Doing squats the Asian way


Deep squats come naturally to children, until they transition into teenagehood and start sitting a lot more. — Photos: Filepic

Really, how difficult is it to squat?

Not the way you’re taught in exercise classes, but the way our Asian forefathers did it back in the days when there were no sitting toilets – after all, humans are meant to squat like our primate cousins.

The Asian squat is a form of deep squat found all around the world, not just in Asia.

However, when chairs, cushy sofas and sitting toilets were first invented in the West, people opted for comfort and started losing flexibility in their hip, knee and ankle joints.

Just look at children; all of them can easily get into this position, but somewhere along their growth – probably in their teen years – they lose this flexibility and prefer the chair for comfort.

As the West transitioned, urban areas in Asia slowly followed suit.

In an Asian squat, the feet are kept flat on the ground, which means there is greater range of motion at the hips, compared to a Western-style squat, where the thighs are mostly kept parallel to the floor.

Many Westerners will naturally lift the heels off to accommodate a deep squat or lean forward, illustrating limited flexibility in the hips and ankles.

If you look at the populations where deep squatting is most common, the people are also slimmer.

That’s because they grew up with this tradition and became comfortable with it.

They sit, eat, rest, wash clothes, work, and of course, pee (the women) and evacuate their bowels in this position.

Some pregnant women also use it to facilitate easy delivery.

More than a decade ago, a Chinese publication printed a photo allegedly showing actress Zhang Ziyi squatting down to look at the bottom shelf in a store.

A snarky caption read: “Miss Zhang displays the special trait of our motherland’s compatriots: spreading her legs wide and squatting down.”

Can’t blame her; after all, with China’s population, squatting is a common sight in crowded places such as railway stations where the ground is too dirty for sitting and there’s limited public seating.

Poor Zhang has had to put up with media mentioning this in almost every article that is written about her.

Not that she’s perturbed, but it looks like she will never be able to live that down.

Hygiene concerns

As you can see, many struggle to do any kind of squat because of tight ankle, hip and knee joints.As you can see, many struggle to do any kind of squat because of tight ankle, hip and knee joints.

There is a perception held by many in cultures around our region that having thigh-and-toilet seat contact is less sanitary, with some believing that infections can spread from the toilet seat.

This is why we sometimes see shoe marks on toilet seats, even in five-star hotels!

Fact: Many disease-causing organisms can survive for only a short time on the surface of the toilet seat.

And even if you should be in contact with the toilet seat during that small window, the germs would have to be transferred from the contaminated toilet seat to your urethral or genital tract, or through a cut or sore on your buttocks or thighs, for an infection to occur.

While this situation is certainly possible, it is very unlikely to actually occur.

The deep squat is my preferred position when I’m correcting my students’ foot and lower leg work in dance or yoga classes.

How much longer I can keep doing this deep squat remains to be seen, although I’ve seen people in their 80s squat effortlessly!

Unfortunately, the majority of urbanites cannot do this deep squat any more.

Although genetics will influence things like bone length and shape, the ability to do a deep squat depends more on lifestyle factors.

If you are of Asian heritage, but spend all day sitting on the computer or in front of the television, you may find you have tight hips and ankles, leaving you struggling to do any kind of deep squat.

When we sit, most of our body weight is transferred onto the chair.

This shuts off many of our deep core and butt muscles, which are critical in maintaining good posture and protecting the spine.

In addition, sitting too much tightens the hip flexors.

A tight hip flexor pulls the upper lumbar spine forward, which puts you out of alignment and may lead to back pain.

A deep squat ensures that you have your weight equally distributed down the spine and lower limbs.

More importantly, because you don’t transfer your whole body weight to a chair, the core muscles get activated and protect the spine.

All is not lost if you cannot do the deep squat right now.

You can train to improve your hip and ankle flexibility and range of motion, so that you can eventually achieve this position.

Those with longer legs (like me) may find it’s biomechanically harder to get into a deep squat, and the defining factors are going to be your flexibility and range of motion in the hip and ankle joints.

Gently does it

A word of caution: stick to Western squats if you have knee issues.There is a tendency to lean forward when going deeper in Western squats, which could indicate weak glutes and/or tight hip flexors.There is a tendency to lean forward when going deeper in Western squats, which could indicate weak glutes and/or tight hip flexors.

If not, here’s how to begin slowly to do an Asian squat.

  • Find a something like a sturdy bar you can hold on to, perhaps a bench, bar, table, etc.

    Ideally, it should be about the height of your pelvic bone or upper thigh.

  • Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart and slightly turned out.
  • Hold on to the bar, which should be within easy reach in front of you, and lower yourself slowly to a sitting position without lifting your heels off the floor.

    Go as low as you can and stop if your heels start to lift off the floor.

    Your butt should be close to touching your ankles or resting on the backs of your legs if you’re able to go all the way down into a full squat without your heels leaving the ground.

  • Stay in this position for about 10 seconds before straightening your legs slowly – this is going to be a challenge for beginners.
  • Rest for a few minutes and repeat.

    You can do up to 10 squats a day and increase both the frequency and duration as you improve.

  • As you get better, try not to hold on to the bar, which is what is supporting your weight.

    Focus on maintaining your balance on your own.

    Eventually, you’ll be able to squat without hanging on to anything.

Remember, don’t spend too much time in this position as it can cause numbness in the legs and knee pain or strain, as well as decrease your blood pressure such that you get dizzy when you stand.

If any of these symptoms occur, sit down immediately and don’t go as low when you attempt doing the deep squat again in future.

If you are able to go into and comfortably hold a deep squat position and return back up with ease, that’s excellent.

Keep doing it on a daily basis as preventing loss of mobility is always easier than regaining mobility once it has been lost

Once you master the Asian squat, you’ll find it also helps support other exercises that you do, as it allows you to engage muscles like the quadriceps (thighs), gluteals (butt) and hamstrings (back of thighs) more.

And who knows, you might grow to prefer a squatting toilet instead of your sitting “throne”!

Revathi Murugappan is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance to express herself artistically and nourish her soul. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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