Judy Stern in Conversation with Tim Tucker

This is an interview I conducted of Senior Alexander Teacher Judy Stern about one of the most important and misunderstood parts of the human movement repertoire, squatting.  The interview took place in August 2017.

Tim Tucker:  Judy, what is squatting?  How would you define it?

Judy Stern:  The first question you’re asking is the most straightforward one, but as usual the answer isn’t quite so straightforward.  I would say it’s a way for any human being to take themselves all the way down to the level of the ground by folding their joints.  We’re talking about hips, knees and ankles.

And it’s an activity that’s no longer used very much because of chairs having been introduced at some critical point in our evolution.  But there are cultures where people still squat in order to do many things, including eating.  And, the thing I’m most recently struck by in relation to squatting is that it’s something children do completely spontaneously.  I watch my 18-month old granddaughter who is as comfortable squatting as she is standing up.

TT:  You define squatting as the way people can get down to the ground, which is something many people don’t want to do in our culture.  Why do you think getting close to the ground is so often avoided in our culture? This despite the fact that people find it reassuring and helpful to their systems when they allow themselves to actually do it.

JS:  I think the industrial revolution, and the fact that almost everything we do is at table level – kitchen counters, bathroom sinks, signage – it all assumes that we aren’t close to the ground.  And we’ve lost some of the facility in our joints for being able to squat.

There are all kinds of things you could postulate about that.  For instance, being close to the ground may seem, for lack of a better word, “primitive” and being more upright might superficially seem more “sophisticated.”  It can also relate to the idea of manual labor as opposed to industrialized labor where we now use machines to do the things that used to get us close to the floor.  Even a mop, which is not industrial, has a long handle so we don’t have to be on our hands and knees or squatting as we scrub the floor.  Which brings in the concept of efficiency… but these are just conjectures on my part.

TT:  Our society has quite a distorted idea of efficiency – and the Alexander community talks about efficiency so differently.  I have to be very careful when I talk with students to specify energy efficiency, not the “get more things done faster” efficiency they usually think of.

JS:  Which is how most people think about things, how they measure themselves.

TT:  Speaking of how people measure themselves, what about the role our egos play in this?  There’s humility in going down to the ground, and we have the expression “lowering oneself,” which has negative connotations.  When we’re unhappy with a situation we may say that it’s “beneath us.”  And yet the ground, which completely supports us, is always literally “beneath us.”  To confuse the picture even more, many religious traditions have practices where people get on or next to the ground.

JS:  It’s funny that you mention that, because it’s getting close to the Jewish high holidays.  And there’s a point in the service during the high holidays where people prostrate themselves.  The leader of the service, with the assistance of others, first folds and gets onto his knees and then lies down, face down, on the ground.  He remains there a short time and then rises back up.  And it’s a very profound time in the service, and people in the congregation are invited to prostrate themselves and many people do.  What people describe from that experience is a sense of holiness and real connection to something greater than ourselves.

TT:  When I was thinking about how to define squatting, I observed that in squatting the thigh gets close to and touches the calf.

JS:  If I were going to define it more clinically, I would say that you’re getting maximum flexion at the knee joint, and at the hip joint.  And I say that because people’s thighs and calves are different shapes and sizes, so that definition has too much variability in it.  Whereas everybody’s knee and hip joints are designed the same way.  Maximum flexion in both those would be more consistent over a large number of people.

TT:  When you say “maximum” I’m assuming you’re allowing for wide range among people as to what that maximum is.

JS:  Each person’s maximum availability at that joint.  There are structures around each joint – ligaments, soft tissue, joint capsule, muscle – that constrain the degree of flexion each person is capable of.  If you took a skeleton – without any tissues – and put it into squat, what you would see is maximum flexion at the knee and hip joints, and at the ankle joints.  With the foot flat on the floor.  But because we’re not skeletons and because we are different from each other, we will look quite different when we squat.

The difference lies in how far I can go.  That’s based on my ligamentous laxity or tautness, and also my age, and any injuries, and what my joints can actually do.  What’s interesting about this, though, is that it can be developed.  You can learn to squat, just like you can learn to go up on your toes without bringing your torso forward.

TT:  Is there a way to define the difference between monkey and squatting?  Monkey is certainly the way we get to squatting, so how do we know when we’ve crossed the border and had our passports stamped in “squat-land?”

JS:  I think it’s a continuum of the folding of those three joints, hopefully without interfering with the coordination of the torso.  You can have a high monkey – just beginning to fold – or you can have a very low monkey, and squat is just the end of the line of the folding.  It’s just lowering oneself in space using the most efficient means and the most effective muscles without diminishing the breathing capacity of the torso.

TT:  If I go back to your more clinical definition of squatting – maximum flexion of the hips and knees, and maximum might be defined by pain…

JS:  …or limitation of range of motion…

TT: …so they simply can’t go any farther, that for them is their squat.

JS:  That is their maximum.  So we could say that one person’s squat might be another person’s deep monkey.  Defining something tends to limit one’s thoughts about it, and in a teaching context one definition isn’t applicable to everyone.

Everybody has to bend… everybody has to lower themselves in space and raise themselves in space.  And whether it’s for something as mundane as using the toilet or for something as amazing as a prima ballerina doing a plié, regardless of the purpose of the fold, the way to get there is the same.

TT:  The usual context in which people talk about squatting nowadays is lifting weights… trying to beef up their quads.

JS:  They’re interested not just in folding, they’re interested in the thrust up from the fold that takes weight into the air.

TT:  So their upper body is getting a workout as well.

JS:  The whole weightlifting squat thing has a totally different intention than lowering oneself in space.

TT:  And yet when you look online to get information about squatting that is practically all you see.  And mostly in that context, orthopedists who write about squatting express a lot of negative opinions about squatting.  Almost none of them address the topic of non-weight-bearing squatting, but those who do frown on it.  And yet much of the world squats routinely.

JS:  When you hear from the orthopedist point of view, they only see people once they have injured themselves while squatting.  This is not a double blind study about whether or not it’s safe to squat – the medical viewpoint on squatting comes from the fact that the population they see has been injured while squatting.  That’s where their aversion to squatting comes from because they see a lot of people who have been hurt doing a deep knee bend.  And if you were to ask me, “Should I do a lot of squatting?” I would say “no” because I know how most people do that.

But here is where the Alexander Technique comes into play in its full glory – as I’m very fond of saying, it’s never what you do, it’s how you do it.  So the how-to of squatting is actually fascinating to me, and that’s because I have always defined myself as someone who can’t squat, or certainly doesn’t do it easily.  I’m not a yoga person and I have very tightly strung ligaments.  A fold of my joints, my maximum, is very different from your joints, your maximum, and so the idea that I can squat and that anyone can squat was a revelation to me in my study of this work.

But I do have concerns about the weightlifting version of squatting.  When my son told me son told me he was lifting 200 pounds on a bar and getting down in a deep squat, and I know that he had knee surgery as a kid and has very flexible joints, I was furious with him.  He doesn’t have the kind of stability around his knee joints that I think he needs, and his chances of injuring himself with heavy weightlifting with a squat are huge.

TT:  When you told your son that, what was the response?

JS:  Well, no child wants to be told they shouldn’t do something, so his initial response was exactly what you would expect – he thought that what I said was ridiculous.  So I had to approach it not just as a parent but also as a professional person who has an opinion about this.  So I explained my concerns and why I had them, but I have to leave it up to him to decide.  I did also send him to an Alexander teacher.  And he did hurt his back lifting that kind of heavy weight.  Since that conversation I don’t think he lifts so much weight any more.

So what I say is, if you learn to squat properly, it’s a great way to strengthen your legs and to learn to inhibit and direct.  It’s exciting if you thought you couldn’t do it to actually be able to do it, and it’s a wonderful activity to take on in an Alexander lesson.  But would I recommend that you squat if you didn’t know how to do what you were doing and be safe?  No.

TT:  We’re definitely in the harm reduction business, and a lot of times that message of prevention falls on very deaf ears.

JS:  I’m very careful as an Alexander teacher not to tell people they should or shouldn’t do this or that.  I often say things like, “I don’t do this anymore because…” and then I give my reasons, followed by, “It would be good for you to consider why you do things this way, and think about other options.”

TT:  Just to talk a little more about the harm that orthopedists see in squatting, I remember seeing some concerns about compression of the knee.  There are probably a lot of things that could go wrong in squatting, but that seems to be the one that really concerns them.

JS:  As we age, one of the things that happens is that the meniscus – the cushion in the knee joint between the end of the femur and the top of the tibia – that cushion ages.  When we’re young it’s plump and full of water and very resilient.  But as we age, just like all tissues in our system, we lose water and don’t have as much resilience in the tissue.  And one of the thing that happens at the knee joint with excess stress or pressure is a tearing of that meniscus, which is the cushion that keeps that joint healthy.

So when you take the knee into full flexion and you’re at a strange angle or you’re putting undue pressure because your head isn’t forward and up and you’re not breathing, or you’re pressing into the knee as opposed to folding at the knee, you can tear the meniscus.  And that’s what orthopedists see and what they operate on.

As we get older it’s so important to know how to do what we do, because our tissues are more vulnerable.

TT:  When I was training at ACAT I became very aware that I had long before given up squatting, and became interested in reclaiming that as part of my movement repertoire.  I did reclaim it, but had to overcome my fear of hurting myself because it seemed like such an extreme position to me.

JS:  That’s what interests me:  teaching people that they’re more flexible than they believe, and that their belief systems aren’t necessarily accurate.  And it’s very exciting in a lesson. Squatting or going up on toes are both wonderful ways to teach people that what they think they can do is only based on their experience so far.  It’s not based on what their system can do with the right things happening at the right times.

TT:  I had an interesting response once in a lesson with Pedro de Alcantara where he was talking about walking barefoot in major cities like Paris.  I immediately responded that I could never do that.  And lo and behold a few months later, while traveling in Paris, I ran into Pedro walking barefoot in the Place des Voges.  I was closed off to my doing that, but there was Pedro practicing what he had preached to me – quite literally walking the walk.

JS:  I understand it’s an experiment, like Peter Grunwald taking off his glasses and being willing to try it.  Walking barefoot like that is something I wouldn’t do, either.  But his interest in restoring proprioceptive awareness through his feet can only happen when his feet touch the ground.

With my daughter, I’m always asking that she take my granddaughter’s shoes off as soon as she comes into the house because I have a very strong sense that we shouldn’t put people in shoes until they need to be in them.  But it’s hard to get her to do that because there are so many cute shoes for little ones.

TT:  Again, we’re not so interested in connecting with the ground, are we?

JS:  I think it reflects a lack of understanding about how much information comes in through the feet to the brain around our capacity to be upright.  I think helping people to understand that is one of the major things that we do.  Squatting is an interesting activity that helps to inform us about how critical it is to have all parts of our foot on the floor for balance.  We can learn, for instance, how much more difficult squatting is when the heel comes up – as it does for most of us.  Though we can help that with props and learn more about how squatting works.

TT:  When you’re squatting with a wedge under your heels or you’re Melania Trump with 4” stilettos, you can definitely feel the difference versus heels flat on the floor.

JS:  That’s what totally liberated me.  I was at a congress in Jerusalem with Elizabeth Walker, and she asked who thought they couldn’t squat in this master class that I attended.  The very first thing she did was put something under my heels – I think it was a telephone book.  It was completely liberating to experience myself folding like that.  My other joints were fine, but my ankle joints not, so as soon as she liberated my ankle joint, everything else was really beautiful.  It changed my whole perception of what I was capable of.

TT:  And this was of course well after you became certified…

JS:  1996, and I graduated in 1987.

TT:  So almost a decade on, not to mention all of your physical therapy training.  You were able to reclaim this fundamental posture, but one of the big obstacles to be overcome was your own idea of yourself.

JS:  That’s right.  And Elisabeth had this way of teaching that was very unchallenging.  With her, it was always an experiment – there was never a push to say “oh, you can do this, you can do this.”  It was much more “Let’s just see if we try this… and what do you think about that.”  It all happened quite undramatically, and yet it was a very dramatic moment for me.

TT:  And to make things even more challenging, you were doing this in front of an audience of Alexander teachers.  So you were being used as an example for others in an activity that you really didn’t think you could do.

JS:  Although I’m a bit like you – I’ll always volunteer if I can have an experience with a very gifted teacher.  It was that, and Deborah Caplan was sitting beside me and she said, “Judy, go ahead, go ahead!”  It was a great moment in my evolution as a teacher.

TT:  If you could think of things to not do while squatting, what would they be?  I think of the Alexander Technique as “If you don’t do X, Y and Z, you’re probably going to have a better result.”

JS:  I could think of three things easily.  One is to not end gain… to not decide ahead of time whether you can or can’t.  Be willing to suspend judgment in that moment.  When you’re doing an experiment like this that’s one of the critical pieces… that this could actually happen.

That’s what I thought Elisabeth Walker was really brilliant at.  She would invite you in, she would tell you not to worry, that if you can’t do it, it’s fine and then she would say, “Let’s experiment… let’s see what would happen if you try X, Y and Z.”  So the first thing is to be willing, and to not end gain around that.

The second thing I would say is really make sure you don’t pull your head back and down, because that will throw you off your balance and squatting is a balancing act, isn’t it?

TT:  Everything does seem to go in a way it normally never does when you find yourself squatting…

JS:  Exactly – it’s like walking a tightrope.  You have no idea how you could do it.  You see people do it, you think to yourself “I could never do that.”  And yet, under the right circumstances almost everybody could probably do it with a long bar and some good coaching and a sense of how to maintain the upright.

So those are the two things:  Be willing to believe there’s a possibility you could do this activity and then to not pull your head back and down as somebody is teaching you how.  And I guess the third thing would be to remember to breathe… when things get hard, to remember to breathe.

TT:  Your answer is so interesting, because when I formulated this question I was very much an end gainer.  In my head, in my imagination, it was all about “Well, how much flexion in the knee, really?” And “I notice that my lumbar curve reverses in squat when I go all the way down, and is that ever a problem?” I wasn’t thinking about the process.

JS:  The squat is not the goal.  The goal is to see how creative you can be with the mind-body, applying it to any activity, and squatting is just an activity.  And it’s not an activity we use very much any more – unless I want to get down on the floor to play with my granddaughter.  I squat more now that she’s alive than I ever did before, and I love that I can do it.  But I rarely get into a full squat.

TT:  You’re probably one of the few grandparents in New York City who does go into a full squat…

JS:  She’s so much better at it than I am, and when she does it… nobody else gets why I get so excited about it.  To see her go up and down like that at will knowing what it took for me to restore that activity to my repertoire is quite amazing.

TT:  She’s really lucky because she has you to help her value that activity and not lose it.

JS:  We’ll see!  You never know how much influence you may have.  But when she does it I often take a picture because it’s such an Alexandrian thing to do.

TT:  Like many people I gave up squatting not realizing that if I don’t do it, I’ll lose it. 

JS:  I think of squatting as an activity that you can apply to an Alexander lesson or, a way to have people learn how to help themselves in a yoga class.  Not everybody has to squat, but it interests you and me because it’s one of those dramatic things that you get to do in an Alexander lesson.  And it makes the point that inhibition and direction and a willingness not to end gain can create something completely out of the box for a student.  It also can encourage people to apply the Technique to activities that are more prevalent in their day to day lives than squatting.

[At this point in their conversation, Judy and Tim try squatting, and Judy puts hands on Tim to guide him into length and more secure balance in squatting.  During this work they had a variety of verbal exchanges, including this one.]

TT:  Just now I didn’t inhibit because I was so concerned about getting into squat in time for the photograph.  And I’m not as low as I could go…

JS:  Is low the goal?

TT:  I want to say “no,” but actually I have to admit there’s a part of me that says “yes” – that going all the way down is important to me.

JS:  Okay.  And I want you to notice that your thighs are not touching your calves.

TT:  Right.  And now I’m realizing that the thigh is not a single point, and the calf is not a single point either.  There’s an upper, middle and lower portion to both.  But as we’re talking I’m noticing that this squat is not super comfortable, especially in my knees.  So I’m going to come out of it… and I don’t want to do it too quickly.  It feels very demanding…

JS:  It is very demanding.  You’re 57 and you haven’t done much of this for a very long time.  And your goal is not to stay down there for a long, long time and eat dinner there or something.  Your goal is to go down and then come back up, giving those tissues a chance to be in that amazing place, especially across the knee joint.  So your quadriceps, ligaments and tendons are being stressed, and your kneecap is being pressed into the joint.

TT:  And once I get to a certain point the lumbar spine curve reverses, but I didn’t quite go there…

JS:  And I think you shouldn’t go there, until it doesn’t hurt.  So the directions are knees forward and away… sit bones back and down…head forward and up.  And this way you’re not straining tissues that haven’t been used this way for decades.

TT:  What I’m also appreciating right now is just how fearless you are about giving people “the up” with your hands.  It’s something I need to allow myself to be more fearless about in my own teaching.  Thank you very much, Judy!

Learn to squat safely in an Alexander Technique lesson with Tim.  See here for more details.