lot of clues as to what "living naturally" really means. We can also look at the history of our modern culture to see when exactly certain conventions were introduced to human culture.
Consideration 1: Getting Up and Down from the Ground
If we look at the history of chairs, we have been using them for over 5000 years, though until recently, chairs were much lower to the ground, some as low as 10 inches, and often without backs. Until about the 16th century, chairs were a symbol of high authority, reserved for royalty and those of high political status. In many cultures, the higher the status, the higher the chair. The common people sat on low benches and stools until fairly recently, and some cultures, such as Korea and Japan, have only adapted to sitting in chairs in the past few generations.
There’s nothing wrong with sitting in chairs, but the unfortunate side effect is that it removes the need to get up and down from the ground throughout the day. When we look at indigenous communities that still live according to their ancestral traditions, they tend to get up and down up to hundreds of times per day, and elderly people tend to get up and down even more frequently than young people with no problems.
The point here is that replacing floor sitting with chair sitting, takes away our need to get up and down from the ground periodically throughout the day, which comes at a cost to the health, mobility and overall vitality of our bodies.
Another thing to consider is how we are using our bodies when we sit. We are often getting busy with our upper bodies, working on a computer, or steering a car, while the lower body is barely involved. You may not notice this subtlety, but every movement is a whole-body movement. The more we disengage and dis-involve the lower body in our activities, the more subtle compensations we make in our spine, and hips, and the more we use our arms in a disconnected and mal-aligned way. In a natural setting, when we needed to focus on a task, the most stable working surface would be the ground, and we would sit or squat if we needed to tinker with something.
The point of this issue is that sitting in a chair while doing most of our daily activities enforces broken movement mechanics and discoordination of the upper and lower body. Everything we do with the upper body subtly involves the lower body as well. When we habitually separate and isolate movements in one part of the body, the way whole-body movements coordinate can get scrambled.
As I mentioned, humans have been sitting in some form of chair for over 5000 years. That's not nearly long enough for us to make even a relatively small evolutionary adaptation. Here's an example of one of our recent evolutionary adaptations to put this into perspective:
Homosapien first appeared 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, and are thought to have developed a capacity for language about 50,000 years ago. We started to domesticate plants and animals about 10,000 years ago. Lactose tolerance is an adaptation through positive selection where we have become increasingly tolerant to lactose since the onset of the domestication of animals. Now, how many people do you know who are lactose intolerant? I bet plenty of them even have a cultural heritage from a part of the world that is known to consume dairy. Even many people who are not lactose intolerant, can still have children who may or may not be. This is a long-time-coming evolutionary adaptation that still has a long way to go.
10,000 years obviously has not been long enough for our species to be able to completely adapt to producing the appropriate proportion of the enzyme needed to digest lactose. If that bun is still in the oven, there's no way that 5,000 years of sitting in chairs is long enough to nullify the body's need to get up and down from the ground without some restrictions in range of motion. Especially considering that it's really only in the past couple of generations when we started creating all kinds of tools and devices for the purpose of eliminating the necessity to crouch down when performing our daily tasks.
In my opinion, sitting in chairs isn't the problem, it's not getting up and down from the ground multiple times per day that plagues us. It's not what we're doing, but what we're missing. With this frame of mind, we don't have to condemn chairs, we just need to strategically add more movement variety into our day.
Actionable items: Adding to your exercise routine multiple repetitions of getting up and down from a lying or floor-sitting position in a variety of ways. This makes a great warm up, or part of a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout if you ramp up the intensity a bit. Practicing breakfalls while you do this is a great way to use this time to improve your injury prevention skills as well.
Consideration 2: Favoring One Side
The next big causative factor that modern society contributes toward our unnaturalness is that everything in our society is designed with right handedness in mind. Whether you are right or left-handed, interacting with doors, computers, cars, and other electronic devices demands that you favor one side and separate tasks for your right and left hand. In situations like driving a car, or working on computers, this can encourage us to lean to one side, and of course, to use each hand differently. This subtly creates compensations and imbalances between the right and left sides of the body.
We design things to be more convenient at the cost of reducing the demand to be physical throughout daily life. When was the last time you climbed a ladder, or even reached up overhead to get something? It certainly isn’t as often as your great grandparents when they were your age.
There’s a reason that our ancestors were successfully seduced into living in society. It’s easier, and safer. Unfortunately the hidden cost is our health, but how we choose to live our lives can mitigate that cost and give us the natural stimulation that we need to maintain balance.
For many of us, there's no practical way to get through life without favoring one side during certain activities. You may enjoy a sport like golf, baseball, tennis, or basketball, for example, all of which involve a lot of unilateral movement, like swinging the club on your dominant side every time you use it. Be aware of these imbalances so that you can make an effort to counteract them with intentional activities.
Actionable item: If you enjoy a physical recreational activity, or play a sport, spend some of your practice time on your non-dominant side. This can help offset the imbalance that is encouraged by a unilateral activity. If you are a boxer, spend some time hitting the heavy bag with your non-dominant side leading; if you play a sport that involves swinging some kind of stick, spend some time practicing swinging in the awkward direction. You probably won't actually use this when playing competitively, but building up both sides during practice sessions can help offset the imbalance of favoring one side. There are even studies that show a marked improvement in coordination and power in the dominant side by training the non-dominant direction as well.
Actionable item # 2: Bring awareness to your habits in daily life. Do you lean to one side when you sit, drive, or stand? In some circumstances, this can't be helped, but being aware of our habitual patterns can inform what we need to do with our structural alignment exercises to address the imbalances. Activities like driving may necessitate some asymmetrical movements, but you don't have to let these pattern bleed into your habitual patterns. There are a lot of things that you can improve about your posture in daily life activities to help reduce the insult to your postural alignment. The key is to bring your awareness into how you're using your body throughout the day.
Consideration 3: Everything is Right in Front of Us
The third big problem with how our society makes everything too accessible for us, is that everything we build is placed right in front of us. Our steering wheels, computers, smart-devices, even the structure of desks and how we go about writing, encourages us to be sitting with our arms out in front of us, probably with our head craned forward and shoulders shrugged. We never reach for anything anymore. Most of us haven't even climbed a ladder in years. Could your grandfather even go a week without having to go up on a ladder for whatever reason?
Our shoulders are designed for brachiation, which means swinging from branches and throwing with accuracy. How often do you play on a set of monkey bars, or climb trees, or throw a ball? Without hanging from the hands, the weight of our arms over time deforms the acromion process, restricting the nerves and soft tissue that needs to get through that space. By hanging with the hands overhead, we can begin to restore the shape of the acromion process and release pent up tension in the shoulders. When hanging, our shoulder forms a part-time joint between the acromion process and humerus. This is the only way to know of to restore the shape and natural function of the shoulders.
Actionable item: A bit of hanging every day makes for good preventative measures, but those with existing shoulder problems will find the best results with a more structured hanging practice like Dr. John Kirsch's Hanging Protocol. Reach out if you would like some guidance about this protocol.
Consideration 4: Athleticism Does Not Equate Health & Balance
The problem isn’t that we sit in chairs, drive cars, and use computers. It’s what we aren't doing that’s the problem. Activities like getting up and down from the ground at least dozens of times throughout the day, walking long distances, carrying heavy things over long distances, as well as occasionally running, jumping, throwing, and climbing are what human beings are biologically designed to do on a daily basis. If the inescapable sedentary conveniences take away the demand to perform those movement patterns in the right proportions, we need to intentionally reintegrate them into our lives.
That sounds like a long way of saying, “we need to exercise to make up for sedentarism”, but it’s not that simple. When we think that way, we often end up overtraining, and easily doing too much of the wrong things. If you workout every single day and lift heavy weights, run on the treadmill, do plyometric jumping drills, and other exercises that are designed for optimizing the performance of athletes, that’s going to build more problems on top of compensations for poor postural alignment. Athletes exercise intensely, but they also have teams of physiotherapists, and other practitioners that put just as much time and effort into their maintenance, rest and recovery. If you're training like an athlete, are you also doing the self-care at the level of an athlete? If not, you're sabotaging your health.
Athletes are not as healthy as they could be if they didn't have to prioritize elite performance. That’s right. Most people think athletes are the paradigm of health in humans, but the priority of an athlete is not health. It’s performance. At the cost of health if necessary. A high level competitive athlete will make many health sacrifices if it means being able to out-perform the competition, and by the time they reach middle age, they are most often in pretty rough condition despite rigorous therapy regimens. Exercises for athletes are not selected or designed to promote health, but to improve performance at all costs. Of course, some athletes are gifted as well as very disciplined in the way they maintain their health. These examples are few and far between, and even though you may not see it, they may still be suffering.
There are a lot of attractive novel exercises displayed on social media, especially sport-specific exercises and gymnastic feats of flexibility. It's important to see them as they are, and not confuse elite athleticism for health. There's a good reason that we mistakenly correlate high intensity athleticism with health and wellness. Someone who trains athletically without a health-focused facet to their practice, compared to a sedentary person who also does not do any health-focused practice will obviously present as being much healthier. However, someone who engages in athletic exercise in moderation, and prioritizes structural alignment and natural movement principles will have probably have less problems and feel better in their bodies than the other two examples.
Most athletic performance-based training takes a toll on the body. I'm not discouraging the pursuit athleticism, but athletic training doesn't replace the need to restore balance in the body, it increases it. In my experience as a manual therapist, even practices such as Yoga can be hard on the wrists, shoulders, and sometimes cause hip problems or joint instability depending on how much you push yourself.
Actionable items: Distinguish in your mind, movement for the sake of fitness, and movement for the sake of balance and mobility. Build a manageably brief (<10 minutes) daily practice to support your structural alignment and flexibility. You can always extend that on days where you feel like doing a little more. Sotai exercises and the Meridian Stretches are my recommendation as the most benefit for the lowest time investment. You can find a free guide to the Meridian Stretching sequence at www.naturalmobility.net/meridianstretching and get started with that today.
Consideration 5: Body Awareness & Structural Alignment Exercise
In general, everyone tends to have some imbalance in tension and structural alignment in the body from the kinds of stimulus and demands that are placed on us. When these structural imbalances are present, they usually are held in place by signals from the nervous system that we are unaware of. Our consciousness has become disconnected from that part of the body and it's being held in a contraction by our "autopilot". Often times this subconscious contraction is initiated by sympathetic nerve dominance from overstimulation, but it can also be a relic from an old injury, bracing against another expected impact. Sotai (movement therapy) is about recalibrating the way the nervous system is holding the body together.
By bringing awareness to the imbalances through mindful movement and breathing (Doshin), and with the Sotai technique, your perception of where your balance lies become more vivid. This is cultivating body awareness. The subconscious contractions held by the nervous system are woken up and taken out of autopilot as your mind becomes more aware of those parts of the body.
All skeletal muscles are voluntary. If contracting or relaxing a skeletal muscle is not possible, it is often the result of a problem of perception.
The problem here is that people become so focused on their mind, or fixated on an interest, that they lose connection with their body. Try lying down on the ground and just relax, check in from head to toe to bring your awareness to whether each part of the body is really relaxed, or if there are some muscles that are still contracting. Are the muscles of your scalp tense, your face muscles, or neck? What about your shoulders, spine, chest, arms, fingers? How about your abdomen, hips, knees? Are your feet falling out to the sides, or are your toes sticking straight up? Can you let them go? If you don't find any tension in this exercise, it's more likely a sign that you need to develop a finer detail of body awareness, than that you're perfectly relaxed. Slow, controlled movement combined with a deep focus on the subtle sensations of the body is called Doshin (mobility observation).
Another issues could be that you are unable to control the movement of a certain joint. This is the opposite issue, but the same problem. In this case, your mind does not have a strong enough connection with that part of the body to send a strong signal to contract. You may get spasms if you try anyway, and that can be a sign of your nervous system, trying to build that pathway.
For most people, there will be a bit of both of these issues; parts of the body where you cannot control relaxation, and other parts of the body where you cannot control contraction. The relationship between this weakness and overinvolvement is the key to restoring balance in the body and realign the structure. Sotai exercise aims to restore balance and control of tension and relaxation through body awareness, and coordinated breathing and movement.
Actionable Items: To elaborate from the last segment's actionable item, spend a few minutes when you wake up, or before you go to bed and do a few Doshin movements standing and lying down. If you feel any distinct imbalances in tension, discomfort or restriction, or conversely a particularly satiating feeling as you move in a particular direction, take a moment to do some Sotai exercise for that movement if you've learned it. Try this one as an introduction:
Consideration 6: The Perils of Guilt Mentality
Restoring natural balance in movement isn’t about exercising really hard to make up for sitting around drinking beer and eating snacks. We use our guilt to motivate our healthy habits. That’s not how our bodies work best, and it develops a association of healthy habits with punishments and unhealthy habits with rewards.
We make the mistake of treating our health like money, and when we make poor health decisions and waste that money, we try to exercise hard enough to earn that wasted money back. But actually, that’s more like wasting money, and then taking what you have left to the casino to try and win back your money. You’ll just end up broke and exhausted in the long-run.
To develop a positive relationship with healthy habits, you have to become more deeply aware of how much better you feel when you adhere to natural principles. In order to cultivate this experience, you have to develop a consistent practice. This initial development of a practice is challenging, and likely involves falling out of your habit several times before it become part of your daily routine. If you do some Sotai and Meridian Stretching every day for a few weeks it should take no more than 10 minutes per day. If you can keep that up for 21 days you'll definitely notice a change in how your body feels. If you don't notice a change, you will when you go without doing your daily routine for a few days.
Actionable item: This one is all about your mentality and attitude. It's important to cultivate a positive experience and association with your motivation to maintain your practice. Guilt is fickle, but an experience of enhancing the way your body feels, how well you sleep, an improvement in digestion, and emotional stability can be a potent motivator.
Consideration 7: Movement Nutrition
Restoring balance and a high standard of natural movement means approaching health and fitness from the most biologically relevant standpoint. Biomechanist and prolific author on the subject of natural movement, Katy Bowman puts it brilliantly when she explains this within the metaphor of movement nutrients.
If we look at what we need out of nutrients, we can break it up into two categories: macronutrients like protein, fat, and carbohydrates, each of which we need large amounts of, and together they make up the bulk of our diet. Micronutrients would characterize the other category, and consists of vitamins and minerals, which we need proportionally very little of, but we still need them regularly.
If we are not getting enough of a macronutrient, or micronutrient, we get sick. If we have too much of any of these, we also get sick. If the proportions are off, we have a problem. The key is getting enough of each and not too much of any.
In movement terms, macronutrients are like walking, getting up and down from the ground, carrying things, and sitting transitions. Micronutrients are like climbing, jumping, sprinting, throwing, and other activities that were situational and only performed a few times per day, if that. Most of what we think of as “workout exercises” are micronutrients, but if this is all the physical activity we do, and we are not getting our macros, dysfunction will creep in eventually, probably in the form of “overtraining” injuries. The strongest piece of bamboo is flexible, when it gets too hard, it become brittle and breaks easily.
Athletic workout exercises that focus on lifting, jumping, running, and other micronutrients at high intensity do not fill the need for long walks, getting up and down from the ground, and the other macronutrients we need. They certainly enhance your potential for physical performance, but if anything, and athletic lifestyle only further necessitates a balances health practice.
Movement practices that you enjoy might help meet some of the movement macronutrient requirements. If you do Yoga, you’re probably doing a lot of getting up and down from the ground and sitting transitions. With weight training, Turkish Get Ups stimulate carrying and getting up and down from the ground. If you go to the gym & lift weights, you can probably include some more farmer walks and other carrying exercises to meet that macronutrient requirement. Then you can make a conscious effort to take more frequent walks, and occasionally do some climbing, jumping, and other natural movement exercises to meet any micronutrient requirements that your exercise routine, or physical activity does not cover.
Actionable items: Work a wide variety of movements opportunistically in your daily life when you can. Focus on making some for your macro movement-nutrients by making an effort to go for walks every day, and getting up and down from the ground at least a dozen times per day. Make sure that your workouts touch all of the bases of the movements that are biological necessities for humans. If you don't work out, try doing some movement exploration of a different micro movement-nutrient every day. You can get a 2"x4" piece of wood from the hardware store to practice a balancing walk, and if you want an extra challenge, you can carry a weight while you balance. That's something you could even do in front of the TV for a minute every 5 minutes. It's all about the low hanging fruit!
Recap: What You Can Do
Maintaining health in modern society, from a fitness standpoint, means integrating natural movements into your regular exercise routine in proportions that reflect our biological, ancestral needs. It also means stacking your daily life activities with natural movements when possible. This will help maintain balance and will make some small positive changes, but a daily movement practice specifically based on balancing our alignment and benefiting our health is also needed. This is what Sotai was created for. Sotai is how to bring your posture back into the correct alignment, and relieve the build up of abnormal tension and pain.
You can start with a few simple Sotai Exercises daily, and start thinking about which movement nutrients your current activities stimulate, and which you need to add. If you're going for at least a 20 minute walk every day, spending a few minutes getting up and down from the ground or practicing breakfalls, doing a bit of hanging, and a practice like Meridian Stretching, you'll probably have to get into the habit of putting 20 minutes per day aside (plus the walk), and get a pretty good maintenance routine going.
Doshin & Sotai Routine
Meridian Stretching Routine
Get ups & breakfalls
My philosophy is to keep it simple, focus on the principles, and make sure the demands you place on yourself are easily manageable. Planning to do 2 hours of training every day is probably not going to last very long before you have a busy day and can't fit it in. I do my Meridian Stretching, one Sotai exercise, and my hanging routine every morning as a bare minimum. If I'm in a rush, it can take less than 15 minutes, but even that is like night and day in regards to how I feel in my body for the rest of the day.
After many times of falling out of my habit and jumping back on, I have felt the sharp contrast between the days that I make time and the days that I skip, and now I always make time for it. If I did everything I want to do every morning it would take over an hour, and I'd probably only actually get into that a few times per week. Aside from that, I try to make sure to maintain an awareness of how I'm holding my body throughout the day, and always try to take every opportunity to move in a variety of ways throughout my day.
This is why I have created two workshops based on an amalgamation of my practices. One is focused on Structural Alignment & Self Healing, while the other is focused on Injury Prevention & Safe Falling. Check out www.naturalmobility.net to find out more about each of these workshops, when the next one is happening, and how you can sign up.