Going Deskless

“You won’t be that flexible when you’re 50.”

From the tone of my partner’s voice, there was a note of disgust, as if I had just cheated. I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, but I assumed it had something to do with the previous movement that enabled me to escape to my guard.

I practice Brazilian jiu jitsu; an athletic activity that I came to very late in life. Flexibility is valued in BJJ, but I dislike the term in this context because flexibility implies something that can be attained through stretching. That’s not what is going on here. There is something fundamentally weird about my ball and socket joints.

My hips and shoulders are hyper-mobile. This means that I possess a range of motion in those joints that most people would consider abnormal. While I can’t find any information confined to these joints in particular, most references to hyper-mobility present it as a disorder in conjunction with other symptoms like joint pain or susceptibility to injury.

The confusing part about all this is I don’t have any intuitive understanding about what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. It requires outside assessment to tell me “you’re not supposed to be able to do that” and frankly, in normal day-to-day interactions, the issue never comes up. So, most of my life I was unaware there was something very different about my body.

It comes up all the time in Brazilian jiu jitsu, though. Usually, it is expressed though a surprised interjection from my partner. I’ve gotten better at reading non-verbal expressions that usually convert to something like, “how is your foot there?” and “you’re not supposed to be able to do that.”

You don’t see a lot of adults sitting cross-legged. I assumed this was a cultural issue, or it wasn’t ‘dignified’ or simply a sign of growing up, but many adults simply can’t. Elementary schools are filled with children who all sit cross-legged, but as adults, we’ve somehow lost the ability to do so comfortably. Sitting cross-legged is my preferred, most-comfortable seated position. I’m comfortable in all variants, but half lotus is my favorite.

Standard office chairs usually include arm rests. As a sometimes-guitarist, I would dutifully remove the arms to make room for the neck. Doing so also gave me space to sit with legs crossed. What is the function of a chair in this context? It is to raise your body to the appropriate level of a desk. But, what is the desk for? In the past, desks would hold computer keyboards and displays. I’ve been exclusively laptop for the past decade, and I’m used to using the laptop on my lap. The laptop moves around with me, it is never in any fixed position like a desktop.

Musicians use desks to elevate production gear, keyboards and other controllers. The evolution of music technology moved a lot of hardware into the realm of software, and today’s electronic music hardware is mostly small drum machines and boutique boxes around the size of an encyclopedia volume. Guitar stop boxes started moving up from the floor to the desk as performative effects processors. These devices imply a workflow that leans towards reconfigurability rather than pre-patched fixed configurations. Optimal workspaces are large, flat surfaces.

Typical production workspace with desk.

So, what if we got rid of the desk? If you remove chairs and desks, you now have a large open area that can be adaptable and reconfigurable (but that is a subject of another blog post).

My workspace in the default configuration.

Desks are a vestigial organ of desktop work, and later, desktop computers. Why do we still use them? There is pushback to the seated desk position and the most visible example is the rise of standing desks. The squatty potty is another example. My wife, who grew up in a household with squat toilets, has used a small footstool for similar reasons, long before the squatty potty existed as a product for Americans. Squatting, like sitting cross-legged is something else that Americans have lost.

According to a study by Brazilian researchers in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, your ability to get off the floor predicts how long you’ll live. The test is simple: sit on the floor from a standing position without using your hands, arms, or knees to slow your descent. Then stand back up — without using your hands, arms, or knees to help boost you back up. Those that need to use both hands and knees to get up and down were almost seven times more likely to die within six years than those who could spring up and down without support.

One of many teaching/streaming configurations.

My reason for writing this is not to advocate for getting rid of desks, although there are clear health benefits to be gained from the act of getting up and down off the floor fifty times a day. My point is to give yourself permission to question fundamentally accepted habits as they relate to your own body. Every body is different and finding and recognizing what is unique about your own body shouldn’t take a lifetime.



Associate Professor, Electronic Production and Design, Berklee College of Music Opinions: my own

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Associate Professor, Electronic Production and Design, Berklee College of Music Opinions: my own