When I was a little kid I couldn’t sit cross-legged. All the kids could sit cross-legged, but I couldn’t. The only way I could sit was reverse-cross-legged. That’s when your legs, instead of tucking in, tuck out. Sitting cross-legged hurt my knees, but sitting reverse-cross-legged hurt my ego because the only people who sat reverse-cross-legged were girls.
When I became a grown-up, the flexibility I didn’t have as a child didn’t improve. I still couldn’t sit cross-legged and couldn’t touch my toes. And since I started cycling when I was 18, well, you know about cyclists and flexibility. Does it require something more than a hunch? Can’t do it.
Moving to Japan on January 15, 1987, I encountered floor life. No chairs or beds, only tatami floors and futons and sitting cushions and that most especial enemy of hip joints, squat toilets. Every time you wanted to sit you had to sit on the floor, and every time you wanted to get up you had to stand up. From the floor. Needless to say, every time you had to relieve yourself, you had to squat, flat-footed, until your business was done.
But I couldn’t squat flat-footed. If I tried, I’d topple off the toilet dais backwards and crack my skull on the door or the floor. If I tried to do my business squatting on my toes, my business-doer muscles wouldn’t work properly and the business wouldn’t get done. My workaround was gripping the big steel water pipe that fed into the toilet so that I wouldn’t topple backwards. Even so, business doing was a painful and touchy business. You can rest assured that there weren’t any magazines for leisurely browsing. You were grateful to be done.
Over time my hips, knees, and ankles became soft. I could get up and down off the floor all day long. And I could sit flat-footed for long periods of time. When I left Japan for good in 2000, I could sit with my legs folded beneath me for five or ten minutes, and yes, I could sit cross-legged.
The other day I was just riding along to the train station in Santa Barbara. We got to the platform, dismounted, and laid our bikes down. The train was late because Amtrak is always late because Americans don’t know how to train, so we sat cross-legged on the platform facing each other. For some reason or another, Yasuko had to get up.
So she stood up.
I blinked. “How’d you do that?”
“Stand up without using your hands.”
“That’s how I always stand up.”
“I’ve never noticed it before.”
She sat back down.
“Oh, man,” I said. “You just sat down cross-legged without using your hands.”
She looked puzzled. “Can’t you?”
“There is no way on earth I can stand up from a cross-legged position without using my hands.”
“Try,” she said.
So I tried. The muscles tensed but I didn’t move. “Impossible.”
She stood up again. “It’s easy.” Then she sat down, refolding like a mini-extension ladder that has a bucket on the end with a workman in it.
By now the platform had become crowded. Everyone was bored and looking occasionally at us because we were the only people sitting on the platform. I took stock of the other passengers and noted that well over half them, if forced to get up from the ground wouldn’t be able to do it at all, even using their hands. Some would need a winch.
I strained again and budged only so slightly. She popped up and down a few more times, effortlessly, like a jack-in-the-box. I noted that when she went to stand, her body shifted slightly forward, moving the center of gravity out over her knees. I tried it and budged a little more, but I could feel a complete absence of whatever muscles it takes to lift your body in a deadlift with no hands to push off the ground.
A few more people glanced our way. I tried again, each time getting a tiny bit more of vertical lift but then falling back like a gunnysack of oysters. Finally I wondered if perhaps I weren’t committing enough to the up-lunge, because there’s an element of shifting your weight where, if things don’t go properly, it feels like you might fall.
“That’s silly,” I thought. “It’s no more risky than riding a bicycle.”
With that thought I lunged up, hard, and my legs magically unfolded. I shot up but unfortunately threw one leg out as I started to lose balance, and I kept shooting. I threw out my hands to regain control, which whipped me around and then lurched me into reverse. I staggered, arms whirling, and almost brought the crashing airplane back into trim when my foot hit the front tire of my nearby bike.
I flipped backwards and landed butt-first on the crank, bars, and bottle cage. The bottle squirted out and shot across the platform. My audience was rapt, puzzled and amused at this fluid interpretation of a modern jazz dance routine that included groans and curses.
A man came running over with my water bottle. “Are you okay?” he asked.
The pedal dug into my back. “I think so.”
“What were you doing?” he asked.
“Standing up,” I said.
He looked at me seriously for a moment. “There are easier ways to do it than that.”
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