October 3, 2013

The Sacred Squat: A Perspective on Poop.

Over the weekend I went to a workshop on Ayurveda in the mountains of North Carolina.

I’d been suffering from a terrible bout of insomnia—three hours of sleep a night for over two weeks. I was ready to rest my body on a bolster and take some notes. Maybe I’d find something to help me sleep.

I didn’t. I sat up in the Hampton Inn watching hours of Zumba infomercials while thinking abut shitting—or, as it’s commonly called in the yogasphere, elimination. Yes, as anyone familiar with Ayurveda or eastern medicine knows, poop is an important part of one’s existence, on par with meditation and pranayama. You can find guidance for your practice, and not only how to properly align your hips in Warrior I.

Yes, you can climb up the eight limbs, but you need to find a couple of rest stops along the way. Face it: if you eat a yogic or Ayurvedic diet (the latter often includes meat, an Ahimsic no-no in yoga), you will spend some time perched on the porcelain throne, contemplating your existence.

You will eat a lot of roughage, nuts, soups. You will flood your belly with teas and juices to rev up your system. You will miss large chunks of movies while rushing to the theatre bathroom every 45 minutes. Your system will adjust once the aftershocks subside. For a while though, you’re a 9.0 on the Richter scale.

Now, I spent my childhood as a quasi-dedicated Presbyterian. I didn’t necessarily agree with any of the religious doctrine, but I did agree with the culture—that being one of sterility, good manners and privacy. Many eastern holistic practices are comfortable with bodily functions, while my childhood Presbyterian church bathroom had an automatically timed aerosol burst every 20 minutes.

I don’t believe that I’ve ever heard my mother fart (even writing the words my mother and fart in the same sentence makes me blush). We were not a bathroom-door-open kind of family. We were a matches and keep-the-fan-running family with back issues of The New Yorker atop the tank. We never contemplated or discussed pooping. My parents assumed I was doing it, and had no reason to enquire further. They worried about my health, but post-potty-training, it was my special, dark secret.

Then I developed a yoga practice and began the inner dive. I was fine with all the stretching and breathing and chanting. Maybe not at first, but I found myself happily relenting after a few years. The bowel stuff, though—the enemas and herbs and specially made squat benches—still makes me feel like a buckled-up, constipated Puritan.

Which, actually, I am.

But now a weekend spent talking almost exclusively about shitting has… softened me. I was surrounded by people who would admit, casually, to the number of bathroom trips they had in front of a roomful of rapt listeners. People told of enema triumphs and disasters. One woman told of a castor oil incident that led to a very bad third date. Well, it would have been bad but for the fact that he was a yogi, too. He totally got it, she said.

I would have never seen that man again. I would’ve probably moved and changed my number and blocked my Facebook on the off chance that he ever would want to see me again.

Perhaps if I’d grown up squatting, like much of the world’s population, I wouldn’t feel this way. The modern flush toilet wasn’t even invented until the 19th century, and decades followed before they became common household items. For most of our existence we were squatting, often in view of other people in our close-knit families and tribes. There was little privacy and, I assume, very little skittishness about a position that was absolutely natural and functional.

If you travel the world, you’ll recognize that this is still fairly common. Many bathrooms are simply a line of holes, one next to another. No stalls, no walls, just gravity and biology. Our bodies were designed to do this—our anatomy is such that our bodies actually are designed to do it this way.

Proctologists, physical therapists, and holistic practitioners alike have been reporting more and more toilet-related injuries and weaknesses; it’s said about half of all Americans will experience hemorrhoids and constipation during their lives. Much of this is chronic and extremely painful, but according to some it’s totally avoidable.

An oft-cited study from the journal of Digestive Diseases and Sciences claims that squatting allows people to evacuate their bowels faster than sitting on toilets (by over a minute), and that there is less strain, which in turn leads to less hemorrhoids.  There is even a movement (pun intended) among some doctors advising constipated patients to procure a Squatty Potty, a bench-like contraption that allows one to squat with dignity. This east-meets-west approach to gastroenterology may not make for good Valentine’s Day gifts, but research proves that it is benefitting some individuals.

Several years ago I went to a personal trainer because I was suffering from a rash of running-related injuries. She noticed that I had weak calves and guessed that was the likely culprit. She suggested I start squatting for several minutes each day. She also mentioned that she had a client who grew up in a squat-shit culture. This woman had the strongest legs I’ve ever seen, she said.

If you teach yoga, you know that a full, deep malasana (yogic squat) is hard for most students to achieve. Hell, I’ve been doing yoga for years and I still have to pregame that pose. It’s amazing to me that there are people who spend their entire lives doing this without a thought or a torn SI joint. We lost so much flexibility and function on the path to modernity.

Don’t get me wrong. Truth be told, I’m a thankful and dedicated user of toilets; I’m not nostalgic for dirt holes. But I do wonder what this disconnection from our bodies and their functions is doing to us.  We know that it’s not making us healthier when half of us have bursting blood vessels in our asses.

Will all the road trips spent holding it in, all of my avoidance of public restrooms come back to haunt me later? Will I suffer a Metamucil and Preparation H-filled retirement like so many of my brethren?

I was on the phone with a friend a few days ago and she reminded me that I’m known by many as the girl who has to leave a party to take a shit. I’m infamous for my strained exits, apparently.

After this weekend’s Aruyrvedic workshop I hope to have a different reputation.

I my hope my friends are ready. Namaste.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

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