In the words of Mac Miller, I'm way too young to be getting old — or to be having chronic back pain, at least. The reason for this premature pain, you ask? My staunch loyalty to a terrible office chair.
For 40-plus hours a week, I hunched over my laptop in a stiff wooden chair — the only piece of furniture preserved from my teenage bedroom that I hauled to college and used to accompany several desks after. Refurbished by my dad and me from a Craigslist find, the once-bright white paint had chipped where my body met its unforgiving frame, and, by the end of the day, my back felt like it packed more heat than a pizza oven. It was an ergonomic nightmare, but in the name of nostalgia, I persisted.
It wasn't until I finally caved and bought the Variable Balans Ergonomic Kneeling Chair that I kicked my security chair to the curb – literally, with a Scotch-taped "Free" scrawled on the back of an envelope. Three days later, my back pain began to vaporize, as did the old chair. Some things really are better left in the past.
What Is a Kneeling Chair?
You guessed it: With a kneeling chair, you kneel instead of sit. Its namesake position is achieved with an angled seat that shifts your body forward, relying on two shin cushions to keep you from literally falling on your face. Traditional kneeling chairs, like mine, have a wooden rocker base, and, altogether, the thoughtfully designed elements create ease of movement for readjustments.
Freedom of movement is the main idea behind the kneeling chair, and it’s even written in the name “variable balans,” or variable balance. Kneelers are meant to adjust their positioning until optimal balance and comfort is achieved—and then to shift once that position gets stiff.
“Every posture feels wrong after extended periods of time, including the kneeling posture,” says Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik, inventor of the kneeling chair, in an interview with Pure Contemporary. “For all my different chairs with the brand ‘balans,’ it was important to consider kneeling as just one of several postures that can be assumed in a chair.”
The kneeling chair’s varying positions are made possible by its two shin cushions. You can choose to rest both shins on the cushions, one foot, both feet, or neither by setting your feet on the ground; that way, the chair is made to accommodate your sitting desires, not the other way around as is the case with conventional chairs.
A common misconception about kneeling chairs is that all of your weight lands on your knees, making these chairs a no-go for people with knee problems. On the contrary, kneeling chairs still let your butt do most of the weight-bearing, but they also distribute some of the weight to your shins, not your knees. Don’t run away from the word “balance,” either. You’re not walking a tightrope; you’re just engaging your core and back muscles a bit more than you would in an ordinary chair.
What Are the Benefits of a Kneeling Chair?
With office workers now sitting up to a gag-inducing 15 hours per day, we're collectively more sedentary than ever, causing health problems like obesity, heart disease, depression—even early death. While kneeling, admittedly, doesn't pack the health punch of full-blown standing, these chairs encourage your back, neck and shoulders to find their natural alignment which reduces spinal compression and takes the load off your lower back.
In addition to correcting posture and pressure, the kneeling chair's forward shift creates a pelvic opening that promotes better breathing and a smoother digestive system. This means oxygen and nutrients have an easier time making their rounds to deliver enhanced energy, alertness and concentration.
As mentioned, the subtle balancing act of this chair requires your back, abs and shoulders to engage, gradually strengthening those muscles rather than letting them atrophy. Instead of supporting your body like a standard chair, the kneeling chair requires your body to support itself.
Meet the Variable Balans Ergonomic Kneeling Chair
First introduced by Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik at the 1979 Scandinavian Furniture Fair, the Variable Balans took Scandinavian design to a new level by focusing on function first, not form.
Scandinavian design, famous for its minimalism (think Ikea), strips away the bells and whistles from an object to reveal its simplest form. The first designers of this style were coined "functionalists," but Opsvik argued that minimalism was a far cry from functionality.
"When one designs from form first, you often end up with pieces that have visual interest but do not serve a practical purpose, and are often outright uncomfortable," Opsvik explains to Pure Contemporary. "My chairs are functional and meant for situations where we sit over long periods of time."
To be truly functional, Opsvik begins his designs by considering the basic needs of the human body, letting form fall into place; and if there's one thing Opsvik is sure of, it's that humans weren't built for passivity.
What I Like About the Variable Balans Kneeling Chair
I’m not joking when I say this chair solved my back pain. A search around the web says I’m not alone. In addition to relieving my aches, I feel more alert throughout my workday thanks to my newly unlocked perfected posture and the option to rock and readjust.
Even though form was secondary for Opsvik, I love how the chair looks at my desk. It’s truly Scandinavian—beautiful, simple and harmonious in my office-bedroom situation. It’s not bulky or industrial. It doesn’t have wheels that mock my lack of space or scratch up my floors and it can easily be tucked under my desk after working hours.
It’s safe to say that all details were considered when building this chair, including the Allen wrench stowed under the seat for tightening needs down the road.
What's Not So Great About the Variable Balans Kneeling Chair
While other brands of kneeling chairs have adjustable settings, like Office Star, DRAGONN and VIVO, the Variable Balans is non-adjustable, potentially making it not a great fit for those with extra-long legs or a heavier build.
Ringing up between $379 to $449, this chair is a pretty penny, leaving me extra disappointed at the sight of its forest nap fabric pilling just two months into use. In addition, the wooden rocker is not quiet; prepare for loud creaks to accompany your readjustments.
It's also worth noting that the first few days of using this chair could be a shock to the system. Like any new position or movement for your body, there's an adjustment period before you settle into how it's supposed to feel — my first days kneeling created soreness around my IT band, shins and thighs. At the start, it's recommended that you accustom your body to this new way of sitting by taking intervals kneeling, standing or (God forbid) sitting in a regular chair.
Varier Variable Balans Kneeling Chair: The Verdict
I'm a Variable Balans believer after my experience with this chair. Ergonomic, beautifully crafted and built to accommodate your sitting preferences, the kneeling chair is paradoxically both one-size-fits-all and custom made.
Scandinavian design is centered around the art of a living well, a seemingly tall order before I experienced the simple joys of unconventional sitting — and not having back pain.
And if you're thinking about getting a Variable Balans, don't wait; score one on Amazon right now for 21 percent off.