Month: November 2013

My quest for a “just right” chair

Thoreau had three chairs

Thoreau had three chairs

American philosopher-poet Henry David Thoreau wrote in the “Visitors” chapter of Walden, his 1854 account of his life in a cabin he built on the edge of Walden Pond, near Concord Massachusetts:

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

I’m a fan of Thoreau, and I favor simplicity. And although I have more than three chairs in my house, I have just one type of chair that has become “go-to seating” for most solitary and social activities–not just for me, but for family members, friends, and co-workers. The chair is the Gokhale Pain-Free™ Chair, and I designed it myself.

Pain-free sitting, at home and at work

If you were to stop by my house today you would find five Pain-Free™ Chairs arranged around our dining room table–a table that has served my family well, not just at mealtimes, but throughout days and nights as a communal work station/library/coffee shop. To some extent I credit this comfortable arrangement for regularly enticing my two daughters home from nearby college and grad school; they continue to be drawn to this familiar setting, in part because it’s such a comfortable place to sit.

And if you were to pop into our nearby Gokhale Method Institute office you would see that every member of my staff sits in this very same type of chair, not because it’s required or because they feel obliged, but because this is their preference. Before the Gokhale Pain-Free™ Chair came to market, our office was furnished with relatively high-end task chairs (Herman Miller and Soma Ergonomics, among others). But when given the option to stay with the chair they had or to switch, everyone opted for the Pain-Free™ Chair.

Keeping it simple

“Simplicity is the law of nature for men as well as for flowers” is something else Thoreau wrote, and I subscribe to this philosophy. Tipping my hat to Thoreau, I would add that simplicity is also the law for chairs–or at least one of the laws. Too many chairs feature gratuitous, even counter-productive, features. It’s not so much that–as Goldilocks observed–the chairs are “too hard” or “too soft,” it’s that many oblige sitters to tuck the pelvis into a retroverted position, a position that leads to tense low-back muscles, slumping, and–over time–problems with spinal discs, hamstrings, and even the pelvic organs. Such repercussions can of course cause discomfort or pain.

Like Goldilocks, I sought a chair that was "just right."

Like Goldilocks, I sought a chair that was “just right.”

Simplicity was also a guiding principle when I set out to design my chair, in part because when the Pain-Free™ Chair was just a gleam in my eye I interviewed a chair repairman who came to our office to repair the same chair twice; it was one of the relatively high-end task chairs with perhaps one too many features.

Steering clear of bells and whistles

In search of a "just right" chair

In search of a “just right” chair

One valuable insight shared by the repairman was that he saw a direct link between chairs with a lot of features and chairs with a lot of dysfunction. This was especially true of chairs that recline via levers and were owned and operated by men. Men like to recline more than women, he observed, and while men apparently like to employ all available bells and whistles, they don’t necessarily read operational instructions first!

Reclining is of course a legitimate position (and in fact I’m beginning to think about designing a high-backed chair with headrest that reclines), but the desire to lean back becomes more urgent when a person is uncomfortable. If a task chair is designed to enable upright sitting and really support a person, then there’s no need to recline.

The rationale for my chair

Even among high-priced chairs design flaws are common. The challenge, as I saw it, was to design a simple chair that transforms sitting into a healthful activity that actually feels good.

Gokhale Pain-Free Chair

Gokhale Pain-Free Chair

Above all, I wanted to create a chair that promotes the natural stacking of the vertebrae without muscle strain, a chair that would enable two healthy ways of sitting–stretchsitting and stacksitting, techniques demonstrated in the video, below, and more thoroughly explored in the Gokhale Method Foundations course, my book 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, and the DVD Back Pain: The Primal Posture Solution. 

Again, the goal was to keep it simple and incorporate only those elements that absolutely matter:

  • Traction on the seatback
  • Seatpan with a downward slope
  • Adjustable seat height
  • Elimination of armrests
  • Highest quality materials

The Gokhale Pain-Free™ Chair

My chair, with its respectful-of-the-human-skeleton design, offers a healthful–even therapeutic–alternative for people committed to good posture who want to simply sit without pain. And these are the features that make a difference:

Traction on the seatback

Stretchsit nubs

Stretchsit nubs

Whether people have an upright and tense “S” spine (swayed), a relaxed and slumped “C” spine (rounded), or a compressed “I” spine (collapsed), stretchsitting is an easy way to regain some natural length. For this technique to work, people need a “grippy” support to meet the midback. Located higher than a lumbar support, but lower than the shoulder blades, soft Stretchsit® nubs built into the backrest of the Pain-Free™ Chair enables sitters to “hitch up” the spine and gently stretch the back. This, in turn, decompresses spinal nerves and discs, which not only feels good, but allows stressed-out discs to rehydrate and absorb nutrients from surrounding tissues and renew the process of self-repair.

Also, because the seatback stops short of the shoulder blades, it’s easy to roll open the shoulders for a relaxed position that promotes healthy circulation in the arms and better breathing.

Seatpan with a downward slope

It’s not good to sit the same way all day. Whereas stretchsitting allows for a sustained stretch and is well-suited to relatively passive tasks, stacksitting is generally more versatile because it enables us to reach for what we need and move around. Because we derive different benefits from stretchsitting and stacksitting, and because each lends itself to different tasks, I designed the seatpan of the Pain-Free™ Chair to enable both types of  sitting and make it easy for people to move back and forth.

The seatpan promotes healthy stacking

The seatpan promotes healthy stacking

While the back of the seatpan is flat, the front half, which features “grippy” rubberized patches, slopes downward. This design anteverts the pelvis, tipping it slightly forward to allow the vertebrae to stack easily and naturally and enable the back muscles to completely relax. Again, healthy stacking promotes healthy breathing, which in turn provides a gentle and revitalizing spinal massage.

The flat half of the seatpan, which allows for sitting back in the chair and stretchsitting, prevents the combination of anteversion and stretchsitting, which together would introduce sway in the lower back.

The seat cushion made of top-quality memory foam is really comfy. I designed this so that when people with underdeveloped glutes (something quite common in our culture) take a seat, they will not be the least bit aware of the hard board beneath the cushion–even if they stay seated all day.

Adjustable seat height

In Thoreau’s time people had sufficiently flexible hamstrings to sit comfortably and with naturally stacked spine on chairs of any height. Because people today tend to have less flexible hamstrings, a hydraulic lift helps. My own preferences is to raise the seat a little higher when I’m stacksitting, because this facilitates the downward sloping of my thighs and healthy anteversion of my pelvis. I lower the height of the seat when I stretchsit.

Take a look.

Elimination of armrests

Why did I opt not to include armrests when I designed the Pain-Free™ Chair? Too often, armrests prevent people from moving in close to their work surface. When we sit upright and relaxed with our shoulders rolled back and well hung, we can move our arms freely, without straining.

Highest quality materials

Thoreau's cabin

Thoreau’s cabin

It’s no exaggeration to say that chair is as well constructed as it is designed. I chose each part–steel, wheels, hydraulic lift, memory foam, and GREENGUARD-certified fabric–for its top-notch quality and durability…which brings me back to the spirit of Walden and the philosophy of Thoreau:

“There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest.”

When I sit in the chair I’m proud to have designed and now share with others, I think I know what Thoreau meant.

Photo Credits:
Henry David Thoreau, 1861, Wikimedia Commons
The Three Bears, Arthur Rackham, Wikimedia Commons
Goldilocks, Swift’s Premium Soap Products, 1916, public domain Gokhale Pain-Free™ Chair (and details of the chair), © Gokhale Method Pain-Free™ Chair Tutorial, © Gokhale Method
Thoreau’s cabin from the title page of the first edition of
Walden, Sophia Thoreau, public domain, Wikimedia Commons