I find myself tracing the “flight paths” of people’s skeletons. I know, it’s odd. I tend to notice the corridor where our pelvis moves through space most of the time, and I reckon we inhabit a narrow vertical range of between 17 and 35 inches with small variations due to our height. We who spend a lot of time in chairs and cars, and sleep on mattresses with box springs rarely come to a full landing on the ground. We’re lucky if we have young ones who call us to the floor for an hour of Lego therapy, coloring book group, or a board game retreat. How many grandparents do you know who think they are no longer able to join their grandkids on the floor?
If we’re not mindful of this default path, we can become locked into this narrow range. My mother certainly is. She traveled through her 60’s, 70’s and now her 80’s in a very different way than her ancestors, or her peers in other parts of the world. Her pelvis now can never safely drop below the 18-inch altitude. This status also comes with the ignoble label of “Fall Risk”. Living on stilts during our last decades is not inevitable for human beings, but we’ve created a way of life that incrementally, through thousands of seemingly inconsequential choices, can deliver us permanently to a flight range of fewer choices, less independence.
I was contemplating these things recently as my daughter Hannah and I drove to Kansas City to catch a plane. We were on our way to join family for my father-in-law’s memorial service in Florida. I thought about our daily glide paths, how the range of this up and down path of our skeletons can have outsized effects on end-of-life choices. For most of our trip, Hannah’s and my pelvis were traveling at the same altitude as everyone else's, zipping along I-70, then walking to our gate. Once we were through security though, our hips followed a slightly different trajectory than those around us. We found an open spot on the floor with a nice view of the tarmac. For the next half hour, we were traveling through space/time just inches below everyone the rest of the airport crowd. This glide path less traveled made all the difference.
Being able to stretch before getting packed like sardines into our plane is not just a preference for my aging body, 20-something Hannah notices the benefits as well. We were pleased to see a few of our fellow travelers making the same choice.
What would make choosing the floor an attractive option for more people? The two of us sitting together provided additional legitimacy to our choice. The terminal was roomy enough that we were out of the main flow of traffic, not impeding anyone else’s movement. Unlike New York's LaGuardia, thank goodness, every foot of wall space wasn’t filled with benches. The carpet wasn’t cushy, but it was clean. We weren’t wearing pencil skirts or skinny jeans, so we were comfortable once we got there.
We were also confident that we could easily get back up again. This is the concern I hear the most from people even younger than myself. How many folks get locked in “flight” with a pelvis that always has to be airborne? How often do we adults ever make full landings? By rarely seeing the floor, our pelvises never receive the maintenance a full return to gravity’s embrace can provide. All ships spend some time in dry dock, planes return to the hanger. How often do we allow our legs to extend along the floor, becoming the “ground crew” to our tight hips?
The floor was once a welcoming location for the work of childhood. What has happened in the years since? Can you remember when it switched for you? As our smartphones float with us through this hyper-connected cloud, work is becoming more and more like the play of children. Knowledge work is no longer tethered to wires or particular locations. If we find ourselves in pain and less flexible at the end of the day, can we still pin the blame on our tasks? Our work tools are immensely flexible, but has our behavior caught up with this new reality?
Far from my office, sitting on the airport floor, I answered a number of emails and phone calls, checked the weather in Florida and even researched some needed supplies. Could it be that the last hurdle of optimization is in our mental models, not in our tools or the work itself? Are we willing to reclaim our once reliable and flexible friend, the floor?
The physical discomfort that comes with overly short hips and psoas is a major hurdle for many. Perhaps an even larger impediment is the fear of status loss. Do we view those on the floor as lower status? These unwritten but persistent rules even follow us into our homes. Friends have related stories of relatives being put out and hurt when they chose the floor instead of a couch. “What? Is my nice furniture not good enough for you?” Good luck parsing the meaning of that one. You not only lowered your own status in their eyes, but you’ve also somehow magically occupied both the floor and a pedestal above them, rendering them “not good enough”.
Even in our overstuffed western world, these social norms aren’t universal. If you attend a yoga festival at a hotel conference center, it’s remarkable how different people behave. The weekend before the festival, the same pool of professional men and women fill the conference center dressed in heels and business attire as they sit on the stackable chairs, chairs that are only comfortable for the first 20 minutes of an 8 hour day.
During the yoga festival the following week, in the same location, there are no chairs to be found and a similar population of professionally employed adults. This time they are all comfortably together on the floor. The same carpeted stage platform might be used, but it functions as simply another floor, a riser so those in the back have a good view of demonstrations. Sometimes the riser is right in the middle of the conference room with participants circled around it. Imagine the flight path of that flock of yoga enthusiasts passing through the chairless conference center, compared to the typical set-up during the rest of the year when hotel staff lug and stack hundreds and hundreds of those dreadful chairs.
I recently finished an adult tap class. Your local dance studio is another location where chairs are scarce and you’re more likely to see bodies spread out on the floor, even where there is no carpet. Think about the flight path of the dancer’s skeleton. Some actually get airborne on a regular basis.
Are we trading physical pain and a shorter life of mobility for the perception (real or not) of social acceptance and status? Archive video of a young Joni Mitchell surfaced recently. It’s remarkable to see the audience of white college students all sitting on the floor for this Canadian television show. Even back in 1965, chair sitting had rendered these young people stiff and uncomfortable. You can see many of them hugging their elevated knees with rounded backs, hallmarks of overly short psoas and hip flexors. If you watch the video, see if you can catch your mind’s subtle response to these students sitting on the floor. Does their position affect your sense of their social status, even perhaps their age?
There are true physical limitations for many of us, I’m not suggesting we ignore them. What I would like us to explore is what mental models do we project onto the world, and what are the physical prices we pay? How much genuine physical freedom awaits us on the other side of the social barriers we limit ourselves with? Are we willing to fire those social norms that cost us long-term health and vitality? What will we hire in their place?
How poorly do our mental models have to perform, how much pain must they produce in the present before we fire them and rehire the floor? Is the image of your future self-clear enough to make the choices now on behalf of greater mobility for yourself in 40 years? How could you make that image more vivid?
Simply begin by observing the altitudes your physical frame inhabits throughout the day. What implications does this have for the glide path choices you’ll have at the end of your life? Very small changes made up-stream can create large dividends down the way. Pilots, sailors and financial advisors know this truth in their bones you might say. Do we? Our son-in-law, Nathan Halwel, recently commented that the Soul Seat is a mobility 401k. You needn’t look far to see the downsides of not investing early. How are the flight paths of the flock your flying with?